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Training Ground

In all of the region’s key economic sectors, such as healthcare, education, and manufacturing, organizations say, almost with one voice, that the number-one barrier to growth is finding and keeping talented workers — a task made even more difficult at a time of historically low unemployment. BusinessWest sat down with one of the Pioneer Valley’s leading workforce-development voices to discuss an evolving, long-term blueprint to meet those needs — and grow the economy even further.

Healthcare. Education. Advanced manufacturing.

In any conversation about the economic character of the Pioneer Valley — both its rich past and promising future — those three sectors would be high on the list of key factors.

Indeed, a late-2018 report produced by the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board and the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board calls them ‘priority industries,’ meaning the most important to the region’s economic success, and they form the basis of a comprehensive ‘labor-market blueprint’ which aims to narrow workforce talent gaps and help companies — and the overall economy — grow.

A new report, issued just a few weeks ago, follows up on that blueprint, outlining the many ways employers, economic-development agencies, vocational and technical schools, area colleges, and other entities have partnered to do just that.

Needless to say, it’s a daunting challenge, said David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County.

“What we’re doing at the moment is actually going in and implementing the goals and strategies we laid out in the blueprint,” he explained. “One of the priority works we did was to identify, through looking at both supply and demand data, the three priority industries in Pioneer Valley region.”

Beyond healthcare, education, and manufacturing, however, the blueprint also identifies four other critical industries: business and finance; professional, scientific, and technical, including information technology (IT); food services and accommodation, which takes into account the impact of MGM Springfield; and sustainable food systems, a growing sector particularly in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“We have been working pretty carefully within those seven industries, trying to collect data, trying to make certain the programs we run are consistent with that data,” Cruise said.

The priority industries have two things in common, he noted: long-term growth opportunities for individual companies and the sectors as a whole, and clear career pathways, where people cannot just land entry-level jobs, but steadily progress in their career from there.

“That’s why we’re spending a significant amount of time — and we’re very excited about the work we’re doing — with our regional education partners to make certain they’re developing programs and courses that align with those occupations, within those priority industries, that will allow someone to take courses and get into programs where there’s a pathway that will allow them to, yes, get a job, earn more money, and take care of their families, but also be able to see some pathway forward. That’s what we’re really focused on.”

It’s another way of looking at the value of retention, he added, which allows companies to avoid the time and cost of losing employees and training replacements, but also helps individuals gain career stability and establish deeper roots in the region.

“How do we put in place opportunities that will allow workers, both new and incumbent, to be able to move forward in these companies and in their occupation?” he asked. “That’s how you drive economic growth.”

Getting Resourceful

In the Pioneer Valley, Cruise noted, job growth isn’t generated by a few massive companies.

“We certainly have some publicly traded companies, some large companies, but the growth in the region is really being driven by small and medium-sized enterprises. And we want to support those companies because they don’t necessarily have all the resources they need. They struggle when they can’t retain folks; it becomes a tremendous cost factor for them, spending all that time recruiting and not being able to retain their recently hired folks. We have a significant commitment to try to work with those small to medium-sized companies throughout the Pioneer Valley.”

One way the MassHires do so is through partnerships with numerous vocational and technical high schools offering a wide variety of programs, most of them aligned with the priority initiatives outlined in the blueprint, he noted — not to mention the three community colleges in the Pioneer Valley.

The more recent report on blueprint progress examines programs at the voke-tech schools and community colleges — and Westfield State University — and how their programs connect with priority industries.

David Cruise says today’s successful small to medium-sized business understands the importance of community partners like colleges and economic-development entities.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries,” Cruise said. “We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?’”

The blueprint creators took particular interest in specific ‘priority occupations’ currently in demand. In healthcare and social assistance, these include social- and human-service assistants; direct-care workers such as registered nurses, nursing and medical assistants, and personal-care aides; and clinical workers such as dental hygienists, pharmacy technicians, medical records and health IT; physician assistants; and physical and occupational therapists.

