Shoots from the Grassroot Institute – Jan. 16, 2004-Smart Growth – Not Smart – Takes Away Choice, Freedom, Individuality

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”’*Note from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii: Because so many favorable references are made about the “Smart Growth” in Portland, Oregon, we thought it would be helpful to ask someone from the area to address the issue. So, we asked our friend Randal O’Toole to give his thoughts. They appear below. And, by the way, if Portland is enjoying, “Smart Growth” now, what do we call what they were “suffering” before? — Dumb growth? Stupid growth? Silly growth? Or was it simply allowing the consumer to decide and choose for him or her self? You decide.”’

In 1990, 92 percent of all trips made in the Portland area were by
automobile. Less than 3 percent were by mass transit and the rest
were by walking and bicycling. Since automobile trips tend to be
twice as long as transit trips and several times longer than walking
or cycling trips, when measured in passenger miles the auto was even
more dominant.


Convinced that automobiles were somehow evil, Portland-area planners
resolved to turn these numbers around. Led by Metro, a regional
planning authority with dictatorial powers over 24 cities
and three counties in the region, planners proposed to rebuild
Portland from the ground up.

The past emphasis on highways would be replaced with an emphasis on
transit and pedestrian ways. The emphasis on single-family homes on
large lots would be replaced with an emphasis on multi-family or
small-lot single-family homes. The emphasis on single-use zoning
would be replaced with developments that mixed residential with
retail and office space.

First and foremost, planners sought to increase the region’s
population density because, they reasoned, if people lived closer to
work, stores, and each other, they wouldn’t need to drive so much.
The Portland-area’s density in 1990 was about 3,000 people per square
mile, compared with Honolulu’s 4,500.

Planners had drawn an urban-growth boundary around the region in
1979. Outside the boundary, state rules strictly controlled
development. Some 95 percent of the state was zoned “rural,” meaning
that no one could build a house on their own land unless they owned
at least 160 acres and, if it was farmland, earned at least $40,000
to $80,000 per year (depending on soil productivity) farming it. Only
1-1/4 percent of the state was inside an urban-growth boundary; the
remaining 3.75 percent was “rural residential” with five- to ten-acre
minimum lot sizes.

When the boundary was first drawn, a third of the land inside was
vacant. Planners promised that, as vacant land was developed, they
would expand the boundary to allow for future growth. By the early
1990s, most of the vacant land was gone and land prices started
climbing as planners projected an 80 percent increase in the region’s
population over the next few decades. But instead of expanding the
boundary by 80 percent, or even 20 percent, planners resolved to
expand it by no more than 8 percent.

To accommodate everyone else, Metro gave population targets to the
region’s 24 cities and three counties and told them to meet
those targets by rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities.
Neighborhoods of single-family homes were rezoned for apartments.
Where historic zoning codes have set maximum densities but no
minimum, Metro required that all future development be to at least 80
percent of the maximum density of each zone.

This meant that if you owned a vacant one-acre lot in a neighborhood
rezoned for 24-unit per acre apartments, you would not be allowed to
build a single-family home on that lot. Instead, you would be
required to build at least 20 apartments (80 percent of 24
units). If you owned a single-family home on a quarter-acre lot in
such a neighborhood and it burned down, you would not be allowed to
rebuild it except as a five- to six-unit apartment.

Meanwhile, Metro’s transportation plans called for expanding the
region’s highway system by less than 15 percent, mostly to serve
industrial areas. Portland had built a 15-mile light-rail line in the
1980s. Despite the failure of that line to carry even half as many
people as planners originally projected for it, Metro called for
building as many as 110 more miles of light-rail or commuter rail
transit. Following these plans, the region built another 22 miles of
light rail in the 1990s.

Light-rail lines typically cost as much to build as a six- to
eight-lane freeway. Yet each mile of Portland’s light-rail system
carries only 40 percent as many people as an average lane-mile of
freeway. Since roughly half of light-rail riders were previously bus
riders, the cost of getting one car off the road by building light
rail is exorbitant. Transit expert Wendell Cox calculates that it
would cost taxpayers less money to lease new transit riders a luxury
car such as a BMW or Lexus.

