Portland's Smart-Growth Example

From all over the world, people visit my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to learn the wonders of "smart-growth" planning. City officials ooh and ah over Portland's light rail; reporters photograph the region's urban-growth boundary; while planners exclaim over the city's high-density, transit-oriented developments.

Smart growth is less exciting to local residents. They have discovered that smart growth's promises to reduce congestion, provide affordable housing, and protect valuable open spaces are phoney. Many now realize that smart growth's true goals are to increase congestion, drive housing prices up, and develop as much urban open space as possible.

In 1992, planning advocates argued that only regional planning could save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles, the most congested, most polluted city in America. So Portland-area voters agreed to create Metro, a regional planning authority with near-dictatorial powers over land use and transportation planning in three counties and twenty-four cities.

Although Metro estimates that Portland's population will grow by 80 percent in the next few decades, it decided not to expand the region's urban-growth boundary by more than 6 percent. To accommodate everyone else, Metro gave population targets to each local city and mandated the construction of scores of high-density, mixed-use developments. To handle growing transportation demands, Metro proposed a 125-mile rail transit network, while it reduced roadway capacities through so-called "traffic calming."

To meet their population targets, local governments rezoned neighborhoods to much higher densities and promoted the development of farms, golf courses, and other open spaces. When voters turned down the construction of new light-rail lines, Metro decided to build them anyway, using various tax districts to fund the lines without a public vote.

Planners soon learned that developers wouldn't build high-density housing along transit corridors because there was little market for such housing. So Metro, Portland, and other local governments now offer tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to such developments.

The results are spectacular and nearly all negative. The tightness of the urban-growth boundary has sent land prices skyrocketing, and Portland went from being one of the nation's most affordable housing markets in 1990 to one of the five least affordable by 1996. The region's largest homebuilder recently announced that it was reducing its operations by one-half because the region was running out of buildable land.

At the same time, the construction of heavily subsidized high-density housing has soured the rental market. So many apartments are on the market that vacancy rates are at near-record levels and one development along the light-rail line that received $9 million in subsidies has already gone bankrupt.

Congestion is rapidly increasing, which turns out to be a part of Metro's plan. "Congestion," says Metro, "signals positive urban development." Metro wants congestion in most areas to reach near-gridlock levels because relieving congestion "would eliminate transit ridership."

Metro spends more than half the region's surface transportation dollars on rail transit even though rails will carry only 1 percent of travel. In 1990, 92 percent of all passenger travel in the region was by auto. After its plans are all put into effect, Metro predicts that autos will still carry 88 percent of travel. As a result, Metro says, the time people waste sitting in traffic will more than quadruple by 2020. Since cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic, Metro says its plan will increase smog by 10 percent.

Urban open spaces are rapidly disappearing as cities rezone thousands of acres of farmlands, golf courses, and even city parks for high-density development. When voters agreed to give Metro $135 million to buy parks and open spaces, 90 percent of the land it purchased was outside the urban-growth boundary.

In 1994, Metro looked at other U.S. urban areas to see which one was closest to its plan for Portland: a high-density region with few roads and lots of rail transit. It turned out that the highest density urban area in America also has the fewest miles of freeway per capita and is building one of the most expensive rail transit networks. What city is that? Believe it or not, it was Los Angeles, which turns out to be the epitome of smart growth. Metro concluded that Los Angeles "displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate" in Portland.

Oregonians are beginning to revolt against this form of social engineering. In 1998, they firmly rejected any further funding for light rail. In 2000, Oregon voted to force local government to compensate landowners when their zoning rules reduce property values. And in May, 2002, nearly two out of three Portland-area voters passed a measure to limit neighborhood densification.

If you want to replicate Los Angeles in your community, then by all means follow Portland's smart-growth example. If your idea of a livable city is something other than Los Angeles, then you had better find another region to follow.

Randal O'Toole (rot@ti.org) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute (www.ti.org) and the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.

Electronic Drummer | Urban Growth