Urban Planning & Transport:
Portland & Seattle Contrasted

Perception of Portland Superiority Mistaken



Population & Transport: Seattle & Portland Data Compared
Public Transport Work Trip Market Share: Change 1980-1990
Automobile Work Trip Market Share: Change 1980-1990
Daily Public Transport Commuters
Urbanized Areas Ranked by Density: 1990
Portland Highway Traffic Continues to Grow Faster than Seattle
Portland Ranks Last Among Western Urbanized Areas in Density Trend: 1980-1990

Portland Auto Use Escalates After Light Rail
Portland: Potemkin Planning Village

Portland and Atlanta Urban Development Trends Similar


The Claim: Portland's Superiority over Seattle

Portland, Oregon is often cited as a model of urban planning in the United States. More than 15 years ago, the Oregon legislature authorized regional planning authorities to establish an urban growth boundary, the purpose of which was to encourage more dense urban development, and stop urban sprawl. The area built a light rail line, to which they attribute significant development. And local publications have referred to Portland as a "compact" urban area. At the same time, local commentators often contrast Portland's urban planning "success" with the Seattle, Washington experience, even referring to Seattle as a "paradise lost." The facts portray a much different picture.

Population & Transport:
Seattle & Portland Data Compared
Characteristic Seattle Portland
Urbanized Area: Square Miles
1950 123 114
1980 485 349
1990 588 388
Change 21.2% 11.2%
Source: US Census Bureau
Urbanized Area: Population
1950 622,000 512,000
1980 1,392,000 1,026,000
1990 1,744,000 1,172,000
Change: 1980-1990 25.3% 14.2%
Source: US Census Bureau
Population per Square Mile
1950 5,057 4,511
1980 2,870 2,940
1990 2,966 3,021
Change: 1980-1990 3.3% 2.7%
Source: US Census Bureau
Core City Population Density
1950 6,604 5,829
1980 5,886 3,557
1990 6,153 3,507
Change: 1980-1990 4.5% -1.4%
Source: US Census Bureau
Daily Work Trips by Passenger Transport
1980 79,323 47,504
1990 82,619 39,259
Change 3,296 (8,245)
% Change 4.2% -17.4%
Source: US Census Bureau
Public Transport Work Trip Market Share
1980 8.2% 8.1%
1990 6.3% 5.4%
Change -23.2% -33.3%
Source: US Census Bureau
Public Transp. Work Trip Market Share by Loca: 1990
Central Business District 36.2% 20.0%
City Excluding CBD 10.5% 5.6%
Suburbs 2.0% 1.6%
Source: US Census Bureau
Automobile Work Trip Market Share
1980 83.2% 82.3%
1990 85.4% 86.1%
Change 2.6% 4.6%
Source: US Census Bureau
Annual Transit Rides/Capita: Metropolitan Core
1980 46.9 38.0
1996 47.9 43.4
Change 2.0% 14.3%
Annual transit rides in core metropolitan area divided by core metropolitan population (Seattle: King & Snohomish counties, Portland: Clackamas, Multnomah & Washington counties.) These areas roughly correspond to the service areas of the major public transport operators in 1980 (Metro in Seattle and Tri-Met in Portland)

Portland data artificially higher due to double counting of light rail-bus riders

Commercial Building Index
1981 464 41
1996 838 148
Change 374 107
Calculated from data in World Almanac
Traffic Congestion Index
1982 0.95 0.87
1996 1.27 1.16
Change 33.7% 33.4%
Adj. for Pop. Change 2.0% 3.4%
Source: Texas Transportation Institute (Texas A&M University) project for the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.
Daily Vehicle Miles per Capita
1989 24.2 18.9
1996 24.5 21.6
Change 1.2% 14.3%
Source: Federal Highway Administration Highway Statistics
Performance Generally Favors Seattle

The table includes a number of indicators of urban sprawl and urban urban transport use.

  • Seattle's population density is growing faster than Portland's: Between 1980 and 1990 (the two most recent United States censuses), the Portland urbanized area experience population density growth of 2.7 percent, nearly 20 percent below Seattle's rate of urban density growth. Portland's urbanized area density is 2 percent more dense than Seattle's.

  • The central city of Seattle is considerably more dense than the central city of Portland: The core city of Seattle has a population density 45 percent higher than that of the core city of Portland.

  • Urban transport's work trip market share is higher in Seattle: The percentage of workers using urban transport (transit)for the work trip is now higher in the Seattle area than in the Portland area, despite the addition of Portland's light rail line (opened in 1986). In 1980, Portland's urban transport work trip market share was higher than Seattle's. From 1980 to 1990, urban transport work trip market share declined by 33 percent in Portland, and 23 percent in Seattle.

    In Portland, total daily urban transport work trips dropped by more than 8,200 round trips, despite and increase of more than 155,000 total daily work trips and the addition of one of the nation's most successful new light rail lines during the period.

    In Seattle, total daily urban transport work trips increased by 3,300 round trips out of 330,000 new daily work trips.

  • Automobile commuting is growing faster in Portland, and has passed Seattle : The percentage of workers using automobiles for the work trip is now higher in the Portland area than in the Seattle area. In 1980, Seattle's automobile work trip market share was higher than Seattle's. From 1980 to 1990, automobile work trip market share increased by 4.6 percent in Portland, and 2.6 percent in Seattle.

