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Over 40 years ago, City of Portland memo outlined ‘Disincentives to the Automobile’

Posted by on February 15th, 2013 at 10:44 am

“The overall goal is to arrive at a more favorable balance between the city and the car, between the erosion of the city by cars and the attrition of automobiles by the city.”
— Alan Webber, in a 1971 memo created for City Commissioner Neil Goldschmidt

This morning a reader tipped us off to a fascinating memo penned by a City Hall staffer in 1971. The memo, titled, Disincentives to the Automobile (PDF), was written by Alan Webber, a staffer to then City Commissioner Neil Goldschmidt. Webber (bio) went on to have a notable career in journalism and is most well-known as being founder of Fast Company magazine. Today he’s an author and speaker considered an, “Expert on change and innovation in the knowledge economy.”

Webber’s six-page memo was created to “stimulate discussion on the role of the automobile” in Portland’s Downtown Plan. At the time the memo was written, cities around the country were being tasked by the Environmental Protection Agency to do something about high levels of urban air pollution (The “Anti-Planner” Randal O’Toole shared more historical context for the memo on his blog in 2008). The tone and content of the memo reveals a deep understanding that car overuse has a negative impact on the creation of a vibrant, livable city. Far from being simply “anti-car,” the memo reads like something you’d hear espoused by an advocate or planner at a modern-day active transportation conference.

From the introduction:

While labelled “Disincentives to the Automobile”, the concern of this paper is really the creation of a comprehensive transportation system, offering real alternatives to the private automobile. In that sense, whatever is an “incentive” for mass transit, buses, pedestrians, trucks and bicycles is a “disincentive ” against the automobile. The overall goal is to arrive at a more favorable balance between the city and the car, between the erosion of the city by cars and the attrition of automobiles by the city.

Car traffic seen from Burnside Bridge-1

This photo, taken from the Burnside Bridge in 2009, shows what the 1971 memo was hoping to avoid.

The memo quotes noted urban planner Jane Jacobs and calls for adopting, as City policy, the idea of “the attrition of the auto” by, “removing convenience and expense as arguments for the car, and to encourage diversity, freedom of movement, and a positive environment
for people in the downtown core area.”

Webber’s talk of incentives reminds us of the current work by PBOT’s Transportation Options group that promotes biking, walking and transit — not by villifying car use — but by making them easier and raising awareness of their existence. His talk of a “positive environment for people” brings to mind Enrique Penalosa’s famous quotes that we can create cities that are good to cars or for people, but not both.

The memo was broken into two parts: Disincentives to the Automobile and Incentives for Transportation Alternatives.

The first part called for parking restrictions, more stringent testing for driver’s licenses, higher gas taxes and registration fees, and more. Here are some highlights:

I. Disincentives to the Automobile

– make an inventory of present downtown parking spaces and set an absolute limit on the number… designed to discourage peripheral parking facilities that increase commuter traffic,

– create a Portland Parking Authority… institute higher fees for people entering parking lots between 6:00 and 10:00 a .m., thus specifically discouraging commuters while encouraging midday shopping, in effect levying a commuter parking tax;

Licensing and Maintenance

– raise the demands of the testing process;

– approve increases in gas tax and vehicle license fees;

– encourage merchants and banks to accept as proper identification papers and cards other than driver’s licenses;

Traffic Flow

– halt freeway construction in the urban area; halt all street widening

– designate specific core area streets as inaccessible to private automobile traffic;

-add toll booths to major entrances to the city… with funds received to be spent on financing and developing mass transit

– make it a violation of City code, punishable by police ticket, to enter the city from 7 :30-9:00 A.M. with less than three persons in any standard size automobile

And the second part, Incentives for Transportation Alternatives, dealt with improvements to walking, biking, taxis, buses, carpool policies, and so on. It started with this introduction:

“Without a fully developed alternative transportation system, a series of implemented disincentives to the automobile may prove punitive to lower-income citizens exclusively. The goal here, therefore, is to develop an alternative transportation system, based on the theory that it will take a series of transit options to counter the singleness of the automobile. The advantages of such a system, which might initially include walking, full-size and mini buses or vans, taxis, car-pools, and bicycles, are the encouragement of choice in mobility, the breakdown of the boredom of the private automobile, and the disruption of downtown dullness.”


