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Getting  to there,  from here

Groups looking at alternative transit systems

  • Bicycle commuters find the area around Peterborough very accessible.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ella Teevan)
  • Bicycle commuters find the area around Peterborough very accessible.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ella Teevan)
  • The Contoocook Valley Transportation Company is the Monadnock region's main provider of community transportation, primarily for the elderly and disabled. Here, volunteer driver Emily Preston of Jaffrey, right, helps rider and CVTC volunteer Joanne Martin of Jaffrey into a CVTC van.

For an overwhelming number of Americans, the word “commute” is inseparable from images of interminable highways, smoggy skies or greying snow and, of course, cars. Even for those whose drives to work — or to the grocery store or downtown — are shorter, less crowded, and more vibrantly colored, the link between getting around and getting behind the wheel seems so natural that it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

However, this one-car-per-driver model, prevalent in towns and rural areas in New Hampshire, is by no means the only one possible. And according to a May 2013 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, it’s beginning to show signs of slowing down. The Public Interest Group reports that, in large part due to the millennial generation’s increased desire to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods, Americans drive no more total miles today than they did in 2004, and no more miles per person than in 1996.

While our reliance on cars, highways and small-town roads often draws criticism for socially conscious reasons, such as climate change or fuel consumption, it also has much more locally relevant and immediate effects. The one-car-per-driver model fails to meet everyone’s transportation needs, especially those who do not drive, including young teenagers, people with disabilities and the elderly. In the towns of the Monadnock region, individuals and groups are tackling the thorny issue of transportation from diverse angles, including walking, biking, carpooling, volunteer driving, public transit and bigger-picture city planning. They hope that their gradual nudges will eventually push our transit system into one that serves a broader spectrum of needs and promises a degree of long-term sustainability.

Waiting for a bus

The roads of the Monadnock region can boast an abundance of rural scenery, a diverse array of local shops and businesses, and a good deal of New England history. One feature they distinctly lack, however, is buses. The only major fixed-route public bus system is Keene’s City Express, which stops at locations inside city limits.

The absence of more traditional public transit services in local rural towns is not for lack of available resources. The N.H. Department of Transportation makes funding available annually via the 53-11, a federal program for rural public transit, according to Shelley Winters, bureau administrator for the DOT’s Bureau of Rail and Transit. Every year, she explains, the department solicits projects, and it’s up to each region to apply for project funding. “We haven’t received an application in 10 years,” she says.

But neither is the lack of buses in towns like Peterborough a product of inaction on the part of town planners. Rebecca Harris of TransportNH, a project whose goal is to transform New Hampshire’s transportation system so that it serves all people in the state, stresses the influence of population density. According to Harris, the state’s larger transit picture can be broken down into two major issues — urban transit and rural transit — and the lack of services in this area fall into the latter category. “You’re not going to send a bus down every little dirt road in our little towns in the Monadnock region,” she explains, because the demand is too scarce.

If a town bus system is impractical, what options remain to residents of these so-called “little dirt roads?” JB Mack, who sits on the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, says that in the sparsely populated “nether region” between the Manchester/Nashua area and Keene, people are simply expected to drive. Those who cannot drive or who hope to cut back on car use have been forced to get creative with their four wheels — or with somebody else’s.

Community transportation

Two of the major demographics of non-drivers are elderly people and people with disabilities. These groups turn to community transportation, a model in which drivers and riders work together to provide access and meet the needs of everyone. In the Monadnock area, the main provider of community transportation is the Contoocook Valley Transportation Company.

“The drivers are like they were sent from heaven,” says Selleck Scofield, 96, of Peterborough. He and his wife, Susie, have been riders in CVTC’s Volunteer Driver Program for over two years. “It’s not just that they provide transportation. They have the most wonderful personalities.”

The Scofields stopped driving about three years ago. Now, they rely on CVTC for trips to the grocery store and to medical and dental appointments. Selleck says the volunteer driver service has enabled him and his wife to maintain a great deal of independence.

“I don’t think we could live here, in our own home,” he says, without CVTC. “We’re thinking of going into a retirement home. A lot of people, long before they would have reached our age, would [already] be in a retirement home.” The Scofields have lived in Peterborough for 34 years, and Selleck values the ability to stay in his house with his workshop.

Ellen Avery, CVTC’s executive director, explains that a service like the Volunteer Driver Program can exist because there’s a good deal of funding available specifically for the elderly and disabled demographics. The company began in 2008, as a result of a grant from the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disabilities, which allocated money to exploring how community transportation might work in the region. Now, the service’s funding comes from sources including the Federal Transportation Administration and several charitable funds.

As with any nonprofit, however, the CVTC must continue to find new funding to match the service it provides. Recently, Avery says, CVTC lost funding for its rideshare program, which meant it could no longer employ someone to oversee the program.

Avery encourages people in the area to join the Volunteer Driver Program. She points to the increasing number of Baby Boomers who will need the service in the near future.

For Selleck Scofield, people who volunteer are more than service providers. “I’m a talker. I love to talk politics. A number of the drivers are perfectly willing to discuss politics, local and national,” he says. “I couldn’t do a better job picking people.”

Sharing a set of wheels

Despite losing its coordinator, CVTC still offers a rideshare program for the area through its website, CVTC-NH.org. According to Marsha Gibson, who coordinates the Volunteer Driver Program, the rideshare program essentially runs by itself online.

Avery has advice and safety tips for those interested in carpooling, but she assures potential participants it’s easy to avoid situations that might be uncomfortable.

