By Jim Stiles
Lots of Vermonters care about being green. However the unfortunate fact in the Green Mountain State is that lots of Vermonters put lots of miles on their cars. Over a third of total energy consumption and well over half of Vermont’s carbon emissions come from the transportation sector. Cars in Vermont drive more miles than those in any other state in New England. Vermont has more registered drivers per capita than any other state in the US. Vermonters are transportation junkies.
There are a few bright spots for transportation in Vermont. Car sharing, a modestly green transportation alternative, is slowly catching on. It looks like there is hope for a new train connection to Montreal. But by far the real stars of green transportation in Vermont are VTRANS and its Go! Vermont program. Go! Vermont provides access to mass and shared transit in Vermont. This includes the full array of conventional mass transit including buses, trains, and ferries. Go! Vermont promotes bicycling, and the web site even offers detailed information on exciting new bicycling options like cargo bikes.
These services are all quite good compared to those in most rural states, but the really exciting stuff is Go! Vermont’s car and van pooling, and especially their new “smart transit” tools. Vermont’s current car and van pooling programs are basically conventional, but well suited to the needs of Vermont’s dispersed populace and services. However with some new services that are being added to the mix, significant improvements are on the way.
These new smart services make use of smart phones, the internet, and big data to figure out how to get people where they need to go. Network researchers have learned how to use smart phones to figure out where their users are traveling from and to. This is a great aid to transportation planners for whom this information is pure gold. For those of you who are (justifiably) worried about your personal privacy on the internet, don’t worry about this work in Vermont – the data is “scrubbed” of personal info at the beginning of the data gathering process and only the minimal, most essential bits of planning information are collected.
One of the hard part parts of the smart transit puzzle is gathering the information about available seating on all of the vehicles out there with seats to share. Fortunately there are internet-based services that make sharing the essential information for arranging a ride easy. For those of you who are interested these services include:
Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL). With an AVL system installed a vehicle knows where it is at the moment and with the help of its driver, it knows where it is going and the route it is following. This service is being launched in Burlington and southeastern VT this year and plans are in place to provide this “real time” tracking info throughout the State.
General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), was created by Google for capturing information about ordinary transit routes (such as bus routes). This baseline data establishes the specific routes and stops for a transit service, and makes it available to trip planners and scheduling software.
GTFS-RT or “realtime” – an extension to GTFS to allow use of real time information, like the information from AVL systems
GTFS-FLEX – adds the ability to add flexibility in a vehicle route, which is essential for “Demand Response” trips, such as essential shopping or medical appointments. Vermont currently provides 180,000 of these trips each year and with GTFS-FLEX each community could have access to all of these trips for the general public to use.
The way it works is your phone knows where you are and you know where you are going. There is software on the Internet that puts your information together with vehicle information, and then uses your phone to tell you where and when to pick up a ride, and to keep you advised of changes or problems.
It all sounds very complicated, and under the hood it is, but for users it’s easy. Vermont is currently testing out the various bits and pieces. Keep your ears open for the new smart transit capabilities that should be starting to make Vermont’s generally dismal transportation scene much greener over the next year or so.