The Portland Non-Example

The Anti-Planner, in a long post dissecting a speech by Ray LaHood, brings some good facts to the table about the lack of success of efforts in cities to get people out of cars.  Of particular interest is Portland, which is often held up by transit and in particular light rail supporters as the be-all-end-all city on the hill example of transit and growth planning.  OK, let's use it as an example:

The 2007 American Community Survey found that, since the 2000 census, the number of Portland-area residents who say they usually bicycle to work grew from about 6,800 to 15,900. But the number who say they take transit to work declined from 58,600 to 57,900. The number who go to work by car (not counting taxis) grew from 664,300 to 730,500. This means that Portland roads have about 60,000 more cars during rush hour, but the region has put most of its transportation dollars into light rail and streetcars that carry no more people.

A lot of blame for this can go to the city's focus on light rail, whose enormous costs have cannibalized bus service and thus reduced total transit service.  In particular, those who support transit as a god-send for the working poor should note that this substitution of large, inexpensive bus networks for more yuppie-friendly trains on narrow routes shifts transit away from the poor to white collar users.

...coerciveness is a fundamental part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, whose official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels ("level of service F") on many major freeways and arterials. Besides diverting federal highway money into light rail instead of things that will actually relieve congestion, much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into "traffic calming," a euphemism for "congestion building" which consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes.

Beyond the moral and constitutional question of whether government should have the right to intrude into people's lives is the more practical question of whether the benefits of such intrusions justify their costs. In the case of Portland, the costs include a nearly twelve-fold increase in the costs of congestion between 1982 and 2005, the more than $2 billion spent on light rail, and nearly $2 billion spent on subsidies to transit-oriented developments. Meanwhile, the benefits include a lot of New York Times articles making Portlanders feeling smug about themselves, but not much else except for the lucky (or politically connected) few getting the subsidies.

  • James

    I was in Portland 2 weeks ago. The traffic is a nightmare at rush hour. It's nowhere near as bad as LA during other times, but between 4 and 6, it's a parking lot.

    I will commend Portland, or rather, bash California, for one thing: They experience temperatures of below 0 every year, snowstorms, 37.5 inches of rain a year, and loads of logging trucks (on top of all other commercial and normal traffic), and yet they don't have potholes the size of small swimming pools. WTF California?! Where is all my money going?!? It's 70 degrees and rains between 2 and 10 inches a year!