As we’ve reported in recent months, a teen has taken on the task of improving public transit in Southern Berkshire County.
Five years ago, Tate Coleman moved from New York City to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The contrast in public transportation options was, unsurprisingly, dramatic.
“There weren’t any bus stop signs when I got up here," he told WAMC. "So I had to research to just even find out that there was a bus in the county.”
His observation about the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s lack of visibility and his research on its flagging ridership moved him to action.
“So back in 2017, I wrote a letter to the editor to multiple newspapers in the Berkshires to getting up bus stop signs in Southern Berkshire County,” said Coleman.
The letters got him meetings with Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin and BRTA chief administrator Robert Malnati.
“He was open to the idea," said Coleman, "And just last year, we got over two dozen bus stop signs up in Great Barrington. I think this has contributed to awareness of the system as a whole.”
Coleman, 15, is all in on public transit. He studies transportation planning and engineering at Simon’s Rock.
“It first off offers a lifeline for lower-income residents who may not be able to afford a car and not to mention maintenance of one, and the environmental impacts of transit is huge," he told WAMC. "40 percent of C02 emissions in Massachusetts are from the transportation sector alone. So working on reducing on that, public transit can certainly help.”
When WAMC first covered Coleman’s efforts to re-envision the BRTA’s bus service in South County in February, he described himself as a public transit activist. Now, it’s a bit more official. Coleman is the chair of the Great Barrington Public Transportation Advisory Committee.
“Essentially it’s an advisory committee to the Great Barrington town manager regarding transportation funds and the distribution of them," he explained. "Currently we’re working on a route optimization initiative to re-allocate current resources for BRTA bus services in order to better serve the community.”
Coleman says overlong travel times on the BRTA routes are due to antiquated routing.
“Currently it takes an hour to get from Pittsfield to Lee and an hour to Lee from Great Barrington,” said the young committee chair.
He says breaking up long routes that ramble through villages could mean better service between the county’s larger communities with no further cost to the authority.
“By shifting those resources from, say, Glendale and Lenoxdale, to reduce services there, and increase services in the more populated areas, that’s essentially how we’re hoping to keep this cost neutral,” said Coleman.
Coleman’s initial plan, proposed in February, called for an express bus between Great Barrington and Pittsfield and a circulator around the greater Great Barrington area. Public input played a major role in shaping its evolution in the months since. He says a survey the advisory committee issued in February and March received over 400 responses, and a series of public input meetings in April yielded new ideas from the community. Those included a seasonal cultural loop around South County, and connectors between Egremont and Sheffield – which currently have no public transit.
“One very interesting idea that has been brought forward by a member of the clergy – Quentin Chin – is the idea of using church parking lots as park-and-rides Monday through Saturday,” said Coleman.
With a draft report on his committee’s findings in hand, Coleman has found support from local legislators like State Senator Adam Hinds.
“We sat together last week and he took me through the draft report and he has a lot of incredibly valuable changes to the service that I hope the BRTA takes seriously,” Hinds told WAMC.
Now, Coleman is waiting to hear back from the BRTA about cost estimates for the plan.
“One of the things we have to do to find the cost is take a bus down, drive the actual route – does it make sense?” asked Malnati, of the BRTA. He applauds Coleman’s efforts to expand the profile of regional transit in the public eye, but says the details will determine whether or not the plan is possible.
“He envisions an express service from Pittsfield to Great Barrington in 45 minutes," Malnati told WAMC. "That’s great in a car. I don’t know if you can do that in a bus that’s going to be stopping at different locations and allowing for passengers to get on and get off the vehicle.”
For now, as reports are finalized and numbers are run, Coleman and his plan are waiting. But his vision for the county’s public transit doesn’t stop south of Pittsfield: “If the South County project is successful," said Coleman, "We may end up conducting a study in North County as well.”