College students develop transportation initiatives

MIDDLEBURY — A group of Middlebury College environmental studies students have been trying to square two items in Vermont’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan:
•  The state aims to reduce total energy consumption per capita by 15 percent by 2025, and by more than one-third by 2050.
•  Transportation fuels account for the largest portion of Vermont’s total energy consumption.
Clearly, driving would have to be reduced in order to meet the goals.
So the 13 senior environmental studies students, in partnership with several local and state organizations, this past semester endeavored to figure out how to make transportation in Addison County more sustainable and also more equitable.
Divided into four teams, students considered the issue from several angles. One uniting theme emerged: cooperation.
In a May 10 colloquium they presented their findings.
Jennifer Damian, Sebastian LaPointe and Emma Shumway started a campus-wide campaign to encourage Middlebury College students to ride Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) buses.
Though nearly all the students they surveyed knew what ACTR was, few were familiar with its services or destinations, so the team created a website for students to make it easier to find information about public transportation options in the county. They also created promotional videos and distributed posters around campus with slogans like “Need to get to town? Flag us down!” and “Need to buy food? Ride the bus, dude.”
Their most ambitious and far-reaching program may be the Midd Kid Challenge Passport.
Modeled on the Vermont Brewery Challenge, this program partners with restaurants and cafes across the county to provide discounts to students who use ACTR to visit them.
Next fall all first-year students will receive the Passports and receive ACTR travel training during orientation.
“The Transportation Task Force on which I serve loved the ‘Ride the Bus’ effort and wants to replicate it for the wider community,” said Middlebury selectboard member Laura Asermily. “Increased bus ridership means more service — more routes, more frequency, especially for in-town shuttling during the rail bridge construction project.”
Though it’s too early to measure the results of their work, the students have laid the groundwork for continued college/ACTR collaborations and created initiatives that can continue long after they’ve graduated, said ACTR community relations manager Mary-Claire Crogan.
Another group looked at how walking and biking could be encouraged by making those activities safer on roads that are shared with cars and trucks. Cooperation between drivers, riders and pedestrians can be a matter of life or death, and Maria Celes Abragan, Hunter Cole and Connor Pisano discovered that Addison County residents have a lot to say about it.
Expanding the scope of a survey conducted in New Haven last year by Doug McKain and Susan Smiley, the trio collected data from more than 300 people, including a new focus group: motorists. Here’s some of what they found:
•  Most people agreed on the need for wider road shoulders.
•  Among the areas in Addison County considered least safe for bicycle riders were Routes 22A and 53, downtown Middlebury and all of Ferrisburgh.
•  Drivers tend to distinguish between bicycle commuters, with whom they sympathize, and recreational cyclists, whom they often perceive as more affluent outsiders less likely to show consideration for vehicles.
With that data, the team created a number of maps and proposed a Tri-Town Loop for bicyclistsconnecting Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes.
“We saw how close we are to having a wonderful bike loop connecting our three major towns,” said Asermily. “Only a few road sections need shoulder and signage improvements. Adequate and well-maintained shoulders rose over and over as the leading feature in determining whether a road is suitable for biking. We hope this becomes standardized in repaving projects.”
Other improvements to infrastructure are needed but are often too expensive, the students acknowledged. Just as important, at least for now, they concluded, is changing our sometimes-contentious road culture.
“Walkers seem not to be aware of cars and what drivers can or cannot see or do. They also have ear buds in their ears and walk looking at their phones,” wrote one survey respondent.
“I’ve come on cyclists on narrow roads riding two abreast and not willing to move to let motorists by,” wrote another. “I am willing to share if they are. It works both ways, and it makes me angry that the motorist is always made out to be the bad guy.”
Doug McKain, a member of the Walk-Bike Council of Addison County and co-author of the New Haven survey, concurred:
“As a cyclist, all too often I see inappropriate, even illegal, behavior on the part of cyclists. If cyclists want to be accepted and legitimate road users by motorists then they need to do their part. It was good to see that identified by the project.”
Having this additional data on sharing roads among cyclists, walkers and motorists would be helpful for his organization going forward, he added.
Fellow Walk-Bike Council member Claire Tebbs enjoyed working with the students, she said, and looks forward to future collaborations.
“Bringing a citizen-inspired idea to a team of dedicated students, professionals and professors makes for rigorous and satisfying problem solving with win-win results,” she said. “The regional Walk-Bike Council hopes this sets a precedent for future community-student partnerships.”
Communication among organizations needs improvement, said Middlebury students Carson Peacock, Austin Stevens, Sam Wegner and Simon Willig.
With this in mind they partnered with Transportation for Vermonters Coalition and the Greater Middlebury Climate Economy Initiative Transportation Task Force to create the “Rural Matrix for Innovative Transportation.”
The tool is designed to help communities assess their own needs and coordinate efforts among municipal boards, planning commissions and community groups. Rather than proposing specific solutions, the Rural Matrix tool helps people engage with one another.
Case-specific solutions emerging from the tool’s use might include creating new community groups, providing more support for municipal board members or increasing public engagement in design and decision-making processes, the students said.
A fourth team focused on increasing mobility for migrant farm workers in Addison County.
Often, the cultural and language barriers faced by these workers, along with racism and xenophobia, tend to isolate them, limiting access to food, health care, education and legal services.
To counteract this isolation, students Esteban Arenas-Pino, Jennifer Ortega and Emilie Seavey partnered with migrant worker advocates Addison Allies to develop “Transportation Justice” initiatives. The team has applied for a grant from Middlebury nonprofit resale shop Neat Repeats, which it hopes will expand capacity of existing ride-sharing programs and lead to a possible future partnership with ACTR.
The college Community-Engagement Practicum that made all of this possible has a long history of fostering collaboration among environmental studies students and community organizations to address issues in our region and beyond.
In recent projects students have developed energy programs for low-income Vermonters, studied water quality and tile drainage in Addison County and conducted a case study on Lyme disease.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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