If you believe that human-caused climate change is a serious problem, then you would naturally support Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap. But if you truly believe that human-caused climate change is a serious problem, then there is no way you should support this plan, as the transportation portion, at least, will cost Coloradans a colossal amount of money but have almost no effect on greenhouse gases.
The plan calls for a 10 percent reduction in total driving by 2030. Colorado’s population grew by 15 percent between 2010 and 2020, and it is likely to grow 15 percent more by 2030, which means the plan is really calling for a 25-percent reduction in per capita driving.
Only once in history has the United States ever seen a 25-percent reduction in per capita driving: World War II, when gas rationing reduced per capita driving by 39 percent from 1941 to 1943. Otherwise, reductions have been tiny. The phony energy crises of the 1970s saw driving dropped by 2.5 percent in 1974 and by 1 percent in 1979. The 2008 financial crisis saw driving drop by, at most, 2.6 percent.
So, is Colorado going to introduce gas rationing? No, as described in a Colorado Department of Transportation document, the plan calls for the same tired old solutions that have never worked in the past: transit improvements, bike lanes, and compact development. The only difference is that now they will be implemented with a new zeal that comes from a save-the-planet crusade.
Between 2000 and 2019, Denver spent more than $8 billion on transit improvements. In 2000, 4.794 percent of Denver-area workers took transit to work. In 2019, transit’s share was almost precisely the same at 4.788 percent. At best, spending $8 billion might have reduced transit’s loss of the share of commuters, but it certainly didn’t lead to a reduction in per capita driving.
We know that people who live in more compact development drive less, but we don’t know how much of that is due to self-selection, that is, people who want to drive less choosing to live in more compact development. But we also know that more compact development leads to more congestion, which wastes fuel, so people who live in compact development actually generate more greenhouse gases from their reduced levels of driving than people who live in low-density areas.
Bike paths? Give me a break. Less than 1 percent of Denver-area commuters bicycle to work, which isn’t surprising considering the region’s hot summers and snowy winters. Portland, which has a much milder climate, built bike routes all over the city, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a bicycle-and-light-rail bridge across the Willamette River. In 2014, 3.0 percent of Portland-area commuters and 7.6 percent of commuters in the city of Portland bicycled to work, the highest of any major city/urban area in the nation. But they weren’t able to sustain it: by 2019, bicycle’s share for the region was down to 2 percent and for the city it was down to 5.2 percent.
In short, any plan that proposes transit improvements, bike routes, and compact development to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not going to work. But that’s not all the Colorado plan calls for. It also proposes to encourage electric vehicles, but most of Colorado’s electrical energy comes from burning fossil fuels, so switching to electric vehicles only transfers emissions to a different part of the state.
Of course, the governor’s plan also calls for an 80 percent reduction in the use of those fossil fuels for generating electricity. But it fails to account for the additional electricity that will have to be generated to support all of the electric vehicles he wants people to buy.
In the five decades that we have tried to reduce air pollution from automobiles, the one strategy that has been successful is to make petroleum-powered vehicles that pollute less. That strategy is completely ignored in the Colorado plan.
This is why I am skeptical about human-caused climate change. Its true believers have already decided what we must be forced to do to fix the problem, and their plans just happen to be the things they were proposing long before climate change became an issue. If they really believed climate change was a problem, they wouldn’t be proposing solutions that we already know don’t work.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC and director of transportation policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank Denver. A version of this originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.
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