New Urbanism In Portland: Cato Report Flawed

Following up on a Cato report blasting planning in Portland, the Congress for the New Urbanism offers a fact-check in which Michael Lewyn contends Randal O'Toole's findings are inaccurate and flawed.

Earlier this summer the Cato Institute published a report by Randal O'Toole that took issue with planning in Portland including transit-oriented development and efforts to reduce sprawl and auto dependency. Michael Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, has reevaluated O'Toole's research for the Congress for the New Urbanism. The result is the CNU fact-check, "Debunking Cato: Why Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic."

Some findings in the reassessment of the Cato report include:

Lewyn rebuts O'Toole claims that hordes of people are escaping Portland and "moving to communities beyond the reach of Portland planners." In fact, the city of Portland's share of regional growth is far higher than that of other peer metro areas. Between 1980 and 2000, Portland grew as fast as its suburbs - about 43%. In Seattle during the same period, the city grew by 14% while suburbs grew by 46%. In Denver, the city grew 12% while suburbs grew 47%.

Although O'Toole declares "Portland's transit numbers are little better than mediocre," Lewyn reports that transit use has doubled since the debut of Portland's first light rail in 1986, at a time when the population of Porltand's urbanized area grew 50-60%.

Lewyn says O'Toole doesn't prove his claim that Portland planning is driving up housing prices. In fact, numerous cities (many of them in the West) without urban growth boundaries and with few planning policies encouraging compact neighborhoods have more expensive housing. In metro Los Angeles, the ratio of median home price to median family income is 9-to-1 compared to 4.3-to-1 in Portland. The median house price in sprawling Las Vegas is 4.8 times median income. In San Diego, the ratio is 6.7-to-1.

This fact-check is highly valuable to planners and city officials so that good planning practices are not misperceived. The Urban Growth boundary, public transit development, and increasing density in Portland should be considered forward thinking. Read more at

Thanks to Steve Filmanowicz

Full Story: Debunking Cato: Why Planning in Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic



Play Fair

Is anyone seriously considering applauding a scientific critique that the feels the need to use "Neo-Libertarian" in their paper's title?

The large online map:
could also put some context on the City of Portland managing to grow as fast as its' suburbs.

Does anyone

seriously consider anything "scientific" coming out of the Cato Institute?

New Urban News has a lot more technical credibility than Cato Institute's "free market", ideologically distorted "Policy Analysis" pseudo-publication.

Well, of course!

Truth and Beauty can ONLY come from non-biased, non-political liberal think tanks and organizations! Jeez...


So, what purpose does resorting to name calling in the title serve? For that matter what purpose is served by your calling the Cato Institute's Policy Alanysis series a pseudo-publication? "Clearly the CNU does not want this to be a calm reasoned discussion of the differences in techniques analysing the data.

As noted above much of Portland's growth was through annexation. Why no reply to that?

Flawed in many ways

First of all, I don't know if I would confuse any of this banter between the two alleged studies as real policy analysis. I have briefly exchanged emails with both of these guys in the past and can tell you while both are bright, Michael is pro smart growth and new urbanism and O'Tool is anti smart growth and new urbanism. Both start from their favored position and work backwards which is why this can't be called policy "analysis".

O'Tool equates anything urbanism with the ills of society and flames new urbanists by pejoratively calling them "elitists" while Lewyn equates sprawl with the ills of society and pejoratively calls O'Tool libertarian. Ironically, I don't think O'Tool is a libertarian which makes it all the stranger. But, politically, it is helpful for his opponents since libertarians have been led by some crazies in the past and have been politically marginalized. So, it's guilt by association.

New Urban News is not a think tank, per se. It's a newsletter for CNU, correct? CATO is a non-profit think tank, that advances, broadly speaking, pseudo-libertarian (limited government) thought. One thing that seems to confuse people is that in no way should the term think tank be equated to objectivity. You can call yourself whatever you want - it's irrelevant.

Bottom line, this whole thing doesn't tell us much - that is, if anybody even cared. Last I checked, 99.9% of posters on this forum already have their minds made up so it's not really about the data or the methodology is it?

Local Portland officials will do as they wish and justify it. Pity the idealist that seeks elected office to "serve the public interest." Most have very different, albeit some noble, ambitions. If voters don't like it, I presume they will move if it's bad enough or vote for other elected officials. And, people such O'Tool, Lewyn, and others will continue to lobby them, in the broadest sense, to take action that they believe is best.

The many ways of flawedness

I agree with contrarianplanner.

