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Why Transportation Matters

By Kate McCarthy

We talk a lot about transportation—and rightly so, given its major contribution to greenhouse gases and its importance to our everyday lives. But going deeper, what are the other ways that transportation affects our lives and well-being? Why does transportation matter so much?

I addressed this topic in a recent presentation that’s embedded here. It’s also transcribed (and added to) in the text below, so read on!

The basic answer is obvious. Transportation matters because being able to get around helps us do what we need to do on a daily basis. That means going shopping, to jobs, and school—and accessing services, health care, and childcare. But I’d like to go a layer deeper and look at some of the other reasons that transportation matters, and in particular, why it’s important that we promote a variety of clean, affordable, accessible transportation choices here in Vermont.

How much do you think this vehicle costs to operate? Photo taken in Bennington by Bob LoCicero.

First of all, transportation accounts for nearly 50% of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of these emissions come from personal vehicles. For Vermont to reach our emissions reduction goals as mandated by the Global Warming Solutions Act, which became law last fall, we need to tackle our transportation emissions head-on by improving our options for getting around.

Next, there’s affordability. After housing, transportation is Americans’ second largest household expense. Each year AAA does a study on what it costs to own and operate a vehicle, for different vehicle types. I looked up the cost of a small SUV, which would be something like a Toyota RAV4. It’s nearly $8,400 a year to own that vehicle, which breaks down to $23 a day. That’s a very real expense. Other other types of vehicles that are common in the state cost yet more to operate. To calculate your own driving costs, use this tool.

There’s also the concept of “transportation burden.” You may have heard this idea in the context of housing affordability, which is that if you spend more than 30% of your income on your housing costs, then you are considered housing burdened. In other words, you spend so much on housing that you may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

The threshold that’s commonly used for transportation is 15% or more of your income. I did some research and modeling about six years ago with some other partners. We found that even in Burlington and Winooski, which are our most compact communities and have the most transportation options, people are still spending approximately 17% of their income on transportation. Nearby in Franklin County, that number is even higher: about 24% quarter of income spent on transportation. This is a very real issue that affects different parts of the state differently.

Among the goals of the Comprehensive Energy Plan is to increase walk, bike, and bus trips by 100%. Photo by Bob LoCicero

Another reason why transportation matters is public health. The Vermont Department of Health did a study a couple of years ago finding that if we implemented all of the clean transportation recommendations of the Comprehensive Energy Plan, we could save $1.1 billion in reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity by 2050. That number really struck me, showing the importance of avoided costs while also addressing our mobility challenges.

There’s also the challenge of isolation. Isolation is different from loneliness: it’s a structural limitation that keeps people from getting out and staying connected. And part of the structural problem is lack of access to transportation. According to AARP, the physical health impacts of isolation is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s also linked to a greater likelihood of early death, accelerated cognitive decline, core cardiovascular function, stroke, and depression in adults 50 and older. As we look at our changing demographics and the composition of our state, we can see that reducing isolation is going to be essential for people’s quality of life and health, and for health care costs. And transportation is a very key part of ensuring that people are not isolated.

Transportation is also essential for equity, for access to opportunity, and for convenience in daily life. A lack of transportation choices disproportionately affects people of color, and people with lower incomes. It also affects the many people in Vermont who don’t drive, who make up a third of the population (this includes children and people who choose not to drive). That’s a large chunk of the population in need of mobility solutions just to get to work, to school, and to fulfill their daily obligations – let alone to truly thrive.

Last but definitely not least, transportation choices support livable places. Think of a place that you visited in your community or in your region where you felt comfortable walking, or biking, and perhaps wanted to linger and meet people. These are often places that have character and create community identity. They’re places where maybe you want to spend a little bit of money, or live, or even invest. Our transportation choices are very important for our communities.

Are you able to walk or bike to your town’s farmer’s market? Photo of Richmond Farmers Market (pre-pandemic) by Bob LoCicero.

Mobility solutions include driving, of course, but there are many ways to think beyond this: carpooling, electric vehicles, walking, biking, transit, car share, bike share, trains, and anything else that helps people get around.

Especially for a state that is rural, especially for a state that has diverse communities, there is no one solution. The system as a whole needs a variety of solutions in order to function, and in order to help people thrive.

With all of these connections, the great opportunity here (and the thing that I find very exciting!) is that when we invest in a variety of transportation options, we have the opportunity to advance multiple goals at once, to address many of the issues that we’re facing as a state. I hope that these examples of the areas that are impacted by transportation will drive—or pedal—that home for you.

Kate McCarthy is the Sustainable Communities Program Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She also coordinates the cross-sector Transportation for Vermonters coalition (T4VT), which advocates for a clean, sustainable and innovative transportation system within our rural state.