In education, priority occupations center on educators at all levels, including vocational-technical, STEM, and trades, as well as teachers’ assistants. In manufacturing, the key jobs include supervisors, production workers such as CNC operators and machinists, and inspectors, testers, and quality-control workers.

The report — which provides plenty of detailed evidence that training and degree programs are available in all these fields — will be updated every two years, with the hope that such programs will continue to expand and adapt to evolving workforce needs.

“We’re trying to fashion a regional workforce response as opposed to trying to fashion a workforce response in Hampden County or in Hampshire-Franklin. We want to look at a regional response,” Cruise said. “We think it makes more sense, and we have a better chance at mitigating the supply gap if we combat it that way.”

One important evolution concerns apprenticeships, he added. “We’ve been very aggressively involved in developing registered apprenticeships in healthcare and advanced manufacturing. We have about 74 apprentices involved in programming in the area right now, which is significant. A year and a half ago, we had 16. We’re being very careful about making certain the funding that we have and how we deploy the money is clearly aligned with where the employers are telling us the demand is.”

The two Pioneer Valley MassHires also connected with the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board to produce yet another study, this one taking a five-year outlook on workforce needs in manufacturing — again, focusing in on key careers, including machinist, CNC operator, quality control, supervisor, and CNC programmer.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries. We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?”

“We’re focusing our work — at least in this industry — around two things,” he explained. “One is trying to be certain the incumbent employees in our regional companies have the skills they need to be technologically relevant and be able to work in these spaces. But the ongoing concern is, where do we find entry-level CNC operators? In most of these companies, they’re resourceful enough and do enough internal training and continuous improvement where they can deal with some of these areas, like machinists and CNC programming. Where they really struggle is getting entry-level people, particularly operators, to come in.”

To address that need, MassHire is launching three training programs in February that should yield an additional 45 workers to join local companies.

“Even though we’re excited about it, that, in itself, is certainly not going to solve all the problems of supply and demand,” Cruise went on, noting, again, that manufacturing faces the same supply challenges as healthcare and education. “In all these industries, the demand is there. We’re trying to figure out ways we can increase the supply chain so we can minimize this supply gap in all three of these areas.”

Making Connections

One intriguing development involves making connections with comprehensive high schools in the region, Cruise told BusinessWest, recognizing that the state has been innovative in making career-development opportunities available to non-vocational high schools.

“We’re doing a lot of work with these school districts. They’ve made a decision that they want their students to have career-awareness and career-focus opportunities that will allow their students to look at different career pathways. Whether they’re going on to a two- or four-year college or directly to work, they want them to be more knowledgable about what those requirements are, what the pathways look like.”

To that end, the regional workforce boards have sent information to area superintendents about hiring needs and opportunities in the priority sectors and what students need to do to access them.

“In the next few weeks, we’ll send more information to the schools that will be very helpful to superintendents, counselors, and teachers, to help them provide guidance to their students — and also the parents — around career pathway opportunities. We’re really excited about that, and I’m convinced that, over time, students and parents will be making better career decisions.”

At the end of the day — any day — the main workforce challenge for businesses is simply finding the right talent and hanging onto it.

“The people who are able to work and want to work, in a lot of cases, have found employment, yet that supply gap is still there at our two career centers and the one in Greenfield as well,” Cruise said. “We continue to get customers coming in, but the customers that are approaching us need some additional supports and services before we feel they’re able to secure employment and particularly retain employment.”

Meanwhile, he noted, employers find they’re spending more resources than they’d like onboarding individuals they don’t retain over the long term.

“So we’re trying to find ways at our two one-stop centers to talk with our customers, look at the barriers that are the reasons they are not in the labor force, and try to use our community organizations and resources to do the best we can to mitigate some of those barriers.”

