Our Work

Shupe: Getting there

From Brian Shupe, executive director (originally published in the The Barre Montpelier Times Argus)

Last week I found myself driving a rental car with summer tires and rear-wheel drive through a major snowstorm in the Great Smoky Mountains. The first thing that came to mind is that the state of North Carolina doesn’t appear to own a single snowplow. The second is how easy it is to take mobility — getting where we need to go conveniently, safely and affordably, whether for work or pleasure — for granted. This is certainly true for many people in Vermont, where winter driving, long commutes, and owning a personal vehicle are generally accepted as coming with the territory.

But, even if this is accepted, does it really work for all Vermonters? Owning a vehicle can create a great burden on a household’s budget — around $8,100 per year, according to 2017 data from AAA. This burden can be particularly stressful when driving is the only real, convenient choice, and a functioning car might make the difference between keeping a job or losing it.

We also know that as a percentage of income, Vermonters spend a great deal on transportation. A study in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties found that the typical household spends between 21 and 26 percent of its income on transportation — though spending less than 15 percent is what’s considered “affordable.”

There are also people who may not want to drive. The often-referenced millennial generation is less interested in driving than other generations, and older adults are also looking for more transportation choices. Concerns that political leaders have raised about demographic trends shaping the state, and the oft-mentioned desire to retain and attract young people to Vermont, would be best served by providing alternatives to the private automobile.

In addition to being a consequential and often costly part of our day-to-day lives, the costs of transportation to communities, and the planet, are becoming increasingly expensive. Transportation accounts for nearly half of the total greenhouse gas emissions generated in the state and nearly 40 percent of our energy use. That energy use, in the form of imported gasoline and diesel, results in more than $1 billion leaving the state. Transportation costs are not borne solely by individuals. The state spends approximately $700 million a year to maintain and repair our roads, highways and bridges — twice the national, per-capita average. This is due largely to our cold climate and low-density development patterns where a lot of roads serve few people.

Regardless of our weather and rural nature, mobility shouldn’t be a privilege available only if you are able to afford and maintain a vehicle. Vermonters in rural, suburban and compact areas all deserve a variety of transportation choices — real choices that will help their household budgets, allow people to meet their dayto day needs and play a part in helping reduce our state’s energy use.

What does this look like in a rural state? While personal vehicles will continue to play an important role in Vermont, there are still a range of approaches we can take across our diverse communities.

One key approach is how and where we develop our communities. While we identify as rural, many parts of the state are, unfortunately, far more suburban than rural — and becoming more so every day. These patterns of development force Vermonters to rely on a transportation system dominated by private automobiles.

Fortunately, we still retain many compact villages, downtowns and neighborhoods of varying scales that provide transportation opportunities like walking, biking and transit hubs. Planning ahead for more compact communities with a variety of housing choices — at different price points and for people at all stages in their lives — will be an important part of helping people walk, bike, take transit, or even just drive less.

Another approach to providing transportation choice is basic but important for people living in more rural areas: providing opportunities to carpool, or to take transit from a parkand ride. GoVermont, VTrans and many employers provide services, incentives and even tax breaks for commuting by modes other than personal vehicles. Communities should look closely at how park-and-rides, bike paths and transit routes can be integrated into local and regional plans, while employers can offer incentives and more flexible work hours to accommodate different ways of getting to work.

In addition, the $18.7 million from Volkswagen’s settlement for polluting vehicles presents a timely opportunity for providing better mobility choices. The settlement funds can be used to replace heavy-duty diesel vehicles, including school and transit buses, with electric vehicles that are cleaner to ride and drive, making public transportation a more appealing option. (These technologies are now proven, even in our cold climate — in fact, one of the major manufacturers of electric school buses is based in Quebec.)

Finally, Vermont needs to understand and help shape the transition from fueling transportation with fossil fuels to powering our vehicles with clean, renewably generated electricity. The electrification of transportation is under way, and the recent proposal to place a price on carbon pollution associated with burning fossil fuels — in a manner that mitigates the financial impact on low-income Vermonters and those living in rural areas with long commutes — and dramatically reduce electricity rates will expedite this transition while protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

Of course, in order to really catalyze the shift toward more sustainable mobility, we will need to figure out how, over time, we can shift the way we think about our state’s transportation investments and policies. We will need a variety of strategies and a significant shift away from our current expensive and polluting business-as-usual approach. A new coalition, Transportation for Vermonters, is a group of diverse partners advocating for just that. With members ranging from environmental to public health to bike/ ped organizations, this group will be working at the State House to advocate for sustainable solutions that will help us build the transportation system of the future — one that is affordable, clean and convenient for all Vermont.