Does Metro’s Climate Smart Communities Plan Do Enough for Active Transportation?

I’ve been struggling for a week with how to write this post, and I’m grateful to Michael Andersen at BikePortland, who has covered many of the great things about Metro’s Climate Smart Communities plan.

That leaves me free to write to a counterpoint, questioning whether in fact it does enough for active transportation.

First, let’s talk a bit about the plan. It’s a response to a mandate from the Legislature to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation. Metro considered three alternatives when developing the plan:

A) Keep building in the pattern we have been

B) Build what’s in the RTP (Regional Transportation Plan)

C) Get more aggressive and develop new policies to reduce GHG

The draft plan in front of us for comment is essentially option B+. It’s what’s in today’s constrained RTP, plus about $5B in additional transit funding (for which we will need to find new funding sources).

The political logic for this is pretty straightforward. Rather than a big lift for new policies, let’s just amp up a bit what we’ve already got regional agreement on. That turns out to be sufficient to meet the state GHG goals (a 20%  reduction in transportation GHG contribution from the 2005 levels by 2035).

So what’s not to like? I would suggest there are at least two ways in which this plan is going to be challenging for active transportation, particularly in Portland.

1) The funding priority tilts heavily towards transit. The RTP already is much more aggressive about funding transit than it is about funding active transportation. The constrained plan only builds out a portion of the region’s active transportation plan, and Climate Smart Communities would give a $5B boost to transit while not adding to what’s planned for active transportation. The Commission that I serve on weighed in with a letter suggesting that fully funding the active transportation plan would yield more mobility per dollar and would have substantial health co-benefits.

2) It’s not very aggressive about reducing driving. The plan goal is a per-capita reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) from 19 miles daily to 17 miles by 2035. That’s just a smidge over a 10% reduction. In contrast, Portland’s 2009 Climate Action Plan (stay tuned for the 2014 update in a few months) shoots for a 30% reduction in per-capita VMT by 2030. Why is Metro’s VMT target important for Portland if we have a more aggressive plan? Because Metro is the keeper of the yardstick by which we measure regional travel. To take a current example, if we’re looking at whether we can take out an auto lane on Barbur Blvd, the planners have to look at Metro’s regional model to determine how much auto traffic is projected on the street. Portland’s goals are generic, they are not modeled street-by-street, so we have to use Metro’s numbers!

So please read the plan, and comment in any of these ways (via Metro). The comment deadline is October 30th.

  • Take a short survey online at on transportation and land use policies and actions that can shape our communities.
  • To provide more in depth feedback, visit to download and review the draft approach and implementation recommendations (Regional Framework Plan amendments, toolbox of possible actions and performance monitoring approach) and provide comments in one of the following ways:
  • Mail comments to Metro Planning, CSC Comment, 600 NE Grand Ave., Portland, OR 97232
  • Email comments to
  • Phone in comments to 503-797-1750 or TDD 503-797-1804
  • Testify at a Metro Council hearing on Oct. 30, 2014, at 600 NE Grand Ave., Portland, OR 97232 in the Council chamber

Oh… and whatever policy changes do get enacted won’t show up until the 2018 RTP. The old yardsticks are going to rule for a few more years.



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17 responses to “Does Metro’s Climate Smart Communities Plan Do Enough for Active Transportation?”

    • Correct, Metro has adopted the plan. But only a fraction of the projects in the plan are in the RTP fiscally constrained project list (the stuff we can actually afford to build). I’m suggesting that if we’re adding $5B to the pot, a good chunk of that should go to active transportation, rather than 100% going to transit.

      • Active transportation: that’s bikes and walking, right?

        I am extremely in favor of sidewalks. If there are still significant areas of Portland with fast roads (>20 mph) with no sidewalks, they need sidewalks.

        There is one easy way to pitch this as part of transit funding: how do you think people are going to *get* to the buses or trains? Even the people living next door to a bus stop have got to walk — and they won’t walk without sidewalks.

        Just keep making that pitch over and over again and you may be able to get a lot of sidewalks even if the money is for “transit”….

  1. Chris- I’m totally with you on this issue – active transportation has a higher return on investment than transit projects. Any idea why this doesn’t get support at metro?

    Maybe its that Metro is more suburban and folks don’t seem to think that the distances can be bridged by active transportation?

    Or perhaps it is that the burbs have thrown tons of money building non-buffered bike lanes on busy roads (which aren’t really comfortable to ride) and they see almost no ridership and assume that they’re throwing good money after bad with it?

    • Allan,

      Your “or” reason is probably the crux of it. That and the fact that providing comfortable bikeways is often pretty expensive. It’s only recently that buffered lanes have started to get mindshare, so folks still largely believe they have to choose between paint (i.e. “not much”) and bikeways (i.e. a separate narrow roadway).

    • My perception is that transit is much less controversial in the burbs (at least for buses) than active transportation is. During the adoption of the Active Transportation Plan a large number of the region’s mayors sent a letter objecting to being ‘forced’ to build out the plan.

