Friday, July 27, 2012


Slaying the dragon of transportation: the Solo Commute to Work

Part 1: How three major Burlington employers though a staff of four slayed the dragon of solo driving in the first decade of this century

No so many years ago the Burlington, VT “Campus Area Transportation Management Association”, CATMA for short, ventured into the land of solo driving with the purpose of shifting students and employees toward greener pastures: abandoning the solo commute to work, jumping onto public transit, leaving cars home during school sessions, getting into carpools, for those still insistent traveling by car shifting them part way by into using peripheral lots and taking shuttles to worksites or classes, and walking or bicycling part or all of any trip. The CATMA bosses—the troika of University of Vermont, Fletcher Allen Health Care and Champlain College—total 10,000 employees and and 16,000 students.

The huge CATMA bureaucracy of four employees documents through periodic surveys since 2000 an amazing alteration of the transportation landscape of its troika with a 18% reduction of solo commuting, students shifting in part from bringing their cars to using Vermont Carshare services, and through partnering with the Burlington area bus provider, CCTA, helping that service move about 500 commuters onto three radiating commuter corridors out of Burlington in the Link buses, services all started within the past few years.

The 2010 CATMA survey finding of 56% of workers still solo commuting compares to a figure of 74% in 2000, a drop of 18%.   In fact the solo driving of the employees at 74% in 2000 varied little from the Census 75% statewide average for all workers statewide. The drop of about 18% in solo driving 2000 to the end of the decade does not include another roughly 12% of the solo drivers who park in peripheral lots and bus shuttle to the workplace. All in all about 30% of the troika workforce of 10,000 switched off from “pure” solo commuting since 2000.

In the 1990s transportation policy makers and planners advocated shifting commuters from solo and the untested estimates were that perhaps 10% could be encouraged though rideshare programs and incentives to get to work in some other fashion than the solo commute. The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) initiated a “commuter choice” program and Vermont was one of the test areas aimed at the private and public employers (CATMA coordinated that effort). Commuter choice concentrated mostly on "demand management", that is, shifting solo commuters so as to reduce the number of cars on the highways, needs for parking, etc.  Still, a Vermont Department of Labor employee benefits survey last year revealed that transportation subsidies by employers ranged from 4% for employers of 1-9 workers and only 10% for the largest employers of 250 or more workers.  (Note a surface parking space which costs $30-$60 a month did not appear to be a viewed a “transportation subsidy” to the empoyers responding to the State survey.)

A combination of initiatives and fortuitous parallel developments contributed to the success of the solo commuter reduction by CATMA.  Regardless CATMA stands the mythology of the unchangeable solo commuter with the ubiquitous Ipod playlist, Starbucks cuppa, and personal parking space into just that: a myth.  In following posts, elements of the CATMA program will be detailed, parallel developments decribed, and some of the federal transportation benefits outlined.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


The Burlington Climate Action Plan (BCAP) just issued apparently contains a serious overstatement of transportation growth in the three year analyzed, 2007-2010. Transportation, mostly car and truck travel, is the area which contributes about half of all global warming emissions in the City and the State. But, Vermont gasoline consumption declined 8% 2000-2010, as reported in the annual Federal Highway Administration statistics series. In fact the Vermont trend, if continued, would easily bring us to 1990 numbers by 2020 in view of stalled car travel and new vehicle fuel efficiency standards. Average motor fuel use for New England states increase was barely 0.6% average total for the 2000-2010 decade. Note the historic low New England State average car travel increase reached barely 3% last decade and Rhode Island car travel actually went negative.

Even more impressive data calls BCAP transportation data, conclusions and policies into question.   In addition about 500 commuters to and from Burlington using the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) "Link" services dailty by next June (about half on the Montpelier route with its 24 buses) traffic since 2006 on I 89 between Waterbury and Montpelier exits declined 7% 2006 to this spring.  Link services started early last decade and grew to the 46 buses each workday in three corridors out of Burlington.   In addition appreciate the truly miraculous work  since 2000 by the Campus Area Transportation Management Association (CATMA) efforts on behalf of their three key members--UVM, Champlain College, and Fletcher Allen with their 10,000 employees--cutting solo car commuting14%, reducing student and employee car use through providing universal access to CCTA buses, and identifying student reduction of bringing cars to campuses resulting from both the CCTA access and student use of a new car sharing rental service. The City needs to have the planners revisit the basis for the BCAP study and update--the estimate of car travel growth appears unrealistic and the BCAP does not appear to take into consideration the scope of the impact of CATMA demand management for the 2007-2010 analysis period and beyond.  The issue of addressing climate change is far to important to be the subject of the apparent shoddy work in the new BCAP plan. Planners and statisticians need to do better!

