A Montpelier Nonprofit Looks To Change The City's Car Culture

Aug 19, 2016

The City of Montpelier has set a goal to become the country's first net zero capital city, and a new nonprofit plans to take on what it calls the biggest obstacle to that goal: Montpelier's car culture.

Dan Jones is the managing director of the nonprofit, called Net Zero Vermont.

“Vermonters are one of the most carbon-wasteful economies as far as transportation goes in the country, because we’re so dispersed. We’re so ruralized," Jones says. "So we started looking at that and discovered that almost 60, 65 percent of downtown Montpelier is parking lot.”

And Jones says much of that parking is taking up prime real estate, along the river and with views of the Statehouse. He says the majority of it isn’t open to the public. Most lots are dedicated to state employees or patrons of specific businesses.

To change that situation, Net Zero Vermont is calling on teams of designers and architects from all over the world to come up with a better plan.

“So we started with this competition," Jones explains. "We’re offering a $10,000 prize to the winning design. And the winning design is actually going to require the people of Montpelier to say, ‘Well, we like that one.’ Or, ‘We like that one.’”

The red areas on this map show the amount of real estate along State Street and Main Street dedicated to parking.
Credit Net Zero Vermont

The most popular designs will be vetted by a team of architects to determine the viability of the projects, and possibly make it through to the second round. Successful proposals will be refined into viable plans, and compete for the cash prize.  

But if all those parking spaces were turned into businesses and housing, where would people be able to leave their cars?

“The state employees will have to be convinced that perhaps other ways of getting into town and around town would be possible, and we’ve got a lot of ideas on that," Jones says. "There could be satellite parking with shuttles ... Maybe we should have a railroad that goes between Burlington and Montpelier or Burlington and Barre. The tracks go right through the middle of town. We could do it.”

On days when the state offices are closed, this riverfront property goes largely unused.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The city of Montpelier has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. As a member of the city’s Energy Committee, Jones is familiar with the work already being done to move toward that goal. But he says the Net Zero Montpelier effort has yet to take on the biggest problem.

“Mostly that’s been focusing on things like changing the light bulbs, trying to get people to weatherize, all of which absolutely has to be done,"he says. "But the car is sort of the sacred cow that nobody really wants to take on.”

"The car is sort of the sacred cow that nobody really wants to take on." - Dan Jones, Net Zero Vermont

As the city’s Director of Planning and Community Development, Mike Miller says he appreciates what Net Zero Vermont is trying to accomplish.

“While this is a private project, the city certainly supports it and we are certainly interested," Miller says. "It’s really kind of taking a very innovative long-term look of, what would things look like if we did accomplish this, if we replaced these parking lots with buildings in the downtown? If parking wasn’t a part of our infrastructure in the downtown, what would things look like?”

Miller clarified that the pledge to make Montpelier net zero by 2030 is focused specifically on city government, including city offices and schools. Thus far, Miller says the city’s net zero efforts have been focused on lower-carbon ways to heat and power those buildings. A wood-burning downtown district heat plant has been put online. And Montpelier is pursuing solar power generation.

Montpelier's district heat plant provides wood heat to many city and state buildings downtown.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Soon the city will also have to think about converting to a net zero fleet of vehicles, from police cars to snowplows. In the meantime, Miller says, it’s good to have a group like Net Zero Vermont looking at the bigger picture.

“They’re going to take these ideas, they’re going to the public and we’re going to start to get feedback," he says. "And so, from my position, I think that’s where it’s of great value to me, is to really go and see what the public input is. Does the public support? Do they find interest? Maybe something as a big idea doesn’t work. But maybe we can take ideas out of it that can actually be something we can move forward on at the city level.”

And, Jones says, Montpelier is just the first step for Net Zero Vermont. He says the same problem exists in small cities around the state, and what works in Montpelier might also work in Barre, Rutland and St. Albans.