Regional Planning Doesn't Work

Regional government would seem to be a very different topic than the forests, parks, and other issues previously addressed by the Thoreau Institute. Yet there are numerous parallels between these issues and particularly in the ways government has chosen to address them. If you live in an urban area of a 100,000 people or more, particularly one that is growing relatively quickly, then you need to know what the Institute has found.

In 1973, a right-wing publisher called the Independent American issued a little book titled "Beweare Metro and Regional Government!" Subtitled "an expose of those who seek to destroy local self-government," the book is full of factual errors and paranoid delusions tying the regional government movement to the Rockefellers and the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the same time, the book contains a glimmer of truth: that regional urban governments tend to restrict freedom and local self determination. This is clearly visible in Portland, which probably has the strongest regional government in the nation.

Regional government stems from well intentioned people who want to improve the quality of life in our cities. Unfortunately, their ideas for doing so are just as much fantasy as the right-wing delusions that regional governments are controlled by the United Nations.

Initially, the regional government idea seems to make sense. There are some issues, it is argued, that are clearly of regional (or metropolitan) concern, and the individual cities, counties, school districts, and other governments that make up an urban area can't handle those issues. These issues might include pollution, transportation, and protection of scenery and open space.

Like any bureaucracy, however, a regional government wants to grow. So, once established, it tends to take on more and more issues until it become exceptionally intrusive on the lives of urban-area residents.

Regional government began in 1966, when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development required that all urban areas seeking grant requests form "metropolitan planning organizations" (MPOs) so that the department would not have to consider competing proposals from different jurisdictions in an urban area. More than 300 of these MPOs are scattered across the country. Some are little more than post office boxes; others are much more powerful.

Portland's MPO, now known as Metro, started out life as a solid waste disposal agency. Sounds innocent enough. Then it took over the Portland zoo. Then it became the chief planner for Portland-area transportation, again for the purpose of getting federal grants.

As Metro was growing, so was a new movement in urban planning called the New Urbanism. New Urbanists believe that cars are the chief problem in cities and that people rely on cars only because cities are poorly designed for transit, pedestrians, and cyclists. So New Urbanists call for urban redesign for transit and pedestrians.

New Urbanists also worry about sprawl and the loss of farms, forests, and open space. Everybody says that they don't want their city to look like Los Angeles, sprawling across thousands of acres of once-prime farm land.

A key New Urban prescription for both cars and sprawl is higher density development. Instead of building homes on half-acre lots, people should live in apartments located above retail stores and offices. Then they can walk to markets and work and their communities will require less land.

The New Urbanism is fine so long as it is optional. If someone wants to build an apartment building with shops on the ground floor and if people want to live in it, that's fine. But the New Urbanists know that, given a choice, many if not most people won't want to live like that. In some cities, New Urbanists are trying to build demonstration communities to show how nice high-density living can be. But in places like Portland, New Urbanists are going much further.

In 1979, Portland's Metro established an urban-growth boundary around the city. Supposedly, development would be limited to within the boundary. Only when the land in the boundary was filled up would the boundary be expanded.

More than half of the land inside the boundary that had been vacant in 1979 was developed by 1990. Portland grew exceptionally fast in the early 1990s and housing prices shot up. Homebuilders argued that rising home prices were due to the lack of vacant land within the boundary and convinced the 1995 legislature to pass a law requiring expansion of urban-growth boundaries to insure a twenty-year supply of vacant land.

In the meantime, Metro had thoroughly absorbed New Urbanist principles. Instead of expanding the boundary, Metro decided to increase densities within the boundary. In return for its support of the truth-in-planning law, the legislature gave Metro the power to require all cities and towns in the urban area to revise their zoning codes to meet Metro's higher density plans.

Metro's fifty-year plan for the Portland area will be finished in 1997. Cities and towns will then have three years to revise their zoning codes. To meet the immediate requirements of the truth-in-planning law, Metro has given all cities in the area new population targets, and many are already moving to revise their zoning codes.

In many places, the new densities are ludicrous. Metro proposes to triple or quadruple existing population densities and to require retail developments on the same sites, thus meeting the New Urban goal of a mixed-use neighborhood where people can walk to market or work. Metro plans to have nearly half of all newcomers to the Portland area live in such high-density, mixed-use areas.

Outside of downtown areas, a typical urban office complex might employ 60 or 80 people per acre. A typical apartment building might house 12 to 24 families per acre. In some areas, Metro is proposing developments that would employ 90 people per acre and house 25 or more families on the same acre.