I'm rarely satisfied with O'Toole, but this 'reply' by Lewyn could have been much better, and it felt rushed. A suboptimal effort, in my view. Perhaps the energy expenditure was equal to the importance and import of the original, and we can all go on to other things.



Lewin's Study Looks Good To Me

Of course, it is a polemic meant to refute O'Toole's distortions rather than a scientific study, but it seems to do a good job at what it sets out to do: marshalling the facts that show O'Toole is wrong.

Lewin's figures comparing different cities show very clearly that O'Toole is wrong to say that Portland's transit ridership has not increased, that people want to escape Portland and don't like its planning policies, that Portland's smart growth makes housing less affordable, and that Portland's planning has generated traffic congestion.

This is a CNU publication, and both CNU and Cato Institute begin with a bias. But if there is a debate between people with opposite biases, the truth may come out.

Charles Siegel

I don't think so

The "truth" is always more painfully discovered and muddy than the advocates would have us believe.

Let's examine a couple points.

Housing affordability: If you were going to "study" this, how would you do it? Here is how I would.. First, you need comparison metros presumably without major growth management policies so you certainly would not use anywhere in CA (UGBs, CEQA, subdivison map act, huge impact fees, etc.) and you wouldn't use Las Vegas which for so long was bound by Federal land. You would also compare longitudinal data on price/income ratio because then you could control for differences in desirability/demand (climate, economic opporunity, etc.). Those measures tell us little, but the changes in those measures controlling for other variables would. Also, you would not just look at the median house price, but the size of those homes (the Schiller index does this, but it's fairly new). Portland's home sizes on average, appear to be smaller than other metros, so that might be a significant factor.

Transit use: Total boardings means little, I presume, in the eyes of a real policy analyst. What is the best measure? Here is where it gets tricky and maybe just presenting the data is best. Is it boardings/per capita? But, what if you have had significant increases in capacity? Boardings/per capita/per seat capacity? What about overall trip market share? Should distance be included or just number of trips? I think we all know boardings have increased, but does that mean "transit use" has increased? Real policy analysis has to determine what the relevant measure is and my best estimate is that it should be weighted considering capacity and population changes as well as distance factors. I don't have the answer here, only suggesting a methodology. This is precisely the problem here, btw. Both advocates have spoken and we don't know a good answer.

Portland's growth: This may be the most simple and difficult all at once. It's easy to measure changes in population growth, but the city/suburb thing is tough. Why? Because some central cities have a large share of their metro area, some don't. Houston does, SF and DC don't. You could play with the data on this one all day to say whatever you want. Maybe the better question on this topic is is it even policy relevant. If people don't like the policies, they move, if they like them, they stay, all other things equal.

Maybe most strange on the last topic is that Lewyn lives in Florida, right? and O'Tool lives in Oregon. Perhaps they should switch. Maybe that goes to show us the impact or lack thereof local politics has on our residential location decision.

I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I have.

Good Points

CP: You make good points. Thinking it over, maybe the real issue in my mind is whether such a careful study about how well Portland-style planning HAS worked would really tell us much about how it WILL work. This sort of planning might be much more successful in the future, because of factors outside of our control, such as peak oil, and factors within our control, such as a carbon tax to control global warming.

As you say, most people have made up their minds about this. I think the people who back smart growth have made up their minds because they think it gives us the best chance of creating a livable future. That seems like a decent motive to me, and I don't see a similarly decent motive among people like O'Toole who have made up their minds to oppose smart growth.

Charles Siegel

Thanks guys

for the responses. The only thing I can add about smart growth opposition is this. I'm almost 100% positive that they think they are creating a more liveable future with less government intrusion, more "freedom", enhanced property rights, etc.

Public policy is always about whether the means justify some desired end(s). What they are saying is that the "end" of compact, walkable cities is not worth the means of UGBs, growth moratoria, subsidies, redevelopment projects, etc. What you are saying is that it is absolutely worth it.

When you get to the core of each school of thought, I don't think it's about personal gain, economic interest or anything that selfish. I think both sides have good intentions, believe it or not. But, one side focuses on process and all of its real or perceived problems, the other on outcome, and all of its real or perceived benefits.

Smart growth camps.

UGBs, growth moratoria, subsidies, redevelopment projects, etc. What you are saying is that it is absolutely worth it.

