ODOT Director Kris Strickler makes a phony claim that we can fight climate change by reducing traffic idling in congestion

Asked about how his agency will respond to the challenge of climate change, newly nominated Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler repeated a long discredited lie, claiming that measures to speed traffic by reducing congestion will reduce carbon emissions. The implication is that idling in traffic is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that somehow if we could just reduce traffic congestion and idling, greenhouse gases emissions would decline.  That claim is made with absolutely no scientific evidence and has been repeatedly disproven by research, including a seminal study done in Oregon.  But Strickler insisted in repeating the phony claim in his confirmation hearing by the Oregon State Senate on November 19.  Here’s a transcription of what he told state senators.

…. it’s clear about 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector, so it’s an important aspect of the work we do.   I believe that there is no silver bullet, there is no single answer to address GHG emissions overnight.   And its something on our task list and our to-do list as a priority for us as we go forward and we need to attack it in multiple avenues.   One is, clearly, through design decisions that we can help to free up and move congested areas, because we know that cars sitting in traffic, frankly, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions.   The other is elements around electrification of the fleet, and other statewide priority-based decisions that are coming forward and that, frankly, that you’ve been discussing as part of these deliberations for the past few sessions, and so all of these things contribute to the overall strategy and we want to do our part …..
Not only is the claim not substantiated by any scientific evidence, pretty much the opposite is true:  measures that speed traffic in urban settings tend to increase carbon emissions.  Thankfully, Portland’s media is challenging this claim.  BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus, in an article entitled “Oregon Senate confirms ODOT director who says freeway widening is a climate change strategy,” writes “Strickler’s confidence that getting traffic ‘moving a little bit better’ will lead to emission reductions is surprising given that research on the topic gives reason to believe otherwise.”
And Rachel Monahan of Willamette Week, writes in “New Oregon Transportation Director Has a Plan for Climate Change: Get traffic moving.” But she points out that the scientific evidence shows that getting traffic to move faster doesn’t reduce emissions:   ” . . . less congestion leads to more cars, because more people want to drive—a concept known as induced demand. And more cars mean more emissions.”

This myth has been repeatedly debunked

The science on this question is unequivocal and uncontested:  making traffic move faster in urban settings, whether by expanding capacity or “operational improvements” to increase traffic flow tends to induce more traffic.  The higher volume of traffic causes congestion to quickly return to previous levels, and the combination of more vehicle miles of travel and no long term change in congestion, means that greenhouse gas emissions actually go up.  The literature refers to this as “the fundamental law of road congestion.”  The most definitive study of the question was completed right here in Oregon, by transportation researchers Alex Bigazzi and Miguel Figliozzi, in a paper published by the Transportation Research Board,. Their work showed that increasing capacity on congested roads to allow traffic to move faster and more smoothly actually increases total emissions.

For those who are interested, here’s a link to the video of Alex Bigazzi presenting the findings of his research at Portland State University in 2011.  The takeway:  greenhouse gases are tied to how much and how far we drive, not to the speed of traffic or the time spent idling.  There’s no relationship between overall traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Bigazzi’s research shows that for Portland, per traveler greenhouse gas emissions have decreased as congestion has increased. From 1995 onward, Bigazzi says, even though congestion went up (the measure shown as TTI on the chart below), emissions declined. The decline in emissions was driven overwhelmingly by a decrease in vehicle miles traveled.

The only feasible way to reduce congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to work to lower vehicle miles of travel. Unfortunately, that one proven strategy is one that ODOT has done nothing to consider or seriously explore.

ODOT has a history of lying to the legislature about carbon emissions

Strickler’s claim isn’t the first time at Oregon Department of Transportation Director has lied to the Oregon Legislature about carbon emissions.  In 2015, then-Director Matt Garrett had to retract claims that his department had been making that “operational improvements” to Oregon highways would produce significant reductions in carbon emissions.  The ODOT estimates of carbon reductions from projects like ramp meters and road signs overstated carbon reductions by a factor of at least five, and probably a good deal more. This was particularly salient because ODOT’s claims about potential carbon reductions were a key rationale for seeking legislative approval for additional funding for highway projects. The department’s acknowledgement of its deception led to the collapse of the 2015 transportation package.

Other state DOT’s are moving away from repeating the idling myth

More progressive state transportation agencies are now acknowledging that induced demand is a reality.  In California, which has some of the most stringent climate legislation, CalTrans (the state road building agency) has adopted a new policy which officially recognizes that adding road capacity in urban areas leads to more miles of travel and greater greenhouse gas emissions.  As Streetsblog California reported:

The department acknowledges that its current practices have not solved urban congestion and instead have led to more driving, more emissions, and unsafe conditions for people who don’t drive.  To address the resulting auto delay, projects were required to widen roads and intersections to allow more vehicles through faster. Those mitigations made driving easier and faster, while the experience and safety of other road users was ignored. Result: more driving. “This widespread response to new capacity is the reason we have been unable to reduce congestion in urban areas for more than a short time,” said Chris Schmidt, who manages Caltrans’ S.B. 743 program and led the recent webinar. . . . “These changes are profound, and will challenge the state of practice for all of us,” said Schmidt

California has done detailed work to understand the relationship between added road capacity and transportation emissions, and has even constructed a calculator, which when applied to projects like ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening project, shows that the project will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon should insist that its transportation department adopt the latest, scientifically grounded approach to this subject, rather than repeated discredited myths.

Even ODOT’s own technical work concedes that reducing congestion doesn’t lower emissions

Finally, this isn’t a mystery.  The technical staff at the Oregon Department of Transportation have written reports that concede that measures to improve traffic flow, whether capacity improvements or operational improvements, are going to have the effect of increasing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.  In their research publication “Oregon Strategic Assessment – Regional Strategic Planning Model” ODOT staff concede that when congestion is higher people travel shorter distances; which is simply a backwards way of saying that when congestion is lower, people travel more:

At the end of the day, it appears that most transportation department’s don’t care about greenhouse gases (or pollution, or safety).  What they care about is building more roads.  And they’ll simply say whatever they need to say to rationalize continuing to do that, no matter how many people are killed on the roadways or how much damage is inflicted to the environment.  Counting on the dissembling, conflicted, self-interested architects of the system that created our car-dependent, climate-destroying transportation system to produce a solution is a recipe for catastrophe.


This post has been revised to correct an error in spelling Rachel Monahan’s name.