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Turns Out, Seattle Isn't So Green: How About Your City?

Seattle's mayor is dubbed an environmental hero but other cities are making real progress toward addressing climate change.
 
 
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In the summer of 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels convinced hundreds of urban mayors around the country to pledge to enact laws aimed at reducing greenhouse gases to levels mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, which was rejected by President Bush. The gutsy move earned him political points in magazines from Rolling Stone (which dubbed him an environmental "hero") to Vanity Fair (which praised him as a rising green star). But in his own city, Nickels's policies are frequently at odds with his professed green agenda. Meanwhile, other cities across the country are making real changes that will help them meet and even exceed Kyoto targets.

Nickels's much-touted "Climate Action Plan" -- the final product of a so-called Green Ribbon Commission charged with crafting climate solutions for the city -- calls for spending $37 million over two years to reduce Seattle's greenhouse-gas emissions by increasing fuel efficiency, building sidewalks and bike lanes, planting trees, conserving energy, and increasing the use of biofuels.

All are laudable goals. But only eight percent of that $37 million is new from this year's city budget (the rest comes from a ballot initiative that primarily funds road and bridge repairs.) The Climate Action Plan also includes many policies that have already been implemented -- such as maintaining zero emissions at the city's hydropowered utility, City Light -- and assumes large emission reductions from policies such as "strengthen the state residential energy code" and "substantially increase natural gas conservation" whose success is a matter of speculation.

As environmental policy, Nickels's Climate Action Plan ignores Seattle's real environmental problem: too many people driving too many cars too many places. Because much of Seattle's energy comes from clean hydropower, the overwhelming bulk of the city's contribution to global warming comes from cars. So if we're going to cut our emissions (7 million tons in 2000, with 8.2 million tons projected for 2010), it follows we'll have to drastically reduce our reliance on cars.

But the vast majority of Nickels's commitment to funding alternatives to driving focuses on building bike lanes and sidewalks to the exclusion of other strategies to get people out of their cars. Pedestrian and bike facilities are obviously important (Portland, Oregon, a smaller city than Seattle, has six times as many miles of bike lanes) but local government won't get people out of their cars without creating disincentives to drive (tolls, a moratorium on road expansion) and incentives to get around without a car (fast, reliable transit, something Seattle currently lacks). Nickels's plan includes substantial praise for a separate county ballot measure that would pay for $10 million in new bus service a year. But it includes no policy changes at the city level to break Seattle's car addiction.

On that score, Nickels is pushing Seattle backward. Last year, he worked his political will to help kill a 14-mile monorail line, abandoning two remote parts of the city that are ill-served by transit and dooming Seattle to a future in which a single light-rail line and slow, stuck-in-traffic buses are the only available transit options. And despite pledging in his climate plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 170,000 tons by "reducing Seattle's dependence on cars," he continues to push for $4 billion-$5 billion tunnel to replace the city's aging Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown waterfront-a position that only compounds his failure to stand up for transit. The underground freeway would provide capacity for 140,000 cars a day --the equivalent, coincidentally, of the 170,000 tons of auto-produced carbon Nickels says he wants to eliminate annually. No other city in the nation is building a freeway on its waterfront; in fact, the prevailing trend is to tear freeways down, as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, New York City, San Francisco, and other cities have done.

This car-centric viaduct policy is the cornerstone of Seattle's global-warming hypocrisy. The only environmentally responsible position on the viaduct is to tear it down and replace its capacity with improvements to surface streets, bike lanes, and transit. The mayor, following the lead of the Washington State highway department, has obstinately assumed that traffic volumes will continue to increase indefinitely -- despite the fact that a state study revealed that tolling of just $1 on a new Alaskan Way tunnel would drive people to alternate routes, eliminating the need to replace the road's car capacity in the first place. Increased transit availability and ever-rising gas prices, meanwhile, suggest that people will find alternatives to driving alone in the very near future, like it or not. And if that happens, there's absolutely no reason any city "needs" a freeway on its waterfront.

A good example of the kind of investment Seattle should be making can be found in Denver, which will spend $5 billion over 12 years to build six light-rail and commuter-rail lines with a combined length of 119 miles. (The plan, called Fastracks, will also add bus routes to support the new network of light-rail lines.) The new transit system will help the Denver region accommodate a projected million new residents by 2025, and will cut more than an hour off many suburb-to-city commutes.

Seattle mayor Nickels has also scored major points for his work to increase density in Seattle's downtown core, and rightly so: Allowing taller buildings downtown (where building heights were capped until last year) will help Seattle accommodate 100,000 new residents. However, the mayor could have gone much further in working to reduce sprawl and protect the environment.

At the moment, 75 percent of residential land in Seattle is zoned exclusively for single-family houses. Changing that policy by allowing townhouses and small-scale multifamily buildings would go a long way toward accommodating the 350,000 people Nickels hopes to add to Seattle in the coming decades, without contributing to suburban sprawl or creating communities without kids. Requiring buildings to meet green-building standards, meanwhile, would ensure that new construction helps cool the city and doesn't harm the urban environment.

While the mayor of Seattle hogs the green spotlight, other cities across the U.S. are taking far more significant steps to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead of placing the primary burden of reducing emissions on individuals, other cities are making systemic, citywide changes-the only kind of changes that will ever make a lasting impact.

In Berkeley, the city council voted unanimously this year to put a measure on the ballot that would encourage efforts toward an 80-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 -- efforts that would include a drastic reduction in car use and ownership throughout the city. In San Francisco (and in more than 100 cities across the country), they're banning landfill-cluttering products made of Styrofoam. In New York City, all renovations and new construction must include water-saving plumbing devices. Again in Berkeley, the city council put a moratorium on new downtown parking. In Portland, Oregon, the city council mandated that 50 percent of solid waste be recycled. In Park City, Utah, all buses are free. Cities from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon, mandate maximum-not minimum-parking levels. In Davis, California, a city of just 65,000 people, there are more than 100 miles of bike lanes. Cities across the country are tearing down freeways and not replacing them. Nickels has said he wants to make Seattle "the most climate-friendly city in the country." So why is Seattle falling so far behind?

 
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