Weekend Long Reads: Seattle’s Vision for an All-Electric Transportation System

by Kevin Schofield

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, this weekend’s “long read” is a look to the future of transportation in Seattle and specifically how City officials intend to turn it green.

This past week the City of Seattle released its “blueprint” for how it intends to move to a transportation system that is nearly entirely electric by 2030. City leaders feel a sense of urgency about this, as Seattle has not been meeting its climate-change goals. In fact, according to the City it has “flatlined” on reducing transportation emissions, with only a 2% reduction since 2008.

As is frequently the case, the blueprint leads with climate justice principles. In this case, it emphasizes that the transformation to all-electric should address the higher levels of pollution in low-income and communities of color in the city, the inequities in availability of transportation to some communities, and making sure that new economic opportunities — both green jobs and investments in communities — are made available to all Seattle residents.

Seattle has an advantage in trying to “green” its transportation system: it has a large supply of carbon-free hydroelectric power that it draws upon to power the city, so whenever anything is switched from fossil fuels to electricity it automatically reduces greenhouse emissions. Many other jurisdictions are still reliant on coal, oil, or gas plants to generate their electricity, so in those places switching from a gasoline-powered car to an electric car may not reduce the total greenhouse emissions.

At the same time, a large portion of Seattle’s 85 square miles is residential sprawl, which is difficult to cover efficiently with mass transit. And that raises questions about how much effort to put into electrifying transit versus trying to move residents’ personal vehicles over to electric power. Enabling a large-scale switch to electric vehicles requires that charging infrastructure be in place, both in homes and throughout the rest of the city. But rolling out that infrastructure is tricky: it can create new inequities depending upon where it is rolled out first, and it can also be a source of further gentrification of neighborhoods. 

The blueprint lays out six high-level goals to be achieved by 2030:

  • 100% of shared mobility is “zero emissions.”
  • 90% of all personal trips are “zero emissions.”
  • 30% of goods delivery is “zero emissions.”
  • The entire City vehicle fleet is fossil-fuel free.
  • The electrical infrastructure required to move to electrified transportation is installed and operational ahead of the adoption.
  • One or more “Green and Healthy Streets” are created — blocks that restrict cars and instead rely on walking, biking, and electrified vehicles.

The report finishes with a thoughtful discussion of the challenges in implementing this vision by 2030 and how the City intends to meet them. Those challenges range from policy and regulation changes needed to ensuring that Seattle has a workforce ready to take the new green jobs that accompany an electrified transportation system.

Seattle’s Clean Transportation Electrification Blueprint

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

Featured image is attributed to Ivan Radic under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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