Getting There: Transporting the Public in Vermont

An Op-Ed by VNRC’s Elizabeth Courtney  – Published June 28, 2009 in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald

Question: If you had to go from your home in, let’s say, Williamstown, 20 miles to Randolph for a dentist appointment — without your car — how would you get there?

Of course, the challenge here in this very rural state is the without-your-car part.

Hard question to answer, huh?

More and more Vermonters are thinking about the challenges of mobility across the Green Mountains. Some are concerned with escalating fuel costs (last year’s $4 per gallon triggered rapid changes in commuting behavior, and the high prices will undoubtedly return). Some are concerned about climate change — 44 percent of Vermont’s global warming pollution comes from the transportation sector. Others have disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to drive, including the growing number of elderly people across the state.

So, what’s the answer? Part of the answer is to turn the notion of public transportation on its head. The answer is to move away from thinking about public transportation as a special interest issue that’s necessary for some people and, instead, to frame it as an issue that is and will be more of a concern for all Vermonters.

Thankfully this transition in thinking and in action is exactly what is starting to happen.

Recently I’ve been meeting with a diverse group of people who are thinking creatively about the concept of ‘transporting the public’ in Vermont. This group is the brainchild of Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, Associate State Director of AARP Vermont. And with the help of the Snelling Center for Government, this group — including the elderly, disability rights advocates, transit operators, planners, conservation organizations, researchers, businesses and others — just culminated a months’ long planning phase with a forum in Montpelier. The results were fascinating and will help move us toward a smarter, more comprehensive approach to transportation — one that will save money, help Vermonters live healthier lives and encourage communities to plan for growth in a way that could free us up from the need to always drive to our destinations. (Check out the results of the summit and learn more about ‘Transporting the Public here.)

During the initial meetings, we all agreed on a set of principles about why and how we want to transition from our current transportation planning in Vermont to the concept of transporting the public.  These principles addressed several concerns. We recognized that we need more options for transporting the public to assure access to a variety of services, reduce isolation and improve physical and mental health. We were also aware that, in accommodating new growth, we must plan for housing, shopping, services, schools and workplaces that are within walking distance from each other.  But none of this will be possible unless we can determine the true costs of our existing public and private transportation systems — including the environmental and social costs. Only then will we be able to address the challenge of how to fund a full range of transportation options.

We next convened a forum with a larger group on June 3 to brainstorm some ideas about how to turn these principles into action and move forward. Some of the top contenders for attention were:

•    Land use planning and regulation. Comprehensive planning at the state, regional and local level is necessary to reinforce the historic settlement pattern of compact towns surrounded by open productive countryside — a smart growth approach that orients readily to transit options. Policy initiatives, such as integrating public transportation and mobility options into Act 250, should also be pursued.

•    Public education. An option here would be to convert the Drivers Education curriculum to a Transportation Education curriculum that would include the relative costs of operating a single-occupancy vehicle versus alternatives such as public transit options, other modes of transportation, trip-planning skills and energy-saving driving techniques.

•    Coordinating a variety of transportation modes. We need to develop varied scales and types of transportation systems that link within and between towns and regions across the state.

•    Flexibility in how transportation dollars can be spent. It will be important to eliminate funding silos that limit flexibility in spending resources.

As we move along in the 21st century, mobility issues will become more problematic for more people. Taking the long-term view and coordinating land use, transportation and energy planning will be critical to addressing the economic, environmental and social needs we face in this changing world. I am hopeful that by 2050 our grandchildren will have many economical, safe, healthy and enjoyable transportation options to choose from when they need to travel.

(Check out the results of the summit and learn more about ‘Transporting the Public here.)

Photo courtesy of Washington Electric Cooperative.