Vermonters drive 2,000 more miles per year than the average American. It’s not surprising given the fact that they live far away from their work, school and other daily needs. The long-term solution—a significant shift to a more compact development pattern—will take decades. So what can we do in the meantime? Local Motion, Vermont’s statewide bike and pedestrian advocacy organization, is focusing on achievable and affordable ways to shift the car culture toward more sustainable forms of travel. Here are some strategies:
What would streets be like if they were built for everyone, not just for cars? Community-led tactical urbanism efforts can help residents experience safer, more vital streets. Minor changes can highlight safety challenges in the shorter-term while building public support for more permanent infrastructure improvements.
There are affordable ways for towns of any size to make their street networks safer and more welcoming for those biking and walking. Low-cost, temporary additions, such as paint and planters, can help communicate to cyclists and pedestrians that they belong, while teaching drivers how to share the road.In urban settings or village centers, building up a network of bike lanes and safer intersections can help improve mobility and access. In suburban and rural contexts, increasing the shoulder width on state highways can help cyclists feel more at ease with higher traffic volumes and speeds.
Reclaim Streets, if Only for a Day
Over 130 other cities and towns around the globe have reclaimed their streets and experienced the benefits of car-free neighborhoods first-hand with a festive, low-cost event called “Open Streets.” For the past five years, Burlington has done the same, closing miles of urban streets to cars for a Sunday in September and inviting everyone to bike and walk safely. Each year, thousands turn out--exercising, socializing with neighbors, and spending money at local businesses along the route. Other cities make Open Streets a weekly event, enjoyed by millions of residents. You can start small. Transform a block or a few neighborhood streets. You’ll reap immediate benefits. Open Streets will quickly become your favorite day of the year.
Democratizing streets as public space is critical. Dedicating places for all users and their chosen mode of transport is essential. Redesign streets to address the needs of those walking and biking, but also invest in spaces for people to store their bikes. Bike parking is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to encourage routine ridership. Between 10-12 bicycles can fit in the space of a single vehicle parking space at a tenth of the cost.
Make it abundant and convenient. Local Motion’s recent survey in partnership with the Burlington Business Association showed that those traveling by bike had (not surprisingly) a strong preference for covered bike parking. Riders also want it to be located directly outside their destination, as opposed to a couple of blocks away. Quantity and location matter when it comes to this infrastructure investment.
Free valet bike parking (or pop-up bike parking) is another way to encourage more ridership to routinely visited places, like the farmer’s market. Once people know they can count on a reliable place to store their bikes, they’re much more likely to take advantage of that resource.
Try an E-bike
Electric bikes can serve as a low-cost alternative for those looking to downsize from 2 cars to 1 or from 1 to none. There are now more ways to finance them affordably. Most people who commute to work by bike are willing to travel up to 3-4 miles, but recent studies and anecdotal evidence suggests that this distance more than doubles with an electric assist bike. In many Vermont towns, access to an e-bike could nearly triple the number of potential commuters that could shift to this form of transportation.
Cargo e-bikes hold particular promise for families commuting together on a daily basis. As the newly released documentary film Motherload illustrates, cargo bikes provide a convenient and liberating family commute.
A few bike shops across the state (like Local Motion) lend out e-bikes for a week at a time to individuals and families who want to test them before committing to a purchase. If your community doesn’t have an e-bike lending library, encourage your local bike shop, library, school, or Parks and Rec Department to create one.
Let Youth Lead the Way
In 1969, nearly 50% of kids walked or biked to school. By 2009 that rate decreased to 13%, largely because communities were designed for cars. Not everyone is able to walk or bike to school, but the future of our transportation system is in the hands of youth. It’s never too early to expose them to the benefits and joys of active transportation.
The more kids experience life on a bike--and understand riding as a safe and viable form of transportation--the more likely they will want to bike to school, continue cycling as they get older, and pass that tradition on to future generations.
One recent example of youth leading the way comes from Rutland where a group of middle school students from Christ the King advocated for a safer routes to school. As participants of the Way to Go! to School Challenge, and in partnership with the school administration, Local Motion, the Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP), and the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, students collected data, petitioned the city for support, educated parents, and installed temporary curb extensions and a new crosswalk to slow traffic. The school also installed new bike racks and has since sought funds to make the temporary changes more permanent.
We can all find inspiration in this story. If anyone is going to help ensure that we continue to replace car trips with more sustainable ones, and provide us with hope for the future, it’s the next generation of climate-conscious commuters.
Allegra is the Livable Streets Program Manager at Local Motion. She collaborates with local governments, schools, and activists across the state who want to make their communities better places to walk and bike. She has previously served as program director for a planning and development lab within MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, as a neighborhood and sustainability planner for a small municipality, and as a community organizer for a community development corporation. She lives in Burlington’s Old North End with her husband and two young sons.