hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





Planning for our car-free youth

As a generation shuns driving, towns push for better transit options



Contributing writer

When Massachusetts legislators were debating an ambitious multi-year transportation funding bill last year, longtime state Rep. William F. “Smitty” Pignatelli was asked whether he supported a push by Gov. Deval Patrick and others to restore passenger rail service between the Berkshires and New York City.


The governor had come to Berkshires himself to show support for the project by riding a special train from Pittsfield to Sheffield, and he had pledged $100 million in state funds to help get the tracks upgraded for regular service. Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard estimated the restoration of direct train service to metropolitan New York could bring $625 million in new economic activity to the Berkshires during the first decade of its operation.


Pignatelli, D-Lenox, wasn’t buying it.


“I think people prefer to get into their cars and drive,” he replied.


But it seems that a lot of young people lately have been showing a different preference, and regional planners and some municipal officials in the Berkshires are betting that the region’s transportation future will involve more mass transit and fewer cars.


A series of national studies in recent years have shown that a younger generation of short- and long-distance commuters – the very entrepreneurial, environmentally sensitive demographic that the Berkshires and neighboring rural regions are eager to attract – are abandoning their parents’ and grandparents’ love affair with the automobile.


Instead, an increasing share of teenagers and twenty-somethings are turning to means other than a car to get around: They take buses and trains where they’re available, or they walk or bike.


After increasing nearly every year for six decades, the number of miles driven by Americans leveled off nearly a decade ago and began declining. Young people are leading the trend.

A study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, for example, found that the number of 16- to 39-year-olds getting a driver’s license decreased by 20 percent nationwide between 1983 and 2003, and the average number of miles driven by 16- to 34-yearolds dropped by 23 percent. Today, some 26 percent of the so-called Millennials – those who’ve come of age since the start of the 21st century – don’t have driver’s licenses, compared with only 5 percent of the same age group in 2000.


These findings are consistent with the results of a study released in December by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group that reported the average American is driving nearly 8 percent fewer miles today than 10 years ago.

“The driving boom is over,” Masspirg lawyer Kirstie Pecci wrote in the report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in American’s Biggest Cities.”


“There is a shift away from driving in our cities,” Pecci pointed out. “The proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle – either alone or in carpool – is declining. At the same
time, the number of passenger-miles traveled on Transit per capita increased 9.3 percent.”


One big reason why young people are shunning cars for mass transit has to do with advances in communications technology. Commuters these days want to keep in touch with friends and with work through their mobile devices. On a train or bus, they can text and e-mail without having to
pull over or take their eyes off the road.


Losing a generation?
Although many of the young people who are choosing transit over driving live in major cities, some say the trend has clear implications for rural areas like the Berkshires. Young people already are tending to leave these areas for big cities. And today’s young adults in urban areas, because many of them don’t drive, are less likely to consider moving to or even visiting places where public transit services are poor or nonexistent.


The shift in transportation preferences has prompted the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to partner with the Housatonic Railroad, a freight carrier that owns the tracks
from Pittsfield to Danbury, Conn., to obtain a $240,000 federal transportation grant to
identify locations for passenger rail stations in six Berkshire towns.


A marketing study commissioned by the railroad has concluded that a reasonably priced and frequent passenger service to the New York City area would likely attract 2 million riders annually along the 150-mile route. The survey also found that it’s the younger demographic –
those between the ages of 25 and 40 – to whom the passenger rail option particularly appeals.


“Only 50 percent of New York City residents own cars, and they are used to taking public transportation,” noted Colin Pease, vice president of special projects for the Housatonic Railroad. “Besides, as the Michigan study shows, there is a lack of interest in cars among the 30-somethings.”

In Great Barrington, the newly drafted town master plan cites improved public transportation as essential to economic development. The plan calls both for restoration of rail passenger service as well as an expanded network of Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority bus routes.


The plan envisions Great Barrington becoming a destination not only for cultural tourism but also for innovative entrepreneurs who could find the town, and the Berkshires generally, alluring for its quality of life as well as for its accessibility – both through expanded public transportation and through a broadband communications network that is scheduled to be introduced over the next few years.

“We need to attract the job creators,” explained Town Planner Christopher Rembold. “These are the innovators who set up businesses with five to 10 people. Clusters of these kinds of businesses are more resilient than big manufacturing operations, and they operate on a scale that would fit in with the buildings and spaces we have here, with the amenities and with the character of life in the Berkshires.”


These young entrepreneurs, Rembold said, are mostly likely to come to the Berkshires from urban areas like New York City and Boston. “They are used to public transportation,” he said. “So having an appropriately sized, versatile public transportation system here would be an economic development asset. But the service has to be frequent and you need to know when. You need to be able to count on it to plan your day.”


Making connections

Jennifer Tabakin, who took over as town manager in Great Barrington last year after working for six years in the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg in New York City, said restored rail service is only part of what the town needs to attract younger visitors and entrepreneurs.


“The train is a great idea for the Berkshires,” Tabakin said. “But it would work far better for people if there were more options to get around locally, such as bus or rental car, zipcar, bike rentals or bikes shares so those coming to visit can get around town.”


Even the current BRTA bus service, she suggested, is hardly competitive with driving.


“It takes around three hours for a round trip from Great Barrington to Pittsfield, due to limited connections, so I have questions about how feasible it is for people to take the bus to work to meet standard business hours,” Tabakin said. “We need improved routes and schedules for bus services.”


And the existing bus service to New York City isn’t much better.


“This summer, I spent a lot of time on the Peter Pan bus to the city,” Tabakin said. “It was clean and comfortable but made so many stops it dragged out the trip and I ended up renting a car for a month.”


