Vermont has set ambitious goals for its energy future. By 2050, 90% of the state’s energy should come from renewable sources. The city of Montpelier has set a higher bar, hoping to become net-zero—carbon neutral with a zero carbon footprint—in just 13 years. Given the fact that transportation is the largest contributor to the state’s carbon emissions, reaching these goals will require significant changes to our transportation systems. To this end, Net Zero Vermont, a local non-profit, recently hosted a design competition to support Montpelier’s goal. Contestants were challenged to develop plans that increased the density of the city center and fostered non-motorized options to move residents and visitors efficiently. After narrowing a larger pool of entries to five finalists, in January the organization selected Team Bridges, a collaborative of 12 professionals from ten organizations. Team Bridges has conjured a vision that, if pursued aggressively, will help Montpelier become a leader in sustainable transportation for Vermont as well as the country.
A key target of the Net Zero competition was the overabundance of parking in downtown Montpelier. There are currently 6,500 cars registered in Montpelier and more than 2,190 parking spots in the city center. Those lots consume critical land that could be used for housing, offices and green space. Their imperviousness creates storm water management challenges, and they are expensive to maintain. To reach Montpelier’s energy goal, it must eliminate many of its parking lots and reduce car ownership by almost half. Team Bridge’s solution is a system of satellite lots, where commuters park outside the city and take alternative modes of transportation into the center, lowering traffic congestion and the need for downtown parking. It has proposed nearly 3,000 satellite parking spaces in locations outside of Montpelier. This helps the City reach its goal, but raises a question about whether increasing the number of spaces at its periphery will actually change reduce driving. Will relocating rather than reducing the total number of spaces change commuting and driving behavior?
Buses and two proposed infrastructure investments—a streetcar line and an aerial tram—would serve the satellite parking areas. Part of a larger plan to help improve and expand the state’s rail system, the streetcar would run 13.1 miles from Montpelier Junction to Barre every 10-15 minutes. The tram would ferry residents and commuters up and down the hillside between the City’s new Central Station and the National Life building. Bus, tram and streetcar schedules would be synched for seamless connections. Supplementing transit would be bike and car sharing systems, providing residents and visitors with a host of options. Team Bridges has proposed several new apartment buildings in or close to downtown, as well as housing at the National Life site, which would allow people to live a short tram ride away from Downtown. In addition, there would be an on-demand autonomous jitney service from the Vermont College of Fine Arts hillside campus to the College Station streetcar stop.