Sometimes it’s a simple lack of soft skills, or employability skills, that cause matches to fail — people not reporting to work, or people not having the ability to work in a team concept, he explained. “We can at least put the job seekers that approach us in a better position for companies to retain them. It’s hard work because many folks who are not in the labor market have more than one barrier that has to be mitigated, and that requires significant allocation of resources and time and staff to be able to do that. But we have to do that; that’s our job.”

Many employers say they can train for aptitude, but not attitude. “The employers we work with are saying to us, ‘send me someone who has the aptitude and willingness to learn, who’s going to be here every day, on time, and is going to be willing to accept the instruction we give them, be able to accept constructive criticism when it’s given,’” Cruise said. “Again, it’s something we’re pretty laser-focused on.”

MassHire is fortunate, he added, to work in a region full of companies, mostly small, that understand the value of partnerships and are willing invest time and resources in working with the workforce boards and colleges.

“The whole concept of going alone isn’t going to work anymore,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to be in some collaborative partnerships where you can leverage resources, look at your assets, identify your gaps, and put in place opportunities and programs that will respond to that. We do that well out here. I’m not suggesting it’s not done well in other places, but we think we have a little bit of a copyright on that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Learning to See

Joy Baglio

When she arrived in the Pioneer Valley from New York City four years ago, Joy Baglio knew she wanted to write, and to connect with other writers. What she didn’t expect was to stumble upon a passion to teach the craft of writing, and to assemble a team to help her do that. Since its opening in 2016, the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop has grown steadily, into a place both supportive and rigorous. And that’s an intriguing story in itself.

Joy Baglio likes sharing a quote by Flannery O’Connor, who wrote, “learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts.”

And there are many ways to see, Baglio said, including breaking apart written texts to examine the ‘how’ of writing — the craft, to employ a term Baglio uses often to describe what takes place at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop (PVWW).

“I guess I have an inner engineer, someone who wants to understand how things work — but with stories,” she said during a candid conversation with BusinessWest, a few weeks after she was honored by the magazine as one of this year’s 40 Under Forty.

The problem is that the process of learning how to improve one’s writing requires vulnerability — and not every writer relishes that.

“People want to be recognized, they think they want to improve, but they don’t know how to take feedback,” she said. “We all have sense that what we produce is precious and sacred. That’s an earlier writer impulse — ‘this came out this way, this needs to be in this format, I’m protective of the way it is.’”

However, “there’s a moment when you emerge from that, when you really want to grow,” she went on, before hearkening back to the O’Connor quote. “Learning to see is also learning to see where your own work can grow. What can you learn from others? How can you learn those things? Taking feedback is one of the big challenges. It’s hard — it challenges our sense of self.”

But those who attend classes and workshops at PVWW quickly learn the value of feedback, of diving honestly into their work, and of honing their craft — just as Baglio does with the trusted writers to whom she sends her own manuscripts.

Joy Baglio (right) with PVWW Assistant Director Kate Senecal at the Easthampton Book Fest.

“If there’s anything not working, I want to know all of it. I want this thing to be as good as it can be,” she said of perhaps the greatest reason to take a class. “It requires deep self-honesty. What do you really want from your writing? Are you writing for yourself, in which case feedback is very threatening? Is it all about the ego, or is there something about the process of writing that you love? Do you want to be recognized and that’s all, or do you want to be the best writer you can be? If so, it requires a kind of surrendering.”

Writers — both seasoned and just starting out — have been happily surrendering, and growing, at PVWW since Baglio launched the school in 2016 as an informal Meetup.com group. It has since expanded to 13 instructors and a comprehensive curriculum that draws fiction writers, memoir writers, poets, even songwriters. One-day classes offer participants the opportunity to focus on specific elements such as dialogue, setting, and suspense, while multi-week series delve deeper into fiction fundamentals, story arc, revision, and more.

The organization also provides one-on-one consultations and writing-coach services, as well as hosting free writer gatherings and readings designed to cultivate and support the writing community at large.