– Initiate a pro-pedestrian traffic light campaign so that at regular intervals WALK signs show all directions, permitting cross-intersection pedestrian traffic;


– get the various bike path parties working together rather than competing in the expenditure of bike path money; design a system of bike trails and paths to enable the bicycle to compete with the auto; this means commuter use from residential neighborhoods to downtown area, and not only recreational use of the bicycle;

– provide new “bike lights” along bike paths to regulate automobile and bicycle traffic separately;

– create bike paths across major bridges to encourage commuter use;

– set up stations with loaner bikes available for walk and ride use [bike share!]; make bicycle parking available downtown;

The memo is a fascinating look into where the politics of transportation were in Portland in 1971. In some ways, it shows how far we’ve come, yet in others it shows how far we have yet to go. These days, such direct language about the problem — and the common sense solutions — would unfortunately be considered a political risk. And of course the local media would have a feeding frenzy if any Commissioner released such a document.

Given that these ideas were on the table in 1971, we should compare them to the visions laid out by current advocacy groups and politicians. And we should ask questions…

Are we too afraid to take bold steps and outline bold visions these days?

Does our current “system of bike trails and paths to enable the bicycle to compete with the auto”?

Instead of creative, impactful parking policy, why are we even debating parking minimums? And why haven’t we instituted any new parking policies other than nominal rate increases?

Why have we still not done enough to designate, “specific core area streets as inaccessible to private automobile traffic”? (Sorry, but the inconsequential closure of SW Ankeny and the late-night closure in Old Town is not what we’re talking about.)

I’ve contacted Alan Webber. I think it’d be interesting to get his perspective on this over four decades later. Stay tuned.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • John Henry Burns February 15, 2013 at 11:05 am

    The 1970s was the tail-end of a multi-decade progressive era which began after WW2. Starting with Ronald Reagan, our nation has been in a nearly 40-year long conservative era. It’s a shame that some of the momentum of this report was stifled by changing national moods.

    That said, it is impressive how many of the suggestions from this 1971 report have actually been implemented (or are on the way, like bike share), despite the broader national political climate. I’m optimistic that we are now at the early stages of another progressive cycle, and that many of the ideas from the 1971 report that seem radical today will seem common sense 10 or 20 years down the road. Soon I expect it will be a greater political risk to obstruct these types of improvements, rather than being politically risky to use the common sense blunt language in this report.

    Great find with this report, thanks for posting.

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    • Pete February 16, 2013 at 10:12 am

      Progressive growth, yes, and open-mindedness. Progressive conservation… well, it took an OPEC oil crisis to get that ball rolling (slowly). But inflation was high and it forced people to shut lights off and conserve electricity, share rides (hitch-hiking being much more popular than today), and budget money instead of debt-spend. From my memory, Reagan was about the time a US President encouraged people to spend spend spend, and replacing Paul Volcker with the money-print paradigm that still exists today… well, we know where that has taken us.

      And you hit the nail on the head: with our feuding political parties ruling national sentiment, it’s ‘progressive’ language like this report contains that would likely have it labeled as ‘liberal’ and bandied against under the accusations of increased spending/taxes and an assault on “The American Way of Life” (sorry if any copyright infringements). Clearly some of us see the irony in this!

      Looking forward to the follow-up. Has anyone read any of Webber’s books (http://www.rulesofthumbbook.com/about_the_author.html)?

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  • peejay February 15, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Tolling major entrances to the city should have happened years and years ago. Now we cannot even suggest that idea. Sad.

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    • Alan 1.0 February 15, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Historically what happens then is a thriving economy develops right outside that tax wall: “sub” “urban.”

