A SURGE IN WALKING, BICYCLING AND PUBLIC TRANSIT TO NATURAL LEVELS AWAITS MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENTS ENABLING FOR THE FIRST TIME WALKABLE, BIKABLE, AND YES, DRIVABLE COMMUNITIES
--MOVING ABOUT VERMONT DOWNTOWNS, VILLAGE CENTERS AND BUILT UP AREAS, A DEFINING OF QUALITY TRANSPORTATION FOR THOSE WHO WALK, BICYCLE, DRIVE AND USE PUBLIC TRANSIT
The sudden and unprecedented shift of Vermonters from traveling to work in cars to other modes between 2000-2010—about 9,000 workers or three percent of the workforce—demands attention and demonstrates the changed face of transportation needs today in all builtup areas, from small village centers to Vermont’s one metropolitan area centered in Burlington.
Vermont—and national—lack of infrastructure for walking and bicycling modes smothers these modes and in turn depresses public transit usage. Vermonters quitting car use (nationally driver licensing among the under-30 crowd dropped ten percent in the last decade or so) unmasks the huge deficit in walking and bicycling infrastructure and indirectly public transit demand, particularly for intercity and commuter rail passenger services.
While most developed nations urban modal share for bicycle trips tops ten percent, Vermont and the U.S. even with substantial growth over the past decade remains at slightly over one percent. While U.S. and Canada walker and bicycle mode shares of about 9 percent and 1 percent respectively, Canadian urban dwellers public transit trips top 12 percent compared to the U.S. 3 percent. Total U.S. walking, bicycle, and public transit share of urban travel amounts to 13 percent, a little more than half that of Canada and about a third of the typical Western European nation.
But with Vermont and the nation now experiencing a revolution in urban travel a substantial, inevitable move toward European modal shares bubbles just below the surface. A harbinger of Vermont change comes not just from the 50 workday bus commuter runs started since 2003-2004 between Burlington and three other job centers—Middlebury, Montpelier and St. Albans—now serving almost over 400 commuters, but also from the fact three of the largest Burlington employers also started providing reduced or no cost bus access as part of a program to reduce solo commuting. Employers taking a lead in encouraging non-car travel reflects the economic benefits which accrue to their workers, better health which arises from use of the “active modes” of bicycling and walking, and direct economic benefit to the employer as well through reduced need for allocating resources to expensive employee parking spaces.
The trends from a flat or declining statewide car travel (for example year-to-year Vermont total registered cars and pickups declined 0.1 as of February 2013) suggesting the real potential for commuter rail along the commuter corridors out of Burlington are matched by consistent statewide public opinion surveys for decades showing low support for more highways and strong support for more bicycling, walking, public transit, and passenger rail investments. The drop in car traffic along major entry streets to downtown Burlington is instructive as declines date from about 1990 with decreases of 8 to 28 in daily traffic along representative points of Main Street, the Northern Connector (VT 127), Pearl Street and Pine Street—trends continuing based on traffic data reports in recent years.
Meanwhile an unusual convergence of the interests favoring walkable, bikable and drivable communities as well as public transit suggests there exists a simple nexus meeting the needs of all four groups. Note urbanologist Peter Calthorpe stresses for successful transit there first must be a “walkable” community.
For walkability two infrastructure forms are sufficient—sidewalks which in most cases are already in place along street segments and roundabouts at intersections which assure comfort and ease of crossing and a reduction of up to 90 percent in injury rates. The roundabout also reduces delay and improves safety for all users, particularly for car occupants. Drivability absolutely depends on the presence of roundabout infrastructure in downtowns as well as along commercial and retail corridors. Middlebury’s Adirondack Circle, Montpelier’s Keck Circle and the new three-roundabout corridor in Manchester Center (slated to be Vermont’s first “all roundabouts and no signals” community)—are town center roundabouts reducing traffic speeds and delay over a distance of three to four blocks. These roundabouts reduce delays for all users and have greater capacity to move vehicles.
For bicycles the needs are somewhat similar to those of walkers. First along busy streets a grade separated “cycle track”, protected lanes, providing safety and enabling higher speeds comprises the key to urban bicycling. Cycle track can be described as a one or two-way “bicycle highway” on a roadway employing curbing or bollards where no parallel bikepath or multi-user path is available. (A route comprised of a mix of cycle track and bikepaths is a common treatment in Europe.) Second, where possible, intersections with roundabouts feature a separate bikepath side by side with crosswalks or a multi-user path as the crosswalk. With cycle track and intersection provisions, the bicycle gains equality as a mode with walking and car travel. Cycle track also protects drivers from bicycles. For motor vehicles, roundabouts at busy intersections mostly improve safety, reduce travel times, and provide greater capacity. In sum, for a walkable, bikable and drivable town and village centers as well as all built up areas, cycle track and roundabouts offers a ready solution to the current infrastructure deficit.
A European import, cycle track is new in North America with one extensive set of corridors already in place in Montreal. But where to get the five to ten feet for cycle track remains difficult even with allocated parking for the purpose on one side of a busy street. However, since roundabouts handle traffic quite easily compared to signals, many turn lanes can be eliminated in part or altogether enabling cycle track along approaches to an intersection. Some tradeoff of parallel parking along one side of a street may be made to accommodate cycle track.
The safest environment for bicycling and walking can be found in “shared space” at the heart of retail districts—like the cross street intersections in Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace The new Burlington Marketplace/waterfront plan—PlanBTV—proposes a cycle track along Main Street connecting the Marketplace to the waterfront. Shared space can be applied in a few areas and one of its features is providing safe access to all persons with a handicap.
The need today: “CPR” to revive downtowns as well as town and village centers
“CPR”—cycle track, passenger rail and transit, and roundabouts represent the three infrastructure and service challenges in Vermont requiring substantial investments so community transportation in all aspects can be brought to life. These infrastructure needs require tens of millions of investments each year over a decade or so to begin to meet the needs throughout Vermont. Yet the benefits of the first investments can be observed and measured from the completion of each project with the roundabouts in downtowns and village centers living proof of both the transportation and economic benefits. Consider these investments—including intercity and commuter passenger rail—as bringing to the builtup areas of Vermont towns and cities the same scale of transportation change as engendered by the interstate highway system completed at the end of the 1970s. Unlike the interstate system CPR leads to a sustainable transportation system and the substantial reduction in the role and usefulness of motor vehicles in the builtup areas and between population centers served by passenger rail.
Each mode—walking, bicycling, motor vehicle and public transit—must be treated equally and each must be provided for—a community with equal treatment of all modes becomes one with cycle track on most of its busy streets, roundabouts at almost all its intersections, and commuter and/or intercity rail at either traditional and/or new station locations. Passenger rail services fully integrate into an overall bus and rail based public transit network. This completes a public transit system where the basic regional bus networks in great part already exist.
In sum, quality transportation in builtup areas in Vermont and throughout North America (with some noticeable exceptions in isolated nodes, intersections, and areas) does not currently exist, mostly due to large deficit in infrastructure in one or more of the modes, primarily bicycle, walking, and rail passenger transit.
Up to the advent of the roundabout and cycle track there existed appeals for integrated and balanced transportation in U.S. law and transportation policies—but just what integrated and balanced transportation looked like in real life was unclear. With the magic of CPR—cycle track, passenger rail, and roundabouts--the vision of quality transportation for all modes becomes a reality. The next steps involve using CPR to bring the current critically ill patient--transportation in built up areas--back to a renewed and vibrant life at a far higher level than ever achieved in the past.