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Portland Plans to become Los Angeles

Essay by Randal O’toole

Planning – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Portland planners promised urban residents “livability” in the form of reduced congestion, affordable housing, and more open space.

— So it should come as no surprise that Portland is rapidly becoming one of the most congested, least affordable cities in the nation whose open space in the urban interior is rapidly disappearing.

Although Oregon’s land-use planning is famous, Portland’s planners are going far beyond what most people think of as land-use planning. They want to control where and how people live and work, where they shop, and how they get around. Among other things, state or local planning rules:

* Demand that people reduce their driving by 20 percent;

* Prohibit construction of new “big-box” stores such as Costcos or Walmarts;

* Prescribe high-density apartments or row houses rather than single-family homes in many residential areas;

* Zone any remaining areas of single-family homes for tiny lots as small as 2,500 square feet; and

* Set population targets that force 24 Portland-area cities to develop city parks, golf courses, and prime farm lands for high density housing.

These “innovative” ideas have made Portland a Mecca for planners all over the country. Yet many residents are beginning to realize that all of these rules are not going to do the things planners promise. This is partly because, rather than design a city that people want to live in, planners are designing a city they think people should live in.

One thing every Portlander agrees upon is that Portland should avoid becoming like Los Angeles. So planners have decided to turn the city into a high-density “compact” city, with few new highways and lots of light-rail transit.

In 1994, Portland planners compared statistics for America’s 50 largest metropolitan areas to see which one came closest to the future they had in mind for Portland. It turned out that a single urban area exactly met their criteria, having the highest population density, the fewest number of miles of freeway per capita, and the greatest investment in a new urban rail system.

The city, of course was Los Angeles. Portland planners concluded, without a hint of irony, that L.A. “represents an investment pattern we desire to replicate. ” Of course, they didn’t say so very loudly.

Polls show that congestion is Portlanders’ number one concern. Yet planners are actually reducing road capacity in some areas and project a quadrupling of congestion in the future because they are spending most of Portland’s transportation dollars on light-rail lines that will carry fewer than 2 percent of the area’s trips. Planners quietly say that “congestion is a sign of positive urban development.”

Portlanders are also concerned about open space. Yet the population targets set by regional planners have forced the city of Portland to sell several neighborhood parks to developers and forced suburban areas to approve development of golf courses and 12,000 acres of prime farm lands.

Affordable housing has already gone out the window, with Portland going from one of the most affordable cities in the nation to one of the five or six least affordable in the past few years.

You might think that putting money into light rail instead of highways and building at higher densities will get people out of their cars. But a nineteenth-century streetcar technology cannot compete with cars for speed, convenience, or comfort.

Portland planners predict that their plans will reduce the share of trips using autos by less than 5 percent, from the current 92 percent to 88 percent. The share using transit will rise from less than 3 to less than 5 percent. This is hardly enough to justify spending billions on light-rail boondoggles, quadrupling congestion, and packing people into high-density housing that doesn’t belong in the West’s wide-open spaces.

Despite these problems, Portland’s ideas are spreading to Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, even smaller cities such as Missoula and Boise. So the next time you hear about light rail, high-density housing, or urban-growth boundaries, watch out. These ideas are failing Portland and they will fail in your city too.

Randal O’Toole is the director or the Thoreau Institute in Oak Grove, Oregon and a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a project of High Country News.