Is Portland Planning for Failure or Success?

Garlynn Woodsong is a planner and a frequent commenter from Portland Transport’s early days. He lives in the Alberta Arts District and is involved in the Land Use & Transportation committees of the Concordia Neighborhood Association and the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN).

As Portland works to update its Comprehensive Plan, things seem to be going mostly well. There have been a series of workshops with neighborhood leaders to gather early input on the current draft materials for the plan; the one that I attended for central NE Portland was well-run, well-attended and full of thoughtful, articulate people all seeking to work together to make this a better place to live.

However, there is some cause for concern. The Portland Plan and the City of Portland Climate Action Plan lay out a series of goals for the city to achieve by 2030-2035. According to the current draft of the Comprehensive Plan Update Scenarios Report, which lays out four scenarios for future growth and then compares their performance for a variety of indicators, on most of these measures none of the scenarios envision us meeting the performance targets we have set out for ourselves as a city. This raises a critical question: If the four scenarios offered are considered to be the four options that Portland residents can choose between for future growth, why do all four scenarios envision failure as the measured outcome for most of the performance measures we have picked as goals for our future performance? Why is there not at least one scenario that meets at least a majority of the performance goals laid out in the CAP and the Portland Plan?

I’m going to run through just one of these performance targets, Transportation, to discuss the issues involved, and possible solutions, with the hope that the menu of options offered up here could be combined as ingredients to produce a successful scenario, one that will meet the performance targets laid out by the Portland Plan and the CAP. This is an attempt to begin to determine the answer to the following question:

What scenario + package of strategies will allow us to meet the goals laid out for VMT reduction in the Portland Plan and in the Climate Action Plan?

I think that a similar exercise could take place for each of the other perfomance targets; and I would like to see the results of such exercises combined to produce a new scenario, one that clearly articulates all of the policies, investments and other procedures required to meet the performance targets, so that we as a community can have an informed discussion about the trade-offs required.

Transportation: VMT, mode share and a shift to active transportation modes

When it comes to transportation, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is a leading indicator of bottom-line performance; it is often expressed as VMT per capita, as this can reduce scenario performance to a single understandable metric that allows comparison between the base year and horizon year, and between differing communities, regardless of the size of the community or changes in population totals. Another easily-understable metric is Mode Share, which is simply the share of total trips (or share of commute trips) taken using each mode (car, transit, walk, bike, etc.). The goal from the Portland plan for each of these indicators is stated thusly (reference page 54 of the Scenarios Report):

“By 2035, Portlanders have reduced the number of miles they travel by car to 11 miles per day on average and 70 percent of commuters walk, bike, take transit, carpool or telecommute to work.”

So, according to the Portland Plan, daily VMT per capita should be 11 (which, when using Metro’s annualization factor of 342 to account for weekends and holidays, results in a target annual VMT/capita of 3,762), and there should be a roughly 30% or less commute mode share for single-occupant automobiles (there may be some wiggle room here, though, as telecommuting isn’t always counted as a “mode”, and carpooling is still a form of automobile commuting).

The year 2030 goals from the Climate Action Plan are:

“Create vibrant neighborhoods where 90 percent of Portland residents and 80 percent of Multnomah County residents can easily walk or bicycle to meet all basic daily, non-work needs and have safe pedestrian or bicycle access to transit.” …and: “Reduce per capita daily vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) by 30 percent from 2008 levels.”

According to my analysis of the numbers presented in the Scenarios Report, none of the scenarios currently under consideration gets us more than 50% of the way towards the goals laid out in the Portland Plan and the CAP. The best-performing scenario, Central City Focused, which puts the largest share of growth into the Central City (~32%), still only achieves a 15% reduction in per-capita VMT, resulting in an average VMT/Capita of just under 24 miles a day (or ~8,050 annual VMT/capita).


The CAP seems to set out a different goal here, of a 30 percent reduction in per-capita daily VMT, from the Portland Plan, of a reduction to daily per-capita VMT of 11 miles, which would seem to actually be a 60% reduction in daily per-capita VMT from existing conditions. Regardless, the Scenarios Report only envisions us getting 50% of the way to the least-aggressive of these two goals.

