Safe Routes to School as a Catalyst for Community Change in Montpelier, Vermont

Six years ago, Community Connections, a local nonprofit that runs afterschool programs in Montpelier, Vt., public schools, identified a need to get students more physically active during the school day.  The organization saw the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program as the perfect way to get students excited about physical activity.

After receiving a non-infrastructure SRTS grant from the state, Community Connections spent the next two years running programs that concentrated on the five E’s: Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, Evaluation and Engineering.

“We went after all of it in a holistic way.  We tried to build a culture of action,” said Bill Merrylees, assistant director of Community Connections.

Activities included development of travel plans; before and after surveys of student transportation; training of pedestrian and bicycle safety educators; and conducting events to encourage students to walk or bike to school, including Walk to School Day.

Montpelier, the state capital of Vermont, is more town than city, with a population of about 8,000.  It is centrally located in the state and within Washington County, which has a population of about 60,000.  Situated on the banks of the Winooski River, most of Montpelier is fairly flat, but surrounded by the foothills of the Green Mountains.  Its relatively compact development pattern and small size (10 square miles), not to mention the “green” tinge of many Vermont residents, give it something of a critical mass for bike and pedestrian activities.

While Community Connections was incubating the SRTS program in Montpelier, an environmental group in Burlington, Vt., 10% Challenge, had hatched Way to Go!—a program aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by promoting walking, biking, carpooling, telecommuting and public transportation use at workplaces.  After initial success in Burlington, Way To Go! organizers wanted to spread the program to other Vermont communities.  The Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission (CVRPC), which serves Montpelier and 22 surrounding municipalities, picked up the torch and sought community partners to help.

Community Connections saw Way To Go! as an opportunity to take on a role as a community resource and brought together the Montpelier schools and the downtown community association, with the support of the CVRPC, to promote Montpelier’s first Way To Go! Week for students and adult commuters in May 2007.  Way To Go! has now grown into a statewide program that has won national awards for innovation and is reducing carbon dioxide emissions in Vermont by about 300,000 pounds per year.

“There was a real synergy between Way To Go! and Safe Routes to School that spurred a lot bicycle activity and advocacy in the city,” said Merrylees.

That advocacy would become apparent in 2009, when the Vermont Department of Transportation (VTrans) was about to begin a repaving project on US Route 2 through the city.  Members of the Safe Routes to School steering committee and the greater bicycling community petitioned the city council to insist that bike lanes be part of the project.  The city council took the cyclists’ concerns to VTrans and succeeded in getting the department to reallocate space for the lanes, with the city paying for the cost of “Share the Road” signage.

“The Route 2 victory changed the playing field for bicycle advocates in town,” said Merrylees.  “We became stakeholders.”

In 2010 those stakeholders participated in developing the city’s 40 year master plan, which, at their urging, includes a Complete Streets policy—ensuring that walkers, bikers, public transportation riders, and drivers can all use the roads safely—and the recommended formation of a Complete Streets committee.

Also in 2010, the city’s Safe Routes program saw the implementation of an infrastructure project at Main Street Middle School.  Improvements included crosswalk bulb-outs for traffic calming, a drop-off lane, and instant-feedback radar signs on the school zone approaches, which have slowed the majority of drivers’ speed by 10 mph when driving near the school.

“The infrastructure project really gave our group credibility with the city council,” Merrylees said, “because we showed that we could bring funding to our projects.”

The successes from this and parallel efforts in Vermont have rolled along since:

  • In 2011, due to hard work by the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition and AARP, the state legislature approved a “Safe Passage” law requiring cars to stay a safe distance from bicyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorized road users. It also encourages cyclists to ride properly and safely.  The legislature also took the Complete Streets idea and expanded it statewide.
  • Last spring the city council set a goal for Montpelier to become a nationally recognized “Bike Friendly City.”
  • Coming up in November, Montpelier will hold a Bike Summit bringing together a wide range of community and bike/ped groups.  One goal of the Summit is to plan a Bike Festival for 2013.

And let’s not forget about Safe Routes.  Community Connections and partners continue to work on the five E’s.  They teach bicycling and bike safety to 4th, 5th and 6th graders.  They have a “Walk Smart” program for 1st graders.  And they continue to participate in Walk to School Day.  This year’s Walk was scheduled to fall on the same day as statewide testing, and Merrylees was worried.  “I thought the school would bow out,” he said.  “Instead the principal was eager for the event. He felt the kids would be more awake and ready to take the test after walking to school.”

What started as a simple way to get students physically active became a community movement for walking and bicycling.

“Safe Routes was the catalyzing step that brought a lot of folks together,” Merrylees said.

To learn more about Montpelier's bicycle coalition, contact Bill Merrylees at