Montpelier, Vermont: A New "Way to Go"

Introduction

The community of Montpelier, VT, is promoting a different “Way To Go,” through an assortment of incentives and partnerships designed to help the program sustain itself in the future.

“Awareness is growing,” said Bill Merrylees, Wellness Coordinator for Community Connections, a non-profit after-school program that serves nine schools in two districts.

This May will mark the second year of the community’s partnership with “Way to Go Week,” a fledgling statewide effort that promotes alternative transportation options, he said. The primary impetus for “Way to Go” has been to reduce carbon emissions among adult commuters, but Merrylees said it matches Safe Routes to School efforts perfectly. The program was first targeted for the elementary school, where students could participate in walking school buses, bicycle trains and bicycle and scooter safety checks.

Activities

In 2007, “Way to Go” efforts reduced one week of mileage by more than 200,000 miles statewide, Merrylees said. This year, Union Elementary fifth graders prepared a pledge, which was signed by seven mayors and the governor, who attended the kick-off ceremony and recited the pledge aloud.

“It’s bringing it to everybody’s attention,” Merrylees said.

Officials have focused SRTS efforts at Union Elementary School, which has 460 students, and Main Street Middle School, which has 350. High school students also are participating, Merrylees said.

“They’re doing ‘Way To Go’ on their own,” he said, noting the high school has an active Earth Club, which has been conducting student car counts. “Students are telling students, ‘Let’s drive less; let’s walk or carpool,’ ” Merrylees said.

As an age-appropriate incentive, each time a high school student participates, his or her name is entered into a drawing for an iPod Nano.

Vermont’s DOT requires that SRTS infrastructure grant applicants first apply for a two-year non-infrastructure grant that addresses the four E’s: education, encouragement, engineering and enforcement. The amount of these grants varies. The state contracts with the regional planning commission to support schools with traffic counts, Merrylees said, and VT DOT now allows non-profits and schools to propose projects together.

After Union Elementary officials received a non-infrastructure grant in 2006, they conducted surveys, studied and identified barriers, taught “WalkSmart,” a pedestrian safety program to all first grade students and began teaching a BikeSmart program.

“Certainly the education piece is institutionalized,” he said.

In a separate SRTS grant, they received bicycle racks for the elementary and middle schools. The public works department is repainting crosswalks that have faded due to five months of snow.

In April 2008, the community began a pilot project for a new drop-off zone at Union Elementary. There had been concerns for years because the school did not have a curbside drop-off, however, it had been difficult to build consensus for any change.

High school students created a condensed-time 90-second video of the drop- off zone at Union Elementary, and they presented it to the City Council.

“It really spoke volumes,” Merrylees said.

Milestones

As a result, a one-block portion of the road has been changed to one-way traffic. The improvement was due to a partnership among leaders in the school, SRTS planners, the mayor, City Council and police chief, as well as community and business partners. The low-cost project did not receive any specific funding. Although it is a pilot project this year, feedback has been positive, and officials plan to make it permanent next year.

During the 2007 to 2008 school year, Main Street Middle School received a $110,000 infrastructure grant to construct bulb outs at each end of the curb in front of the school. The design will enlarge the sidewalk at the site of each crosswalk, moving the curb outward in a bulb shape. It not only makes the crossing distance shorter for students, but it also is an effective way to encourage drivers to slow speeds as drivers notice the narrowing and think “the road’s looking skinny up there, I’d better slow down,” Merrylees said.

In addition, the school plans to install a permanent speed radar, which will be used primarily as an educational tool to make drivers more aware of how fast they are going.

The community has some viable bike paths, and SRTS planners are considering asking high school students to help lead bicycle trains or walking school buses since many upper classmen don’t have class during first period.

In conjunction with the schools’ improvements, the business community has bought into the concept as well, Merrylees said, because “A walkable downtown is a vibrant downtown.”

“It feels like there’s a lot of innovation going on,” Merrylees said. “We do want to sustain this over time.”

Contact

Bill Merrylees
Wellness Coordinator
Community Connections, Montpelier, VT
Email: bmerrylees@u32.org