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Oregon’s proposal to lift fourplex bans would be great for biking

Posted by on December 18th, 2018 at 8:57 am

Protected bike lanes aren’t the only reason so many people bike in Amsterdam.
(Photo: M. Andersen)

An earlier version of this post was published by the Sightline Institute. It’s by former BikePortland news editor Michael Andersen.

The fight to strike down apartment bans has arrived in Oregon’s legislature.

Would re-legalizing fourplexes everywhere be good for bicycle transportation? It very much would be.

On Friday, Willamette Week broke some news: Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek has been working on a bill that’d require all but the smallest Oregon cities in urban areas to re-legalize up to four homes per lot—a lower-cost housing option that was quite common in the early 20th century but was gradually banned from most parts of most cities.

BikePortland has had a lot to say about proposals like this one before (including the similar local reform that keeps getting better, thanks to public pressure as it works its way through Portland’s endless local process).

But now that this issue has hit the statewide radar, let’s gather the evidence around this question: Would re-legalizing fourplexes everywhere be good for bicycle transportation?

It very much would be.

As Elly Blue put it on BikePortland 11 years ago, proximity is key to our future. More than bike classes, more than courteous driving, more even than comfortable infrastructure, the number-one way to make bike transportation work for the life of an ordinary Oregonian is to make the trips we have to take shorter.

*Source: 2017 NHTS.

Making it legal — not mandatory, just legal — to build homes closer to each other is the way to do this.

Legalizing more housing creates more proximity twice.

First and most obviously, it creates proximity because it lets more people (and also more varieties of people) choose to live closer to current destinations like jobs, parks, schools, grocery stores, shops, parks, quality transit stops and (oh, yeah) their family and friends. Two weeks ago, an economic report on Portland’s fourplex re-legalization proposal estimated that 87 percent of the new, smaller and relatively cheaper homes built would go into the lower-density neighborhoods up to roughly 3.5 miles from the city center.

Those are the exact same neighborhoods we called out in a 2014: “maybe this is why you can’t afford to rent in the central city.”

These are also, of course, the Portland neighborhoods with the best bike infrastructure. We should be improving biking everywhere, but we can also make our existing investments go further by letting more people live near them.

The second reason re-legalizing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes creates proximity is that simply by existing, homes help create more new things near them. TriMet can’t justify upgrading a bus line to frequent service until a lot of people live fairly close to it. New Seasons can’t justify opening a new grocery store — and Fred Meyer may not be able to justify keeping an existing grocery store open — unless there are a certain number of people living near it.

Every neighborhood coffee shop and dive bar in the city relies hugely on the people who live close enough to walk or bike there and back without hardly thinking about it.


More homes => more people => more coffee shops and dive bars within biking distance => more biking.

You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s right there in the National Household Travel Survey:

*Data: 2017 NHTS. Chart: Michael Andersen.

This is the flip side of the phenomenon my colleague Margaret Morales recently observed about backyard cottages. She calculated that adding 7 more homes to each standard city block of 21 lots would reduce average driving per household on that block by about 1,000 miles per year.

(Or for more evidence in various contexts, you could look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

One thing to notice about the chart above is that the difference in biking between 17,500 people per square mile (Portland’s Northwest 23rd Avenue, with lots of the old mid-scale housing that has since been mostly banned) and 27,500 (the south side of Portland’s downtown, with skyscrapers) is much less than the difference between 7,500 people per square mile (a lawn-and-driveway area like Beaumont-Wilshire) and 17,500 people per square mile.

In other words, if we want lots more biking, we don’t have to put towers everywhere (though that wouldn’t hurt, either). We just have to transition into cities with many buildings that are a few stories tall and attached to each other.

Hmm, sounds somehow familiar.

*Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: M. Andersen.

*Houten, Netherlands. Photo: Nicholas Oyler, City of Memphis.

*Medellín, Colombia. Photo: M. Andersen.

*Montreal, Canada. Photo: J. Maus

None of this is to say we shouldn’t also be building awesome protected bike lanes and off-street paths and traffic-calmed side streets. Cities in northern Europe, South America and southern China prove that the magic formula for lots of biking is to combine proximity with great streets.

After years of stagnation, Portland is finally doing more to improve its streets. The logical next step is to make it possible for more Portlanders to use them a little bit less.

— Michael Andersen: (503) 333-7824, @andersem on Twitter and


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Adam Weis
Adam Weis

Great piece Michael. There’s no doubt that allowing more homes in inner SE and NE Portland would be great for biking and for the planet, but I still wonder if we ought to be allowing greater density in places that are structurally car dependent. Wouldn’t four-plexes on a winding cul-de-sac just lead to more driving? On balance, the four-plex rule will probably do more to spur development in central locations, than out on the fringes, but I still think this is an important question we should be asking. Should this policy apply everywhere?

(Also I believe you meant 17,500 units per sq mile not per acre)


Seems like with the type of folks currently transplanting here, you will most likely see 8-ish cars per lot instead of the current 2-ish.

Sorta like induced demand and all…


Great! This proposal will only increase my property value! Although, I’ll likely have to up the rent a bit on my other property to compensate.


You’re crazy if you think banning single-family zoning will make Portland more like Amsterdam. We still build everything around the car here and that won’t change for the forseeable future. Some people need to get around and not everyone can ride a bike…

Matt S.
Matt S.

