Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work

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Though many people consider Portland,Oregon, a model of 21st–century urban planning,the region's integrated land–use and transportationplans have greatly reduced the area's livability.To halt urban sprawl and reduce people'sdependence on the automobile, Portland's plansuse an urban–growth boundary to greatly increasethe area's population density, spend most of theregion's transportation funds on various rail transitprojects, and promote construction of scores ofhigh–density, mixed–use developments.

When judged by the results rather than theintentions, the costs of Portland's planning faroutweigh the benefits. Planners made housingunaffordable to force more people to live in multifamilyhousing or in homes on tiny lots. Theyallowed congestion to increase to near–gridlock levelsto force more people to ride the region's expensiverail transit lines. They diverted billions of dollarsof taxes from schools, fire, public health, andother essential services to subsidize the constructionof transit and high–density housing projects.

Those high costs have not produced the utopiaplanners promised. Far from curbing sprawl, highhousing prices led tens of thousands of families tomove to Vancouver, Washington, and other citiesoutside the region's authority. Far from reducingdriving, rail transit has actually reduced the shareof travel using transit from what it was in 1980.And developers have found that so–called transit–orienteddevelopments only work when theyinclude plenty of parking.

Portland–area residents have expressed theiropposition to these plans by voting against lightrail and density and voting for a property–rightsmeasure that allows landowners to claim eithercompensation or waivers for land–use rulespassed since they purchased their property.Opposition turned to anger when a 2004 scandalrevealed that an insider network known as the"light–rail mafia" had manipulated the planningprocess to direct rail construction contracts andurban–renewal subsidies to themselves.

These problems are all the predictable resultof a process that gives a few people enormouspower over an entire urban area. Portland shoulddismantle its planning programs, and othercities that want to maintain their livability woulddo well to study Portland as an example of hownot to plan.

Randal O’Toole

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of the forthcoming book, The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. Now a resident of Bandon, Oregon, O'Toole is a native Oregonian who has spent most of his life in the Portland area.