Portland, Oregon – in the northwest corner of the USA – is a relatively similar sized city to Auckland. The ‘actual city’ (probably their equivalent of “Auckland City”) has a population of around 575,000 while the whole metropolitan area has a population of around 2 million. This compares to Auckland’s population of 1.4 million. Portland is also a city that is somewhat similar to Auckland in other respects – that for decades it grew through auto-dependent sprawl. However, from 1973 onwards Portland changed tack – becoming more focused on growing through intensification rather than greenfields development. A key part of this shift was the imposition of an urban growth boundary in 1979. In Auckland, we also grew significantly throughout the mid 20th century by expanding rapidly, but over the past 10 years in particular our land-use policies have changed dramatically to encourage intensification rather than further sprawl. In a nut-shell, I would say that we’re following in Portland’s footsteps, but are perhaps a decade or two behind. So Portland’s a useful guide as to where Auckland might be heading in the future, which makes it particularly interesting to look at their transport plans, starting with that of the smaller City of Portland.

You can see how far Portland is ahead of us immediately, in the introduction to their transport plan.

Portland is a vibrant and healthy city. As Portland and the region grow, however, there is a continuing challenge to maintain the natural environment, economic prosperity, and overall quality of life.

Transportation planning is essential to preserving the City’s ‘user-friendly’ character. Constructing significant amounts of new automobile capacity to accommodate growth is not the answer because of the enormous costs and impacts. Adding more streets and parking lots divides neighborhoods, uses valuable land, encourages urban sprawl, and has negative environmental impacts. Alternative approaches must be used to ensure integrated, comprehensive solutions. Portland has spent the last several years working with Metro and other agencies, citizens, and community and business groups to develop the City’s first Transportation System Plan (TSP). The TSP is a comprehensive 20-year plan for transportation improvements in Portland. Its goal is to provide transportation choices for residents, employees, visitors, and firms doing business in Portland.

The TSP helps implement the region’s 2040 Growth Concept by supporting a transportation system that makes it more convenient for people to walk, bicycle, use transit, and drive less to meet their daily needs. The TSP also recognizes that the transportation system must sustain the City’s economic health by accommodating the needs of businesses and supporting Portland’s role in the international economy. The TSP meets State and regional planning requirements and addresses local transportation needs for cost-effective road, transit, freight, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements.

Most of Auckland’s transport plans hint at this kind of focus, yet in reality end up strongly promoting spending the vast majority of transport funds on building more state highways and other roads. In three simple paragraphs, it is obvious that Portland understands the critical link between land-use patterns and transport policy, that it understands the way in which different types of transportation can affect the quality of life of the city, and that it understands the need to offer a variety of options when it comes to transportation. The influence of land-use patterns on transportation is highlighted in the following table – clearly showing that in parts of the city with good transit access and mixed use development people own fewer cars, use their cars less and travel shorter distances:

Chapter three of the Portland Transport Plan looks at improvements that will be implemented there over the next 20 years. Unlike our plans, which are utterly dominated by state highway projects, Portland sets out a wide range of “needs”, before shifting on to looking at actual projects to address those needs. Firstly, here are the general needs:

While each Transportation District demonstrates a unique mix of characteristics and needs, an overall picture of the City’s local transportation needs emerges:
• Reduce traffic impacts, including speeding and traffic volumes, on neighborhoods.
• Manage auto congestion.
• Provide good transportation choices.
• Improve transit service levels and access to routes.
• Expand opportunities to walk and bike safely.
• Increase local street connectivity.
• Improve safety and livability on local streets.
• Protect the natural environment.
• Provide better access to jobs.
• Ensure safe and efficient movement of goods.

