Deciding to care about our climate crisis can feel overwhelming. Should we strike or protest? Do we all need to buy electric vehicles (EVs)? There is no doubt we should focus on transportation, which accounts for the largest chunk of Vermont’s carbon consumption - around 45 percent of all emissions and getting worse year to year.
The problem with investing in EVs is the problem of building our lives around automobiles. First, it is unhealthy. 40,000 people die each year in the U.S. in motor vehicle collisions. Vehicles kill more children than any other cause – more than all cancers and heart disease put together, more than gun violence or drownings. It’s no wonder many kids no longer have the freedom to walk to school or even play in their front yards. This creates a reality in which 250,000 Americans die early every year due to lack of physical activity, which causes conditions from back pain to breast cancer to dementia.
A future of EVs is still a future of strip malls and office parks, with struggling town and village centers. It commits us to maintaining an overbuilt public and private road and parking network that we already can’t afford. As flooding becomes more common and destructive, a future of EVs means more Vermont land along our highways running through our river valleys filled and covered in impermeable asphalt.
Money invested in EVs mostly leaves Vermont. Investing in a Vermont built for humans rather than for automobiles means that money builds the common spaces in our village, town, and city centers that make Vermont special. When our jobs are in places only accessible by vehicles, we add thousands of dollars to the cost of living of those who work those jobs. While young urban dwellers are increasingly choosing to save thousands a year by living without vehicles in big cities, investing in EVs takes us further away from allowing this option in small town Vermont. My own dual working parent family with 3 kids has easily saved $50-100k over the past 12 years since going down to one vehicle - without a state subsidy.
In our guts, we know that asking the state to help us buy a new car is not the kind of solution that will truly address the climate crisis. Excessive carbon consumption is the symptoms of a bigger cultural crisis. Automobiles are a major cause and the literal vehicle of our alienation from nature, from our communities, and from our own bodies. They allow us to go through lives without experiencing our natural environment. They are the vehicle of white flight and suburbanification. Here in Vermont they allow us to physically distance ourselves from realities of our fellow Vermonters who may be different from us or have lower incomes. In an age of increasing conflict, we are pick ups passing Priuses on the roads rather than human beings coming face to face. Automobiles and environments made for automobiles allow us to move hundreds of miles a day while barely using our bodies, even while our bodies and brains deteriorate for lack of physical activity – causing an enormous burden of physical suffering and disability.
I realize automobiles aren’t going away soon. Vermonters that work the land and forests, those that build and maintain our world, and those who respond to emergencies are among those that need to use them. But many of us who care deeply about the climate crisis could adapt to day-to-day lives without vehicles. Many of us already do – in my census tract in St. Johnsbury 17 percent of households don’t own a single vehicle. Vermont has a huge advantage in a low carbon, more resilient future because our towns were built for humans before the age of the automobile. They can thrive again if we simply allow more of us who don’t have to drive to choose a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
So how can we drive down carbon consumption, transportation and healthcare costs, and pollution by allowing more Vermonters to live more of our lives outside of our vehicles? Here are some simple ideas:
- A moratorium on public investment in places that are inaccessible by foot from town centers. Too many publicly funded institutions such as state offices, schools, social services, low-income and senior housing, and medical and mental healthcare clinics have been built off highways and in office parks that don’t allow us to safely access them without a vehicle. New construction outside of towns is often cheaper short term, but leads to many long-term costs - including climate change. Imagine St. Johnsbury if the $31.9 million of annual economic activity of the St. Johnsbury Academy were moved just a mile or two out of town. Now imagine how moving the similar annual economic activity on the hospital campus back into town.
- A return of hub-to-hub public transportation. Currently each new spur outside of town stretches our public transportation system even thinner, making our bus service less reliable and less frequent. We could have reliable train-like service between towns today without any additional resources if our buses ran directly to and from town centers. Our current system subsidizes unhealthy development choices with public money.
- Rethink laws that promote automobiles. We should not be forcing developers to build a certain number of parking spaces. We should make sure our zoning allows for dense housing in our town centers and promotes access to open space outdoor recreation in and near towns.
- Re-imagine collaboration for a modern age. The state should expand programs to allow remote work. Each time an employee is required to drive for a meeting, we pay several times over. Directly or indirectly we pay for the hours spent driving, per-mile reimbursement, wear on our roads, need for additional parking infrastructure, and healthcare costs associated with the effects of prolonged sitting. Imagine instead we use those resources to increase access to high-speed internet, perhaps even public internet like was recently installed in Lyndon. The state could also subsidize use of our growing network of collaborative co-working spaces in small town hubs rather than maintaining expensive offices and parking lots in Montpelier and Burlington.
- Imaginative shared transportation. I know that no matter where I want to go - many of my neighbors are driving there any given day. Hitchhiking is probably the most time efficient and green ways to travel, and it should safe and ubiquitous. Why not an app that vets riders and drivers who want to participate? How can we promote a rural version of the current app-based systems that make ride sharing so easy in urban America? More options mean better lives for those who live without our own vehicles. If we don’t adopt these systems as driverless cars drive down shared transportation costs, we will lose economic competitiveness to urban areas.
These are just few ideas. I would love to hear more. I don’t want to discourage people who must drive from buying EVs, I just hope we can expand the conversation and vision beyond electric vehicles.
John Raser, of St. Johnsbury, is a doctor and member of the town bike and pedestrian committee.