As Portland State University professor said in Anna Griffin's Oregonian profile, maybe we shouldn't even be giving Randal O'Toole any attention. After all, the guy actually thinks Houston is a far better model for urban growth than planning.
O'Toole, who lives in Bandon but is a Portland native, says Portland's emphasis on government planning has led to higher housing prices, a shrinking population of families, and increasingly bad congestion. Within his argument are kernels of truth: We are indeed facing all of those challenges here. It's O'Toole's conclusions, though, that push him towards what one might call "Dumb Growth".
"They're actually building roads in Houston," O'Toole says in the article. "They know something in Houston that we haven't figured out here. You can build your way out of a traffic problem." In fact, I think they could soon simply link up the freeways of Houston, Dallas and Phoenix so they become one continuous sprawled out megalopolis. In fact, you probably wouldn't have a traffic problem, or at least not an automobile-based one. People would just fly everywhere. Daughter's got a dance recital at school? Hop in the Cessna, everybody!
I've been to Houston. It is far, far, far from any kind of Utopia. In fact, visiting there a couple years ago confirmed for me the direction Portland is going: away from giant freeways, big houses with big lots, and the rest of the unsustainable post-World War II model. If O'Toole has somewhat of a point about what Portland's challenges are--housing costs, etc.--he completely mischaracterizes them.
For example, if there were a Mt. Hood Freeway like they almost built here in the 1960s, it'd be easier to go east quickly - at least when it's not rush hour. But what would we be driving to? And through? The apartment I live in in Southeast Portland might not even be here. It could be in the freeway's path. Meanwhile, I'm about to walk to the grocery store this morning, Mr. O'Toole. A Houstonian would more likely encounter a drive to get there - or anywhere. Those families O'Toole so valiantly defends? That'd cost them more in gas money in Houston.
Actually, though, Houston is no longer the Dumb Growth poster child that O'Toole wants it to be. That's right, even in deep in the heart of Texas they've decided to build light rail. Be sure to check the inside of those cars for residual manure and tobacco juice.
Nevertheless, as Griffin and her editors seem to feel, we can't ignore the Randal O'Tooles out there. Even here in Portland there are countless Libertarian true believers like him, who worship at the altar of free markets with endless faith, as if organizing and imagining and working toward the kind of community we want is some kind of folly. By that rationale, you'd think the freeway--loving O'Toole would like it better if the road ahead no longer was paved with asphalt, and instead we all made different grooves through the grass and dirt. Yet to merely ridicule them isn't very helpful. Just as countless people even a few years ago didn't believe in the reality of global warming, but now have come around to the inevitable, we need to seek out and engage these contrarians chasing windmills and all who would listen to them.
Meanwhile, I'll continue to look to European cities for Portland's inspiration, not the nation's most disastrously laid out urban wastelands. O'Toole's right that it costs more this way. But Randal, keep this in mind: you get what you pay for.