This, friends and neighbors, is a typical streetscape in Amsterdam. Note the balanced, complete integration of auto, pedestrian, bicycle and public transit.
Meanwhile, here in America, the best we can do is staple bikeways and walkways onto existing streets and roads in ways that put non-motorists in danger and force our buses to fight their way through traffic. And I fear that our coming investments in infrastructure and greenhouse gas reduction will do little to change this dysfunctional reality.
Funny thing. The Netherlands is a far better place to drive than any American city. In fact, it’s been rated the best country in the world to drive in. It’s faster for motorists in spite of the relatively narrow roadways, and it’s a damn sight safer.
And before you can say “Oh, well, the Dutch have always been weird,” their towns and cities used to be car-centric until fairly recently. And they were loud and crowded and difficult to get around in, just like their American counterparts. But the Dutch made a concerted effort to define “transportation” as it should be defined: “getting the most people from one place to another as quickly as possible.” And that doesn’t mean more and wider roads, because more and wider roads actually slow things down.
Vermont’s Climate Action Plan includes a lot of pretty noises about equity, creativity, and alternative modes of transportation. Sounds nice, but Gov. Phil Scott’s plan focuses almost entirely on electric vehicle subsidies and infrastructure. That would mitigate our climate footprint, but it would do nothing to make our transportation system better, safer or more equitable. Right now we have a flood of federal Covid cash to invest; if we adopt Scott’s plan, we will squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The governor is far from alone in this lack of imagination. Remember the yowling in Burlington’s New North End when the city proposed changing North Avenue from four lanes to three? Even in such an allegedly progressive community, people are wedded to a single idea when it comes to transportation.
A lot of this post is inspired by a YouTube series called “Not Just Bikes,” which is about transportation, housing and urban planning. It’s the creation of Jason Slaughter, who grew up in London, Ontario and now lives in Amsterdam. One of his videos showed a routine trip that would be unthinkable on this continent: He bicycled to Ikea.
One of Slaughter’s favorite bugaboos is the “stroad,” a bastardized amalgam of “street” (a way to make a short trip) and “road” (for longer trips). Stroads (think Williston Road in South Burlington) combine the worst of both worlds. They’re dangerous for everyone because there’s so much cross-traffic. They’re horrible for bikers, pedestrians and buses. But the crowning blow is that they make travel slower because so many people are exiting, entering, and changing lanes, and there are so many traffic signals.
“There’s no solution to traffic congestion except viable alternatives to driving,” Slaughter says in one of his videos. There are a couple of tested explanations for this. The Downs-Thomson Paradox says that speed of car traffic on a road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys taken by public transport. The reasoning behind it is simple: Your primary interest is making a trip as quickly as possible. If public transport doesn’t do the trick, more and more people will drive. If walking or cycling is dangerous and unpleasant, you’ll take the car. On the other hand, if biking or walking or taking the bus becomes easier, fewer people will drive and there will be fewer cars clogging up the roads.
And you can’t build your way out of the paradox. The Lewis-Mogridge Position states that as more roads are built, more traffic will quickly fill them. I saw this in my old stomping grounds, metro Detroit. There’s an eight- to ten-lane freeway called I-275 that goes through the city’s western suburbs. When it was built, there was little development along the corridor. That immediately began to change. Now, I-275 is constantly overcrowded and prone to traffic jams like this:
Yeah, nobody should want that, but we just can’t help ourselves.
There are other massive benefits to rethinking transportation. It would be a tremendous boost for social equity. In America, car ownership is practically a necessity. But it’s expensive! The average cost of owning a car in Vermont has been estimated at just under $5,000 a year. That’s almost 10% of the state’s median income. Just imagine if working folks had real choices in how they get to work. This, in itself, would answer many of the criticisms that fighting climate change would be burdensome on Vermonters.
And a balanced transportation system would make greenhouse gas reduction a whole lot easier. If we maintain the same auto-dependent system but convert to electric vehicles, our electricity consumption will shoot upward. It’ll be that much harder to meet GHG targets if we don’t cut total energy use in transportation.
Finally, I hear voices in the back saying that none of this will work in Vermont because it’s a rural state. Of course. Stuff that works in Amsterdam can’t simply be transplanted into St. Johnsbury or Bristol or Rockingham or Liberty. But a lot of it can be applied to the Burlington area, some of it can be applied to other cities and towns, and with some creative thinking we can find solutions for rural Vermont as well.
Take, for example, central Vermont’s experiment with on-demand transit, which turns a bus system into something very much like Uber. If it works, it’ll make public transit a far more accessible and dependable option. As Slaughter said in another of his videos, “If you have to look up a schedule when you travel, your transit system has already failed you.”
(I once looked into taking public transit from my home to Central Vermont Medical Center. The trip would have begun with a mile-and-a-half walk to the nearest bus stop, which had an irregular and infrequent schedule. Then I would have had to switch buses at least once to get to CVMC. It would have taken hours.)
I suppose I should also address winter. “You can’t bicycle in winter,” I hear you say. Well, it may not be as easy as biking in our three other seasons, but it can be done. In one video, Slaughter takes us to the city of Oulu, Finland. You know, the home of bone-chiling cold and long winter nights and reindeer, where freezing temperatures are the norm from November to April? The city that’s barely 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle? Well, in Oulu, 22% of all trips are made by bicycle — including in winter. It can be done.
I hope the Legislature can escape the inside-the-box thinking of the Scott administration and launch the process of remaking our transportation system. If we do nothing much besides encouraging the transition to EVs, that’s great. But we’ve got the resources right now to do something bigger and better.
Postscript. Shockingly, I’m not the only one who’s thinking along these lines. See also Sustainable Transportation Vermont, a blog about just what you suspect. And here’s a link to an op-ed by UVM’s Richard Watts on the Climate Action Plan’s perfunctory reference to reducing vehicle miles.