Donuts and Hogwarts: Travel training makes a difference

Most students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in downtown White River Junction don’t own cars. Although they know that free buses can deliver them to many Upper Valley destinations, they weren’t getting on board. The students had no problem using their phones to find out where the buses were in real time, but they still had questions:

"Cool, there’s an app, but how do I know the name of the bus stop out front?"

"Does the bus go to the theater where Black Panther is playing?"

"I'm just nervous to try the bus—what if it doesn't show up?" 

In the two years that Vital Communities has partnered with Advance Transit to promote its real-time bus system, we learned that it can take a little extra to get people confidently riding transit. “Travel training” — in-person instruction on how to read bus schedules and ride the bus — traditionally serves riders who need special assistance, but it can be valuable to anyone who is new to the system.

The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) has consistently promoted Advance Transit to its students, but after talking to several recent graduates we realized that many CCS students had never tried the free bus, and tended to stay close to campus.

Vital Communities wanted to change this, so we partnered with Jarad Greene, a recent graduate employed by the school. He had never been on Advance Transit but was eager to help. He distributed a simple graphic flyer to students that promised a Friday afternoon bus trip to neighboring Hanover. They would get donuts from famed Lou's Restaurant & Bakery and visit Dartmouth's "Hogwarts-esque" Baker Library.

On a sunny February day, I met a dozen students and alums in the school's lobby. I prompted them to download Advance Transit’s real-time app and gave them a bus system overview—how to find the bus stops, which routes run where, etc. Then we walked around the block to the bus stop and took the 15 minute trip from White River Junction to Hanover, New Hampshire. 

Once in Hanover, we picked up an overstuffed box of assorted donuts from Lou's and walked across the Green to Dartmouth’s Baker Library. The students had a great time digging into the comics and graphic novel section of the library “stacks” and then tiptoeing through the ornate Tower Room. Even though they hold library cards through CSS, many had never been to Baker. After their travel training, they know this vast resource is only a short bus ride away. 

 Center for Cartoon Studies students on their way from White River Junction to Hanover during their travel training session last winter. Photo: Bethany Fleishman

Center for Cartoon Studies students on their way from White River Junction to Hanover during their travel training session last winter. Photo: Bethany Fleishman

Aside from giving a few pointers, I didn't have to do much after the students boarded the bus in White River. Simply getting them on the bus that first time undid most of their hesitation. That was it. They had watched the bus' movement on the real-time app while they waited at the bus stop, and then a knowledgeable and friendly driver picked them up on time and took them to Hanover, as promised. Sure, they still had to learn their way around town and get on the right bus, but the bus was now a known and trusted entity.  

Perhaps Robyn Smith, another alum, put it best: “I just needed someone who knew the system to go with me the first time.” And remembering the impact of a coworker first taking me on Advance Transit almost two decades ago, I know she’s right.

Bethany Fleishman, Transportation Program Manager at Vital Communities/Upper Valley Transportation Management Association. Bethany lives in Hartford, VT. She has worked in public health outreach, as a line cook and pastry chef, and as a member of the Town of Hartford Selectboard. She serves on the board of directors for both Advance Transit and Upper Valley CarShare and is a lifelong bike commuter.