Metro wants to spend most of the region’s transportation dollars on
transit. But Oregon’s constitution requires that state gasoline taxes
must be spent on roads, not transit. Metro gets around this by
spending those gas taxes on roads, but to reduce road capacities
rather than increase them.

Metro is converting four-lane arterials to three lanes and six-lane
arterials to four-and-one-half lane streets (a half lane being an
intermittent left-turn lane). The former lanes are converted to wider
sidewalks or exclusive bike lanes. This obviously reduces the
traffic-handling capabilities of those roads.

Metro has encouraged Portland and other cities to do what planners
call “traffic calming” on many other roads. Traffic calming is a
euphemism for congestion building, as its real goal is to reduce the
flow capacities of those streets. Thus, cities are putting speed
bumps on busy streets. Curb extensions or “bump outs” block
right-turn lanes, thus forcing anyone who turns right to delay
everyone behind them. Barricades in the centers of streets slow
traffic, prevent left turns, and eliminate curbside parking spaces.

Despite the avowed goal of promoting cycling, these so-called
traffic-calming measures are often very dangerous to cyclists.
Roundabouts and other blockades in the centers of streets narrow the
space that cars share with bicycles and force bicycles into the path
of cross traffic at intersections. Curb extensions and speed bumps
are obnoxious to auto drivers but downright treacherous to cyclists.

This makes it apparent that Metro’s real intent isn’t to make
Portland bicycle friendly, but to make it the most auto-hostile
region west of New York City. To further that aim, planners have
ordered all shopping malls and office parks to reduce parking by 10
percent and attempt to even more strictly limit the parking available
in new developments.

Metro is also trying to limit or forbid the construction of major new
shopping malls and big-box stores, because these encourage people to
drive too much. Instead, it wants new retail areas to consist of
“pedestrian-friendly” shops that front on the sidewalk. But a
standard grocery store that depends on pedestrian traffic simply
can’t compete with existing supermarkets. So most of the new shops
are unique boutiques that attract people (and their cars) from all
over the region, thus creating congestion and parking problems in the
neighborhoods in which they are located.

A major glitch in Metro’s plans was uncovered in 1996, as Portland
reviewed its inventory of vacant lands available for development. In
1986, when Portland opened its first light-rail line, it immediately
zoned all the land along the line for high-density, mixed-use
developments. But by 1996, planners ruefully admitted that not a
single such development had been built and dozens of parcels along
the rail line remained vacant.

At a public hearing, developers informed the city that the demand for
high-density housing was saturated by the existing supply of
apartments. What people wanted was single-family homes on large lots,
the prices of which were skyrocketing due to Metro’s restrictions.
When the Portland city council asked developers what it would take to
get them to build higher densities, the developers said: subsidies.

So Portland’s city council decided to waive all property taxes on
high-density developments near light-rail lines for ten years. Metro
uses federal transportation dollars to buy land and sell it to
developers at below-market prices provided they build
“transit-oriented developments.” Since that time, many such
developments have been built, some of them getting $10 million or
more in subsidies in one form or another.

One result is that the residential rental market has collapsed, with
owners of existing apartment buildings having to reduce rents or
offer other incentives to attract tenants. The new high-density
developments, meanwhile, have some of the highest vacancy rates in
the region. Although many of the developments are supposed to mix
residences with retail and other uses, retail spaces have been rented
only in projects that have plenty of parking.

In 1996, then-Maryland Gov. Parris Glendenning coined the term
“smart growth” to mean the kind of planning being done in Portland:
higher densities, an emphasis on transit instead of roads, and
pedestrian-friendly instead of auto-compatible design. Since then,
the term smart growth has swept the nation, and planners and other
city officials from other parts of the country frequently visit
Portland to see how it is working.

The glowing reports they get from Metro usually skip most of the
downsides of Portland’s plans. First, they require huge subsidies.
Not only is light rail fantastically expensive, but the region has
dedicated somewhere around a quarter of billion dollars to subsidize
high-density and transit-oriented developments.

