With encouragement from nonprofits like GoGallatin and Big Sky SNO, a group of graduate students from Montana State University produced a report on commuting to Big Sky from the Bozeman area by talking to community members who make the drive. The purpose of the semester long class, which focused on qualitative data, was to create conversations about sustainable transportation for a rural community.
The idea for this Big Sky based project started through Western Transportation Institute (WTI), a research-based organization that used to be part of Montana State University. WTI focuses on research for rural transportation and recently created a project focused on finding sustainable solutions for Gallatin County called GoGallatin.
Paul LaChapelle, a Political Science professor at MSU, wanted to get his graduate students out of a textbook so he reached out to GoGallatin’s project lead, Matt Madsen, to see if there was any interest in collaborating. Madsen agreed and the two put their heads together earlier this year.
The two decided the students should focus on Big Sky because approximately 80% of the local workforce, according to the project, commutes. LaChapelle and Madsen then connected with the community through Lizzie Peyton at Big Sky SNO, the sustainability non-profit based in Big Sky.
For the report, the MSU grad students interviewed volunteers by phone and Zoom to get a better understanding of the commuter experience and the hurdles folks face driving Highway 191. Despite a small cash incentive, the students struggled to connect with drivers in the beginning due to volunteer work schedules and the demands of class. One of the biggest limitations of the project was the lack of time and input.
The report split the findings into three different categories: barriers for sustainable transportation, incentives for using sustainable transportation and recommendations to incentivize the use of sustainable transportation.
The 26 participants that responded to the survey reported safety, inconsistency with public transportation, COVID-19, flexibility with schedules and weather, as their main concerns for carpooling or using the Skyline bus system.
For example, one volunteer explained: “One [barrier] is that the drive is so dangerous. I would prefer to be the one behind the wheel and in control, because I trust my driving ability more than a lot of my coworkers. I’m 41 years old; I’m the old guy. My carpool consists of people younger than me, so I want to be the one driving.”
Another participant in the study said: “I also drive myself because I have a daughter and in the event that I’m up in Big Sky and her school calls and they’re like you know you gotta come get your daughter right now, I’ve got my car and I can just be out the door and on the road back to go get her.”
In contrast to the barriers for sustainable transportation, participants pointed out some of the benefits of carpooling or using the Skyline bus. First, sustainable transportation cuts down on traffic, allows passengers downtime after work, creates a space to meet new people who work in town, and saves folks money.
“It’s just less cars, single occupancy vehicles on the road, less traffic, less probability for accidents, which happen all the time in the canyon, since it’s only 2 lanes, as well as the opportunity to make friends and meet people or network, or like oh, you work here? Just like even downtime of if you’re not being the one driving and you are on a bus, then you can listen to podcasts, read, or study if you are in college, or learn a new language,” said one participant.
POSSIBLE INCENTIVE IDEAS
Although the study uncovered support for sustainable transportation, like cutting back on emissions or saving money, the study did not reveal many concrete ways to change people’s minds. The conversation is still ongoing.
One participant suggested a point system: “Where every time they get on the bus, they get 50 points or whatever it is, and when they accumulate enough points, they get a gift card or a gas card or something of that nature. I think that would influence younger populations and I could be wrong, but when I was younger, money was always super tight and I would have done a lot of things like that. I was thinking of groceries and gas. Anything like that would have prompted me probably to use [sustainable transportation].”
Another said: “It’s like mainly education, outreach and helping to reduce some of the operational issues associated with making commuting happen. . . Just providing information about the buses and making that more readily available.”
After completing the fourmonth project and class, the grad students made five recommendations to increase sustainable transportation along Highway 191: 1) introduce financial incentives within community, public transit, or from employees for carpooling or using the bus, 2) employers could lead and promote carpooling, ridesharing, or the use of company vehicles, 3) support independent carpooling systems and opportunities, 4) improve the current transit system’s reliability, route, and frequency, 5) future research.
Overall, this report could not come at a better time. Big Sky public transportation is struggling and congestion along Highway 191 is causing frustration within the community. The number of cars on the road is clearly a problem and conversations are needed. Although the answer isn’t clear for a rapidly expanding mountain town, sometimes small steps are the best way to tackle a large issue.
To find out more about “Sustainable Transportation to and from Big Sky,” please reach out to GoGallatin at https://gogallatin.org