It’s a collaborative environment where the instructors — who receive most of the proceeds the class fees generate — have plenty of say in what they’d like to bring to the table.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it.”

“I might say, ‘it would be great if we had a class on sentence structure, creating flow on sentence level,’ and someone might fill that gap. But I want them to be passionate about what they’re teaching. We send out calls for class proposals, and I try to offer as many as we can,” Baglio said. “We offered 20 classes last spring — so it’s really kind of grown. I had no idea that it would grow like this.”

Settling Down

Baglio’s own story begins in Buffalo, N.Y. — “I grew up in blizzards and lake-effect snow” — after which she earned her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing from Bard College in New York, followed by an MFA in fiction from the New School in Manhattan.

She remained in the city for several years after that, but she and her partner were looking for a lifestyle change when they moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2015.

“My own writing started taking off when I moved here,” she recalled. “There must be something about leaving a place like New York City and coming to a place like this, a new place.”

Some early successes with published work and awards — her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, TriQuarterly, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many others — gave her a sense of momentum and possibility in her new home. In particular, a short story in Tin House called “Ron” — about a young woman who encounters a long series of lovers by that name — led to a film and TV option, and a film agent. Meanwhile, she’s working on a novel based loosely on her short story “How to Survive on Land,” the story of three half-mermaid siblings.

Much of Baglio’s work falls into the genre known as speculative fiction, a broad umbrella that includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian or futuristic fiction, and other imaginative themes. She started writing fantasy in high school, but as an undergrad, she was encouraged to write in a more realistic bent, although it wasn’t interesting to her. Inspired by the stories of Karen Russell and others, she felt she could uncover more meaning through more interesting, fantastic angles — and have fun doing it.

“It feels more playful, and I’m an advocate that writing is not drudgery,” she said. “My impulse was always that kind of story, but I got steered away from it — and then I refound it.”

A lot of her ideas lend themselves to “short exploration,” she said, which explains why she has about 20 pieces of flash fiction — very short stories — on her desktop. “I jump around and try to inch them all forward simultaneously, like an advancing army of stories. I like to work from start to finish through a piece and get that practice of what it means to begin and end something and develop it.”

That said, she’s making progress on her novel — writing much of it in a notebook instead of on a computer, which forces her to move the story forward, rather than get bogged down tweaking one section. She was awarded fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Speculative Literature Foundation for work and research on the novel, for which she has already received early interest from agents and publishers.

She also teaches at the Boston-based creative writing center GrubStreet, and is associate fiction editor of Bucknell University’s literary magazine, West Branch.

The school’s instructors bring a deep pool of writing and editing experience to their classes.

All that would seem to take a good deal of Baglio’s time, and it does. In fact, she never planned to start a writing school — just to move to an arts-friendly region with a writing community she could tap into. When she did, through the Meetup groups gathering at Commons Coworking in Williamsburg, she saw an opportunity for more.

“There are a lot of small writing groups around here, and I loved some of them. I just felt a need for something else — I felt people wanting and needing instruction and tools,” she said. “I refer to ‘the writer’s toolbox’ — all the techniques and tools and concrete stuff that can actually help people. Like point of view — it’s a very technical craft element, and when you understand point of view and narrative distance and how to move farther and closer to your characters, it can really improve your writing a lot.”

She was particularly inspired by writing conferences she attended after earning her MFA, especially Tin House’s summer workshop in Portland, Oregon, which was very craft-based in instruction.

“We learned about technical stuff that I feel wasn’t even taught in many of my MFA classes. It really approached writing from the point of view of how to technically learn different skills,” she said. So, once her Meetup sessions became well-attended, Baglio began to put the pieces together in an entrepreneurial way.

“Even at the beginning, I approached it as a class, so I had a whole lesson. I think the first-ever one I did was on creating and developing characters,” she said. “I was leading it; it wasn’t just a free-for-all meeting where we’d sit and write together. I was giving out a lot of craft instruction I had accumulated over years — a lot of stuff I thought was helpful. And people kept coming back.”

