The New Urbanism Doesn't Work

June 15, 2000

Randal O'Toole

The Congress for the New Urbanism, which meets in Portland this week, believes all new urban development

should be high-density mixes of housing, shops, and offices. The group also wants to redevelop existing

neighborhoods to higher densities. New Urbanists say this will reduce auto driving, increase livability, and save

taxpayers' money.

There is no better place for New Urbanists to meet than Portland, where officials are trying all sorts of New

Urban ideas. Conference goers will ride light rail, visit Orenco and Fairview Village, and listen to Metro officials

talk about their New Urban plans.

But the real lesson to be learned from Portland is that New Urbanism doesn't work. Here are some things this

week's visitors need to know about the region's New Urban policies.

First, Portland's much ballyhooed light rail is a failure. After well over a billion dollars of rail construction,

Tri-Met carries a smaller share of Portland-area travel than in 1980, when MAX construction began. When

Portlanders realized that the under-20 mile per hour light rail failed to reduce congestion, area residents voted

down further construction in 1998.

When New Urbanist John Fregonese was directing Metro's growth-management planning, he admitted that

light rail "is not worth the cost if you're just looking at transit. It's a way to develop your community at higher

densities." Tri-Met claims that Portland's light rail stimulated many new developments.

But most new developments near light rail were either built or subsidized by the government or had nothing to

do with rail. Portland's experience actually proves that light rail does not stimulate new development unless the

development itself is subsidized. Even subsidized, as the $10 million Beaverton sank into Beaverton Round

shows, high-density development along light rail doesn't always work.

Second, if Portlanders have fallen out of love with light rail, they never did love New Urban high-density

developments. Cedar Hills, Milwaukie, West Linn, Hollywood, Happy Valley, Gateway, Lents -- almost weekly,

the Oregonian reports new neighborhood controversies over high-density zoning.

Orenco's condominiums and houses on tiny lots with virtually no private yards are welcome only on prime

farmland, not in existing neighborhoods. Many such homes sell only because Metro policies have driven land

prices so high that most homebuyers can't afford a house with a real yard.

When asked, Portlanders say they support Metro's plans. But when asked where they would prefer to live -- city,

suburbs, or rural areas -- most Portlanders say rural areas. Just as they once supported light rail because they

hoped other people would ride it, Portland-area residents support New Urban densities as long as someone else

has to live in them.

Third, even Metro doesn't expect New Urbanism to lead Portlanders to stop driving. In 1990, 92 percent of all

Portland-area travel was by auto. In 2040, after building another 90 miles of rail transit, scores of New Urban

villages, and increasing the region's population density by 65 percent, Metro planners predict Portlanders will

still use autos for 88 percent of all travel.

Though New Urbanism hardly dents Portland's travel habits, it will dent Portland's livability:

-- As the region's population increases, Metro says its plan will triple congestion and increase smog emissions by

   10 percent.

-- By restricting new discount stores, Metro's plan will add high consumer prices to unaffordable housing.

-- Taxes subsidizing rail transit and New Urban developments will cut into schools and other important services.

New Urbanism might be fine if it were voluntary. But high-density prescriptive zoning, subsidies, and the

congestion, high housing costs, and taxes they bring are ruining Portland's quality of life.

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