Portlanders Still Drive Regardless of Government Plans

Earlier this month the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. released a report claiming that there has been an extraordinary decline of driving in Portland. According to a front-page story in The Oregonian, the average Portland motorist drove less than half as much as motorists elsewhere during 2006.

This would be impressive if it were true, but it’s not. According to the annual Services and Accomplishments Report just issued by the Portland City Auditor, the average Portlander drove 20 miles each day in 2007, compared with 23.4 for the rest of nation, a 17 percent differential, not 50. Moreover, the number has not changed much over time; Portlanders drove an average of 21 miles per day in 1998.

Other indicators tell a similar story. Between 1990 and 2004, the annual number of miles driven on state highways within Multnomah County increased from 2.70 million miles to 2.99 million, an increase of 11 percent.

Portland politicians have spent several billion dollars on light rail and streetcar construction trying to change this, yet transit has actually lost market share over the past decade. In 1999, 12 percent of Portland commuters took the bus, MAX or streetcar; in 2008, it was down to 11 percent.

There isn’t much of a mystery here. People tend to drive because any other mode of travel takes too long. That is true in Portland, and it’s true just about everywhere else in America.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 18 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    Wow, surprise surprise, mass transit in Portland has lost ridership.

    True, billions were spent on some very silly boondoggles. However the reason for lack of ridership is probably not a poor mass transit system in Portland. It really is an issue of applicability. Is mass transit really all that suitable in a city like Portland?

    Portland has concentrated way too much on the theory that if you build it they will come. That is putting the cart before the horse and is a pretty risky method. Perhaps it has worked somewhere, I cannot think of an example.

    This would be my algorithm for mass transit development.

    1 – Visit New York and Boston, observe ridership, observe commuter ridership, notice that whether you make $30k a year or $300k you ride the city mass transit. Why? Driving simply takes too long.

    2 – Now ride Boston and New York commuter rail, observe that most of the ridership is carrying a brief case, wearing suits. Observe where they get off in the suburbs? Do these people work retail counters? Or do they perhaps work at higher paying jobs? Observe fares charged. Does it seem like someone would pay $20 per trip to work 8 hours at a $10 an hour job?

    3 – Draw conclusion. Is mass transit a function of city congestion alone? Or is it perhaps a function of both city congestion and job base?

    4 – Develop plan, does it make sense to develop mass transit when the city is both not all that bad to drive around in and in addition does not have the job base to support commuter rail mass transit?

    5 – If job base is not there, then reasonable fares cannot be charged. If such fares cannot be charged, the system will need to be heavily subsidized.

    Conclusion, to develop mass transit without the requisite job base does little more than burden taxpayers with subsidizing something that is not economically viable. Does this enhance conditions for creating the job base? Or does it cause tax increases that hinder creation of the job base that is a necessary element of mass transit/commuter rail systems? In short, by taking a mass transit pushes job creation approach rather than an approach that is the reverse of that, are you shooting yourself in the foot?

    Test conclusion – Find areas where economically non viable mass transit systems have lead to job base creation that in turn lead to the mass transit systems becoming economically viable resulting in decreased tax subsidy and increased fares to make system self sustaining. Are there many instances of this happening? Are there more instances of the reverse?

    Based upon conclusion testing decide on policy. Two choices:

    1 – Rethink the whole concept of developing mass transit first, job base second.

    2 – Continue developing mass transit first and saddling taxpayers with increased taxes, thus stifling growth but decide the good vibes some get from this approach is worth the trade off. Learn to live with stifled job creation.

    Number two might not be all that unreasonable a choice given certain attitudinal realities. Oregon in general has made the decision to severely limit job creation through many avenues, land use, tax policy etc. There is nothing inherently bad in such a decision provided the population is willing to live with the consequences. To be sure, there are consequences of job growth as well. What is wrong in the case of Oregon, is to adopt policies to stifle job creation in the name of preserving quality of life, and then to spend money on projects that are directly contradicted by the low job growth policy, such as mass transit systems. That constitutes waste in its purest form, because now the population is not only having to live with the consequences, as well as benifits, of its low growth policy, but it is also being saddled with the liabilities of high growth oriented projects that will never come to fruition in terms of economic viability.

  • Reper

    Looking at the weather, aint no one driving now.

  • John Fairplay

    Watching the news reports, it’s still faster to drive in Portland then take mass transit, even in the snow.

    • dean

      John…you believe what you watch in the “mainstream media?”

      Trust me…not much is moving around here, either private or public.

    • cc

      Plenty of folks driving out there…

      I’ve made two trips to “civilization” (Cedar Mill, Beaverton) already today and, if you’re prepared mentally and equipment-wise, getting around is relatively easy.

      Tri-Met/MAX meets neither of those criteria, however, as usual.

      As for deaner, how would he know?

      He’s basking in his localized AGW zone and drinking a carrot juice cocktail near denial.

  • Jerry

    Light rail is the only thing that can save mohter earth – gaia. Please, people, stop driving and take the rail. We must stop this global warming at all costs.
    It is global warming, by the way, that is making it so cold out right now.
    So, rail it is. Safe, clean, fast, reliable, and cheap.
    What’s not to like??

  • Anonymous

    I have drove every day during the storm

    2 of the days easily driving to PDX despite PDX
    light rail being closed down.

    2 wheel drive with chains

  • Jerry

    Cars are bad. People should not drive in bad weather like this. Please, people, stay home and connect with the earth.

  • Jack

    Do your part to get the Democrats Tri-met
    off the roads. Drive your Cars!

  • Jack

    Jerry your a joke sir. Folks drive your cars.
    Really tic off the jerry socialists out there
    and drive HUMMERS

  • DAD

    I got a call from my daughter today because she was abandoned by Tri Met once she got off the Max. Dad’s car ( without chaines) got her to work because Tri-Met did not care and was unable to drie on mostly bare pavement on 82nd.

