Planned Congestion in Portland

Published April 1, 1999

Is “sustainable growth” good for the environment? Not if it involves planned congestion, misallocation of resources, and penalties for private green space, says John A. Charles, environmental policy director for the Cascade Policy Institute of Oregon.

A growing literature on urban economic development and land use policy focuses on notions variously described as “new urbanism,” “sustainable growth,” and “urban neo-orthodoxy.” Its promoters advocate a return to urban land use patterns that preceded the mass marketing of cars: mixed use, small lot residential and retail centers clustered around mass transit stations. To reverse “sprawl,” and to preserve farmland and forest, the new urbanists advocate growth boundaries and regional planning authorities to enforce them. To reverse consumer preferences for sizable residential lots, dispersed job centers, and suburban shopping malls, they engineer disincentives for automobile use, including speed bumps and planned road congestion.

The Allegheny Institute has recently reissued John Charles’ 1998 critique of the movement, The Dark Side of Growth Controls: Some Lessons from Oregon. Charles’ original research was conducted for the Goldwater Institute of Arizona, describing Portland, Oregon’s experience with urban growth boundaries (UGBs).

“Today’s UGB proponents now see high density as a virtue in and of itself,” writes Charles, “and consider the UGB as a coercive tool to enforce that outcome. Neo-traditional development, emphasizing small residential lots, mixed-use neighborhoods, fixed-rail transit, traffic ‘calming’ devices, and multi-family dwellings, has reached cult-like status among environmentalists and the political elite in Portland.”

With respect to pollution control, notes Charles, this is simply bad science. Portland’s regional planning authority, the Metro, intends to accommodate a 60 percent increase in traffic with a 13 percent increase in road lane-miles. The plan will increase congestion–high-density traffic measured in cars-per-lane-per-hour–by 200 percent. In Metro’s vision, people will drive their automobiles to fixed-rail train stations, park, and commute to work via rail.

“since growth boundaries and forced densification result in more congestion,” writes Charles, “air pollution goes up due to the inefficiencies of vehicle motors operating in stop-and-go traffic.” Moreover, park-and-ride mass transit significantly increases automotive cold starts, the most important pollution variable in work trips.

Densification in urban areas also means an increase in impermeable surfaces. In Portland, the sewer system required a $750 million retrofit program to cope with the mixture of runoff and sewage.

Charles maintains that densification policies deny urban dwellers the “green space” they want, in their yards and neighborhoods. Using both price analysis and an appraisal of actual acreage, he debunks the notion that Urban Growth Boundaries are necessary to protect forest or famland. “The percentage of lands,” he writes, “that are developed–despite the suburbanization boom of the least 50 years–is only about 3.7 percent.”

Charles proposes a variety of private and public-private solutions to address “spillover” effects–land-uses that affect surrounding land values aversely. He recommends market-based pricing of infrastructure to end the subsidization of “sprawl”–which, if not a public evil, is neither a public good. He further suggests “performance-based zoning” based not on land use, but on attenuation of certain pre-defined spillover effects. And he recommends a return to the common-law principles of nuisance and trespass abatement to assure all property owners their day in court.

In his introduction to the Allegheny Institute reissue of The Dark Side of Growth Controls, Charles T. Rubin examines the policies of regional planning in both Pennsylvania and Oregon. The attempt to transcend politics, he maintains, results in development authorities that are accountable neither to markets nor to the electorate. “Many sustainable community advocates,” he notes, “seek to do an end run around both by ’empowering’ self-appointed ‘stakeholder’ groups to create a ‘vision’ for the region, a vision which gains the force of law by administrative fiat.”