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Watts: Bus Service

GMT bus makes its careful way through a typical Vermont snowstorm.

Of the many story-lines developing in the Vermont Legislature this session, one of the most interesting is the appointment of Curt McCormack as chair of the House Transportation Committee – because Representative McCormack doesn’t own a car.
One of the main functions of the committee in the past, has been to approve the state’s $600 million transportation budget, most of which is dedicated to making it easier for people to get around by automobile - and for good reason.

Over the past 70 years or so, cars have become more pervasive in all aspects of our lives. Pretty much anytime we go anywhere for a purpose, it’s in one.

There have been consequences, of course, from a variety of environmental impacts like increasing Co2 levels to contributing to our obesity crisis to reducing the time we spend with our neighbors. But the car has become so indispensable that environmental leaders who used to talk about reducing car dependence are now enthusiastically promoting electric cars - even though they provide marginal environmental benefits – and do nothing for social and public health impacts AND those left out of a car-centric world. That would include those too young and too old to drive, and those who simply lack access to cars. For low-income people, owning a car can cost a quarter of the household budget.

Speaker of the House, Mitzi Johnson, from rural Grand Isle County understands this. And she’s directed new committee chairman McCormack to pay particular attention to bus systems in rural areas - to think about all Vermonters. And McCormack knows public transportation - the speaker said - because he rides it.

The challenge is daunting. Vermont is rural and the things we travel to – like job, store and school - have become increasingly spread out. But there are still things that can be done. And some can be accomplished at low or no cost to the state - like employer based programs that charge money for parking and provide free bus service that in turn brings in new bus riders and builds incentive for better service.

And someone who actually rides the bus has a head start on understanding both the challenges and the possibilities.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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