Portland transit development

Posted on March, 01 2012

Urban development centered on public transport 

Urban development centered on public transport

Portland, Oregon, provides a learning case of multiple strategies and achievements from several decades of work for sustainable urbanisation, responsible land-use, and transformative transportation. Dense and convivial transit-oriented development (TOD) has been substituted for new highway building, with a range of supporting measures from city, regional, state, and national levels. Portland is widely known for its Urban Growth Boundaries, combatting sprawl.

Keywords: transit-oriented development (TOD), vehicle miles travelled (VMT), urban space conversions, Urban Growth Boundaries.

Starting during the Great Depression, Portland was inspired by urbanist Lewis Mumford to make “cities for people not cars”. The city worked to protect the human scale of its downtown. One way Portland did this was to institute – at the city level – both regional planning and governance for land use and transport.

These early initiatives provided a framework that for several decades has produced sustainable urbanisation achievements. Portland’s residents are twice as likely to use public transport for work commuting, travel 20% less distance per day, and are 7 times more likely to bicycle to work, than the average US city dweller. Between 1996 and 2006, while Portland’s population increased 27%, the use of public transport increased 46% and car-travel only 19%.

Multiple benefits
Such changes have major benefits for the reduction of ecological footprints and conservation of greenspace and biodiversity. Also economic sustainability is improved for the city and for household budgets: in Portland the share of the household budget spent on transportation is about 75% of the national average (15.1% vs 19.1% of the household budget).

Furthermore, Portland has made its transport achievements without the large-scale public transport infrastructure that other cities like New York, Boston and Chicago built early. Its progress depends on a range of strategies and techniques that are highly relevant for the large number of cities worldwide that are starting from a similar position of scarce public transport infrastructure.
  1.  Civil society activism. Non-governmental organisations like STOP (Sensible Transportation Options for Portland) and 1000 Friends of Oregon are leading success factors for the many-year processes that lead to sustainable transportation and urbanisation in Portland. Key spurs to action were the Oil Crisis of 1973 and plans for new highway building.
  2.  Opposition to urban highways. Portland is listed among many cities, e.g. Toronto, Copenhagen, Zurich, and Vancouver, whose sustainability turnarounds began with either stopping new highway building or removing existing highways in or around the city. New strategies fill the space opened up: dense convivial urban spaces, green transport e.g. walking, cycling, light electric rail (LER), preserving nature and farmland.
  3.  Transit-oriented development substituting for highways. TOD is an urban planning approach that focuses development around public transport, i.e. “building up not out”. Portland is described as the most aggressive US city for TOD. By 2040, Portland plans for 40% of households and nearly 70% of jobs to be located in or near centres or corridors served by public transport. New TOD on Portland’s waterfront, served by aerial tramway and light electric rail, should have 10,000 jobs and 3,000 housing units, with the city’s highest densities by 2015.
  4. City-centre revitalisation. Portland has connected the promotion of green transport, walking and cycling with having a vibrant, liveable, and revitalised city centre. For example, Portland’s new streetcar (LER) system has brought with it $3.4 billion of new development and more than 10,000 new households.
  5. Urban space conversions. Portland has converted a central parking lot into a park, another parking lot into its Pioneer Courthouse Square, and yet another parking lot into an urban village. Portland also converted a highway into a park. Like Perth, Portland is also converting space on highways for rail transport.
  6. Regional Growth Management compels municipalities to comply with standards for growth, parking, density, and street connectivity to enable walking, cycling, and bus transport.
  7. The Vertical Housing Program and the TOD Tax Exemption are Oregon state measures that provide up to 100% property-tax exemptions over 10 years for dense, mixed-use land development.
  8. The Land Use–Transportation–Air Quality (LUTRAQ) planning model, which is one result of a cooperation between 1000 Friends of Oregon and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
  9. Urban Growth Boundaries required by law at the Oregon state level. For example Portland must plan for all of its development within a set geographical boundary.
  10. Car-use growth limits. Oregon State’s Transportation Planning Rule limits growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT).
  11. National funding for TOD construction, for example providing financing to acquire the sites for TOD or TOD easements.
  12. Overcoming zoning problems. TOD plans often face the problem of old zoning regulations. Portland handles these efficiently by planning entire TOD corridors at once, to enable just one approval instance (instead of each TOD node facing its own zoning challenge one after the next).

Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, “Exemplars of sustainable transportation: Walking the talk in Vancouver, Portland, Boulder, Freiburg, Seoul and Surubaya”, in Preston L. Schiller, Eric C. Bruun and Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, 2010, An introduction to sustainable transportation: policy, planning and implementation, London: Earthscan

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer, 2009, Resilient cities: responding to peak oil and climate change, Washington DC: Island Press

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unup/unup/index_panel2.html

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Train transit in Portland
© Flickr / Camknows
Map Portland
Inside a train in Portland
© Merrick Monro