A recent article by Oregon writer and radio talk-show host Jayne Carroll brings back some old memories. Carroll notes that, sometime in the 1970s, Alan Webber, an aide to then-city commissioner Neil Goldschmidt, wrote a memo titled, “Disincentives to the Automobile.”
In the early 1970s, I was a college student who had helped to found OSPIRG. In the summer of 1972, OSPIRG hired me and a dozen other summer interns, including Dick Benner and Bob Stacy (who later worked for 1000 Friends of Oregon), to work on various issues. Henry Richmond (who later founded 1000 Friends of Oregon) was OSPIRG’s staff attorney and Steve McCarthy was its executive director.
OSPIRG assigned me to work on Portland air pollution and put me in touch with Ron Buel, another Goldschmidt aide who had just written a book titled, “Dead End: The Automobile in Mass Transportation.” If I recall correctly, Buel was Goldschmidt’s chief of staff, and he spent most of his days sorting through dozens of phone messages trying to decide which ones were worth calling back.
The Clean Air Act, which Congress passed in 1970, directed all cities to clean up their air. The law also required auto makers to install catalytic converters. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was impossible to see Mt. Hood from Portland on most sunny days due to the air pollution.
Projections showed that the mandated catalytic converters alone would solve most of the air pollution problems. But this wasn’t good enough for the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency, which insisted that all cities had to write “transportation control strategies” to reduce their pollution problems.
Portland’s traffic engineering office had a simple solution. Most of Portland’s air pollution violations were downtown, where traffic was most congested. So the engineers proposed to relieve that congestion with improved traffic signal coordination that would allow cars to drive downtown at higher speeds (cars pollute less at higher speeds) and with fewer stops (stops and starts waste fuel and contribute to pollution).
While this plan was acceptable under EPA rules, the EPA had written a memo to cities urging them to do more. The EPA wanted cities to create disincentives to the auto such as parking charges and provide alternatives such as more mass transit. My mentor, Ron Buel, was interested in promoting these ideas.
Basically, Buel told me what he thought should be in an air pollution plan for Portland. I did some research to support those ideas and wrote an alternative to the city engineer’s plan. My report criticized the engineer’s plan, saying it would simply draw more traffic into downtown which would lead to more air pollution. But my alternative plan focused mainly on low-cost transit improvements — the only disincentive was to increase parking fees by 40 cents per day, which would raise enough to pay for the transit improvements.
Among the transit improvements, I suggested that TriMet contract with churches to use their parking lots, empty during most of the week, as park-and-ride stations. I also suggested that TriMet run a downtown demand-responsive bus that would respond to people’s calls, pick them up, and take them to where they wanted to go. The technology was available for this in the 1970s and San Jose even experimented with such a bus service.
TriMet at the time was building the 5th and 6th avenue bus malls and wasn’t interested in doing anything else to improve service. My ideas, though cheap, were considered an unnecessary distraction.
OSPIRG released my report in August to great fanfare. I got my first taste of fame as I was featured on Telescope — KGW’s morning television news show — and in various other news reports. Buel and Goldschmidt supported the report, of course, but the city ultimately approved the engineer’s plan. As a long-haired hippie who refused to wear a coat and tie, however, I was not the best spokesperson for these alternative ideas, so I am sure Ron Buel felt some relief when I decided to focus on forest issues in the future instead of transportation.
Later, Governor Tom McCall appointed Steve McCarthy to the board of TriMet. He realized that the other board members did not want to do anything other than complete the downtown bus mall, so he convinced McCall to fire the rest of the board. The new board appointed Steve as assistant general manager and, later, general manager of TriMet. There he implemented some of my ideas such as cheap park-and-ride stations.
Whether or not my ideas had anything to do with it, TriMet ridership boomed in the 1970s and Portland’s share of commuters who rode transit to work grew from 7 to 10 percent. After TriMet started building light rail, cost overruns forced it to cut bus service, and transit’s share declined to 7.5 percent, where it remains today.
By the time the light-rail decisions were made, I had stopped working on transportation issues. I knew that the Oregon Railroad Commission had projected that Portland could build and equip four light-rail lines for around $100 million. As it turned out, the first of those four lines ended up costing $200 million. When the region finally gets its four lines, the total cost will be more than $2 billion. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s a big cost overrun.
A fascinating paper from the Journal of Planning History, provides some insights on the decision to build light rail in Portland. The original idea for light rail came from some of Goldschmidt’s staff and other local planners. Goldschmidt wanted to cancel the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, but he had to deal with Glen Jackson, who at the time was considered the most powerful man in Oregon and who chaired Oregon’s transportation commission as well as ran one of Oregon’s largest companies.
Jackson made it clear that he would grudgingly support canceling the freeway only if the federal funds that would have been spent on the freeway would be kept in the region. Jackson and Goldschmidt agreed to spend the freeway money expanding a parallel freeway, I-84. Part of the expansion would be for “transitways.” Goldschmidt personally thought that exclusive busways made more sense than light rail, and early projections showed that light rail cost cost more and carry fewer riders than busways. So, the city of Portland and Oregon Department of Transportation decided to take light rail off the table. It was only through some furious efforts by then-County Commissioner Don Clark and members of the TriMet planning staff that light rail was brought back into consideration.
Years later, in 2002, I ran into Goldschmidt at a conference in Colorado. Although we had met only a couple of times, he recognized me. “Disincentives to the automobile!” he said, shaking his head. “I knew that would never fly politically.”
We now know that the predictions about catalytic converters were right: they did pretty much clean up urban air pollution in most of America. We also know that Portland’s city engineer was right: traffic signal coordination is the most cost-effective thing cities can do to reduce congestion, pollution, and wasted fuel.
We know that something TriMet did during the 1970s worked, because its ridership grew much faster than the national average. It would be interesting to review TriMet records to see just what steps were most effective in improving that ridership. In any case, we know that low-cost transit improvements can do more to boost ridership than high-cost projects like light rail.
Finally, we know that disincentives to the automobile don’t work. Americans drive for 82 to 85 percent of their travel. Europeans have been paying $6 a gallon gas prices for decades and they drive for 78-79 percent of their travel. Raise the price of driving and people adjust their behavior by buying more fuel-efficient cars or relocating their work places — but they still drive.
It might be a bit unfair to blame disincentives entirely on Goldschmidt’s staff, since they were also being promoted by the EPA. I am also not entirely convinced that cancelling the Mt. Hood Freeway was the wrong thing to do, as the freeway would have done a lot of harm to southeast Portland. Portland’s suburbs needed new freeways, but the inner city did not. Instead of building light rail, however, Goldschmidt’s busway idea made a lot more sense.
The big problem with building light rail is that it created a constituency for more light rail. That constituency is not transit riders but the engineering and construction firms that build rail lines. They are the ones making the big campaign contributions that keep rail construction going and keep Portland in its misery.
Goldschmidt used to brag that Portland was the biggest small town in the country. While I only played a tiny role in Portland’s political scene in the 1970s, I did know many of the players who played leading roles, including Goldschmidt, Buel, Charlie Merton, Steve Schell, and many of the other people mentioned in the planning history article.