Student Researcher and Writer: Ben DiNardo
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, PhD
Saint Michaels College
December 15, 2015
Walking through downtown Burlington, Vermont on a beautiful fall afternoon, one can quickly fall in love with the bustling hub of students, families, tourists and active outdoor enthusiasts. Leaves scatter the sidewalks, the sun gleams from over the lake and a cool breeze rustles through fleece coats and scarves. What could possibly make this place better? For local bikers and pedestrians, the answer is simply, “a lot.”
Burlington has been widely criticized for a long time about its unsatisfactory biking and walking infrastructure. While features like the Island Line along the lake and the Intervale path are great for long rides or jogs, walking and biking downtown can be a treacherous maze. “Over the last decade or two, Burlington has had a terrible track record on making developments in biking,” says Jason Van Driesche, Director of Advocacy and Education at Local Motion in Burlington. “The fact is, we still have fragmented and poorly defined bike lanes around the city.” With an incomplete biking network scattered throughout the city and sporadic crosswalks and sidewalks, safety and convenience has become a serious concern among locals and city planners alike.
In the past, there have been plans to fix it, but most projects have lost support or fallen short of making any productive changes. Not until recently has there been a complete and cohesive plan to make legitimate improvements. PlanBTV Walk/Bike is an organized strategy to develop a comprehensive network of biking and walking paths throughout Burlington.
Aided by professional consultant teams and two large committees, the City of Burlington Public Works Department is at the helm of this massive project. The main goals are to maintain community input, identify the major corridors and access locations, increase the number of walkers and bikers in the city, and develop a safe and complete infrastructure that supports walking and biking throughout all of Burlington.
The project is a huge undertaking and presents a daunting challenge for the Public Works Department. However, PlanBTV hit the ground running more quickly than anticipated. A complete draft is expected by the end of December which will hopefully lead to projects in the spring of 2016. First, simpler projects like restriping the roads and completing lanes through intersections can happen. Simultaneously, the larger projects that require lane development and curb changes can begin scoping and measuring.
Because the plan will be so vast, they are also hoping to generate cost effective estimates. “If we can get an accurate estimate for the plan, hopefully we can influence the budget process and get more money into the program,” says Nicole Losch, Transportation Planner at the Public Works Department. “It’s tough to advocate for more money when we can’t describe what we’re going to do.”
With Burlington’s track record, however, there is still a lot of skepticism surrounding PlanBTV. “When we’ve done plans in the past, we kind of get hung up on the actual implementation. Either there’s not enough money or there’s not enough support for the actual project,” says Losch. “There’s generally been a lot of support for the concept, but when we actually put it on the ground everyone panics and thinks we should do it somewhere else.”
Because Burlington is such a small, old New England city, infrastructure can present itself to be an increasingly difficult aspect to change. It’s narrow, congested streets combined with the heavy traffic of commuters and visitors year round make construction a nightmare. Changes to parking spaces, traffic flow and general inconvenience present a huge concern for locals as well. As a result, city planners tend to hit a wall once a plan is drawn up and they try to start making changes
“Lots of people will say, ‘Oh yeah, I want better walking and biking in Burlington, but don’t change anything on my street,’” says Van Driesche. “What we need is a response of ‘Yes, in my community’ not ‘No, not in my street.’” As a result, planners have made sure that community engagement is at the heart of PlanBTV Walk/Bike. With local support committees from advocates and businesses, there are a number of different Burlington-based organizations getting involved in the planning. Additionally, they are being encouraged to reach out to the public and ask the people for their input and suggestions.
Local Motion is one of the most closely engaged advocates for biking infrastructure change in Burlington. From September 11th-13th, during the Art Hop in the South End of Burlington, Local Motion and the Public Works Department recruited dozens of volunteers to create a series of “pop-up, demonstration projects” on the city streets. Both positive and negative feedback presented the Public Works Department and the local people an opportunity to discuss and improve the plan before it is complete.
Demonstrations included a number of different projects throughout the city. At the Art Hop on Pine Street, a separate “park-let” curb extension created a street-side social space for people to sit. It improved visibility of pedestrians while shortening the time and space required to cross the street. On North Winooski Avenue, the existing roadside parking was brought away from the sidewalk and created a parking-protected bike path. The path was complete with lines showing how far the car doors would open into the bike lane. Additionally, existing bike lanes downtown were lined with wooden planters that produced a simple safety solution.
The two days of demonstrations gained a significant amount of feedback. For example, people biking on the protected bikeways said they felt much safer having the cars or planters as a physical barrier from moving traffic. Additionally, the number of cars speeding on the demonstration roads decreased tremendously. There was also feedback from drivers that said there visibility pulling onto the street was worse with the larger parking-protected lanes.
By catalyzing conversation and gathering hard data, the demonstration made great strides in furthering the safety of Burlington’s biking infrastructure. Safety is one of the most powerful forces behind generating support for PlanBTV. There is an increasing biking population in Vermont and with the increase of bikers, has come an increase of bike accidents. In order to support the growing biking population, changes must be made to develop sound infrastructure.
“We had three bicycle deaths in Vermont this year and that’s terrible. For a small population like ours and for it to happen all within a couple months of each other, it’s incredible,” says Rick Sharp, owner of Burlington Segways and alternative transportation enthusiast. “You can blame it on the driver, but the plain and simple fact is, if you had a bike path, it wouldn’t have happened.” Sharp and Local Motion are some of the many who advocate for better biking in Burlington. PlanBTV is hoping to be a step in the right direction.
Not only would the plan create safer infrastructure, but it could also produce a healthier and more environmentally friendly community. For years, Burlington has been hailed as an excellent example of an active, outdoor city. With countless areas for outdoor recreation in the Burlington area and the surrounding Vermont landscape, many of Burlington’s residents are involved in a number of outdoor recreational activities. A complete biking network through the city would be the cherry on top of the cake and could further promote healthy living.
Additionally, more biking means less driving and less driving means less carbon emissions. “Every trip where someone bikes or walks reduces the carbon footprint, air pollution, traffic noise and stress,” says Van Driesche. “That being said, walking and biking are only ever going to be a small part of miles travelled. What we’ve seen happen in communities across the country, where significant improvements to [infrastructure] have been made, is walking and biking helps become a catalyst for community change.”
If it’s easier and safer to walk or bike, people are more likely to to it. Additionally, they could become more likely to walk or bike to the bus stop. ““I think the pendulum swung too far in favor of cars, now the big battle is to take it back,” says Sharp. While it is unrealistic to expect people to bike a far distance to and from work every day, urban biking infrastructure would encourage a push towards greener forms of alternative transportation within the city.
PlanBTV could represent a significant milestone in urban development for Vermont and New England as a whole. If this project is a success, it could represent a model for small, old cities throughout the region that have struggled for so long to enact positive infrastructure change. The incorporation of widespread community engagement and involving all layers of regional support creates a new way of creating success. Additionally, the promotion of healthy physical activity, reduction of carbon emissions and stimulus for community involvement is a positive experience for any community.
However, for the Burlington population, PlanBTV Walk/Bike is pedaling its way towards a better future. A city with a complete biking network will promote safer streets and happier people.
Ben DiNardo is a senior Media Studies: Journalism & Digital Arts student at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, specializing in video production, journalism and business management.