Regional leaders stop telling people to live near work

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PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Regional leaders are no longer saying that people should live near employment centers. Instead, the newest idea for mitigating congestion and reducing carbon emissions involves ensuring that housing is located near other travel destinations, such as stores, recreational centers and community gathering spots.

Although never a formal policy, for years elected officials and planners in the region said that commutes would be shorter if more people lived closer to where jobs are concentrated. The same was true in other metropolitan areas across the country. The concept especially gained traction during the Great Recession, when gas prices soared ahead of the real estate crash, prompting many to say suburbs were all but dead.

But proponents began backing off the idea during the economic recovery, when they realized that large numbers of people were not taking the opportunity to move closer to employment centers, even as urban apartment construction was increasing and homes began selling again.

Metro, the elected regional government charged with land-use planning, acknowledged the shift in its 2014 Urban Growth Report. In a short section titled “Commuting Trends: Job-Housing Balance,” planners wrote, “For years, leaders have talked about a jobs-housing balance — ensuring there are homes close to employment areas. But evidence and common sense tell us that people’s lives don’t neatly line up with the available housing inventory.” It noted that other amenities near housing can help create strong local communities.

Four years later, Metro planners have elaborated on that finding in the draft 2018 Urban Growth Report, which was released July 3. In a section titled “From home to work and back,” the report identifies numerous reasons why people don’t choose to live near where they work. They include housing prices and preferences, whether spouses and partners are employed in different locations, and whether local schools meet family needs and preferences.

“People make complex decisions about where to live and work. Few of us choose the job closest to home or the home closest to our job,” the report says.

The section included a graphic that shows commute patterns in the seven-county Portland-Hillsboro-Vancouver region in 2015, the most recent year for which such figures are available. It reveals that large percentages of residents leave their counties every day for work. The percentages range from 34 percent in Multnomah County to 46 percent in Washington County, 66 percent in Clackamas County, and 76 percent in Skamania County.

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Despite the increasing congestion caused by such commuting as the population grows, the report says the patterns are not going to change in the future. But planners also have realized that work commutes only account for around 30 percent of all daily trips. Many of the other trips are believed to be much easier to reduce, shorten or switch to alternative modes of transportation.

“The best course of action is to plan communities with a mix of uses that shorten our other trips — going to the grocery store, for example — and provide reliable and safe multimodal transportation options to link different parts of the region,” the report says.

Both reports were prepared as part of Metro’s periodic process for deciding whether to expand the urban growth boundary (UGB) where new development can occur. In 2014, the Metro Council, which sets the UGB, voted against expanding it after concluding it already contained a 20-year supply of buildable land, as required by state land-use planning laws. The decision was controversial because signs of an impending housing shortage already were beginning to surface, prompting the council to move up its next decision from the regular six years to four years.

This year, Metro is using a new process to determine whether and where to expand the UGB. The draft 2018 Urban Growth Report says more housing is needed in the region to help accommodate the 500,000 additional people expected to be living in the seven-county area by 2038. And for the first time, cities have been invited to submit requests to expand the UGB into adjacent urban reserves established by Metro for future growth, if they are willing to support more development.

Four cities have done so: Beaverton, Hillsboro, King City and Wilsonville. Together, they are asking Metro to add 2,200 acres to the UGB to accommodate 9,200 new homes. The council is scheduled to make its decision on Dec. 13.

“We stand by the notion that it makes sense to have a mix of uses where people can meet their daily needs close by,” Metro planner Ted Reid said in an email. “For most people, non-commute trips (to the grocery store, day care, the doctor, restaurants, dropping kids off at school, etc.) make up most of our travel. Likewise, having that mix contributes to an active urban economy. We also stand by the plan to maintain a compact region to keep travel distances shorter, reduce carbon emissions, and protect farms and forests.”

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