Debunking Cato

Why Planning in Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic

Tags for this image:

When the Cato Institute published a report by Randal O’Toole this summer “debunking” planning efforts in Portland designed to promote compact, transit-oriented development and reduce sprawl and automobile dependency, CNU decided to take a closer look. Michael Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and veteran urbanist, agreed to check O’Toole’s facts and analysis.

The result is the latest CNU fact-check, Debunking Cato: Why Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic. In this detailed report, 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.

Writes Lewyn:

The strategies adopted in Portland aren’t completely synonymous with New Urbanism. The region’s urban growth boundary, in particular, splits new urbanists into at least two camps -- those who see it as a beneficial way to curb sprawl and preserve valuable natural resources and those who eschew such broad restrictions on sprawl in favor of efforts to empower and legalize urbanism so it can compete on a level playing field. But in its commitment to improved transit, its embrace of mixed-use development on traditional city streets and blocks, and other strategies, the Portland way is very compatible with the Charter of the New Urbanism, so it’s worthwhile to consider carefully O’Toole’s assertions about the failings of these strategies to determine how much validity there is to them. Not much, it turns out.

Among the 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.’”

Read the full text of Debunking Cato.

Update: Read another response to O'Toole's article, written by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.