Is it possible to upgrade freeways without inducing demand? ODOT wants to know

A free-flowing freeway is what ODOT dreams about.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The Oregon Department of Transportation faces a conundrum when it comes to making changes to their freeways.

“While the road building era of the 1950s freeway networks is essentially complete, even minor investment intended to optimize existing roadway system assets are increasingly facing opposition in the name of ‘induced demand’.”
— excerpt from ODOT’s research idea

If they do nothing (policy or infrastructure-wise), not only will ODOT draw the ire of some politicians and factions of the public, but the assumption is that specific locations will continue to have major bottlenecks during peak traffic times and/or when crashes happen. But if they add lanes or make other changes to smooth out those bottlenecks, they risk attracting too many drivers, which will cause the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to go up. Expanding and upgrading freeways is also a surefire way to attract opposition, lawsuits, delays, and/or — ODOT’s worst fear — cold feet from elected officials.

To help untangle this knot, ODOT is seeking help from outside experts. Our eagle-eyed ODOT-watcher Peter Welte came across a research project pitched by the agency’s Climate Office that would give them, “Guidance on how Induced Demand affects Climate Change Emission Goals.” The research request was posted to the Transportation and Environmental Research Ideas database (hosted by the nonprofit American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO) in July 2021 by ODOT Climate Impact Analysis Program Manager Tara Weidner. It comes with an estimate payout of $100,000 – $249,000 for the right consultant

Here are a few salient excerpts from the research idea scope:

“… recurring bottlenecks and nonrecurring events like crashes and severe weather events, result in breakdowns on freeway conditions reducing the mobility and reliability of the freeway system. These conditions push vehicles in to non-optimal speeds… while slower speeds and stop-and-go conditions increase pollutants and GHG emissions. While the road building era of the 1950s freeway networks is essentially complete, even minor strategies and investment intended to optimize existing roadway system assets are increasingly facing opposition in the name of “induced demand”…”

… DOTs need assistance in understanding the best investments to balance competing goals… while “induced” demand has been typically applied to large roadway projects, there are new concerns that auxiliary lanes (typically less than 1 mile of “new capacity”) may also induce traffic demand, limiting their efficiency in solving congestion bottlenecks.

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… Under what conditions do major and minor induced demand issues occur, and how can these effects be mitigated through tolling or land use controls. How can roadways be a responsible component of a transportation system intent on tackling GHG emissions that encourage spreading demand across multi-modal options, where available. A definitive study of these and other minor “capacity” enhancements on both freeways and arterials is needed to improve DOT investment decisions for the long term.

… This proposed study would be the first step to provide a broader understanding of the efficient roadway congestion strategies.”

Reading through the research idea scope, an optimist could make the case that ODOT is doing the right thing by learning more about how things like how/if “auxiliary” lanes on freeways create more traffic and what impact that traffic has on our communities and planet. But a skeptic might see this exercise as nothing more than a way for ODOT to bulk up talking points in order to effectively beat back growing outcry over freeway widening projects (after all they specifically mention opposition twice). Another thing that crossed my mind is how ODOT might simply be looking for ways to more effectively spin freeway expansions as they begin writing grant applications to their “new best friend”, U.S. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Another thing to keep in mind when trying to understand ODOT’s perspective on freeway projects. The agency is led by someone who believes that tweaking interstates to create free-flowing traffic is a good climate change strategy. At his Oregon Senate confirmation hearing in late 2019, ODOT Director Kris Strickler said, “… We know that, cars sitting in traffic, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions.”

Stay tuned. If ODOT finds anyone to do this research, we’ll try to track it down and share it here.

For now, brush up on induced demand by reading this piece by Joe Cortright in City Observatory (who I should point out is an outspoken critic of ODOT and co-founder of No More Freeways).

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Evan
Evan
7 months ago

Absolutely. Introduce a toll to build a fund for the “improvement” prior to building it. I can guarantee you traffic will go down. If drivers don’t want to “put their money where their mouths are,” do they really support and need that extra capacity?

Mike
Mike
7 months ago
Reply to  Evan

Horrible idea. You want to put the burden on a taxpayers back when the state is getting funding from the federal government?

Boyd
Boyd
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Using Federal general funds to build infrastructure that is designed for the primary use of people that are traveling in private vehicles is the very definition of putting the burden on the backs of taxpayers. Congestion pricing is a user fee, which is a more equitable way to finance infrastructure (assuming that you provide reasonably fast and efficient subsidized options, e.g. transit, for those who don’t wish to pay a high premium for high speed, private, luxury transportation).

