As a principal cause of climate change, transportation also offers some of the best ways to solve it. In Washington State transportation has long been the largest carbon pollution source, accounting for nearly half of all emissions. Now Climate Central reports that transportation has become the largest source of emissions across the nation as well.

Electrical generation once accounted for most of our greenhouse gas emissions, but as the United States has moved from coal-fired power towards gas and renewables, electricity accounts for less and less of our carbon footprint. Meanwhile, transportation emissions have continued to rise, presenting an even tougher challenge.

in 2013, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that transportation accounted for 42.8% of the state’s GHG emissions, and on-road use of gasoline accounted for more than half of that. The state government’s stated goal is to reduce transportation emissions in 2020 to 1990 levels (37.5 million metric tons/yr.). We are not on track to meet that goal.

Still, there is some reason for hope. The World Resources Institute says “Private sector innovation and a movement towards zero-emission vehicles could shift the growing transport sector away from fossil fuels, and auto-makers are already on board.” Today, electric vehicles (EV) remain a very small part of the world car market, but Volkswagen has announced a plan to bring at least 30 Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) to market by 2026. Daimler plans 10 new EVs by 2022. Volvo announced all its models from 2019 forward will be hybrid or electric.

Because “range anxiety” (worry about running out of electricity before completing a trip) is an often-cited reason for not switching to an EV, it is noteworthy that the Nissan Leaf has an upgraded model in 2018 with a 150 mile range and plans a more powerful model in 2019. Moreover, the Chevy Bolt, which won Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year, has a 238 mile range.

Switching from a petroleum-fueled car to an EV or a hybrid can make quite a contribution toward reducing GHG emissions. According to the EPA, the average gasoline fueled vehicle generates about 411.4 grams of CO2 per mile. (This is calculated based on 21.6 miles per gallon with each gallon of gasoline burned creating 8,887 grams of CO2.) Hybrid vehicles generate about 158 grams per mile.

If you are interested in a lifestyle that does not include owning a car, it might be encouraging to know that Uber and Lyft are both pushing for more EVs.

With about 82% of Washington State’s electricity generated through hydropower, our region is particularly well-suited to benefit from increased use of EVs. In 2015 Washington State adopted an Electric Vehicle Action Plan that calls for 50,000 plug-in EVs by 2020. (As of June 2017, there were 24,624 plug-in EVs registered in Washington State.) Among the specific action items in the EV Action Plan are: extending and expanding the sales tax exemption for new alternative fuel vehicles, providing businesses with a tax incentive for transitioning to fleets with alternative fuel vehicles, providing more EV charging stations along state highways, providing incentives for workplace charging, and creating charging stations capable of serving more vehicles.

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council (SRTC) leads government agency transportation planning for the area covered by Spokane County. SRTC’s Horizon 2040 transportation plan does not directly address climate change. It focuses on safe and effective transportation. Still, it does include attention to multimodal transportation options and aims to protect air quality. It also seeks improvements in public transit, safe bicycling options, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and is supportive of using Safe and Complete Streets Checklists and developing an Active Transportation and Health Plan. (Active transportation means human-powered—e.g., walking or biking.) According to Horizon 2040, only 11% of the trips made in Spokane County include bicycling or walking.

On the other hand, the Spokane Transit Authority (STA) provides over 10 million rides annually. The STA has seen a one-third overall increase in riders since 2005 (although there was a drop of 6% from 2016 to 2017). STA’s comprehensive plan, Connect Spokane, includes a specific section on sustainability. In that section the STA commits to “establish practices that minimize fuel use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Among the strategies they use to further that commitment are assessing their carbon footprint on an annual basis and measuring “the fleet carbon dioxide equivalent posture” in relation to the governor’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. STA’s 2017 plan includes development of the Central City Line, enhanced service in the Sprague, Division, and Monroe-Regal corridors. Cheney and West Plains service will soon see a new West Plains Transit Center. According to a presentation to its Citizen Advisory Committee (12/13/17) the Central City Line will include 10 battery electric buses in 2021. They are seeking to increase their bus maintenance and service facility’s capacity to support up to 80 battery electric buses.

Based on a review of their websites, neither Spokane County Government nor Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) specifically addresses climate change, but Spokane County does run a commute trip reduction program and it facilitates bicycle riders and pedestrians by maintaining and repairing large sections of the Centennial Trail. In its Linking Transportation and Health Outcomes, SRHD recommends several actions that would help reduce GHG emissions: increasing the use of active transportation, increasing the use of public transportation, and reducing vehicle miles traveled per capita.

The City of Spokane is more direct in recognizing climate change as a problem. Its municipal code includes this statement: “[I]t is the goal of the City of Spokane to reduce GHG emissions created by activities within the boundaries of the City of Spokane by at least thirty percent (30%) below the 2005 baseline level by the year 2030.” The city is also required by the state to develop regulations related to charging stations. Moreover, the City of Spokane Sustainability Action Plan promotes pedestrian and bicycle travel as “clean, efficient, and cost-effective over shorter distances.” It also encourages expanded public transit because it “allows individuals of all income levels to travel to work, medical facilities, recreational opportunities, and day-to-day destinations.” The Plan suggests that “City government should play a leading role in strategies that promote more than the traditional design for single-occupancy vehicle travel.”

The personal transportation choices we can make are heavily influenced by decisions beyond our control, by governments and markets. Meanwhile, our current transportation system is heavily biased toward fossil fuel based vehicular travel.

Although Eastern Washington has always been subject to business decisions made in distant corporate boardrooms, we have more say in government decisions. Although responsiveness to climate change varies among governmental bodies, the State of Washington, the City of Spokane and Spokane Transit Authority are all leaders in recognizing climate change and trying to do something about it. It’s important to speak up.

In a future post we’ll address the issues and tradeoffs involved in choices we can make as individuals.

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