skip to content

MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Just Transition: A Case Study of the Public Transport System in King County, Washington

To achieve a target of net zero emissions by 2050, countries are pursuing a transition to a low-carbon economy. Whilst critical to mitigate climate change, the implementation of low-carbon transitions may unfairly displace jobs, harm vulnerable populations, or shift emissions further upstream. Therefore, there is a risk that low-carbon transitions are achieved with socially inequitable outcomes. This research investigates how a low-carbon transition may mitigate unintended externalities whilst shifting societies towards sustainable systems. 

Within the United States, the transport sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, thereby requiring a concerted effort to shift the industry towards low-carbon solutions. Based on a review of literature, an energy justice perspective is presented as a method to investigate social justice concerns within energy systems. This dissertation applies the energy justice framework to the case of King County, Washington’s plans to expand and electrify its public transport system. An energy justice framework specific to public transport is created through a consultation of literature, public transport plans, and budgets and a set of expert interviews. Through this process, 32 criteria are identified to ensure a just transition to low-carbon public transport system. A cross-case analysis is employed to translate these 32 criteria into real-world policies that may inform policy-makers of effective solutions. Further, these policies unveil opportunities within the upstream and downstream processes of an electric public transport system to support a just transition. 

With the criteria and corresponding policies identified, gaps are found in King County Metro’s current set of plans. Solutions are recommended to close this gap. They require an investment in data to enhance planning processes and the development of new partnerships. Best practices in policy design and solutions are then identified for North American public transport agencies. Through the implementation of these best practices, it may be possible to transition society to low-carbon public transport that also enhances sustainable development. 


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.