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
7 months ago
Reply to  Evan

Why not do this with other infrastructure, including bicycle facilities?

9watts
7 months ago

Still fond of the false equivalencies, I see.

For starters because bike infrastructure is almost entirely derivative. Without the ubiquitous and dangerous auto we wouldn’t need any infra (except perhaps staple racks).

Boyd
Boyd
7 months ago

Why not indeed? Maybe because we subsidized things that we value and wish to promote. I’d hope that we would be done with subsidizing private motor vehicle transportation at this point.

cmh89
cmh89
7 months ago

People biking/walking/transiting actually saves money for the government. The government should be figuring out how to make those things as cheap and easy as possible. Motorist taxes don’t even pay for maintaining the roads much more new road expansions.

Cory P
Cory P
7 months ago

Building freeways without induced demand is easy. You simply remove the on/off ramps.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
7 months ago
Reply to  Cory P

Even easier and more effective would be to remove the freeway itself.

“… We know that, cars sitting in traffic, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions.” No, actually most new cars have built-in engine turn-off when it is idle, so sitting in traffic is in fact the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions or rather to convince drivers that they really need to seek alternatives or maybe not travel at all (reduce VMT).

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

No, actually most new cars have built-in engine turn-off when it is idle, so sitting in traffic is in fact the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions

I think most cars do not have this feature, but even if they did, starting and stopping the engine, inching forward, and generally being hung up in traffic will not reduce a trip’s emissions profile.

or rather to convince drivers that they really need to seek alternatives or maybe not travel at all (reduce VMT)

If that were true, those vehicles wouldn’t be there.

Doug Allen
Doug Allen
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Hybrids have been shown to use less fuel in stop-and-go traffic than in free flowing traffic, due to less air resistance at lower speed. Less fuel equates to less carbon dioxide emissions. Presumably cost has been a factor in how prevalent hybrids are.

Boyd
Boyd
7 months ago
Reply to  Doug Allen

From personal experience, I’d disagree with that assertion. Hybrid fuel economy is optimal in free flowing traffic conditions at less than freeway speeds. They do best around 30-50 mph with minimal braking and acceleration (this is also due to lower wind resistance at these speeds). Due to regenerative braking, their fuel economy suffers less in stop and go conditions than non hybrid ICE vehicles. But they achieve their best fuel economy in relatively slow free flowing conditions. Also, fuel economy is highly dependant on driver behaviors. If you accelerate and brake hard, mileage will suffer. And it will suffer more if you do that in stop and go conditions. Now if your cruising speed on freeways is much over seventy, you probably will get better mileage in stop and go conditions. But stop and go won’t beat moderate speeds maintained consistently.

Those that argue that hybrids are best in stop and go are operating on the assumption that people will drive as fast as they possibly can at all times, and that they only thing that can possibly slow them down is traffic. That might actually be a fair assumption, but if so, the limitation on fuel economy is the person driving the car, not the car itself or the physical conditions.

Also, a big limiting factor to hybrid uptake has been social stigma (a big problem for bike and transit in the US, as well). I’d argue that has been a bigger impediment than cost. Hybrids just don’t have a cool factor in a society that is all about cool. The most popular vehicles are large trucks and mid size SUVs at a time when American family size is shrinking. Few people need those giant vehicles on a daily basis, other than people that work in construction or distribution, but small sedans and potato shaped hybrids aren’t socially desirable in many circles.

Damien
Damien
7 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Is it possible to upgrade freeways without inducing demand? ODOT wants to know

Even easier and more effective would be to remove the freeway itself.

comment image

Agree, the after image is a fantastic upgrade and definitely doesn’t induce more automobile traffic.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago

learning more about how things like how/if “auxiliary” lanes on freeways create more traffic

I think there’s a good probability that small highway improvements do not induce demand*, and if ODOT has a study that shows that, the primary arguments against projects like the Rose Quarter fall away, and the case against them largely collapses. Therefore, I see such a study as posing a major risk for those opposing any increase in highway capacity.

I suspect ODOT agrees with me, and that’s why they want to move forward.

*In the general case; there are very likely specific situations in which they could.