Roger Geller, the City’s Bicycle Coordinator, has conducted his own analysis of potential reductions in vehicle travel in the future, based on data from the Oregon Household Activity Survey (OHAS) and some scenarios for future performance. Specifically, his analysis looks at what some appropriate strategies might be to help the city achieve its desired targets for non-automotive and automotive transportation. His analysis finds that the east side of Portland, between the river and I-205, will have to play a prominent role in helping the City as a whole achieve its desired performance targets, due to “its density, population and land use that results in short trips.” His scenarios show what it would take to achieve a 29% reduction in automotive mode split by 2035 based on building out world-class bicycle infrastructure and encouraging a continuation of past trends in shifts to active transportation.

While I agree with the approach that Roger has laid out for bicycle infrastructure improvements, I would like to propose that a more holistic approach must be taken to achieve the transportation goals laid out in the CAP and the Portland Plan. To achieve the desired VMT reductions, Portland must pursue a three-pronged strategy:

1) Land Use Changes
2) Transportation Infrastructure Investments
3) Pricing & other demand management strategies

I’ll address these one at a time.

1) Land Use Changes

The Portland Plan is already considering many strategies to encourage the development of centers, corridors and neighborhood main street areas. If the goal is for 90% of Portland residents to be able to walk or bicycle to meet daily non-work travel needs (trips to school, errands, shopping, recreation, etc.), the way to achieve this goal with regards to land use has two parts: a) to make sure that enough destinations are available within walking or bicycling distance of 90% of homes in the city, and b) to make sure that the urban form of these destinations lends itself to walking or riding a bicycle to get to them, rather than driving.

There are tools available to planners, such as Form-Based Codes, that can ensure that new growth is built to be pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented, rather than auto-oriented; but the key issues are to:

– Orient buildings so that their entrances face the pedestrian zone of the street
– Ensure that any off-street parking be minimized, eliminated, priced, and at the very least placed behind or underneath a building
– Construct alleys behind buildings to minimize curb cuts for parking access, so as to minimize potential pedestrian-auto conflicts; parking lots and garages should then only access the alley system
– Build multiple-story buildings on main streets and in centers, with ground-floor retail topped by housing or offices
– Make sure the street environment is walkable, with street trees, street furniture such as benches, and other visual cues that tell the pedestrian that they are welcome

Two of the best indicators of walkability for a neighborhood are:

– Walkable street intersections per square mile. If an area has more than ~150 walkable street intersections (i.e. intersections with at least 3 non-dead-end [cul-de-sac] links, not including streets that are for cars only, such as freeways and ramps) per square mile (measured within a quarter mile radius), then it can be considered to be walkable due to the layout of the streets themselves; of course, they should also have sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities (street trees, etc). Most of central Portland is already above this walkable threshold, but some of the outer areas of the city may lack the dense, complete street network required to achieve this level of walkability; new pedestrian path and street connections may be required in some areas to add to pedestrian network connectivity.


– Retail Floor Area Ratio (FAR). Essentially, if your neighborhood retail is designed to be oriented towards cars, with a majority of the lot area taken up by surface parking for cars, this will show up in the ratio of building floor area to parcel/lot area, and the number will be under 0.5 (likely at or lower than 0.35); if your neighborhood retail is designed to be walkable, it will have minimal surface parking, and this will show up as an FAR above 0.5, ideally closer to 0.9 or higher. If you live in a neighborhood where the retail is auto-oriented, there is a very good chance that you will choose to drive to get there; if you live in a neighborhood where the retail is pedestrian-oriented, then there is a much higher chance that you will choose to not drive for trips to these destinations.

Land use strategies to help achieve the desired VMT reductions thus include changing the City’s zoning codes to specifically require that new development be built to walkable standards, rather than auto-oriented standards; and ensuring that enough land is zoned for walkable mixed-use centers, corridors and main streets within walking/biking distance of 90% of the homes in the City. Of course, the determination of whether a destination is within walking or biking distance of a home depends very much on the quality of the pedestrian/bicycle network between those two points, which leads to our next point…

2) Transportation Infrastructure Investments

Transportation infrastructure investments can sometimes be multi-modal, but I’ll discuss each of the modes individually here.