Tabakin isn’t the only one decrying the absence of convenient local bus service in the Berkshires.


Luiza Trabka, the youth operational board coordinator at the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington, said she’d use the bus and the train if she could. But Trabka, a 20-year-old alumna of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, said a car is still a necessity for those in rural areas.


“I live in Alford, and the bus just doesn’t go there,” she explained. “I would definitely use the train to go to Pittsfield, and the bus, too, if it were more frequent.”


Trabka said she recently returned from a 3-month visit to Spain, where she used public transportation exclusively.


“America is all about sprawl, where to have a job, you have a car, and to have a car, you need a job,” she said. “I don’t want to own a car because it’s too expensive. But there’s no choice right now.”


Yevin Roh, the youth project’s program director, agreed that more frequent buses would help convince him to use the service.


“We have to find a way to get buses not only to the train station but to the Big Y where people shop,” he said. “I think you need to go all out, with more runs in the morning and at rush hour. And if they have WiFi, I’m convinced.”


Colleges take the lead

The improved local bus service that Tabakin seeks for Great Barrington – and that some young people in town feel is missing -- is exactly what the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority has lately been developing in Williamstown and North Adams in cooperation with Williams College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.


The transit agency has partnered with Williams’ Center for Learning in Action, a program that encourages students to get involved in community schools as mentors and to work with local organizations as interns and research assistants.


Students in the program needed a way to get to their community work sites, and many of them didn’t have cars. So last summer, the college and BRTA established a “Bus with Us” service that offered students free rides not only to their volunteer work but also to shop or just explore the Route 2 and Route 7 corridors from Williamstown to North Adams and Pittsfield.


And on the Route 7 service, the BRTA began using mini-buses equipped with WiFi.


In North Adams, the transit agency also offers an on-demand shuttle service – The Tunnel City Shuttle – for MCLA students, faculty and staff.


Caitlin Versailles, who graduated from MCLA last year and now works in North Adams, said she used the Tunnel City shuttle as a student and still relies on it to get around. She doesn’t have a car.


“I personally prefer the shuttle, because I find the system to be very convenient,” Versailles said in an e-mail interview. “I used it for about three semesters, and scheduling was easy. … My only complaint was that the shuttle had a window of time in which they could possibly come to get you that spanned about half an hour, since you were often not the only person that particular driver may have been picking up.”


The result, she said, is that riders sometimes wind up waiting outside in the snow or rain for longer than they’d like.


“However, you pay for the convenience,” she added. “And since I did not have a car and the school I did my student teaching at did not have a bus stop nearby, it was the best option.”


More service, more riders

In Williamstown, the expanded BRTA service has effectively doubled the number of runs its buses provide. It now offers weekday runs every half-hour from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Paula Consolini, the director of Williams’ Center for Learning in Action, said the results have been dramatic.


“This has made a huge difference to us,” Consolini said. “Students are responding very well. In November, for instance, we had 1,200 riders. It’s fantastic. Both staff and faculty, too, used it to get to Stop & Shop and Wild Oats.”


The added service has made it easier for more students to get involved in the community, she added.


“Once you have transportation, the numbers go right up,” Consolini said. “I like to think of this as an economic development plan.”


She added that the lack of public transportation is “a big problem in the region.” The BRTA is attempting to address it but doesn’t have the budget to provide the level of service the county really needs, she said.


“Over time, I think we will be able to develop more service, now that the community has gotten used to it,” she said.


In the meantime, she said, Williams students seem eager to use the new bus runs.


“Students now have a green sensibility and are conscious of environment issues, so I think a lot of strands are converging to make public transportation necessary,” Consolini said. “Plus, the students like to use their iPads and iPhones on the bus routes to Pittsfield that have WiFi. The technology is making us more social.”


But she acknowledged that the expanded service may not be as useful to many working people as there are no buses after 6 p.m.

This is a deficiency that Gary Shepard, the transit agency’s executive director, says he would address if he had more resources.

“It’s so frustrating,” he commented. “If I could add bidirectional loops, and have service later on weekdays, and on Saturdays and Sundays, we could increase our ridership by 70 percent.”


WiFi on board

Even with the current level of service, BRTA patronage has been steadily rising in recent years.


“The good news is that in the current fiscal year we have broken every record in ridership,”

Shepard said. “We are up 6.5 percent. In July, for example, we had 48,000 riders, up 3,500 from the previous year.”


According to BRTA surveys, 65 percent of the system’s riders do not own a car, and 50 percent use the bus to get to work. The bus system has seen a substantial increase in the number of patrons bringing bicycles and wheelchairs aboard, and Shepard said he has seen a marked increase in the percentage of younger riders.


“They are more conscious of the environment, and they seem to support public transportation,” he said. “There are very active groups at MCLA and Williams -- and at Berkshire Community College.”


The introduction of WiFi on some BRTA buses is intended to strengthen the agency’s appeal to these younger riders, but Shepard said the county deserves more frequent service at a wider range of hours.


“To me, this is a matter of environmental and economic justice,” Shepard said. “Public transportation brings jobs to the Berkshires and provides a way for workers to get to those jobs. One of the reasons Canyon Ranch came to Lenox is that we could offer public transportation for their staff.


“But it’s not fair that we aren’t able to offer bus service on Sundays and stop service at 6 p.m. on weekdays,” Shepard said. “We have a service economy here, and people have to be at work for all seven days of a week.”


Shepard said the BRTA is an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed rail passenger service to New York, which would have its northern terminus at the intermodal transportation center in Pittsfield where BRTA has its home base.


“Commuter rail service would be a significant economic development tool for the region,” he said. “Our real market for tourism comes from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.”





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