Second, Metro’s plans impose huge costs on homebuyers. In 1989,
Portland was rated one of the nation’s most affordable housing
markets. By 1996, it was the second least affordable after San
Francisco. Other Oregon cities that have adopted similar plans,
including Eugene, Salem, and Medford, are also ranked among the
nation’s top ten or so least affordable housing markets.

Do all of these plans have any influence on Portlander’s travel
habits? Yes, but only slightly. In 2001, public transit carried
Portlanders on 2.1 percent of all motorized passenger miles in the
region, up from 1.7 percent a decade before. For comparison,
transit’s share of Honolulu’s travel is 5.1 percent. With a
35-percent population increase in the same time period, reducing the
automobile’s share of travel by 0.4 percent is no great

Nor do planners think this is going to change much. Planners say that
after they increase the Portland area’s population density by 70
percent, put 125 miles of rail transit into operation, and build
scores of soviet-style high-density developments, transit’s share of
the region’s trips will increase from 3 percent to 5 percent, while
walking and cycling’s share will increase from 5 to 6 percent. That
still leaves the automobile’s share at 88 percent.

Given the region’s growing population and Metro’s anti-auto plans,
this will translate into a huge increase in congestion. Metro’s
latest projections promise that the amount of time commuters waste
sitting in traffic will more than hextuple by the year 2020.

Although polls consistently show that Portlanders think congestion is
one of the biggest problems in the region, Metro isn’t worried.
Congestion “signals positive urban development,” says Metro, adding
that “transportation improvements aimed solely at relieving
congestion are inappropriate.”

Traffic engineers rate congestion with a letter grade, with A meaning
almost no traffic and F meaning stop-and-go traffic. Historically,
the goal of transportation engineers was to keep congestion at grade
C or at worst D, because E and F were both dangerous and a waste of
people’s time. But Metro has officially adopted standards for most
Portland freeways and arterials allowing them to reach level F during
rush hours and E the rest of the day. When asked why Metro was
willing to accept such congestion, Metro’s director of transportation
planning responded that increasing highway capacities “would
eliminate transit ridership.”

Aside from wasting people’s time, congestion has two other important
side effects. First, it pollutes the air, because cars emit more
pollution in stop-and-go traffic. Second, it increases consumer costs
because it boosts the costs of transporting goods to markets.

When Metro began planning in the early 1990s, planners said that
their goal was to save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles, which
the Sierra Club calls “the granddaddy of sprawl.” In 1994, Metro
looked at the nation’s fifty largest urban areas to see which one was
most like the Portland they envisioned: a densely populated urban
area with few freeway miles per capita and lots of rail transit.

It turns out that the nation’s densest urban area also has the fewest
miles of freeway per capita. That urban area has also been spending
tens of billions of dollars building a rail transit system. Which
urban area is that? Why, Los Angeles, of course. Los Angeles is not
the granddaddy of sprawl, it is the epitome of smart growth.

People hate Los Angeles because it is the most congested and most
polluted region of America. It turns out that it is congested because
it has so many people crammed into such a small area, for a density
of more than 7,000 people per square mile (compared with 5,400 for
the New York urban area). Los Angeles has only 50 miles of freeway
per million people, compared with an average of 110 for the nation’s
urban areas and 99 in Honolulu. Los Angeles is polluted because all
those people are trying to drive in stop-and-go traffic.

So if your goal is to turn Honolulu into Los Angeles, then by all
means follow Portland’s smart-growth example of spending most
transport dollars on transit even though 95 percent of all travel is
by auto and focusing on high-density developments even though most
people would rather live in single-family homes.

”’Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Center for the American Dream. As the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities, O’Toole is a nationally recognized expert on urban land-use and transportation issues. For more of Randal’s extensive works on these and other “American Dream” issues visit:”’

”’This editorial is intended to provoke thought, discussion and an examination of issues. It does not reflect official policy of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. See the GRIH Web site at:”’

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