      • Here’s the interesting question (my first attempt at a comment got squashed):

        How much teeth, really, are in the state laws concerning GHG and VMT, and who is entitled to enforce them?

        Could the BTA, or the Sierra Club, or some other entity sue Metro–and the various municipalities, including certain suburban communities that have lately turned hostile to active transportation (and transit), and have vowed to continue auto-centric, low-density development–and get a judge to order that Metro and its partners develop more active transportation, on the grounds that state law mandates it

        Or is the relevant state law little more then empty platitudes–goals to be striven for when the cameras are on, but disregarded whenever politically inconvenient?

        (Or would trying to force the issue in this manner result in a backlash in Salem, with the Oregon Legislature acting to dismantle any laws that can be construed to mandate investment in active transportation, etc?)

        • Scotty, my impression (and I’m not thoroughly versed) is that the legislation simply requires Metro to come up with a plan to meet a 20% reduction in GHG by 2035. I’m not sure if it actually monitors implementation or not, but I pretty confident it doesn’t say what modal balance is required in the plan.

          • I’m sure it doesn’t specify modal balance.

            OTOH, does it require the plan be scientifically sound? (Or be implemented?) Could an active-transit-hostile Council propose to build more freeways, arguing that reducing congestion would reduce greenhouse gases due to fewer idling motors (an argument one frequently hears on talk radio in these debates) and have this pass muster? Or could THAT sort of planning be objected to on the grounds that the claims are BS?

            In other contexts (such as protection of endangered species), environmentalists often win such lawsuits on the grounds that regulatory proposals to “protect” the environment are based on junk science. Of course, the ESA is a very powerful hammer, Oregon land-use law may not provide for similar types of enforcement.

  2. Question – I would assume active transportation refers to non-motorized? If so, then it could be assumed that there are those who only want continuous sprawl development witch in the end is both unsistainible & poor public policy.

    • Active Transportation generally refers to walking and biking, but is sometimes extended to include transit (since you have to walk to get to the bus/train). ‘Active’ means you get some physical activity as part of the mobility.

  3. Good stuff, Chris. I too was a little underwhelmed at the notion of reducing our GHG emissions by 20% in 20 years. Such a drop in the bucket! I’m glad Portland is thinking bigger than the region as a whole, but you make good points about the importance of the Metro model’s role pertaining to planning.

    I think that, too often, active transportation is seen as a solution that’s really only workable for close-in areas of Portland. For the rest of the region, non-car transportation is thought of as pretty much exclusively the realm of transit. Thus, East Portland, the ‘burbs, etc. don’t see much investment in active transportation, the lack of good networks in those locations leads to low rates of walking and bicycling, and investments in these networks are thus naturally seen as something that benefits the Central City at the expense of everyone else. It’s a vicious circle that has to be broken at some point. Until then, yeah, one-percent year-over-year GHG reductions are really going to be the best we can do.

    • Beaverton, for what its worth, does seem to take cycling somewhat seriously. The bike network is disconnected in many places (TV Highway and US26 are rather troublesome barriers in particular), but city government is at least somewhat supportive, rather than viewing cycling as taking road space away from cars.

  4. Can anyone tell me what will be the climatic result if the GHG goals are attained? Will Oregon’s temperature stabilize at some seasonal average? What has been the average OR temperatures during the past quarter of century?
    What will be the metric being measured and what is the goal and how is it measured?
    How can we ensure taxpayer dollars are being efficiently spent? Is this program a pie in the sky or is it even realistic from a practical standpoint?
    If the goal is to get people of their lard asses, then this is a good program. If you think reducing OR GHG will have any measurable result on global temperatures or weather, you are on a fool’s errand.

    • Bill, if Oregon does this and no one else does anything, then of course it has no meaningful impact. This is a global problem, which unfortunately national actors in the most important countries are not stepping up to. The alternate is to attempt many local decisions to add up to global impact.

      The other alternative to concede and look for high ground (with a water supply). I’m not ready to go there yet.

      • Maybe Bill intends to question the utility of doing anything at all, but I think it’s also a serious question for those of us who see a desperate need for government action against climate change. I don’t really see much point of building policy around carbon reduction at the local level. It seems to me that just about every ounce of political capital on the environment should instead be spent on getting policy change at the national/international level.

        There’s an argument that we’re investing in our economy by preparing the region’s land use and transportation for the inevitable decline of fossil fuel use. And there’s an argument that we’re building a stronger national constituency for climate change legislation by showing (as British Columbia has) that carbon-reduction measures are consistent with other awesome things like making money and softening inequality.

        I feel like serious national action against climate change is actually sorta within reach in the next five to 10 years. But every time local leaders ask federal representatives for anything that’s not a carbon tax, that target keeps receding.

        Also: thanks for the above counternarrative on the Metro plan, Chris.

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