Photo depicting a Black- and female-presenting individual with low vision seated at a bus stop waiting to get onto transit.

OPINION: With the Right Transportation Policies, We Can Pivot to a New Climate Reality

by Ingrid Elliott, Rich Stolz, Anna Zivarts

Less than three months ago, a heatwave like we’ve never seen before gripped the Pacific Northwest killing over 1,200 people in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Black, Brown, and poor people were hit first and worst — low-income neighborhoods recorded by far the highest temperatures — but everyone suffered in one of our region’s worst natural disasters.

Scientists called the heat dome “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.” An August Seattle Times piece noted that extreme heat events in the Northwest become 14 times more likely with climate change. We made this reality. How can we pivot to a different one?  

Here in Washington State, the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the tailpipes of our vehicles. And no, electric cars won’t be the magic bullet. Even assuming the most aggressive conversion to EVs, we would still not meet the reductions needed to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. To meet this challenge, we need to quickly electrify transportation and reduce our reliance on cars. 

As you read this, legislators in Olympia are meeting behind closed doors trying, again, to cobble together a multiyear transportation package. Last year’s failed House and Senate transportation packages proposed billions to expand highways and widen roads and, in the case of the House proposal at least, increase funding for non-auto projects, though not nearly enough to make less driving possible. This is not the future we need. More roads bring more traffic, more asthma, and more carbon emissions

Last year when Front and Centered asked our members for their transportation priorities, Communities of Color across the state could not be more clear: Better public transit, cleaner air, and safer streets. In interviewing disabled nondrivers from every legislative district in our state, Disability Rights Washington heard the same priorities. From Tacoma to Spokane, and Kitsap to Yakima, members of the 350 Washington Network told us they support a huge shift in public spending, away from expanding road and highway capacity, instead investing in systems that support walking, biking, rolling, and transit.

These are simply good public policies. Transit, bike, and pedestrian projects create 31%, 46%, and 22% more jobs per dollar than new road construction. Smaller, women, and BIPOC-owned businesses, who lack the expensive machinery and political connections to land highway megaprojects, can compete for and win contracts for these projects. More buses and trains mean good jobs for the long-term; drivers and maintenance workers stay on the job long after the hard hats are sent packing. 

Under the Biden Administration, the Department of Transportation, led by Secretary Buttigieg, is urging us to build the infrastructure that supports transportation modes beyond cars. National advocacy groups like Transportation for America are arguing it’s better to have no new infrastructure spending than infrastructure spending that continues to burden our country with new highways we can’t afford, don’t need, and that actively perpetuate harm, especially in BIPOC and poor communities. 

Here in Washington, we need leadership that looks to the future and imagines what can be. Our state should be leading the nation in making a just transition away from the fossil fuels that are ruining our health and our planet. Transportation in the Evergreen State could be a driver of equity and opportunity, but only if we act boldly to create a different future instead of doubling down on the dirty solutions of the past.

Ingrid Elliott, Ph.D., is Transportation Team Lead at 350 Seattle and 350 WA. She pivoted from her career as an art historian and curator when her 19-year-old son told her that he wouldn’t have children unless we got climate change sorted out. So Ingrid got to work.

Rich Stolz is a founding community leader of Front and Centered, a statewide environmental justice coalition in Washington. He is the former executive director of OneAmerica, and he now lives in White Center.

Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative, Disability Rights Washington, is a low-vision mom. She grew up outside of Olympia and now lives in Hillman City.

📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Disability Mobility Initiative.

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