by Betsy Gross
Bellingham’s Climate Action Plan Task Force’s June meeting included PowerPoint slide shows, so it was moved to City Council chambers. As I looked around the room, I guessed the change of location might also be due to the size of the crowds this monthly event now attracts. I felt grateful, once again, that I live in Bellingham, a city with robust citizen involvement in the activities of its government. The task force’s PowerPoint slides and videos are all posted on the city’s Climate Action Plan Task Force website here: https://www.cob.org/gov/public/bc/climate.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the June dates to learn more about what was covered at this meeting. Dear reader, know that what I write merely touches on the motherlode of information available to us all.
I was especially eager to attend this meeting, as the fruits of the task force’s labor would begin to be revealed. The Transportation/Land Use and the Buildings Work Groups presented their preliminary research and draft recommendations. These two sectors emit fully 70 percent of our city’s carbon emissions, which is why they have been prioritized. As I took my seat, I wondered what, specifically, will be involved in transitioning our fair city from our fossil-fuel present to our carbon-free future? What will we citizens be called upon to do, to make this happen?
The task force members for these two sectors’ work groups were the night’s main speakers. Since so much information was presented that needs to be mulled over, I’ve decided to cover each work group’s findings and recommendations separately, to give them the full exposure they deserve. My article this month covers the first of these two presentations, that of Transportation/Land Use.
Transportation/ Land Use
Christine Grant, who teaches energy policy at the Institute for Energy Studies at Western Washington University (WWU), began with a presentation on the transportation component of the Transportation/Land Use Work group’s current draft proposals. She related that their team collectively spent over 100 hours interviewing 25 local transportation experts. She gave a nod to those fine professionals whose input also informs this work group’s recommendations.
Bellingham will not achieve the 100 percent renewable energy target date of 2035 for the transportation sector if we do not transition to electric vehicles (EVs), no matter what else we do. Therefore, several of this group’s recommendations include dis-incentives for driving vehicles with internal combustion engines, coupled with incentives for leaving fossil-fuel generated transportation behind. In other words, their recommendations include both carrots and sticks.
The transportation work group identified three overarching goals:
• Support a mode shift from driving to walking/biking/rolling;
• Transition to electric vehicles (EVs);
• Dis-incentivize the use of gas-fueled vehicles.
The means whereby these three goals can be accomplished are discussed in the following recommendations:
Measure 1: Parking Reform
Ms. Grant began by quoting Donald Shoup (1), a national expert in urban planning: “Free parking is a fertility drug for driving.” She made the following recommendations related to this parking reform measure. They include:
• Increase the cost of parking downtown.
At the very least, parking should be revenue neutral, but currently it costs the city more to maintain parking than the revenue it generates. It should cost a lot more to park downtown than it does to take the bus, for example. And making parking more expensive sends a motivational message about the need to change travel behavior.
• Unbundle parking from renting. Currently the cost of parking is included in the rent, so its true cost is unknowable to the renter. Unbundling them makes the cost of parking explicit and increases renter choices about whether vehicle ownership is necessary and/or even desirable.
• Give developers the option to allow for little to no parking space in constructing new buildings.
Currently developers must ensure adequate parking space in new buildings. A single parking stall adds between $20,000 to $50,000 to total building project costs. Personal car ownership is on the decline. This trend is predicted to escalate, given the current mode shift to ride-sourcing (i.e. Uber, Lyft, etc.) that is now underway in most American cities.
• Increase parking education.
Give the public more information about the many costs of parking using informational street signs and other marketing strategies. Ms. Grant showed a slide of a city’s street sign with this information: “Did you know surface parking lots comprise 23 percent of downtown land. What else could this land become?”
Measure 2: Do Compact Development
The further we live from our place of work, the more likely we are to need a vehicle. Currently, over 28,000 of us work in the city but live outside it, and another 15,000-plus of us live in the city but are employed in the county. That’s a lot of driving around! Sustainable Connections’ Executive Director Derek Long presented on land use, which is inextricably interconnected with transportation.
He covered the many benefits of compact development: it reduces greenhouse gases (GHG) by significantly cutting down on the need to drive. It also slows urban sprawl and has public health benefits, as services and resources are readily available in compact, walkable neighborhoods. Land use policies and outcomes will need to be updated to achieve this measure. Mr. Long made the following land use recommendations:
• Complex land use planning should be done at a regional level.
It is impossible to address transportation and land use issues within the permeable boundaries of a city that tens of thousands of citizens pass through daily. The unintended consequence of enacting strict building regulations within city limits, but not regionally, may result in people moving out of the city, creating the urban sprawl this effort hopes to avoid.
• Stress the benefits of compact development.
