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[Photo: Peter Ehrlich]


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Debunking Randal O'Toole's Attack on Portland:
CNU Study Rebuts Anti-Rail/Anti-Planning Hokum

Light Rail Now Project Team · October 2007

In their recently revved-up insurgency against public transportation, critics of light rail transit (LRT) seem to be making a particular point of selecting for attack some of the most successful LRT operations in the USA. In practice, this means attacking also the urban policies, economic performance, and other characteristics of the cities these rail systems serve.

Of these, Portland, Oregon – which serves as a national model of excellence and success in both urban planning and public transportation (see Portland Light Rail and Public Transport Developments) – has become a primary target of the ongoing jihad against Smart Growth, urban transit, and especially the "dreaded" rail transit.

The latest effort to nuke Portland's reputation as a paradigm of effective planning and superb urban transit comes from national anti-transit, anti-planning, pro-sprawl activist Randal O'Toole in a tract sponsored by the extremist rightwing Cato institute propaganda mill.

"Portland, Oregon, long touted as the paradigm of modern urban planning, is awash in corruption, government waste and public discontent" claims a Cato news release (PRNewswire-USNewswire, 9 July 2007), summarizing the central theme of O'Toole's diatribe, a 20-plus-page "policy analysis" titled "Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work". "O'Toole catalogues Portland's failures in city planning and offers suggestions to other cities on how not to repeat its mistakes" continues the Cato release, which cites O'Toole – who happens to be based in Oregon – as a "Cato institute senior fellow".

O'Toole's paper has been recycled in several shorter summaries, mostly in the form of newspaper columns with his byline. In addition, various other propaganda mills ("think tanks") are circulating his claims, and the "Debunking Portland" paper has been providing material for anti-rail columnists in several mainstream newspapers around the country.

"Debunking Portland" is is chock full of the chicanery and carefully cherry-picked, calculated misinformation that have become familiar hallmarks of O'Toole's forays into Big Lie propaganda projects. For example, O'Toole attempts, through verbal trickery, to convey the impression that Portland's transit ridership has been plunging with the introduction of light rail transit (LRT) in 1986 – whereas, in reality, Portland's transit ridership has soared since the addition and expansion of LRT.

According to federal data reports, in 1979 (seven years before the launch of light rail), Portland's transit system carried a total of 40.0 million passenger-trips and reported 145.1 million passenger-miles. By 2005, in contrast, the system's ridership had expanded by more that 2.5 times to 104.5 million trips, and 432.6 million passenger-miles. (UMTA/FTA National Transit Database figures)

O'Toole plays games with the transit-oriented development (TOD) issue and tax-increment financing (TIF) – portraying these as direct subsidies to developers – when in reality TIF involves tax collections that are merely ploughed back into improvements in specific, targeted areas that need revitalization (i.e., the same areas from which the taxes were collected).

Portland LRT Portland's MAX LRT system is widely acclaimed for its role in boosting transit ridership and attracting transit-oriented development.
[Photo: Peter Ehrlich]

But O'Toole's fabrications about Portland are not going unanswered. By far, one of the more extensive in-depth critical rejoinders to "Debunking Portland" has been sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which commissioned a critique by Michael Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law (and a "veteran urbanist", according to CNU) to "check O'Toole's facts and analysis."

The result is Lewyn's own study, "Debunking Cato: Why Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic", available on the internet at the following URL:

According to a CNU summary of this report (dated 200709/20),

Lewyn says O'Toole raises a number of issues worth discussing, including whether improvements to Portland's transit system have failed to increase transit ridership; whether Portland's planning system has failed to attract popular support; and whether Portland's urban growth boundary has made Portland one of America's most expensive cities. Through detailed analysis, Lewyn concludes that O'Toole's attacks on Portland often miss the mark by distorting and misrepresenting data.

The CNU summarizes some of Lewyn's most trenchant findings in "Debunking Cato":

· 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%.

· 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.'"

All in all, Michael Lewyn/CNU's "Debunking Cato" rebuttal of O'Toole's "Debunking Portland" tract provides an arsenal of valuable material for advocates of public transport and more progressive urban planning, who might be interested in countering the latest Road Warrior volley in North America's relentless Transit War.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2007/10/07

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