In the midst of the public health emergency, worldwide stay-at-home mandates have resulted in significantly fewer people traveling by car or airplane. Scientists have been tracking improved air quality and resurgence of wildlife in urban areas, perhaps providing hope for the current state of our global climate. Preliminary data released suggests a 10% to 25% reduction in overall emissions over the past six weeks in China and Great Britain. In Seattle, the stay-at-home order has resulted in at least 40% fewer car trips into the city, substantially reducing emissions for the month of March, compared to data from the same month just last year.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions are down in the Puget Sound as this visualization of April 2019 vs April 2020 shows. (Source: Descartes Labs)
Nitrogen dioxide emissions are down in the Puget Sound. (Source: Descartes Labs)


Although these figures may seem like good news for the world’s climate crisis, what will truly make an impact is whether we decide to take action on scientists’ recommendations to reach our 2030 climate goals rather than returning to business as usual. As policymakers respond to the economic decline, there is a choice to invest in a Green New Deal or choose convenience to return to powerful global industries like oil and gas. This choice comes with a long-term risk of continuing dependence on fossil fuels rather than investing in green energy and sustainable transportation that can curb pollution. As Bill Gates discussed in his TED interview, a warming climate allows more favorable conditions for diseases to thrive. Fighting the pandemic and climate change are, in policy terms, two peas in the same pod.

Following the 2008 recession, reinvestment in oil and gas led to a 5.9% increase in CO2 emissions – more than double the 1.4% decrease experienced as a result of the financial crisis. Now, we’re seeing a similar situation in China, as emissions have already returned to the rate pre-COVID after resuming economic and industrial activity. The pandemic has provided us a glimpse into our climate future: ignoring science creates conditions for global catastrophes, and big structural change can have immediate benefits for our ecosystem.

Light-duty vehicles are by far and away the top source of transportation emissions. (Source: EPA)
Light-duty vehicles are by far and away the top source of transportation emissions. (Source: EPA)

According to a breakdown of the nation’s emissions released by the EPA in 2017, transportation makes up the largest portion of U.S. emissions (29%). Of note are personal, or “light-duty” vehicles (59%) and aircraft (9%). In the Pacific Northwest, transportation is responsible for the largest portion of the region’s emissions – 62% in Seattle, 42% in Portland, and 32% in Vancouver, B.C. 

In 2016, Washington State began studying a climate-friendly way of moving people: building a high speed rail line connecting Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, and Portland with one-hour travel times between each city. A conservative estimate by WSDOT indicates that high speed rail could absorb 20% of the market share for intercity trips and reduce carbon emissions by six million metric tons.

Internationally, the advantages of fast trains have been embraced for decades. When high speed rail began service in France, it absorbed 24% of the market share for car trips and 77% of the market share for air travel, as the amount of people choosing to fly transitioned from 31% to just 7%. Similarly, in Spain’s Madrid-Seville corridor, high speed rail absorbed 65% of flights, with air travel shifting from 40% of the travel market to 13%; fast trains replaced 18% of car trips along the route.

Legislators and passengers are faced with a decision: will we continue to spend money on transportation tightly affiliated with the oil and gas industries or will we choose to invest in sustainable modes, such as high speed rail? The airline industry has been at the forefront of discussions with Congress, requesting a bailout package of $50 billion for the hardships resulting from the pandemic’s travel restrictions. They were granted half of the request, $25 billion, which may be enough to cover losses experienced over a few months, but it will not be enough to help airlines recover if impacts continue long term. The reality is, separate from the financial hit our airline industry is currently experiencing, highway and airport congestion is already impacting highly populated regions, such as the Pacific Northwest

Puget Sound Regional Council projects airport travel will exceed capacity in the 2030s. (Image: Cascadia Rail; data by Puget Sound Regional Council)
Puget Sound Regional Council projects airport travel will exceed capacity in the 2030s. (Image: Cascadia Rail; data by Puget Sound Regional Council)

According to the 2019 aviation study by Puget Sound Regional Council, Sea-Tac Airport will be over capacity by 3.9 million passenger enplanements (boardings) annually by 2027, even with planned near-term expansions. If we exhaust all long-term expansion possibilities, Sea-Tac Airport is projected to be over capacity by 6.9 million passenger enplanements by 2037. A commission has formed to explore building a second airport by 2040, the same year WSDOT projects the high speed rail line to be complete.

High speed trains in Cascadia would have the ability to move up to 32,000 people per hour, serving both long-distance travel and intercity commutes. By creating high speed rail that is accessible and affordable for the most people, we can make it simple for people to choose a fast train over driving or flying–influencing behavior change at scale to the benefit of the environment. This effect can reduce dependency on oil, as high speed rail is eight times more energy efficient than air travel and four times more efficient than driving.

High speed rail is the least carbon intensive mode per mile. (Source: International Union of Railways)
High speed rail is the least carbon intensive mode per mile. (Source: International Union of Railways)

An economic recovery package prioritizing national high speed rail, infrastructure, and a Green New Deal would not only benefit climate resilience; it is a smart investment in job creation and the economy. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), investment in North American high speed rail delivers a 4:1 return on investment and creates 24,000 jobs for every $1 billion invested. For the Pacific Northwest project, WSDOT’s study found the return on investment will be 8:1, with $355 billion in economic growth and 200,000 jobs created in construction and operations.

Now is the time to show that we are willing to advocate for and invest in such a project. The emissions reductions resulting from the pandemic is a preview of a more mindful, ecological urban environment, less congestion, and potentially better air quality. A high speed rail system for Cascadia could give us all of these benefits and more.