I agree with almost all of your very nice comment, cp. It will make me think for a while.

    o UGBs are not necessary to build smart growth (SG).
    o Growth moratoria are anathema to SG projects.
    o Subsidies may be deemed necessary to SG projects; in my area, the developers with building 2.0-2.5 DU/ac boxes surrounded by lawn. Only when we make them less scared do they build anything else and voilà! they sell like hotcakes. This is common elsewhere, hence subsidies [I'm not saying I agree, jus' sayin'].
    o Redevelopment will occur with or without SG.

The empirical evidence from the literature indicates that returning to the historical built enviroment patterns (plus some wisdom from environmental planning) found prior to WWII is almost certainly a net good (worth it). I suspect our decendants will look at the two-three generations of building after WWII as being a hiccup.



The truth is what one believes.

Housing affordability: [points omitted]

Folks have already studied this. The empirical literature is clear that there are many factors at work in home price rise beyond simplistic supply, and UGBs raise prices when they are intended to do so, otherwise not so much. Zoning laws to shut the door behind residents are enacted, commonly in the NE, that raise prices. More common is the fact that equilibrium rents are charged that drive affordability; e.g. Seattle Ricardian rent is very high but folks pay it because of the natural environment, high literacy rate and amenities.

Transit use: [points omitted]

Capacity is variable based on car purchase/bus purchase/maintenance outages.


    o pure ridership or
    o (transit trips/all trips) as % non-discretionary trips or
    o (transit trips/all trips) as % discretionary trips

are the only metrics that are useable on the ground (VTPI is a good source for methodology).

Portland's growth: [points omitted]

Yes, Tiebout sorting. But how does one use in-migration to judge liveability? Still no closer to an answer; in this case, it may be that the "truth" is what one believes. If you believe your area is liveable (and kids aren't tying you down), then that's what you believe if you are able to migrate, but then you need to figure out how many cannot migrate.

Pat answers are hard to come by.

O'Tool lives in Oregon

And complains vehemently yet refuses to move. Must be liveable!



Randal O'Toole's Anti-Portland Commentary

As I often pointed out in comments on O'Toole's blog, and in over a decade of online tumults with Cote, both have a very bad habit of cherry-picking facts that suit his position, or engages in oversimplification. There is also an extreme over-tendency of economic conservative, quasi-libertarian, or libertarian "free market" types to consider anyone who doesn't agree with their narrow viewpoint as unethical or immoral. Facts often have little sway with those holding such viewpoints, since too many seem to have a religious attitude towards their economic beliefs.

If the CNU commentary "fact checks" O'Toole and they find their version of the facts to be correct, then I give much more weight to their work than Cato Institute. Unlike most of the economically conservative think tanks, many of the people working for the Urban Land Institute, Smart Growth America, CNU et al are academic researchers who have loads of peer-reviewed publications in which the numbers per se are quite trustworthy, even if you don't agree with their conclusions.


Example: "Cote is one lazy mu--r-fu-k-r." - M. Setty

Tell 'em why Mr. Setty.

Awww that's all old news right? You got away with it then and this crowd is sure to give you a pass as well. Whatever happened to the "Rubin Reply" that earned you so much disdain?


Mr. Cote, I recall that you're the one who started the name-calling more than a decade ago on Usenet, along with that silly sociology professor from North Carolina. You obviously can dish it out, but can't take it, even after so many years. And in some of the stuff you've put out most recently, you seem often as lazy as ever in your interpretations and analysis.

You never did answer my challenge from a few years ago on Portland data, insinuating repeatedly in a whole series of posts that TriMet was lying and deliberately overstating MAX light rail patronage. Lots of assertions made, but no evidence.

But you sure jump onto minor errors by your opponents that were quickly corrected. Also, your anti-MAX allies in Portland STILL have shown, to date, great difficulty reading and understanding ridership and alighting counts, R.E. the Max Yellow Line (Interstate Avenue).

As for the "Rubin Reply," if Demery and I earned "so much disdain" on that "transportation policy" list run by Wendell Cox, you can tell them from us that we take their "disdain" as a badge of honor! I'm sure most readers of this website will immediately grasp what I mean; but now I pledge not to bore Planetizen readers further.

No Reply

Amazing you couldn't provide a contray example. Lazy or just FAct deficient? You recall incorrectly as your lack of evidence illustrates.

I certainly did answer your challenge to the Tri-Met data. If you go back and review the record you will notice that Tri-Met corrected their passenger counts in response to my challenges.

I have no allies anti-MAX or otherwise. You are just behaving parnoid as illustrated above by your reflexive need to respond with direct personal attacks on criticism of your work. Oh, that's right they are minor and quickly corrected. What? no thanks for my cleaning up your messes all these years? Sad.

