Downtown Portland can be beautiful to look at. But it produces less than half as many jobs as the "edge city" near Beaverton, a suburb west of Portland. Yet Metro planners are devoting most of their resources to downtown rather than the parts of the area that are really growing.
Metro serves as Portland's metropolitan planning organization, something the federal government began requiring in 1966 of all urban areas seeking federal grants for housing and urban development. More than 300 such metropolitan planning organizations represent cities across the country. Some are little more than post office boxes. Others have appointed commissions that plan grant requests and parcel out federal dollars to various jurisdictions. Only Metro has an elected council and few have anywhere near as much power as that council.
Most Portlanders know Metro as "the recycling agency." In fact, solid-waste disposal and recycling form the biggest part of its budget. But Metro is also the result of decades of effort by Portlanders who wanted a strong regional government against suburbanites who valued their independence. Metro succeeded where previous attempts failed largely because voters did not understand what Metro was all about.
Suburban voters and officials had often fought back proposals for regional governments or city-county consolidations. But in 1978, voters agreed to merge two agencies: the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG), which had been Portland's metropolitan planning organization, and the Metropolitan Service District (MSD), which had handled services "of metropolitan concern" such as solid-waste planning and the zoo.
Metro historians admit that "the wording of the ballot measure--`Reorganize MSD, Abolish CRAG'--was confusing. Voters may have backed the measure expecting to rid the area of a metropolitan planning agency rather than create a more powerful one." Voters in Clackamas County (where Oak Grove is located) sided against the measure, but the county couldn't convince the courts to let it stay out of the new Metro.
The new Metro had an executive who was something like a combined mayor and city manager. Elected by the region, the executive worked as a full-time manager and reported to a thirteen-member elected council, each unpaid councilor representing a portion of the region.
Metro promoted curbside recycling and sent other garbage to a landfill site in eastern Oregon, nearly 200 miles away. Metro also built a convention center and took over management of several parks, sports centers, and other facilities.
All of these activities were highly visible. Less well known to most of the public was Metro's planning activities. In 1979, in response to Oregon's 1973 planning laws, Metro defined Portland's urban growth boundary and took over transportation and other planning activities for the region.
With these successes, Metro dreamed once again of real city-county consolidation. In 1991, staff members drew up a proposal to replace all city and county governments in the tri-county area with a single Metro-like agency. This idea didn't appeal to the officials of those cities.
Instead, a committee of city and county elected officials proposed to revise Metro's charter to give the agency almost the same powers that a city would have to tax and annex adjacent lands. It could take over almost any special district or government activity if it felt that the work of that district or activity was a "matter of metropolitan concern." The new charter would retain the executive but replace the thirteen-member volunteer council with a seven-member council half-time.
Most important, the charter made planning Metro's top priority. By 1995, Metro would write a "future vision" for the region. By 1997, Metro would write a fifty-year land-use and transportation plan. By 2000, all local governments in the region would have to revise their zoning laws to comply with Metro's plan.
To oversee the plan, the charter created an advisory committee that had some veto powers. The fact that this committee consisted mainly of elected city and county officials gained the support of many such officials who had previously opposed Metro interference in their jurisdictions.
As in 1978, passage of the new charter in 1992 was aided by a confusing ballot title that promised to "limit regional government." "If this passes, most voters will think they have struck a blow to limit regional government, which is exactly the opposite of what it does," admitted a top Metro official at the time. "In nearly all respects, the charter expands Metro's powers over current state law."
The most important expansion of power was Metro's ability to force three county and twenty-four city governments to adopt zoning codes that complied with Metro's comprehensive plan. Admitting that this idea was "radical," a Portland city commissioner who helped write the charter commented that "I'm still amazed we got away with that."
When voters approved Metro's charter in November, 1992, Metro had already started writing a fifty-year plan, known as the 2040 Plan. Metro published draft alternatives for the plan just five weeks after the election. The election simply meant that Metro would not have to sell the plan to voters, since it now had the power to enforce it.
At about the time the charter was on the ballot, Metro was proving the accuracy of its planning and forecasting skills by moving into a new building. The main reason for the move was the growing size of its planning staff.
Rather than build a brand-new building, Metro decided to demonstrate the value of recycling by converting an old Sears department store to an office building. Metro spent nearly $30 million on the effort and ended up with a building worth only $15 million. It could have leveled the Sears and built a new building for just half of what it spent.
When it moved out of its old office, Metro still had two-and-one-half years left on its lease. Its planners forecast that it could nearly fill up the building within four months. Instead, the office remained nearly vacant and taxpayers ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars on the lease.
