Man on the Move 

by Rosalyn Graham

Chapin Spencer uses the same method to meet his neighbors that he uses for his daily commute to work

Chapin Spencer is executive director of Local Motion, a Burlington organization launched in 1998 to focus on a bike ferry across the Winooski River, but which now is a year-round center for promoting alternative transportation of all kinds.

Chapin Spencer laughs as he describes himself as “Mister Multimodal.” If there were ever a living example of talking the talk and walking the walk, Spencer is it. His talk — his passion — is promoting healthy lifestyles and helping towns and communities build the infrastructure to foster them. His walk is his daily commute, demonstrating both lifestyle and infrastructure. 

Some days he walks to work on the Burlington bike path from his Lakeside home; some days he rides his bike; sometimes he skis. Occasionally he takes the bus, and if he is going to stay late for a meeting, he might carpool. This year, he might try skijoring, pulled along the bike path on skis by his two huskies, Diego and Osiris. 

It seems fitting that campaigning for healthy lifestyles and supporting infrastructure is also Spencer’s business as executive director of Local Motion, the nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote bicycling, walking, running, inline skating and the facilities that make such travel safe, easy and fun. 

In an era when obesity is a national epidemic, when a lack of physical activity is taking its toll on young and old, and neighborliness and community involvement suffer for the lack of a sidewalk network, Spencer has been a local leader in a campaign to encourage changes in attitude about ways of getting around. At any public event or meeting where alternative transportation is on the agenda, Spencer is there — and his bike helmet does make him stand out in the crowd.

Born in Wilmington, Del., Spencer remembers that as a child he loved to play and be physically active, riding bikes and running. “However,” he says, “it was not till later in life that I realized the importance of healthy lifestyle in my own life and also what it means for the health of the community to have pedestrians out on the streets walking, biking, running, meeting their neighbors.”

He made that connection while studying for an independent degree mixing education, history and political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “I realized that I could get around easily on a bicycle and walking. It also made me realize the responsibility to take care of those less fortunate. Riding my bike and walking, I got to meet the people, I got involved in the community. When you’re walking and biking, you learn the town, you feel the beat of it, you meet a friend and have a half-hour conversation.”

After graduation, Spencer spent time in Central America as a volunteer, learning to speak Spanish and enjoying what he calls “a post-college stress reliever.” He returned to the United States expecting to put his community development studies and his new fluency in Spanish to work as a bilingual social worker. 

From left, Brian Costello, Island Line project coordinator; Chapin Spencer, executive director; Todd Taylor, marketing manager; and Margot Schips, board president, gather on the steps near their offices, next to a mural by Cornwall artist Kate Hodges.

In 1994 he joined AmeriCorps Vista and was sent to Burlington — “the one place in America where I couldn’t use my Spanish,” he quips — to work with the Co-op Housing Federation, helping small housing cooperatives in the area with financial management and conflict resolution. After a year, he became the Vista leader and then the manager of Vista programs in Burlington’s Community Economic Development Office. 

Along the way, Spencer was also exploring Burlington on foot and bicycle, looking at the architecture, meeting friends on the street and becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of alternative transportation. “I was falling in love with traveling under my own power,” he says. “It was wonderfully liberating to figure out how to go to the grocery store with bags on my bicycle; how to make it practical and fit into my life style.”

He recalls one day in 1997 when he was stopped by Brian Costello on College Street. “He had an idea to develop a ferry service across the Winooski River to connect the Burlington bike path with the Colchester causeway. He had been advocating for that in Colchester through the ’90s, and he heard I was out there and interested in pedestrian and bike facilities. He encouraged me to get involved, and the next thing we knew, he donated a motor from his basement; I bought a pontoon boat; we approached the town and city; and we were running a demonstration project across the river.” 

Brian Costello’s idea for a ferry service across the Winooski River to connect the Burlington bike path with the Colchester causeway became Local Motion’s founding purpose.

In 1999, they incorporated as a nonprofit called Burlington Bikeways, and by 2000, they were focusing on finding funding and permission for the ferry project to continue. They had developed a 10-mile loop called Cycle the City to showcase local history and demonstrate that there were other ways to see the sights besides the automobile. 

