Missoula, Montana, Proves That Tackling Car Culture Isn’t Just for Big-City Slickers

The streets are hardly choked with traffic, but this Northern Rockies locale sees plenty of other good reasons to get more of its commuters out from behind the wheel.
Front Street in downtown Missoula, Montana

Ben Allan Smith/The Missoulian via Associated Press

Traffic is relatively light for the commuters of Missoula, Montana. While locals might grumble about sitting at a stoplight or two, workers in this small city of 73,000 hardly experience the congestion woes that plague places like Los Angeles and New York. And if finding a parking spot downtown during peak times can be a challenge, the city makes up for it with mild meter regulations: The first parking citation comes with no fine; it’s just a friendly reminder to feed the meter or be subject to a $5 penalty on the next offense.

It should come as little surprise, then, that most Missoulians drive themselves to work, like the vast majority of Americans do. Yet at a growing number of businesses, the morning chatter about the daily commute is starting to change—to how people made the trip in, not how long it took.

At the affordable housing organization Homeword, for example, the topic comes up often. “We joke around about kayaking to our office,” says executive director Andrea Davis, noting that the office overlooks the Clark Fork River. In fact, employees seem to use every mode but that, including bikes, skateboards, buses, and walking. Some do drive—one employee has a 100-mile roundtrip commute—but several carpool regularly. “It’s part of our office culture,” says Davis, who also sits on the board of the Missoula Urban Transportation District. “It’s something we like to promote.”

In fact, this small Rockies city is making strides in smart mobility on the whole and paving the way for less reliance on gas-powered vehicles. A chief motivating factor is air quality. Missoula is the 11th most polluted city in the United States in terms of year-round particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Geography is partly to blame: Missoula sits in a valley surrounded by multiple mountain ranges. In the summer, high-pressure ridges in the atmosphere trap wildfire smoke in the valley. And when temperatures drop in the fall and winter, inversions frequently set in. Colder air near the ground is trapped by warmer air above, and the high pressure along ridges makes for a stable atmosphere, which means less wind to disperse the particulate matter from petroleum-burning vehicles and other sources. Climb a foothill on the edge of Missoula during an inversion and it looks as though someone has taken a piece of charcoal and drawn a thick line low over the city.

Smoke filled downtown Missoula after the Lolo Peak wildfire burned thousands of acres in the Lolo National and Bitterroot National Forests in 2017.

Patrick Record/Associated Press

Given that transportation accounts for 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Missoula, city officials believe that changing how residents commute can make a real difference in these air quality issues. Through Missoula in Motion, a program funded through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, its transportation division currently works with Homeword and other businesses to incentivize sustainable transportation. The program provides funding to employers for things like bike racks and lockers. It also offers employees of participating businesses up to 12 free emergency rides per year; should they unexpectedly need to, say, pick up a sick child from school on a day they didn’t drive in, Missoula in Motion will pay for a taxi. People can use the group’s Way to Go app to find bike-friendly routes, plan bus rides, track calories burned, calculate emissions saved, and more. “Most people just don’t even think twice about hopping in their car,” says Katherine Auge, a Missoula in Motion program coordinator. “The goal is to get people to start thinking about how they get around and seeing if a sustainable option works for them.”

The program also runs a two-week Commuter Challenge every spring, in which businesses go head-to-head to see whose employees commute most sustainably, as tracked by the app. Homeword takes the competition seriously: It’s won the commuter challenge a half dozen times in the small-employers category (10–25 employees), and throughout the year the office does a weekly $5 drawing for employees who use the app.

Missoula during an inversion

Evan Lovey via Flickr

Missoula, like many U.S. cities, has been taking a range of steps to green its transportation infrastructure, installing bike lanes and expanding its free bus service. And this year it added the first six electric buses to its diesel fleet. The city has also moved to ensure that more homes are built near public transportation and closer to the downtown area. It all supports a broader effort by mayor John Engen to make the city carbon neutral by 2025, a mission he doubled down on in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s 2017 announcement that it intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. As one of the nation’s 407 Climate Mayors, Engen acknowledges that even small cities like his have real potential to help curb climate change. Together, the world’s metropolises devour more than two-thirds of all energy produced and account for more than 70 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Given that collective footprint, cities are rising to the occasion to lead on environmental challenges, and small ones like Missoula increasingly see themselves as proving grounds for new ideas that can scale up to big cities internationally.

Transforming transportation is key to reining in emissions. The sector generates the largest share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 29 percent of the carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere. The vast majority of our vehicles run on gas—more than 90 percent of the fuel used to power our cars, trucks, and buses is petroleum-based. According to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urban planning that decreases the need for carbon-intensive transportation is critical to decarbonization.

“It’s not just about federal laws on engines and gas mileage rules,” says Carter Rubin, an NRDC mobility and climate advocate. “Cities have a fairly substantial amount of control over transportation outcomes. They shape the design of our streets. They control transit systems.”

Missoula’s free electric bus

Mountain Line

Improving public transportation and increasing access to electric vehicles and other alternatives to petroleum-fueled cars have benefits beyond the climate. These actions can also help marginalized communities, whose residents tend to rely more heavily on public transit to get to work and access public services while at the same time living farther from transit hubs. To address this, Missoula in Motion is working to help inform low-income residents who can’t afford a car (like some of Homeword’s clients), as well as people with disabilities, about the city’s expanded public transportation offerings. “It’s really important to provide options so that everyone can get to where they need to go,” says Auge.

As for Homeword’s employees, despite their sterling record in the Commuter Challenge, this year another business, the Clark Fork Coalition, a river-restoration nonprofit, edged them out of first place. In all categories, 1,380 participants from 104 companies took part—up from 1,251 participants last year—logging nearly 17,000 sustainable miles and preventing 50,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions—which is what would be produced by burning 2,500 gallons of gas. Davis is undaunted by the defeat and says her team is committed to keeping up their sustainable commutes and vying for the top position again next year, “We really do like to compete,” she says.

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