Conservation Transportation in Harrisonburg, VA

Luke Mullet and Riley Swartzendruber
 
 

The Voluntary Gas Tax

The Voluntary Gas Tax (VGT) is a group of individuals who tax themselves for the gas they purchase, pool this money together, and then provide financial assistance to sustainable initiatives and projects. They argue that, when we purchase our fuel, we are not paying the price of the environmental and foreign policy harm.

"It's symbolic we realize, and yet it is a reminder every time I go the gas pumps . . . here I am burning the bones of the dinosaurs." - Earl Martin

Nancy Heisey and Earl Martin have been a part of VGT since its inception in the early 2000's. The group was spurred to take this action in part by the various US wars centered around fuel resources (the Gulf Wars, in particular). They discovered that the US has had one of the lowest gas taxes in the world. In 2015, the US had the second lowest gas tax rate in the world (just above Mexico). The group decided that, if the government was not going to tax their fuel purchases, they would take it on themselves to pay the climate and global price. 

Earl collects his receipts to keep track of how much he spends on fuel

It's Personal

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VGT has been around nearly twenty years and their numbers have grown significantly. Currently about 40-50 people are actively a part of the group, although only about 20-25 physically attend the meetings.The group meets twice a year. At their meetings they share their stories, their fuel purchasing "sins," and talk about climate related issues.

“Everybody gets a chance to tell their story. . . it’s a really fun time catching up and hearing from like-minded folks. Usually there’s a good potluck too, so that’s another good part of it.” – Nancy Heisey

VGT typically collects around two to three thousand dollars per meeting (four to six thousand a year). Each person contributes an amount that properly balances their fuel usage and their ability to pay. The intention for the tax is to serve as a reminder and an inspiration to continue implementing sustainable behaviors in other dimensions of their lives.

"The real heroes are the ones who pay the least!" - Earl Martin

 

Get Involved

While VGT does not consider itself an outreach group, it is welcoming to new participants. It’s more of an “if you find us, come on in” kind of organization. To join the group, one can email Nancy Heisey or contact the organization via email at: voluntarygastax@gmail.com. There are sister chapters of VGT in Goshen, Indiana as well as in Davis, California. 

 

Biking in Harrisonburg

There are a lot of biking businesses and initiatives in Harrisonburg. Between recreational and utilitarian cyclists and creative bike-centered businesses, there's a lot to explore. Two organizations that demonstrate this variety are Wyse Cycles and The Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). See the additional links at the the bottom of the page to explore further.

Wyse Cycles

Ben Wyse is self-employed at Wyse Cycles, a bike repair business. He often works out of his shop in the basement of his family's home. But he is also on call to do on-site repairs using his mobile repair shop. Since he pulls his mobile shop behind his bike, he often advertises himself as one of the most sustainable bike repair businesses. Ben serves a wide variety of clients, but his passion especially lies in assisting individuals who ride their bikes in a utilitarian fashion. His motivation to offer this service, in particular, largely stems from his values of sustainability, community, and his faith.

Ben’s argument for using bikes as transportation has multiple layers. First, bikes are affordable and, therefore, more people from different socioeconomic realities can afford them. They also have all kinds of benefits for the natural world (both locally with physical health and community building as well as globally with issues such as climate change). Lastly, biking is “just sheer fun.” Even adults can harness the elements of play in biking and, as a result, can “play” their way to work or wherever they need to go.

“[Biking] can be transportation but it also can be a form of play. If we can keep a hold of that experience that kids have, I think it makes the bike more compelling because you don’t see it as a drag to hop on the bike. It’s something we do because we like it.” - Ben Wyse

Wyse Cycles is an expression of what Ben believes it means to live out the teachings of Jesus. He acts on his beliefs by holding up a different idea of how we can exist. In his eyes, the bike can help us toward a society of wholeness that takes pacifism, creation care, community, and our global neighbors seriously.

 

"The bicycle is a symbol of something that's really different, it’s powerfully different . . . it is hard to separate what I deeply believe and what I am trying to do in my business." – Ben Wyse

SVBC

Kyle Lawrence is the current executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). Although his position is relatively new (since August 2018), Kyle has been a part of SVBC and doing bicycle advocacy for quite some time. His advocacy is largely bolstered by how human-scale transportation improves communities. 

"We really think of the bicycle as a tool to build better communities. It’s one way to make stronger, more connected, healthier and happier places.”

– Kyle Lawrence

The coalition has been working at making Harrisonburg a more bike and pedestrian friendly town. They do this through programs such as Bicycles for Refugees and recommending transportation policy and construction changes to the City Council. 

"The reason we don’t have more people in our coalition and community using bikes for transportation is because of the way our cities and streets have been designed. So, a lot of our work is focused on redesigning and retrofitting our streets and our physical space so that people feel safe and comfortable and will get on a bike.” – Kyle Lawrence

Kyle is a strong believer that, if Harrisonburg continues making biking and walking safer and more accessible, it will become a physically and socially healthier place to live.

 

Alternatives: The Friendly City Pedicab

Matt Hassman believes he has had many great ideas, but never acted on them. However, in April 2018, one of Matt's ideas came to fruition. He started The Friendly City Pedicab, a transportation service powered by an electric-assist tricycle. Starting this business was something that aligned with Matt's social urges as well as his passions for biking, community, and sustainability. One of Matt's intentions for the pedicab is to encourage active transportation and make it more accessible for those who do not want to participate in it at all. 

 

There are many things that Matt likes about his business. The first is that it is a large bicycle presence on the Harrisonburg roadways. He thinks that seeing a bike function in this way helps legitimize biking in people’s minds. It also can serve as inspiration: “If he can be out there driving three or four people on a bike then I certainly can transport just myself with one.” He also likes the work because its social dimensions. 

Challenges

“It’s an opportunity to engage people. I get to meet all kinds of people from our community . . . people that are way outside of my friend group. So I feel like I have a pulse on what the vibe is in Harrisonburg on any given day.”- Matt Hassman​

Since April, he has hired several drivers and purchased an additional pedicab. Despite the current challenges of the Friendly City Pedicab's first winter season, Matt has stayed positive and creative in preserving the appeal of his service. The pedicabs now have blankets and heated seats so that customers can stay warm. Matt said that he is willing to experience some discomfort to provide the service in the cold. 

"I am okay with it because, for some people, living in that discomfort is their everyday." - Matt Hassman

Big Picture

Matt has high hopes for his business. He would like to continue expanding the pedicab fleet and engineering new ways to make the riding more fun. His hope is to grow the business organically, adding one cab at a time based on demand. 

Additional Information

Other relevant projects and organizations

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