The Portland Epistles: More Delusion

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Uncategorized, Urbanization (historic), Wendell Cox (historic)

It seems like I encounter the fantasies preached by Portland missionaries on every shore. Unlike their 19th century counterparts, the Portland evangelists promise not a Paradise-in-the-Hereafter, but rather a Paradise-Now. In their zeal, they mistake their delusions for reality.

One of the more recent such Epistles is “Portland’s Green Dividend,” by Joe Courtwright . A verse-by-verse rebuttal is unwarranted; however, a few points may be of interest.

Portland: Less Compact than Los Angeles, Phoenix, Etc., Etc.: The claims that Portland is dense (or even compact) are absurd. According to U.S. Census data, Los Angeles is more than twice as dense. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are 90 percent as dense. Phoenix, Fresno, Bakersfield and Modesto are more dense. Among western urban areas with more than 1,000,000 population, only Seattle is less dense than Portland.

Portland’s Falling, Miniscule Transit Market Share: Portland’s use of transit is not remarkable. Census data indicates that Portland’s work trip transit market share is less than before the first light rail line was opened. Portland’s overall transit market share is less than before the first light rail line was opened. Portland’s transit market share is little more than two percent, which is not bad for the United States — somewhat ahead of Los Angeles, slightly behind Seattle and 80 percent less than New York. Portland’s transit market share is 50 percent to 80 percent less than that of the five major Australian urban areas (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide).

Driving More Inside the Urban Growth Boundary: The over-regulated Portland side (Paradise) of the metropolitan area uses cars more than the less regulated Washington side, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

Portland: Auto Trend Follows Austin, Atlanta, Etc.: Portland’s comparatively stable per capita car travel, said to have peaked in 1996, is nothing unique. Atlanta’s peak came in 1994, Austin in 1986, Dallas-Fort Worth in 1995, Seattle in 1992 and Washington in 1996, according to Federal Highway Administration data as reported by the Texas Transportation Institute. Portland’s per capita driving has increased at among the greatest rates since data became available in 1982.

Planning Malpractice: Traffic Congestion is our Friend: Portland’s traffic congestion has become legendary. No primary urban area (urban areas not sharing a metropolitan area with a larger urban area, such as Riverside-San Bernardino in the Los Angeles area and San Jose in the San Francisco area) in the 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 size classification has worse traffic congestion except for much more dense Las Vegas. It is, of course, to be expected that higher density urban areas like Las Vegas (and Los Angeles) will have worse traffic congestion. Portland’s unenviable traffic is the direct result of policies that spend far too much money on the two percent of travel on transit and far too little on the 98 percent who travel by car. Residents of Portland’s west side are witness to this, having long since learned how risky it is to get on the Sunset Highway in either direction at about any time of the work day. That particular freeway has a Travel Time Index worse than any urban area in the United States except for Los Angeles, according to Texas Transportation Institute data. Recent reports indicate that Portland’s transportation short sightedness is hurting its competitiveness and there are moves afoot to begin expanding highways again.

Portland: Are We in Texas Yet? Despite the claim that Portland has among the lowest consumer expenditures per household on transportation, the latest US Department of Labor data indicates otherwise. In 2004-5, Portlanders spent more on transportation than the national average. Indeed, Portland sits right in the middle of Texas — transportation expenditures per household are less than in Houston, but more than in Dallas-Fort Worth. Perhaps the ultimate insult is that Portland households spent 40 percent more on transportation than households in Atlanta, the world’s least compact large urban area.

All Job Growth Suburban: A census of downtown Portland shows declining employment levels. Since 2001, all new employment growth has been outside the downtown area.

Escaping the Urban Growth Boundary: Approximately 80 percent of Portland’s net inward domestic migration has been to areas outside the urban growth boundary since 2000.

Avoiding the City of Portland: Approximately 90 percent of Portland’s growth since 2000 has been to areas outside the city of Portland (read “suburbs”).

Planners to Young and Minority Households: Rent!: Most importantly, Portland’s planners are working hard to destroy the American Dream. They are succeeding. Portland’s “smart growth” land rationing has driven median house prices up 60 percent relative to historic levels, even while forcing new houses onto postage stamp lots. All of this means that younger households and lower income households (which are disproportionately minority, even in elitist Portland) have less hope of climbing on the home ownership ladder of opportunity. Were it not for the safety valve of Clark County, Washington, beyond the jurisdiction of Portland’s planners, housing affordability would be even worse.

In short, “Nirvana” it is not (….oops, got my religions mixed up).

Finally, Randal O’Toole’s exceptional Cato Institute study Debunking Portland casts the shortcomings of “Paradise” in the light of sordid reality.