Posts tagged ‘portland’

The Portland Non-Example

The Anti-Planner, in a long post dissecting a speech by Ray LaHood, brings some good facts to the table about the lack of success of efforts in cities to get people out of cars.  Of particular interest is Portland, which is often held up by transit and in particular light rail supporters as the be-all-end-all city on the hill example of transit and growth planning.  OK, let's use it as an example:

The 2007 American Community Survey found that, since the 2000 census, the number of Portland-area residents who say they usually bicycle to work grew from about 6,800 to 15,900. But the number who say they take transit to work declined from 58,600 to 57,900. The number who go to work by car (not counting taxis) grew from 664,300 to 730,500. This means that Portland roads have about 60,000 more cars during rush hour, but the region has put most of its transportation dollars into light rail and streetcars that carry no more people.

A lot of blame for this can go to the city's focus on light rail, whose enormous costs have cannibalized bus service and thus reduced total transit service.  In particular, those who support transit as a god-send for the working poor should note that this substitution of large, inexpensive bus networks for more yuppie-friendly trains on narrow routes shifts transit away from the poor to white collar users.

...coerciveness is a fundamental part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, whose official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels ("level of service F") on many major freeways and arterials. Besides diverting federal highway money into light rail instead of things that will actually relieve congestion, much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into "traffic calming," a euphemism for "congestion building" which consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes.

Beyond the moral and constitutional question of whether government should have the right to intrude into people's lives is the more practical question of whether the benefits of such intrusions justify their costs. In the case of Portland, the costs include a nearly twelve-fold increase in the costs of congestion between 1982 and 2005, the more than $2 billion spent on light rail, and nearly $2 billion spent on subsidies to transit-oriented developments. Meanwhile, the benefits include a lot of New York Times articles making Portlanders feeling smug about themselves, but not much else except for the lucky (or politically connected) few getting the subsidies.

It's More Expensive, but Makes Up For It By Being Less Flexible

I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix.  These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system.  But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility.   Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown.  Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago.  Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!

The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development.  The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system.  Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.

But what about Portland?  Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate.  But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.
Yeah, right.

More Light Rail Suckage

Portland is the poster child for light rail "success," but this is an interesting definition of success:

"Many (Portlanders) use their public transportation system," says
Weyrich. In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit
to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6
percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail
lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce
bus service. That's a success?

A lot more money for fewer total transit riders.  This is absolutely predictable.  Light rail creates huge investment along one single route.  The assets created are totally inflexible -- unlike buses, they can only run one single route.  For most western cities with low density and literally hundreds of different commuting routes this way and that, light rail is silly.  Here are a couple of analysis I did for Albuquerque, LA and Phoenix.  Here is more about Portland.