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It’s Not Easy Going Green

Toyota and JP Morgan Chase bring renewables, and more traffic, to Plano.

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Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, unveils the architectural renderings of Toyota’'s North American headquarters in June 2015 in Plano, Texas.
Richard W. Rodriguez /AP Images for Toyota Motor North America

It is often the state’s blue (and increasingly urban) areas that elect to go green. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the cities of Houston, Dallas, and Austin for being among the largest green-power users among local governments across the nation. The three Texas cities all ranked within the top five out of thirty local governments recognized by the agency’s Green Power Partnership.

Noticeably absent from the list were Texas suburbs. Since 2015, the city of Dallas has purchased renewable energy credits to offset 100 percent of municipal energy use, but the nearby suburb of Plano (the state’s ninth largest city), has nothing like this program.

As big businesses relocate their headquarters, however, change is coming to Plano. JP Morgan Chase recently announced that its Plano campus, in the newly developed Legacy West business area, will be completely powered by renewable energy through an agreement to buy wind energy from NRG’s new wind farm near Fort Worth.

The neighboring headquarters of Toyota will be partially powered by the sun, with an estimated 25 percent of the building’s energy needs supplied by onsite solar panels.

According to a company press release, “the Plano solar array will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7,122 metric tons, or the equivalent of almost 1,000 homes electricity usage for a year.”  

“We are excited that our community members are increasingly considering and indeed using renewable energy sources,” the city’s director of environmental health and sustainability, Rachel Patterson, said in a statement. “We believe the actions we take locally can have a ripple effect on our region, nation, and the world, so it makes us proud of the positive contribution these actions will make outside our city to the economy by supporting green energy jobs and air quality by decreasing air pollution due to emissions.”

Installing solar panels and purchasing renewable power undoubtedly reduces fossil fuel consumption. But while these initiatives will help the city green its electric power, the emissions savings might be counteracted by more vehicles on the road as thousands of new employees move to the sprawling, 70-square-mile suburb, where cars outnumber households two to one.

An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people are expected to move the Plano area over the next ten years—most of whom will likely drive their own cars to work, school, and everything in between. To put that into perspective, Toyota’s annual emissions reductions from its solar panels are roughly equivalent to the emissions released by 1,500 passenger cars over one year.  

Nationally, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for nearly the same proportion of emissions released from generating electricity (27 percent and 29 percent, respectively). The EPA estimates that passenger vehicles, pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans are responsible for over half of all transportation-related emissions.

“There’s a real traditional suburban core [in Plano] that’s gridded into one-mile square boulevards, six lanes on every side of the square” says Peter Braster, the city’s special projects director. “Getting around Plano is pretty easy as far as roadways, but we don’t have all these other options that are readily available or easy to find.” Since 2015, Braster has been working to reduce traffic and congestion in the city, and part of the solution is getting drivers to choose alternatives.

This month, the city launched a transportation management association which will work with businesses in the Legacy West development on transportation issues. “Almost 80 percent of the work is educating all of the workers in an area,” about transportation options, Braster says. “And if we know we need a specific bus route because of where all the workers are coming to, we can advocate for that.”

A February 2016 mobility and traffic study by the city of Plano surveyed employees of the Legacy West developments, and found that 100 percent of the respondents currently drove to work, but nearly a fifth of respondents said they would use public transit to commute to the area if a convenient route was available. To that end, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system recently launched two express bus lines that serve the Legacy West businesses. Ridership has been lower than initially estimated, according to a DART spokesperson, but as more businesses open in the Legacy area, ridership could increase.

For public transit to work effectively, “You need to have high density,” says Chandra Bhat, the director of UT Austin’s Center for Transportation Research. “High density gives you closer access to transit. It also allows it to be efficient, so you can have fewer stops and the travel time decreases,” he says. “So in some suburbs, which typically do not have high density, public transit starts at a disadvantage.”

More than that, Bhat says, working adults tend to make stops along their way to and from work— to the grocery store, for example, or to pick up kids from school. “The fact you have to make these stops discourages [using transit]. The more [stops you need to make], the more likely you are to drive.”

Since it might be unrealistic to expect the majority of suburban Plano’s residents to adapt their daily routines and embrace public transit overnight, Braster says the city has worked on synchronizing its traffic lights throughout the day, adapting to weekday rush-hour and lunch-hour traffic so as to avoid gridlock.

He also has high hopes for DART’s new appwhich is scheduled to roll out next year. It will allow users to purchase tickets for rail and bus services, and combine them with other methods of transportation like ridesharing.

“It will be a game changer, especially for a mixed, urban-suburban place like Plano,” Braster says. “It’s going to let users find the best route and best method to get from A to B—that best method could be bus, rail, bike share, Uber, Lyft or carpool, and then to add extra benefit to it, you’ll be able to pay for all those services within one app.”

Bhat says the shift towards encouraging alternative methods of transportation, instead of simply expanding existing roads or highways,  is gaining traction in the fields of urban planning and transportation planning.

“We cannot build our way out of traffic congestion, like we have done in Texas for so long,” he says. Increasing transit, ride share and biking can benefit public health at large can benefit public health, he says, since air quality improves as fewer cars on the road burn fossil fuels—and transit can lead to better physical health as people walk or bike, even for short distances.

“We all think of the suburbs as car-dependent,” Braster says. “But the thing is, we know there’s a lot of push not to drive anymore,” says Braster. “Once people start to try [transit and ride share] and it’s easy to achieve, people will do it.”

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