Roger Geller’s piece was strong in its assessment of existing bicycle infrastructure in Portland:

In regard to bicycle transportation, the experience of cities around the world demonstrates that a 25% mode split is achievable with high quality bikeways that provide a comfortable and safe experience. Compared to the world’s best bicycle transportation cities, Portland’s bicycle network is largely substandard and incomplete. Most of that 250% growth in bicycling in Portland since 1994 occurred in the face of bicycle facilities now recognized as inadequate for most people, that fail to match best practices in bikeway design and that do not directly serve the destinations found on most of Portland’s commercially zoned streets. This is why, at 5.5% of trips city?wide, the potential for increases in bicycle transportation is largely untapped.

Clearly, then, the City must build out the infrastructure to create a world-class network of bicycle paths, routes and boulevards. In many areas, this will require taking space that is currently dedicated to automotive parking and travel, and re-purposing it to provide space for bicycle parking and travel. Since there are many streets with more than one lane of auto traffic in each direction, taking one of these lanes will still allow for cars to have access to destinations, while adding to the capacity for bicycles to safely reach those same destinations. Also, since parking outside of downtown Portland is currently largely free, placing a price on the parking provided within the public right-of-way, per Donald Shoup’s principles that parking should be priced such that no more than 85% of on-street parking spaces are occupied at any given time, will allow for some of the street right-of-way real estate that is currently dedicated for automobile parking to be re-purposed to provide room for bicycle travel and parking without adversely affecting the ability of auto drivers to find a space to park within walking distance of their destinations.


With regards to pedestrians, there are many streets in the city that lack sidewalks; there needs to be a discussion about what it would take to provide either sidewalks or traffic-calmed woonerfs woonerfs on every street in the city. This could be a specific citywide transportation proposal for funding at some future date, one that also includes filling in pedestrian connections where needed to improve connectivity, including through limited use of eminent domain as needed to provide land for new pedestrian paths.


It’s possible that transit ridership may need to more than double within Portland to accomplish the transportation goals laid out in the Portland Plan and the CAP. Additionally, our transit fleet will need to transition towards becoming 100% carbon-neutral; unless sustainable biofuel production can be vastly increased, this will likely require a larger shift towards electrification. Streetcars and MAX have higher capacity than buses, run on electricity and thus don’t themselves contribute towards greenhouse gas emissions (though the power grid they rely on must also become more sustainable over time for them to become truly carbon-neutral), so a continued expansion of these systems would seem to be a logical way to add transit capacity while reducing the carbon emissions of the transit fleet. I would encourage TriMet to establish a policy goal of becoming 100% carbon-neutral & fossil-fuel-free by 2035, and to explore ways to achieve this goal while also meeting the projected capacity challenges envisioned by achieving a doubling in transit ridership. The bottom line is that transit should be seen as a pedestrian trip extender; and that investments in high-quality transit can thus support the place-making required to achieve land use goals. This region is already doing an exemplary job of articulating and building the concept of “Development-Oriented Transit”; if anything, much more of this will be needed to achieve our performance goals.


For the most part, the automobile travel network in Portland is already completely built out. You can drive a car from pretty much anyplace to anyplace else in relative safety and comfort; this is why more than 70% of trips are made by car today. As we seek to invert the mode split towards a goal of 70% of trips being made on other modes, we will need to invest very little in the way of new infrastructure for cars; most of our investments will be in maintaining the system that we already have (which of course serves cars as well as freight, transit and bicycles), in building additional infrastructure within existing rights-of-way that can calm traffic to increase safety for all users, and in re-purposing space currently dedicated to autos so that it can be used to serve other modes where appropriate.

The bottom line is that transportation infrastructure can be expensive, but investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure are relatively cheap in comparison to investments in automotive and transit infrastructure; our future transportation investments should thus all seek to make the maximum contribution towards supporting active transportation and creating livable, walkable places while reducing VMT and carbon emissions. Any new transportation investment proposal that will only add capacity for autos or otherwise not result in decreased VMT or carbon emissions should be rejected.