Monday, July 16, 2012



Chittenden County while a third of Vermont seems to hold a monopoly on giant highway boondoggles. After $40 million in planning and design funds spent, the Circumferential (Circ) highway continuation pegged at $70 million more money finally went to a deserved deep sixing last year. Burlington's City Council vote a few years ago against the Circ certainly aided its demise. Now Burlington could use some help from other Chittenden County towns to kill off the South End's decades old Burlington Parkway, another relic of the now long gone highway age as Vermont car travel likely  hits negative numbers for this decade. The Burlington Parkway boondoggle would mount to about $40 million if ever built.

Strangely, a simple two-lane street extending from Flynn Avenue along the Parkway right-of-way with simple intersections at Home Avenue and Pine Street “feeding” the waiting I 189 access stub, a “I 189 Feeder” if you will, would accomplish most of the stated purposes with little expense and avoid the specter of blowing out Pine Street, Lakeside Avenue and generally making a mess of an emerging mixed use neighborhood home to schools, commercial and light manufacturing, and residential areas. Much of the truck traffic to and from the west border along with commuters would use the I 189 Feeder thereby reducing traffic on neighborhoods, relieving traffic numbers on Shelburne Road, and make the mid-Pine Street area attractive for desirable land uses. Besides, it is the Lakeside Avenue connection and pressure on mid-Pine Street that draws the opposition, legimate in my view.

And the immense cost of the overall project—about $40 million—could fund, for example, the complete cost of rail upgrades and outright purchase of necessary passenger equipment for Burlington to Montpelier commuter rail with enough money left over to fund operating costs for a few years (Vermont's two Amtrak trains now receive about $4 million a year in State funds). 

Perhaps as important, if traffic represents the concern the way to reduce Pine Street traffic numbers already has been well proven in other parts of the City.

Burlingtonians and other Vermonters already show that with a little incentive they leave their cars home (or altogether) in droves. In the last few years alone, a third of Burlington-Montpelier commuters abandoned car travel for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) “Link” services (22 buses each workday) and Links now serve hundreds in three corridors out of Burlington with 46 buses. The 260 commuters on the Montpelier Link this coming year represent 10-15% of the peak traffic on I 89 between Waterbury and Montpelier with traffic down on the section by 7% since 2000. The point is we can now manage traffic and actually reduce it on busy streets, whether it is Pine Street or Main Street, as the old days of ever growing car travel has ended--Vermont and the rest of New England States grew an average of 3% for the entire decade, 2000-2010 and the average likely goes negative for the current decade.

The Burlington City Council can call a halt to the Parkway, request a refocus toward a I 189 Feeder and maybe reallocate funds to more needed priorities in this post-auto age, like commuter rail, roundabouts, and programs to encourage further use of less auto-centric modes of travel.

Sunday, July 15, 2012



Part 2:  No Barriers to Funding Commuter Rail Services

Vermont yearly household expenditures for local transportation reminds one of the recipe for horse and rabbit stew—key ingredients are one horse, auto expenditures of about $1.8 billion, and one rabbit, all public transportation expenditures, about $40 million or less than 2 cents on the household dollar spent on car travel. The $40 million includes a tax subsidy of about $28 million. Vermont public transit riders pay about a third of the cost of service or $12 million.

But many Vermont workers—increasing by the day—abandon the car and look to the rabbit in the stew for essential transportation to and from work. That explains how in the span of less than a decade about a third of central community workers in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor, about 260 by the next June, pile onto the 22 buses each workday to and from their job. The 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier bus commuting fares do not come cheap, about $160 a month, still very attractive compared to solo driving costing upwards of $800 monthly with total car expense approaching 50 cents a mile.

So, thanks to public policy there exists a bus an outlet for workers to get to work and reduce commuting expenses. But why not increase the public and user $40 million now going into public transportation to initiate and operate commuter rail services along the Burlington-Montpelier corridor as well as add stops at the IBM parking lot, Middlesex, Winooski, and Richmond? Assuming one spreads out capital costs over a few years, one easily could start and continue service at perhaps $4-5 million and make some savings with reduced current bus trips, equivalent to less than a half a penny on estimated current household car expenses. Commuter rail offers a more pleasant, safer, more attractive way to get to and from work than a bus. Ultimately a statewide network could serve not just commuters but all types of intercity transportation, including provision of service to tourists.

