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Posts about Environment


People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."


Events roundup: Changes are coming

I-66, Capital Bikeshare, and Prince George's zoning will all be changing in the near future. Have you weighed in? Plus, learn about dams, bikeway design, and more in this week's events.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tolls and lanes for I-66: Virginia is considering tolls for people driving alone on I-66, along with new lanes outside the Beltway. State transportation officials are holding a series of meetings this Monday to Thursday around Oakton, Centreville, Haymarket, and Fair Oaks, all from 6 to 8:30 pm.

Rewrite Prince George's zoning: Prince George's County is rewriting its zoning code for the first time in 50 years, which will have a major effect on future development. Three listening sessions, Tuesday in Riverdale, Wednesday in Fort Washington, and Thursday in Landover. All meetings are 6-8 pm.

Those damn dams: Senator Al Franken will host a screening of the movie DamNation on Tuesday, January 27, 5:30-8:30 pm at the US Capitol Visitor Center. This documentary explores how the US has changed its attitude towards dams from a source of national pride to environmental awareness. A panel discussion will follow the film. RSVP is requested.

Talk bikeshare's future: Help shape the future of Capital Bikeshare at an open house this Wednesday, January 28, 6-8 pm at the Marin Luther King Jr. Library at 901 G Street NW. Officials will discuss a possible price increase and future expansion. There will also be a trivia table and fun facts about bikeshare on display. You don't want to miss it.

The right way to make bikeways: Bill Schultheiss of Toole Design Group will speak about his experience building bike lanes in several US cities and his observations from abroad. The talk is Thursday, January 29, 6 pm at the Downtown BID, 1250 H Street NW Suite 1000. RSVP by January 28 to attend.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


What to watch for in the 2015 Virginia General Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly's 2015 session kicks off today in Richmond. Smart growth and environmental advocates are gearing up for a busy, if short, session. While things evolve quickly at the beginning of any legislative session, there are already several issues and bills to look for that may impact smart growth in Northern Virginia.

Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

Transit funding

Because legislation over the past four years didn't make transit a priority, it faces big funding shortfalls. 65% of Virginia's population and gross state product lie within the urban crescent (from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads), and with an aging population in rural areas, transit needs are growing.

Yesterday, Governor McAuliffe announced a package of transportation initiatives including a proposal to shift $50 million per year from ports, aviation, highways, and freight rail to transit. This helps, but isn't a long-term solution.

Transportation policy reform

Advocates expect that bills to reform the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) will try to prevent future disastrous project decisions, like Route 460 out of Hampton Roads, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand. This year, proposed reforms to the PPTA include requiring better risk analysis and greater legislative oversight.

Highway advocates hostile to transit have tried for many years to make "congestion reduction" the main criterion for selecting transportation projects. Last year, the smart growth community won important amendments to a bill, HB2, which set more balanced criteria to give transit projects a fair chance at funding.

Unfortunately, transit opponents are back this session with bills to force VDOT to evaluate Northern Virginia projects solely under the congestion reduction standard. This would force officials to ignore the benefits of transit for moving more people, providing an effective commute option, reducing air pollution, promoting smart growth development, and maximizing walk, bike and transit trips.

Bicycle and pedestrian priorities

Legislators are proposing bills to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, including anti-dooring bills, bills to make it easier to safely and legally pass cyclists with a 3-foot buffer, and bills to require stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Another bill would ensure localities don't lose state funding if they make bike improvements on local streets. Today, changing road from two lanes each way to one lane each way, plus a center turn lane, plus bike lanes (as Fairfax County did with Lawyers Road) could reduce a jurisdiction's funding under the state formula.

Standards for Uber, Lyft, and other services

Ride-hailing services have hit the scene across the country, offering new options for getting around without owning a car. States are addressing how to properly regulate these services, and Virginia is no exception. Issues include insurance, background checks for drivers, access for the disabled and those without credit cards, and use of hybrid or other high-efficiency vehicles.

Threats to land conservation

Virginia's very successful Land Preservation Tax Credit program is facing significant cuts, even though it has effectively helped Virginians to voluntarily conserve tens of thousands of acres in farms and forests, and helped communities reduce sprawl and the costs of public infrastructure.

Opponents of land conservation are also pushing legislation designed to undermine the conservation easement program, impacting the right and ability of private landowners to conserve their land. Expect to see smart growth and conservation groups across the state partner to defend this program.

