Developing Green Transportation in Northwest Arkansas

Green Transportation 2

Photo By Terrah Baker
Drew Dodson rides the Fayetteville bike trail system that runs from North to South and is being expanded to reach throughout Fayetteville’s residential areas and even to Bentonville through the Razorback Greenway.

Special Contribution By Gary R. HuxelTransportation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions on local and regional scales for much of the U.S., Europe and other industrialized areas. Nationwide in the U.S., transportation accounts for 28 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2011, second only to energy production (33 percent) according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thus targeting the transportation sector would allow cities and regions to significantly reduce their GHG emissions over time. Transportation industry GHG emissions reductions could be achieved by developing and instituting a regional plan to reduce auto traffic by expanding and promoting mass transit systems. The EPA has also outlined four areas in their Smart Growth Program in which cities and regions can reduce transportation GHG. These are: 1) fuel switching; 2) improving fuel efficiency with advanced design, materials and technologies; 3) improving operating practices; and 4) reducing travel demand.

Reducing travel demand can be largely achieved by planning and zoning initiatives to increase population densities in urban areas making cities more walking and bike friendly as well as increasing ridership on mass transit systems. Planning and zoning initiatives for several regions or cities have been highly successful in curbing greenhouse gas emissions while others have been less successful. Portland, Ore., is one of the more successful programs while Sacramento could not curb growth due in part to the lack of sites for building new schools needed for growth. The EPA has developed a Smart Growth Program to help cities and regions such as Northwest Arkansas devise specific plans for growth while reducing GHG emissions and conserving agricultural resources, and open land. Planning and zoning initiatives would be a key component of the plan to reduce GHG emissions in NWA along with increased development of mass transit systems that would be integrated.

Green Transportation

Photo By Terrah Baker
The light rail system in Portland, Ore. takes residents from just outside the city to the downtown area to the cities economic hub.

A green transportation plan for reducing GHG emissions tentatively called The Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan (NARP) incorporates increased public transportation ridership, bike-lanes and bike-paths, improved highway traffic flow, and greater mixed zoning regulations to decrease home-work distances. My plan is for Northwest Arkansas including the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville across two counties. Currently, there is only minimal mass transit (buses) mostly around the University of Arkansas and the Ozark Regional Transit system (again buses) that run from Bentonville in the north to Fayetteville. There is basically only one north-south highway route (US71 and a few east-west corridors that could be utilized. An expanded mass transit system would form a core for zoning and planning initiatives discussed below.

Northwest Arkansas Population Growth and Urban Sprawl

Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing regions in the state with the population expected to more than double from 2000 levels to 771,501 in 2025. Due to current traffic congestion problems in the region, households in NWA spent more on transportation than on housing. Thus, households would gain significantly by the region adapting the EPA Smart Growth Program guidelines of reduced travel demand, increased walk-ability, increased mass transit, and zoning to reduce distance between home and work as well as school and home. Several of the region’s largest employers are centrally located including Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, and the University of Arkansas. Increasing mass transit in the area around these employers as well as high density housing could significantly decrease traffic demand.

Bike lanes and bike pathways are found throughout the region, but mostly near the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus. Increasing bike paths could be done relatively cheaply by following many of the NWA stream channels for which rights-of-way exist due to potential flooding. Bike lanes could be added to some primary roads, but mostly on secondary routes with lower traffic. Neighborhoods should also improve walk-ability by increasing sidewalks and by having mixed zoning so that some shopping would be easily reached by bike or walking.

Regional Mass Transit

NARP calls for development of a mass transit system starting with a bus system and moving to light rail that would be integrated with central parking lots (park and ride) reaching important employment and retail zones as well as the regional airport (Northwest Regional Airport) and the older Drake Field Airport now used by many small aircraft in the southern part of NWA. Currently, mass transit is comprised of the UofA’s bus system (Razorback Transit) which operates mostly in Fayetteville (, while the Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) which operates throughout NWA, but with limited cross-over among the few routes it runs ( Ridership is increasing on ORT with a 12 percent increase from fiscal year 2011 to FY 2012. With the UofA increasing in enrollment dramatically since 2000, total number of riders on the system in FY 2013 is over 2 million.