Hippodamus
Hippodamus
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I agree that a small capacity increase likely doesn’t. The issue is that ODOT will move the bottle neck, want to make another auxiliary lane. What is the cumulative effect of doing these projects and all of the other ‘reasonably necessary’ projects like that? I suspect the cumulative effect is induced demand and greater GHGs. Cumulative effects analysis were a key part of NEPA and would have been part of an EIS (if they were going to do one), except that Trump removed that requirement.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Hippodamus

It probably depends on what you include in the cumulation — do you consider a decade’s worth of projects, or a century’s, or do you simply define your terms in such a way that you get the result you’re looking for?

Regardless, I suspect if ODOT does its study, it will make it more difficult to oppose these sorts of projects by waving the magic “induced demand” wand that some advocates rely on.

I oppose the Rose Quarter project (and have submitted testimony on several occasions to that end) while at the same time believing that the induced demand argument against it is likely BS. I believe there are sturdier foundations upon which to build.

Hippodamus
Hippodamus
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Your point is well made, but in the context of NEPA there is a very clear definition for what to include: reasonably foreseeable events. This is defined as anything you are also planning for or have policies around.

This is one of the major issues about which I’ve been submitting comments against the Rose Quarter – tolling is reasonably foreseeable, but they didn’t include the effects of that on their traffic calculations. It’s much more arcane than the induced demand argument, but holds a lot more water in my opinion. Whether or not the cumulative impacts are good or bad, I think it’s a good idea to include them in the conversation.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Hippodamus

Including all reasonably foreseeable events, I would expect CO2 emissions and other pollutants from I-5 to fall sharply, regardless of how much ODOT expands it, as electrification will have a huge impact. Automation also seems a medium-term inevitability, even if the exact timeframe is uncertain.

So if pollution/emissions fall, why would we be concerned with how many people the facility can serve? The more the merrier, right?

eawriste
eawriste
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

This is a big assumption. Electric car sale trends continue to be a tiny fraction of overall autos in the US, and there is no reason to expect a dramatic change. The big question for tabulating the carbon footprint is: Where does the electricity come from. In Scandanavia these are almost entirely renewable, whereas in most other countries, not even close. Also, electric cars are nowhere close to carbon neutral. The convergence of evidence on their lifelong impact appears to be better than petroleum-powered cars, but they still have a large footprint, particularly when compared to other forms of trans. That’s why we should be concerned. Yes, they’re better, but relying on them as we have petroleum-powered vehicles is still a recipe for disaster.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  eawriste

With many manufacturers discontinuing production of gas cars, and with the obvious necessity to switch over, I think it fits comfortably into the “reasonably foreseeable” box. Greening of the power grid does too. If we don’t do that, nothing else matters anyway.

The rest of it seems to get into the definitional question of what to include. Do you count the manufacturing cost of the autos that people might buy to drive on your bigger road? The energy costs of larger houses that might be built in Vancouver suburbs vs inner Portland condos? You need to draw bounds around the analysis somewhere, and if including future projects that might happen is reasonable, so is including planned and necessary transformation of automotive technology.

eawriste
eawriste
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

“Obvious necessity” is incredibly subjective. The first battery powered car was in the late 19th century. The first solar cell in the 50s. We have had the technology for many decades. But our economic system and cultural priorities do not necessarily encourage the most obvious or green solution. Relying on a future technological revolution to save us is exactly why we are in this position now.

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  eawriste

electric vehicles and greening the power grid are incredibly heavy lifts, each of them individually, never mind both simultaneously. It is droll to speculate how all of this great stuff will come to pass, because.

But, as eawriste has been suggesting, that doesn’t make it especially plausible. In the meantime we have neither: a fossil fuel drenched internal combustion economy and transportation system that aren’t going anywhere.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  eawriste

Are you saying you think it unlikely that our vehicle fleet will be increasingly electrified in the short-term future?

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

“increasingly electrified in the short-term future”
those are very slippery, hard to pin down terms you chose.
Upthread you wrote: “many manufacturers discontinuing production of gas cars,” which was much more specific.
I don’t see either happening in the next decade, and probably not in the next twenty years either. Words are cheap, and so are hopes. Electrification sounds fun and is an easy bandwagon to hop onto. Making it happen all the while demand (for things electricity currently provides as well as transportation) is increasing is much less easy. I see basically no evidence that this will come to pass, notwithstanding all the breathless claims.
These aspirational claims have been reproduced here in the pages of bikeportland for as long as bikeportland has been an institution.

