MYTHS (?) and FACTS (?)

The following is a word-for-word transcription of an article printed in the Oregonian of December 22, 1996. The sections labeled "O'Toole's responses" have been inserted by the Thoreau Institute.
The following was part of a response to Randal O'Toole's article submitted by the Coalition for a Livable Future, an affiliation of 35 nonprofit organizations based in the Portland metropolitan area with the stated goal of working together to promote an equitable and sustainable future for the region.

MYTH: Metro's 2040 Plan requires the region to be built to the density of New York City.

FACT: The density of Manhattan is 50,000 people per square mile. By comparison, the 2040 plan calls for a density of just 3,800 people per square mile for the Portland region. That's less than the density today of Ashland and Denver (which are at approximately 4,000 people per square mile).

Furthermore, under the Metro 2040 Plan, about 70 percent of today's population lives in areas that are not proposed to receive significant future growth.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: The Coalition for a Livable Future is comparing apples with oranges when it confuses "region" with "city." Just as the "city of Portland" is not the "Portland area," "New York City" is not the "New York urban area" and "Denver" is not the "Denver region."

The New York urban area, as defined by the Census Bureau, includes northeastern New Jersey and in 1990 had an average population density of 4,100 people per square mile. By contrast, the Metro 2040 Plan would increase the density inside the Portland urban-growth boundary to 5,000 per square mile.

The Coalition quotes a density of "3,800 people per square mile for the Portland region." But the "region" it uses includes Clark County, Washington, which is beyond Metro's jurisdiction. If Metro had jurisdiction there, it would plan to increase the population density there as well.

How many Portlanders would rather live anywhere in New York City or northeastern New Jersey?

The Coalition's claim that "about 70 percent of today's population lives in areas that are not proposed to receive significant future growth" turns on the definition of "significant." In fact, the 2040 Plan calls for at least a 50-percent increase in population density in almost every neighborhood in the Portland area. Many of these increases will be imposed with almost no public involvement: The plan directs local city and county officials to rezone areas whether local residents want it or not, and under state law local officials have no choice but to do so.

MYTH: The Metro 2040 Plan promotes growth.

FACT: Metro is neither pro-growth nor anti-growth, and in fact has few tools to either encourage or control growth. What Metro is attempting to do is plan for and manage the growth that is already expected to occur in the region under market conditions.

The region can either guide that growth now, so it occurs in places and manner in which we would like it, or we can stick our heads in the sand while it runs right over us.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: I never said nor implied that the 2040 Plan promotes growth. The Coalition included this merely as a red herring.

MYTH: The Metro 2040 Plan will force everyone to live in apartments and rowhouses.

FACT: The Metro 2040 Plan anticipates that 65 percent of all homes will be owner-occupied, which is the same percentage of home ownership as exists today. Moreover, townhouses are the hottest residential product on the market today, indicating that many people are looking to affordable alternatives to expensive, large lot, suburban developments.

What the Region 2040 Plan does is offer all of us a choice in housing, more than we have today. And as our population ages and the baby boomers' children move out of the nest, smaller lot sizes and townhouses are becoming more popular market choices.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: I never said nor implied that the 2040 Plan will force everone to live in apartments and rowhouses. But in fact the Plan does require far more high-density developments than people would choose for themselves. It achieves this increase through such tools as tax subsidies to high-density development, minimum density zones, and population targets for all of the communities in the area.

The fact that the 2040 Plan "anticipates" 65 percent owner-occupied housing (including rowhouses) is meaningless. Metro cannot force owners of rowhouses to live in them. By forcing developers to build more rowhouses and higher density developments, Metro will end up with far less owner-occupied housing than we have today.

MYTH: The urban growth boundary is causing the current affordable housing crisis in the region.

FACT: Lot prices are rising as fast or faster in other cities that don't have urban growth boundaries. From 1990-1995, median lot prices in Portland rose 60 percent. They rose 66.7 percent in Oklahoma City; 67.2 percent in Charlotte, N.C.; 134 percent in Chattanooga, Tenn.; 76.5 percent in Salt Lake City; and 79.4 percent in Houston all areas without urban growth boundaries. Rapid land price increases are caused by boom economies, not growth boundaries.

