Mayor Nickels's Climate Action Agenda Is All Talk
A year and a half ago, Mayor Greg Nickels convinced hundreds of urban mayors to pledge to enact laws that would reduce 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 here in Seattle, Nickels's own policies are frequently at odds with his professed green agenda. Even if meeting Kyoto Protocol targets were enough (and it isn't), this mayor's policies will do almost nothing to get us there.
Am I being too harsh? Let's take a look at Nickels's much-touted "Climate Action Plan." The plan 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 92 percent of that $37 million would come from a ballot measure—the $365 million "Bridging the Gap" proposal—that is polling at 43 percent and may not pass. The plan also includes many policies that have already been implemented—maintaining zero emissions at City Light, for example—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.
Moreover, even if all the funding for Nickels's Climate Action Plan passes, it doesn't go nearly far enough. Because much of Seattle's energy comes from clean hydropower, most of our 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), we'll have to drastically reduce our reliance on cars. The 25 percent of Bridging the Gap that would fund 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 bike lanes) but we 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). Nickels's plan assumes passage of the county's "Transit Now" ballot measure, which would pay for $10 million in new bus service a year, but includes no other policy changes to break Seattle's car addiction.
On that score, Nickels is pushing Seattle backward. Last year, he worked his political will to help kill the monorail, abandoning West Seattle and Ballard, 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. (The monorail agency's shoddy numbers were obviously also to blame, but Nickels did everything he could to save Sound Transit when that agency's cost overruns became apparent five years earlier—and it worked.) And despite pledging to cut emissions by 170,000 tons by "reducing Seattle's dependence on cars," he continues to push for a $4 billion–$5 billion Alaskan Way tunnel—a position that only compounds his failure to stand up for transit. That waterfront freeway, if it's built, 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. By pushing for a massive new waterfront freeway, Nickels is ignoring the advice of his own Green Ribbon Commission, which wrote: "Only by driving fewer cars and fewer miles can we meet our Kyoto target."
This car-centric viaduct policy is the cornerstone of Nickels's global-warming hypocrisy. As we've pointed out more than once, 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—something Nickels has shown almost no willingness to consider. The mayor, following the lead of the state highway department, assumes that traffic volumes will continue to increase indefinitely, but a state study revealed that tolling of just $1 on a new Alaskan Way tunnel would drive people to use alternate routes, eliminating the need to build a new tunnel 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 no reason we need a freeway on our waterfront.
Here's the really depressing thing: For the $6 billion or more we'll eventually spend building Nickels's waterfront freeway, we could build light rail to the Eastside and elsewhere, vastly expand Seattle's bus system, and create a real network of bike paths that would attract would-be bike commuters who are currently daunted by the prospect of riding inches away from speeding cars. 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, plus bus routes to support them. And that $5 billion is just how much we'll spend replacing the viaduct. Factor in the billions more we plan to spend expanding roads like I-405 and SR-167 to accommodate cars, and you're looking at the potential for a real transit system. Nickels, however, supports the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID), which would expand freeways and encourage sprawl in exurbs like Maple Valley.
Nickels has also scored major points for his work to increase downtown density, and rightly so: Lifting the cap on building heights downtown will help Seattle accommodate 100,000 new residents. However, the mayor could have gone much further.
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.
Another example: Current city policy only requires the largest private buildings to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver green-building standards. Smaller buildings, both residential and commercial, are not required to meet the standards. And The requirement for very tall buildings to meet LEED standards wouldn't be law at all if it weren't for Seattle City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck, who inserted the requirement in the mayor's downtown upzone bill.
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, these 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, Mr. Mayor, are we falling so far behind?