This commentary is by Rebecca Jones, a physician in Brattleboro and an active member of 350Brattleboro and 350Vermont.
When asked to envision a future where we successfully confront the climate crisis, people often describe a world with bustling communities filled with pedestrians and bicyclists, and where buses and trains have made cars unnecessary.
The hard part seems to be making that leap from our present transportation system, so heavily dependent upon single-occupancy vehicles, to one that provides good, dependable and predictable electric public transit and safe walk/bike infrastructure.
Over 60 legislators have written in support of Vermont’s Transportation Innovation Act, an act designed to bring new thinking to how Vermonters move. Why?
A little background: The Transportation Innovation Act follows the spirit of the Climate Action Plan, which is itself designed to bring Vermont to its legally binding 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act goals. The Global Warming Solutions Act requires that Vermont reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions would need to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050.
That is a lot of numbers and not a lot of time. Suffice it to say, since transportation accounts for 40% of Vermont’s emissions, it is essential we challenge the status quo and make real changes in our fossil fuel burning, single-occupancy-vehicle-dependent transportation system. And we need to do it soon.
Right now the governor’s transportation bill, which does consider the weight of climate change and the challenge of reducing emissions, depends on the electrification of single-occupancy vehicles to do the heavy lifting to reduce emissions. While electric cars and trucks can be better than those that burn fossil fuels, simply shifting toward electric vehicles will not address the climate crisis.
There are many reasons for this For instance, presently there are about 230,000 private vehicles in Vermont (4,000 electric). The carbon emitted just to build 200,000 new cars would be significant, and send us further away from our goals of carbon reduction.
Because these would be cars purchased by individuals, the state is not including that carbon in its calculations, but unfortunately the emissions would be very real indeed. And, while Vermont generates some of its own power from what are counted as renewable sources, three-fifths of its electricity comes from Canada and other New England states, and those sources burn fossil fuels and release potent greenhouse gases like methane.
So, the electricity generated to fuel electric cars in Vermont would still contribute to climate change. While electric buses and trains would also require electricity, the amount would be much less than that to fuel 200,000 single-occupancy vehicles.
Furthermore, a plan that depends upon replacing all or most private cars with electric ones in the next one to five years puts most of the responsibility on private citizens. Even with the rebates proposed in Gov. Scott’s bill, there would be a heavy financial burden on individuals, and it would leave out the many Vermonters who cannot afford a new car.
A commitment as important as the Global Warming Solutions Act cannot be placed primarily on the shoulders of private citizens.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are many Vermonters who cannot drive (youth, elders, and those physically unable), cannot afford a car, or who do not want to drive. They are already restricted in where they can live and work because they cannot access or afford dependable transportation.
We must take this opportunity as we reimagine our transportation system to make it not only sustainable, but also equitable.
The Transportation Innovation Act does not go far enough. It proposes community grants for local innovation around transportation initiatives rather than suggesting a simple, statewide integrated and funded system, and it doesn’t do enough to support the walk/bike infrastructure we need.
The Transportation Innovation Act is an aspirational proposition that recognizes we need to be doing more and in a different direction than we are headed presently. It is a start, and an acknowledgement.
What the Legislature and the governor need to hear is that Vermonters really care about climate change, recognize the urgency of the situation, and are ready to see and support changes in the state that could set an example for the rest of the country.
It is understood that the linchpin in reducing greenhouse gases and creating a sustainable future is reduced consumption. In that spirit, we need to transition away from a transportation system that requires each person to own a vehicle, and toward one that offers transportation as a public good.
Even now, every time a person makes the choice not to drive a car — to take a bus or train, to walk or bike instead — that person is contributing to the public good by reducing emissions, and bringing us that much closer to solving the climate crisis.
Let’s make that choice the easy one. Imagine a transportation system where electric buses and trains are just a phone app away, and bike paths and sidewalks throughout the state allow us to move about safely and freely. There are so many benefits to moving away from cars that go beyond carbon emissions — health, safety, equity. In some ways, buses and trains aren’t even “new,” though we can bring new technologies to make systems even better.
Call your representatives and tell them you support the Transportation Innovation act and beyond. Read about 350 Vermont’s Just Transition campaign. Join in!