I live on a country road in Hinesburg, with a walkability score of 0—meaning there is nothing within walking distance of my house, except a very nice walk. There are no stores, jobs, or other necessities of daily life. Despite our remote location, we’re a two-driver, one car family. And it works.
During the week, my routine varies between pedaling the twelve miles to my job in Burlington or riding as far as the village, where I mount my bike on a GMT bus heading into the city.
It may seem obvious, but the most effective way to cut your driving is to not own a car. Once you make the investment—purchase, registration, insurance, maintenance—using a car makes economic sense, so you end up driving more. This is a fact confirmed recently by the annual U.S. National Travel Survey. Three-car households drive more than two, and two-car households drive more than one.
In Vermont, where 94 percent of households own one or more cars, driving alone to work (74%) is the norm. Going car-free is difficult, but selling a second car can mean a significant decline in a household’s driving—and its carbon footprint from travel.
Which is why organizations like CarShare Vermont can make a big impact. It offers families the use of vehicles without the financial commitment of ownership. For every vehicle CarShare puts into circulation, 16 households sell a car. It offers easy access to cars but discourages excessive driving by charging by the mile. And it makes my decision to commute without a car a lot easier. CarShare’s Honda Fit named “Cosmo” is parked a few hundred feet from my office. Grabbing Cosmo to get to a Colchester appointment or to take a student to an evening meeting makes it possible to do my job without a car.
My rural one-car lifestyle is made possible with a few advantages. Hinesburg is served by a weekday commuter bus, leaving early morning (7:00 and 7:45) and returning in the afternoon (4:47 and 5:23). I have a significant financial incentive—my employer offers me a free bus pass and I save the $300 a year it would cost me to park. And I can get a free taxi ride home when I am delayed at work after the last bus.
Commuting without a car isn’t easy and can sometimes be painful—standing at a bus stop in zero degrees, stamping your feet to avoid freezing, drivers clipping too close, beeping without reason, bike paths that end abruptly, sidewalks that disappear…
It hits you over the head with the fact that our state cares more about people in cars than those who travel without one. Transit schedules are limited and just walking to and from the bus can be stressful. Last week one of my fellow riders expressed anxiety about crossing the street as she stepped off the bus. The 21-second stop cycle allotted to cross three lanes of idling cars with their impatient drivers, was clearly not enough to make her safe.
Car dependency is real and choices are limited. I don’t mean to minimize that. But a quarter of the trips Vermonters take are under one mile. Walking and biking should be the best option. And if more people experience the day-to-day life of a biker or bus rider, they will demand better bus service, safe crossings and bike paths that don’t end.
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.