Link Light Rail on MLK Jr. Blvd in Seattle; photo by Atomic Taco.

The central Puget Sound region is projected to grow by 40 percent in the next 30 years, making the deep emissions cuts that are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change—on the order of 80 to 90 percent by mid-century—an even more enormous challenge.

Three major policy decisions in 2010 will either foster great urban neighborhoods where people can choose to walk, bike and take transit to reach their destinations, or further lock us into car-dependent patterns that will keep us from meeting long-term climate goals.

Seattle’s recently published greenhouse gas inventory shows modest progress—the city's 2008 emissions were seven percent lower than 1990 levels. However, transportation-related emissions, which make up 62 percent of the city’s carbon footprint, are still going up because population growth is outpacing modest gains in vehicle efficiency. We’re getting bigger faster than cars are getting cleaner. Improving fuel efficiency isn’t enough—we also have to reduce car dependence so that people drive less.

By carefully integrating land use, transportation, and housing policies, we can build communities where people can easily walk, bicycle, or take transit instead of getting in their cars—as documented in a new report by Futurewise, GGLO (where, full disclosure, I work) and Transportation Choices Coalition called Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State.

Transit-oriented communities (TOC) offer a wide range of benefits in addition to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, including better health, cleaner air, lower household transportation expenses and city infrastructure costs, and reduced energy use, land consumption, and runoff pollution. But to maximize those benefits, cities will have to site enough homes, jobs, and services near transit. In addition, TOCs must include affordable housing, open space, and pedestrian-oriented design.

In central Puget Sound, three imminent policy decisions will have major impacts on the success of TOCs for decades to come.

First, Seattle is updating its plans for the neighborhoods surrounding light rail stations.  To address the needs of current residents while creating room for new ones, these plans must be followed by meaningful public investment in infrastructure, affordable housing, and community services—not just along light rail routes, but along streetcar and RapidRide lines as well.

Second, the Puget Sound Regional Council will finalize its long-term transportation plan for the region, Transportation 2040. If the plan prioritizes investments in transit and other non-automobile modes and includes a meaningful tolling system that encourages alternative transportation, it will help support TOC and greater transportation choices in the region.

Third, Sound Transit will choose the final East Link alignment and begin planning for North Link from Northgate to Lynnwood. The biggest factor in the success of TOCs success is where stations are located. Will our new stations cater to cars at park-and-rides? Or will we have the vision to choose alignments that catalyze great communities?

Finally, Olympia has a role to play too. Transit agencies need new revenue sources. Local governments don’t have sufficient funding for planning work and infrastructure improvements. Although legislation to address those issues is unlikely to move in the short, budget-focused 2010 session, advocates will look to 2011 for leadership from Olympia to support TOC-related policies and investments.

Transit-oriented communities offer an unmatched potential to accommodate future growth in great urban neighborhoods while helping to make the planet healthier for everyone.  Smart policy decisions in 2010 will be the first critical steps toward achieving that potential.