While Auckland’s transport plans aren’t altogether different, it is notable to see how things like improving the safety an livability of local streets, and reducing the impact of traffic on neighbourhoods ranks highly in terms of what Portland wants its transport system to achieve. I get the feeling that perhaps our transport planning in Auckland is too dominated by engineers who focus on the best way of getting people and goods from A to B without paying enough regard to the effects on A and B of doing this. I have talked a lot about the inter-connections between land-use and transportation in this blog before, but perhaps the third aspects of livability really needs to be put in there as well. Portland seems highly concerned about the effects on livability of its transportation policies, whereas I am yet to see much evidence of this in Auckland.

In terms of evaluating which projects should be prioritised, Portland is quite ‘up-front’ about the criteria by which projects will be assessed against. I think this is a fantastic idea – taking the mystery away from the horribly complex manner by which projects come up with a final “cost benefit ratio” in Auckland, which generally decides whether they should go ahead or not. Apparently the NZTA manual for working conducting a cost-benefit analysis on a project is many hundreds of pages long, and costs hundreds of dollars to purchase. Hardly user friendly. By contrast, here’s what Portland does:

Together, the ten criteria are ‘cross-modal’; they evaluate various policy concerns and support a balance among modes. The evaluation criteria were applied to the TSP project list to provide a relative ranking of how well each project meets State, regional, and local transportation goals. The higher the total score, the more the project supports the overall transportation goals. The evaluation criteria are briefly described below:

• Support 2040 Areas
Supports a compact urban form by supporting development of high-priority 2040 Growth Concept areas.

•Reduce Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMT) per Capita
Helps reduce VMT per capita.

• Safety
Addresses an existing deficiency or hazard by improving pedestrian, bicycle, and/or vehicular safety.

• Natural Environment
Minimizes or reduces impacts to the natural environment, and/or utilizes good resource management.

• Local Area Access
Provides or improves access to and within activity centers.

• Economic Development
Provides or increases access (for employees and freight) to existing or emerging employment areas.

• Community Support
Has a high level of community support within the district.

• Efficient Use of Resources
Increases both the efficiency and effectiveness of the system by wise application of available financial, capital, and human resources.

• Connectivity/Built Environment
Supports a high level of street connectivity for all modes and improvement of the built environment, especially in areas where deficiencies exist.

• Multimodal/Balance
Addresses an area wide need with a multimodal approach.

To me this seems like a fantastically logical way to go about working out which projects should get funded. In particular, I am a big fan of the fact that “Community Support” is taken into great consideration when analysing the merits of a project. Too often I get the feeling that transport ‘experts’ simply write off communities as “NIMBYs”, seeing them simply as an obstacle to get past in order to achieve their grands plans. From my experience the community as a whole often has a great wealth of knowledge as to the appropriateness or otherwise of a transport project, and this should not be ignored. Furthermore, it is the communities who are worried about the effects on A and B of the transport project, while the experts focus on the movement between A and B.

Overall, it is obvious to see that Portland really cares about using transport to create a better city to live in, not just an easier city to get around. It clearly understands the complex relationship between transportation, land-use patterns and the quality of life for people living in the city. I really do think Auckland has a lot of catching up to do.

At a more Regional Level, the 2004 Regional Transportation Plan offers an insight into some of the bigger picture projects that go over and above what the City of Portland gets involved with. This is where we can really start making comparisons between transport expenditure in Auckland – by mode- and what’s happening in Portland. Firstly, from the 2009-2019 Auckland Transport Plan, the “plan” for Auckland: Then, if we look at what the Portland region is planning for their twenty year strategy (2000-2020), we see the following split in terms of spending on different modes:

State Highway Operations, Maintenance and Preservation: $199m-$270m per year
New and Improved State Highways: $2.29 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in 1998$)
Regional road operations, maintenance and preservation costs: $248-$365 million per year
New and Improved Regional Roads: $2.85 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in 1998$)

Transit Operations and Maintenance: $254 million per year in 2000 rising to $899 million per year by 2020 (rise is due to inflation and also due to the doubling of service provision during this time)
Transit Capital: $4.3 billion (over the whole 20 year period, measured in $1998)

As you can see, Portland has a far more even split between funding roads and funding transit than we see here in Auckland. Furthermore, there is some serious long-term thought going into what transit projects Portland will need over the lifespan of this transportation plan – whereas in Auckland we see spending on public transport infrastructure and rail infrastructure drop off a cliff after 2013 because there is so little certainty about when projects like the CBD Rail Tunnel might get started.

