Story of the little train that can’t

‘Transit-oriented development” is the buzz word for policies that promote high-density, mixed-use growth clustered around mass transit lines instead of more traditional settlements along suburban highways. TOD is much favored among urban planners who assume that people who live and work near rail lines won’t use cars to get around. That’s the theory, but it doesn’t always work in practice, as folks in Portland, Ore., have discovered.

Portland has been a TOD leader since 1973, and won numerous awards for strictly limiting growth in outlying sections of the city — the so-called growth boundary — aggressive rezoning of existing neighborhoods and significant investment in light rail. But, as former Portland resident Randal O’Toole points out, after spending billions of dollars on TOD, there is little evidence that Portland residents have significantly changed their travel habits.

In fact, by 2005 less than half (38 percent) of Portland residents who commuted downtown were taking mass transit to work.

“More than 97 percent of all motorized passenger travel in the Portland area is by automobile,” writes O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, in “Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work.” TOD has had the net effect of taking “less than 1 percent of cars off the road.”

Portland was also one of the first cities in the nation to take advantage of a federal law that allowed it to spend highway funds on mass transit, including a no-bid contract with San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. But little was done to ease the traffic congestion caused by tens of thousands of former city residents who moved to Vancouver, Wash., and other areas outside the growth boundary in their quest for affordable housing. “Rather than preventing sprawl, Portland’s planning has to some degree accelerated it,” O’Toole maintains.

Despite huge subsidies — including 10 years of property tax waivers — Portland still has trouble filling all the vacant street-level shops along its light-rail line. And after diverting billions of tax dollars from schools and other essential services to subsidize TOD projects, it turns out that they “only work when they include plenty of parking.” For cars, that is.

All of this is a cautionary tale for our region’s urban planners, who fortunately have a much more extensive multi-agency mass transit network to work with. Comparisons of problems shared by two metropolitan areas don’t always suggest the same solutions, but let’s hope that the future of commuting in an already congested Bay Area doesn’t mirror Portland’s unexpectedly excessive car-dependent reality.

General OpinionOpinion

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden arrive at Biden's inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)
Joe Biden issues call for ‘unity’ amidst extreme partisan rancor

‘I will be a president for all Americans,’ he says in inauguration speech

MARIETTA, GA - NOVEMBER 15: Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff (R) and Raphael Warnock (L) of Georgia taps elbows during a rally for supporters on November 15, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. Both become senators Wednesday.  (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Vice President Harris swears in senators Padilla, Warnock, Ossoff

New Democratic senators tip balance of power in upper legislative house

President Joe Biden plans to sign a number of executive orders over the next week. (Biden Transition/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)
Biden signals new direction by signing mask order on his first day in office

President plans ambitious 10-day push of executive orders, legislation

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff looks on at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)
A new turn in history: Kamala Harris sworn in as 49th vice president

Noah Bierman and Melanie Mason Los Angeles Times Kamala Devi Harris, born… Continue reading

From left, Doug Emhoff, U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Jill Biden and President-elect Joe Biden wave as they arrive on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol for the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today’s inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
Joe Biden inaugurated as 46th president as Trump era comes to an end

Todd Spangler Detroit Free Press Taking over the reins of government at… Continue reading

Most Read