"Getting people out of their cars?" Ain't really gonna happen here in the four counties of metro Puget Sound. Not to any appreciable degree. Consider the eye-opening figures released in late May for the Puget Sound Regional Council's "Transportation 2040" Draft Environmental Impact Statement. A five percent mode share for transit in 2040, versus more than 80 percent for the evil auto, even in the rosiest scenario modeled.
There has been little or no discussion of this data in the region's media or blogosphere, puzzling because our many Greens profess to care so deeply about increasing transit usage to fight greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. What emerges instead from the data is that the policy response should lead with incentives for cleaner cars and road pricing, the two of which can be coupled. Let's drill down, starting with a summary of the key data.
According to Chapter One of that document, in our four counties only 2.9 percent of all daily passenger trips were on transit in the last year measured (2006), and if our current proclivities persist several things should be expected. Even with the most aggressive level of investment, transit's mode share would grow to no more than 5.2 percent by 2040. Walking and biking combined would rise from 10.4 percent of daily trips in 2006 to between 11.5 and 13.3 percent in 2040.
What about driving? A slight drop is projected but still, more than four of five daily passenger trips in the region would be in cars. Mode share for single- and multiple-occupant passenger vehicles, combined, would decline from 86.7 percent of daily trips in 2006 to between 81.5 and 84.3 percent in 2040 (p. 19). However, the total number of average daily passenger vehicle trips would rise between 37 and 42 percent, from 1.4 million per day in 2006 to between 1.88 million and 2 million per day in 2040 (p. 15). Total vehicle miles traveled would grow 18 to 39 percent between 2006 and 2040 (p. 17). Population would increase 42 percent to 4.9 million and jobs 60 percent to 3.1 million (p. 5).
Holistic but realistic policy-making is the medicine required. Lawmakers and environmental advocates must understand we can't tell people how to live, or where, or not to drive.
But we can employ powerful pricing incentives to ration peak-hour road capacity. System-wide electronic tolling of highways in special express lanes is where we need to go for the next 10 to 20 years. This beats the current piecemeal approach, which nonetheless has some promise. There would be higher charges for solo drivers at peak hours, and free passage for transit and vehicles with three or more passengers, or two or more.
Eventually, by 2020 or so, we will likely see area-wide charging of all miles traveled, whether on highways, arterials or side streets. Rate discounts would be given for carpoolers, vehicles with lower or no tailpipe emissions such as the electric Nissan Leaf (pictured above, left), and use of less-congested routes. On-board GPS units would be required to track distance, time and place; other approaches could track mileage only if that ends up being the choice. I pick Door Number One. We can rise to the challenge of wide adoption of onboard units and attendant privacy concerns because consumer incentives such as pay-as-you-drive insurance, meter-less, ticket-less parking, and navigational aids will accompany the OBUs.
All this will further encourage alternatives to driving solo at peak hour, and boost the use of next-generation green vehicles as production eventually scales up and prices drop. Let's resist the utopian impulse to perfect our world. Can't be done. The global car fleet is expected to triple by 2050, and SUVs are already selling like hot-cakes in India. Finger-wagging isn't the answer. We need to enhance the pocketbook appeal of smart, green choices. And that can happen.