Other Modes:

Yes, skateboarding is not a crime; wheelchairs must be accommodated by law; Segways are gaining in popularity; and e-bikes are sometimes considered to be separate from regular bicycles. Rollerblades, roller-skates, razor scooters and other non-motorized wheeled contraptions could also be considered their own modes. I’m trying to keep this discussion relatively simple, however, so let’s discuss the diversification of modality at a later date, shall we? Most of these “modes” can be accommodated with improved bicycle and/or pedestrian infrastructure for now, anyways…

3) Pricing & other demand management strategies

For the most part, nobody wants to pay higher taxes or fees, but economists will tell you that if the price of a good or service is low, demand will rise to meet supply; and raising the price is an effective strategy to reduce demand. As population growth puts more people on our streets, and as we find that we cannot build more streets or add more capacity for cars within what is effectively a land-locked city, we must find ways to manage automobile travel and parking so that it fits within the physical capacity of our roadway system and parking supply. Indeed, given that some of our transportation strategies will require re-purposing some of this capacity to serve non-auto modes, we may need to use pricing and other demand management strategies to manage the remaining capacity more effectively. There are a number of these available:

– Congestion charges: Vehicles could be charged a variable fee to enter certain areas, such as downtown Portland, the Central City, or the area within the I-405/I-205 loop. London, Copenhagen and Singapore have all implemented successful systems of congestion pricing, and proved that it is a very successful system for achieving dramatic VMT and auto mode split reductions within certain zones. Congestion charges have been used to fund increased transit service and additional active transportation infrastructure, helping to reinforce a positive feedback loop that results in increased active transportation and decreased auto VMT.

– Highway/roadway tolling: Individual links on the highway or roadway system can be tolled at specific locations, such as the I-5 and I-205 bridges over the Columbia River. Tolling by itself, however, may be less effective than other strategies at achieving VMT reductions; experience from places such as the San Francisco Bay Area shows that even fairly high tolls of $6-$7 per vehicle do not prevent the facility in question from filling to capacity. Tolling is an effective means to produce revenue for use in funding the transportation system, however.

– Parking pricing: Free parking with no time constraints encourages vehicle warehousing on the street, and low turnover of parking spaces. Residents leave their vehicles on the street when parking is free, rather than seek off-street parking spaces; and employees will drive and park in free parking spaces if provided. Pricing can add an incentive to either find another place to park, or to shift travel to other modes. Pricing can encourage a turnover of vehicles such that there is always a sufficient supply of vacant parking spaces so that vehicles do not need to spend excess time searching for parking spaces near their destinations.

– Fuel pricing: The gas tax is currently very low by historic standards; raising the gas tax, or instituting a carbon tax (which would achieve the same effect) could be an effective way to reduce fuel consumption, though in the long run it may have no more than a small effect on VMT as the vehicle fleet shifts towards more fuel-efficient vehicles. As with tolling, however, fuel taxes are an effective means to generate revenue which can be used to fund transportation system improvements.

– Reducing vehicle capacity: We know that adding vehicle capacity results in more VMT through the principle of induced demand; we also know that reducing vehicle capacity can result in less vehicle travel. Thus, over time we may find that, across the city’s street network, on streets with more than one lane going the same direction, lane removal will be an effective strategy to achieve increased mode split for active transportation modes, and reduce auto VMT.


There are other issues involved with scenarios analysis that could lead to scenario results not meeting articulated policy targets:

– It’s possible that the models currently being used to report scenario results are not sensitive enough to changes to land use to pick up the changes in performance that could result.
– Fuel price assumptions might be set too low in relation to observed oil price trends and their implications for prices in ~25 years.
– It’s also possible that not enough policy levers are yet being pulled within the region, including articulated levels of bicycle and transit service, to produce the desired performance outcomes from the model.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s give the City of Portland and Metro the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are using state-of-the-art activity-based travel models running at parcel-level resolution that are fully responsive to micro-level changes in land use in terms of the resulting change in transportation behavior; that the scenarios assume a build-out of the current plans for bicycle and transit networks, and are able to fully model the impacts of these; and that what we are presented with is thus an overall package of land use, transportation and policy that is not yet sufficient to meet the performance goals that we have set for ourselves as a city.

Hopefully, this blog post will combine with other conversations that are taking place to kick-start a discussion about the trade-offs required to meet these policy goals.

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