Vanishing Automobile update #64

Judging Portland Planners by Their Intentions, Not Results

19 August 2006

"Car junkies like me are becoming an endangered species" in Portland, writes British politician Sayeeda Warsi for the BBC. 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 she 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 reasonable to suppose 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 mainly by his successor, Neil Goldschmidt. But Goldschmidt is in disgrace for having molested a 14-year-old girl, so Warsi's tour guides give credit to someone who remains an Oregon hero, mainly for supporting legislation that took property rights away from rural landowners.

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."

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 her lack of skepticism and analytical skills, it is no wonder that the Conservatives have been out of power for well over a decade.

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