“It was clear we weren’t just Burlington and we weren’t just bicycles,” Spencer says. In 2001, in a 4 to 3 vote, which he describes as “the most contentious vote in our history,” the board of Burlington Bikeways decided to change its name to Local Motion, a name that Spencer characterizes as “playful and energizing, denoting movement and travel.”

In 2001 they made another major step forward by moving in to their dream location and establishing a trailside center in Burlington’s Wing Building, with the bike path outside its front door. 

“We realized there were no services for walkers or bikers along the Bike Path; no place to put air in tires, or get maps, or ask where to go,” he says.  Now the trailside center is a year-round hub of the alternative transportation movement, with walkers, bikers, in-line skaters and skateboarders whizzing by and occasionally stopping with a question or just to say hello. 

In the summer, the energy is at a full boil, as tourists take advantage of the wall of maps and ask travel questions, and members (almost 1,300) check in to hear about projects and programs. Volunteers (an impressive 126 last year) also come by to offer their help at the ferry or at Bike Recycle Vermont, where donated bicycles are repaired and provided to income-eligible applicants. 

Funds come from private and public sources and memberships. Spencer and the rest of the Local Motion staff, board and committees spend a lot of time at meetings, conferring with their many partner organizations. “We’re small and we can’t do it all,” he says. “For example, our current Safe Routes to School initiative includes the Agency of Transportation, the Regional Planning Commission, the American Heart Association and schools in Burlington, Richmond and Hinesburg.” 

The Way to Go Week program each year, organized in cooperation with Chittenden County Transportation Authority and other partners, encourages the public to try alternative transportation for commuting. The organization works with like-minded partners in the towns of Chittenden County to plan the next connection in a regional network of bike paths, sidewalks, trails and bike lanes. On the state level, the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition has similar goals. “Local Motion is trying to knit together the local committees into a regional organization.”

Local Motion’s office and trailside center is in the Wing Building right on the Burlington bike path. Margot Schips is the president of the board of directors.

Organization is the prime challenge, and he says his organizational experience and skills help to meet that. He compares Local Motion’s work to that of the American Automobile Association. “Pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized modes of transportation won’t have safe, convenient facilities until we’re organized. What Triple A does for driving, we need to do for biking and walking. People aren’t going to walk if there aren’t sidewalks; people aren’t going to ride a bike if there’s no safe place to do it. If we don’t plan for it upfront, we won’t incorporate it in a rapidly developing community, and Chittenden County is a rapidly developing community.

“We’ve been very fortunate in finding like-minded folks,” he continues. “In the early years of Local Motion, I was a jack-of-all-trades, up till 4 in the morning paying bills and vacuuming. There was no regional voice for biking, walking or trails, but the region was ripe for it, and I was in the right place at the right time.”

“There are so many ways to get around our communities and it really doesn’t take that long to walk across town. People complain that they don’t have time to go to the gym. Part of what we’re advocating is that active lifestyles really take care of that by themselves, if we design our communities to make walking and biking a more normal part of our lives.”

Peter Keating, a senior transportation planner whose focus is bike and pedestrian projects at the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, admires Spencer’s talent for reaching out to everyone with an interest in a project, be they pro or con, and engaging them. “When he first approached the MPO about five years ago, he had a strong desire to promote bicycle and alternative transportation and wanted to know how he could help,” Keating says. 

“He has been a strong advocate, willing to work hard and to approach any party in a very diplomatic way to persuade them that better facilities are a good thing for everybody. He has honed his advocacy skills working in this field. He knows you can’t leave people out even if they don’t seem interested in what you want to do. You can’t ignore people.”

There are many projects on the Local Motion “to-do” list. The organization is busy campaigning for the Island Line, the world-class trail they hope will link Vermont to Quebec. Costello is the project coordinator. Other items involve developing downloadable Trails Finder maps that hikers and bikers can access online; planning for a pedestrian summit to address ways to make Burlington a more walkable city; writing grants; and attending meetings. Every day begins with a discussion that illustrates how Spencer is living the gospel he preaches. 

He and Rebecca Grannis, a goldsmith at Grannis Gallery, live in Lakeside, which he calls “the new urbanist community, where we know our neighbors and look after each others’ kids and animals.” It’s no surprise to learn that he lives on the bike path. “Every morning Rebecca and I talk about how we’ll get to work. Rebecca has the idea that the number of ways we get to work is too limited. She wants to try skijoring. She says it’s indulging my alternative transportation passion.”