Out of Control Policy Blog

Portland Oregon Cannot and Should Not Be Emulated

Portland, Oregon is known for its smart growth policies and urban growth boundaries. And Portland boosters happily provide tours to out-of-town government officials on the Portland model. City leaders from across the U.S. return to their local municipalities and try to emulate Portland. But as I found on a recent trip to Portland that is a big mistake for four reasons. 

Firstly, Portland officials and leaders admit they have made mistakes. When Portland implemented its smart growth plan, it had no good U.S. model. As a result it made some bad choices. The city has engaged in too much traffic calming by deliberately slowing  almost every route. This has made it challenging to travel anywhere during rush hour. According to travel design guidelines, at least one route every ¼ mile should offer unencumbered travel and Portland falls woefully short of this standard. Some types of vehicles need a congestion free alternative. A two-minute delay for an ambulance can be a matter of life and death. 

The city has built several bike trails to nowhere. Bike trails are like roads; they must connect at least one origin with at least one destination. If the path travels for 1/2 block into a dead-end street, it is not going to be used. Yet Portland has built several of these type of bike trails. The city received federal grant funding and instead of funding a needed highway, it supported these trails. 

The streetcar is a poor use of transportation resources. While many Portland boosters are excited about the economic development benefit of Streetcars, such boosters do not consider other transit options that may be more effective at transporting passengers from point A to point B. And even by streetcar standards the Portland Streetcar is exceedingly slow with an average speed is 8 miles per hour and an average gap of 15-18 miles between each train. An Oregonian reporter walking at 3.25 miles per hour actually walked the streetcar’s route in less time than his wait and ride would have taken on the streetcar. Inclement weather may play a part in people’s desire to ride the streetcar. But the streetcar funds certainly could have bought a lot of high-quality buses.

There are too many light-rail stations and they are spaced too closely together. Stations downtown are spaced 0.1 to 0.2 miles apart. Typically stations are spaced between .25 and .50 miles depending on neighborhood density, topographic characteristics, etc. Stations spaced too far apart may discourage riders but spacing stations too close together slows down the speed of the train and also discourages riders. 

Secondly, Portland is unique. In 1973, Portland passed an Urban Growth Boundary, a regional governance system and a light-rail plan. Portland was able to pass such a plan for many reasons:

1) It was a small city and had a small number of local officials

2) The region had a lot of quality farmland and was worried it might be developed. (With increased agricultural yields this issue is completely moot today, yet it was important to some folks in the 1970’s.)

3) The population was/ very homogenous. Even today, more than 78% of all metro residents are white, fifth highest in the country. This is more than 20% above the national average and substantially below other major west coast metro areas such as San Francisco and Seattle. The metro area was also very liberal and very educated. A homogenous population made public acceptance of such a plan much more likely.

4) Portland eschewed growth. Most politicians want their communities to grow, seeing growth as a political legacy. But Portland leadership was obsessed with keeping itself unique. As a result leaders wanted to adopt urban growth boundaries to keep Portland special. 

Thirdly and most importantly, Portland’s urban growth boundary has not led to increased transit usage. Driving, either alone or as part of a carpool, is by far the dominant mode. Despite the urban growth boundaries and all the money poured into construction of light-rail and streetcars, public transport still accounts for less than 7.0% of all travel in the urbanized area. In 1985 before Metro’s transit system was built, 2.1% of motorized travel was on transit. In 2009 after billions was spent to build the system, 2.1% of motorized travel was on transit. In 1980 Portland’s work-trip transit market share was 9.5%. By 2007 it had fallen to 6.8%. So Portland spent billions of dollars to replace buses with trains and the percentage of people commuting by transit decreased. 

Despite the hype, Portland’s share of bicycling and walking are not that impressive. Even with all the bike paths and the extra wide roads in the region, biking only accounts for 2.5% of all travel in the urbanized area. In fact more than twice as many people work at home—a travel mode that requires virtually no resources at all. 

Portland Census Commuting Population



Mode of Travel

Metropolitan Statistical Area*

Urbanized Area**

City*

Drove Alone

71.5

69.9

61.1

Carpooled

10.5

9.5

9.4

Public Transportation

6.3

6.9

12.4

Walked

3.2

3.9

5.0

Bicycle

1.8

2.5

5.1

Worked at Home

5.7

6.3

6.0

* Data from 2010

**Data from 2012 

Fourthly, growth boundaries have major negatives. They may protect land but they also increase housing prices for the poorest residents. In fact, considering all factors such as income, college education, demand, etc. Portland was 37th of 37th or worst in housing affordability in the country. Growth boundaries have increased gentrification in some areas of downtown Portland, where wealthy individuals are displacing poor families. Low-income residents have been forced out of the Portland metro because there is a lack of affordable housing. Remaining lower income residents have much lower rates of high school completion and a much higher unemployment rate than in comparable metro areas across the country. Portland also has one of the highest rates of homelessness of any city in the country.

Additionally, growth boundaries have negative employment consequences. Portland has insufficient land to attract capital-intensive firms that would add jobs and increase the tax digest. Portland, OR has only one Fortune 500 company headquarters despite being the 24th largest metro area in the country. 

For another city to adopt a successful urban growth boundary, it needs to have characteristics similar to Portland for the growth boundary model to work. These include a small close-knit leadership group, a homogenous population and little interest in growth. But even if a region were to have these features, would a region want a model that spends billions of dollars on transit, yet fails to noticeably increase transit ridership? Would a region want a model that makes its affordability worse than San Francisco or New York City? No region should want that model and so far none has adopted it. Political leaders that are awed by the Portland model would do well to take a cold shower in the facts before they try to implement such a model back home.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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