To change the world, we need to change the world…

Editor’s Note:  Ethan Seltzer is an Emeritus Professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He previously served as the President of the City of Portland Planning Commission and as the Land Use Supervisor for Metro, the regional government. He has lived and worked in Oregon and the Portland region since 1980 and is a contributor to City Observatory. We’re pleased to present Ethan’s latest commentary here:

On a plain reading of the evidence, climate change is occurring in real time. Its effects are being felt, in Oregon and around the world, today and not in some distant and uncertain future.

Transportation GHG emissions have risen during each of the past three years and have grown from 35% of the statewide total in 2014 to 39% in 2016.

Oregon and the nation are off track in curbing vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and straying further away from the necessary pace every day. While electric vehicle sales are ramping up, new gasoline-fueled SUVs are entering the national fleet in far greater numbers. Even California, considered by many to be at the forefront of GHG reduction efforts, is seeing transportation emissions headed upward.

Oregon Global Warming Commission, 2018 Biennial Report to the Legislature for the 2019 Oregon Legislative Session

Recently the Oregon Global Warming Commission made its report to the 2019 Oregon Legislature. Among its findings were two stark conclusions: first, that Oregon was not on track to meet its 2050 carbon emission goals, and second, that rising emissions from the transportation sector particularly were moving us wildly off course.

Transportation is now the largest source for carbon emissions, with passenger car and truck emissions accounting for over half of what the transportation sector emits overall. With a strong economy and continuing population growth, our transportation related climate emissions are soaring despite reported improvements in both fuels and overall vehicle efficiency.

Now, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, flagging the need for rapid progress towards reducing emissions by 2030, not 2050, Oregon’s subpar performance lends new urgency to efforts to make real change in our use of fuels in order to reduce, substantially, associated carbon emissions. Simply put, electrification of the vehicle fleet, clean fuels, and other technological fixes are important, but won’t enable us to meet our goals, goals appearing to be less ambitious then they need to be by the day.

What Oregon needs now is not just a low-carbon future, but a low-car future.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that we know what we need to do, and what we need to do is largely within our grasp. Decreasing our over-reliance on travel by car and light truck, the pivotal points of consumption identified by the Oregon Global Warming Commission, is something we don’t need the Trump administration to facilitate, and it’s not in the hip pocket of the oil or auto lobbies either.

In addition to making travel a smaller source of carbon emissions, we need to make travel less necessary for sustaining our households and achieving our dreams. For some time, we’ve known that there is a close connection between urban form, the way we’ve physically arranged the places we live, work, and play, and the degree to which we need to slide behind the wheel of a car to make it all mesh. Twenty-five years ago most transportation plans were developed with the expectation that land use would never change, and that the job of infrastructure was to chase new sources of demand for service.

Today we know that where things happen has a huge impact on whether we need more infrastructure to facilitate more interconnections, or less. In a scant quarter of a century, our understanding of “vehicle miles travelled” has gone from a blunt measure of system function to a variable in an equation we, and our communities, can direct. While it used to be revolutionary to posit changes in urban form as a strategy for obviating or minimizing the need for new investments in infrastructure, today it’s seen as a commonsense approach to deploying scarce public resources.

Add to changes in urban form a progressive approach to pricing the use of infrastructure already coursing through our communities, and we have two powerful levers with which we, at the local level, can dramatically affect Oregon’s ability to meet its carbon emission goals. No dramatic technological breakthroughs are needed, only dramatic breakthroughs in political will. We have only ourselves to blame for not making great strides towards the emissions goals we say we seek to serve.

Which is why it’s so perplexing to see so many on the right side of the climate issue so unwilling to advocate for meaningful reductions in vehicle miles travelled as a primary vehicle for action and results. How, for example, as both Jenny Schuetz writing the Brookings Institution’s blog “The Avenue,” and Alex Baca, writing for Slate, have pointed out, can a progressive “Green New Deal” completely leave out land use and urban form as key strategies?

As Baca points out, leaving out urban form is not just technically nuts, it also perpetuates longstanding patterns of inequality and racial injustice in our metropolitan regions, patterns that proponents of the Green New Deal suggest are, in fact, the very things it will address. Or, as Steven Higashide writes in The Hill, “It’s not enough to build more transit, as long as federal policy continues to subsidize the highway-and-sprawl machine.” As he puts it, the “highways as usual” policies of the Federal government, reinforced by the inertia of state DOTs, have to change for infrastructure policy in this country to become a tool for reducing carbon emissions associated with transportation.

Both these authors and the Oregon Global Warming Commission have found the same thing: transportation emissions are going to frustrate the best of our climate goals unless we find ways to diminish our dependence on auto travel for every minute aspect of our modern lives.

How ironic that in this age of the internet we are actually moving backwards on meeting our transportation-related climate targets. And how tragic that our investiture of hope in technology is diverting too many of us from addressing both the real challenges and finding real solutions to our inability to meet our carbon goals: reducing vehicle miles travelled in our metropolitan regions.

Climate activists would be well-advised to engage land use planning and urban redevelopment as targets for fundamentally changing the trajectory for local carbon emissions. We know how to design and build cities to favor walking, biking, and transit over car travel. We know how to do it in ways that make our cities both more efficient and, at the same time, healthier and more just for everyone.

And, thanks to years of moving money from the Federal level to the states and localities to build highways, we have created systems that rely on single points of contact for planning and allocating funds—local, state, and federal—to regional transportation systems. These “metropolitan planning organizations” for transportation are an activist’s dream: one-stop points of leverage to insist on investments for reducing rather than increasing, consciously or not, vehicle miles travelled in our communities.

In sum, the way we travel, not to see Aunt Mae but on a daily, weekly basis, is killing us and our hopes for the future. It’s not hypothetical, it’s real. The solutions are not theoretical, we know what they are. And without them, the best of our technological fixes will remain major disappointments. Changing the world we live in everyday is what we, together, have to do.