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The Way to Go! Challenge: Getting Vermont's Students Out of the Car

Posted by David Blittersdorf on September 28, 2016 in Vermont, Climate Change, Carbon Footprint, Consumer, Dealers

The Way to Go! Challenge: Getting Vermont's Students Out of the CarThe Way to Go! Vermont Challenge has been happening for several years now, and has pushed individuals, businesses, schools and organizations across the state to leave their cars at home and commit to using alternative forms of transportation for two weeks.

This year, the challenge was moved to early fall from the late spring, and is running from September 26 to October 7. One of the main reasons for this change is to allow younger individuals to participate, making the challenge a central piece of their school year and part of their environmental education. To promote school participation, AllEarth Renewables will be donating a solar tracker to the winning institution. Currently, over 50 schools have signed up, and hopefully, the winning school will make a big dent in reducing carbon output in the challenge’s two weeks.

So why the focus on kids? The reality is that older people have a harder time changing their habits. Younger people are still learning, and part of this should be learning about where our society should go instead of what we’ve done and where we’ve been. This is a great opportunity to educate younger folks through their schools, and teach them that the car is not the only option for getting around—and it’s actually a bad option when you consider the amount of energy a car uses and the impact our culture’s car use will have on our future. The goal is to get kids thinking about their energy usage, and to get out of the car.

Driving is a major problem: because our union schools in the state are so spread out, kids are often driving (or being driven) long ways twice a day. Our high schools across the state have enormous parking lots, representing huge amounts of carbon and fossil fuel use. So how do we get students to understand that we have an energy problem, and a problem in how we move people?

All of Vermont’s students need to get to school, but our culture has reinforced this idea that riding the bus is a bad thing, or an uncool thing, when it’s actually the best way to get kids where they need to go. We need to switch that, and get these students to realize that the car is bad and it’s the bus that’s cool. So how do you do that? It’s a major change in our headset, especially in the U.S., where we grow up knowing that getting your driver’s license is a rite of passage into being an adult. It’s what you do: you turn sixteen and you get your car. That’s a cultural issue, and we have to change that.

And we need this change to come from the top. The problem is that schools make it easier for kids to drive cars instead of riding the bus—they make more parking available, and run fewer buses, which they believe saves them money. When you consider the costs of building and maintaining parking lots, not to mention social costs, parking is a much greater cost to them. Some schools do charge parking fees, but they’re not much—if we’re trying to get kids to get out of the car, they should increase the cost of parking passes so that driving becomes the less attractive option. A statewide carbon tax will make the cost of cars and gasoline go up, and that’s something that needs to happen. We have to implement disincentives like these to get people out of their cars and onto alternative forms of transportation. For kids and schools, the bus is the natural solution.

Almost every district in the state has a bus system. Because bus usage is low, routes get longer because the buses run empty and have to go farther to fill up. That’s a problem. Kids don’t want to wake up even earlier to sit on a bus for 45 minutes to go a few miles, when the same drive would take only ten minutes by car. And recent studies show that increasingly, millennials are choosing to use alternative transportation instead of driving cars. We need to make it easier for them to make that choice. So it’s up to principals and administrators and the school boards to make the bus system workable, and help get kids on the bus. It needs to be convenient, and accessible, so that there are no excuses for driving.

On a larger scale, school buses should also be put to use for the communities. Faculty should also be allowed to ride the bus, to help them get out of the car, and the school bus system should be turned into a community bus system. School buses are driven only a couple of times a day, and otherwise sit empty and unused. Why not use these assets all day long and turn it into a system similar to a public bus system? In cities around the country, school districts and municipalities use a combined bus system. The challenge in doing this is that federal education funding places restrictions on school property uses, but we need our school leaders and education administration to look at the whole carbon energy picture and not restrict forward-thinking districts trying to make a change.

The big picture is that we have a resource problem, led by oil and carbon. We need leadership from the folks that are teaching our young people what’s coming, and what they need to do to be a part of the solution. But our schools need to take action—that’s what it’s all about. I believe any institution that’s teaching our youth should walk the talk, and most don’t. And that’s the real dilemma, whether it’s an elementary school, high school, or college. Actually doing what you say we should be doing is critical, starting with elementary schools and going all the way on up to our state college system.

We’re not changing our culture enough, fast enough. We tend to think of our schools as the leading edge of social change, but a lot of times they’re not. We have to pull them along, and students, some of our best climate activists, have to push. We need to make it realistic for them to get rid of their cars, and easier for them to get around. Our future depends on it.

David Blittersdorf is the President / CEO of AllEarth RenewablesPublished on September 29, 2016.

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