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

“If we don’t do that, nothing else matters anyway.”

Why so supply-side focused? C’mon. There are thousands of things we can do right now without waiting for some corporations to invent or deploy things on our behalf. Like riding a bike.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

I do ride a bike! Problem solved!

Or did you really mean convince everybody else to ride a bike? Is that something we can do right now? Please tell me how, and no need to skimp on the specifics. Maybe your solution will help reverse the precipitous decline of cycling in Portland.

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Your statements here have implicitly relied on ‘convincing the manufacturers to produce e-transportation, convincing governments to commission charging infrastructure, convincing power companies to switch to building renewables, convincing the grid designers and operators to add capacity to connect yet-to-be-built solar and wind to the grid, convince the public to sell their gas cars (to whom?) and buy EVs.’ That is a whole lot of implausible and unprecedented convincing in a short amount of time.
We could instead focus on convincing each other to do much cheaper, faster, simpler, more familiar things we have already done. Like biking or being open to the possibility of simply not covering so much distance per day or month. Etc.
The question has never been change or not change, but what kind of change. The high tech, whiz-bang, cutting edge, expensive, untried kind where someone else (Energy Slaves) puts out the effort, or the simple, cheap, familiar kind, where we put out the effort.
Amory Lovins had this choice, this juggernaut pretty much figured out forty five years ago.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

There is no reason we cannot aggressively move towards electrifying our vehicle fleet while at the same time helping people find options to travel less (such as work from home, online shopping, etc.)

We don’t need either/or, we need both/and.

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

History (and Amory Lovins) suggest otherwise.
If, as we see all around us, opinion makers perpetually titillate with juicy, whiz-bang solutions, both feasible and fanciful, the much harder work of relearning how to rely on our own metabolic activity is that much more difficult, implausible. We love to be told that energy slaves will take care of all of this for us. And not to worry our pretty little heads. Do you really think in that context you can *also* champion frugality, muscle power, doing with less?
The money is always on one side, over with the flattering charlatans, never over with the straight talking frugalists.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

I see. The only way to get people to “want” what you want them to want is to take away any alternative.

Good luck with that! It’s just not going to happen.

soren
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

0.5% of low-occupancy vehicles in the USA are EVs and EV sales have stagnated for 3 years (declined except for Teslas). We should do both but it’s my expectation that the USA will do neither in the next decade.

Champs
Champs
7 months ago

A natural experiment for induced demand has been going on for almost two years. Yesterday, I read that traffic has returned to pre pandemic levels. Commutes to work have not.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Champs

Part of the problem is that so many people have concluded that transit is unusable in its current state, and are (apparently) willing to pay the rather high fees to park that are required to drive downtown. That makes it hard to know whether drivers were induced or forced.

Boyd
Boyd
7 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I would argue that downtown parking in Portland is actually quite cheap (and it’s free most everywhere else in this city). It’s a fraction of the cost of parking in Manhatten. Clearly the median income in Manhatten is much higher, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. But what about Chicago? Parking in downtown Chicago is at least twice rate that is charged in Portland. But Portland has a higher median income. Start charging well over twenty dollars a day for parking and people might calculate things differently.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
7 months ago
Reply to  Boyd

For some, $20/day might be worth not having to ride the Max.

Boyd
Boyd
7 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

No doubt. Some would avoid the Max at all costs.

I personally enjoy riding it. But due to poor regional planning,I couldn’t find any housing that suits my needs located anywhere close to a Max stop. So I don’t use it.

Watts
Watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Boyd

Nor, apparently, do about half the people who used it regularly before the pandemic.

Blake
Blake
7 months ago

This is a cheap investment to buy some new talking points. $100-$250k to help them blow $1.5 billion on new lane-miles (or what they call “minor strategies and investment intended to optimize existing roadway system”). Holy hell! $1.5 billion is pocket change in their mindset! But in comparison every $1 of that $250k (assuming they spend the max on the research) delivers $6,000 in return. Propoganda, like lobbying, has a mind-blowing return on investment when it works. No wonder ODOT loves it so much!

ActualPractical
ActualPractical
7 months ago

ODOT: How an I justify my unbridled addiction?

Real answer is become focused on “transportation” not highways. A walk to nearby grocery store requires a fraction of infrastructure to support than a drive (and certainly higher profits/ROI). Even a trip not taken serves to improve the network capacity.

