Relations between Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are “buddy, buddy” compared to the odd couple of warring Democrats on the East Coast: NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. One of the most important ways the Washington State Democrats see eye-to-eye is their similar focus on finding idealistic but practical solutions for transportation emissions. 

Inslee wishes to run for president as the leading green candidate following local transportation victories. Those include leading West Coast charge against any relaxing of car emission standards. 

With more of a step-by-step approach on grassroots issues, Durkan also wishes to make Seattle green on transportation questions. But emissions in Seattle are still growing. Small victories on the ground merely counterbalance increasing air travel. The Emerald City may need a bolder approach.

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Seattle’s Transportation Advancement under Mayor Durkan

Under Mayor Durkan’s short tenure so far, Seattle has done all of the following:

  • Helped the Seattle Transit Benefit District to provide over 14,000 new Seattle households with access to 10-minute or better King County Metro bus service.
  • Provided free Year-Round ORCA passes for 15,000 High School and College Students, partnering with Seattle Public Schools, King County Metro, Seattle Colleges and the Seattle Department of Transportation. Seattle is now the largest city in the United States to provide free transit passes to high school students.
  • Opened new electric vehicle charging stations at Seattle Municipal Tower as well as in Beacon Hill.
  • Provided an Executive Order to reduce the City’s fleet by 10 percent.
  • With the support of all Seattle area Sound Transit Board Members, signed an agreement for an expedited plan to build the West Seattle and Ballard light rail extensions.
  • Signed Executive Order 2018-02 accelerating the electrification of the City’s municipal fleet and phasing out fossil fuel use in city vehicles by 2030.
  • Most recently (during a Climate Solutions charity breakfast I had the pleasure to attend), signed a law requiring new home construction with off-street parking to be wired for electric vehicle charging units.
mayor durkan
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signs bill into law requiring car charging stations in new construction during Climate Solutions speech 5/8/2019

Weaker on Bike Lanes

Seattle Mayor Durkan did complete more than 1.4 miles of protected bike lanes in the downtown corridor.  Seattle now has nearly 16 miles of protected bike lanes and more than 85 miles of non-protected bike lanes.  Yet the growth of bike lanes is slowing due to cost, and quite limited compared to places like San Francisco (which has much more than twice as many miles of lanes) or more stellar examples in Europe:  Amsterdam has 250 times more lanes!  Seattle under Durkan has scaled back expectations on new lanes due to cost, and the gains above are comparatively unimpressive.

Projects cut from original development plans under the current Seattle mayor include those on Beacon Avenue S and Airport Way. Meanwhile, bike advocates argue that by only producing half the new lanes that we had hoped for in a 2015 plan, we are famously leaving out safe bike solutions for many downtown and Southeast users, particularly near the Rainier Avenue corridor

Ambiguity on Transportation Networking Companies like Uber and Lyft

Compared to several other cities, Seattle implements low taxes on rides from “transportation network companies” (like Uber and Lyft) to offset the apparent increase in congestion that they may cause.  Silicon Valley proponents of these companies originally hoped that they would enable urbanites to ditch their cars and make for a lessened need for parking. But the hope has given way to a more pessimistic reality that Uber and Lyft are likely detracting from use of public transportation, or lighter emission solutions like electric bikes, regular bikes, and scooters, with car trips that just involve a sole rider:  On over 30 million private transport network trips a year and growing, trips mostly with one passenger, Seattle at the moment only charges fees of 14 cents per trip to cover the cost of TNC licensing and 10 cents per trip to support taxi wheelchair accessibility

No Urban Congestion Pricing Yet

Seattle has not yet experimented with congestion pricing, where license plate readers would help us to charge for driving in central areas of the city, perhaps with elevated pricing at busier times of the day when cars idle with bad gas mileage. This would provide a disincentive to passenger car travel into the city, and has reduced traffic congestion and car pollution in cities like London, Singapore, and Stockholm.  Andrew Cuomo has just successfully pushed for it in NY City, although the details and date of implementation have yet to be worked out.   New York also has tolls to get into the city on most bridges and and all tunnels, unlike Seattle, where only the 520 bridge is tolled; and New York’s tolls are $15 or more, about triple the cost in Seattle.

One reason Mayor Durkan may not have promoted congestion pricing or increased tolling in Seattle is that many liberals (including Mayor De Blasio in NY) fear that congestion pricing, like most carbon taxes, will be regressive taxes, impacting the poor more than the rich.  The Seattle Times has come out against congestion pricing for this reason. (Its editorials are more flat-footed on the environment than its quality reporters, often picking away at green solutions.)  While it is true that carbon taxes tend to be regressive generally, initiatives like Washington 1631 (which didn’t pass) can be written to pour money back into working-class neighborhoods and communities, and into public transportation in under-served areas, offsetting the cost for those most likely to feel the pinch. De Blasio also worked to mollify the impact of congestion pricing on vehicles for those with limited mobility before signing onto a NY City deal, and Seattle could adopt similar provisions.

The Seattle Mayor on Air travel

With the city growing, we have a case of one step forward (on slightly lower emissions from cars and light trucks), and a bigger step backwards (on a 40 percent increase in emissions from jet exhaust over the last several years). SeaTac is making some inroads on electric service vehicles and machinery that cut the impact of the airport itself slightly. Further, Alaska Airlines, with its hub in Seattle, is more efficient than the average airline in the use of jet fuel. Nevertheless, Seattle politicians haven’t focused as much on how to tackle high emissions from expanded air travel, for example with local biofuels as a larger percentage of fuel consumed, or perhaps supporting local companies partnering with Boeing and focused on hybrid aeronautic designs. Or we could work harder to counterbalance the increase in air travel with bolder solutions on the ground.

Wrap Up

Seattle is slowly, slowly reducing its car emissions. Before Mayor Durkan, Seattle’s emissions on roads dropped about 1 percent between 1990 and 2012, short of widely publicized commitments. More recently, car emissions are dropping about half a percent a year, while adhering to the city’s action plan might require reducing tailpipe exhaust 15 times faster than what Seattle has actually achieved.  Can we move more quickly to make Seattle a more Emerald City?