Planning for the future as if we were serious

Rob Zako posted the message below to the OTRAN list and with his permission I’m cross-posting it here.

— Chris

This afternoon, I attended a portion of the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) meeting, in particular, the agenda item dealing with progress on updating the Eugene-Springfield-Coburg regional transportation system plan.

I was reminded that when it was first adopted in 1991, the Oregon Transportation Planning Rule (TPR) called for metropolitan areas such as Eugene-Springfield to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita by 10% over 20 years. Mind you the TPR uses the term "VMT" to refer only to automobiles and light trucks used for the movement of people, not goods and services, and only for trips that originate and end within the metropolitan boundary. And the objective was to reduce not the TOTAL number of vehicle miles traveled, which naturally increases when the population increases, but only vehicle miles traveled PER CAPITA. Thus one could achieve a 10% reduction, for example, by have some people trip chain, carpool, or use alternative modes some of the time. It hardly seems like that ambitious a target to meet. And yet the reality of modern urban development is that as a community grows larger geographically, and as destinations get farther away from each other on average, the typical person tends to drive more and farther, resulting in an increase in VMT per
capita.

Thus in the late 1990s, metropolitan areas protested that the VMT reduction standard was unrealistic. In 1998, LCDC amended the TPR to require only a 5% reduction in VMT per capita over 20 years, or to allow metropolitan areas to develop their own quot;alternative standards" to measure progress in reducing reliance on the automobile. LCDC amended the TPR again in 2006 (originally for a different reason related to "concurrency" and a hospital in Springfield) to completely do away with the requirement to reduce VMT, leaving only the "alternative standards." And at the LCDC meeting today, local governments were supposed to report on their progress in meeting their own standards for reducing reliance on the automobile.

I mention all of this ancient history from Oregon’s "old" planning system, because we are perhaps in the midst of creating a "new" planning system … or at least significantly revising the system we have. Among other things, Oregon House Bill 2186 (2009) creates a task force to look at how metropolitan areas can plan transportation and land use to begin to meet state targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, as defined in Oregon House Bill 3543 (2007). As noted before, some subscribers to this email list are members of the task force, which has but two meetings left and is looking to finalize by December 4 its recommendations to the February 2010 special session of the Legislature.

While one can make the topic of reducing your carbon footprint from transportation complicated, it isn’t rocket science. As I have explained before to this email list, under reasonable assumptions, the expected increase in fuel efficiency over the next several decades can be expected to more or less offset the expect increase in population, resulting in no net change in TOTAL greenhouse gas emissions. In order to actually reduce TOTAL greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, to 75% below 1990 levels by the year 2050, we more or less need to reduce vehicles miles traveled PER CAPITA by 5% per year, year after year, from now until the middle of the century. To put it another way, over the next 14 years, people need to cut their driving in half. Then in following 14 years they need to cut their driving in half again. And then once more cut it in half so that by the time we reach the year 2050, people are driving but one-eighth as much as they do now.

The above is all review, and many of us are general familiar with these conclusions. So what?

So the challenge is to seriously consider what our communities would look like — will have to look like — if we take these numbers seriously and plan for people to drive significantly less and less over time, until by the year 2050 we are seeing people driving just one-eighth as much as they do now. You’d have to have a community where all streets have sidewalks that facilitate walking, and where businesses are built to the street to cater to pedestrians.You’d have to have a network of safe and fast bicycle routes that rival the network we have today for cars, and there would need to be secure places for locking bicycles and facilities for people to take showers. And you’d have to have buses running pretty much everywhere all the time so frequently that you would not have to worry about schedules but would just catch the next bus where you are to get where you had to go. Indeed, one could reasonable expect public transit to serve a big share of all trips, maybe even more than half of all trips. And you’d need to have fast and convenient options for intercity travel, such as frequent intercity bus service and high(er)-speed rail. What would such a transportation system realistically look like? How much would it cost to build it? How much would it cost to operate and maintain it?

And what about land use? The conventional wisdom is that public transit only becomes cost effective when you have densities of 12 units per acre or more. The idea is that at lower densities, not enough people live close enough to transit lines to fill up a bus and make running it economical. But such conventional wisdom is rooted in a world where most people own cars, gas is relatively cheap, and parking widely available and inexpensive. What if the primary options for getting around were pretty much limited to walking, bicycling and taking transit, with a private motor vehicle relegated to an
expensive and infrequent choice? Then maybe even lower density development could, in theory, support transit service. I don’t know for sure. But my point is that climate change is about … well, change, big change. And when we start talking big changes, we may need to change some of the things we think we already know.

Am I dreaming? Perhaps. But I don’t see how we ultimately will successfully be able to make the big changes we need to make unless we seriously plan for such a future. You don’t complete a cross-country trip looking at a map just one block at a time, do you? You need to begin looking at where you are starting and where you want to end up, and then plan a route to get you there.

And such planning need not be rocket science. One can go far doing what scientists
call order-of-magnitude calculations. For example, imagine half of all motor vehicle trips being replaced by bus trips. How many buses would you then need? How much would it cost to operate such a system in total, or per passenger? How much narrower could your streets be with the reduced traffic? If someone has not yet written a white paper spelling out such a scenario, it would not be so hard to do so, at least in general terms. The point is to in a realistic, if rough, way begin to look to the future and hence begin to talk realistically about what needs to be done to get there.

We need to do no less for our communities now. Let’s get started.

Rob

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