We celebrated the passage this spring of Vermont's Complete Streets Bill (H.198), which ensures that community and roadway planners think about how people can better access public roadways without a car. Its signing into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin on May 18 was the culmination of a two-year campaign of outreach, public education and statewide advocacy — and was AARP Vermont's highest legislative priority at the Statehouse in 2011. We were joined in support for the bill by about 45 other Vermont organizations.
Free Press: Did your advance work pay off?
Jennifer Wallace Brodeur: Definitely. Having key legislators on board and the voices of so many partner organizations really made the difference. The final bill gained unanimous support not only from the House and Senate, but from key organizations such as the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the business community. Rep. Mollie Burke of Brattleboro sponsored this bill and helped move it through to passage. Her support was critical in the campaign.
FP: Who else moved it along?
JWB: The transportation committee chairs in both the House and Senate — Rep. Patrick Brennan and Sen. Richard Mazza — as well as all members of those committees.
FP: What does the bill do, specifically?
JWB: It requires state and local transportation planners to consider incorporating complete-streets policies — the needs of all users and all abilities — into all new paved roadway projects, and those being redesigned or rebuilt.
If planners can't accommodate all users regardless of age or ability, then they have to report and document which of the following exceptions applied:
• Use of the transportation facility by pedestrians, bicyclists or other users is prohibited by law.
• The cost of incorporating complete-streets principles is disproportionate to the need or probable use.
• Incorporating complete streets principles is outside the scope of a project because of its very nature.
FP: Will it be expensive?
JWB: Not necessarily. Many accommodations and plan adjustments can be quite minor actually — particularly if addressed in the design phase. Recent street and intersection surveys conducted by AARP in Brattleboro, Rutland, Burlington and St. Johnsbury revealed a host of problem areas in these communities — many of which could be addressed for little or no funds.
FP: How will we follow the progress of projects?
JWB: The bill requires the Vermont Agency of Transportation to provide Vermonters with ongoing transparency so that the public can see where complete-streets policies are (and are not) being incorporated into state and local transportation projects.
FP: Does the bill have any far-reaching objectives?
JWB: It's a key component to making more communities in Vermont livable and retaining the uniqueness we already have. When we design our communities and transportation systems for people, we create places that people want to stay.
FP: How did AARP Vermont assume a leadership position in this bill?
JWB: How people get around is essential to both quality of life and the livability of a community. We've been committed to encouraging all aspects of livable communities for several years now, and mobility is a critical piece. We saw a lot of opportunities for ways to increase pedestrian safety, and to address other transportation needs of an aging population.
The statistics on this issue paint a compelling picture. A recent AARP report found that two in five Americans age 50-plus say their neighborhood sidewalks are inadequate. Incomplete streets include anything from no sidewalks nor bike lanes to broken sidewalks and unsafe crossings.
Some 47 percent of Americans over the age of 50 reported not being able to safely cross a main road near their home. This is a key reason why 65 percent of non-driving seniors make fewer trips to visit family, friends, shop or attend community events.
Many older Vermonters are staying home and missing out on activities that are so vital to mental and physical health due to inadequate pedestrian access or safety concerns.
By 2025, people age 65-plus will comprise nearly 20 percent of the population. Yet two-thirds of transportation planners and engineers say they have yet to begin addressing older people in their street planning.
FP: Are there benefits to younger Vermonters?
JWB: All pedestrians, cyclists and public-transit users will benefit from this important change in how roads are designed and rebuilt. Safe, complete streets are just as important for kids walking or biking to school and parents pushing strollers as they are for older residents.
Jennifer Wallace Brodeur of AARP Vermont is the nonprofit's associate state director for state and community outreach.