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Troubles with transit

04/17/2008

Geoff Slater

I've been reading The Valley Reporter's articles on transit with interest, especially last week's article on the 1998 Short Range Transit Plan, as I was one of the consultants who wrote the plan. I'm a transit planner by profession and have designed transit systems and services throughout the United States and in South Africa, Brazil, Colombia and Australia. Of all of the areas I've worked in, few have been as challenging as the Mad River Valley.

This is the case for a number of reasons. First, there aren't many of us, and transit works best in places where there are lots of people going to the same places. That doesn't mean that it can't work, but it certainly makes it harder. It also means that it's never going to be as convenient as it is in larger places.

Second, effective transit requires a good pedestrian environment, since nearly all transit riders are also pedestrians. Transit riders walk to the bus, and when they get off the bus, they need to be able to walk to their final destination. Most of us live pretty far from where buses run, and at the other end, the pedestrian environments are pretty poor. In the wintertime, our major activity centers are Irasville and the Lincoln Peak area. In Irasville, lots of money has been spent to make it easy to drive but little has been spent to make it easy to walk. So we drive from the post office to Mehuron's. At Lincoln Peak, there aren't even any real pedestrian links from the base area to Sugarbush Village.

Third, the layout of The Valley is not very conducive to transit. Again, using the wintertime as an example, our two major activity centers are Irasville and Lincoln Peak. Other activity centers are Waitsfield Village, Warren Village, Mad River Glen and Mount Ellen. While most transit riders accept that travel by transit will take longer than by car, they don't have infinite patience. Because the volumes of people that travel between these places are relatively small, it wasn't possible to develop multiple routes to serve each directly, so it was necessary to serve all with only a few routes. That required a lot of backtracking (for example, up to Mad River Glen and back down, and then up to Mount Ellen and back down), which meant that transit travel times were long. That, in turn, meant that most people with cars drove instead of taking the bus.

Fourth, and especially for tourists, to make transit work most effectively, there must also be complementary car-free options that allow people to make all kinds of trips without a car, including the ones that won't or can't be made by transit. That also requires a good pedestrian environment, and it helps to have a good biking environment. Here, if you stay at the Millbrook Inn, you're only three-quarters of a mile from Irasville, but you have to walk down Route 17, which most people won't do.

So with all of that said, why did we try, and what went wrong? To begin with, things didn't work out the way that we expected. As last week's article reported, there were 350,000 skier visits in 1999-2000. At the time, the redevelopment of Lincoln Peak was expected to occur "real soon now" and skier visits were expected to increase. Instead, they dropped significantly. Summertime tourism was also much stronger. Back then, we had Ben & Jerry's in the summer, the Warren Fourth of July parade was much more freewheeling and attracted more people, and there were many other summertime events. All of that was expected to increase too but, like skier visits, declined instead.

And the tourists were the ones who could make things work for residents. Our population, by itself, isn't large enough to support much transit service. But by adding tourist travel to the mix, we thought that we could make things work pretty well in the winter and summer, and then justify lower volumes in the spring and late fall. But when many of the tourists went away, that strategy fell apart. We expected that there would be more people and more travel and, even with the challenges, there would be enough demand so that it would work.

So now what? In one of the recent articles, Russ Bennett said that you should be able to get from the airport to The Valley without a car. That's a future I also believe we should aspire to. But to get there, we'll need to do more than just provide transit service. We also need to create an environment that doesn't force people to travel by car. We need to make it easy for people to walk in our developed areas, and to get to and from those places in a number of ways without a car, only one of which would be transit.  

Two examples of how this can be done in mountain resort areas are Aspen/Snowmass and North Tahoe, both of which have developed extensive pedestrian and bicycle networks. Most of these have been developed within roadway rights of way. We could do the same -- rather than adding shoulders to roads and calling them bike lanes (and then wondering why most people don't use them), the same width could be used to develop dedicated pedestrian/bikeways. A more local example of this approach is the Stowe Rec Path, which, in addition to recreation, is used for travel between Stowe Village and locations along the Mountain Road. These types of facilities would be widely used and provide better travel options, recreation and convenient access to transit.

We also need to get smarter about how we develop. The current trend is to develop large lots in places that can never be served by transit. Even though our population is growing, it is not growing in a way that will make transit more practical. We need to find ways to encourage more development in places that could be most accessible to transit, such as Waitsfield Village, Irasville, the Sugarbush base areas, and closer to main roads. We also need to ensure that new developments provide for pedestrian and bicycle access (as opposed to two recent subdivision applications in Fayston that proposed to eliminate trail connections even though they were on public land). We can do this in a number of ways, such as zoning changes, density bonuses, tax incentives and providing necessary infrastructure.

We can also look at providing transit in different ways. Addison County has a very successful volunteer driver program that provides rides to the county's neediest residents. There, drivers -- although they are called volunteers -- are paid a mileage rate to provide service. Another approach is to provide "Flex-Service" that takes people from anywhere within a certain zone or area to a certain location (say Irasville) that can be the final destination or a connection to more traditional transit service. These services, which are relatively new, can provide more convenient and effective service in less populated areas like the Mad River Valley.

Finally, we need to be realistic about what transit can and can't do. The routes that were discontinued didn't go away because the funding went away; the funding went away because the routes weren't successful. The remaining routes still operate because they are successful -- and these services demonstrate that transit can work in the Mad River Valley. In the short-term, it is possible to develop new services that would be more successful than those that failed. But in the longer term, we need to change our development patterns and provide sidewalks and paths so that people don't need a car to get to the bus. Once we get there, then we can develop transit that will live up to our expectations.

Slater lives in Warren.
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