    If you need something done right ,
    don’t count on government ( Tri Met)
    count on DAD

  • Bob Tiernan

    “to develop mass transit without the requisite job base…”

    Rupert, a POPULATION base is more important, but even
    with that only a few major urban areas have ridership a
    rail fan could brag about. (There are loads of students
    using them, too, so without them….)

    Also, I think people use the Boston and NYC systems (which
    I’ve used myself) because unlike Portland’s those two systems
    take people to enough important locations and don’t seem
    to have been designed as favors to owners of shopping centers,
    or to take people to the government-owned zoo via a very expensive
    tunnel, or through sparcely-populated areas in order to mandate
    the type of development along the tracks in order to provide (hope for) needed ridership.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Anonymous

    Mass transit is great for people who are working in or patronizing a business that has no parking or where parking is too expensive/inconvenient, and at that, it’s only more efficient for people who live on a line that runs past their work. It’s also good for people who flat out don’t have their own personal transportation.

    However, that having been said, for people who have their own transportation, mass transit, be it bus or light rail, is not efficient if you factor in the time it takes to get anywhere.

    I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, the best example I have of personal experience is from highschool. From Westmoreland Park, to Cleveland Highschool –
    Bus – 45 minutes (one transfer)
    Walking – 45 minutes
    Private passenger vehicle – 10 minutes

    ‘Nuf said…..

    • Joanne Rigutto

      That was me… I forgot to fill in my info…. 😉

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  • Jim Labbe

    Hm. Well the overall trends seems to still deny the line car-centric transportation advocates like Charles have been repeating for years: “People will never leave there cars.” Moreover there are some trends that Mr. Charles neglects to detail in his summary. More people are biking and walking as their primary and secondary mode choice. This clearly a product of public investments that have made cycling safer and easier. Dollar for dollar these are our best investments for lessening congestion, cleaning our air and water, and making or roadways safer.

    I am mystified why Mr. Charles is so against promoting more transportation choices when having more choices does so much for our planet and our pocket books. Consider this financial advice from the WSJ:

    A Real Auto Bailout: Escape Your Car


    We can only hope that our future public infrastructure investments will
    ensure people have more choice to escape their cars if they choose. That will have the added advantage of exporting less of our household transportation budgets from our local and national economies.


    Jim Labbe

  • John Charles

    Mr. Labbe: I have never said, “people will never leave their cars.” I will say that most people tend to take most trips via private automobile, for reasons that are obvious.

    Yes, the commute mode share for walking and cycling within the Portland city limits has doubled over the past 5 years or so, and that’s great. But it’s unlikely to continue rising at those rates, and it has little applicability to the broader Portland metro region.

    As for your assertion that public expenditures for ped/bike facilities are the “best investments” for lessening congestion etc., you’d need to qualify that by telling us what you’re comparing those investments to. Compared with the next streetcar extension, you’re right. Compared with building a by-pass around some downtown (such as the Newberg-Dundee by-pass), probably not.

    I have nothing against promoting choice in transportation; I am against massively uneconomic rail transit projects. Rail expenditures have cannibalized transportation budgets in this region for 25 years, yet rail only promotes one mode: passenger transit. It does nothing for freight, autos, ped or bike travel.

    Modest improvements in roads benefits almost everyone. For example, WA county has done a very nice job in recent years taking narrow, heavily traveled roads with no shoulders or sidewalks and converting them into 3-lane roads with 5-foot bike lanes, sidewalks, and streetlights. Oleson Road, Walnut Street, and Gaarde Street are 3 examples I’m personally familiar with. In every case, by spending just a few million dollars, we enhanced travel options for cyclists, pedestrians, SOVs, HOVs, trucks and transit buses.

    Now compare that with, say the Yellow MAX line. We spent $60 million per mile just to build it, took away two lanes of road capacity on N. Interstate (thereby making traffic worse), and when it was done we had a local train with travel speeds exactly equal to the bus line that used to operate on that same road. If you spent that kind of money in SW Portland, where the majority of roads are narrow with almost no space for peds or bikes, you could retrofit a lot of streets.

    John Charles

  • Jim Labbe

    Okay fair enough. You may have not said that “people will never leave there cars” but you can’t deny that has been the mantra of those who have derided investments to diversify our transportation system, invest in demand management, and support land-use plans encourage proximity instead of require mobility.

    Portland’s modest investments in bicycle and pedestrian facilities have paid off huge in reducing growth in car traffic. Imagine if all those people who bike and walk into downtown drove.

    I think your assessment of the yellow line is premature. North Interstate is just starting to develop. Recent upzoning in the surrounding neighborhoods will allow additional redevelopment and infill to support a more compact walkable community less reliant on single occupant vehicles. Light rail is one part of land-use and transportation strategy aimed at reducing growth of single-occupant vehicles as a percentage of the mode share. There are a number of ancillary benefits to this approach. By fostering more compact urban development, light rail requires much less land than roads and associated parking space. Thus there are also ancillary environmental benefits for air and water quality.

    Modest road improvements with increased capacity may make sense in some situations but even these road projects have negative social and environmental impacts that make them difficult and controversial. Oleson Road was a highly controversial widening project because it took numerous large mature trees and negatively impacted adjacent neighborhoods. Also one wonders how permanent the new road capacity will be in relieving congestion. Once the real estate it opens up for development is consumed with single-family homes served primarily by single occupant vehicles it will be time to widen the road again.

    I am no expert on streetcars. You might be right. The arguments for street cars seem to rely heavily on the dense development they supposedly foster. It seems to me if you aren’t going to have a dedicated right-of-way for rail, buses would be more cost-effective.

    Jim Labbe

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