OP-ED: Housing is a Transportation Issue

by Anne Watson

When talking to people about energy issues, most of the conversations revolve around electricity or heating. Transportation, which represents more than one third of Vermont’s energy consumption, often gets left out of the conversation. It’s not usually considered the low-hanging fruit, ripe for change in our society. Our transportation systems are limited by the models put out by a handful of manufacturers and the choices we have for public transit in Vermont. I’d like to make the case, though, that there is one other factor that’s important in the transportation conversation: housing.

On a personal note, I grew up in Essex, and after I got my master’s degree, lived with my parents while paying off student loan debt. Even after I got a job teaching in Montpelier, I commuted from Essex for years. One day, while driving to work in February, I watched a car go off the road right in front of me. I was fine, although a little shook up, but I decided then that I could no longer take my life in my hands just to get to work. I started taking the bus from the Richmond Park & Ride to Montpelier High School. Eventually even that became too much, and I ended up buying a condo here in Montpelier.

I grew up with the thirty-minutes-from-everywhere mentality, so common to Vermont living. I did not want that for my adult life. A walkable, bikeable, very short commute is one of the reasons I moved to Montpelier.

Montpelier has over 20,000 jobs and less than 8,000 residents. Many more people commute in than out. It’s no wonder that Montpelier has a seller’s market. If we want to reduce the carbon footprint of Vermonters, we need make more housing available in community centers. Beyond providing alternative transportation, reducing the need for regular long commutes is key for reducing our collective carbon footprint.

During my campaign for mayor I talked a lot about how 30 percent of Montpelier residents are paying more than 30 percent of their incomes toward their housing. If you include transportation in that calculation, it becomes even more shocking.

According to the H+T Affordability Index (htaindex.cnt.org/map), the “typical” Montpelier household spends between 41 and 53 percent of their income on the combination of housing and transportation. To put that in perspective, though, according to the same site, Montpelier fares much better than more remote parts of Vermont. In some locations the “typical” household spends 70 percent of their income on the combination of housing and transportation. One way to think of this is that transportation is a hidden cost built into housing costs. It also works the other way around. The proximity of housing to community centers is a critical element of any transportation system. Public transportation systems are trickier to set up and less cost effective when the distribution of houses is more spread out.

Consider that our zoning choices (density, height limitations, etc.) all have transportation and therefore climate impacts. This is one of the reasons I’m excited about the recent approval of the tax increment financing (TIF) district. It will open up possibilities for more housing and development in our community where the possibility didn’t exist before. More people will be able to live in Montpelier, closer to work, reducing the impact of Vermonters’ transportation on the climate.

Anne Watson is the mayor of Montpelier

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