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The following Q&A is excerpted from The Global Climate Action Summit’s Panel “Decarbonizing Transportation: A Holistic Approach to Building Sustainable Communities” more info on the panel can be found at https://www.globalclimateactionsummit.org/events/decarbonizing-transportation-a-holistic-approach-to-building-sustainable-communities/
Q: What role is the City of Portland playing in the fight against Climate Change?
Mayor Wheeler: While the challenge of climate change is more urgent than ever, Portland’s response is not new. 25 years ago, Portland became the first city in the U.S. to adopt a climate action plan. In 2015, Portland adopted its fourth such plan and reaffirmed the goal of reducing local carbon emissions 90% below 1990 levels by 2050. Our latest emissions inventory shows a 19% reduction below 1990 levels as of 2016. Over the same time, the number of jobs has increased by 31% and our population has increased by 37%. Per person emissions are 41% below 1990 levels.
“Portland has demonstrated that it is possible to drastically reduce carbon emissions while having both a growing economy and community.”
The investments that have helped reduce carbon emissions are the same things that make people want to live in Portland. Creating walkable neighborhoods with shopping, restaurants, and parks; investing in transit, sidewalks and bikeways; Making our homes and buildings more efficient and comfortable. Starting early makes Portland economically stronger and well-positioned to flourish as the world shifts to low-carbon solutions. Green and clean-tech jobs are one of the fastest growing sectors of Portland economy, even during the 2008 recession.
Q: How do you see the balance of roles between private/public entities in tackling our urban sustainability challenges?
Mayor Wheeler : A role of government is to reward performance by establishing clear, measurable climate and equity outcomes and reward those that advance those outcomes. We’re developing a “race to the top” initiative that sets high targets, then provides incentives to those that advance the targets. For example, we’re evaluating standards such as increasing vehicle occupancy and reducing vehicle miles traveled. We’re looking at incentives like prioritizing high occupancy vehicles and lower prices for shared rides. And, we’re starting to ask our private sector partners which incentives and strategies would help them advance the standards we set.
To be successful, we must proactively get out in front of some of these changes and partner more successfully with the private sector, transit agencies and local communities.
“As a city, we cannot continue to let technology happen to us. Rather, we must engage with our community and private partners to create shared strategies for how emerging technologies and information can advance community goals and global sustainability.”
Portland’s SmartCities initiative is one of the ways we’re proactively working together with the community and the private sector to prepare for future technologies to support a healthy, safe and more affordable and prosperous Portland for everyone. Another example is the Portland City Council’s adoption in June of an automated vehicle policy designed to reward companies that reduce zero and single occupant trips and vehicle miles traveled. The policy explicitly prioritizes FAVES—Fleets of Automated Vehicles that are Electric and Shared, which we believe is a desirable evolution in transportation to help improve the efficiency, accessibility, and affordability of our roadways. Finally, we are working with utility partners like Portland General Electric, the energy provider in our region, to achieve our collective goals, which focus on renewables deployment, grid resiliency and flexibility, smart energy use, transportation electrification, and smart communities.
Q: In your opinion, what is the biggest opportunity we should be considering regarding decarbonizing transportation? Biggest hurdles?
Mayor Wheeler: A significant hurdle to reducing transportation climate pollution is the increasing number of people driving alone. Driving alone is a waste of valuable road space and creates significant climate pollution. Transportation is now around 40% of all climate pollution in Portland and growing faster than other sectors. In our region we’re still debating whether to expand the urban growth boundary to accommodate more low-density jobs and housing and whether to expand roadway capacity in suburban areas. Just as our priority in building energy is reducing demand, our focus should be on efficiency first by building up rather than out and increasing the speed, safety and reliability of walking, bicycling and transit throughout the region.
Reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector requires meaningful action in three realms:
We want people walking, biking and taking transit, but the cars that remain on the road need to be powered by clean electricity and renewable fuels like biodiesel and renewable natural gas. While recent efforts by the federal government to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars is a major hurdle to achieving this goal, Portland has had an electric vehicle strategy in place for ten years, and we’ve implemented several programs and policies to help increase the adoption of EVs by residents and businesses.
“Portland is one of the only cities in the U.S. that has a requirement that minimum amounts of renewable transportation fuels be sold at every gas pump.”
Q: The City of Portland set two ambitious goals to combat climate change: Can you tell us how the City of Portland arrived at these specific goals and your approach to begin making progress towards achieving them?
