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The Limits of New Urbanism in Portland's Orenco Station

The Limits of New Urbanism in Portland's Orenco Station
Flickr user: faceless b

A decade ago, writing in the New York Times, Alan Ehrenhalt called the planned community of Orenco Station one of the most promising models of New Urbanism in the United States. The neighborhood has all the tools to merit the claim. It's social, with high-density, mixed-use buildings and loads of public space. It's walkable, with an extensive network of sidewalks that makes the town center never more than 20 minutes away. And it's transit friendly, located about a half hour west of Portland on the Westside light rail line. So much so, wrote Ehrenhalt, that's it's even possible to live there without a car.

Ten years later, Orenco Station has lived up to much of its urbanist hype, but certainly not this last hope. In a survey-driven review of Orenco's successes and failures, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Urbanism, sociologist Bruce Podobnik of Lewis and Clark College in Portland concludes that while the neighborhood has achieved a heightened sense of community and successfully encouraged walking, most residents still rely on the single-occupancy vehicle — not mass transit — as their primary mode of commute. (The following quotes and statistics are from a version of the research [PDF] presented at a professional meeting.)

While theories on New Urbanism abound, writes Podobnik, studies of it in action are relatively scarce. To address this research gap, Podobnik compared lifestyle elements of Orenco Station with those of three other neighborhoods in the metro area: northeast Portland, a dense community characterized by an urban grid and numerous public bus lines; southwest Portland, a relatively dense part of the city with easy interstate access; and Beaverton, a traditional low-density suburb of cul-de-sacs and large private lots that's nonetheless along the light rail line.

On measurements of social interaction and pedestrian activity, Orenco Station has fulfilled its New Urbanism objectives. The neighborhood has an "unusually high" level of sociality, Podobnik reports, enhanced by a tendency to walk into the center of town. Half of the neighborhood's residents walk to a business five times a week, whereas only 5 percent of people in Beaverton do the same. Conversely, some 68 percent of Beaverton residents never walk to a store, a claim made by only 7 percent of those living in Orenco Station.

But when it comes to riding mass transit, residents of Orenco Station fail to live up to urbanist ideals. Nearly two-thirds of them list driving to work alone as their exclusive form of commute; in suburban Beaverton the figure isn't much higher, at 75 percent. Orenco residents rank last among the four neighborhoods on two other transit measurements: only 15 percent of them consider mass transit their exclusive commute mode, and just 9 percent ride it at least five times a week.

The findings are not entirely bleak. Only a third of Orenco Station inhabitants say they never use mass transit, and more than half of them ride transit at least once a week — both tops among the surveyed neighborhoods. Compared with residents of Beaverton, those of Orenco Station were 84 percent more likely to have used mass transit since moving to their neighborhood. In addition, when Podobnik studied changes in the behavior of Orenco Station residents over time, he found some encouraging trends. They've shown an increased tendency to walk to a store regularly, and their habit of driving to work alone, while surprisingly high, has gone down somewhat. 

Still it's hard to consider Orenco Station a success — at least yet — by the strict standards of New Urbanism, Podobnik concludes:

At the same time, if Orenco Station wants to be judged as being a true environmental success then more significant changes in commuting behavior will need to be achieved. This will require more sustained, coordinated efforts by members of the community, local planners, and employers, to ensure that available transit options are used more intensively.

That last suggestion is more than a hypothetical one. As our own Nate Berg recently pointed out, communities can discourage car use a number of ways — for instance, by altering the availability and ease of parking. Recent work from psychologists also suggests that even habitual car-commuters can warm to mass transit after just a brief trial period. The lure of the automobile is enough that even those who want to wean themselves off it sometimes need a nudge.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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