Portland: Case Study on the Need for Performance-Based Planning

As usual, Randal O’Toole continues to do yeoman’s work in deconstructing the Portland myth. From TCS Daily:

The mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a cadre of other top officials recently flew to Portland, Oregon, my hometown, to learn the wonders of the region’s rail transit system. Portland’s Mayor Tom Potter no doubt told them light rail was “a cornerstone of the city’s success.” Potter or former Portland city Commissioner Charles Hales probably bragged that the city’s streetcar line “has sparked more than $2 billion in new developments.” Unless they had gone out of their way on their junket, the visiting dignitaries were unlikely to hear the other side of the story: Portland’s public transit has done nothing to relieve the region’s growing congestion; its high cost has sparked a taxpayer revolt; the developments along the rail lines were themselves heavily subsidized; and those subsidies led a crafty cabal of ex-politicians and developers to milk the system for their own gain.

Read the gory details here. And these are just the high points–be sure to also check out his recent study that explores these issues in depth, debunking the agitprop regarding the city’s vaunted land use and transportation planning. He hits the nail on the head when he concludes:

These problems are all the predictable result of a process that gives a few people enormous power over an entire urban area. Portland should dismantle its planning programs, and other cities that want to maintain their livability would do well to study Portland as an example of how not to plan.

The unjustified hype about Portland’s planning has even spawned a website,, with lots of facts and figures. Looking at the bigger picture, one has to wonder, “why exactly are planners still trying to replicate the Portland model?” When will the planning profession wake up and realize that planning, like any other realm of public policy, needs to be performance-based? Noble intentions aren’t going to cut it. Planning needs to be driven by, and continually adjusted based on, clear goals tied to concrete performance measurables. The achievement of goals–or success–is then determined through a rigorous, regular evaluation of outcomes, not processes or inputs. “Did we have good intentions” or “did we set up a process to do X, Y, or Z” or “how much did we spend on X” are a ridiculous way to measure the effectiveness of programs, but that’s business as usual in planning. Imagine if you measured your fitness goals by adding up how much you spent on your annual gym membership, as opposed to the number of times you actually went to the gym or the number of pounds lost. We’d mock someone doing that, but we continue to allow planners to do the same thing, despite the fact that our tax dollars, mobility, economic opportunity, and quality of life are at stake.