Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

June 7, 2004

An odyssey in the land of Tod

I have just returned from the land of Tod — a mystical journey full of surprise, disbelief, tears, and wonder. It is a land where light rail lines are everywhere, where new high-density communities spring up spontaneously around the stations. It is always Spring. They have many Walgreens stores and so it is the land called Perfect — according to Portland’s elected officials.

Let me tell you more about this wonderland of Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

In the land of Tod the first requirement of its inhabitants is that they suspend any belief in what is in front of their eyes. Thus, when their daily paper, the Oregonian, describes the rail line as, “a popular alternative for transit riders” you must forget that the trains you see are mostly empty. And should someone tell you that the light rail only carries 1.9 percent of Portland’s commuters, you must definitely ignore such a number since it is so obviously silly. [1]

And when you hear that this high density housing you are looking at is only allowed — and only needs — one parking space per apartment because a light rail station is nearby, then you have to ignore the number of automobiles parked on sidewalks and in adjacent neighborhoods. Instead, you should focus on the one space per apartment because that must mean there are fewer automobiles in the land of Tod, which is virtuous.

And when you look down the sixty foot wide light rail right-of-way from Orenco station and can see no trains in sight for miles, [2] it might occur to you that it would make a good transitway for buses and vanpools, and carry cars as well, and take far more riders than the light rail, and be far cheaper, and help with Portland’s really bad traffic congestion. But don’t think that; it is not a good thought since rail is virtuous.

And when people gush over 15 foot wide ‘skinny houses’ [3] and apartment blocks with the density of New York’s Lower East side of the 1890s, keep your thoughts to yourself and just repeat, “The Emperor is wearing clothes.”

Seriously, it was my first trip to Portland and I personally found the Transit Oriented Development structures to be quite bizarre. There is a cold, eerie feeling about these developments. There are few people around there, no people on the sidewalks, nobody walking the dog, no one pushing the pram, no joggers.

And consider the fact that the light rail train stops at the Cascades station. There is nothing in the empty 120 acres surrounding Cascades station. It was to be a development but it has been lying dormant for many years now. However, the train stops every 15 minutes in each direction — day in, day out. The doors don’t open but the train waits the obligatory 45 seconds anyway as if loading and unloading passengers. [4] Do not ask why.

Transit Oriented Development is a worrisome concept that planners are attempting to foist on us in Honolulu and across the nation. [5] What is the concept about? Quite simply, it is about planner power.

They talk about protecting farm land but that is an excuse. The acreage devoted to croplands nationally has remained steady over the last 50 years and only 3 percent of all U.S. land is devoted to urban use. [6]

The simple fact is that without the huge subsidies for the TOD projects that Portland employs, [7] people would not want this new high-density housing. With appropriate zoning, nothing prevents developers anywhere from building the kind of high density housing seen in Portland.

The sole result of this Portland TOD exercise is heavily subsidized sub-standard housing theoretically accessed (but only in theory) by heavily subsidized light rail lines. [8]

You must go to Portland to see for yourself. Take TOD Advocate material [9] in one hand and the Cascade Policy Institute’s in the other and go visit. [10] You may find it quite unnerving to think that such plans are afoot for Honolulu.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater


[1] The total use of transit for commuting in the Portland MSA was 5.7 percent of workers in 2000 according to the U.S. Census (page 12, Table 6). According to Portland’s transit agency, Trimet, 27 percent of rides on Trimet’s systems are by light rail. Using a generous one-third for commuters would show 1.9 percent using rail for their commute and the rest commuting by bus. See also Census data at: Journey to Work Trends in the United States and its Major Metropolitan Areas 1960-2000 Publication No. FHWA –EP-03-058. U.S.Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration . Exhibit 4.13 Transit and Walk Commutes: 1980-2000 .

[5] The Transit Oriented Development Advocate website. & Third Annual Hawaii Conference on Social   Sciences. June 16-19 is promoted by the TOD Advocate so one assumes it will be discussed and presumedly promoted there & Locally, city planners are writing editorials , extolling its virtues on its website as in the following:

Unique and vibrant neighborhoods
In recent years, many of Honolulu’s communities have begun to lose their identities. A growing trend nationwide is the return of traditional neighborhood development, commonly referred to as “new urbanism,” “urban village,” or “transit-oriented development.” In this model, each neighborhood evolves into a vibrant mix of land uses, appropriate to that location, which fosters a high quality of life.

Land uses–such as retail, residential, commercial and institutional–are located in such a way that walking, biking and public transit become increasingly attractive transportation modes.

The vision for Honolulu neighborhoods includes a pleasant mix of small businesses, churches, schools, and locally owned and operated businesses within walking or biking distance of residences, or connected by neighborhood circulators.”

Note: This is without regard to whether residents want ‘vibrant’ neighborhoods. Waikiki is vibrant, Hotel Street is vibrant. And extolling slum-level population densities is just strange.

[7] Here are eight examples of Portland subsidies for Smart Growth housing: exemption 1 , exemption 2 , exemption 3 , exemption 4 , exemption 5 , exemption 6 , exemption 7 , exemption 8 . The value of the property tax exemptions for just these eight buildings is over $20 million in a ten year period.

[8] Since 1980 just before the first rail line opened to 2000, Trimet subsidies grew 183 percent, allowing for inflation, versus a 38% increase in total population, a 57% increase in workers, and a 24% increase in commuters using public transportation of any kind.

[10] In addition to the The Transit Oriented Development Advocate website see also Trimet, the transit agency for information and maps. Those critical of Portland’s current TOD plans include the Cascade Policy Institute and the Coalition for the Preservation of the American Dream who say, “…this dream is being challenged by a new planning doctrine known as smart growth, which calls for dense urban development, restrictions on rural development, rail transit boondoggles, and barriers to auto driving. Despite its attractive name, smart growth is one of the greatest threats to American mobility, affordable housing, and freedom today.”
Cascade Policy Institute’s John Charles is their Senior Policy Analyst and Environmental Policy Director. Prior to joining the Institute, Mr. Charles was executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council for 17 years. As director, he served on dozens of local, state and federal commissions and advisory boards related to environmental protection. Charles was also an active participant in legislative proceedings, and helped author numerous environmental statutes in the areas of forest management, toxic substances, air pollution, watershed restoration, and transportation. Mr. Charles began his career as an executive assistant with the Environmental Defense Fund in New York and has written extensively on environmental topics. An expert on urban land-use and transportation issues, Charles is author of a chapter on the Portland experience in the book A Guide to Smart Growth, published jointly by the Heritage Foundation and Political Economy