Moving the Valley Forward
Public transportation enhances the mobility of all people in a community and provides access to critical services, employment, recreation, and entertainment. Despite the emergence of popular new forms of transportation—including rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft, and electric bike and scooter shares—public transit will continue to be a critical service long into the future. As Camille Barchers, assistant professor of regional planning in the UMass Amherst Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, put it, "We see public transportation as a cornerstone of equitable and resilient communities."
However, Barchers noted, public transit agencies are facing declining ridership and decreased revenue, while the Pioneer Valley—a largely rural region with multiple urban centers—is grappling with particular challenges in providing efficient and equitable transit.
For Amherst and more than 20 surrounding communities, public transit is overseen by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), the largest transit authority in the Commonwealth, with more than 300 buses and vans. Like other transit agencies across the country, it is continually confronting trade-offs between providing faster service, lowering the cost of service, expanding service to more areas, and upgrading its fleet to electric vehicle technology.
A Research Partnership to Benefit the Pioneer Valley
In 2020, the PVTA was awarded funding from the Federal Transit Authority’s Helping Obtain Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) program to support a comprehensive assessment and strategic planning of routes, services, and facilities. The project aims to inform the design of a sustainable transit system to support economic vitality across the Pioneer Valley into the future.
UMass Amherst’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering are partners on the project. Since summer 2021, PI Barchers and her graduate students have been working with the PVTA on a major component of the project known as Valley on Board (VoB). VoB aims to develop a route redesign that will serve the PVTA and the Pioneer Valley for at least 20 years into the future while achieving goals such as increased ridership, improved efficiency, and enhanced accessibility and equity of the system.
To start, Barchers’ fall 2021 studio focused on scenario planning—imagining a set of plausible realities given forces such as climate change, politics, migration, and others on the Pioneer Valley over the next two decades. Then, students in Barchers’ fall 2022 studio carried out a public engagement strategy to learn how to improve the transit system for current riders while also designing a system that works across the set of scenarios expected in the future. Separately, Barchers, co-PI Jimi Oke in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and graduate student research assistants have contributed research to this effort.
What I love about studios with real clients is that there is a hands-on aspect of discovery and integration of knowledge through experiential learning.
"We’ve used a range of methods—from an IRB-approved online survey to field research to modeling—and have worked to consider the needs of diverse populations,” Barchers said. To increase equity, the researchers are especially focused on collecting feedback for improving transit access in environmental justice communities – minority, low-income, tribal or indigenous populations or communities facing environmental threats or persistent poverty. They have sought to reach these populations by tabling at community events, like the Spooktacular in Chicopee; partnering with trusted community organizations, such as Survival Centers; and hosting workshops with high school students in communities including Hadley and Springfield.
Ultimately, the work has informed a best practices report on public engagement for use by regional transit authorities; a redesigned fixed-route bus system that addresses equity concerns; and a set of public engagement tools (including a transit design board game, a set of “conversation cards,” and more) that the PVTA can use into the future.
Hands-On Research Enhancing Student Learning
Through this research, students have learned the value of long-range planning methods in building capacity for collaboration at a regional scale.
Bo Carpen, a dual degree master’s student in landscape architecture and regional planning, was a student in the fall 2021 regional planning studio and went on to serve as a teaching assistant for the fall 2022 studio. Reflecting on the experience, Carpen said: “I think the breadth of our engagement efforts gave students a chance to see the complexity of the transit network and understand how the various topics that we learn about in our regional planning curriculum fit together.”
“What I love about studios with real clients is that there is a hands-on aspect of discovery and integration of knowledge through experiential learning. Working on a scenario planning project with a 20-year planning horizon allowed us to consider the relationships between development, housing, equity, and transit design, in a way that a shorter project doesn't afford,” Carpen added. “As students, we were able to gain technical knowledge about the methodology of scenario planning or gamified public engagement, but that focus on getting out into the community elevated the experience of the general public as an essential knowledge source as well.”
Below, read dispatches from student researchers who have contributed to the project:
Master's Student in Regional Planning
Hometown: Clermont, Florida
Today I went to the Amherst Survival Center to ask community members about their experience with the PVTA. Our group of three students set up a table outside next to the free meal line, with flyers, bookmarks, and business cards with a link to our survey to give out to people waiting in line. We also had comment cards so that people could share their experiences, thoughts, ideas, and concerns right on the spot.
We met people from all over the Valley who rely on the PVTA for transportation—some using the bus, others using paratransit services. We also talked to people who don’t ride the PVTA because they have a car. They shared that they had to get their own car because they can’t access the PVTA from where they live. Since so many people who visited the survival center rely on PVTA services, I was expecting to hear many complaints or ideas for improvement, but instead I kept hearing “The service is great!” Still, we collected some helpful information about service times and areas that lack access. This information will be crucial for our 20-year vision because many people who come to the Amherst Survival Center are part of the vulnerable populations that our redesign is focused on.
