This commentary is by Richard Watts, is the former director of research at the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont and co-founder of Sustainable Transportation Vermont.
From Putney to Hinesburg, more than 110 citizens joined the Climate Council meeting Sept. 28. And the transportation carbon footprint was pretty close to zero. Why? Because the meeting took place on Zoom.
Vermonters present got to put in their two cents but the meeting itself underscores a way forward.
The biggest challenge the council has to address is transportation — the state’s leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the state lacks any agency or department with this mission.
And here the council should revisit the lessons learned when the state set out to reduce electricity use.
The story starts with energy guru Amory Lovins, who championed the idea of the nega-watt in the early 1970s. The concept was simple — the cheapest and greenest unit of electricity was the unit not used. Instead of investing in a new power plant to meet increased electric demand, we could invest in using less electricity, reducing societal use, environmental impacts and consumers’ bills.
In the 1990s, despite sharp prodding from regulators, Vermont’s electric utilities proved themselves incapable of moving in this direction (except for Burlington Electric Department). The idea of investing in using less went against decades of training and practice.
So, legislators and regulators gave up on the electric utilities and created a new entity — Efficiency Vermont — charged simply with reducing electric use. None of this was easy (listen to this podcast with VEIC co-founder Beth Sachs) but the results are stunning.
Using research-based approaches, Efficiency Vermont has saved Vermonters $4.6 billion in energy costs and millions of tons of CO2. The utilities parent, VEIC, is now running similar utilities in other states around the U.S. Vermont is considered a national leader and the model is being copied elsewhere.
Contrast that with transportation. Here we fall far behind our peers, with some of the highest per-capita transportation energy use in the country. And deep gaps depending on income, equity and access.
It is time to start over with a clean slate and apply the nega-watt concept to transportation. The cheapest and greenest watt of energy is the one not used in a motor vehicle (gas or electric). The unit here should be VMT (miles traveled in a motorized vehicle). And the nega-watt equivalent is the nega-mile — a mile not traveled in a personal vehicle.
Each year, Vermonters travel many hundreds of millions of these miles. Yet there is no Vermont agency with a mission to reduce VMT. Vermont’s Agency of Transportation does a good job at managing and improving our roads and bridges to move cars and trucks — maintaining and improving a system built on 80 years of car use. But reducing VMT is not its mission.
Take the recent surge in telecommuting. And events like the council’s Zoom meeting. The pandemic has shown that more people can work from home. In research by the Center for Research on Vermont, more than three-quarters of Vermont’s workers said they would like to telecommute more — after a year of experiencing it. Yet, there is a mishmash of rules and approaches regarding telework, depending on the organization.
Here is an opportunity to seize. But what agency has this as its mission?
The strength of the Efficiency Vermont model was the research-based approach to reducing societal energy use. The utility started with the lowest hanging fruit (light bulbs and motors) and moved on, bringing also a social equity lens. Bills went down and quality of life went up with better and more efficient lighting.
In transportation, some creative players are exploring these ideas, such as a program to pay people to drive less, or CarShare Vermont or GoVermont, which attempt to connect commuters. And many others. But there is no one entity knitting them together.
And any real conversation about reducing our transportation footprint will have to include changing some of our transportation habits. Simply moving the state’s 600,000 vehicles to electric, and continuing business as usual, is not the solution — think of the environmental impacts of manufacturing a car, mining the precious metals, disposing of the batteries and so on. Not to mention locking in an auto-dependent, auto-centered future.
Instead, we need a new player with transportation planning expertise with a clear mission: Enable Vermonters to reduce the miles they travel in automobiles.
Provide real alternatives. Transit that works, sidewalks that don’t end, investments in our village and town centers and planning that supports people moving toward less auto-dependent lifestyles.
There are a number of programs that we could implement today. They won’t be easy. But it starts with creating an agency with that single focus. And one huge added benefit: Perhaps again we can create a model that will benefit other states and countries.