  • A higher percentage of workers commute to downtown Seattle than to downtown Portland (36.2 percent compared to 20.0 percent). Similarly, a higher percentage of workers commute to central city locations outside the CBD and to suburban locations in Seattle.



Automobile Dependency is Rising Faster in Portland

In the critical indicators of traffic congestion and automobile use, Seattle trends are better than Portland's.

  • Population growth adjusted traffic congestion is rising faster in Portland: Traffic congestion, based upon the Texas Transportation Institute index, is growing in both urban areas. Seattle's overall traffic growth over the past 10 years has been greater than that of Portland. But when adjusted for relative population Seattle's traffic growth is less than that of Portland.

  • Automobile use is rising faster in Portland: Average daily vehicle miles traveled per capita is greater in Seattle, which is to be expected because Seattle covers nearly 50 percent more land area than Portland. However, Portland's automobile use is rising, while Seattle's is falling. In the last five years, Seattle's average daily vehicle miles traveled per capita has increased 1.2 percent, while Portland's has increased by 14.3 percent.

Portland's Model: No Better than Average

Moreover, Portland does not stand out as a compact urban area even by the sparse standards of US urbanized areas. From 1980 to 1990, Portland added 39 square miles to its urbanized area --- more than the area of Paris (while adding less than 1/15th of Paris' population). In contrast:

  • Denver added only 20 square miles, yet accommodated 20,000 more new residents than Portland. Denver densified at a rate more than 2.5 times that of Portland. The Denver urbanized area population density is nearly 10 percent higher than that of Portland.

  • If decentralized Phoenix continues to densify at 1980-1990 rates, it will exceed Portland densities by 2000 --- this despite the fact that Phoenix has one of the smallest urban transport systems in a major US urbanized area.

  • Portland's population density ranks squarely in the middle of US urbanized areas of more than one million population - 17th out of 33. The average population density of US urbanized areas of more than one million residents is five percent higher than that of Portland.

Neither Denver nor Phoenix have strong regional land use planning legislation. During the early 1990s, Seattle became subject to growth management laws similar to that of Portland.

Neither Seattle nor Portland are densifying significantly. Portland, which has gone to such lengths to advertise its "success" is densifying at a rate somewhat lower than that of Seattle. Portland's rate of densification is miniscule --- at the 1980 to 1990 rate, it would require:

  • 150 years to return to Portland's 1950 density --- still highly automobile dependent.

  • 250 years to achieve the density of the Los Angeles urbanized area.

  • 750 years to achieve the density of metropolitan Paris.

By most measures, including the most important automobile use measures, the trends are more favorable in Seattle than in Portland. Portland is not a compact urban area, not even by US standards. In 1990, the Portland urbanized area was:

  • barely half as dense as Los Angeles ---the ultimate automobile oriented urban area.

  • 10 percent or more less dense than Denver and San Diego.

  • 1/7 as dense as metropolitan Paris.

  • 1/16 as dense as the city of Paris.

By no objective standard does Portland's performance live up to the inflated claims.

Also see: Portland Planning: A Potemkin Village

Urbanized Areas over 1,000,000: 1990

Urbanized Area Population Land Area (Sq. Mi.) Pop./Sq. Mile Compared to Average
1 Los Angeles 11,402,000 1,966 5,800 70.3%
2 Miami 1,915,000 353 5,425 59.3%
3 New York 16,044,000 2,967 5,407 58.8%
4 Chicago 6,792,000 1,585 4,285 25.8%
5 San Jose 1,435,000 338 4,246 24.6%
6 San Francisco-Oakland 3,630,000 874 4,153 21.9%
7 New Orleans 1,040,000 270 3,852 13.1%
8 Fort Lauderdale 1,238,000 327 3,786 11.1%
9 Philadelphia 4,222,000 1,164 3,627 6.5%
Average --- --- 3,406 0.0%
10 San Diego 2,348,000 690 3,403 -0.1%
11 Buffalo 954,000 286 3,336 -2.1%
12 Denver 1,518,000 459 3,307 -2.9%
13 Detroit 3,697,000 1,119 3,304 -3.0%
14 Sacramento 1,097,000 334 3,284 -3.6%
15 Baltimore 1,890,000 593 3,187 -6.4%
16 Boston 2,775,000 891 3,114 -8.6%
17 Portland 1,172,000 388 3,021 -11.3%
18 Seattle 1,744,000 588 2,966 -12.9%
19 Phoenix 2,006,000 741 2,707 -20.5%
20 St. Louis 1,947,000 728 2,674 -21.5%
21 Cleveland 1,677,000 636 2,637 -22.6%
22 Tampa-St. Petersburg 1,709,000 650 2,629 -22.8%
23 San Antonio 1,129,000 438 2,578 -24.3%
24 Riverside-San Bernardino 1,170,000 460 2,543 -25.3%
25 Houston 2,902,000 1,177 2,466 -27.6%
26 Milwaukee 1,226,000 512 2,395 -29.7%
27 Cincinnati 1,212,000 512 2,367 -30.5%
28 Dallas-Fort Worth 3,198,000 1,443 2,216 -34.9%
29 Pittsburgh 1,678,000 778 2,157 -36.7%
30 Norfolk 1,323,000 664 1,992 -41.5%
31 Minneapolis-St. Paul 2,080,000 1,063 1,957 -42.6%
32 Atlanta 2,157,000 1,137 1,897 -44.3%
33 Kansas City 1,275,000 762 1,673 -50.9%
Total 91,602,000 26,893 3,406 0.0%

Revised 1999.05.22

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