case against Portland-style smart growth
(Los Angeles, model City?)
Written By: Randal O’Toole
Published In: Environment News
Publication Date: January 1, 2000
Publisher: The Heartland Institute
From all over the world, city officials visit my home town of Portland,
Oregon, to learn the wonders of "smart-growth" planning. Urban
mayors ooh and ah over Portland's light rail, while planners thrill to
the region's urban-growth boundary and transit-oriented development.
The plans are less thrilling to local residents. Light rail, transit-oriented
developments, and urban-growth boundaries are rapidly increasing congestion,
housing prices, and development of urban open spaces.The failure of light
rail Supposedly an inexpensive way to reduce congestion, light rail is
neither inexpensive nor does it reduce congestion.Portland's first light-rail
line cost 55 percent more than anticipated.
More recent light-rail proposals are projected to cost $100 million per
mile--enough to build several miles of four-lane freeway--yet existing
light-rail lines carry fewer people than a single freeway lane.
• At speeds around 20 miles per hour, light rail is too slow to
attract drivers out of their cars. It is even slower than many of the
buses it replaces.
• Before building light rail, Portland transit was gaining market
share from the auto. Since building it, Portland transit has steadily
lost market share and now carries only about 2 percent of Portland-area
trips.Transit-oriented development no better.
Transit-oriented development is another colossal failure. High-density
mixtures of residential and commercial uses located along transit routes
are supposed to encourage walking or transit riding rather than driving.
That’s a wonderful theory, but in practice few Americans will live
without autos. This means developers won't build transit-oriented developments
Ten years after Portland's first light-rail line was built, the city was
so disappointed about lack of development along the route that it offered
ten years of property tax waivers to anyone building near rail stations.
One major development along the light rail, Beaverton Round, received
$9 million in infrastructure subsidies and tax waivers. But no one wanted
to move in, so the developer faced foreclosure. The city recently put
up another $3.4 million to keep the project alive.
Urban-growth boundary the third strike
Portland's other planning legend is its urban-growth boundary, outside
of which development is restricted. Drawn in 1979 to include enough vacant
land for an estimated twenty years' worth of growth, planners promised
to expand the boundary when more land was needed.
High Density Zone
By 1990, most vacant land was developed and land prices were rising. But
by then the boundary was sacred and some people loudly opposed any expansion.
Although planners added a small amount of land, they decided to accommodate
most growth by re-zoning existing neighborhoods and urban open spaces
to permit higher density developments.
Planners required Portland and 23 suburbs to meet population targets through
re-zoning. To meet those targets, cities are re-zoning neighborhoods of
single-family homes for apartments. In these areas, if a house burns down,
the owner must replace it with an apartment building. Cities are also
re-zoning golf courses, 10,000 acres of prime farm land, and other open
spaces to high-density development. Low densities are forbidden in these
Such zoning is producing high apartment vacancy rates, while single-family
home prices have skyrocketed. In 1989, Portland was one of the most affordable
U.S. housing markets; since 1996, it has been one of the five least affordable.“Smart
growth” means congestion
In 1990, 92 percent of Portland-area trips were by car. Planners calculate
that density, rail, and transit-oriented development will reduce this
only to 88 percent. When combined with predicted population increases,
the end result is actually 67 percent more miles of auto driving.
Planners refuse to significantly increase road capacities for those added
miles. Instead, to discourage driving, they are actually reducing road
capacities through what they call "traffic calming": putting
barriers in roads to reduce speeds and traffic flows.
Residents say they want less, not more, congestion, but planners claim
that "congestion signals positive urban development" and predict
their plan will triple congestion. With congestion comes pollution: Planners
admit their plan will increase smog by 10 percent.
Welcome to LA
Planners gained the power to do these things by promising to save Portland
from becoming like Los Angeles, the U.S.'s most congested city. Los Angeles
is also the nation's densest metropolitan area and the one with the fewest
miles of freeways per capita. After reviewing statistics for 50 major
U.S. urban areas, Portland planners concluded that Los Angeles "displays
an investment pattern we desire to replicate" in Portland.
Of course, they didn't say so very loudly.
If your idea of a livable city is Los Angeles--unbearable congestion,
air pollution, unaffordable housing, and shortages of open space--then
by all means use Portland as your model. If instead you prefer a city
with less congestion and pollution, and more affordable housing and urban
open space, then you had better look elsewhere, because that is not what
Portland is getting.