Portland: Myth and RealityMonday the Gulf Coast Institute had a presentation on "Portland: Myth and Reality" by Robert Liberty, who has played in integral part in shaping Portland over recent decades through multiple organizations there, including Metro Councilor (their all-powerful regional metropolitan planning organization). It was quite interesting. Len and I attended out of simple curiosity, realizing only after we had been there a while that Mr. Liberty was responding directly to our Chronicle op-ed on planning a few weeks ago - to the point of including quotes in his slides. Unfortunately, the presentation doesn't seem to have made it to their web site yet, and my notes are sketchy, so my responses won't be as detailed as I'd like - but here it goes.
Overall, I felt like our arguments were countered somewhat obliquely (the reasoning was not straightforward to me), and with very selective data. Mr. Liberty was very pleasant (and humorous), said some nice things about Houston (more on that later), and I enjoyed the presentation - but I didn't find the arguments very convincing, and felt some of the more pointed questions by the audience were dodged.
I particularly disagreed with the mobility/congestion comparisons to Houston. You simply can't compare a metro of 5.5m with a metro of 2m - they're just not on the same scale. Of course Houston is going to have more hours of delay. More interesting to note is that Portland's delay has increased faster - by 32 hours per year per person since 1982 vs. 24 for Houston. Also worth noting is that Houston has a travel time index of 1.42 (ratio of rush hour travel time to off-peak), which is in the middle for a "very large city", wheras Portland has a TTI of 1.37, near the very upper end of the "large city" category (i.e. cities that are fairly comparable to Portland). Austin is down in the "medium city" category, and has a lower TTI of 1.33 - if that gives you a reference point - and I find Austin's traffic quite painful. In sum, Houston is doing quite well for a metro of its size, and Portland is doing quite badly for one of its size.
I will give Portland credit in one respect though. Most cities let NIMBYs dominate development decisions, making density very hard to achieve (most neighborhoods fight it tooth and nail). Portland's all-powerful Metro seems to have been able to push the NIMBY's aside and get substantial density built along the rail lines, including affordable units. Houston has also been able to densify (with apartments, townhomes, condos, etc.), but with a polar opposite approach of minimal land-use controls, instead of very strong controls like in Portland.
Here are some things he noted that he had seen and liked in Houston:
- "Neat land uses" in Montrose from a lack of zoning
- Dense corridor development along Westheimer near Montrose
- Allen Parkway
- And, of course, the Main St. light rail line.
- They don't seem to acknowledge the high costs of their decision: unaffordable housing, people forced to rent most or all of their lives, driving out the middle class that want to own a home, traffic congestion and parking nightmares, heavy development and transit subsidies, a steep drop in families with children, most growth shifting to the Vancouver/WA side, compromised property rights and the Prop 37 backlash, etc.
- It's not a model appropriate to Houston, which lacks the people-drawing scenic beauty/mountains/wilderness and relatively pedestrian-friendly weather (they have lots of London-like drizzle, but that's pedestrian-tolerable, a category I do not put our May-Sept summer heat/storms in). Throw in our independent, anti-big-government culture, and we'd have an open revolt on our hands if we tried to do what Portland's doing (and it sounds like even they're facing somewhat of a revolt - with prop 37 plus he described the development commission as "under assault").