Based on 2011 complete year information, Vermont received federal funds of $210 million—and over $60 million of those funds can applied to the purchase or operating costs of commuter rail services. That is a new apportionment of $60 million each year! Delay a highway project a year or two and the funds need to start an eventual statewide commuting and ultimately intercity network represents an easy lift—and the taste of the horse and rabbit stew will change little.

While the federal funds require about a 20% state match, the $4.5 million appropriation last year—all state dollars without a match--for the two Vermont Amtrak trains served fewer passengers than the three corridor Link services out of Burlington expected the year ending next June, about 225,000.

Besides the commuter rail service can handle three to four times the number of passengers per trip than a bus, provide lots of room for bicycles, and shift traffic off congested streets and highways. And, downtown and village centers receive an economic boost and businesses access to a workforce with a quality, reliable and low cost transportation commuting mode.

The only barrier to starting commuter rail services in Vermont rests in the public domain, willingness of Governor Shumlin, legislative transportation committees and regional transportation committee to shift a few federal resources from highways to rail passenger services, easily done without interfering with the taste of the transportation stew. The shift to commuter rail equals shifting less than half a cent of 98 cents of household expenditure per dollar now spent car transportation to travel in Vermont communities. And, all this can be easily done in just a few months—remember the original Montreal Metro construction took about a year!

Thursday, July 12, 2012



Earlier this week this Blog described the phenomenal growth of commuters on “Link” bus services since being introduced about 2005 with words like “astounding” and “astonishing,” as symbolic of a seismic shift from car travel in Vermont and New England. And in a changed commuting environment this Blog has also advocated for immediate installation of commuter rail services in the commuter corridors leading to and from Burlington as the first step in establishing a statewide rail passenger network.

A parallel finding in a Blog this week found the joint transportation services agency formed by three major employers recorded employee surveys results of a solo driving decline of 15% 2000-2010. The “troika” of Burlington employers—Fletcher Allen Health Care, University of Vermont and Champlain College--employment totals 10,000 workers.

If so many commuters ride the Link services now—about 225 this year daily in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor alone—and employees of three major Burlington have switched to everything from bicycling to carpooling and public transit, then why are so many cars still traveling the I 89 corridor between Burlington and Montpelier? Well, in actuality, as one would expect, traffic numbers decline on I 89 since 2000 on a key leg reflect in part the switch of solo drivers to bus and car sharing. The Link services and the “troika” programs designed to decease solo driving to some degree are reflected in traffic numbers on I 89.

From a 2006 average through April this year, traffic along I 89 between Middlesex and Montpelier declined 7 percent. This stretch of interstate contains a minimum of short distance “local” traffic and mostly longer distance trips in the 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier corridor. Even a look at a longer interval shows a tiny annual 0.2% gain in traffic numbers starting 15 years ago in 1997 to April this year.

Another key question is how a decline of 225 commuters daily impacts the “peak” travel as commuter buses primarily service the 7-9 am and 4-6 pm peak hours, the times most traffic engineers look at because these are the “congestion” hours on the highway system. Again, what is the the impact of 225 commuters switching from car travel? Assume half switched to a Link service versus a solo drive and the other half from a carpool of three—the impact of those 225 represent a 9% decline in peak hour travel on I 89 between Middlesex and Montpelier where 12-month daily traffic numbered 24,151 this April. The idea that the rugged individual Vermonter would never give up the sacred car to take a bus to work truly belongs to the mythology of yesteryear.  (Note all 225 commuters are ascribed to a peak period of 10% of total travel in one direction.)

In summary, the daily 22 Link commuter service buses in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor clearly contribute to the depressing or declining of I 89 traffic numbers and that impact amounts to a sizable proportion. Transportation planners and policy makers mostly gave lip service in the past to “demand” management centered on employer programs and public transit impacting car travel, often dismissing impacts as being insignificant, most probably in the low single digit territory—no more! Those assumptions must deal with the new reality that public transportation and programs to divert workers from solo driving can and are having a substantial impact. And workers and employers alike seek alternatives to costly commuting by car. With Vermont car traffic expected to drop slightly this decade that decline will likely be accelerated by growing efforts of employers and public programming aimed at reducing commuting costs, saving energy and cutting pollution. Alternatives to solo driving offer less stressful and safer travel choices. It is apparent expanding public transit makes employment and businesses accessible to a working population increasingly resistant to using an automobile to get from here to there.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012



