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Portland bad, Houston good? An O'Toole Op-Ed


From the Portland Oregonian

Metro's plans are obstacles to 'the dream'
Saturday, May 08, 2004
Randal O'Toole

Americans enjoy the greatest mobility and one of the highest rates of home ownership on earth. Automobiles and single-family homes have produced enormous benefits: Autos give us access to better-paying jobs and low-cost housing and consumer goods. The equity from homeownership helps us start small businesses and put our children through college.

Yet people such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., think more Americans should live in apartments or other high-density housing and get around by transit instead of cars ("We need to promote many 'American Dreams,' " Commentary, April 23). They are attempting to impose these goals on Portlanders through Metro's regional planning.

Metro planners love to tell visitors that Portland's Disney-like light-rail lines and walkable downtown have increased livability. But in April, a new group called the American Dream Coalition offered a tour of the region that provided a very different view of rail transit, transit-oriented developments and other Metro programs.

Tour-goers learned that, despite all the hype about Portland's light rail, it carries only 0.75 percent of regional passenger travel, while all transit combined carries little more than 2 percent. Metro itself predicts its plan will quintuple the time the other 98 percent of Portland travelers waste sitting in traffic in the next 25 years.

The people on the tour also learned that Portland's transit-oriented developments work only if supported by millions of dollars in subsidies and, ironically, plenty of parking. And they were stunned to find that the urban-growth boundary has driven land prices so high that people are buying "skinny houses" -- 15-foot-wide homes on 25-foot-wide lots.

Blumenauer argues that Americans' fondness for the auto and low-density housing results from past government zoning. If true, then why are cities with no zoning, such as Houston, just as attached to autos and low densities? Why are residents of Paris, Amsterdam and other European cities buying cars and fleeing their crowded cities for low-density suburbs that are almost indistinguishable from those in the United States?

Blumenauer thinks that our highways are heavily subsidized and that more transit subsidies are needed for "balance." He has forgotten that, after accounting for user fees such as gas taxes and federal, state and local highway taxes, subsidies have averaged less than 0.5 cents a passenger mile for more than 50 years.

Transit subsidies per passenger mile have been more than 100 times greater for more than two decades. Despite these much-larger subsidies, transit carries only a tiny fraction of travel in American cities other than New York. How long will it take for people such as Blumenauer to realize that building expensive rail lines doesn't improve people's mobility?

Blumenauer claims Metro's plan gives people more choices. But much of Portland has been zoned for multifamily housing since the 1920s, so it always has offered people plenty of housing choices. Metro is taking choices away by driving up the cost of single-family housing. Metro also is increasing congestion to stop-and-go levels -- a stated goal in Metro's regional transportation plan. What kind of choice is that?

Our coalition thinks government planners should not try to coerce people into living in any particular type of housing or getting around by any particular means of travel. Instead, people should be free to choose where and how they live and travel. Government's only role should be to make sure that, whatever people choose, they pay the full cost of their choices.

So the American Dream Coalition must respectfully disagree with Blumenauer. The American dream will not be achieved by coercive zoning, increasing congestion and huge subsidies to rail transit and high-density housing. Instead, it requires freedom of choice, a freedom threatened by the high housing costs and gridlocked roads created by Metro's plans.

Randal O'Toole of Bandon (rot@ti.org) is the director of the American Dream Coalition (americandreamcoalition.org) and author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths." Among sponsors of the Portland conference were the Central Arizona Home Builders and the Home Builders of Northern Kentucky.


[sarcasm]Okay class, now that we've finished our unit on inferential statistics, today we're going to begin a new unit, called, "Skewing statistics as a means to acheive political ends." [/sarcasm]

O'Toole is caught in a 1950's time warp.
People aren't forced to do anything in Portland.
He uses false analogies throughout.

He'll probably make a lot of noise about 'excessive environmental regulations' when it starts costing him $75 to fill the tank of his SUV.
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Lee Nellis

Randal tries so hard. And his fundamental principle - that people should have a great deal of freedom of choice - is unarguable. The problem is that markets, esp markets that involve land are no better at giving people freedom of choice than governments. Once there are so many of us sharing the same space, the only freedom lies in widespread ethical behavior.