Inspired Ethonomics: Portland, a Global Model of Transit-Oriented Development

Portland, Oregon, is consistently ranked as one of the country's most livable cities (and it was a Fast City in 2007). And it continues to show solid growth despite having the second lowest per capita transit spending of the 28 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. A system of trains, streetcars, buses, and aerial trams give the city one of the most diverse transportation portfolios in the world. In this episode of e2 , we find out how have city planners integrated transportation planning into their decision-making over the past 40 years?

Peter Calthorpe | Calthorpe Associates:  A formula for a transit-oriented development (TOD) is very simple. Its diversity: diversity in population and in land use. So you have a place where you have a range of housing opportunities. You don’t ever want to say this is a place for one kind of person; lofts for young people, or condos for empty-nesters, or apartment buildings for seniors, or anything like that. You want it to be a complete neighborhood, so you get a pretty broad range of household types and ages and incomes.

And then is has to be mixed with local destinations, local stores, cafes, shops, civic places, parks, schools. So diversity of populations and of land use. Now that’s not enough, I can show you places in the suburbs that are actually diverse, there are office parks on one corner, a shopping mall on another, and a condo on the 3rd and a subdivision on the 4th. Yet there’s no walk-ability, they are all divided by these huge massive arterials with giant pedestrian unfriendly crossings.

We really had to work hard to invent a landscape that would make a local destination a car trip. It took some doing, but we somehow achieved it. Any local destination now happens to be on an arterial, a place where you look kinda foolish walking, if not in danger.

So the next fundamental part of a transit-oriented development (TOD) is this idea of the human scale of bringing the pedestrian back into the picture, and creating streets that are both pedestrian and bike friendly, as well as auto friendly.  And it’s quite a tricky job. Once again the old paradigm is there, Elm St leading to Main St is a pretty good formula and it does work, and it is being reborn. We see that people like to shop on Main St more than in the mall, and certainly they like to be able to walk there and without having to cross an eight-lane arterial.

So that walk-ability and pedestrian human scale plays out in many levels. What do you experience as you walk; is it a series of garage doors or a series of front porches? Do you have that old tree canopy overhead? You know there’s lots of issues about how you shape the public domain so that its truly pedestrian friendly. And so I think those are the two fundamental design criteria for what makes a good TOD. Density, intensity, these are things that vary place to place.  As our population matures, and as the economy shifts I think we’re going to see more and more density, people are going to understand that living in a townhouse that’s truly in a town as apposed to floating off in the middle of nowhere makes a lot of sense for a lot of people. So when you have so little that’s of value in the public domain no wonder people want to enlarge the arcs to escape into. But if you no longer have to escape the public world you perhaps don’t need quite as big a private domain.

Additional digital shorts from the e2 Series: Seoul Reengineers a Freeway Into a Stream

[Photos by flickr users b and Jason McHuff]

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4 Comments

  • Richard Campbell

    Portland is doing well by American standards but that is an extremely low standard. It is in no way a global model and doesn't even really fair that well for transit use. Seattle had more people using transit even before they opened their light rail system. Look to European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples on how to do cycling right. As far as transit goes, there are many European cities and Asian cities that have much better transit systems.

    Their TOD is a bit underwhelming. Many European cities have large car-free areas which are much nicer than Portland's TOD.

    What Portland has is great marketing, can't fault them for that.

  • David Dawson

    It's easy to spend little on public transportation and still have a viable system when land use is diversely mixed-use enough to ensure that the demand on transportation remains low. The video was a great introduction to the fact that local destinations of all different uses (work, play, live, eat, shop, etc.) that people can walk to (and want to) is a great way to make sure that people don't have to use their cars and the city doesn't have to spend an exorbitant amount on public transit.