The Skinny on Public Transportation, Bicycling, Health and Human Rights—in Vermont, and Beyond

Why we need a great (convenient, affordable, clean, fast, dependable, beautiful, walk/bikeable) public transportation system in Vermont/New England/ the US of A:

Human rights
We don’t often think of transportation as a human right, but I think we should.  Article 13 of the International Declaration of Human Rights states  “everyone has the right to freedom of movement.  The ability to travel at will allows people to hold jobs they like no matter where they live; it frees the elderly and the young from isolation; those who cannot earn a driver’s license to still earn a living.  We do not question the need for highways, we do not question the taxes we pay to keep them open.  Is it such a stretch to say we need a transportation system that works for you even if you can’t or don’t want to drive?  Is it such a stretch to say that our taxes are paying for a system that everyone can use, and a system that is not destroying our environment and our future?  Think of the investments we could make in ourselves and our communities if we could direct some of the $8000.00 + annual cost of owning and driving a car, toward something better.
Driving is killing us.  I mean it, literally.  Car accidents, pollution, climate change (more later), obesity–even skin cancer (It is not true that car windows protect you from the sun: we see significantly more skin cancer on the left than the right side of the body.)  So lets talk about obesity.  Somehow this “disease”, which we know we can cure through diet and exercise, is knocking our medical system, and therefore our economy, to its knees.  Make healthy food affordable, but how do we get everyone to exercise?  Compare walking a half mile to a bus or train, with walking the half a step from front door to car.  22 minutes a day of exercise is all you need to stay healthy, and walking to and from a bus or train would satisfy most of that formost people.

begreenClimate change
To say that climate change both overshadows and engulfs the other issues is an understatement.  We are knowingly making our environment uninhabitable for ourselves, and in Vermont, it’s mostly coming from our cars. In Vermont, half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from cars.  Every time you get in your car you are contributing to climate change, but even climate change activists have virtually no choice but to drive everywhere.  Choice is the important word here—right now you “choose” to drive, because your alternatives really aren’t alternatives.  You could walk or bike to work, except that it’s too far, too dangerous, too hard.  Our communities are not designed around walking or biking: they are not designed around people—they are designed around cars.  Consider traveling from southern Vermont, where I work, to the capital, some 100+ miles away; it is a three-day roundtrip by train (if you were planning on being in Montpelier during business hours), because the train only runs once a day.  We are used to having freedom, and we sometimes think that means we have choices.  We have the freedom to travel wherever we want, but we don’t have the choice to do so in a way that supports human rights, supports our health, and supports our future.

We are at a point where we know we need to do something. Should we have started this decades ago?  Of course, but for better or worse we don’t work that way. The trouble is that the “something” that will finally really address climate change is going to require real change. We have been waiting for our elected officials to make the first move because we have forgotten that they obtained their positions through popularity contests, and people who win popularity contests are rarely the ones who lead change.  So we have to start talking collectively about what is to be done about climate change, and do it.
Rarely do such discussions end with a truly constructive solution, but that is what I am doing here.  I want to be able to walk to a train every day to get to work.  I want to feel good about how I am living my life and know I am not destroying my and my children’s future.  I want to cure my climate change anxiety syndrome, and the only way I can do that is to insist that we start making real changes.  What if that real change was something that also supports human rights and makes us healthier?  What if we took some of the enormous investments we make in our own cars, and in our healthcare system, and direct them toward making a fabulous, beautiful, enviable public transportation system?  Tree-lined streets, nice wide sidewalks, bikepaths everywhere… and all connected with busses and trains that are fast, affordable, dependable, reliable and clean!

To you naysayers I say 1.  First and foremost, it is imperative we move away from fossil fuels, so we have to figure out how.  2.  I am not inventing something new: even Vermont had a public transportation system 100 years ago.  You could take a train to hike the Appalachian Trail! We would pay several times over every year for a public transportation system with the savings from health care. Seriously.  Consider that in 2000 Vermont’s healthcare costs added up to $1 billion, and they are now at $5 billion despite an only 20% increase in population—and the cost is rising dramatically. There is no reason we can’t bring our healthcare costs down to that level again, and part of doing so requires we tackle obesity.  And from a pragmatic standpoint, technology can make the system even more efficient with electronic devices that let busses and people communicate with each other.
Cars are the number one killer of Vermonters and Americans between ages 5 – 35. Cars are the number one killer of active transportation. Inactive transportation is a key driver of obesity. Obesity is a top killer and the key driver of chronic disease. Cars are a key driver of climate pollution. And climate change is the largest global health threat of the 21st century.

A transformative public transportation system built around walking and biking, built around people, not cars, will be a key solution to the climate crisis, the oil crisis, the obesity crisis, the health care cost crisis, and will save a whole lot of lives that would have been lost in the invisible epidemic of motor vehicle fatalities.

Sure, Vermont’s a rural state, and that’s an extra challenge when it comes to public transportation. All the more reason for us to hurry up and get started.


Rebecca Jones MD is a practicing dermatologist in Brattleboro Vermont, the Vermont State Director for Doctors for America, and a climate change activist and member of 350Vermont.  She trained at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and UMASS Medical School.