Potomac bridges

It seems that each year brings new bills pushing for new highways across the Potomac far upstream from the American Legion Bridge. New bridges have the potential to impact Great Falls, Reston, and eastern Loudoun, fueling more sprawl and diverting funds need for investing in transit and fixing the American Legion Bridge. Each year, we've won bipartisan support to stop these bills. We'll see if they pop up again.

Specific details on particular bills will become available on the legislative system as they are filed and published. We'll follow up with bill numbers, details, and links in upcoming posts as the legislative session continues.


Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.

Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future direction—or committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.


Area governments take a small step on carbon emissions, but stall on real action

Greenhouse gas emissions are building in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change that is threatening our world. Our region needs to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors, but the regional Transportation Planning Board still won't commit to a specific target.

Photo by John Quigley/Spectral Q reposted with permission.

In 2008, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) published its climate change report establishing a scientifically-based regional goal to reduce carbon emissions to 80% of 2005 levels by 2050. All 21 local government members of COG reaffirmed the commitment in 2010 when they signed the compact called Region Forward.

But so far, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB), COG's most powerful committee which sets transportation funding priorities, has no plans to meet that target and is actually moving in the opposite direction. TPB staff are quick to note that per capita emissions are declining slightly, but if overall emissions continue to rise until 2050, they will worsen the climate change problem.

Carbon Dioxide emissions from transportation, 2015-2040.

Many leaders want to tackle climate change, but TPB balks

Last week the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' (COG) air quality and climate change committees met together for the first time. They focused on the wide and broadening gap between our region's accepted climate emissions reduction goals and where we are headed within the transportation sector.

The overall tone and broad participation reflected optimism and ambition about taking on this challenge. Many members spoke strongly in favor of moving urgently to tackle transportation emissions, led by Roger Berliner of Montgomery County, Jay Fisette of Arlington, Phil Mendelson of DC, and Tad Aburn of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

They and others repeatedly asked the important question: will TPB accept and plan for the regional goal of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions from transportation by 2050?

Amongst all the supportive voices, it was difficult to see exactly what was holding the group back from making a more forceful decision. Perhaps it was the way the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Maryland Department of Transportation muddied the waters by raising scenarios that were not relevant to what was being proposed.

When Jay Fisette asked point blank if there was any legal prohibition on TPB adopting a self-defined climate change goal, TPB head Kanti Srikanth answered, "no." But he also said that he was sure "there are stakeholders on TPB that would have a different view."

Mr. Srikanth, until recently the head of planning for the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT) Northern Virginia District, didn't say so, but those stakeholders most resistant to achieving climate and smart growth goals in COG's transportation plan have long been the departments of transportation of Maryland and Virginia, and some local DOTs.

In the end, a small step

Ultimately the two committees adopted a weak, but still helpful resolution urging that all COG committees adopt the existing 80% reduction target, and created a working group to "explore establishing a target for screening for the regional transportation plan."

Many of the meeting participants had hoped for a more explicit commitment, so the Coalition for Smarter Growth is pressing the TPB to make a specific commitment to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation by 80% using a strategies that link land use changes with greater investment in transit, walking and bicycling.

Our most populous suburban areas hold the key

TPB's recent assessment of the region's transportation projects includes some stunning statistics that show how such an approach can make real progress on reducing emissions from transportation.

For example, the commute mode share for the "regional core" (DC, Arlington, and Alexandria) shows 70% of commute trips today are by walking, cycling, or transit. This is a direct result of mixed-use, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented community development.

Commute mode share by core, inner suburbs, and outer suburbs.

For what COG terms the "inner suburbs" (Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George's), 37% of commute trips today are something other than people driving alone. Not bad, but they also don't show much progress by 2040. For the outer suburbs, it's 21% today and 28% in 2040.

These very populous counties could do much more to shift mode shares and reduce vehicle miles traveled and emissions by accelerating what they are already planning: a combination of transit-oriented development at existing transit stations and transformation of their commercial strip corridors into mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented communities.

The outer jurisdictions would also benefit from more mixed-use centers. Finally, significant investment in dedicated lane commuter transit service would benefit both the outer and inner areas.

But we'll never move the needle on transportation emissions with our current plans. The regional transportation plan for 2014 includes a whopping 1,200 new lane miles and 25 new grade separated interchanges, compared to just 44 new miles of transit.

Many of those projects would go in the so-called "inner suburbs," and many were conceived years and even decades ago when everyone assumed people would drive more and more every year. Now that it's clear people are driving less, and walking, cycling, and riding transit more, how many of those road projects could be downsized, translated into a dedicated transit lane, or eliminated altogether?