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  • mikeybikey February 15, 2013 at 11:39 am

    “Without a fully developed alternative transportation system, a series of implemented disincentives to the automobile may prove punitive to lower-income citizens exclusively. ”

    This is the outcome that we are heading for right now. Is this the kind of place we want to build?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm


      we’re only heading for that because we have refused to fully implement a safe and efficient bike network and we have cut back our transit service in the name of rail and other projects.

      a complete bike network is the highest ROI, most cost-effective and affordable transportation investment we can make. Meanwhile, auto-dependency is the opposite of that. contrary to what you might have read in the paper or heard from activists, bike lanes do not lead to gentrification. gentrification happens because only wealthier ppl can currently live in places that have even a modicum of bike access. that’s why the goal should be to build a complete bike network that serves all neighborhoods throughout the city in a way that’s just as complete, safe, and efficient as our car-oriented network is today.

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      • Hugh Johnson February 16, 2013 at 8:41 am

        right on Maus! I’d ride more frequently, and encourage those around me to do the same, but the infrastructure just isn’t there for us is many areas.

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        • spare_wheel February 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm

          i ride this invisible infrastructure every day.

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      • Pete February 16, 2013 at 10:17 am

        Agreed, though a complete bike network will not achieve the cultural shift that needs to take place here to accept bicyclists and bicycling as something other than a recreational annoyance to those with someplace to go.

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        • 9watts February 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

          “will not achieve the cultural shift that needs to take place”

          our looming energy/climate crisis will take care of that.

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      • spare_wheel February 18, 2013 at 12:51 pm

        i could not disagree more with your accommodationist point of view, jonathan. imo, the only way we will see active transport really gain mode share in the usa is to strongly penalize motoring. i also believe that “build it and they will come” is wishful thinking. both copenhagen and amsterdam had very high mode share prior to the recent programs of path/track construction. until we make motoring more expensive and less convenient the vast majority of americans will continue to take the path of least resistance.

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        • spare_wheel February 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

          this statement was in response to jonathan’s implied critique of those who are “anti-car” or seek to “vilify” motoring. it really bugs me when people are afraid to call it as they *really* see it for fear of offending the majority.

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        • Pete February 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

          “…is to strongly penalize motoring.”

          Or at least stop subsidizing it!

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      • jim karlock June 24, 2014 at 2:36 pm

        I wonder if you would be kind enough to indicate your source for this document as the only copy that I am aware of is one that I scanned, cleaned up, and placed at DebunkingPortland.com.

        Since you appear to find my site so interesting, I wonder if you would also add the following pages (from the home page of DebunkingPortland) to you site:
        Transit is MORE subsidized than cars
        Even big city transit DOES NOT save energy
        Transit commutes take much longer than driving
        Driving is easier than transit for elderly
        High density causes congestion
        High density costs more than low density
        High Density REDUCES social interaction

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        • rick June 20, 2017 at 5:25 pm

          Which U.S. bicycle company has received tens of millions of dollars in subsidies ?

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        • rick June 20, 2017 at 5:27 pm

          What of the elderly people with a tight grip on a steering wheel and drive from a garage to the mailbox to get the mail ? Lots of healthcare troubles.

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    • Dave February 20, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Not the kind of place we want to build–it’s time to look at legislating absolute limits to the selling and renting price of property and using laws with real teeth (jail time, property siezure) to enforce them.

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  • Oregon Mamacita February 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

    72% of renters own cars. All Webber did was cause congestion. Webber is an excuse for developers to externalize costs and throw everyone else’s property into shadow. Tri-Met is failing- 70% cutbacks in service. We need more direct votes on density/transit issues. Every popular vote in the region has rejected the new urbanism.
    You can’t force your failing theories on your neighbors.

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    • Erik Sandblom February 15, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Oregon Mamacita, developers externalize costs? I assume you’re talking about parking minimums. Don’t you mean car owners externalize costs? I’m sure developers will build parking, if car owners are willing to pay market rates for it.

