Can public transit influence test scores? Portland dives into the data

The City of Portland, Ore. is working with IBM to develop a simulation of the city's various systems -- transportation, education, energy -- to determine how they affect one another.

This morning, the City of Portland (Ore.) announced that it is working with IBM to develop an interactive model of the city's core systems -- among them housing, education, public safety, transportation and energy -- to better understand how they work together and find places to improve.

Their goal: to develop metrics that feed into the Portland Plan, the city's 25-year roadmap to improve the sustainability -- environmental, financial, cultural -- of the city.

I spoke with Joe Zehnder, chief planner of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, to understand what problems Portland hopes to improve upon with the new approach.

SP: How does this fit into Portland's roadmap over the next few decades?

JZ: In the Portland Plan, we want to be data-driven -- to as clearly as we could look into conditions and challenge our assumptions. People love the city and think highly of it, and we wanted to shake up people's operating assumptions about what we're doing. This is in the spirit of that.

We also wanted to be multi-objective. In a city, you can often have what you're doing and what you're focusing on broken into silos, such as transportation and environmental protection and education. We wanted to force ourselves to look at a limited set of priorities and look at how all those silos can accomplish a [single] priority.

This "systems dynamic" thinking is at the heart of it. It's trying to tease out those impacts.

This is a way to help you gain focus, rather than get lost in the connections. The Portland Plan itself has three priorities, all built on a foundation on a concern about increasing equity and reducing disparities.

Those are:

  1. Economic prosperity and affordability
  2. Education
  3. Healthy connected cities, or community growth

Exploring the policies and investments and choices you can make in a made us think through the biggest drivers of change and our public process in steering toward these priorities.

SP: Now that you have data, what are you learning about Portland? Any surprises?

JZ: We've made great progress on reducing greenhouse gases. A big part of that has been reducing vehicle trips. There are huge parts of town that correspond with lower income [people] that are still dependent on the automobile.

Our graduation rate and how that plays across racial and ethnic groups -- those long-lasting disparities challenged our satisfaction. It got a lot of attention.

Energy use. Which parts of town are seeing greater consumption on a per capita basis. You'd think it's the wealthier parts of town, because they have more stuff and larger houses. But that's not necessarily the case.

And then linking energy conservation to your desire to increase employment and skills in green industry.

You have to move beyond believing its the right thing to do to seeing the business case for these choices we're making. There's a clear business case for it. There's a study called "The Green Dividend," by Joe Cortright, and Joe calculated the savings to Portland regional households from reduced transportation costs.

That's disposable income. Seeing that link between energy, education and equity and economy is a big thing.

SP: Portland is a smaller city in the U.S.; it ranks 29th in population. Does that help or hurt your ability to address issues?

JZ: We have 600,00 people, 1.5 million in the metro area. We're a regional city. I've worked in Baltimore, Chicago, Washington D.C. and here, and there's a different sort of civic culture in Portland. The political culture is aggressive about making it happen.

I don't know if there's any city that has enough resources. We're all looking at reduced resources in the near future. The cost of maintaining your legacy systems is a challenge to everybody. We're not able to keep up with our street networks the way we want to. Our investments in transit are [of] a newer generation. You have to make a hard choice to focus your investments on transportation.

Being a smaller city, the public has a lot more accessibility to decisions and how they're made. That makes it easier. We love it and hate it.

One of our operating assumptions is that we're not assuming a great influx of new resources. It's not likely. We're also looking, and the IBM folks are encouraging, to work smarter. One thing at the heart of the Portland Plan is that the city government is just one government. There are at least 18 agencies also working in the city of Portland. Between the feds, the state and all those other agencies, there's $9.7 billion spent in Portland. By setting the shared priorities, and trying to tease out how the different investments in transit or parks can support improved educational outcomes in schools...if we're able to achieve a small amount of alignment we think we can make progress more effectively and quickly.

That's the approach. We're just now completing the plan and it's going through our formal public review and we're rolling up our sleeves and talking with our partners about what alignment looks like and building it into our budgeting process. It's turning out to be about partnerships.

Just trying to share targets. Set objectives. Set systems to track our progress. That kind of thinking.

Photo: Erin DePretto/Flickr

Related: Greg Lindsay questions the utility of city modeling at Fast Company.

This post was originally published on