Savoring the Cheddar

by Kevin Geiger, Senior Planner, TRORC

For the most part, transportation is about going from point A to point B. Like rats, we are all trying to get to that darn cheese at the end of the maze without tearing our whiskers out.

For decades, the field of transportation planning has been about building a better maze. Is the road wide enough? Does it take too long? Is it safe? In this approach, constructing roads was always the answer, and boy did we get more roads.

Those roads have enabled our commuting, which in Vermont allows us to enjoy pastoral life without paying the true costs of driving. I live about ten miles from town on a sparsely traveled road. When the kids forget their cleats or I need to zip into town to get milk and eggs, I usually don’t think of it as an $11.60 trip. But that’s what it is according to the federal mileage rate, which calculates the true dollar costs of operating a vehicle. The road runoff, the odd dead critter, and my carbon footprint are not included in that $11.60. Those impacts go unpaid, but are tallied up on some level.

A more current approach to transportation planning focuses on moving us around more efficiently, which doesn’t work all that well in rural places. I could carpool, except there is not much traffic. I could telecommute, but the milk and eggs don’t. I could take transit, except there isn’t any anywhere in my town. I could bike to work, except for the big hill and a road with no shoulders. Like most folks living in rural Vermont, I am stuck with few options. So, I have a thrifty little car and try to combine trips, knowing full well that sooner or later the true cost of driving will come due.

But what if, instead of obsessing over how we get from A to B, we started thinking more about A and B themselves? Maybe life would be better if we just started at the end of the maze. If we lived very close to the cheese, we might be happier and healthier. We would spend less time in cars, and more savoring that cheddar. We would pollute less and walk more. We also might save some serious cash. In nearly every town in Windsor and Orange counties, the cost of transportation exceeds 15% of income. That comes out to several thousands of dollars per year; a really nice vacation, college savings, or a nicer house. Five hundred dollars a month is another $100,000 you can afford in a mortgage!

This is where transportation planning leads directly to housing. If the goal of a transportation system is to enable me to go from home to work and other destinations, a system that offers me a home where I can walk from A to B provides the same utility without the extra roads. All of the environmental costs we have shunted onto the natural world, the health costs of sitting in cars, the literal costs of paving and plowing… all of these are replaced with some sidewalks and decent shoes.

But unfortunately for me, point B is my office in Woodstock, where the average home price is over $400,000. The $500 a month in saved car expenses is not nearly enough for a house within walking distance of my job. What’s a poor rat like me to do?

Actually, since I am a land use planner, not a rat, there is a lot to do. And plenty for all of us to do. The municipal development plan (aka “town plan”) that each Vermont community writes and officially adopts, is the visionary document that lays out what that community wants. It may not spell out how to get there, but it points the way. Town plans can and should be based on community dialog. The goal of “providing safe and affordable homes” for all is enshrined in planning statute, but people must articulate that in their own voices through their town’s plan. Town plans that forcefully support adding homes, especially affordable ones, to villages and downtowns show that their citizens have moved beyond the fear of change, overcome biases against the working poor, and embraced newcomers. Such ‘social regulation’ is not zoning, but can determine if and how new homes are built.

Zoning, too often a maze itself, can be reformed to respond to our new reality, and better support home construction. We can switch to form-based codes–literally making pictures of what development should look like, and removing much of the minutiae in current zoning that discourages re-development and prevents good design

Vermont’s villages are walkable because they are compact, so parcels are small. But luckily, so are modern households. We don’t need to require half-acre lots for each home, when two or four living spaces can fit on that land just fine. Large older homes can be transformed into several apartments for downsizing residents. Small apartments added onto existing homes or in renovated garages make great options for elders who need one-floor living. The permitting process should make these light conversions from single-family to multifamily uses much less onerous. Unlike the town plan, zoning spells out how each community gets to where it wants to go. If the town plan embraces more housing, zoning rules should be written to allow greater density.

With a little care and flair, a lot more people can walk from A to B. Some will be our elderly who can remain active walkers. Others will be young families with kids who repopulate village schools. New residents mean new workers for businesses. And all of these residents will help keep the local stores alive, eat at the café, and add a little life to the places we love.

In short, there are many ways in which we can get to where we need to go, but perhaps the best way, financially, socially, and environmentally, will be not having to go at all.

Smile, say cheese.