Today really reminded me why I was so interested in being part of this project. Public transportation gives people access to jobs, resources (such as the Amherst Survival Center), appointments, shopping, and so much more! More importantly, it gives people the opportunity to live their lives. One of the people who came up to our table told us that his father loves taking the bus every day because it is his chance to be around people and to have some freedom. This put a huge smile on my face and made me aware of the real benefits that regional transportation has for individuals.
This whole experience has taught me that it’s crucial to go to where the people are to get feedback. The people we heard from at the Survival Center wouldn’t normally attend public meetings. Yet their voices need to be heard. They are the ones who rely on the PVTA and know what they need from it. I hope to carry this lesson with me in all future projects and my eventual career, because that is what our communities deserve.
Master's Student in Civil Engineering and Regional Planning
Hometown: Great Barrington, Mass.
Today we visited Hopkins Academy, one of the Hadley public schools, to do a mapping exercise with 10th graders. We arrived bright and early, and spent the whole school day meeting with three groups of students—about 50 in all. The students are all around 16 years old, and only some of them are driving, so we figure this is a demographic that wants to go places but is probably reliant on their parents or other adults to get there.
We began with an introduction to the long-range transit planning project we’re working on. Then, we divided the students into groups of three or four, and gave each group a large-scale map of Hadley, Northampton, and Amherst. First, we asked them to put dots on the places they regularly go—their homes, school, friends’ houses, etc.—and then gave them Wiki Stix (moldable wax yarn sticks) to map out transit routes they would take to get to those places. Initially, they could create as extensive a transit network as they wanted, but for the second part of the exercise, we introduced a “budget,” so they had to consider trade-offs and make choices about their highest priorities. A lot of students wanted to go to the mall in Hadley and to the downtowns, and many of them wanted to go to where their friends live, typically in more rural areas. That’s interesting to me because I’ve done a lot of work with microtransit in Berkshire County, helping people travel the first and last legs of their trip using an affordable, publicly operated ride-share system.
We also asked the high school students to write a blurb about their process in creating these transit maps. It was really helpful to see both the process and the results of these exercises, and we used the data to create a heat map, which will be incorporated into the final transit plan and map our studio develops.
I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged the high school students were with the activity. Most of them don’t currently ride the bus—and don’t know much about the transit system in general—but a lot of them were enthusiastic about riding it in the future, if the service meets their needs. These are the future residents of our region and, if nothing else, this exercise made them more aware of public transit available to them.
As someone who has worked in transportation planning, this exercise was right up my alley. I’ve learned a lot by applying my previous experience to the research and incorporating different perspectives from my classmates. We’re also learning to think outside the box in getting public input in new and different ways—not just the usual public input meetings that are required—and I definitely expect to use some of these tools in my future work.
Master's Student in Regional Planning and Geography
Hometown: Sanford, Maine
Today was another day of data collection for my thesis. It was a little chilly, but at least there was no snow on the sidewalks, which can make data collection a bit challenging!
I walked around my West Springfield study area for two hours collecting information on sidewalk conditions, bus stops, and crosswalks. I use software on my phone called ESRI Field Maps to create digital maps with the data I collect. It’s always a bit tedious to switch between my map layers, especially trying to coordinate this with my matrix of sidewalk conditions and walking (a challenge of its own when you’re as clumsy as I am) but I know it’ll be worth it in the end. I spent my day looking for the usual: discontinuities in the sidewalk network; disruptions such as potholes or bad cracks; and the safety of bus stops, including lighting, pullouts, and safe, accessible curb-to-bus transitions. Much to my surprise, I’ve found that the sidewalks tend to be in decent condition. It seems the more notable challenges to walking accessibility occur at transition points. Many of the curb ramps I find have no visibility aids; crosswalks tend to be faded and lack signals for pedestrian safety; and lighting is a rare amenity. Bus stops can be intimidating, with no pull out for the bus to exit traffic, no nearby crosswalks, and inaccessible transitions. Not to mention, I have only come across one bus shelter in my exploration so far.
While this part of my project has been a mostly solitary endeavor, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many community members at other stages in the research. They have provided valuable feedback that seems to support my own observations about accessibility concerns.
The research I’m doing is part of the larger goal of Valley On Board, aiming to identify challenges to riding the bus for communities most dependent on transit, as well as making the PVTA more accessible and desirable for all community members. My thesis research is also part of the larger Access and Safety Report that the PVTA is conducting. This research experience has been incredibly important to my overall education at UMass and integral to my development as a researcher and professional. It has also helped enrich my own personal interests in equity and accessibility of transportation, something I have always been very passionate about. Furthermore, it has piqued my interest in pursuing a PhD in the future. I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to explore something worthwhile and near to my heart.
This article was originally published in March 2023.