Local groups push green commuting options

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The thought of riding your bike to work in the winter might send a shiver up your spine, but two organizations are asking folks to try it out this week, just twice.

It's all through Local Motion's Winter Bike or Walk to Work Challenge. And if you commit to abandoning the comforts of your car on two of your commutes before Friday, you'll be entered to win prizes from local outdoor gear businesses.

All you have to do is download the Go! Vermont smartphone app and track your trips on bike or foot.

Doing what may seem like an overwhelming, uncomfortable task, Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne says is actually built into our DNA.

"Sometimes it's the most difficult part of the day, but quite often it's the best part of the day. It's amazing what we can do. Our grandparents, our great-grandparents -- they all found ways to get around when it was difficult outside. They didn't have an option," said O'Neil-Dunne of Burlington.

O'Neil Dunne has biked to work at the University of Vermont nearly every day for the past five years. He says a unique camaraderie develops between the people who brave winter weather on their daily commute, outside the comforts of a car.

"You find that there's a kinship amongst other people that have gotten up and done something challenging this morning," said O'Neil Dunne.

Challenges he says that are far outweighed by the benefits.

"When we consider what's affecting us, our mental health and our physical health, and then the health of our planet, this is a really nice way to just take care of ourselves and take care of the environment," said O'Neil Dunne. "For me to have to drive in, that's way more miserable nowadays than having to bike on just about any given day."

"People, I think, find out when they start to ride in the winter that it's not all that scary and it's something they can do year-round," said Johnathon Weber with Local Motion. "Here in Vermont, we're not afraid of the cold."

But Weber says he knows low temperatures and snowy streets can be intimating. That's why they're only asking you to try it twice.

He suggests taking a trial run before the day of your commutes. You'll warm up quickly and learn that there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.

"Just riding up and down the street, maybe they'll need a warmer pair of mittens before they take that ride to the grocery store or to work and then they'll feel more ready to do it. Just going out for that short ride can break down the barriers," said Weber.

O'Neil and Weber say a good pair of goggles, a few layers, and a studded snow tire, if you make riding a part of your regular routine, can go a long way.

They say eventually, cycling to work in the winter will feel as second nature as riding a bike.

"It can just become a habit. Once it becomes a habit, it becomes easy," said O'Neil Dunne

The University of Vermont is embracing the challenge as part of its mission to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on campus, encouraging its students to take to the snowy streets of Burlington, instead.

UVM officials say they saw a huge spike in the number of bike commuters in 2015 and that's why you see so many bike racks on campus.

They admit, though, the city's bike routes need improvement before this can become a regular routine for most people.

"Biking is starting to grow and become more popular. The city and the university have done a lot of work putting in more infrastructure, better infrastructure. It's not perfect yet by any stretch, but it's there, and as we keep this going and get more people on bikes, the voice gets louder and more things happen," said James Barr, the Director of Transportation at UVM.

Barr says the city has started to connect the various bike lanes and paths, but there still isn't a completely interconnected network making for safe ways to get from point-A-to-point-B.

He says part of that effort also includes converting the concept that roads are only made for cars into and understanding they're for all modes of transportation.

Barr says the sign of a success is parents can feel comfortable with their kids using the routes.

Right now, it's still a challenge for adults.

Local Motion leaders say if biking just isn't possible for you, they want you to explore other green options like getting to work by bus or by carpooling.