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Judging Portland by Intentions, not Results

by Randall O'Toole
The Thoreau Institute

August 18, 2006

"Car junkies like me are becoming an endangered species" in Portland,
writes British politician Sayeeda Warsi for the BBC (see
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/4794361.stm). Warsi
has fallen for the common trap of judging urban planners by their
intentions, not their results.

It is true, as Warsi says, that Portland has spent most of its
transportation dollars on rail transit. Yet light rail carries only
0.9 percent of the region's passenger traffic (buses carry another
1.4 percent). In what world does it make sense to spend most of your
money on 0.9 percent of your output (and not, by far, the most
valuable 0.9 percent)? When over 90 percent of travel is by car, how
can autos be considered "an endangered species"?

It is true, as Warsi says, that public transit ridership has
significantly increased over the last ten years. But he failed to
note a significant downslide in ridership in the 1980s, when Portland
began focusing on light rail and lost touch with bus riders. As a
result, Portland transit today carries a smaller share of commuters
and a smaller share of total travel than it did in 1980, before the
region's leaders began their love affair with expensive rail transit.

It is NOT true, as Warsi claims, that Portland has "eradicated over
62 million car trips a year." Transit carries 104 million trips per
year, 58 million of which were carried by buses in 1985 before the
first light-rail line opened. Portland's population since then has
grown by about 50 percent, so it is likely that the vast majority of
transit riders today would still be riding transit if not a single
mile of light rail had been built.

It may be true, as Warsi claims, that Portland "car use is growing at
the slowest rate anywhere in the United State." But it was not true a
few years ago and it is only true today because Portland's
anti-business climate has driven away employers, leading to a
stagnation of the region's economy. As Warsi failed to note, even
transit ridership has fallen since 2002.

It is NOT true, as Warsi says, that Oregon Governor Tom McCall "took
radical steps to prioritise public transport over roads" in the
1970s. That is a strange rewriting of history, crediting McCall (who
is regarded, with a bit more accuracy, as the father of Oregon's
land-use planning system) with a series of decisions made over
several decades by his successors and Portland officials.

It is true, as Warsi says, that Portland has built bike lanes to the
airport. But they are rarely used and almost exclusively for
recreation, not by air travelers or airport workers. (I have ridden
the full length of these bike lanes; they follow a noisy freeway but
do not go anywhere that most Portland cyclists really want to go.)

Like many reporters, Warsi seems to have judged the entire Portland
area by a visit to downtown. Thanks to subsidized downtown housing,
Portland's inner city has undergone a demographic change and is now
occupied mainly by young singles and childless couples. Though
bicycling is popular among this group, inner-city streets remain
jammed with autos. Away from the inner city you will find bicycling
no more popular than anywhere else in the country.

It is NOT true, as Warsi claims, that Portland's transportation
vision is a result of "true direct democracy in action."
* As noted in update #62, Portland voted down further funding for
light rail in 1998 -- but the region is building more anyway.
* Voters also rejected an expanded convention center, but they built
it anyway, further demonstrating the contempt the region's leaders
have for democracy.
* Two of Portland's suburbs have withdrawn from the region's transit
district so that they can provide their own, better, service at a
lower cost to their residents.
* Construction of an aerial tramway, another transportation
boondoggle, led to a huge political battle whose repercussions will
have lasting consequences (see http://ti.org/vaupdate62.html).
* When Portland Congressman David Wu offered the region federal
funds to expand the capacity of the region's most heavily congested
freeway, the region's leaders turned him down (see
http://tinyurl.com/e762m) because they don't want to risk reducing
transit ridership.

If Portland-area voters had a real say in their future, they would
certainly not favor the gridlock that is the admitted goal of the
region's planners.

In short, Warsi's report is based largely on myths, fabrications, and
selective use of data. Warsi is the vice chair of Britain's
Conservative Party. Considering his lack of skepticism and analytical
skills, it is no wonder that the Conservatives have been out of power
for well over a decade.

Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute
rot@ti.org http://ti.org

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