Choosing our adventure: Puget Sound's transportation future

The year 2050 may feel far away, but how we plan for that year and beyond makes a difference today. How transportation systems are designed, and where people live, influence our current quality of life; and these big decisions lock in place infrastructure that will hopefully serve us, rather than harm us, for years to come. That is why the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is working on its long-range plan, Vision 2050, and why Climate Solutions has been engaged in this process. We want the Puget Sound Region, with its projected 5.8 million people in 2050, to be responding effectively to the climate crisis and creating far less pollution. We want it to include walkable neighborhoods, ample transit options for people to get where they want to go, and healthy natural systems.

In order to get there, we need to set a stake in the ground as a first—but not the only—step. That is why it’s good news that, last Thursday, the Growth Management Policy Board (GMPB) of the PSRC adopted, for the first time, actual greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as a part of Vision 2050. The Board decided to align with the goals of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which covers the same jurisdictions.

Having goals is not enough, though, if they’re not used to shape decision-making that will allow us to actually reach those goals. That’s why we are excited that the GMPB also adopted amendments that direct PSRC to prioritize transportation investments that will support achievement of these goals, and that countywide planning processes and local comprehensive plans must also support their achievement. Among the PSRC’s most important responsibilities are allocating federal transportation funding to chosen projects and approving local jurisdictions’ comprehensive plans—including land use and planning documents—based on how they incorporate transporation.  Wrapping a climate analysis into these decisions is crucial. These amendments are a first step, but we also must ensure that the final decisionmaking criteria, which will be developed based on guidance from Vision 2050, adequately address greenhouse gas reductions.

After six months of discussing these amendments, the PSRC last week passed them unanimously. That’s amazing; and it happened after more than half of the people and organizations who commented on Vision 2050 supported stronger climate action in the document.

What do comprehensive plans and transportation funding have to do with climate change?  And why is it important to make these decisions in accordance with adopted targets? At its root, the answer is that land use patterns influence our transportation possibilities—and the transportation sector is responsible for nearly 40% of our region’s carbon pollution. When people can’t find adequate housing near our jobs, our schools, our grocery stores, and so on, people are forced to live further and further away, especially lower-income folks. The farther removed people are from where they need to go, the fewer transportation options they will likely have. In fact, in many areas, people are forced to own and drive a vehicle to get to where they need to go.

Many point to zero-emission vehicles as the solution to the transportation carbon problem, but relying solely on electric vehicles will be more costly to our infrastructure and our electricity bills than a comprehensive transportation solution. Relying solely on electric vehicles will be slower to provide access to diverse populations, and won’t solve other pressing issues like the traffic jams that regularly ensnare our region. We need electric cars, trucks and buses, but we also need to make it possible to get around by walking, rolling, and transit and reduce the amount we need to drive in the first place, which will not only help reduce carbon pollution, but also increase safety, preserve our natural areas, and cut congestion, increasing our quality of life.

This isn’t possible if local jurisdictions do not allow more people to live in urban cores, reserving areas adjacent to job centers only for single-family detached homes and banning apartment buildings, duplexes and other housing options. These restrictive policies only lead to increased prices, displacement, sprawl, and more carbon pollution. This is why land use decisions are so important.

At the same time, we need transportation choices that are clean, safe, affordable, accessible, and convenient, and that connect our neighborhoods and jobs around the Puget Sound right now. Instead of endlessly expanding highways—which actually causes more driving, more congestion, and more pollution (a phenomenon known as “induced demand”), we need to prioritize road safety for all road users, including people who are cycling or walking. We also need to give our public transit and the related infrastructure a boost, something that is all the more important in the wake of the passage of Initiative 976. We need to ensure that the transportation investments we make for projects that will have decades-long impacts are climate-friendly.

Last Thursday, PSRC took some important steps in strengthening its climate action. But the process isn’t over yet. The GMPB will be discussing more important amendments, including provisions that will support equity and help prevent displacement, before the end of the year. Once all amendments have been considered, GMPB will refer Vision 2050 to the Executive Board for final approval and adoption. From there, we will need to ensure that the strong guidance in Vision 2050 is acted upon. But for now, we’re excited that PSRC has taken steps to address the climate crisis in a way that it has never done before.

Leah Missik's picture

Washington Transportation Policy Manager

, Climate Solutions

Leah helps develop and implement policies that will accelerate our transition to a clean energy economy, with a focus on the transportation sector. She joined Climate Solutions in January 2019.

Prior to joining Climate Solutions, Leah was the Senior Program Manager of Built Green, a green home certification program in Washington State. In this role, she collaborated with public and private partners to expand green building incentives, conducted studies on the benefits of green building, and promoted the program to builders and the public.

Leah holds her Master of Public Affairs from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, with concentrations in Environmental Policy and International Affairs. She received her B.A. from Kenyon College in 2010. Leah is a Jackson Foundation Leadership Fellow, an alum of Leadership Tomorrow, and a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

As a volunteer, Leah serves on the Executive Committees of the Sierra Club Seattle Group and Washington State Chapter as well as the Jackson Fellows Leadership Committee. She also collaborates with Russian environmental activists, translating their work into English. With the rest of her time, Leah enjoys long-distance running and bicycling, adventuring, and practicing her Russian.