TRANSPORTATION: Driving stats hit the brakes

More Vermonters use public transit, search for options

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — With driving of motor vehicles in decline, how should the state plan for future transportation needs? That’s the question at the heart of a series of public meetings being conducted by the Vermont Transportation Board (VTB).

About 40 people from Franklin and Grand Isle counties attended a meeting in St. Albans on Thursday, offering views on cars, trains, walking and biking.

From 1945 to 2004, the average number of miles each American drove per year increased steadily, but since then, the trend has reversed, said John Zicconi, the board’s executive secretary. In Vermont, average miles per driver declined 8.4 percent from 2007 to 2013.

It’s a trend among young and old.

Most people tend to drive less as they age, Zicconi noted, and Vermont’s population is aging.

However, 18 to 34 year olds nationwide are driving less than previous generations. They walk, bike and use public transportation.

The Frontier Group found that nationally miles driven per year by 16 to 34 year olds dropped 23 percent from 2001 to 2009 — 10,300 miles per year to 7,900.

Car ownership is also declining, said Zicconi. “The trends everywhere are dropping,” he said.

Gas prices alone aren’t causing this. Zicconi said the trend continued even as gas prices fell.

How should Vermont respond?

To ferret out how transportation impacts where people choose to live, attendees were asked why they chose to live where they do.

“We wanted to be able to walk to the library,” said an older woman.

A woman from South Hero who bikes to South Burlington said, “It’s very important for me to be able to walk and bike.”

Another woman has a 10-minute drive to work, and would love to be able to bike there.

Several said they wanted to live in areas where they could walk downtown.

However, one person did point out that housing prices are the determining factor for many. “There’s a lot of people in Vermont who live far from where they work,” she said.

About half of those present said they wanted to drive less and roughly the same number said they would like to go from having two cars to one. A woman who stopped owning a car said it was less of a hassle not to own a car. She cited the need to maintain it, shovel it out in the winter and find a parking place in the city.

Another woman said her family had just had one car until moving here and found they would have to get another.

“We buy used cars my husband maintains,” said one woman. “We’re just lucky we can afford cars, a lot of people can’t.”

Car sharing, in which members can schedule use of a car for 90 minutes to two hours, is available in Burlington, Montpelier and Winooski.

Zicconi wanted to know if that was something people would use here.

A woman who works in social services said many poor people don’t have licenses, or don’t have current licenses. It would be a challenge in Richford or Enosburg because the commute to places users need to visit – such as St. Albans or Burlington – would be too long.

Some said it wouldn’t work if a person had to drive to the car to borrow it, but in small urban areas, such as St. Albans City and its environs, residents could easily walk downtown to get to a carshare vehicle.

Zicconi asked about walking and biking.

“I want to be able to bike everywhere I need to go,” said the cyclist from South Hero. “I just want people in cars to understand we want to be on roads because that’s the quickest way to get places.”

One man said, “The point of walking and biking and transportation in general is to get somewhere.” He suggested finding ways to bring services to where people can access them, adding, “That would be a big step in the right direction.”

A woman said that because of the lack of a shoulder on her road, her children cannot safely ride their bikes. She has to drive them to visit friends who live a mile away.

Use of public transportation in Vermont continues to increase with nearly five million riders on the states buses and vans in 2014. Vermonters took 900,000 more rides on public transportation in 2013 than in 2008.

The state provides 70 percent of the cost of public transportation.

“We need more bus routes per day to outlying areas,” said the social services worker. There are people who live in Richford and Enosburgh who would be working if they had reliable transportation to the job centers in the western part of the county, she suggested.

Two-thirds of her clients receiving Reach-Up help want to work, and many lost their jobs because they lost their transportation, she said.

In her view, more trips and trips on weekends are needed to connect people in the eastern part of Franklin County to jobs. “These people will be working rather than collecting public assistance,” she said.

Another person said there was a need for middle of the day bus routes between Enosburgh and Richford and St. Albans.

Others asked for more commuter buses to Chittenden County.

Rail ridership is also increasing, and has nearly doubled in the last decade, reaching more than 107,000 riders per year. There are two passenger rail routes in Vermont, the Ethan Allen provides bus service from Rutland to New York City while the Vermonter runs from St. Albans south to New York City and Washington, D.C.

The state hopes to extend both routes north, the Ethan Allen to Burlington and the Vermonter to Montreal.

The state also hopes to add a new route between Albany, N.Y. and Burlington through Bennington and Manchester, as well as a second round-trip for the Vermonter, which is seeing increased numbers of intrastate riders.

The state has commissioned an 18-month study of the feasibility of adding commuter rail between St. Albans, Burlington and Montpelier.

Zicconi asked if these were good priorities for the state.

“It’s a no-brainer,” answered Charlie Moore, a former railroad executive. Travel to Burlington and Montpelier would be as fast as a car, if not faster.

When someone pointed out that the Montpelier station is outside of town, limiting its usefulness for commuters, Nick Marro, chair of the Vermont Transportation Board, said Montpelier has purchased land and has the funds to build a new station.

“I think any of these and all of these options are spot on,” said one woman, putting special emphasis on a second run of the Vermonter.

The transportation board will take written testimony for its report on public transportation options through the end of November. Information on submitting comments may be found on their Web site (