A key New Urban fantasy is that such high-density developments will reduce auto usage. In fact, all available data indicate that there is a direct relationship between higher densities and higher auto usage. High densities might slightly reduce the amount of auto usage per person--although this is far from clear--but any reduction is not enough to offset the increased number of people per acre.

For example, Portland has about 3,000 people per square mile, while Brooklyn, New York, has about 30,000 people per square mile. About 94 percent of all travel in Portland is by car, while only half of all travel in Brooklyn is by car. But ten times the density combined with half the per capita auto usage still means five times as many cars on the streets at any given time.

This is also supported by Metro's own transportation models. Metro wants to increase Portland's average population density to 5,000 people per square mile by the year 2040. This is equal to or greater than every urban area in the country today except Los Angeles. (Brooklyn is only part of an urban area; the New York urban area has just under 5,000 people per square mile.)

Metro predicts that, when this density is reached, and after spending billions on transit and pedestrian-oriented developments, Portland's auto usage will decline from 94 percent all the way to 90 percent.

To achieve that great reduction, Metro is using two tools. First, it is subsidizing high-density developments. Already Metro and local cities have spent several million dollars in tax breaks and direct grants to give local developers incentives to develop at high densities. Ironically, some of the grants have come from a federal "congestion reduction" program when in fact the higher densities will increase congestion.

Second, local cities and towns are relying on increasingly prescriptive zoning to insure high densities. The classic case is in Gresham, where an area of single-family homes was zoned for high-density multi-family. The single-family homes could remain, but if one was destroyed by fire, it could not be rebuilt without special permission from the city.

Since banks won't finance the sale of a house that can't be rebuilt after a fire, people can't sell their homes. People could sell to developers who might tear down their houses and put up a multi-family development. But so far the only high-density development took place only after Gresham gave the developer $400,000 in grants and tax relief.

Other state agencies are supporting Metro's New Urban goals with similarly draconian rules. One agency passed a rule requiring employers to attempt to reduce their employee's use of autos for commuting by 10 percent. Employers who failed to make a good faith effort to do so can be fined.

Another agency passed a rule requiring all major Oregon cities to reduce per capita auto usage by 10 percent in the next twenty years and by 20 percent in the next thirty years. Since per capita auto usage has increased steadily by 2 percent or more per year for at least 75 years, this seems impossible. The same agency passed a rule requiring a 10 percent reduction in per capita parking in all cities.

These rules won't work. Reducing parking, for example, may merely cause peole to drive more looking for a parking space. But rules and red tape will confirm the suspicions of many that government is too big.

If Metro's plans are implemented, Portland-area congestion will greatly increase. Metro's own transportation model predicts a quadrupling of congestion by 2040, and I think it is optimistic. Metro has broad public support in the city of Portland (but not the suburbs) and among many city officials, and most of those supporters believe that Metro's plans will minimize congestion.

I can only speculate about why people believe Metro will reduce congestion when the reverse is true. First, some people probably just don't read the numbers that say that congestion will quadruple.

Second, Metro was very cagey about how it presented its numbers. Metro had several alternatives, and the selected alternative had the smallest increase in congestion. The alternatives that had lower densities and less light-rail construction had quintuple current levels of congestion or more.

I carefully examined Metro's transporation models and its data. It turns out that the selected alternative has lower congestion mainly because Metro allowed it to build more roads than the other alternatives. The density had little to do with it and light rail had no effect on congestion at all.

Third, there is probably a large degree of self deception going on here. Metro tells people that "we hope that high-density developments will lead people to walk and ride transit more." Metro's planning models show that they won't, at least not significantly. But the hope remains.

Finally--and here my own paranoia shows through--I wonder if congestion isn't actually a part of Metro's plan, at least for some Metro planners. Studies show that people tend to live about 22 minutes from work. Increase congestion and people will move in closer so they stay in the 22-minute comfort zone. Congestion can therefore be a key tool for urban densification.

Of course, no politician or bureaucrat could ever admit that congestion is a goal. But Metro's bias did slip through in a statement in its regional transportation plan. The plan said that industry and intermodal freight were important parts of Portland's economy, so Metro would try to avoid congestion in such areas. But congestion in residential areas would "signal positive urban development." Does positive mean high density? Mixed use? The plan isn't clear. But it is clear that Metro expects to "depart from traditional planning practice," which is to try to relieve congestion in all areas.