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    • ed February 15, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      If “new urbanism” is failing Oregon Mamacita, show me a place where the alternative is working. If catering to automobiles as an alternative is the answer, a place where virtually everything has been given over to cars should be the easiest city to drive in and be the best quality of life then. I’m talking about LA. That’s what happens when you let cars have all the space they “need”. Are you seriously going to advocate that as a model? We know what a dystopia that is and we know they are back pedaling furiously there now; trying to put in light rail, bike and ped facilities wherever possible, as fast as possible. So much for your absurd proposition…

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      • rider February 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm

        See also, Houston and Dallas.

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      • mr t February 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm

        If “new urbanism” is failing Oregon Mamacita, show me a place where the alternative is working. If catering to automobiles as an alternative is the answer, a place where virtually everything has been given over to cars should be the easiest city to drive in and be the best quality of life then. I’m talking about LA

        Ed, just a factual point of reference: population density in LA is 75% higher than Portland (7500 people / sq mile vs. 4375 people / sq mile).

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  • 9watts February 15, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Amazing and very timely discovery. Thanks for finding and featuring it here.

    “yet in others it shows how far we have yet to go”

    This is true for many issues that were handled much more frankly and with common sense forty years ago. Similar documents to this one were commissioned at the highest levels of our government on what today are considered taboo subjects: population growth and its consequences and alternatives being just one:

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  • Erik Sandblom February 15, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Interesting document! I’m not sure I like the idea of ticketing drivers with fewer than three people in the car between 7:30-9:00 AM. It seems arbitrary.

    I like to think that if the other policies are implemented, such rules wouldn’t be necessary. Especially parking minimums and road building projects come across as dinosaurs. Cars are in the way. They’re in the way of pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and even in the way of developers. Why put in even more of them?

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    • nut4squirrel February 16, 2013 at 3:56 am

      London has been doing something like this since 2003 to reduce congestion. Between the hours of 7am and 6pm you have to pay about $16 to bring you car anywhere near central London during weekdays. If you don’t pay the toll there are many cameras which will record your license plate and send you a ticket for about $160 in the mail. My family came in to London in a rental car late at night and stayed the next day walking and taking public transit with the idea we would get going early enough the following day to avoid paying. However leaving at 6am we spent over an hour in heavy traffic getting out of London and found our credit card had been charged a congestion fine by way of the rental company.

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  • ed February 15, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    As usual Jonathan – great reportage, great research, and useful tool for furthering the great conversion, our thanks to you…

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  • Mike February 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Thanks for this great post. Ahh, the 1970s!! The first Earth Day (1970) really caused a lot of thought about and attention to the mounting environmental problems of that era, urban air pollution, curbing the automobile, etc. If you’ve never come across Title 12 “Air Pollution Emergency” of the Portland City Code, it is a hoot. It was enacted around that same time. It gives the Mayor power to declare increasingly restrictive air pollution ‘warnings’ and ’emergencies’ due to air pollution and carbon monoxide levels. Also the powers to ban all private automobiles from a ‘traffic control area’ (essentially most of the central core.) Also to direct public works crews to erect barricades on all streets leading into the core, and gives police powers to fine, arrest, and jail persons (up to six months) who would dare violate the ban by driving a private auto into the zone. I would really like to read the language used in the original materials/Ordinance if it could be found. Anyway, thanks again for this great story & link to that original typewritten document! If anyone’s interested, here’s Portland City Code, Title 12: http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=28176

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson February 17, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    In the late 60’s, on a clear day you could NOT see Mt Hood…the haze/smog was too thick. We’ve come a long way, but have a long way to go still. Rail transit combined with buses in Portland connects lower income neighborhoods, Rockwood, Outer SE, to job centers like Swan Island much more effectively than bus transit alone. MAX has been a major part of the progress Portland has seen since this paper was written.

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  • rick June 20, 2017 at 1:09 pm


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