9watts
9watts
7 months ago

In addition to tolling which should be right up near the top of the list I would put congestion pricing. Why ODOT don’t (apparently) already know about this I don’t understand.

Let's Active
Let's Active
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

Not sure I follow, 9watts. ODOT is underway with pre-NEPA studies for variable-rate tolling depending on the time of day for all of I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metro area. Implementation is planned for late 2025.
https://www.oregon.gov/odot/tolling/Pages/I-5-Tolling.aspx

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Let's Active

That is good to hear.
My reason for skepticism was that – to me – congestion pricing IS an upgrade in the sense that by tweaking those rates you can achieve what their standard approach (more lane miles) purports to achieve but without the induced demand element. Or am I missing something?

If they are aware of, pursuing, congestion pricing, why even pose this upgrade question?

Let’s Active
Let’s Active
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

Great question! I think the answer from ODOT would be: variable rate pricing is to manage traffic demand while the I5 RQ Project is to improve safety and operations on the freeway. In those ways, both are justified and beneficial.

9watts
7 months ago
Reply to  Let’s Active

…in their minds.

If the RQ project has all these undesirable and predictable effects, then maybe not.

My contention would be
+ enact tolls,
+ set up congestion pricing,
and then let’s see if we still have the ‘problem’ that started this inquiry?

Zachary
Zachary
7 months ago

Curious about something: the idea we can smooth out bottlenecks to relieve congestion seems to forget there will always be a weakest link. If ODOT increases capacity in north Portland I5, then won’t the bottleneck just move to the next tight spot? I’m actually asking sincerely if this has been studied and discussed? Seems so obvious but maybe it’s not?

Let's Active
Let's Active
7 months ago
Reply to  Zachary

You’re right: there will continue to be bottlenecks (two through lanes) just to the north and to the south of the I-5 Rose Quarter Project after it’s built. But I think the agency’s approach is this: solve one bottleneck at a time due to cost constraints. The corridor from the Rose Quarter to the Interstate Bridge was studied in the early 2000s and several projects have taken place to relieve bottlenecks along this area. Essentially, the approach is one at a time…there would never be enough money at one time to build all the fixes.

Zachary
Zachary
7 months ago
Reply to  Let's Active

Thanks for the response. I think, though, whst you’re describing is a never ending loop: do a project when funds are available, move the bottleneck, then claim more funds are needed to address said bottleneck. Rinse and repeat, right?

eawriste
eawriste
7 months ago
Reply to  Zachary

People often forget “induced demand” whack-a-mole, which is what you’re getting at, can/should apply to any mode. In the US, unfortunately, we often only look at hiways/cars in this way. “Social engineering” is often only used with other modes, not cars. Since there is a robust car network, gas is cheap, and parking free, the demand for cars is very high, particularly in Portland. So PBOT pays a lot more attention to car capacity.

What happens when a protected bike lane is put in, say on the Brooklyn Bridge?

If PBOT had a plan for installing a protected bike lane network, and expanded space for bikes in response to that demand, Portland would easily increase mode share.

This goes for transit as well. If we paid attention to demand on the MAX, and expanded capacity when it was met (say like Berlin/Netherlands), again Portland’s transit mode share would skyrocket.

9watts
7 months ago

Speaking of electrification…

Global demand for coal could hit all-time high in 2022

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/dec/17/global-demand-coal-high-electricity-plants-covid-economic-recovery

soren
7 months ago
Reply to  9watts

…but the IEA found that demand for electricity this year had outpaced the growth in low-carbon sources, leading many wealthy economies to rely more heavily on fossil fuel power plants.

“Environmentalism” led to premature closure of nuclear plants and increased reliance on coal in several EU nations. The USA is repeating the same mistake so expect similar results and media coverage in a few years.

The researchers, based at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and Carnegie Mellon University, found that nuclear power was mostly replaced with power from coal plants, which led to the release of an additional 36 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or about a 5 percent increase in emissions. More distressingly, the researchers estimated that burning more coal led to local increases in particle pollution and sulfur dioxide and likely killed an additional 1,100 people per year from respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses.

Altogether, the researchers calculated that the increased carbon emissions and deaths caused by local air pollution amounted to a social cost of about $12 billion per year. The study found that this dwarfs the cost of keeping nuclear power plants online by billions of dollars, even when the risks of a meltdown and the cost of nuclear waste storage are considered.

https://www.wired.com/story/germany-rejected-nuclear-power-and-deadly-emissions-spiked/