CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 2: Portland State University’s Jennifer Dill

The opening dinner of CSG’s Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon included remarks by Jennifer Dill, Ph.D., professor in the School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and Director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium. She introduced the group to the city of Portland and its unique approach to transportation and land use planning in a presentation entitled “Toward Sustainable Urban Mobility: Insights from Portland’s Journey.”

“Portland hasn’t always been like this and it really was public policy that got this city the way it is,” Dill told attendees at the July 18th dinner at the Portland Marriott City Center. “It’s not something in the water that we drink. Most of us moved here from someplace else. We didn’t naturally all ride bikes. It’s not sort of just in our nature and it didn’t just sort of happen. It really was public policy that created this vibrant downtown and the rest of the region.”

The city of Portland is gaining plenty of attention these days for its approach, particularly in lists that rank cities. Number 1 Sustainable City, Best Bicycling City and Number 4 Walking City in the nation are among the accolades received in recent years, Dill said.

“Definitely I see a lot of competition between cities,” she said. “Right now there’s a lot of competition in the bicycling arena between Chicago and New York and D.C. and Portland and Minneapolis and Denver. … These types of rankings are good to spur that type of action.”

Dill said a key indicator that tells Portland’s transportation story over the last 20 years is vehicle miles traveled per capita. In 1990, residents of the region were driving on average 18.7 miles a day while other regions of the country were driving 20.8 miles a day. Over the next five years, both Portland and the other regions were on a similar trajectory of driving more. Then in 1996, as some policies on infrastructure started kicking in, the Portland region’s VMT per capita peaked. The region has seen a steady decline in driving ever since. In 2011, Portlanders were driving five fewer miles a day compared to those in other regions of comparable size.

“This is something that economist Joe Cortwright, who lives in this area and has done some analysis, calls the ‘green dividend,’” Dill said. “By driving five fewer miles a day on average, there is more money in our pockets and that’s more money that people in this region are more than likely going to spend locally rather than on gas and things that the benefits of which perhaps leave the regional economy. And so that’s the argument that he’s made for why this helps a region’s economy.”

Today Portland ranks at the top in transit trips per capita and percentage of those commuting by bike for similar size cities. In some parts of the city, an estimated 10 percent of trips are by bike, Dill noted.

A number of key decisions throughout Portland’s history contributed to its position today. When the city was laid out in the mid-1800s, city leaders chose to make the blocks smaller, which today makes the downtown more walkable than some other major cities. A parking garage that was scheduled to be built in the late 1960s was rejected and the city built a new public space instead, Pioneer Courthouse Square, which is today a popular gathering and activities spot.

A downtown plan adopted in 1972 was also crucial to the city’s transformation. It put a cap on the total number of parking spaces downtown. In doing so, Dill said, it helped improve the urban form by reducing the number of surface lots and garages, increased the price of parking downtown and provided an incentive for transit, walking and other alternatives.

Portland planners also got a little creative with funding to help diversify the city’s transportation options.

“Like most regions in the U.S. around the 1950s or so, we had big plans to build freeways crisscrossing the whole region,” Dill said. “And like a lot of cities in the U.S., there was a freeway revolt and we decided ‘no, we’re not going to build these freeways.’ The thing that was a little different in Portland is the story of the Mt. Hood Freeway, which was going to cut through residential neighborhoods. It was cancelled and the thing that was different here is that we took that money—it was federal money—and we convinced the feds that we could take that money and instead spend it on investing in a new light rail system. We were one of the first places in the country that did that type of switching of funding and that was the start of our light rail system.”

TriMet, the region’s transit agency, opened the city's first MAX light rail line in 1986. It’s now a 52-mile system.

In 1971, the city of Portland adopted what came to be called the Bike Bill, which required that a certain amount of transportation funding be spent on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It would today be called a Complete Streets Bill. Portland was one of the first cities in the country to pass one.

Dill also points to 1973, when the state of Oregon adopted a statewide land use planning program that included a long list of goals, one of which was a goal to reduce reliance on any single mode of transportation. That program also required every city in the state to have an urban growth boundary.

“In Oregon, our urban growth boundaries are serious,” she said. “Inside the urban growth boundary, you can build. Outside is farm and forest. It’s one of the most stringent forms of growth control in the country. Basically you’re supposed to have room for 20-years-worth of growth within that boundary.”

Dill believes another thing that helped set Portland apart is its regional government.

“We have the only directly elected regional government in the country,” she said. “It functions as the (Metropolitan Planning Organization) but it actually has land use authority. So Metro, our regional government and directly elected, has a land use plan for the region, but all the cities within the region have to comply with the regional plan. So (it’s) very unique but it’s part of what makes it work.”

But Dill was quick to point out that Portland, like most cities, continues to have its challenges.

“It’s not all rosy,” she told the policy academy attendees. “I don’t want to leave you thinking that we’ve solved every problem and it’s all going wonderfully. We have lots of challenges. Not all of Portland looks like Downtown. We have a lot of places that look … very suburban, auto-oriented. Those are challenges. Our rates of bicycling and transit when you get out into the suburbs are not as high as they are Downtown. It’s going to be a challenge to get those rates up higher. We have problems funding. I know that’s going to be a big issue that you will be talking about over the next couple days. And I would argue that we have not solved our funding problems here partly because we don’t have sales tax so we can’t add a sales tax for transportation that a lot of states and cities do. … We’re also a bi-state region. Across the river they do have some progressive land use planning but different land use planning and different goals and challenges.”

Additional Resources

“Towards Sustainable Urban Mobility: Insights from Portland’s Journey,” PowerPoint by Jennifer Dill, Ph.D.

"Low-car households account for 60% of Portland's growth since 2005," Bike Portland.org, July 30, 2013

“Portland’s Green Dividend: A White Paper from CEOs for Cities,” Joe Cortright. July 2007.

Further Reading

“Metropolitan smart-growth centers: An assessment of incentive policies in four regions,” The Journal of Transport and Land Use, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2013)

“Transit-oriented development in Atlanta, Portland, Charlotte and Phoenix,” Progressive Railroading, July 2013

"Zoning laws: Biking and hiking, but no parking: Are Oregon's strict planning rules stifling growth?" The Economist, July 27, 2013

"Weird is Good: What Portland's Economy Can Teach Every City in the World," The Atlantic, July 3, 2013

"An evolved transit city: Portland's lesson for Minneapolis," Minnpost, February 6, 2013