Count the reasons for commuter rail passenger services in Vermont, but the most important remains the ability of self-propelled rail diesel cars (RDCs) to smoothly move hundreds of existing daily commuters crowding buses and handle growth in excess of 20% each year. Simply, as the post-auto age evolves and households deal with the reality of constrained incomes and competing needs, increasing numbers delay getting a driver license, curtail driving or quit cars altogether. Those necessary trips switched from cars--like getting to and from work—come to light in the form of surging commuter bus numbers. In the Burlington to Montpelier 40 mile corridor served by 22 buses each workday in less than a decade about 260 commuters, about a third of the total market, will travel by commuter bus during the coming twelve months.

The explosion in commuter bus usage in Vermont, particularly the three corridors leading to Burlington deserves such descriptives as breathtaking, unprecedented and astonishing. But so too are the first decade of the new century numbers in Vermont and regional numbers in just about every statistic related to the car. All kinds of numbers show the sea change. New England states recorded a first ever single digit increase in overall car travel, totally 3% for the 2000-2010 decade with Rhode Island actually declining slightly. New England—and Vermont—car travel now moves toward a likely negative number for this decade, reversing the region's upward trend dating to the Stanley Steamer. National data shows a first ever decline in the younger age population getting driver licenses.

The commuter “Link” services out of Burlington began about 2005 and one employer survey data cited covering “before” and “after” the introduction of the Link services reflects partly the impacts of the commuter bus service introduction. The Link” services operated by the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) now operate along the corridors to St. Albans, Montpelier, and Middlebury—46 buses weekdays which did not exist in 2000. This coming year about 500 commuters will utilize the commuter buses out of Burlington including the 260 traveling on 22 buses each weekday in the Montpelier-Burlington corridor, about 225,000 individual trips overall.

Other factors working against driving include: (1) flatlining of Vermont driving age population 200-2030 while over 65-year-old population doubles, a population which drives 40% less miles per year and drives less at peak times; and (2) employer side initiatives which drive down commuting and driving, again driving down mostly peak hour traffic numbers. Burlngton has the the first “transportation management association” (TMA), CATMA, currently composed of the troika of the University of Vermont (UVM) Champlain College and Fletcher Allen Health Care (FAHC). CATMA runs a bus service, manages parking, and provides a wide range of planning and commuter choice programming for the troika's 10,000 employees and 12,000 students.

The CATMA periodic employer and student survey picked up the downtrend of solo driving during the 2000-2010 period. But a dramatic drop in solo driving—about 15 percent overall—accelerated after a “free” universal pass on all CCTA buses began in 2003. Latest national data shows solo driving to work hovers around 90% while the latest comparative number for CATMA member employees is 54 percent with about a quarter of those solo drivers using a shuttle bus to complete the work trip. Again, these CATMA numbers drive home the behavioral changes finding expression in part through the introduction of Link commuter buses and a universal bus pass during the 2000-2010 period.

          The RDC, the rail stations, and Vermont planning law

The RDC, the type of equipment used at the end of scheduled rail service in Vermont in the 1950s, can carry 140-180 passenger in two-car units, about three to four times the capacity of buses used now. From planning perspectives commuter rail service cannot be matched by any other transportation type in furthering the Vermont planning law goal: “maintain the historic settlement pattern of compact village and urban centers surrounded by rural countryside.” Consider the stations along the base 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier route: Montpelier across from the State House, Montpelier Jct., Middlesex, Bolton, Richmond, Essex Jct., Winooski and Burlington's Union Station. Add to this route IBM at the main plant parking lot and a second Winooski stop within a block of Vermont Community College and two-blocks from Champlain Mill, the Winooski City Center Roundabout, and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. One authoritative study calls for a base service with about an hour between Montpelier and Burlington, including stops, would be ten trains weekdays in each direction, including the current Amtrak runs.  A Burlington-Montpelier service would naturally extend to Barre downtown and Berlin.

While transportation policy still remains mostly invested in highways, the “customer”, the Vermont citizen, changed the direction of their transportation choices some years ago—and catching up in transportation programming must include commuter rail services which serve not only to meet current demands and economic as well as community development needs --but inevitably leads to a network of rail passenger services, a network as important if not more important in the future than the existing major highway network.

Clearly the market for commuter rail exists today. Are there transportation funds available to start such a service?—that is the subject of the next blog.