The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Transportation, Climate Change and Thriving Communities

September 13th, 2016 · No Comments · Transportation

Ubaxby Ubax Gardheere – Program Director
Puget Sound Sage

Over the last year, Puget Sound Sage and Got Green set out to learn how our communities were experiencing climate change. Led by the Climate Justice committee, we interviewed 175 residents and 30 organizations in South Seattle with the goals of grounding climate change in community concerns and building local leadership in the movement for Climate Justice. Our report, Our People, Our Planet, Our Power, elevated these stories and priorities to drive meaningful action in local policy, planning and grassroots organizing.

Through the Climate Justice Project, we learned that affordable housing was the most significant issue impacting our communities now (89% of respondents impacted), followed closely by living near major highways (74%) and a lack of access to transportation (73%). Looking ahead, respondents were most concerned about the health impacts of climate change – while more than 2/3 of respondents were already impacted by exposure to diesel exhaust and living near major polluting industries (i).

Puget Sound Sage Community Leadership Institute

We know that these health, housing and transportation issues are closely related. Consider the disproportionate health impacts of transportation in King County. Asthma prevalence among Asian, Black and multiracial youth is higher than white and Hispanic youth. Life expectancy for residents in Southeast Seattle – which is both majority people of color and near major transportation corridors – is almost a decade lower than the King County average (ii).

Beyond these existing harms, climate change creates new transportation-related health risks. Hotter summers and more intense and frequent heat waves take the pollution that’s already in the air – like diesel particulates, ozone, carbon monoxide – and make it more concentrated. And while living near transportation and infrastructure poses major health risks, not living near it can also be unsafe. In an extreme weather event, access to transportation is critical for evacuation (especially for elders, children and people who are ill) (iii).

Moreover, transportation is the single greatest contributor to climate change in our region. In King County and Washington State, transportation emissions make up 48% and 45% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), respectively (iv).

Given these health and climate burdens, making transportation greener – by taking cars off the road, increasing access to public transportation and building more housing near transit – is critical. What we learned from the Climate Justice Project, however, suggests that without strong anti-displacement measures, these efforts to ‘green’ transportation often undermine both the health of our communities and any efforts to reduce emissions.

Displacement Undermines Efforts to Combat Climate Change

Our survey respondents identified lack of affordable housing as their biggest neighborhood concern, and the data backs this up: displacement risk in Seattle is on the rise. A recent mapping study, done as part of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, found that the areas with the highest risk are in majority communities of color areas like Rainier Valley (v).

As people have to commute further to work because of displacement, we see an increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) and GHGs. Displacement also weakens the community connections and stability that keep people safe and healthy, both in everyday life and in the event of a climate-related emergency (vi).

The fact that displacement risk is particularly high along light rail corridors makes it clear: investment in transit-oriented development (TOD) alone is not enough (vii). Instead, we need solutions that bring together accessible transportation, affordable housing, child care, cultural centers and good jobs.


Putting the Equity in TOD

Putting the “Equity in TOD” means emphasizing affordability, access, and community-control. In this way, ETOD tackles the threat of displacement head-on. We believe that investment in and along public transit corridors should benefit the people already living there.

Increasingly, evidence shows us that when low-income people can thrive in place with access to transit, both VMTs and GHGs are reduced. Low income households near transit drive 50% less than low-income households in non-TOD communities, thereby increasing transit ridership (viii).    Further, because low-income households tend to own older, polluting vehicles, reducing driving from these households significantly impacts GHG emissions reduction (ix).  Moreover, when residents move into transit oriented development from areas with low transit access, they reduce their vehicle miles travelled by 42% as well as reduce commute time and cost and improve access to jobs (x).

Beyond major reductions in GHG emissions, sustainable communities foster the social, cultural, and economic opportunities that we need to thrive in a climate-changing world.

The Potential for ETOD: Graham St. Station

Known as the “missing light rail station,” Graham Street Station was planned but never built when Light Rail first came to South Seattle. Graham St. is now a part of Sound Transit 3, with a $66-71 million budget and projected ridership of 4,000 to 5,000 riders per day by 2040.

Building the Graham Street Station is an opportunity to model community-controlled development that connects residents to critical services while taking cars off the road. Already, the Filipino community center is building 70-80 units for elders and immigrant families at the station.

And as Graham St. is planned in the coming years, Sage and our coalition partners will lead community visioning to ensure that the station is a model for Equitable Transit Development where our communities can thrive in place.


  (i) Puget Sound Sage and Got Green. “Our People, Our Planet, Our Power.” January 2016.
(ii) City of Seattle. “Equity and Environment Agenda”. April 2016.
(iii) Morello-Frosch, R. et a. “The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans and How to Close the Gap.” USC Dornsife: Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.
(iv) Correct citation – missing in report.
(v) Puget Sound Sage. “Transit Oriented Development That’s Healthy, Green and Just.” May 2012.
(vi) Baussan, D. “Social Cohesion: The Secret Weapon in the Fight for Equitable Climate Resilience.” Center for American Progress. May 11, 2015. issues/green/ report/2015/05/11/112873/ social-cohesion-the-secret-weaponin-the-fight-for-equitable-climateresilience/
(vii) Puget Sound Sage. “Transit Oriented Development That’s Healthy, Green and Just.” May 2012.
(viii) “Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy.” CHPC & TransForm. 2014. transform-report/why-creating-andpreserving-affordable-homes-neartransit-highly-effective-climate
(ix) Pollack, P. et al., 2010. Maintaining Diversity in America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods. Dukakis Cen
(x) Cervero, R. 2007. “Transit Oriented Development’s Ridership Bonus,” Environment and Planning 39: 2074-2075

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