Below are excerpts from a Wendell Cox article for New Geography in an article titled, "Paving Over Hunan." His article comments on a piece by a British writer comparing low density development in the US to high density development in China. Mr. Cox points out facts about Portland that we all know - that emphasis on our high-priced rail transit has decimated a good bus system and lowered the proportion of people who use transit while increasing the percentage that drive alone to work: that the UGB places an artificial premium on the limited supply of land making housing in the Metro area some of the least affordable in the country; that by deliberately impeding the flow of traffic (road diets) and parking, Portland has become one of the most congested cities in the country despite its relatively low density. He demonstrates that by measuring outputs, the Portland Model does not work.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.
Ms. Bosker suggests that China may be poised to follow the "Portland model." A planner is quoted: “Portland is a really great model.” That, I would suggest, depends on your perspective.
The Portland model has its philosophical roots in the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. As early as 1973, Sir Peter Hall and his colleagues characterized the Act having had the "reverse effect" an important policy goal, to benefit less affluent households, by virtue of the house price escalation that ensued.
Portland has drawn an urban growth boundary around the city beyond which development is generally prohibited, and within which there is insufficient space to maintain competitive land prices. Portland has also has sought to attract people out of their cars by both building an extensive light rail system and is loath to provide new highway capacity to meet demand.
Portland is no model to copy, unless all you care about is inputs (like light rail and not building freeways and suburban housing). The outputs tell a completely different story.
In 1980 (the last data before the first light rail line was opened) 65.1 percent of commuters drove alone to work. By 2012, that figure had increased to 70.8 percent. Transit was down from 8.4 percent to 6.0 percent. Approximately one-quarter as many people worked at home as commuted by transit in 1980 (2.2 percent). By 2012, more people in the Portland metropolitan area worked at home than rode transit (6.4 percent).
This is not surprising. Portland's "model" transit system (now with five light rail lines) can get the average commuter to only 8 percent of the jobs in 45 minutes. This is not very attractive in contrast to travel by automobiles, which provides access to virtually 100 percent of the jobs in less time (30 minutes).
Meanwhile, Portland's anti-highway policies have been rewarded with some of the most rapidly increasing traffic congestion in the United States. In the early 1980s, Portland ranked 47th worst out of the 101 US urban areas ranked by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. By 2011, Portland's traffic congestion had deteriorated to sixth worst, a stunning failure for a city with a population that doesn't even rank the top 20. Meanwhile, Houston, castigated for its wide freeways, has improved from the worst traffic congestion in the middle 1980s to four positions better than Portland (10th), despite adding having added three times as many new residents as Portland.
If outputs are more important than inputs (which I suggest is true), then US cities do very well. They have the highest incomes in the world, occupying 36 of the top 50 positions in gross domestic product per capita. They have some of the most affordable housing in the world, if cities following the Portland model are excluded. They have shorter work trip commutes and less traffic congestion than their peers in other high income world nations. And, they are poised for huge progress in environmental protection. The US Department of Energy forecasts large reductions in gross greenhouse gas emission from the national automobile fleet in the coming decades.