If you’ve hung around enough espresso joints, you’ve probably heard someone order a “tall, non-fat decaf latte.” This is what baristas often call a “why bother?” That would also be a good alternate description for the Metro Climate Smart Communities Plan.
Framed in glowing rhetoric, the plan purports to be a two-decade long region-wide strategy for meeting our responsibility to address this serious global problem. But in reality it sets goals so low that they actually call for reducing the pace at which we’re reducing driving and greenhouse gas emissions.
This weak plan is all the more surprising given the area’s history. The Portland area has long prided itself on being a forward-looking first mover, when it comes to seriously addressing climate change. More than two decades ago the City of Portland became the nation’s first local government to adopt a greenhouse gas reduction plan.
It’s increasingly apparent that climate change is a serious menace. Now, Portland’s elected regional government is working on a new effort to develop what it calls a “climate smart communities plan.”
Transportation is the region’s single largest source of greenhouse gases, so it makes sense to focus on transportation. Metro’s plan sets a number of targets to guide regional transportation planning that in theory might help the region reduce its carbon emissions from transportation over the next two decades. The key performance measure is “vehicle miles traveled,” or VMT– basically a count of how much driving we do in the region. Right now, the average Portland area resident drives about 19 miles per person per day. There are a lot of ways to measure the transportation system–bike mode share, number of bus hours, total number of transit passengers, counts of pedestrians. But if you have to pick one number that tells you how car-dependent and emissions heavy your transportation system is, it’s VMT. And by the rules of thumb prescribed by transportation engineers, VMT levels translate in a very straightforward way into the “need” for more roads capacity for cars. If VMT goes up, they’ll say, you need more roads. If it goes down, you’ll need less.
Over the past decade, Portland has made good progress in reducing VMT. Since 2006–when we drove about 20.1 miles per person per day, we’ve cut driving at an average annual rate of about 1.7 percent per year. Since 1996–a period that includes an era of much cheaper gas prices–driving has fallen about 1 percent per year. But that was all in the past when we were un-enlightened and pretty un-motivated about the threat of climate change. Now that we’re serious–and we’re “smart” about this issue– we’re really going to get aggressive, right? Not so much.
Metro’s plan is that we reduce driving by a grand total of an additional two miles per person per day between now and 2035, or from a current level of 19 miles per person per day to about 17 miles per person per day. That’s right–over the the next two decades metro’s climate smart plan calls for reducing driving at about 0.4% per year–about one-fourth as fast as we have been reducing driving over the past several years without a climate smart plan. In effect, Metro’s very feeble target for VMT reductions means that they are planning for a world where there’s a lot more private car driving–and demand for roads and expensive road projects–than even current, business-as-usual trends suggest.
Rather than reducing driving, this assumption is likely to lead to an investment strategy that enables or encourages more driving that would otherwise occur if we simply assumed that recent trends continue.
To get an idea of just how feeble this planned reduction is, consider the recent travel demand forecast prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation. They predict that over the next two decades, per capita vehicle miles traveled will decline about 1.1 percent per year. Keep in mind, this isn’t some rabid environmentalist’s stretch goal: it’s the highway department’s prediction of driving trends, without any regard to climate change. (Even this rate of decline is still only about 60% as fast as the region has managed over the past decade).
WSDOT’s baseline prediction (a decline in per capita VMT of 1.1 percent per year) would suggest that the real trend for regional driving would be a decline to 17 miles per day by 2021, and a further decline to 14 miles per person per day by 2035.
Whatever this is, it should be apparent that it’s nothing resembling bold climate leadership; if anything it is technocratic foot-dragging, providing an opaque statistical rationalization for actually slowing the rate of progress we’ve already made as a region in addressing the problem of climate change.
And there’s one more thing the Metro largely plan overlooks. Reducing VMT doesn’t just reduce carbon emissions. It also saves the region’s households money. Lots of money. Cutting VMT by additional one mile per person per day would save the region’s households roughly $250 million per year, every year, in reduced fuel and auto costs. Setting a more aggressive target for VMT reductions would actually be good for the local economy–because it would mean local consumers have more money to spend on things other than cars and gasoline.
My colleagues working in the education field often talk of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”–that we don’t ask much of students from challenged schools, and that as a result, they have little incentive or motivation to dramatically improve their performance. The Portland region has a proud history of being a risk-taking pioneer in the environmental field, with its original goal of reducing greenhouse gases, implementing an urban growth boundary and cleaning up the Willamette. Arguably, this is the time to be bold. If it were serious, Metro could explore setting a goal of reducing driving to twelve or even ten miles per person per day by 2035. It’s likely that the public savings from lower road construction costs and the household savings from less spending on cars and gasoline would add up into billions of additional resources for the local economy–not to mention lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change may be the most profound existential challenge we’ve ever faced, but the proposed Metro plan sets the bar for progress so low as to be meaningless. There’s certainly nothing in this plan that expresses any ambition to do more than is already baked in the cake. In fact, it does a lot less than we’ve managed with no plan, and a lot less that our neighbors to the North predict will happen, even with no further policy intervention. Paradoxically, it may end up being used to plan for higher levels of driving than can reasonably be forecast to occur if we do nothing. There are a lot of phrases that could be used to describe such a plan, but “climate smart” isn’t one of them.