These were the major alternatives, or "concepts," that Metro presented to the public in 1993. All of the concepts presumed that the four-county region (including Clark County, Washington) would grow from about 1.5 million people in 1990 to 2.7 million in 2040. The Portland urban area (excluding Vancouver) would grow from about 1 million people to 1.9 million.
Metro's concepts included:
Person People Trips Transit Auto VMTs Lane- Congested 1000s millions percent percent million Miles Miles
1990 1,511 6.3 2.2 93.0 20.4 9,279 162 Base case 2,674 11.6 2.3 93.1 37.9 10,780 591 A 2,674 11.6 3.2 91.9 36.1 10,190 817 B 2,674 11.5 4.6 90.0 33.0 9,820 794 C 2,674 11.5 3.8 91.1 35.1 10,327 568 Selected 2,674 11.5 5.0 89.8 34.2 10,483 620
1990 1,032 4.5 2.8 92.1 12.8 5,304 150 Base case 1,917 8.2 2.9 92.2 25.0 6,777 506 A 1,944 8.4 4.0 90.8 24.3 6,377 682 B 1,905 8.2 6.0 88.1 20.7 5,557 643 C 1,679 7.2 5.2 89.2 20.0 6,116 404 Selected 1,862 7.9 6.4 87.8 20.6 6,038 454Vehicle-miles traveled (VMTs) exclude commercial and external trips.
Many people complained when Metro failed to consider a no-growth or slow-growth alternative--one that limited growth by, perhaps, limiting building permits or zoning with very low densities. Such alternatives may violate Oregon's land-use law, but still should be considered to show what the effects would be. Metro accomodated these people by hiring a consultant to review no-growth/slow-growth tools, and then shelved the report.
Acres in Miles of Multifamily NOx UGB Light Rail Housing % (% of 1990) 1990 232,000 15.1 30 100 Base case 330,214 32.7 30 117 A 274,500 116.2 26 113 B 232,000 130.7 40 104 C 249,738 122.8 31 108 Selected 246,500 92.9 35 107 Concepts C and selected also include plans for 30 or more miles of commuter rail not included under miles of light rail.An equally valid alternative was not considered at all: using market tools, instead of command and control, to manage growth. Oregon Environmental Council director John Charles proposed such tools as congestion pricing and pollution emissions fees, but Metro ignored these ideas.
For the alternatives that were considered, Metro failed to calculate any dollar costs. With no supporting evidence, it judged water and sewer costs under the various concepts to be "low," "moderate," or "high." It made no estimates at all of the transportation costs. Yet the transportation costs of the various concepts probably vary more than any other cost or output. As it turns out, the financial infeasibility of transportation under the selected concept is likely to be the most important factor that will cause that concept to fail.
Considering the data that Metro did project, the most stunning fact is that all of the densification, New Urban design, and 130 miles of light rail in concept B has almost no effect on auto usage. The share of regional trips using cars falls from a maximum of 93.1 percent in the base case to 90.0 percent in B. Vehicle-miles traveled falls by a larger percentage, mainly because Metro presumes that concept B trips will be shorter--not necessarily a valid assumption. Metro appears to admit that billions of dollars on light rail and neighborhood redesign will have almost no effect on urban travel habits.
This concept will be fleshed out into a comprehensive or "regional framework plan" by the end of 1997. Since adopting this plan, Metro planners have made and will make no attempt to develop the other concepts further or to estimate their costs and benefits.
The concept allocates Portland neighborhoods to such categories as "regional centers," "town centers," "corridors," and "inner" and "outer neighborhoods." Mass transit, including rail whenever possible, will run along the corridors and connect the centers. The centers and corridors will also be redeveloped to encourage walking and bicycling.
Residents Density Per Acre Share of Allocation Description 1992 2040 1992 2040 Growth Inside the UGB Central City Downtown Portland 20,476 60,293 19 53 5.5% Regional Centers Nine other downtowns 13,541 36,411 8 21 3.1% Town Centers 26 other shopping areas 16,530 42,858 10 20 3.6% Main streets Revived arterials 38,113 49,537 15 18 1.6% Corridor/nodes Major transit lines 366,276 561,430 12 16 26.8% Inner neighborhoods PDX and older suburbs 484,825 602,807 11 12 16.2% Outer neighborhoods More distant suburbs 108,975 244,687 8 11 18.7% Employment areas Mixed use 9,204 52,526 2 7 6.0% Industrial sanctuaries Industry 5,465 11,405 1 1 0.8% Greenspaces Parks and greenways 36,264 29,574 6 3 -0.9% Urban Reserve Town Centers Two new shopping areas 31 1,428 1 28 0.2% Corridor/nodes Major transit lines 759 36,390 2 38 4.9% Inner neighborhoods Existing suburbs 488 9,769 2 13 1.3% Outer neighborhoods New developments 2,449 90,600 1 12 12.1% Employment areas Mixed use 26 908 1 8 0.1% Greenspaces Parks and greenways 306 254 1 0 0.0% Total 1,103,730 1,830,877 100.0%The plan calls for channeling close to half of all newcomers into the centers, main streets, and corridors even though these allocations occupy only about a quarter of the urbanized area. The goal is to put a larger percentage of the populous within walking distance of mass transit. The centers and corridors will also feature a mixture of residential and commercial uses so more people will be able to walk to work and markets.