We have a lot to learn.

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  1. New Zealand seriously have nothing to learn from the abject corruption and politically driven project selection applied to road and public transport projects in the United States.

    Economic appraisal is not taken into account, there isn’t proper capital accounting of assets or depreciation (yes funnily enough it’s good to consider what residual value remains after spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money), there is no proper asset management strategies or long term contracting for maintenance. I know Portland is a favourite pin-up of the public transport lobby (Curitiba and Ottawa are better ones), but really just because a city council spends a lot more on public transport than roads proves nothing other than that.

    What have been the results of Portland’s approach?

  2. Curitiba is also a very good city because of the extensive bus system which acts more like a light rail system. Maybe a post on this city would be great. Injoyed studing this city in urban transport planning lectures. And it has been very successful and a well worthly investment from the city.

    Funnly enough as a result of Curitiba, as I don’t know Portland to well, has been minimal congestion on the roading network.

  3. Great analysis… It’s weird I never thought I’d want to live in an American city apart from New York or maybe San Fran but Portland looks excellent (had a swiz on google maps)… Did you send a copy to DS..?

  4. One interesting thing I took from the first set of figures was that within Portland, the impact of ‘good transit only’ is a substantial increase in transit use, but also a fair rise in walking. When you look at the mixed use areas transit use goes up a bit further, but the real winner is walking.

    This is some further evidence for my idea that it is possible provide effective transit to low density, monozonal areas, and that a massive increase in density or zoning changes aren’t necessary. Not saying that mixed use isn’t a good goal with positive outcomes, just that it isn’t *necessary* for high transit use.

    I’d love to see some more recent or on-going figures though, there is only so much that can be drawn from 15 year old data!

  5. One interesting thing I took from the first set of figures was that within Portland, the impact of ‘good transit only’ is a substantial increase in transit use, but also a fair rise in walking. When you look at the mixed use areas transit use goes up a bit further, but the real winner is walking.

    This is some further evidence for my idea that it is possible provide effective transit to low density, monozonal areas, and that a massive increase in density or zoning changes aren’t necessary. Not saying that mixed use isn’t a good goal with positive outcomes, just that it isn’t *necessary* for high transit use.

    I’d love to see some more recent or on-going figures though, there is only so much that can be drawn from 15 year old data!
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  6. Admin: Oh well on that piece of hard analysis everyone should copy it. Although it isn’t in the top 30 of cities for population increases, which may indicate that it isn’t as attractive as the legions of people who don’t live there think it is http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/subcounty04table3.xls but attractiveness is a subjective point. Still, residents seem relatively content.

    However, 23rd worst congestion of any city in the US http://portland.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2009/02/23/daily30.html
    Not great when it is 30th in terms of population http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0763098.html

    Public purpose using TTI index says Portland increased the most in terms of travel time between 1986 and 2001, of course what happened since then would be helpful http://www.publicpurpose.com/hwy-tti20011986.pdf

    Local newspaper Portland Tribune agreed a couple of years ago that congestion is a mounting issue for the city that needs to be addressed http://www.portlandtribune.com/opinion/story.php?story_id=35436

    Portland auditor surveys on mode shares for trip to work are interesting:
    Car driver and passenger shares 1999 78%, 2008 73%
    Bus/light rail systems shares 1999 15%, 2008 15%
    Cycling share 1999 3% 2008 8%

    For the fortune spent on public transport, cycling is what has made a dent in driving.

