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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

Solution to a commuting riddle

Can a vanpool from Brattleboro to the Upper Valley get employees to and from work there and cut greenhouse-gas emissions? Let's try it.

Tad Montgomery is an environmental consultant, community volunteer, and champion of sustainability.

Originally published in The Commons issue #446 (Wednesday, February 14, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.


On Jan. 2, my first day of work as energy and facilities manager for the small city of Lebanon, N.H. (pronounced “Leb’-nin” by locals), my car died at the base of Mount Ascutney.

I assumed at the time that it was remnant biodiesel in the engine clogging the fuel filter, but shops and parts stores from Springfield to Claremont assured me that diesel vehicles all over were sputtering in the minus-20-degree Fahrenheit weather. I eventually popped in a new filter and limped to work.

From this, I learned a lesson: forego all biofuels in winter in Vermont. I thus joined the throngs of Americans burning gallons of petroleum every day to bring home the bacon.

A week or so later, I was bemoaning this major uptick in my carbon footprint to my doctor while he was adjusting certain misaligned vertebrae in my spine.

“You are doing so much good for that city with all of the projects you’re bringing to fruition. Isn’t that enough to offset your drive up and back?” he asked.

“That’s rather Machiavellian,” I responded.

“So you’re saying that it’s OK to do a little evil if one can accomplish a greater good? I don’t believe that. The world is unraveling because too many people tell themselves that their small use of petroleum is inconsequential. If you knew that something you were doing now was going to kill people in the future, would you continue?”

This conversation kicked my conscience into an even deeper state of cognitive dissonance.

* * *

Zen Buddhism has a wonderful technique for inducing enlightenment in its students called “kōan practice.”

A kōan is a sort of sacred riddle that a student is given by a teacher to meditate on until they resolve it. One of the purposes of the kōan is to teach people how to live in the uncomfortable state of not knowing. This is especially hard for Americans who place such a high value on being in the know.

Recognizing the all-too-familiar state of dissonance I was experiencing, I turned it into a kōan: How could I use my new lifestyle to actually reduce greenhouse gases?

And I sat on that for a while.

* * *

A few days later, I started researching public transport options from Brattleboro to the Upper Valley and found that they do not exist. Carpools? Nothing, aside from a couple of dormant online lists.

I kept at it and contacted folks at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation, and the nonprofit Vital Communities.

Eventually, I was introduced to a representative from Enterprise Rent-A-Car who is working to set up vanpools in New England.

Vanpools?!

As it turns out, thousands of vanpools have been established across the continent. They can seat up to 12 people and can save each participant as much as $1,000 a month for a commute like Brattleboro to Lebanon/Hanover. They are notoriously difficult to establish in a new territory but universally loved once they are up and running.

One or two people become the drivers, park the vehicle at their respective homes, and have use of it after hours. The pick-up and drop-off locations and schedule are determined collectively by the participants.

VTrans is willing to subsidize such a vanpool to the tune of $700 per month. With a six-person van traveling from Brattleboro to Lebanon, I estimate that about 48 tons of greenhouse gases would be avoided per year — more if we could run the van on biodiesel.

Wowzer. Kōan solved.

* * *

The need now is to find commuters living in Brattleboro and working in the Upper Valley. We are reaching out to Dartmouth College, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and a bunch of the other big employers in the area to find commuters from Windham County.

In an interview in the Valley News, the CEO of DHMC recently expressed a need for better public transport for employees because the cost of living in the Upper Valley is so high that people are commuting from increasingly greater distances.

We are also looking for people to spread the word in the Brattleboro area. Interested commuters may contact me at the Lebanon City Hall at 603-442-6140 or Tad.Montgomery@lebcity.com. For people interested in starting vanpools to other locales, contact Enterprise agent Matt Carrai at Matthew.D.Carrai@ehi.com or 781-238-2002.

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