A while back, a guy named Randal O’Toole at the libertarian Cato Institute put out a report "debunking" Portland, Ore.’s efforts to encourage dense, transit-oriented development. As Portland is at the forefront of such efforts, the report was taken as a debunking of New Urbanism in general and got lots and lots of press.
The Congress for the New Urbanism asked urbanist expert Michael Lewyn to take a look at the report. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t hold up well. The result is "Debunking Cato: Why Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic." Here are some highlights:
• 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 Portland’s urbanized area grew 50-60%.
• Despite O’Toole’s claim that Orenco Station and other transit-oriented developments in Portland don’t significantly change people’s travel habits, a closer look at a study quoted by O’Toole shows that 69% of Orenco Station residents report using transit more than they did in their prior locations.
• 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.
• Lewyn finds that O’Toole’s claim that Portland’s planning system is unpopular in Oregon is not supported by recent trends. Writes Lewyn, "A 2005 survey of Oregon voters showed that 69 percent believed that growth management made Oregon a more desirable place to live. An equally high percentage valued ‘planning-based decisions for land use’ over ‘market-based decisions for land use.’ Only 32% believed that current land use regulations were ‘too strict’; an equal number said land-use regulations were ‘about right’, and 21% even believed that Oregon’s land use regulations were ‘not strict enough.’"