    I think a key reason for Curitiba not having high congestion is the average incomes and how that makes car ownership less prevalent than the big Brazilian cities (notwithstanding developed country cities). However, Curitiba does basically have dedicated bus corridors and fully commercial privately provided bus services licenced by franchise.

    So in conclusion, it is difficult to say that Portland has achieved much in terms of transport outcomes, except in increasing mode share of cycling. That is a good thing, but if congestion has grown significantly then a key measure – mobility – is lost. In other words, don’t believe the hype.

  7. My key point is that Portland have focused on ensuring that while it’s important to make it easy for people to get from A to B (mobility), that one also needs to consider what the impacts of that are on A, B and everywhere between them.

    What is the best large city in the world when it comes to mobility? Phoenix? Dallas? Houston? Kansas City? Most of these places seem to have paved half their cities in asphalt, ringed their CBDs with 14 lane wide motorways and so forth. So while it may be reasonably straightforward to get from A to B in those places, A and B and everywhere in between have been completely destroyed in order to achieve that.

  8. It’ll be intereting to see Portlands travel times shoot up the list after Peak Oil… And a pleasant place to live… They’ll be turning people away…

  9. Admin: I don’t know what is the best large city in the world when it comes to mobility, but I might argue Singapore goes a long way towards getting it right for high density cities. Oslo may well be a good example for Europe and Ottawa in the Americas.

    Paris may in fact be a good example because the Metro works there, as the Underground does in London, and Paris has less congestion than London. However, the densities also justify the metro systems in both cities.

    I’d argue that private property rights help protect the impacts of transport on land use, and pricing helps to manage demand and determine when the very invasive and expensive exercise of building new corridors or widening existing ones should happen. For too long the transport agenda has been driven by people wanting to build things, not manage.

    Jeremy, presuming you’ll visit Portland often with the fortune you’ve made in buying oil futures into the distant future, assuming you really do believe in Peak Oil. Most who believe in Peak Oil wont put their money on it, but want governments to put other people’s money into transport networks incapable of undertaking almost all tasks.

  10. Also to me I dont see peak oil as a major problem, a company in New Zealand has just developed a flexible concrete (how its still called concrete I don’t know) which will mean oil is not needed to provided the black gold of our roads, also electric vehicles are rapidly developing and are already in production. So in terms of public transport we are going to become less and less dependent on oil, even if we continue to use private vehicles. However I thought Liberty has brought up some good points with valaid facts behind them, so why have they got so much congestion if we are praising there transport system? Could it be because of the public’s mentality towards cars? But in Auckland in particular we have a very strong mentaility towards our private vehicles as well.

    I always believe that we should give people choice, and to do so we need to equally invest in PT and Roading, however if we invest in Public Transport we also expect a return on our money.

    If like your article mentions, we are like Portland just a decade behind, it might be useful to see how the investment into PT has benefited the city, in the change of congestion (if any) the cost benefits (is it earning money) and so on. It would be interesting to find a detailed anaylis of how it has affectedvthe people during it’s transition to public transport. Because if we are very much like them, maybe we can learn from their mistakes or improve on their system.

  11. Actually Liberty I’m buying gold and keeping it a safety deposit box, about 50% of my money is in that… The under-pricing of oil and it’s massive over-inflation of companies values and stocks mean I avoid the market in the main, apart from as we’ve talked about before I’m putting 10% into a Cruise line’s stocks (which I did a couple of weeks ago) and still looking for a European rail electrfication company which is publicly traded (I haven’t had a good hunt yet)… The rest is in a property sindicate, my employment pension and Kiwisaver so I don’t think you can really accuse me of not putting my money where my mouth is as I’m investing with a peak oil and climate change future in mind… If I had followed my father into entreprenuership rather than law enforcement I would be starting companies which satisfy “the triple bottom line” as I encourage him to do but at 58 I think he’s a bit set in his ways and there’s nothing wrong with that…

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