It may surprise you to know that, on average, people drive more in the Seattle metropolitan area than they do in Los Angeles. Statewide, as in the Seattle region, a large majority of people drive to work alone, congestion is getting worse, and commute trips are getting longer. Anticipated residential and employment growth in the Seattle region will exacerbate this trend, as a growing number of residents must depend on their vehicles to access their home, jobs, and daily needs. This could easily result in grave environmental consequences: not only is transportation the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) in Washington State, it is also a major source of water and air pollution.
Historically, transportation and land use patterns have contributed significantly to widening urban sprawl, ill health, community breakdown, and social isolation. Why? Because local, state, and federal polices of the last century have combined to produce inefficient patterns of land development, which have, along with cheap fuel, made us more car dependent. That is why, nationwide between 1977 and 2007, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) has grown at nearly five times the rate of population growth.
The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) estimates that the four-county region will grow by 1.5 million people and 1.2 million jobs over the next 30 years and boost travel demand by 40%. Where will the newcomers live, and how will they get around? Under a business-as-usual scenario, the population influx will seriously strain capacity and mobility and make it impossible to meet statewide goals for reducing GHG emissions. To become more sustainable while still supporting growth and prosperity, Seattle and its neighboring cities and towns will need to green the urban infrastructure.
Greening transportation is our greatest challenge. It will require a shift in public infrastructure investment, demand greater collaboration and alignment among cities and regions, and will depend on urban densities that can support public transit and other modes.
The PSRC’s Vision 2040 and Transportation 2040 plans, adopted in 2008 and 2010 respectively, provide a strategy to accommodate regional growth in existing urban areas, meet regional mobility needs, and reduce the transportation sector’s contribution to climate change. Transportation 2040 seeks to achieve a better balance among travel modes and decrease vehicle miles traveled through effective land use planning, transportation demand management, efficiency enhancements, and strategic capital investments in “smart corridors.” Although the plan makes some progress on these fronts, these improvements do not offset its continued investment in road infrastructure. As a result, the plan is currently under appeal by the Sierra Club, Cascade Bicycle Club, and Futurewise for its failure to meet Washington’s statewide GHG emission reduction requirements.
In 2007, Washington became the ninth state to establish statewide GHG emission reduction goals or requirements. The phased approach requires reductions to 1990 emission levels by 2020, 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. For Washington State, these requirements present a unique challenge. While non-transportation-related energy sources are the largest contributor to GHG emissions at the national level, the single largest source for Washington state — nearly half of all emissions — is the transportation sector. Therefore, energy-related emission reductions through new energy technologies and greener buildings will be insufficient to meet our state’s reduction requirements. Strategies must target the transportation sector too. Recognizing this need, the state enacted per capita VMT reduction benchmarks in 2008, similarly phased over time: 18% reduction by 2020, 35% reduction by 2035, and 50% reduction by 2050.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 2009 executive order 09-05 directs the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to develop GHG reduction strategies for the transportation sector. Mega-projects such as the replacements of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the SR 520 bridge provide a rare opportunity to rethink transportation in the 21st century. With a combined public cost that could exceed $10 billion, these projects should be planned and designed to strongly support the state’s GHG reduction requirements. However, none of the alternatives in either project work to significantly reduce VMT or even achieve reductions in GHG emissions over existing conditions.
While the detailed analysis of GHG emissions for the SR 99 Tunnel awaits completion of the supplemental environmental impact statement for the project, the analysis provided for the SR 520 bridge replacement shows an average 12% increase in GHG for all the alternatives by year 2030. This is because WSDOT’s 2030 projections assume similar levels in VMT and mode split in their demand analysis, and none of the alternatives include sufficient mass transit as a means of comparison. Without facilitating a meaningful mode shift, it is difficult to imagine how these business-as-usual investments will move the region toward meeting GHG emission reduction goals.
Despite the direction of these mega-projects, the overall development patterns and availability of transit still make the potential for VMT reduction greater in the central Puget Sound region than in other parts of the state, where distances and lack of infrastructure create greater reliance on cars. Accordingly, it may be necessary for the region to achieve per capita VMT reductions in excess of the state benchmarks to offset lower-achieving areas in other parts of the state.
So how can the region aggressively reduce overall VMT in the face of substantial population and employment growth? In a 2007 report published by the Urban Land Institute, “Growing Cooler: the Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” the authors reviewed dozens of urban planning studies in the U.S. and concluded that “Urban development is both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it ... One of the best ways to reduce vehicle travel is compact development: building places in which people can get from one place to another without driving. This includes developments with a mix of uses and pedestrian-friendly designs ... Current government policies and regulations encourage sprawling, auto-dependent development.”
Clearly, the solution lies in rethinking transportation through better integration of land use and transportation policy. The business-as-usual, “silo” approach to transportation planning that focuses on vehicle capacity and movement of personal cars is not sustainable in the 21st century. To meet our everyday travel needs, sustainable urban transportation must support compact urban and suburban forms that offer fast, efficient, clean, and reliable means of transportation. Transportation policies must change to consider not only the mode, but also the multiple benefits that can be accrued, such as reduced GHG emissions, enhanced mobility, stronger local economies, healthier environments, and livable, walkable communities.
There is good news. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities —a new federal initiative of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, and Housing and Urban Development — embodies this policy paradigm shift. The Partnership allows the agencies to coordinate federal transportation and housing programs to support communities that provide better transportation choices and more housing options. The expected result is increased social equity through better access to homes and jobs and environmental protection through VMT reduction and land conservation.
In the central Puget Sound, this model for community planning can be perceived in recent planning efforts for transit station areas and suburban town centers. Detailed in the recent publication "Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State," by statewide nonprofit organizations Futurewise and Transportation Choices Coalition and the Seattle-based integrated design firm GGLO, these communities may eventually exist at a range of scales throughout the urban region. Transit-oriented communities (TOC) are compact and walkable neighborhoods that include a mix of uses — shops, services, housing, and businesses — all in close proximity to a transit hub or station. Development standards and public infrastructure in transit-oriented communities are not car-free, but do facilitate walking, bicycling, and riding transit. Planning for transit-oriented communities integrates land use, transportation, and housing policy to achieve environmental benefits, meet community needs, and provide housing for a range of households and income levels.
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