Studies show that compact development can result in up to 60 percent reduction in GHG and fewer vehicle miles traveled. That’s huge. What is compact development, I wondered? Mr. Long answered my thought with this definition: compact development is about 11-15 dwelling units per acre. Do we have an example of this locally? Yes! Matthei Place (2) in Happy Valley, built by the Kulshan Land Trust about a dozen years ago, contains 14 units per acre. This type of dense housing is sometimes referred to as “the missing middle” — i.e. a transition zone of high density development situated between the downtown business district and traditional single family housing zones.
• Support the city’s seven Urban Villages.
To learn more about these urban villages and find out where they are located, go to this webpage on the city’s website: https://www.cob.org/services/planning/urban-villages. Urban villages take up less than 5 percent of total land in Bellingham, but will eventually contain up to 20 percent of the city’s population.
If we adopt this percentage breakdown: 75 percent of our growth going to the downtown and urban villages, 20 percent of growth going to the above-described “missing middle,” and the remaining 5 percent growth in traditional single family homes, we will reduce our GHG emissions by up to 20 percent! And, if more density is added to already denser areas such as the downtown district, GHG emissions are reduced even more dramatically. This only makes sense, as it locates residents close to services, resources, and work.
Measure 3: Design for People, Not Cars
This measure is also known as “Walk and Roll!” Christine Grant provided information on mode shifts that are underway across America. For example, E-Scooter programs are already operating in 136 U.S. cities. In 2018, 84 million trips were taken on shared bikes and scooters. Data being collected on Portland’s E-Scooter program are showing significant reductions in vehicle travel. This measure includes the following recommendations:
• Support E-Scooter and bike share programs. These programs are free and run privately by independent operators with which a given city contracts to set them up and run them. In some cities, the operators even pay the city for the opportunity to do this business on their streets.
• More prototyping of protected bike infrastructure. If you build them, bicyclists will come. There’s already some great bike infrastructure in Bellingham, but it needs to be expanded. Ms. Grant recommended we begin by piloting additional bike lanes that replace parking spaces in the business district, then tracking retails sales at those locations. Some other cities have done this and their studies show this switch increases rather than decreases retail sales, sometimes substantially.
• Implement more (and more frequent) all-staff active transportation training. Continue to promote a culture shift from vehicles to other forms of transportation at the local government level. If city employees are reminded of this measure regularly, it becomes a figural way of thinking about, and acting on, this proposal regardless of the job each employee does.
Measure 4: Transportation Electrification
The most important thing we must do to reduce our carbon emissions is transition to electric vehicles (EVs). This alone would result in an 85 percent reduction in CO2 in the transportation sector! While this recommendation is necessary, it is not enough; it must be implemented along with the other above measures.
Other recommendations included within Measure 4 are:
• Support City bulk purchasing of EV and E-bikes. Bulk purchasing of these new modes of travel greatly reduces their cost. Either the city or a nonprofit working with the city could take this on.
• Support EV charging infrastructure. PSE is our most important partner and they have committed to expanding charging stations. This is the most often cited reason for not purchasing an EV. I hear, and think, “the places to charge them are too few and far between” when contemplating buying one. When I visit my son in San Diego, I notice the ubiquitous EV charging stations in every commercial parking lot. It’s so easy to plug in and recharge your car while you purchase your groceries, get your hair cut, or go to the movies.
Dr. Charles Barnhart, who teaches in WWU’s Environmental Sciences Department, described various scenarios for GHG reductions that accompany each of these measures. If we reduce vehicle miles traveled, electrify our vehicles, then make electricity clean, we are projected to achieve a cumulative reduction of several megatons of CO2.
Rick Nicholson, WTA Director of Service Development, displayed a graph which shows predicted emissions reductions based on implementing each of this work group’s measures. He said if we do everything proposed EXCEPT switch to EVs, we will keep GHG emissions from rising, but we will get no reductions.
Keeping them from rising is no small feat, especially as we absorb our increasing population as the predicted increasing numbers of climate refugees move to the Pacific Northwest, sometimes described as the “last best place” in America. Mr. Nicholson said the only way to meet our “grand total” goal of meeting our 2035 transportation target set by the city, is to fully enact ALL these measures. This is not an either or scenario; their effect is cumulative.
So, dear readers, are you ready to switch to an EV? Are you ready to “walk and roll” more? Use ride-sourcing? Replace parking spots with bike and scooter paths? Perhaps move to a “Missing Middle” neighborhood or an Urban Village? Curtail suburban single family home zoning? That is our future if we want to save our planet. It turns out these are not just necessary; they’re also good for our health. Again, what is needed is this: public will.
Betsy Gross is a retired mental health professional. In 2003, she retired from the County of San Diego and moved to Bellingham with her family. She is a grandmother, outdoor enthusiast, and political activist. She has devoted her time to several local causes over the years, primarily to environmental activism.