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.

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