Light rail systems have been proposed for NWA mostly to take advantage of current rail systems (Arkansas and Missouri Railroad). A preliminary feasibility study for a light rail transit (LRT) system was done in 2005 that would extend from Drake Field in Fayetteville to Bentonville. The study suggested that the LRT is feasible, but would require both private and public support. While mostly following the current Arkansas and Missouri Railroad line, the cost would be significant due to further land purchases for right-of-way ranging from $550 million to $1.24 billion depending upon land values. The Community Design Center at the University of Arkansas has proposed a plan to mobilize the financial and political support needed to enroll NWA in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start program for public transit development and the Fayetteville City Council passed a resolution in 2009 supporting this initiative.

The region is currently served by an active rail line – the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad – which runs 149 miles from Monett, Mo. to Fort Smith, Ark. This is mainly a freight line, but also provides a tourist passenger train, making day trips originating in Springdale to local areas of interest.

Interconnectedness and Ridership

The transportation system should also be interconnected to allow for easy access by pedestrians, bike riders, and auto drivers. Parking space for bikes and autos should be adequate for large special events in the region. The system should reach across the entire region and include stops at major work, shopping, entertainment, and travel centers (airports).

Studies have shown that ridership on mass transit systems drops off sharply with distance. The study suggested that most potential riders come from within half a mile from any transit line. A second study found that for older riders the distance travel dropped off faster. Thus effective zoning regulations would be needed to direct growth in a more efficient manner to help reduce growing GHG emissions.

Zoning Regulations and Building Codes

Fayetteville and the other cities in NWA seem to have developed much as other cities have. Subdivisions spring up out of old farms separated from the downtown area and no real overall plan. To reduce GHG emissions cities have to compact high densities cores with businesses, stores and homes together. This could be ringed by some subdivisions and further out would be agricultural lands and open space such as parks. The core area should also maintain some parkland and strive to increase the number of trees to increase shading, reduce temperatures and uptake excess carbon dioxide. A compact downtown with close in subdivisions would allow for greater usage of mass transit as few homes and businesses would be more than a few blocks from bus and rail stops. Parking should be limited and expensive. For example, parking in San Francisco was roughly $15 a day the last time I visited (around 2000). The cities of the region will need to increase parking garages in order to utilize large surface lots for residential purposes.

Thus the NARP would push for zoning that would require greater development in-fill to reduce the amount of agricultural land converted to subdivisions or strip malls all too common. Zoning and building codes would also require better insulated homes and businesses. Tax break and incentives would promote solar power and solar hot water heaters to reduce energy consumption from non-renewable sources. The NARP would also promote purchasing more energy in the region from renewable sources.

The local governments should mandate LEED approved building codes on all city and county buildings. They should also promote tree plantings along residential and city streets as well as in open spaces where possible. These sustainability and in-fill goals have also been endorsed by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan Council.

Current Fayetteville Mayor Lionel Jordan has requested that staff research options available for strengthening commercial and residential building code standards with a specific focus on energy efficiency and indoor air quality. This initiative is consistent with Fayetteville’s sustainability efforts as well as the Mayor’s endorsement. The City also formed a residential building code task force comprised of local home builders, architects and energy performance consultants to research, model, and develop a recommendation for the adoption of energy code changes. After some research on home energy modeling and national standards, the task force and City staff recommended adoption of the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for residential structures with the additional requirement for a Home Energy Rating (HERS) for all new residential structures. This was approved by the City of Fayetteville in 2012.


The Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan would adopt a variety of new transportation, zoning and building code plans to address greenhouse gas emissions for the region. The region is nested up against the Ozark Mountains which provide a natural sink for many GHG emissions, but the region needs to significantly reduce emissions related to transportation. Currently, roads are over-utilized to which any driver in the region could attest. Mass transit is minimal but has been expanding as Ozark Region Transit System has developed routes in all cities in NWA with ridership reaching 2 million for 2012. However, the transit systems are not integrated and traveling across cities is not easily or timely done. Roads that would move people around the city away from downtown are needed, similar ring roads are common in many municipal regions such as Phoenix, Ariz. A light rail system could take advantage of current rights-of-way and the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad tracks, potentially moving people more rapidly across the region. Mass transit to the Northwest Regional Airport would also greatly improve the transportation system as there is no current mass transit servicing the airport. In all, these transportation improvements could reduce emissions from the sector which is currently the largest polluting sector for the region.

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