Furthermore, even if the urban growth boundary has some minor effect on land prices, there are many other factors involved in current price increases: construction costs are going up rapidly; system development charges are rising to pay for the increase in infrastructure require by population increase; houses are getting larger and therefore more expensive. The proper market response to rising land prices is to build on less land.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: The very same issue of the Oregonian in which this response appeared had a front-page story about how developers were running out of land and were paying as much as $150,000 per acre for developable land. When land outside the urban-growth boundary is worth $500 per acre, while otherwise identical land inside the boundary is worth $20,000 or more per acre, it is clear that the boundary is having a huge effect on land prices.

The Coalition's claim that "The proper market response to rising land prices is to build on less land" is specious. Such a response might make sense if we were really running out of land. But what if the land shortage is entirely artificial? Then the proper response is to expand the urban-growth boundary--or get rid of it altogether and find a tool that will solve growth problems without the huge inequities caused by the boundary.

MYTH: The Metro 2040 Plan will increase traffic congestion.

FACT: The Metro 2040 Plan provides the region with less, not more, congestion. Compared to current trends, the 2040 Plan gives us reduced vehicle miles traveled per person by 11 percent, increased transit ridership by 41 percent, and 11 percent less congestion with 25 percent less road construction. It also saves 100,000 acres of land from urbanization, including 60,000 acres of prime farm land.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: Is anybody happy with the amount of congestion we have today? According to Metro, about 162 miles of roads are congested each weekday. Under the 2040 Plan, this will increase to 620 miles. That sounds like more, not less, to me.

So when the Coalition says the 2040 Plan will provide "less, not more, congestion," the question is, "less than what?" The answer appears to be a "base case" alternative prepared by Metro in the early stages of its planning process--an alternative that no one supports. In fact, there are a lot of ways to maintain and even reduce congestion below current levels. The 2040 Plan ignores most of them.

MYTH: The Metro 2040 Plan will increase air pollution.

FACT: In fact, pollution would be much worse with the 2040 Plan. For example, under 2040 there will be nearly 8,000 fewer kilograms/day of nitrogen oxide than if we do nothing.

The real problem is the exponential growth in the amount of car travel and the increase amount of this travel by single-occupancy vehicles. Until we get a handle on increased car use, we won't be able to alleviate air pollution.

By offering more transportation options, the 2040 Plan is a key step toward curbing this trend. Modeling data indicate that under the plan, people in the region will choose to drive 5 percent less than they currently do.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: Again, the Coalition is comparing pollution with a "do-nothing" alternative--something no one is advocating. In fact, Metro projects that the 2040 Plan will increase nitrogen oxides by at least 10 percent over current levels.

MYTH: The Metro 2040 Plan will destroy green spaces.

FACT: In reality, green spaces are being developed at a prodigious rate and will be destroyed if the 2040 Plan is not implemented. Between 1990 and 1995 alone, 2,900 homes were build upon green spaces in the metropolitan region and 6 percent on non-residential development occurred in floodplains and other natural areas.

The Metro 2040 Plan will help reverse this trend by removing wetlands, floodplains, and flood-prone soils, stream corridors and steep slopes from consideration for development.

Furthermore, through the Greenspaces Bond Measure, Metro will add 6,000 acres of greenspaces to the region.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: The Coalition does not deny that the 2040 Plan calls for the development of 13,000 acres of prime farm land, even if the owners do not wish to develop them. Instead, it promises that the 2040 Plan will forbid other people from developing their land, even if they want to and can do so without harming anyone else.

Oregon has had the strongest land-use controls in the nation for more than twenty years. Yet even the Coalition admits that, with that planning, "green spaces are being developed at a prodigious rate." So now the solution is more planning?

MYTH: If development "just paid its own way" we wouldn't need the 2040 Plan.

FACT: Pricing cannot replace planning. It is true that our current tax and finance system subsidizes growth. New houses and commercial developments are still being built on large lots in outlying "green field" locations without adequate infrastructure.

But, no matter how carefully designed, economic incentive strategies alone cannot protect natural areas, coordinate our transportation system with development patterns, produce vital town centers, ensure that our neighborhoods remain affordable, and create more diverse and economically integrated communities. Pricing can help get us there, but we need other tools--tools like those provided by the 2040 Plan.

O'TOOLE'S RESPONSE: The "tools" provided by the 2040 Plan--targets, mandates, coercion, and utter disregard for people's personal preferences--are the same tools that caused the Soviet Union to self destruct a few years ago. We know that such tools don't work. Let's find some tools that will work. I propose a number of such tools in my report, The Vanishing Automobile.

Urban Growth | Electronic Drummer