And the "Rubin Reply" was on your website until the contents were eviscerated under competent scrutiny. Put it back up to show the world the depths of your accumen. Pardon as no one hold their breath.

Whatever your motivation I for one am glad to see you have decided to run away yet again rather than face up to your past. Don't let the window close on anything important as you slink away.

Debunking Portland, the city that doesn't work

I find the article about Portland interesting, but I am confused by the consistent misrepresentation of San Diego in this forum.

In fact, the 18 cities of the County of San Diego, which is the size of Connecticut, are covered by the Multiple Species Conservation Plan, a de facto greenbelt and wildlife corridor system for the entire region. The city of San Diego alone is surrounded by a more than 125,000 acre greenbelt which, in turn connects to wilderness areas and assets like San Dieguito Regional Park, a 55-mile park that streteches from the beach at Del Mar ro Volcan Mountain near Julian. Two thirds of San Diego County is comprised of protected lands. The conservation plan for the County is held up as a national model.

The City of San Diego has the City of Villages plan, and more than 50 community planning groups which meet monthly in their respective communities to review and vote on projects proposed in their communities. City liaison staff are present at these meetings. These community planning groups have been in place for thirty-years.

Finally, the voters of the County of San Diego recently extended, for an additional 40-years, the Transnet tax, a portion of which will fund a mass transit system. The approval rate was approximately 68%. The goal of the planned system which includes bikeways, commuter rail, trolleys and buses is to proved a mass transit system competitive with the private auto, timewiae during peak commutes.

To group San Diego with Las Vegas and Los Angeles in terms of planning achievements is nonsensical.

Debunking San Diego, the city that doesn't work

I am confused by the consistent boosterism on the part of San Diego planners in defending "America's Finest City"

MSCP is actually held up as a national model of how NOT to protect species and contain urban growth. The MSCP lacks specificity. Setting aside tracts of land may very well prevent the decline of some species in the future. However, without species-specific management actions to provide for the care of species currently on the brink, it can do very little, if anything at all, to prevent impending extinctions. For endemic species, such as those dependent upon vernal pool habitat (a rare wetland that has been reduced to 2 percent of its former range), it is often necessary to define actions in precise detail to prevent extinction. So comparing MSCP to the Portland urban growth model is like comparing apples to oranges. MSCP was drafted to prevent the extention of species (which it doesn't even do), not to contain growth in and around the existing San Diego urbanized region (which it doesn't do as well).

As for the City of Villages plan, well that entire vision went up in flames after the Pilot Villages program was dismantled in 2004 and most of the 50 community planning groups proved to be so NIMBYist, that they voted down the entire density portion of the vision. City of Villages fell apart after Gail Goldberg, who created the plan, left San Diego and decided to take the position as Planning Director of Los Angeles. Los Angeles happens to have many more initiatives and implementations in place to reframe its urban network into a more mixed-use, higher density environment, while San Diego still struggles with its provincial image as a small town, that has to come to terms with big city problems.

Regarding TransNet, although 68% of voters approved this measure, most San Diegans were merely supporting the expansion of their already massive highway system. They could care less about public transit. In fact, San Diego County Supervisor (and ex-Marine) Bill Horn said it best when he said "too much TransNet money is earmarked for public transportation. 50 percent of the expected $14 billion in revenues should go to freeway building".

Top transit critics indeed feel that SANDAG’s transit planning process is simply too flawed, and the transit portion too lean, to ever seriously address the region’s growing traffic congestion. They argue that no region has solved traffic by building more roads — only transit does that. They also feel developers are being asked to share too little of the burden. Prop A requires a $2000 transportation surcharge on new residential units (except subsidized housing) but exempt commerical projects. That's nowhere near enough to cover the transit shortfall. Heck, SANDAG can't even get BRT located within the median of I-15 between Escondido and San Diego, so do you honestly think they'll have the money or support to impelment a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation solution? Think again!

San Diego planning has had a recurring series of historical "visions", followed by blunders. To name MSCP and City of Villages as "national models" is likened to also pointing to the disappointing lack of implementation of "Temporary Paradise" by Kevin Lynch/Donald Appleyard and John Nolan's master plan for San Diego circa 1908, as accomplishments. Please, San Diego has a LONG way to go to be in the same planning-accomplishments category as Portland.

Until then, it will be nonsensical to NOT group San Diego with Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

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