“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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Now it's just starting to seem personal

I've been to Indianapolis. It's not a terrible place, but it's not my kind of place.

The typical Portlander sees the larger picture, unlike the very narrow, skewed view that you have. Putting in bicycle infrastructure benefits motorists, more than it does cyclists. It gets cyclists out of primary flow traffic. It frees up parking places downtown, and to some extent controls the cost of fuel. The light rail system also provides much the same function. It's "putting ones eggs in many baskets". The perspective of many of the writers on this site, shows how small-minded people can be. You would have all of us tide to fuel prices and strip malls. That may be fine for Indianapolis, but we like to live a little differently.

Crime rankings?

Something not discussed in many people's "urban performance" rankings:


The city of Portland doesn't even crack the top 50 of cities in the US (over 250,000 pop) in terms of violent crime rates. Indianapolis (city) is in the top 20. Metro wise, Portland MSA ranks 212th (in 2006 numbers) and Indianapolis MSA ranks 85th of all MSAs in the entire US (2006).

I've always wondered why crime rates never get talked about regarding cities. It will be interesting to see where crime goes in the coming years of a recession.

Good contrast

It's interesting to see that despite the differences on how these two urban areas handle development, they both ended up successful. According to the 2nd edition of Cities Ranked & Rated by Sperling and Sander, Portland is ranked as the 3rd best metro area to live in in the country, and the first for the over 1 million size category. Indianapolis is ranked 19th overall, and is second for the over 1 million size category.

See this previous article for those who are attracted to Indy:

See this article to see how Indy is the top destination in the Midwest:

An interesting point to ponder is the different geographic location of each city in relation to other urban areas. Portland is relatively isolated and will continue to be so. In a 200 mile radius of the city there are an estimated 9.09 million people as of 2008. Indianapolis is surrounded by other large urban areas, and there are 26.1 million people within the same radius.

city rankings

What are those rankings based on?

Far too many are on the number of bike paths, instead of the number of family wage jobs.

Too many rate transit use over travel time (which always averages slower on transit.)
(see: http://www.portlandfacts.com/commutetime.html)