Portland for the People, Not the Planners

In recent years, the Portland (Oregon) area has been the subject of what may be the most significant social engineering experiment since Romania's Ceaucescu turned bulldozers on Romanian villages.

On the pretext of improving "livability," the planners at Metro, Portland's regional government, have invoked so-called smart growth strategies, seeking to increase neighborhood population densities, force people from cars to trains and buses and constrain all development inside a Berlin wall called the urban growth boundary. The planners, and area politicians who outsource their thinking to them, routinely invoke the presumed demon of urban sprawl to justify their strategies. Smart growth will reduce traffic congestion , they say, because people will walk more and use transit. There will be less air pollution. People will spend more time at their local espresso bars.

It's not all working out so well. No; Metro has not admitted the failure that is becoming increasingly obvious. Indeed Metros planners and their politician agents continue to claim success, like the Enron executives and accountants whose assurances were only extinguished by the very filing of bankruptcy.

But the ominous signs have already appeared.

  • Portland is not a particularly large urban area. But you wouldn't know that from the traffic. Portland's traffic congestion is worse by some measures than in some much larger urban areas, such as New York, Houston and even Atlanta. During peak periods, congestion adds more to travel time than in any urban area its size. This is reconfirmed every day, as Portlanders spend more and more time in world class traffic jams. It doesn't help that there is not a single continuous east-west freeway, despite a strong east-west employment axis. Nor does the east side half-beltway (I-205) connect with the southwestern quarter beltway (Oregon 217). This means that east side residents working in Silicon Forest must maneuver through downtown Portland's freeway jumble, competing with the 75 percent or so of downtown commuters using the same roads. Portland's roadway system was barely adequate for the 1960s environment for which it was designed, much less a population that has doubled.

  • As Metro has rationed land, houses prices have escalated. Over the past decade, housing affordability has declined in Portland at a far greater rate than in any other major metropolitan area in the nation. Similarly, Oregon's state wide land rationing produced by far the greatest increase in house costs from 1990 to 2000.

How can the vision have gone so wrong? Because, fundamentally, it made no sense from the beginning. Metro's planners, for example, see the NW 23rd Avenue area as a model to emulate throughout the area. People can be found on sidewalks and they commune in espresso shops in a delightful urban setting. But for all its charms, automobiles and traffic are more of a fixture on NW 23rd Avenue than in any sprawling suburban development. Yes, NW 23rd Avenue has the highest densities in the area (though paltry by even Los Angeles standards), and yes there is adequate transit service. But, more people mean more cars. Federal data indicates that, for each 10 percent increase in density there is an increase of approximately 8 percent in traffic volumes. More cars and more driving in a fixed area does not reduce traffic congestion, it increases it. There is an iron law working here. Put more of something in the same space and you will have more of it. This seems to be lost on Metro.

And, as traffic congestion increases, traffic goes slower and stops more often. This increases air pollution. Not even Portland's favorable wind conditions can exempt it from the geometrically more intense air pollution results from more traffic congestion.

Moreover, despite the hype, there is virtually no prospect that transit can make a difference. Even if Metro is successful in corralling all of Portland inside the proposed urban growth boundary projected for 2040, transit will account for barely six percent of travel. Not even Metro can figure out how to design a transit system that does much more than get a fraction of people back and forth from downtown. The overwhelming majority of travel in the area neither begins nor ends in downtown.

And then there is the matter of house prices. Centuries of economic analysis have demonstrated that, where desired goods and services are in shortage or rationed, prices go up. So, when Metro requires that more development be placed on less land, the inevitable result is higher prices. Barriers to home ownership for younger families and lower income families increase. Even middle income families find it difficult to purchase their own homes, Generally, median income families in Portland can afford only one-half the percentage of homes in the area that is typical of other urban areas. This is particularly burdensome on aspiring minority families, who are disproportionately represented at lower income levels. But that doesn't stop the planners, who commission studies to demonstrated that, somehow, the laws of economics do not apply in Portland. They would be as well served to commission studies to show that the law of gravity does not operate in Portland.

But, a city does not become more livable when traffic congestion gets worse, when air pollution increases or when home ownership is put beyond the reach of aspiring families. It is dawning on many Portland residents that Metro's vision is not a vision at all. It is an illusion on the way to becoming a nightmare. One result is a referendum that will appear on the May 2002 ballot, the Neighborhood Preservation Act. This proposal would begin to take tentative steps to reign in the abuses of Metro's planners. The Neighborhood Preservation Act would:

  • Restore local democracy by stripping Metro of the power to force local cities and counties to increase residential densities.

  • Require notification to neighborhoods before new density increasing projects are approved.

  • Require local governments to study and make public density impact analyses. Citizens and neighborhoods would be able to review traffic, air pollution and other impacts of proposed higher density projects.

The Neighborhood Preservation Act would not solve all of Portland's problems. It would not, for example, make the roadway improvements that would solve Portland's intractable traffic congestion problems. But the Neighborhood Preservation Act would limit the power of Metros planners to transform quiet neighborhoods into the urban bazaars they prefer. Urban bazaars are fine, for those that want them. Those who prefer the atmosphere of NW 23rd Avenue should be permitted to live there. But just as surely, those who prefer the space of pre-Metro suburbs should have the right to live how they like as well. It is not the urban area that needs boundaries, it is the planners.

Demographia is Affiliated with The Public Purpose, A Top National Journal Internet Site
Demographia is "pro-choice" with respect to urban development.
People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.

are undertakings of
P. O. Box 841 - Belleville, IL 62222 USA
Telephone: +1.618.632.8507 - Facsimile: +1.810.821.8134
Send E-Mail

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.