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Paige Malott is the chair of Cascadia Rail, a Washington State non-profit and 501(c)(4) social welfare organization advocating for high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest.

Bella Lorenz (Guest Contributor)

Bella is a student at Seattle University working toward her degree in Environmental Studies, with a specialization in urban sustainability. Growing up in Chicago, experiencing the efficiency of public and commuter rail systems made her fall in love with trains and public transportation. She brought that love to Seattle where she now studies local communities’ role in transportation planning.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Before we say that we need high speed rail to Vancouver to save the planet, here are some questions that need to be addressed:

    1) 62% of emissions is from transportation. But, what percent of transportation is Seattle->Vancouver travel? Considering how often the average person travels within their city and how often the average person travels between cities, I would guess “not much”, but would want to see the data.

    2) Not every person riding the train represents a car or plane trip avoided. Just as more lanes on I-5 results in people driving more often, a train to Vancouver will result in people traveling to Vancouver more often. So, in order to get the actual carbon reduction, you would need to subtract out the “induced demand” trips and include only the trips where the train actually replaces car/plane travel. It’s not clear immediately what this would be.

    3) To the extent of train travel replacing car travel, what’s the assumed occupancy of the car? I don’t think the average vehicle occupancy of 1.2 makes a fair comparison since, due to the distance involved, friends and family traveling together are much more likely to carpool than people driving to work. In the case of a family, they would almost certainly carpool, unless they really needed two cars at the destination. And also, of course, will increased EV adoption mean much cleaner cars, relative to what’s on the road today?

    4) What’s the expect carbon emissions that would result from the construction, and how many years of operation would it take to recoup that? Include not only the manufacture and transportation of materials, but also carbon stored in the forest that would have to be cleared to make room for the new tracks. If the construction itself would take 20 years, and we need to solve the climate crisis in 10 years, do we even have the luxury of using something like this as a solution?

    5) What’s the opportunity cost of the $100 billion it would take the build the line, and what things could be done with that money to reduce carbon emissions? At a minimum, you could spend the money on light rail and target the trips people make every day, rather than once a year. Some of it could also be spent on research for better battery technology to make electric-powered airplanes a reality.

    Bottom line, as sexy as it sounds, I am not at all convinced that high speed rail is the best way to get our carbon emissions under control. It may still be justified for reasons related to economic development and boosting tourism between nearby cities,but from a strict climate change perspective, my instinct is that you would save a lot more tons of CO2/dollar by spending the money on local transportation, instead.

    • While your cool skepticism is very impressive, your questions can be answered. Transportation planning is certainly complicated, but odds are building a low-carbon travel option that’s faster than alternatives in a busy growing corridor works out pretty good in the end.

      1) The Portland to Vancouver corridor accounts for a substantial amount of trips and high speed rail would serve many trip pairs within that corridor since stations are planned in cities like Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, Olympia, too. Go back and look at the WSDOT study if the exact number interests you, but it’s also important to think of our transportation network as decision architecture that high speed rail and local mass transit can influence in the direction of lower carbon intensity. It’s not about re-creating every trip of the past, but nudging people toward more sustainable decisions and planning for population growth, which has been and will continue to be focused in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland and their surrounding suburbs.

      2) Induced demand cuts both ways. It might sound like inducing trips on high speed rail is a bad thing for the carbon math. However, since people generally have a finite budget (time/money) for travel, we should be equally interested in the trips people don’t take because they’re now taking a high speed rail trip on the Cascadia corridor instead. Carbon intensive trips involving long-distance drives or flights will be displaced and that’s still a carbon win.

      3) No the WSDOT study didn’t use 1.2 occupants per vehicle as the benchmark and is aware people carpool for long trips more than short ones. I would caution against thinking we’re on the cusp of an electric car revolution, particularly one that solves all climate problems for private vehicles. That revolution has been predicted for decades and yet electric cars still only account for about 2% of vehicles in Washington state–even after sizable tax credits were implemented to jumpstart the switch. Even with a tidal wave of electric car adoption, we are still left with the problem of road geometry and the fact they only cut lifecycle emissions in half rather than providing a more profound carbon reduction.

      4) How much carbon is released building high speed rail is an important question to consider. Future studies will likely tackle it, but let’s not pretend we have the luxury of a no-build scenario. Populations are booming along the Cascadia corridor and the call for more transportation capacity is going to be strong. Further I-5 expansion is the likely outcome of beating back high speed rail, and WSDOT has been clear that widening I-5 would be even more colossally expensive than HSR and still wouldn’t meet demand. We do need to take big steps to address climate change in the next 10 years, but HSR is still an important piece in that puzzle even if it takes more than 10 years to come to fruition because it helps us win the political battle to stop freeway expansions and will help us decarbonize further in the future.

      5) The preliminary estimate pegged HSR at between 24 to 42 billion dollars in capital cost not $100 billion. Opportunity cost is also important to consider. We’ll need a good financing plan that manages risk well. But since the State’s transportation investments have focused on highway expansion, I’m not terribly worried about more innovative items getting displaced. Researching new technologies should be part of government budgets, but we shouldn’t count on unproven technologies to pan out to meet our immediate pressing needs. Plus Cascadia high speed rail seems uniquely situated to get Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to pool resources and collaborate.

    • On EV adoption: Not everybody will have an EV any time soon and their carbon footprint isn’t that great either due to rare metals necessary. Neither would I want to spend all travel time behind the wheel. On a business trip, I would rather ride faster and spend productive time in a comfy rail car with a proper table to get work done on my laptop.

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