Beyond the car

Movement begins to boost efforts to make town more pedestrian, cyclist friendly

BRATTLEBORO — What are the links among climate change, health care, and transportation policy?

For Dr. Rebecca Jones, developing transportation policy that's bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly would get more people out of their cars, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to climate change. And having people walk and bike more makes them healthier, which in turn, reduces health care costs.

“A transportation system designed around walking and biking can make an incredible difference in all three areas,” she said. “We need to start looking at this as a necessity, not a luxury.”

Jones, a dermatologist with a practice on Elliot Street, is working with Paul Cameron, the head of Brattleboro Climate Protection, to start a dialogue centered around the nexus of these three seemingly separate issues. They held the first meeting on the subject on April 1 at the Elliot Street Cafe, with 15 people in attendance.

Other state groups involved include 350 Vermont, the Vermont Workers Center, Vermont Sierra Club, and Local Motion.

Meeting participants were asked to share stories about transportation, and problems they encounter trying to get where they need to go in town or Windham County.

The list of issues in Brattleboro was a long one: no usable bike paths in Brattleboro, sidewalks in poor repair or cluttered with trash cans or recycling bins, poorly-marked crosswalks, and limited bus and train service in and out of town.

People outside of Brattleboro said the biggest problem is limited to non-existent service from Connecticut River Transit (CRT), aside from its Route 5 service between Bellows Falls and Brattleboro. The lack of public transportation means that people who live in the West River Valley, or are beyond the main routes of CRT and the Deerfield Valley's MOOver, are dependent on cars to get around.

The biggest problem, said Gary Fox of Bellows Falls, was that people have to “design your life around transportation, instead of having a transportation system that fits our lives.”

“Transportation is such a basic human need, but that is not being met,” said Cameron.

Cameron pointed out that 50 percent of Vermont's carbon emissions come from transportation, mainly cars and trucks.

“So obviously, if you are going to address climate change, you have to address transportation,” he said.

Good for business

The Vermont Agency of Transportation recently conducted a study on the economic and environmental impacts of bicycling and walking on the state's economy. It found that these activities had a total annual fiscal impact of $1.6 million on the state budget, helped to create more than 1,400 jobs and labor earnings of $41 million, and provided $85 million in savings in avoided consumer and public transportation costs.

“Bicycling and walking are an important part of the Vermont transportation system, but they could be even more important,” according to the report. “Ensuring that Vermonters have safe and convenient facilities for walking and bicycling could save the state millions of dollars per year in health care, social services, and transportation costs.”

Both Jones and Cameron are optimistic that the Vermont Legislature will start incorporating transportation planning and policy that revolves less around cars.

Jones cited work done last fall by AARP Vermont. It awarded Brattleboro a $15,000 grant to support a design initiative to transform the upper Canal Street area between Fairground Road and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Rethinking that area would, in the words of AARP, “improve livability, walkability, and active transportation.”

The “after” picture of Canal Street, as designed by Dan Burden, co-founder and executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute based in Port Townsend, Wash., was striking. Landscaping and traffic calming methods, such as narrower car lanes, a roundabout, and a landscaped median strip, transform the busy street into a boulevard.

“The great part about this process is that we can think beyond what seems possible,” said Cameron.

But before Brattleboro becomes a cycling and walking mecca, it will need more support from residents.

“We want to collect as many stories as possible and schedule another meeting soon,” said Jones, adding that people in other towns that would like to hold similar transportation meetings should contact [email protected].

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