How to green Washington's transportation system

We need to design neighborhoods that put transit and services in walking distance. And we have to provide service to neighborhoods that will use transit.

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Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour.

We need to design neighborhoods that put transit and services in walking distance. And we have to provide service to neighborhoods that will use transit.

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.

The Transit-Oriented Communities Blueprint identifies eight planning measures for these communities to ensure optimal functionality: transit connectivity; pedestrian and bicycle connectivity; affordable housing; residential and employment density; mix of uses; parking; open space and green infrastructure; urban design. Evidence links TOC development patterns to a host of social and environmental benefits, including the potential for reductions in VMT and GHG emissions.

Analysis of three Seattle transit station areas — the International District, Capitol Hill, and Roosevelt — found that station areas with increased residential and employment density, increased transit connectivity, and an increased street grid density (i.e. walkability), exhibited decreased household GHG emissions. Therefore, integrating land use, transportation, and housing policy to create these optimal, high-performing TOC is key to maximizing social and environmental benefits and leveraging high-capacity transit investments.

High-performing TOC demonstrate that the region’s transit investments can offer more than a means of moving people from one point to another. They can also support, and in some cases create, communities by opening up new opportunities for people to gain access to, from, and within the neighborhood. By integrating land use, transportation, and housing policies to foster lively and attractive mixed-use communities where residents, employees, and visitors can walk, bicycle, or take transit to reach their destinations, cities can continue to grow and prosper in a manner that is healthy for people and the planet. And if designed well, this form of growth is an opportunity, not a sacrifice, because it will result in great urban places for people to live, work, and play while enjoying more transportation and housing choices.

Several planning efforts — from the project to district level — throughout the central Puget Sound have embraced this integrated approach to TOC planning.

Project level: The Redmond Transit-Oriented Development and transit center, a joint development of King County’s Department of Transportation, the City of Redmond, and Sound Transit, is a mixed-use project in downtown Redmond that provides affordable and market-rate housing at a regional bus transfer center. The moderately dense six-story development was a new form for this relatively low-density suburb, and it helped catalyze additional development in the downtown area.

Neighborhood level: The Burien Town Square project (GGLO, Urban Partners, Keller CMS, the City of Burien, and King County Library System) includes residential, retail, a new city hall, a library, and a park on 1.5 acres near a major bus terminal, with shuttles to the airport and light rail, and a future bus/rapid transit station. The development, which revitalizes the heart of downtown Burien, is the culmination of a decade of integrated planning that considered holistically the interplay between civic, residential, and commercial uses with the local and regional connections provided by transit.

District level: The city of Bellevue devoted over four years to plan a new vision for the Bel-Red corridor, resulting in the most comprehensive station area planning to date in the State of Washington. The sub-area plan, which includes two future light rail station areas, emphasizes bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, plus open space and green infrastructure, while also providing zoning capacities to absorb substantial residential and employment growth. Plan implementation includes incentive zoning mechanisms to provide affordable housing, participation in a regional transfer of development rights program, and hundreds of millions of dollars in planned infrastructure improvements.

To encourage more transit-oriented communities, local, regional, and state actions must ensure the funding to plan and implement integrated land use, transportation, and housing visions in transit station areas, mixed-use centers, suburban town centers, and other areas well served by transit. Here are three pivotal areas for improving policy and funding:

1. Greater transit investments. Many transit agencies, including King County Metro, are cutting service while experiencing record ridership because of declining revenues from the volatile sales tax. The state must provide additional funding authority for local and regional transit agencies. In addition, local and regional system alignment and station siting decisions should optimize the potential for high-performing TOC. This means favoring transit investments in mixed-use centers and neighborhoods over areas with limited access, such as freeway corridors.

2. Better planning for TOC. Integrated approaches to land use, transportation, and housing require substantial planning investment. Transit agencies and regional planning organizations should work with local jurisdictions to fund and develop comprehensive sub-area plans for high-capacity station areas that consider the eight planning measures discussed in the TOC Blueprint.

3. More funding for infrastructure and amenities. In order to be successful, TOC must provide multi-modal infrastructure for access, housing, and employment options to create opportunity, along with services and amenities to nurture community. The state should support TOC through targeted funding programs for infrastructure. Local jurisdictions should place housing and site-appropriate public facilities in TOC to support complete communities.

Today, 80% of Americans live and work in metropolitan areas. The U.S. is expected to grow by 120 million more people by 2050. Transportation modes largely determine land form, with those forms that favor the automobile dominating the last century. This pattern of development has produced sprawling cities and is not sustainable.

A green city provides transportation choices and freedom from the automobile in balance with the environment. Green communities know that building for more cars and highways will only produce more congestion, irreparable environmental harm, and ultimately result in economic decline. It is possible for us to achieve our vision for clean, livable, and prosperous communities in the 21st century, but only if we are prepared to make tough choices and plan intentionally for the future we envision.

This article originally appeared in the current edition of Forum, a publication of AIA Seattle, one of the largest urban components of the American Institute of Architecture. It is reprinted with permission.


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