In a recent post, Gina Campoli reminded us that Vermont is falling short of meeting its stated goals to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Data from 2015 show that greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector actually increased by 12% over the two previous years! While this is bad news for climate change, it may be even worse news for health.
Transportation used to be a significant source of physical activity, even into the mid-to-late 20th century. Nationwide, in 1960, over ten percent of adults walked to work; by 2010, that rate had fallen below three percent. Fifty years ago, nearly half of all kids in the U.S. walked or biked to school. By 2009, that rate had dropped to only 13 percent. With sedentary behaviors becoming more common at work and during leisure time, the implications for health are not good.
Recent data from the Health Department’s 3-4-50 initiative show that 41 percent of Vermont adults and 77 percent of youth do not achieve recommended levels of physical activity. Physical inactivity, along with diet and other factors, contributes to 28 percent of adults and 13 percent of adolescents in Vermont being obese.
People who are overweight or obese are at increased risk for many serious health conditions, including diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and some cancers. More than 50 percent of deaths in Vermont are caused by these largely preventable chronic diseases. Since treating these diseases cost more than $2 billion in 2016 alone, physical inactivity is not only a health and quality of life issue, it’s a significant economic burden.
But despite this bad news, challenges can create opportunities. Many solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions--particularly in the transportation sector-- also benefit public health. Reducing our dependence on motor vehicles would not only increase physical activity, it would cut down on air pollution. Not to mention that reducing greenhouse gas emissions also helps reduce the expected health impacts of climate change.
The most recent Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) acknowledges these connections by supporting economic, environmental, and health goals while working to achieve energy goals. This perspective is consistent with the state’s Health in All Policies approach, which seeks to enhance health alongside other state goals. Sustainable transportation strategies help make progress on several of the “Healthy Vermonters” priorities listed in the CEP, such as “encouraging active lifestyles” and “improving outdoor air quality.”
The CEP includes several transportation goals that would provide major health benefits. There’s a heavy emphasis on vehicle electrification, which would help reduce air pollution. It also includes goals for reducing transportation energy usage, by holding steady per capita vehicle miles traveled and making significant shifts in travel mode from single-occupancy motor vehicles to more energy efficient modes. One particularly ambitious goal is to double the rate of walking, biking, and public transit usage, which would likely provide substantial health benefits.
The shift from driving alone to walking and biking has been frustratingly slow, but unsurprising given our increasingly dispersed land use pattern and auto-centric culture, combined with hectic daily schedules. But we are making progress. New initiatives and allies in the health sector are part of the solution. Here are a few examples of how they contribute to sustainable transportation initiatives across the state:
Health is a powerful motivator, and can provide supportive allies
In 2011, Governor Shumlin signed the Complete Streets bill into law, which requires the state and municipalities to consider the needs of all users in road projects. Health and safety, especially for older adults and other non-drivers, were key motivations for this legislation. AARP Vermont partnered with over 40 organizations from across the state, including organizations focused on health and wellness, to provide support for this law. Following adoption, the Health Department funded and developed a Complete Streets guide for Vermont communities, and organized trainings on Complete Streets with state, regional, and local planning and engineering staff.
Similar partnerships between health professionals and community transportation initiatives are ongoing and widespread around the state. Two organizations actively engaged in these partnerships are Local Health Offices and RiseVT. There are 12 Local Health Offices around the state, and each has staff that specialize in healthy community design. RiseVT started as an initiative in Franklin and Grand Isle counties to promote healthy lifestyles, but has recently expanded statewide in partnership with OneCare Vermont, the statewide Accountable Care Organization. Some examples of their recent work include:
In Newport, the Local Health Office partnered with local businesses and community members to conduct walking audits of local streets and to provide bike racks at local businesses.
RiseVT in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties worked with the City of St. Albans community to help advocate for new sidewalk requirements in their updated zoning bylaws. They also partnered with local schools to help increase opportunities for walking to school, including walking school buses.
In Bennington, Local Health staff worked with the Town and Regional Commission to demo a temporary bicycle & pedestrian lane through a busy part of downtown. The lane was so popular that it has been retained and plans are being made to extend it to the Ninja Trail, which will eventually connect to Bennington College.
The City of Barre recently signed on as the first 3-4-50 Gold Level Community in the state, which acknowledges its progress and commitment towards healthy community design, including an emphasis on providing safe walking and biking opportunities.
The Local Health Office is part of the Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation, which successfully advocated in March for Town Meeting to authorize the purchase of a second sidewalk plow, which will help residents stay active all winter.
In Burlington, Local Health staff promote safe and healthy transportation by conducting Health Impact Assessments on local projects, including the North Avenue Corridor Study and Plan BTV South End.
Investing in active transportation is a wise investment for health
In a recent study in the Nashville region of Tennessee (with a population twice that of Vermont), researchers used a health model to assess the impact of increasing the daily time spent walking or biking by 10 minutes per person on average. By increasing physical activity and reducing air pollution, the authors estimated that they would avoid nearly 120 early deaths and reduce direct healthcare expenditures and indirect productivity losses by over $100 million per year! They also noted that increased physical activity accounted for 99.9 percent of the overall health benefit.
The health sector is already investing in sustainable transportation
Vermont healthcare providers and insurers already know that investing in walking and biking is critical for health improvement and have been doing so for years. For example:
The Northwestern Medical Center has helped fund sidewalks, trails, and physical activity programs in Enosburg.
The Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital has funded bike helmets for adults and children and trailhead kiosks and maps for the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
The University of Vermont Medical Center and BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont provide funding to support the new Greenride Bikeshare program in Chittenden County. Over 2,000 members have joined the Bikeshare since it launched earlier this year and have burned nearly 500,000 calories on Bikeshare trips.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it provides some insight into the role that the health sector plays as a sustainable transportation partner. So next time you are hard at work on a sustainable transportation initiative, consider the health impacts, identify local or statewide health organizations that would be likely supporters, and seek ways to partner on program delivery, messaging, or funding. Let’s work together to help make choosing clean and healthy transportation options even easier for Vermonters.
Jared Ulmer is the Climate & Health Program Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Health. In this role, Jared helps Vermonters increase preparedness for the health impacts of climate change and promotes health improvement through appropriate climate change mitigation strategies. Jared is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.