May 18, 2012 | Climate Change, Leadership, Sustainability + Energy

A commuter boards the 116 Commuter bus in Hinesburg, Vermont. A commuter boards the 116 Commuter bus in Hinesburg, Vermont.

How hard can it be to get a bus line to go up and down 40+ miles of country road twice a day? Hard enough! Making it happen on Route 116 required many Vermonters to go out on a limb, expand their understanding of their personal and institutional possibilities, and stake out new territory politically and financially.

On April 23, 2012, two commuter buses made their first official runs on Route 116, carrying riders from four towns to and from Burlington, Vermont’s biggest city (population 42,417). I told you in an earlier post about our partnership with the Town of Hinesburg, Vermont, where we are headquartered, the Hinesburg Rides community program, and two innovative transportation agencies. We have worked together over the past five years to launch first-time commuter bus service for a major corridor route in our rural state.

One bus is operated by the Chittenden County Transportation Authority, the other by Addison County Transit Resources, and both agencies literally had to go beyond their boundaries for the project. With buses originating from both the north and south, the 116 Commuter delivers on-time arrivals for riders heading in opposite directions – country-dwellers traveling to jobs in the city, and city-dwellers coming to work at businesses, including NRG Systems, in the country.

“People say rural public transit doesn’t work,” says NRG Systems staffer Anna Grady. “But we’re joining many others to prove it’s doable.”

Owning our part of the problem, and the solution

Many businesses consider public transportation to be the responsibility of government, not the private sector. But just as they have for health, wellness and retirement benefits, companies have recognized the business, competitive, and community investment advantages of supporting reliable, affordable community transportation. Given the shrinking federal support for public transportation in the United States, a startling underinvestment compared to countries that aggressively fund this core infrastructure, it’s clear this job won’t get done unless the private sector gets involved.

When a bus or other form of public transit runs close to employers’ doors, people can get to their jobs. The bus is a reliable ride to work for “riders by choice,” who take the bus for the ease of it, the cost savings, and the pro-environment practice. It also supports “riders by necessity,” who depend on public transit because they can’t afford gas and car ownership expenses or are unable to drive.

“Business can help make the impossible possible,” Anna continues. “Businesses are part of the transportation problem and we need to be part of the solution. Building public transit takes time, persistent effort, and money. But we’ve got to solve this.”

Voices from the bus

The inaugural day of the new service, the weather wasn’t ideal – 39 degrees and raining. Still, it was a beautiful drive through small Vermont towns, past agricultural fields, cows and horses, and apple orchards, with mist hanging over the mountains, into downtown Burlington. We greeted each rider – “Welcome to the 116 Commuter!” – and handed out commemorative water bottles. I got to talk with riders throughout the first week, including NRG Systems passengers, about what the new bus means to them. Here are some of their words:

“I love the freedom the bus gives me to take my eyes off the road, sit back, and relax. Sometimes I work, sometimes I catch up on podcasts, sometimes I sleep—a few minutes to myself at the beginning and end of very full days.”

“The bus gives me time to do whatever I want. I can stare out the window and see things I don’t see when I’m driving. It’s free time – time freed up – that I don’t often have.”

“If we are going to make any dent with global climate issues, public transit is key. We have to change our behavior.”

“I get a nice little walk in the morning heading to the bus, three-quarters of a mile. I read my way to work, and this afternoon, I’m going to read my way home.”

“The main advantage of riding a bus – somebody else is driving so I don't have to. I can head off for work still a bit sleepy or not ready for the day, and have the hour to prepare.”

“Riding the bus is a no-brainer for me. I’ll save $40 a week in gas!”

“Now I can subscribe to a newspaper or a magazine!”

Public transit with a personal touch: Meet Bonnie Swan

Veteran driver Bonnie Swan drives the route from the south – she’s been at the wheel of community buses and the yellow school variety since 1987. Bonnie is the kind of driver who wants to know all of her passengers, their faces, their names, where they’re going, and how she could help make their commuting go smoother. When we met, she remembered seeing our son Ben waiting for the school bus that she and her husband drove – a dozen years ago.

Bonnie loves her work, and is especially fond of the new route. “You get to know the riders; we talk with each other. ‘Hey, good morning! I missed you yesterday! So, am I picking you up tonight?’ I absolutely love people and driving. I don’t feel like I have a job – it’s the best kind of work.”

The new route has its challenges, especially with the transition from country roads to city streets. “You come out of no traffic in Addison County to all kinds of traffic in Burlington. I have to really be on my toes up here!” says Bonnie.

The variety of the route, its landscape beauty, and the consistency of the friendly riders add up to a terrific driver and commuter experience.

Bonnie’s feeling about the 116 Commuter service? “I think it’s just going to get better and better!”

Get on the bus or get one of your own!

So far, so good, and even better than planned. We had been warned to expect months or even years to pass before the public would fully utilize the new bus, but again conventional wisdom proved wrong. The need is so great, and public involvement so broad, that after only one week of operation, ridership has been high enough to assign larger buses to the route.

If you’re lucky enough to live along the Route 116 corridor, join us! Please consider making room in your workweek for a trip or three or five on the new bus. But if you live elsewhere, and think public transit would make your life easier, more economical and more earth-friendly, get together with neighbors and co-workers and make it happen. Our example shows that it can be done.