Mayor Wheeler: Portland has been aggressively tackling climate change for over two decades, and since 2009 we’ve had the goal of reducing our climate emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan already outlined much of the energy work that needed to get done in the near term to keep us on a trajectory of hitting those long-term carbon reductions. However, as Mayor, I felt it was important to establish more aggressive targets to ensure we stayed on track, which is why my office led the development of the 100% renewables resolution. It was unanimously adopted by Portland’s City Council on the same day that President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords.
The 100% by 2050 resolution creates an actionable goal that: catalyzes the community to meet our carbon reduction targets, stimulates engagement of the utilities and transportation fuel providers to advance decarbonizing strategies at an accelerated time schedule, and provides a framework that galvanizes Portland to “go big” and gain traction on large-scale policy development.
Q: What piece of advice do you have for other organizations or cities that are evaluating the best way to make an impact on sustainability within their own communities?
Mayor Wheeler: Climate change cannot be solved by government or businesses in isolation. Businesses, residents, institutions and nonprofit organizations all have essential roles to play. We are at a crisis point in terms of climate change and the stakes for our planet, and our communities, have never been higher. My advice for others would be to be bold, make hard decisions, take strategic risks, innovate and create new models for others to replicate. I am optimistic about our future, which is further reinforced by events like this one when I see so many public and private sector players coming together to do their part.
Q: What future initiatives are you considering to further advance your organization’s renewable energy and sustainability goals?
Mayor Wheeler: We have several of the core building blocks we need in place to advance our sustainability goals. We recently adopted new land-use, transportation and central city plans that will guide development into the year 2035. All these plans have a role in creating a low-carbon community at their core. Specific to transportation, we’ve adopted several innovative policies and programs that are taking our efforts to scale. For example, Portland City Council adopted a policy that 70% of citywide passenger trips will be active or shared by 2035, including biking, walking, transit, and carpools. We will need strong partnerships to achieve this target. City Council also recently adopted performance-based trip reduction standards and incentives for employees at campuses and institutions, and residents of larger mixed-use developments. Portland sets the performance standards while encouraging property owners to find the right incentives for their specific circumstances. As part of this effort, Portland is upping the parking cash-out concept with the Transportation Wallet: A bundle of 85% subsidized transit and bike share passes available to residents in two of Portland’s permit parking districts. Those eligible can trade in their on-street parking permit in exchange for a Transportation Wallet of these incentives at no cost, or they can also choose to purchase one. We’re also exploring some new initiatives. For example, we’re working with the state to evaluate to evaluate potential congestion pricing designs on two or more highways within the Portland region and consider how pricing could play a role in future demand management for the central city. We’re also working with private mobility service partners such as Lyft to evaluate a “race to the top” strategy of prioritizing higher occupancy trips, rewarding companies that significantly increase vehicle occupancy, which in turn can help improve overall system speed and reliability. Our New Mobility team is working with our regional transit provider, TriMet, and local companies to integrate the city’s Transportation Wallet of multi-modal incentives with Mobility as a Service apps so users can seamlessly plan, book and pay for travel services.
Q: Imagine it is Global Climate Action Summit 2025. What would be your wildest hopes for where we might be in terms of sustainable communities around the world?
Mayor Wheeler: When we protect the climate, we all win. Local businesses innovate and create jobs. Residents and businesses save money they can spend locally. Our community gets healthier and our neighborhoods are more vibrant. My hopes for 2025 would be that other communities will have been able to reap many of the benefits of climate action that Portland has seen, such as, better air quality and improved human health, new jobs and greater investment in the local economy, lower energy bills, shorter commute times between home, work and school, and more opportunities for people to walk, bike, or take transit, as well as, less damage to our social and environmental systems due to climate impacts like drought, floods and fire.
Q: Any parting thoughts on how you foresee public and private organizations collaborating in the future to help build more sustainable communities?
Mayor Wheeler: Climate action policies and programs can strengthen the local economy by driving demand for innovative products, processes, and services that improve efficiency while competing favorably on price or performance. Well-designed carbon reduction activities generate positive economic impacts, like direct job creation. For example, energy efficiency improvements in homes and commercial buildings create jobs for contractors, electricians, and other building-sector trades. Traded sector competitiveness: By meeting local demand for low-carbon solutions, Portland firms develop expertise that makes them competitive nationally and internationally. Commercialization of emerging technologies for win-win-win use cases: As early adopters of low-carbon products and services, the government can provide crucial market support for innovative solutions and entrepreneurial business opportunities, while supporting social, environmental and economic sustainability.