Walkable, mixed-use places with good transit have significant climate and other benefits. Mosaic District by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The region took an important step this past November to address the climate crisis. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) Board of Directors, comprising local elected official representatives, adopted a 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP), which lays out the strategies needed for the region to achieve a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. The plan touches on many aspects of everyday life in Greater Washington – our buildings, energy grid, vehicles, trash, tree cover, and others – and shows the significant but doable changes needed this decade.

With transportation now the largest sector of GHG emissions – 42% of Greater Washington’s climate pollution – the plan sets bold goals for electric vehicles. But does it address the root of the issue – sprawling land use patterns, auto-centric neighborhoods and street design, and high housing costs that force many people to drive for daily needs?

Regional leaders and planners will look to the 2030 CEAP in making upcoming decisions. For example, a critical vote Wednesday, December 16, by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) will determine whether regional elected officials are willing to make reduction in driving and associated emissions a focus of the next regional transportation plan.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG), a regional advocacy organization dedicated to making the case for smart growth, reviewed the 2030 CEAP to see how well it addresses the transportation-land use-climate connection. Below is a summary of what they found and how the region can strengthen its climate action in this sector as it makes important decisions on transportation plans and projects over the coming year.

Image from MWCOG 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan.

Transportation emissions are #1 and mostly from cars

Most of the region’s transportation emissions (60%) are from cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks. Reduced driving and cleaner cars and fuels over the last couple decades have helped the region lower its climate pollution. However, recent year trends and future projections by MWCOG show little decrease in car and truck pollution absent major changes in how people get around.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced travel and other sources of climate emissions across the world by 7% this year, analysts note that the United States and rest of the world need to be making these levels of cuts every year – and doing so by transforming our energy systems, buildings, and transportation in positive ways – to achieve a sustainable economic recovery.

Source: ICLEI’s ClearPath online greenhouse gas inventory tool. Image from MWCOG 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan. 

The 2030 CEAP sets a bold and achievable goal to transition many of the cars we drive to electric vehicles (EVs), setting a target for 34% of the passenger cars on the region’s roads to be electric by 2030 – but that’s almost 1.4 million new cars, and will they be affordable? This transformation of the fleet will also require over 100,000 new vehicle charging stations in workplaces and public locations across the region.

Electric vehicles: necessary but not sufficient in the climate fight

However, electrifying the region’s fleet, while an essential component, does not sufficiently reduce our transportation emissions to meet overall climate goals. Many recent studies and other regions of the US have demonstrated this challenge. While electric vehicles are dramatically cleaner than internal combustion vehicles, they still have some environmental and energy impacts (carbon emissions from production, battery materials, particulate matter pollution from tires and brakes), even if charged with 100% clean renewable electricity.

Last month, Smart Growth America (SGA) and Transportation for America (T4A) spelled this out in their Driving Down Emissions report:

We’ll never reduce emissions or create livable and equitable communities if we don’t find ways to allow people to get around without a car…Electric cars are key to reducing emissions. But it’ll take decades for every car in the U.S. to be electric. We need to do more to reduce our emissions.”

Image from Driving Down Emissions, courtesy of Smart Growth America and Transportation for America.

The SGA/T4A report unpacks why sprawling development leads to more driving, GHG pollution, and other negative consequences, and offers these recommendations:

  • Meet the demand for homes in walkable, compact neighborhoods
  • Build safer, walkable streets
  • Set targets for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and GHG emissions reductions
  • Provide transportation options and make transit a priority
  • Prioritize connecting people to destinations

These are longtime goals of advocates of good urban planning, affordable housing, and progressive transportation policies, but the report clearly connects them to climate action, showing they are as essential as electric cars and trucks.

Image from Driving Down Emissions, courtesy of Smart Growth America and Transportation for America

We must also reduce auto vehicle miles traveled and increase walking, biking and transit use

In addition to EV strategies, the MWCOG 2030 CEAP includes the following “Mode Shift and Travel Behavior” strategies:

  • Invest in infrastructure that increases transit, carpooling, and non-motorized travel
  • Bring jobs and housing closer together
  • Enhance options for commuters (e.g., incentivizing transit and telework, ending free parking)

These strategies package policies from existing regional plans and some scenarios modeled in past planning efforts by MWCOG and TPB, the agency that prepares our main long-range transportation plan. But do these past efforts sufficiently address the need to rapidly lower emissions by 2030 and continue to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century? What specific commitments will TPB and other transportation agencies make to implement these types of policies?

TPB’s 2018 Visualize 2045 plan showed reductions in transportation GHG emissions by only 23% from 2005 to 2045 – at which point on-road GHG began to rise again due to continued VMT growth – in contrast to the region’s 80% reduction goal by 2050. Many regions are now striving for carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions, by 2050 (including the incoming Biden administration).

Visualize 2045 suggested additional “aspirational” strategies, including “bring jobs and housing closer together,” “expand bus rapid transit and transitways,” “move more people on Metrorail,” and “improve walk and bike access to transit,” that if fully implemented would reduce emissions further. But the plan made no major commitments to them, meaning state and local departments of transportation don’t have to prioritize these projects in their submissions to TPB for inclusion in the plan.

Update to the regional transportation plan is kicking off

TPB is starting its regular update to Visualize 2045, a process that will run through 2021. This updated plan will need to demonstrate that it can achieve significant GHG emissions cuts by 2030 and even more by 2045. TPB announced that they will study ways to accomplish this, including VMT reductions needed, but the results may not be ready until the end of 2021 - long after many important decisions will have been made for its transportation plan update.

WMATA, CSG, and some TPB Board members, like Council member Kacy Kostiuk of Takoma Park, have asked the agency to make VMT reduction, non-auto travel, and the Aspirational Strategies priority goals from the start of the process. This means the “Technical Inputs Solicitation” document (the statement of the plan’s goals and call for projects to kick off the process) would have to be amended accordingly at the December 16 meeting at which board members will vote on its approval. Will TPB set the stage for a climate-focused long range plan? Members of the public can also provide comments to TPB in advance of the meeting.

TPB’s past studies have shown that transportation demand management and regional land use strategies provided the best solution to the region’s transportation challenges - and these also happen to be winners for the climate. Will TPB make a commitment to implement these along with transit, pedestrian and bicycle strategies in the current Visualize 2045 update?

How will TPB and Greater Washington respond this time?

In addition to setting VMT and non-auto mode share targets, the region will also need to tackle land use. The 2030 CEAP ties in one of our regional housing targets, which is to locate 75% of new housing in activity centers and high-capacity transit station areas. This is a good starting point, but does not prioritize walkable, compact activity centers with frequent transit for growth or address the east-west jobs/housing imbalance that forces many residents of places like Prince George’s County to drive long distances for work and basic services.

While an anticipated long-term shift to more telework will help reduce driving to work, three quarters of the trips made in our region are for non-work purposes. Addressing land use and creating 15-minute walkable mixed-use neighborhoods will be needed to help reduce VMT and emissions.

In addition to Visualize 2045, there are several major plans or initiatives across the region with serious environmental consequences, including:

Residents of our region who want to see us tackle climate change - while also making our home more livable and equitable - need to scrutinize whether these efforts quantify their GHG cuts, meet 2030 targets, and reduce the need for people in the region to drive everywhere.

Bill Pugh, AICP CTP, is an urban planner, advocate for a livable planet, and senior policy fellow for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He lives in Alexandria.