Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has some interesting ideas about induced demand. In fact, if you care about building healthy and vibrant cities, his ideas are downright troubling.
For the uninitiated, induced demand is a transportation planning concept. It’s used to describe how the number of driving trips (demand) tends to increase proportionally with the supply of driving space (more lanes). It’s such a well-known phenomenon that Portlander Paul Rippey’s song about it has become a beloved local folk song.
The idea itself isn’t up for debate, neither is the fact that it’s a bad thing. But Wheeler thinks he’s figured out a way to make it A-OK.
Before I share his recent comments, I want to be clear: The list of negative externalities caused by driving trips is miles long. Because of this fact, we have many city plans (which Wheeler has supported) that clearly state Portland’s goal is to drastically reduce the number of cars on our roads.
But at two recent city council meetings Mayor Wheeler has questioned whether induced demand is really such a bad thing. The core of Wheeler’s belief is that induced demand is only problematic if the increase in trips comes from dirty, fossil-fueled vehicles.
Here’s a snip from our story about Wheeler’s comments on the I-5 Rose Quarter project at a June 23rd council meeting (emphases mine):
Toward the end of the meeting, Mayor Wheeler said the only analysis he’d like to see is how many people will be driving “zero emission vehicles” in the future. “Somebody raised during public testimony the issue of induced demand… but my question is demand for what kind of vehicles?… I’d like to know what the assumptions are for zero emissions transportation, because induced demand only matters if you’re creating an induced demand for carbon-based vehicles that pollute,” he said.
And here’s what he said Wednesday during a council discussion on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program:
“We talk about induced demand. We have the debate about induced demand. It’s an important debate and I happen to support the economics behind the theory of induced demand. I think there is a great deal of evidence to support it. But then the question for me over the long term becomes, demand for what? If the region’s growing, if we care about the economy, if we care about the commerce, the shipment of goods of services, of commuters going back-and-forth — what do they drive? And my hope is we continue to move towards zero emissions. And so while I do expect over the long term there to be more vehicles, which I hope they’re very different than the vehicles we have today.”
I was aghast to hear Mayor Wheeler make these statements. I know how hard it is for political leaders to understand the consequences of driving and expanding freeways, so Wheeler’s lack of seriousness was surprising and disappointing. Nevermind that the he appears to assume “they” will always drive cars as our region grows (a defeatist view for a climate-concerned mayor of a progressive city), his techno-futurist line of thinking is riddled with holes and could reverse years of progress on transportation reform.
I reached out to Portland-based economist and City Observatory founder Joe Cortright, who attended Wednesday’s council meeting, to get his reaction to the comments.
Would it be hyperbolic of me to refer to the comments as “dangerous”? I asked Cortright.
“Yes. I absolutely do think it’s dangerous. It’s like, as if we don’t have to worry about this problem [of induced demand], or about carbon, or any of the other externalities at all… it’s his get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Cortright felt someone like Wheeler with a background as Oregon State Treasurer, should understand the financial repercussions of suggesting that more cars are not bad as long as they are battery-powered.
“If you just care about finances, you shouldn’t build capacity because that will just increase demand for roads, leading to more decentralization, which means people have to spend more money on transportation, making us all worse off,” Cortright added.
The reality of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) in Oregon is that we are likely at least a decade from them having any serious impact on pollution. Today, 25% of Oregon’s electricity consumption comes from coal-powered sources (PDF) and a 2020 report by the State of Oregon said Oregonians will continue to use coal as an energy source until at least 2030. As EV adoption grows, there will be an even greater strain on all our energy sources and “There’s only so much supply of renewables out there,” Cortright warns.
And while Mayor Wheeler’s neighborhood might be filled with expensive ZEVs (the median household income of ZEV owners in Multnomah County is $69,176), the reality is that there are still only 47,000 of them on the road in Oregon today — just 1.1% of the entire vehicle fleet. Estimates from the Oregon Department of Transportation are that the ZEV fleet will reach only 3% by 2030.
Even if we could wave a magic wand and convert all cars to ZEVs, the vast societal costs associated with accommodating drivers — everything from expensive parking lots, nightmarish land-use, pollution from tires and brake pads, extraction mining for battery materials, deaths of humans and destruction of infrastructure — would still permeate our daily lives.
Adding lanes to our freeway system — auxiliary or not — makes driving easier and more efficient and will lead to more of it. Every time we do that, we sign a contract with those new drivers we cannot afford to pay.
It’s seductive for elected officials to cling onto technology as a quick fix for the serious problems we face, but Mayor Wheeler should know better.
I held this story back and gave Mayor Wheeler a chance to clarify his comments before publication. I just heard back from his Communications Specialist Shuly Wasserstrom:
“Mayor Wheeler supports the City’s goals to reduce carbon emissions and agrees about the adverse impacts of a transportation system overly reliant on personal vehicle use. He views zero emission vehicles as playing a necessary role in our transportation future. The overarching goal is to reduce the number of vehicles needed at all.”
We would also like to add that Mayor Wheeler has been a strong proponent of light rail and public transit, especially in regards to the I-5 Bridge plan.