Of the many stories developing in the Vermont Legislature this spring, perhaps the most interesting is the appointment of Curt McCormack as chair of the House Transportation Committee.
Representative McCormack does not own a car.
In past years, the main function of the committee has been to approve the state’s $600 million transportation budget, most of which has been dedicated to making it easier for people to get places in a car.
Which makes sense, given the fact that for almost a century this country has enabled the automobile to permeate every aspect of our lives. Pretty much anytime we go anywhere, it’s in a car.
But Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson wants to shift the Transportation Committee’s focus this year to offer Vermonters, especially those living in more rural parts of the state, more affordable travel options. McCormack, she said, is the ideal person to oversee an effort to expand rural public transit because of his lived experience. He’s not just an occasional bus rider. He depends on transit to get around, which is the status of the many bus riders who cannot afford their own vehicle. McCormack’s years riding the bus, getting to know his drivers and fellow passengers, experiencing the system’s frustrations as well as its benefits, will bring a unique and valuable perspective to his chairmanship.
No doubt the Transportation Committee with be seeking low or no-cost transit solutions. One effective way to increase bus ridership is with Transportation Demand Management (TDM). The concept is simple—instead of building new roads and parking, reduce the demand for them.
Several regional employers already use this strategy, developing TDM plans for lofty as well as practical reasons. They may want to align their behavior with their stated environmental values, or they may find due to cost or space limitations, they are unable to provide parking for all their employees. They have discovered that changing travel behavior can be cheaper than buying land and spreading asphalt.
One example is the University of Vermont, which wants to reduce the number of people who drive to campus alone each day. UVM requires faculty and staff to pay a percent of their salary to park, which ranges from $150 to more than $600 a year, depending on one’s paycheck. To compensate, it provides free bus passes with added benefits for walking, cycling or taking the bus. There is flexibility built into the program. Those who choose to forgo an on-campus parking permit, can access guaranteed rides home in emergencies, at no cost. And they receive ten free daily parking passes a year, as well as the option to buy day parking at reduced rates.
TDM policies make a difference. Statewide, about three-quarters of work trips consist of people driving alone. For UVM faculty and staff however, the drive-alone rate is 53 percent. A big chunk of those non-drivers are taking the bus.
This type of program has a positive impact on local bus systems in a few ways. UVM pays about $300,000 a year to provide this service to staff and faculty. These commuters become advocates for better bus service, which sets up a positive feedback loop. More bus riders and funding equals more bus routes, which results in more bus riders. But for this to work, we need effective disincentives to drive—like charging more for parking. TDM works when parking costs rise along with more compelling alternatives.
Building a robust and effective public transit system will require additional spending, but the Transportation Committee can protect that investment by championing the efforts of businesses and institutions who already reward transit use, and supporting others who want to give it a try. The legislature can also manage its own employees’ transportation demands—enabling and rewarding workers who get to the office by a more efficient and sustainable mode. Imagine the positive impacts on downtown Montpelier if an aggressive TDM program were to cut solo commuting by a third or half—cleaner air, less congestion, and finally, the opportunity to put the acres of asphalt along the city’s riverfront to far better use.
McCormack has his work cut out for him. Car dependency is real and travel choices are limited. But there is other low-hanging fruit yet to be picked. One-quarter of all trips in Vermont are less than a mile. Many more of us could be walking more and driving less.
Policies that support higher densities, better pedestrian infrastructure and an effective rural transit system would make a huge difference. And it all seems a bit more possible with decision makers who understand not only the urgency of sustainable transportation, but what an effective system would look like.
Richard Watts teaches policy and media studies at the University of Vermont and is a regular bike commuter, transit rider and pedestrian from his home in Hinesburg.
Julie is the editor of STVT, an urban designer, land planner, lecturer and author who writes about urban form and the changing landscape. Her books include Made for Walking and Visualizing Density.