St. Albans Bay Walking Path, 2019

Walkers stroll on the pedestrian path in St. Albans Bay Park during a walkability tour of the St. Albans Bay area in 2019.

BURLINGTON – A study from the Vermont Dept. of Health appears to show meeting the state’s energy goals would also bring public health benefits, largely due to the emphasis placed on improving access for walkers and bikers.

In a statement issued late last month, Vermont health officials reported the transportation changes sought under the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan could prevent as many as 2,000 early deaths and save $1.1 billion in health care costs and lost productivity.

Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, a mammoth document drafted in 2016 that touches on everything from heating to land use, looks to double the amount of travel and commuting in Vermont done through walking, biking and bussing by 2030.

According to the Dept. of Health, about two of every five Vermont adults are not getting the recommended amount of physical activity, increasing the likelihood for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

The Dept. of Health estimates that 40 percent of all deaths in Vermont could be attributed to chronic illnesses and that treating chronic illnesses like heart disease can cost Vermont more than $2 billion a year.

The Dept. of Health estimates that 40 percent of all vehicle trips undertaken in Vermont are two miles or shorter, and that only 50 of the 500 minutes Vermonters travel every week are spent getting physical activity by either walking or biking.

By encouraging more pedestrian-friendly development, like the construction of walking and biking paths or building homes within a walkable distance of services, health officials suggest meeting the state’s energy goals could inspire more people to walk and bike, providing more physical activity needed for helping combat chronic disease.

“Even using a bus for longer trips provides for some physical activity by walking to or from a bus stop,” a Dept. of Health statement announcing the study’s results read.

“Meeting Vermont’s transportation goals is a significant health-in-all-policies objective,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a statement. “When the state takes these important steps to improve transportation and address climate change, it has a ripple effect on public health through improved physical activity, better air quality, traffic safety and overall quality of life.”

The Dept. of Health also suggested the state’s goals of transitioning most car traffic to electric vehicles could bring improvements to air quality.

The Comprehensive Energy Plan recommends that electric vehicles account 80 percent of cars used in Vermont by 2050.

While Vermont has supported the adoption of electric vehicles through grants and rebate programs for buyers of electric vehicles and municipalities looking to build charging stations for electric vehicles, the state remains a long way from reaching transportation goals identified in the Comprehensive Energy Plan.

According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Vermont Transportation Energy Profile, 95 percent of all vehicles used in Vermont in 2019 used either gasoline or diesel.

Transportation remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions within Vermont, accounting for nearly half of all annual emissions, according to the state’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

Climate change refers the well-documented increased warming of the climate since the Industrial Revolution.

According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, a warming climate is already bringing more annual snow and rain, more intense storms, warmer summers and shorter winters.

The Dept. of Health’s study was conducted based off modeling using local population, health and transportation data and peer-reviewed scientific evidence to estimate health, safety and environmental impacts, the department’s statement read.

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