Preserving the Spark

The roster of classes and workshops gradually expanded as Baglio met more writers drawn to the experience — and more instructors as well.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it,” she explained. “A lot of people told us this was the first of this kind of writing instruction in the Valley. There are a lot of literary offerings and writers, but there isn’t one cohesive craft school for writing. So I felt there was a need — and we kept expanding.”

Becoming an entrepreneur was an education in itself, she added, and in many ways, running the school has taken time away from actual writing, but, on balance, she feels energized by the interactions.

“With writing, it’s always a balance of preserving your own creative spark and your own initial drive that led you to write in the first place with the practical side of how to teach others,” she told BusinessWest. “I really love teaching. I feel like I learn so much from the students and from other writers. I feel like I have this community of writers in the Valley.

Joy Baglio is seen here teaching the first-ever multi-week workshop (Intro to Fiction) at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop — the first, as it turns out, of many more.

“It’s become this weird marriage of my own passion and the practical aspects of the business,” she went on. “Administrative work takes a lot of time. But it does give me creative energy. I just see what the other instructors are teaching, and I’m inspired by their topics, what they propose.”

The school — which draws writers of all ages and skill levels, from young people just starting out to retirees contemplating their memoirs — remains based at Common Coworking, which has been a positive symbiotic relationship; a number of current members at the space discovered it through a writing class.

Baglio also hosts free monthly community writing sessions and organizes free public literary readings and author panels at venues such as UMass Amherst, local libraries and bookstores, and other central locations in the Pioneer Valley. The school’s curriculum also includes workshops specifically geared to young creative writers, from middle through high school. On a related note, Baglio is currently teaching speculative fiction writing to high-school girls at Smith College’s summer writing program.

While her next goal is to get her novel into the world — which she feels would raise the profile of the PVWW as well as her own — she’s also looking at ways to expand the school, including online options and perhaps a residency program.

“I want to find really innovative ways to help people feel empowered creatively,” she said. “I feel like Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop can go in many different directions, but craft is always at the center of it. I want it to feel both rigorous and kind.”

She’s found plenty of both rigor and kindness through her development of a school she never planned to open when she left the urban environs of New York City.

“I remember moving here and reading some article saying this is the most densely populated area of writers in the country. So it isn’t surprising that this would emerge here,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming of starting a writing school in New York, but I needed to get out of the city to do this. I feel like the Valley itself inspired this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Pedal Power

 

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

ValleyBike had, by most accounts, an up-and-down first year, and we’re not talking about the hills its bikes make a little easier through electric pedal assist. But on the whole, 2018 was an encouraging success, with gradually increasing ridership across the network’s six municipalities, despite a slow and incomplete roll-out of the 50 stations and 500 bikes. With further expansion possible, hopes are high that more people will ditch their cars for a bike ride in 2019 — and then turn that ride into a habit.

A regional bike-share program may have seemed like a novel idea for many Pioneer Valley denizens last year, but for those who helped bring it about, it’s far from a new concept.

“We’ve been talking about it in the Pioneer Valley for 15 years,” said Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. In fact, the PVPC produced a report in 2008 documenting previous bike-share programs around the world — including the Yellow Bike program that once existed at Hampshire College as well as the Bixi Bikeshare program in Montreal — and encouraging Pioneer Valley municipalities to look into establishing a regional program.

A lot has happened since then, but the main development was the emergence of electric pedal-assist bikes that help riders navigate hills and long distances they might not have wanted to attempt before. It was a game changer, Ratté said.

“Part of it was being a broad region — how can people get from Amherst to Northampton to Springfield? Then electric pedal assist came along, and we said, ‘oh, this could be a regional program,’” she told BusinessWest.

That program, known as ValleyBike, currently encompasses six communities — Northampton, Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, South Hadley, and Easthampton — with others possibly on the horizon. A rider is free to pick up a bike at any of the 50 stations and drop it off at any other.

