What keeps residents driving around town instead of biking or walking to school, work, and errands? What could change those habits? Four environmental studies (ES) seniors spent a semester looking for answers by getting to know the people, traffic lights, and crosswalks of the City of Vergennes, Vermont. On a recent Tuesday evening they presented their findings—3 main causes and 18 recommendations for change—at a joint meeting of the Vergennes city council, planning commission, and recreation committee. A reaction from Shannon Haggett, chair of the planning commission, was typical of the response: “I was blown away by the quality of the work.”
Since the late 1980s, ES seniors have developed community-related projects for their capstone senior seminar, focusing on diverse topics such as land management, climate, energy, and water issues. Last fall’s “Cultivating Community Through Sustainable Transportation” resulted in a 52-page report, a highly professional presentation to Vergennes officials, and hopes that the research could be adapted to other Vermont communities.
The students who chose this project among several transportation-oriented options (18 seniors participated in fall semester’s ES 401) brought a cross-section of ES foci to the task: Aaron Kelly’s is policy; Jessica Lee’s is creative arts and dance; Angela Todd focuses on chemistry, and Carlton “Carly” Westling on biology. Their first concern was “Where do we start?”
Fortunately, the semester’s faculty advisor, Associate Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Environmental Studies Molly Costanza-Robinson, is an experienced guide in these seminars. “The transportation focus is newer to me, but I’ve been interested as a citizen for a long time,” she says. She also brought ideas from a recent research project in which she and faculty members from six other institutions visited European cities with model sustainable transportation networks. “I learned more about what’s possible and how it was achieved,” she says.
Working with the students and Costanza-Robinson was Diane Munroe, the College’s veteran coordinator for community-based environmental studies. Munroe’s many local and state-wide partners have come to welcome the collaboration—and results—a team of ES401 seniors typically achieve.
The seminar kicked off with a primer on transportation—intensive reading and discussion on such issues as equity, access to jobs, climate change, and a new federal transportation funding bill. That process, at least, was familiar student territory. As they moved toward fieldwork, familiarity gave way to many moving parts. The students set up selection criteria (resident density, number of nearby employers, etc.) that pointed to Vergennes as a workable site. Munroe’s contacts there and with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission were eager to participate. The students met with local officials and conducted detailed walking and mapping trips in Vergennes to measure its crosswalks and assess sightlines. There were days of surveys about residents’ transportation habits and their perceived barriers to biking or walking. They talked with mothers who struggled to push strollers along broken sidewalks and with shoppers too wary of traffic to walk to the nearby supermarket.
The students had some of their own apprehensions: “How do we organize all this?” and “How will we be graded?” Costanza-Robinson advised, “Don’t worry about the grades. Worry about the process. And don’t be afraid to flail around a bit. That’s where the learning is happening.” After many drafts, lots of feedback from their community partners and their advisers, and a particularly rigorous three-hour session with a white board, they started to clarify the issues. As Aaron Kelly notes, “We came in with an untarnished perspective, so we could offer creative solutions. The persistence paid off.”
So what drives Vergennes residents to drive? Three main themes emerged: safety, connectivity, and perceptions and habits. For example, the truck Route 22A turns into Main Street in Vergennes, and residents worry about not being seen, not having time to cross safely, and about being passed too closely on bikes; the city’s infrastructure doesn’t always let someone walk from here to there; and people perceive walking or biking as too time-consuming or unpleasant in extreme weather.
Matching these results with data from transportation studies and from local research by the county planning commission, the students crafted 18 recommendations ranging from simple (signage and enhanced stoplights) to more complex and costly (a connecting biking/walking trail on a former railbed). “We designed the recommendations to stand on their own,” noted Westling, “so the city could choose which they could afford without weakening the others.” All of their recommendations held multiple benefits—to residents’ physical health, a sense of community, or the local economy. “They knew they couldn’t sell this only on a ‘save-the-planet’ basis,” says Costanza-Robinson. “They had to show the many benefits of sustainable transportation.”
At the Vergennes meeting, the planners and council members raised fine points about town boundaries and state regulations. The students answered questions about streets and paths as if they’d grown up there. “It was so gratifying that they let us present our ideas,” said Jessica Lee afterward. The City Council’s budget vote this June will determine which changes to adopt and what might need outside funding (the report includes suggestions). The students’ success won’t be measured only in future crosswalks and bike lanes, however. As Westling said, “I remember the moment during this project when I realized, ‘this isn’t just what I’m learning in my class; it’s also how I should live my life.’”