Sustainable Missoula: Let’s shift focus to moving people, not motor vehicles

Editor’s note: Sustainable Missoula is in the midst of a series of articles to build broader understanding of the 0/50/100 sustainability framework – Zero Waste, 50 percent sustainable trips, and 100 percent clean electricity for Missoula. This column is the fourth in a series on 50 percent sustainable trips. Read the first column here, the second here, and the third here.

In 2016, the Missoula community adopted ambitious mode split goals, aiming to triple the percentage of people biking and walking, and quadruple busing, as their primary mode of transportation.

These goals, if met, will help Missoula become more sustainable, more resilient and more efficient. If we can reduce our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, we can also be more efficient with our tax dollars, allowing the city to grow while removing the need for costly road-widening projects.

Although the motor vehicle offered unprecedented mobility in our lives over the last century, planning around the automobile has created cities that are inefficient, congested and limited in mobility options, especially for youth, the elderly, people with disabilities and those living in poverty.

With the ever-increasing cost of road construction projects, we simply cannot build our way out of congestion and pollution. A different approach is necessary to address the transportation impacts to our climate (37 percent of emissions in Missoula come from transportation), our health and our wallets. We need to place a greater emphasis on moving people rather than cars, and on being more efficient with how we use our public right of way.

This new approach requires thoughtful and coordinated land use and transportation planning and policies. In the last decade, we have been moving in this direction. Since 2008, the central planning policy in Missoula has been to Focus Inward, which means developing denser, mixed-use neighborhoods, rather than perpetuating suburban sprawl. This means providing neighborhoods with services nearby and creating walkable developments where people have access to jobs and services within a 15-minute walk from their homes.

We already see this taking shape in many of Missoula’s neighborhoods, with higher densities and new development supporting jobs and services in places like Brooks Street or the Northside and Westside.

In order to support walkable and bikeable neighborhoods as we focus inward, Missoula adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2009 to ensure we build safe and accessible facilities for people of all ages and abilities to use all modes of transportation. The Complete Streets and Focus Inward policies work in concert to help us achieve our goals by creating the density necessary to support services in closer proximity, providing equal opportunity for all modes, and providing the education and resources to help people choose the right transportation mode for their trip.

Missoula also has award-winning transportation demand management (Missoula In Motion), parking services (Missoula Parking Commission), and transit (Mountain Line). These organizations work together to help individuals and businesses support transportation choices other than driving alone, reducing our climate impact as well as the burden our car-oriented transportation system places on residents, businesses, and commuters.

Despite these progressive policies, there is more work to do to build resiliency, reduce our carbon footprint and achieve our goal of cutting drive-alone trips in half. Policies need to be diverse, they need to be innovative, and they need to shift how we think about our community.

We must complete our non-motorized network and expand transit service. We must use innovative designs in all of our transportation projects, not just the ones where it is easy or convenient. We must look at further integrating transportation demand management with our parking requirements (and maybe doing away with requirements all together). We must look at trip reduction strategies with all new developments. This does not mean people will not have the opportunity to drive, but it does mean that biking or walking or taking the bus must be equally convenient for many more people. We must prioritize moving people rather than motor vehicles.

The good news is some of these policies are already in the works. The Missoula Downtown Master Plan update draft, released this week, includes new recommendations for how the transportation system moves people into and around our downtown. The plan focuses on the need to create public streets designed for moving people rather than motor vehicles, including protected bike lanes and desirable pedestrian spaces.

The plan also recommends developing more housing and higher densities to create those walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. These same principles can extend beyond the already-dense downtown.

Transportation also has a role to play in affordable housing policy. If transportation options are safe, comfortable and convenient, people can reduce their reliance on motor vehicles and reduce household transportation costs. Compact communities also benefit from lower costs to build and maintain infrastructure, further decreasing the price of new housing.

There are clear climate benefits to pursuing policies for more compact development and multimodal transportation options (cutting drive-alone trips in half that means reducing our overall carbon emissions locally by more than 18 percent). However, these solutions have benefits that extend well beyond reduced emissions. By using our networks and investments more efficiently (economic) and ensuring equitable access and safer transportation options (social), a more balanced transportation system will bolster all three “legs” of sustainability.

Aaron Wilson is the Transportation Planning Manager and Ben Weiss is the Bicycle Pedestrian Program Coordinator for the City of Missoula.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

May is Bike Month – still a few more upcoming bike-friendly events, listed HERE.

June 4-5. Missoula County Zoning Code update public open houses. Sophie Moiese Room, Missoula County Courthouse. 5:30-7pm on June 4 and 11:30-1pm on June 5.

June 7. EPI’s Annual First Friday celebration. Music, art, family-friendly activities and more, with a climate focus. At Ecology Project International, 315 S. 4th St E., 5-8pm.

June 7. Energy Smart Tour of the Historic Swift Building. Learn about energy upgrades and sustainable practices. Registration optional but encouraged. 315 S. 4th St E., 5:30pm.

June 13. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup. This month’s topic is water protection and conservation. At Imagine Nation Brewing, 5-6:30pm.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.