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use,” said Ratté. “It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active. ValleyBike makes it easier for people to bike to work. Maybe they aren’t physically fit enough to bike without pedal assist, and they don’t want to arrive at work sweaty — but they’re still exercising.”

A recent PVPC report detailed use of ValleyBike during 2018, its inaugural year. Even with limited availability and a slow ramp-up of stations (more on that later), the service logged 26,353 trips last year, an average of 170 per day, generating 83,735 miles — the equivalent of 3.3 times around the earth.

With the numbers expected to increase in 2019, that represents a significant front in the battle against traffic and air pollution, said Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s director of Planning & Sustainability.

“Our biggest commitment this year is to get more people to say, ‘yes, I really want to use this,’” said Feiden, who has long been one of the region’s strongest proponents of a bike-share network. “Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise. If we can get you out of your car, that’s great from an environmental standpoint and a congestion standpoint. And that’s the part we need to grow most in the system.”

According to the year-end rider survey that helped the PVPC generate its report, the vast majority of users — 77.9% — rode ValleyBike less than five times per month, and 2.8% used it daily, with another 2.8% riding five or more times per week. These figures suggest that many users rode the bikes for leisure rather than to commute, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Feiden said.

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals, from reducing traffic and air pollution to getting people more physically active.

“We have a lot of goals, and each one serves different purposes,” he noted. “One is just to get people to exercise more. So that’s been great, and it’s also been a diverse set of users.”

Indeed, 28.8% of survey respondents were between 18 and 30, 52.1% were between the ages of 30 and 60, and 6.9% were over 60 years old, while the gender split was close to even.

“People who use bikes tend to be younger, but these bikes are reaching a broader range of users, which is great,” he said. “Getting people healthier is wonderful, as is giving people transportation options, whether they can’t afford a car or don’t want to drive a car for environmental reasons.”

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use. It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active.”

One goal moving forward, he said, will be to increase usage of memberships. Annual passes ($80) accounted for just 13% of all rides in 2018, and monthly passes ($20) represented another 28%.

Those riders, Feiden said, are the ones more likely to use ValleyBike Share for commuting to work or other daily commitments, and to turn biking from a leisure activity into a habit and a lifestyle. “Once you sign up for a year, you tend to build your commitment.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the ways ValleyBike is building on its own commitment — and its momentum, both electric-assisted and figuratively.

Winding Path

To its proponents at the PVPC, ValleyBike is a key component of the region’s path to a sustainable future by promoting healthy habits and reducing greenhouse gases emitted by vehicle trips. If managed effectively, the year-end report notes, the program could also reduce the need for road repairs and expansion, and has the potential to improve the effectiveness of the region’s transit system.

Following the 2008 report exploring the concept, UMass Amherst launched a free bike-sharing program in 2012 funded by student government fees. The same year, Northampton’s Planning and Sustainability Department began researching a program for that city.

Mayor David Narkewicz approved a single bike-share station downtown, but by early 2013, officials determined that a larger system, either city-wide or, better yet, region-wide, was preferable. At the same time, Amherst officials were meeting with representatives from Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass to explore a town-wide bike-sharing program.

Soon after, the PVPC secured a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center grant to work with several area communities to advance clean-energy strategies, selecting advancement of a regional bike-share initiative as a priority for funding.

The ValleyBike station at Court Square

The ValleyBike station at Court Square, one of 11 in Springfield, saw the sixth-most ride starts across the entire network in 2018.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PVPC worked with a group of member municipalities — Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield — to research and advance regional bike-sharing. In 2016, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, applied for and obtained federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds for a regional bike-share network for four communities, later adding South Hadley as a fifth member.

A year later, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, released a bike-share RFP and awarded a contract to Bewegen Technology for a 500-bike, 50-station system in the five communities. Toward the end of 2018, Easthampton obtained a Massachusetts Housing Choice grant for ValleyBike and joined the regional consortium, growing it to six municipalities.