This will require massive increases in the population densities of many centers and corridors. On the average, densities in the centers will double or triple while corridor densities increase by about a third. To obtain those increases, Metro will give each local jurisdiction population targets which they must zone for. The concept also specifies where new jobs will go, and local jurisdictions will also have to zone for those jobs.
Areas that might be brought into the urban-growth boundary and the relatively undeveloped "outer neighborhoods" within the boundary are also slated for growth. Planners hope that these actions will accommodate all new growth in the next fifty years without expanding the urban-growth boundary by more than 14,500 acres.
Background documents suggest that Metro planners toyed endlessly with variations in neighborhood densities and job locations. But they don't seem particularly worried about some critical questions, such as:
Many of Metro's projections were made by a transportation model that used hundreds of assumptions about human behavior. Some of these assumptions were based on a Metro survey of 4,900 local residents--but people don't always do as they say they will do. Other assumptions were pure speculation--such as the assumption that "pedestrian-friendly" neighborhood design and higher parking costs would significantly reduce auto usage.
Consider first vehicle-miles traveled, which the state wants to reduce by 20 percent per person. No concept achieves the state's goal, but concept B projects 13 percent fewer miles than the base case--which is probably less than the combined probability of statistical errors in the transportation model.
The projected reduction has several causes:
Although the selected concept's transit ridership is much higher and its share of auto use slightly lower than B, it is less compact than B, so trip lengths are only 5 percent less than baseline. As a result, its vehicle-miles traveled are only 10 percent less than the base case.
Vehicle-miles traveled does not measure congestion. Because none of the concepts build many new roads, congestion is severely increased in all of them. The levels of congestion are greatest in the concepts that build the fewest new lane miles of roads. For example, the selected concept achieves lower congestion than concept A not because it is denser or because of New Urban design but because it builds 300 more lane miles of roads than A. Congestion is practically independent of land-use patterns.
Pollution is also not proportional to vehicle-miles. Cars pollute the most when they are cold, so the number of trips is more important than the miles traveled: Two half-mile trips, both starting cold, pollute more than one ten-mile trip. Cars also pollute three times as much in congestion than on the open road. So concepts with the most pollution should be those that are both more congested and have more auto trips. The base case has the most auto trips, but it is only 4 percent more than the selected concept, which has the least, so congestion is a more significant indicator of pollution.
All of the concepts are projected to produce less carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons but more nitrogen oxides than in 1990. The differences between them are small and, again, probably less than the statistical errors in Metro's pollution model.
The current urban-growth boundary contains less than 0.4 percent of the land in Oregon and 12 percent of the land in the tri-county area. The base case, which would expand this the most, increases it to less than 0.6 percent of Oregon and less than 17 percent of the tri-county area. This overstates the loss of open space since many of the acres inside the growth boundary will remain undeveloped. The total developed acres in the base case amount to less than 0.5 percent of Oregon and just 14 percent of the tri-county area.
What will it cost to achieve the benefits claimed for the concepts? If highway expansions cost $3.75 million per lane mile (the average according to Metro's transportation plan), the south-north light rail costs $2.85 billion, and further light-rail expansions cost $55 million per mile (the cost of the westside line, about half the cost of the south-north line), then the base case's transportation costs will be about $5.6 billion. Concepts A and B and the selected concept are all about $4 billion more, while C (including commuter rail costs) is more than $5 billion more.
In sum, according to Metro's own calculations:
Metro's goals are certainly commendable: reductions in congestion and pollution and protection of open space and Portland's quality of life. But we don't need to finish this expensive experiment to find out if New Urbanism can achieve these goals. An objective look at the data already shows that, if Metro succeeds in applying its New-Urban vision to Portland, it will create a city that is far more congested, far less livable, and whose citizens are taxed at far higher rates than the city Portland could become if other means were used.
The basic tools used in Metro's 2040 plan--light rail, high-density zoning, and New-Urban design--are fundamentally flawed. Not only will they fail to achieve 2040's goals, they are likely to produce exactly the opposite. These failures arise from flaws in Metro's planning process. But more fundamentally, they result from the flawed concepts behind planning itself.