Net Zero Rights of Way?!

Lincoln Street MAX Station, with photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet
Lincoln Street MAX Station, with photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs
image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet

Landscape Architects Can Break New Policy Ground with Our Legislators

Roxanne Blackwell, ASLA’s Director of Federal Government Affairs, presented a dynamite national legislative update to the ASLA Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN) at the 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. She reinforced that the input the profession provides to legislators is relevant, robust, broad, and has tremendous policy impact.

One of the most exciting parts of Roxanne’s report was what legislators asked of us: can we, as landscape architects, shape a federal policy for net zero roadways?

Many of us are familiar with the concept of net zero, especially in relation to buildings. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) continues to collaboratively advance net zero building, campus and neighborhood policy, standards, and resources and has defined a net zero energy building as follows: An energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy. Put another way, this means a building that produces as much energy as it uses on an annual basis from renewable sources. Further details are available in a September 16, 2015 article available on the DOE website.

This same Net Zero approach appears to be highly adaptable to public rights-of-way, and we as a profession can help make the case.

Landscape architects must promote the shift of language from “roads” to “rights-of-way” to shift policy to balance all modes and balance all uses of these critical spaces within the public realm.

In addition, thinking more broadly about Net Zero aligns with other advances in thinking beyond the policy status quo with respect to these common public assets that consume energy and money while producing benefits and impacts.

Lincoln Street MAX Station image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet
Lincoln Street MAX Station
image: ©2015 Bruce Forster Photography / Trimet

Broadly, public rights-of-way issues could be organized in two subcategories for the purposes of developing a net zero right-of-way policy: operations and uses. This organization and alignment with net zero building approaches would allow us to initially keep the policy focus narrow to ensure recognizable, practical steps forward.

Operations are the elements of the rights-of-way that consume energy in order to be usable for a specific function. Uses are the functions that consume energy during its use.

For operations, policy could address common features such as lighting and paving using common sustainability concepts and strategies for balancing energy consumption with production.

For features that use energy during operations, like lighting energy consumption, this usage would be quantified and linked to either onsite energy production (for example, photovoltaic arrays), off-site production, or contributions to funds or banks for off-site renewable production.

This would further incentivize conservation, and would promote an upfront accounting for operations costs, making a more dynamic range of production options potentially financially feasible immediately. The policy could also provide a means to quantify gaps in funding and allow stronger advocacy for adequate funding for public investments.

Features that do not use energy during operations, like paving (including selection of paving type) and imported top soil, may be more complex to conceptualize and analyze from a policy perspective, as they would likely use an embodied energy concept and/or require consideration of life-cycle costs.

However, embodied energy could conceivably be either linked to materials selection based, in part, on assessment of transport and embodied energy, “overproduction” of stored energy to offset embodied energy, or, intriguingly, to creating other forms of stored (aka ‘embodied’) renewable energy in rights-of-way. In other words, it could incentivize planting and maintaining large, long-lived tree species and a renewable embodied energy ‘offset’ for paving, as one example.

Such ideas, of course, would have to be fully balanced with other key considerations—particularly safety.

In addition, net zero energy analysis of potential project features could also contribute to making a case for other sustainable approaches, as many of those approaches already reduce energy use during construction or during maintenance (for example, using recycled materials, proper plant selection, designing for efficient maintenance practices, etc.).

TriMet's Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project (PMLR). Note the photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs. image: ©2015 Tim Jewett / Trimet
TriMet’s Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project (PMLR). Note the photovoltaic cells on shelter roofs.
image: ©2015 Tim Jewett / Trimet

For uses, the policy could offer a framework for relating the existing hierarchy of modal energy use to requirements for offsetting energy production. It may be hard to imagine offsetting through on-site production given the tremendous volume of petroleum consumed by single occupancy vehicles. However, offsetting through a hierarchical assessment of fees based on modal energy consumption to fund off-site renewables production is easy to imagine from a technical perspective and aligned with other transportation policy thinking.

Politics, however, are a very different matter, which brings us back to the question posed to us: will landscape architects lead the way in collaboration with our legislators to shape a national policy for net zero rights-of-way?

As a profession, it is imperative that we step up, and the Transportation PPN is committed to sharing information and resources on this, and other key topics, with ASLA members. Please contact if you know of existing research, design guidelines, or other publications on the design of net zero rights-of-way, and we’ll help spread the word to members of new developments they should be aware of and can take a leadership position in championing.

Sean Batty, ASLA, is the Director of the Portland, Oregon regional transit agency’s (TriMet) Stations and Guideways Department. His 20-year career, including 4 years in the private sector, has focused on urban projects with particular emphasis on design/construction project management, transit/transportation, and urban landscape architectural design. Prior roles at TriMet include Corridor Design Manager (lead for conceptual design including for the Orange Line), acting as Project Manager on dozens of TM projects, as well as acting as TriMet’s Project Landscape Architect. Sean was the first Landscape Architect directly employed by TriMet.

One thought on “Net Zero Rights of Way?!

  1. Chris M February 2, 2017 / 1:15 pm

    “Will landscape architects lead the way in collaboration with our legislators to shape a national policy for net zero rights-of-way?”

    Given that this article does a poor job of explaining how a net zero ROW might actually work and does not even remotely justify such an approach, the answer is ‘No.’

    That was 5 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

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