“First” vs. “Worst”

Taking on the Portland mystique is not easy – and likely I'll find out again with my most recent piece: Picture-perfect Portland?

But I'd also like to take a Midwest perspective that shows some surprising things. Let's compare Portland to a similarly sized and less acclaimed Midwest city, Indianapolis. You can think of Portland as being in “first place” from a policy perspective by popular acclaim. It has an urban growth boundary, extensive transit, excellent urban density, a strong biking culture, a strong culture of civic engagement, the most microbreweries per capita, and on down the line. It is a place people want to live in so badly that they will move there with no job in hand and would be one of the cities that comes to mind among similar sized metros as a talent hub.

If Portland is first, then you’d have to characterize Indianapolis as “worst”. Indianapolis is surrounded by expanding suburbia with very pro-sprawl policies on all four sides. It is one of the least dense cities in America. It has no rail transit and only the 99th largest bus system, along with one of the lowest transit market shares in the country. It is currently in the middle of a multi-billion program to widen about 60 miles of freeway. It just recently put in its very first bike lanes and scores near the bottom in green measures of sustainability. Its brand image also is hardly the best. You don’t hear too many people around the country going, “Man, I’ve gotta get me to Indianapolis.”

But let’s look at how these cities compare on various quantitative measures of urban performance.




Population Growth (2000-2008)



Domestic In-Migration (2000-2008)



International In-Migration (2000-2008)



Job Growth 2001-2009 (QCEW)

10,300 (1.1%)

17,100 (2.1%)

Job Growth 2001-2009 (CES)

23,800 (2.4%)

31,000 (3.6%)

Unemployment Rate (Nov 2009)



Per Capita GMP (2008)



Per Capital GMP Growth (2001-2008)



Median Household Income (ACS 2008)



Median Monthly Housing Cost (ACS 2008)



College Degree Attainment (ACS 2008)



Travel Time Index (Texas A&M)



Now in most of these Portland does beat Indy, but not by a lot. In job growth and unemployment – two big factors in today's economy – Indy actually does better. Portland's higher incomes are offset by higher housing costs. There are only two stats – international migration and GMP per capita growth – where Portland has a big lead.

Given the wide difference in their policies, it is striking to see these cities so close. By rights, it should be total world domination by Portland – but it isn’t.

Now obviously these aren’t the only statistics to measure a city by. Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy? I was particularly struck by how close the cities were on college degree attainment. While I called Portland a talent hub, perhaps I spoke too soon. Contrast with Boston, which has 41.9% of its over 25 population with a bachelors degree or better.

It may be that policy changes act with a lag. But Portland has been at this a long time. The UGB dates to 1973 and the light rail system started construction in the early 80s, for example. Perhaps other factors play a bigger role than many imagine. Land use and transportation policies might provide benefits to cities, but they do not, by themselves, create an economic dynamo.

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