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.