“If you’ve ever been online dating, it’s really the same thing,” she says, adding that the website does not list personal addresses. The site’s safety section encourages people to meet and talk with their potential carpoolers in a public place before sharing a ride, and it lists ways to get to know and build confidence in them.

Even though these measures minimize safety concerns, Avery says people are still reluctant to embrace carpooling, in large part because we’re so accustomed to the one-car-per-driver model, in which the individual is the only one deciding where to go, when and for how long. She points out that, when people are relying on a vehicle and driver besides themselves, it’s difficult to run an errand from work or make multiple trips.

Still, Avery says, “The service can’t go away.” For CVTC, the choices are to become larger and offer more types of services, or to merge with a larger entity with infrastructure already available. “We have two employees,” she says. “We can’t stay as small as we are.”

Two wheels or two legs

It’s hard to find a more dedicated or enthusiastic set of commuters than bicyclists.

Carl Brezovec, 54, of Peterborough is a 10-year bike commuter veteran and professor of mathematics at Franklin Pierce. He designs lectures on his ride to work. When describing his 12.5-mile trek along Route 202, he laughs, “The downsides? I don’t have one.”

Brezovec began biking regularly when he saw a chiropractor for back pain, who told him, “This is going to keep you out of my office, but ride your bike.” Biking to work, he says, not only provides exercise, but saves him money. He spends about $500 per year on bike-related costs, including clothes. By comparison, the average expenditure for a driver making a commute of a similar distance is $8,000 to 9,000 per year, says JB Mack of the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, citing a 2013 AAA report.

James McDonough, 58, of Hillsborough works at EMS in Peterborough and began bike commuting in the 1980s, because he didn’t have a car. Although he’s no longer a daily bike commuter, he says the most rewarding part of biking to work is “the unwind aspect of it.” Starting out in an urban environment and ending up in the countryside, he says, means “you can process your day.”

EMS has excellent infrastructure in place for bikers, McDonough says, including showers and indoor bike storage. But not every place is so accommodating.

Mack, who in addition to working for the planning commission, sits on the Monadnock Region Transportation Management Association, says the Transportation Association hopes to improve bike accessibility with the Rack It Up Initiative, a project to install bike racks around towns and in front of businesses, which the group began in Keene and hopes to replicate in other Monadnock towns. More accommodations, he says, lead to more bike traffic for work and shopping purposes.

Matt Waitkins, a Nashua city planner who lives in Peterborough, says his town already has very good walking and biking infrastructure in place, including bike trails and sidewalks, but it still has the potential to be more welcoming. One simple step to improve bikeability, he says, would be to add pavement markings to delineate bike lanes. He cites the Union Street school zone as an example of a place where the pavement is wide and could easily accommodate bike lanes. Similarly, he says, marking the crosswalks more clearly at intersections, especially in the Grove Street area by Harlow’s Pub, would improve walkability. “Pavement markings are pretty inexpensive, and they can be really effective,” he says.

For those who want to give biking to work a try, Brezovec recommends biking to work two times a week. “Start with short rides; build it up,” he says. McDonough adds that it’s important not to give up, even though the commute will be tiring. Both bikers say they’ve had very little trouble sharing the road with their four-wheeled counterparts.

What kind of transportation future do we want?

With the necessity of driving so entrenched in our economy, lifestyle and collective mindset, it’s daunting to envision what a world, or a region, that didn’t rely so heavily on cars would look like. A growing network of people and organizations in New Hampshire, however, is committed to just that. TransportNH, which Rebecca Harris stresses is not a nonprofit but a project, began with the goal of making New Hampshire’s transportation system more balanced, so that it serves the needs of everyone in the state.

“It’s a huge goal,” Harris says, so TransportNH is focusing on what it can accomplish in the next three years. She says the network is grappling not just with questions of how, but the fundamental question of what its goal for the state is. As she puts it, if TransportNH is trying to get from point A to point Z, it must ask: “What is ‘Z’? What is your time frame? How do you clearly define the goals?” Only then can it work backwards to point A, the project’s director says.

Although Harris says the network has not figured out point Z yet, she points out that any action plan must take young people into account. “A surprising demographic is young people who don’t want to have to drive everywhere. What we’re find is that companies are having a harder time recruiting young professionals who want to have transportation options,” she says.

Harris is also conscious of the need to work heavily with the business sector, in order to shape a transportation future that makes economic as well as environmental and health sense.

Matt Waitkins echoes Harris’ attention to the economic makeup of the region. In order for residents to make use of in-town transit alternatives, he says, there have to be jobs within the town. “If my job were anywhere in Peterborough, I’d either walk or ride my bike for sure,” he says.

No matter what new types of transportation the region sees, infrastructure alone is not enough, says JB Mack. Along with improved access to walking, biking, local buses, inter-city buses and rail connections, Mack stresses that education about transportation options and their consequences is indispensable, so that people actually use the services available to them.

He also brings up the possibility of replacing the need for getting from one place to another with alternate ways of communicating, such as broadband, and communities that are designed explicitly for accessibility.

Mack says he is all too familiar with the looming possibility that energy resources run out or the climate becomes irreparably damaged before the transportation system undergoes lasting change. But, he says, “there is progress being made” toward a more sustainable model of transit that meets people’s needs. Although he believes a broader-based impact, such as the new more stringent federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for fuel efficiency, will have a more substantial impact, he says, “providing these walking and biking options continues to be important.” It’s a good sign, he says, that we’re “not putting all our resources, assets and strategies into one form of transportation, not putting all our eggs in one basket. From a climate change and from a money standpoint, let’s have these options available, so people can make that choice.”

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