Last week's meeting and resolution were a good start for bringing renewed attention to the actions our region must take to help fight climate change. Now, setting clear CO2 and vehicle miles traveled targets for transportation, and creating a real plan to get us there, are essential. If you think TPB should ensure our regional transportation plans will contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you can send them an email here.


The region needs to hear the call to action on climate change

400,000 people—or 0.1% of the US population—flooded the streets of New York City for the recent People's Climate March. But if we're to make a difference, the outpouring of support for action on climate change needs to translate to action locally.

Photo by Climate Action Network.

With the evidence, and the movement for serious action on climate change, growing every day, it's the moment for those of us in the DC region working for more sustainable, inclusive cities to push for change. In order to act globally, we have to work locally.

The march was led by those hit first and worst by climate change, from Superstorm Sandy survivors to Pacific Islanders. That's because climate change is no longer a problem of the future, but one that is unraveling before us with each extreme weather event. The derecho delivered that wakeup call to the DC region, while new reports continue to highlight the vulnerabilities of our region to storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise.

In recent years, climate change has moved far beyond the domain of liberals into the center of concern for such mainstream institutions as the US military, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Washington Post editorial board. That's because many are waking to the fact that climate change is quite possibly the biggest threat to human existence that we have ever faced.

Photo by Climate Action Network... on Flickr.

And yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence, we continue to fail to muster the political will to do much of anything about it. That's where this community has a huge role to play.

We know the role that smart, compact development and sustainable transportation options can play in cutting carbon emissions; report after report has documented how our transportation and land use decisions taken together could make an enormous difference.

Today, the average household in a dense, transit-oriented household emits approximately half as much carbon as a household in low density suburban development. With transportation and buildings together making up approximately 70% of regional emissions, steering more development toward compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods is critical.

Energy Consumption by Housing Type and Location. Image from Jonathan Rose Companies LLC and the EPA.

At the same time, the general public intuitively understands that those living in a walkable, urban community typically drive less, live in and have to heat or cool less space, own less stuff, and generally use less energy in their overall lifestyle.

Photo by Dan Alcalde on Flickr.

But of course, it's always easier to agree on solutions in theory than to agree with how to implement them in practice. Urbanists see this multiplied tens and hundreds of times over again, whether it's traffic engineers insisting we need to build ever more road capacity while shrinking biking and walking amenities, like with MCDOT's plans for White Flint. Or neighbors preventing more people from living near transit where they could drive and emit less, like at Takoma station.

These battles we fight throughout the region sometimes seem small, but added up and multiplied over time, their outcomes will mean a huge difference in our region's contribution to climate change.

We also of course need to try to pull the larger political levers available to us. The Transportation Planning Board (TPB) forecasts that it will not meet the climate change goals that the region has agreed to in its transportation plans. They say transportation emissions will continue to rise till 2040, but per capita emissions will fall. Unfortunately, the climate is not concerned with how we slice and dice the numbers so long as more carbon is pouring into the atmosphere.

A recent report by ITDP is one of the few that has mustered the courage to suggest and actually model what so obviously needs to happen: stop investing in new road capacity, and make major investments in transit, walking, and cycling infrastructure. Not surprisingly, transportation emissions would dramatically fall 40% more than following a car-centric pattern, while also happening to save the world economy $100 trillion. With 1200 new lane miles for cars in the pipeline in this region, now is the time to get serious about shifting investments away from new carbon-intensive infrastructure, and towards sustainable transportation options.

"HS" refers to ITDP's "High Shift" scenario that would entail major shifts of public investment away from car-oriented infrastructure and to walking, cycling, and transit infrastructure. Image from ITDP.

It's likely that most people aren't thinking about climate change and humanity's future when debating that new sidewalk that might tear up their lawn, or that new bus lane that might slightly lengthen their commute, and it's hard to blame them. That's why in decisions large and small, it's our job to invite our fellow residents, planners, bureaucrats, and elected officials to join us in looking at the big picture.

Too often, conversations over land use and transportation issues devolve into petty and self-interested fights. It's difficult to flip a switch and change in an instant all of the car-oriented infrastructure we've built over the last 50 years.

But if we all call on our neighbors, traffic engineers, and elected officials to pick their heads up out of the weeds and join us in taking on the biggest issue of our time, one sidewalk, bike lane, and affordable transit-oriented development at a time, we just might do our part in the biggest fight of our lives.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.

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