The Public Purpose
1 July 1999 . Number 29

Portland Not Sprawl Free
Urban Congestion:
Oregon City Often Cited as a
Model for Atlanta has its
Own Share of Growth Related
Traffic Problems

By Wendell Cox

Atlanta's suburban expansion and worsening traffic congestion have achieved national notoriety. Local policymakers, including members of the new Georgia Regional Transportation Authority are being urged to follow the example of Portland, which has obtained an international reputation for its growth management policies.

Portland has imposed an urban growth boundary - a line drawn around the metro area beyond which no development can take place, and is seeking to reduce traffic congestion by expanding transit, especially light rail, while severely limiting highway expansion.

Last year, the Sierra Club cited Atlanta as the urban area most threatened by sprawl, and at the same time commended Portland's policies.

But a review of the facts suggests that Atlanta has actually performed better on a number of indicators than Portland, with its heavy-handed urban planning.

It is true that Atlanta has an average population density one-third lower than Portland. But Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data indicates that new development in Atlanta has been twice as dense as Portland's since 1982.

Portland is not winning the battle against traffic congestion. Since 1982, Portland's FHWA Roadway Congestion Index has risen 33 percent, nearly equal to Atlanta's 36 percent. When the traffic congestion increase is adjusted to account for Atlanta's much greater population growth, the Portland increase is nearly 20 percent higher than Atlanta's. Indeed, traffic congestion in Portland is likely to be worse than it is in Los Angeles by 2015.

Portland's transit system is not superior to Atlanta's. Throughout the Atlanta area, annual per capita transit ridership is nearly 30 percent higher than in Portland (based on 1998 numbers). The difference is even more stark in the MARTA service area, where annual per capita ridership is 120 percent higher than in the Portland Tri-Met service area. MARTA's annual per capita ridership is among the highest in the nation, trailing only the New York City Transit Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority and the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

Atlanta's rail ridership is 360 percent higher than Portland's. Part of the reason is that Atlanta has rapid transit - totally separated from auto traffic - that operates at an average speed nearly twice that of Portland's light rail system, which has an average speed of 15-miles per hour. It is no wonder that adjacent freeway traffic in Portland is up 60 percent since light rail opened and that the average single freeway lane in Portland carries more than five times as many people daily as light rail.

For all of the Portland efforts to expand transit and discourage automobile commuting, less than 2 percent of new travel in the 1990s has been by transit.

Portland's urban growth boundary is already having the predictable economic impact on housing prices. The artificial land scarcity created by the boundary has driven housing prices so high that the National Association of Homebuilders rates Portland as the second least affordable major metropolitan area. Only 39 percent of residents can afford the average-priced home. The figure for Atlanta is 78 percent - double that of Portland, and one-fifth higher than the national average. Not only have Portland's policies not created the promised compact, transit-oriented urban area, but it is well on the way to becoming an elitist enclave beyond the economic reach of both average and low- income citizens.

In the modern urban area, transit is simply not able to serve the overwhelming majority of trips. Except for trips to downtown and in the urban core, the automobile is a necessity. Artificially increasing densities will not reduce traffic congestion, rather congestion will increase because more automobiles will be competing for space in a smaller area.

This will require innovative auto-oriented solutions, including adequate roadway capacity to serve development in newly developing areas. In already congested, developed areas, additional capacity will be required, including improved traffic management (signalization, etc.), roadway expansions at "choke points" and new roads.

Portland is not unique. It sprawls like any other large U.S. urban area. Portland is, in fact, less dense than sprawling Phoenix or Denver, and 60 percent less dense than the grandfather of urban sprawl, Los Angeles. But Portland's attractive and compact downtown area is no more the result of its growth management policies than Seattle's similarly attractive and compact downtown area is the result of not having had such policies.

What sets Portland apart is not reality, but rather perception and marketing.

Atlanta's problems need more than doctrine and wishful thinking. It would be unfortunate if Atlanta were to waste valuable financial resources and years by following Portland's empty policies.

Wendell Cox, a public policy consultant, was a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-85) . He now lives in Belleville, Illinois.

Op-eds are not reproduced on the Atlanta Constitution website

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