by Harold S. Taniguchi
Director, King County Dept. of Transportation
Local action will continue to be our path forward on climate, sustainability, mobility and equity in King County, as we saw at the recent GoGreen Conference in Seattle. Thanks to the leadership of King County Executive Dow Constantine, we are addressing these challenges and partnering with businesses and the community for shared success on green building, wind and solar energy, transit-oriented development, and the nation’s leading commitment on electric buses.
This was the fifth year of King County’s sponsorship of the event, and I had the privilege of moderating an expert panel on “The Future of Transportation.” Our group shared the promise and progress of on-demand vehicle services, shared mobility, and vehicle electrification. While we still haven’t reached the day of flying cars and the Jetsons that we imagined as kids, our discussion highlighted the speed of change and innovation and the need for public agencies to adapt, innovate, and partner to ensure the transportation of the future works for everyone.
Today, every car off the assembly line is a supercomputer on wheels
Charles Knutson, the Governor’s senior policy advisor on Transportation and Economic Development, said government must innovate just to keep up with advances in technology. The concept of autonomous vehicles started with cruise control on cars in the 70s, and today back-up cameras, automatic lane alignment and braking mark increasingly impressive incremental steps toward the day when cars drive themselves.
New ways of doing business also call for new policies, as we’ve seen with the advent of what we call Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs: the Ubers and Lyfts of the world. Chris Brandon is CEO of Wingz, a new variation on the TNC model where customers can schedule a ride in advance and ask for a favorite driver – “a driver you know, like, and trust,” as he put it. Chris foresees a future with fewer single-passenger cars and riders on the road and more multi-passenger services in urban cores, reducing congestion and, in his view, relieving some of the burden on public transportation services.
The road ahead is evolving, and we are too
By 2020, Chris expects to see a convergence of car ownership, ride sharing, and car sharing. To advance that vision, King County Metro is expanding existing programs such as VanPool and VanShare, and adapting our products to better meet the community’s needs through TripPool and community shuttles – to reach more people, reduce congestion at park and rides, and make it easier to leave your car parked and share a ride to work or play.
Metro a national leader with pledge for electric buses
Another area of transportation where government is innovating is with electrification of our fleets and buses. King County is leading this market with our purchase of 120 zero-emission battery buses by 2020, which run on electricity, not fossil fuel. Up to 73 of these will be from Proterra, North America’s leading maker of battery buses. Ours is the largest order of battery electric buses in North America to date, and with our all-electric trolley fleet of more than 170 zero-emission coaches, King County is on track to transition to a zero-emissions fleet by as early as 2034. In March we announced how we plan to become a zero-emission transit agency powered by renewable energy, with more work ahead as the industry evolves to meet our needs. As for personal cars, King County operates 55 publicly available electric-vehicle charging stations at park and rides and buildings throughout the county. With most carbon emissions in the state coming from vehicle emissions, “We’re trying to electrify everything that moves,” as Charles Knutson put it.
The future is electric
Proterra’s chief commercial officer, Matt Horton, is seeing this trend toward electrification across the country. He predicted that when the cost of lithium-ion batteries falls to $150 per kilowatt-hour, diesel fuel could be free-of-charge and it would still cost less to operate an all-battery bus. By breaking through the price barrier that keeps fossil fuels in use, he said we would tip the playing field in favor of cleaner air and cleaner water. Metro’s vehicle order is helping transform the market place and driving interest in the evolving technology from other transit agencies.
The power is in our hands
Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference. The smartphone is an amazing tool to combat congestion, according to Shefali Ranganathan, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition. Now and in the future we can use our phone to check apps, plan a trip, or to hail a car to get to a light rail station or a bus stop. Despite the new innovations in ridesharing, public transit is still the spine of our regional transportation system, she said, and the most effective way to move large numbers of people to and from the urban core. She predicts the technology in our pocket will make access to transit easier in the future.
Reducing barriers to mobility
At the same time, Shefali reminded us to make sure equitable access is part of the customer experience. Those without the means to afford a smartphone will not have access to new technology unless we are inclusive in guiding those advances. Technology must also embrace languages other than English. Children, seniors, and people of color must not be left behind or displaced, she urged, in the brave new future of transportation, because not having access to transportation is the single most-important barrier to climbing the economic ladder and fundamental to achieving and maintaining a high quality of life.
On that point, I am very pleased that at King County we are building equity into our systems while planning for better mobility to serve riders through our Metro Connects long-range plan. We are focused on our equity and social justice efforts, using an intentionally equitable and inclusive process to engage staff from across all our divisions and work sites to evaluate our current practices and identify meaningful actions items that improve outcomes for all. Our ORCA Lift program currently provides 42,500 subscribers who earn a lower income with reduced fares, and last year they made about 5 million boardings on Metro buses.
Serving riders, focused on results
Battery bus technology also can improve quality of life and public health outcomes by reducing air pollution and noise along transit corridors. To ensure we are advancing social equity and human health, King County DOT is prioritizing deployment of new zero-emission buses to communities most vulnerable to air pollution, which have historically endured the greatest burden.
By improving mobility – providing frequent and reliable transit service across King County, connecting residents to work, school and fun – we in turn address the impacts of climate change. Our Strategic Climate Action Plan sets us on a path to reduce countywide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, compared to 2007.
Leading by example
As the pace of change in technology and business models continues to create complex policy issues, our challenge will always be how we can create efficient, equitable, and enjoyable transportation that works for everyone.
Whatever shape the future of transportation takes – long-range electric vehicles, self-driving cars, or even the Jetsons with jetpacks – we’ll continue to have these kinds of thoughtful discussions, to be sure our public policy keeps up with private innovation as we move forward together.