I enjoyed reading the article, the only thing I’m depressed about it the percentages were talking about: “probability of a trip happening by bike” is less than 2%. I imagine if the density increases, so too will biking, hopefully.

David Hampsten

” is much less than the difference between 7,500 homes per acre (a lawn-and-driveway area like Beaumont-Wilshire) and 17,500 homes per acre. ”

This is clearly a typo, but I’m not sure what you are trying to say. An acre is 43,560 square feet or an area slightly larger than a downtown Portland city block. Most blocks in inner Portland have 10-20 homes per acre. I’m guessing you are writing about the size of lots being 7,500 square feet versus 17,500 sq ft, but I could be wrong.

Hello, Kitty
Hello, Kitty

New construction is the enemy of affordability. It’s true that a new 4-plex will probably have cheaper units than a new single family house, but it is often not true that a new 4-plex will have cheaper units than an existing single family house of the type that a developer would be willing to buy and demolish to build that 4-plex, especially if the original structure is used as group housing.

In Ladd’s Addition, there is a ton of new ADUs being built. Those would provide lower cost housing without displacing other options, except, of course, they’ll all be rented on the short-term market because Portland is unwilling to stand up to anything bigger than a scooter company.

Jason Skelton
Jason Skelton

“Making it legal — not mandatory, just legal — to build homes closer to each other is the way to do this.”
Why is this controversial? It seems the current legal regime is more radical and poor public policy: prohibiting multi units on single family lot and requiring off-street parking for single family homes.


More housing density is great, but people don’t expressly need to live closer to each other. It doesn’t hurt, but what they really need is to live closer to work and shopping. Which means mixing residential and commercial zones. If industry uses modern environmental practices (or is forced to by our wonderful strong forward-thinking and principled government… hmm…) then maybe you could mix industrial uses in there too. Basically I’m starting to think the solution might be to abolish all or most zoning. In cities that grew up before zoning was a thing, people self-arranged organically into patterns that “ended up” (in quotes because it’s no coincidence) being the most efficient and working for everybody. And those are attractive cities today.


Bike Portland, thanks for including this here. The more discussions about the land use-transportation (of all types) connection we have here, the better. Having said that, this proposal isn’t outlawing single family zoning–its providing more options within that zone.

Ted Buehler
Ted Buehler

Michael — good points.

But, your map is off.

I pointed this out to you 4.5 years ago, and you still haven’t updated it.

Much of the “grey” zoned land in your map that you don’t include in “can build apartments” or “can’t build apartments” is was zoned EX in 2014 (not zoned — build anything), and is now zoned CM (Commercial Mixed Use)

Hence, your numbers are off, the blue areas of your map are dramatically underrepresented, and the premise of the story is also off. (Because of the more than amble EX/CM zoning, Portland has lots and lots of vacant land where apartments can be built).

Just sayin…

Ted Buehler

Ted Buehler
Ted Buehler

Here’s my post from 4.5 years ago on your original “Maybe this is why you can’t rent in Portland”

Ted Buehler April 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Michael — I think you’ve made an error in your calculations.

The Portland zone “EX” is termed “Employment” but what it really means is “Everything,” typically with a 65′ height limit (5 stories).

In your map, you omitted all non “residential lands” from your buildable inventory. The EX land, while not zoned residential, is available for residential construction.

There’s lots of EX land, suitable for building apartment buildings, that ie erroneously shown in “grey” on your map.

For instance, many of the new apartment buildings in the inner N/NE are built on EX land, such as
* The Albert, Williams and Beech, 64 units
* The Payne, 18 units, Williams and Beech
* 4200 N Williams 84 units, (under construction) Williams and Mason
* Wilmore, about 50 units, (under construction) Williams and Skidmore
* OAME site, about 184 units, soon to be under construction, Willams and Mason
* Kaiser Towers, 8 stories, soon to be under construction, Williams and Fremont
* Bakery Towers, 5 stories, 100+ units, soon to be under construction, Williams and Cook
* new microflats, about 35 units, Vancouver between Failing and Beech
* The Miss, ~40 units, Mississippi between Beech and Failing
* The Sippi, ~25 units, Mississippi and Failing
* The Prescott, ~? units, Skidmore and Interstate

You might want to update your buildable land inventory map, and calculations, to include the EX zoned land…

Here’s some screenshots showing where EX zoned land needs to be added to the “blue” section of your map —

Ted Buehler


“I had a house of my own with two roommates, put up a room on Craigslist for $550, and I got over 60 responses begging, pleading, and sometimes practically threatening me for the room”it sounds to me like there is significant demand for this housing type. perhaps we as a society should stop denigrating this class of tenants and treating them like 2nd class residents.Recommended 0

I agree, and I’ve both rented a room in a house and made rooms available for rent. You know what sucks though? I can put up a room on Craigslist for $750 tomorrow, and I’ll get another 60 responses. Half of them will be people who could very well have afforded one of those fancy skinny houses next door if there were 100 of them, but there’s not; there’s only 8 here, and they’re all full.

So what’s your fix soren? Stop “denigrating this class of tenants”? I’ve never done it, purely out of self interest. I’ve been that “class of tenant” much longer than my current class of tenant. I’ve known plenty of people who would never insult someone who didn’t own their own home, but also did nothing to make housing more affordable for anybody. We’re both trying our hardest not to make anybody feel shitty, but our actions didn’t put anybody in a home.