Debunking Portland

Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues the planning model that has made Portland, Oregon, a planner's dream has taken a far greater toll than the benefits it provides.

Randal O'Toole, a CATO Institute senior fellow on the myths of Portland's planning successes and how a political machine called the "Light Rail Mafia" has taken control of the city's planning and transportation projects. In addition, he mentions the neglect of affordable housing, the lack of housing choices, the parking conundrum of transit-oriented development, the low (and stagnant) transit ridership figures, and the overall dissatisfaction of Portland residents with decision-makers and government.

I'm sure this will evoke a fun, if not passionate discussion. While I can't agree with him on everything, he does bring up some interesting points.

Full Story: Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work



The problem with O'Tool...

I would have liked to read O'Tool's latest propaganda BS, but my computer has a problem with PDF files.




Did Portland beat up little Randy when he was a kid?

Fun, passionate discussion.

I'm sure this will evoke a fun, if not passionate discussion. While I can't agree with him on everything, he does bring up some interesting points.

Sure, do we discuss the passionate cherry-picking and fun bamboozling, or do we discuss how the solutions are likely to never see the light of ballot?



I'm looking forward to seeing some more detailed comments...

I just read through O'Toole's paper and as a new planner I wish I was in a position to discredit more of it. But I wanted to interject before this comments section starts getting into personal attacks on the messenger rather than focusing on the substance. As planners we won't do ourselves any favors if all we can say is that we don't like him, or what he has to say. Well duh, he disparages planners and our profession countless times, even if he is cherry picking, at least he is arguing his position with data.

So to start off some constructive critique (not for O'Toole's benefit, but for other new planners that might be looking for ways to attack this paper)...

1. He cynically cites community backlash against urban freeways as based on residents not wanted to depreciate their land values. However didn't that movement have more to do with not seeing communities cut in half, socially balkanized, and with the fact that urban freeways are just plain ugly?

2. He claims Prop 37 was this great example of democracy in action and that the supporters spent 1/3 of the opponents. However nowhere does he mention that recent state wide polls indicated that 2/3 of the state would NOT vote for it again, claiming that they were misled. He also fails to acknowledge that (as is my understanding) the backers of property rights ballots are often large land developers.

3. He cites rising property costs as a huge negative consequence, and claims that popular opinion has turned against the planners. But if people hate the plan so much, why are they willing to pay more and more for the right to live there?

4. As corollary he points out the suburban growth that has occured in Vancouver, WA. and Salem Or. I'd be interested in looking at the timing of the growth, because it seems like that must have been driven by people in central Portland "cashing out" on their rising value properties in the city and moving out. What are the implications of that on O'Toole's thesis?

5. Finally he says that this outward growth is an example of sprawl (as Kruegman does with London), but in fact if the green belt remains intact then this is more like satellite city development which seems to me is consistent with targeted smart growth.

6. When he argues that transit funding has diverted funding from urban services, he drops from facts and figures into a ridiculous anecdotal story about a developer watching someone get beat up by a cop. WOW. I think that is a pretty cheesy ploy. But wouldn't the funding cuts in those programs have lot to do with federal cuts across the country, and not a Portland Metro decision?

So again, let's keep the criticism elevated, not for O'Toole's sake but for our own dignity. And I am definately interested in hearing from some of our more thorough posters... Charles, ContrarianPlanner? any thoughts?

Some thoughts

Thanks Marcotico. I appreciate your invitation to respond and your diligent critique of the paper. I wish I had some revolutionary thought to add, but not so much really.

I wouldn't focus too much on trying to discredit O'Toole or anyone else. There is too much of "he said she said and this is why they're wrong" in these debates already. I personally believe the most productive course of action is to present alternatives and identify the pros and cons of each. We don't do or hear much of that anymore.

O'Toole has some valid points, but is also lacking in many areas. The way I view him is the anti planning version of like a Joel Hirshhorn or a less abrasive James Howard Kunstler. They all start with a position and justify and don't seek to understand and evaluate.

That being said, here is a brief thought on some points you made.
#2 - I guess the only way to find out is to put another opposing measure on the ballot. It's difficlut to "know" what exactly people in Oregon are thinking - ballots are imperfect, but may be the best option.
#4/5 - we could have a long discussion of this if you wish, but I think O'Toole's points have some merit here. There has certainly been siginificant growth in Vancouver, WA, and that has been for a lot of reasons, at least in small part to Oregon's land use and other regulations. Whether it's sprawl or satellite, I don't know. I'm not convinced those terms are mutually exclusive. The entire Portland region is not the bastion of density that some appear to think it is. But, some parts are dense. I don't think the UGB is functioning as intended nor do I think it's even a good idea.

Let me know if you want to discuss further.

Ways to Judge Portland

The problem with this piece is that it has a clear agenda that detracts from what otherwise might be interesting points. It fails to ask a research question and then find data to answer the question - instead it starts with a proposition and then seeks to find evidence to support it.

This piece could have posed and answered a very interesting question - did Portland's approach to planning create net benefits for the region? Unfortunately, I am no better informed about the answer to this question after reading this article. One good way to answer this question, for example, would be to look at data on economic and population growth in Portland from before and after policy implementation. Another good question - did Portland's policies increase mass transit use? This could be answered by looking not only at ridership before and after policy implementation, but also transit ridership in similar cities that pursued different policies. Instead we get sporadic accounts of how ridership declined at certain times and increased at others, with no basis for comparing or understanding these numbers.

Other great questions could include how the policies impacted pollution, quality of life, or traffic congestion. But instead of tackling just one of these questions, O'Toole touches upon each with selective data promoting his agenda. This kind of piece can only lead the reader to question the motives of the author, because we know the motive cannot be a search for the best possible policy.

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