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State Transportation Board seeks views on the future of transit in Vermont

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BRATTLEBORO—For decades, the automobile has ruled American roads. Its reign, however, has wavered on the national level in recent years.

This is especially so among “millennials,” the young people born between the early 1980s and before 2000. It is an age cohort that includes 80 million Americans — larger than the Baby Boom generation.

Fewer young adults in the United States are making car ownership a priority, and this trend has spurred the seven-member Vermont Transportation Board to ask: Do Vermonters follow the same trend? And how does the state meet the current and future needs of Vermont drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians?

To answer these questions, the board has held meetings at college campuses around the state to solicit feedback from young adults about transportation-related decisions that factor into deciding where to live and work following graduation.

A Nov. 4 meeting was held at the Community College of Vermont’s new location in the Brooks House. It was the fifth of eight scheduled meetings.

According to the board’s executive secretary, John Zicconi, hordes of millennials attended the other meetings. Brattleboro, as is often the case for Windham County, bucked this pattern with a room populated by mostly people above the focus group of 18-to-34-year-olds.

Although focused on transportation and cars, the meeting touched the edges of other issues the state and Windham County have chewed on in recent years.

Issues touched on how the state can retain or attract more young people to counterbalance its aging population. The state’s transportation fund receives monies from gas taxes. With more drivers using hybrid or electric cars, fewer gas taxes fuel the fund. How should the state fund transportation?

Zicconi told the audience of about 12 that national data point to young adults feeling less inclined to own cars than previous generations.

“But Vermonters don’t always line up with the national trends,” he said.

According to data presented by Zicconi, from World War II until 2004, miles driven in the United States increased annually.

By 2011, however, on average, Americans’ driving miles dropped by 6 percent, he added. Between 2001 and 2009, the most recent data Zicconi had, vehicle miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-old drivers decreased by 23 percent.

“That’s significant,” Zicconi said.

Instead of driving, young adults have increased their use of bicycles, walking, and public transportation.

Economic factors drive some of these changes, Zicconi said.

He said examples were the spike in gas prices and the total cost of cars and the numbers of underemployed youth.

For many recent graduates’ budgets, repaying high student debt has replaced car loans, Zicconi said.

Still, he added, even well-to-do millennials with annual household incomes of $70,000 drive less and use more public transport, ride bicycles, or hoof it.

According to Zicconi, 45 percent of young adults say they make conscious efforts to drive less compared to 32 percent of older adults.

National trends also show that an estimated 77 percent of young adults plan to live in urban centers. Urban households are 2{1/2} times more likely forego car ownership compared to rural households.

Young adults also note concern for the environment as a reason for either not owning a car, or purchasing a hybrid or electric vehicle (EV).

Zicconi said that registrations of EVs have increased steadily since 2012.

Would more affordable electric cars spur more young people to purchase cars? Zicconi asked.

Or, he continued, would something like Zipcar — one of many car membership services where people purchase a membership then rent cars by the hour — make it easier for you?

He also asked what do people need to make walking and biking work for them. Affordable housing nearby, roadway infrastructure, more sidewalks, bike paths, or walking combined with public transit were all mentioned.

Zicconi ended by asking what the state can reasonably do to improve the service of public transportation.

Increase public transportation, most people in the audience told Zicconi.

Audience members said they’d use existing public transit in the area — bus and train — more if the timetables aligned with their schedules. Better transportation options that crossed state lines and went to nearby airports were also wanted.

A few audience members said they didn’t own cars. Their reasons included environmental concerns, a preference for walking or biking, and cost. These audience members said they walked or used public transport like the Moover.

While they didn’t own cars themselves, the audience members did not live entirely car-free. In most cases their partners owned cars or they borrowed cars from their parents.

Cycling, audience members remarked, felt too dangerous in Brattleboro.

Audience members shared horror stories of trying to walk, bike, and drive in town.

Brattleboro, it seems, is the Wild West of transportation with drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists thrown into a tilt-a-whirl of crowded streets, disappearing or unplowed sidewalks, and heavy truck traffic.

One audience member said that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all needed education on how to drive safely and share the road.

Sidewalks that ended and started again on the opposite side of a busy road made some pedestrians uncomfortable.

Mentioned even more often were concerns about sidewalks left snow-covered or icy.

One experienced cyclist in the audience said she doesn’t bike in Brattleboro due to safety concerns.

Another audience member mentioned that little infrastructure exists to support new cyclists. Most major roads in town are also heavily traveled by large trucks.

People in the audience said they’d consider a service such as Zipcar.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #280 (Wednesday, November 12, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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