The year-end report notes that ValleyBike had a rocky start due to issues with station installation, bike availability, and kiosk usability. Only 26 stations were open when the system went online on June 28, and another 17 were added in July and August. The remaining seven opened at the start of the 2019 season, bringing the total to 50.

After a slow start, the popularity of ValleyBike saw large increases in the first few weeks of August, reaching its peak ridership between Aug. 21 and Sept. 3, dipping slightly as temperatures dropped and students went back to school in early September.

“This is the first regional, multi-community, all-electric-pedal-assist bike-share program in the world. It was a really ambitious idea,” Ratté told BusinessWest. “It could have been smoother, but we had fantastic numbers of riders from all communities. And we definitely are eager to expand the coalition.”

She noted that possible expansion communities include Hadley, Chicopee, and West Springfield, should the PVPC secure the necessary additional funding. “We hope to keep it growing and expanding as well as adding some stations in the existing communities.”

“Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise.”

With a longer season this year and more bikes — the network typically had about 167 available last year, but will offer 500 at the 50 stations in 2019 — she expects an uptick in ridership and increasing interest from the communities not yet on board.

“Hadley and Chicopee are the two holes in the system we’re trying to fill. We’re also trying to expand to West Springfield, but that’s more expanding out rather than filling in holes,” Feiden added. “Obviously we have to get more funding for new stations; there are many more locations that would make sense than we have money for.”

He added that more corporate sponsors are needed to make the system more sustainable. “But businesses are seeing the value for it — a third of the stations in Northampton are on private property. People gave us easements or licenses, whatever they needed to do, because they saw the value. One is at Cooper’s Corner in Florence, a small grocery store, and I hope people shop there because they gave us some really valuable real estate.”

Sustainable Future

Between climate concerns, public-health awareness, and simply enjoying the outdoors, bicycling — especially when pedal-assisted on those tricky hills — holds appeal to many demographic groups, Ratté said.

“If you ask people what they want in their region, a bike share is a popular thing. People expect their cities to fund options for getting around. And the cool thing is, you don’t have to stay inside your municipality; the same bike can go from place to place. It’s very convenient.”

That said, the program would benefit by coordinating more closely with public transit systems, she noted. According to the year-end survey, 27.5% of riders used ValleyBike in conjunction with other types of public transportation (such as rail or bus services). Organizers had hoped that bike stations could be located close to public transportation so public-transit riders could utilize the bikes to reach their final destinations. However, due to complications regarding the need for electrical outlets in close proximity to stations, this goal was not always met. That’s something planners are looking to remedy with future bike-station placements.

“People rely on the bus,” she said, “and to be able to use ValleyBike to get to and from the bus stop would be great.”

On a related note, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts worked with the Pioneer Valley Regional Ventures Center, the not-for-profit arm of the PVPC, to allocate $12,000 per year over three years to provide subsidized memberships for economically disadvantaged residents of the region, particularly those who live in transit-rich urban cores. Bewegen was not able to launch this aspect of the ValleyBike initiative in 2018, and more people are expected to use ValleyBike when the access passes become available this year.

So far, however, people seem to be using the bikes mostly for enjoyment. Of the year-end survey respondents, 52% said they used ValleyBike mostly for leisure, while 21.2% used them to commute, 5.5% wanted to reduce pollution and traffic congestion, and 5.2% were focused on the health benefits. Notably, 36% reported an increase in riding bikes of all kinds since using the system.

“In some ways, the biggest criticism is people asking, ‘why didn’t you come to my neighborhood?’” Feiden said, noting that Northampton added one stop this year and has applied for a grant to establish four more. “And that’s great. It’s nice to get beat up for not doing it.”

The hope is that the coming years will see fewer of those complaints as ValleyBike continues to expand, giving more people an excuse to leave their cars behind, get their legs moving, and maybe leave the air a little cleaner.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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