Another Metro Fantasy: Portland region will triple non-auto travel by 2035

At its November 12 meeting, Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) adopted “performance targets” calling for a tripling of walking, biking, and transit use by 2035. This came despite the release of the Annual Portland Resident Survey conducted by the City Auditor, showing that levels of solo driving for commuters actually increased by 4.6% this year and that transit use dropped by 9%.

During a 20-minute discussion of performance targets covering such topics as climate change, clean air, and affordability, none of the committee members questioned the feasibility of tripling the mode share for walking, cycling, or transit. The committee appears to believe that if they collectively wave a magic wand, they can persuade people to change driving habits. Recent trends, however, suggest that this will be an expensive exercise in futility.

For instance, according to Metro, the daily levels of vehicle-miles-travelled (VMT) per person in the region have gone from 18.8 in 1990 to 20.0 in 2007. As the region continues to expand and more employers leave the central city for suburban locations, there is no reason to think daily VMT will decline.

Other data sources show similar trends. The Portland Auditor has been collecting citizen survey data regarding commute travel habits for the past 12 years, and the surveys show that in 1997 the private automobile was the primary means of travel for 82% of commuters in the city (71% driving solo, 9% carpooling, and 2% driving to a transit station). In 2009, 78% of commuters relied on driving (68% solo, 7% carpooling, and 3% driving to transit). This is a tiny drop in auto use, given that we opened four new light rail lines and a streetcar during those years, at a cost of over $2 billion.

Moreover, those are citywide averages. When the numbers are broken down by region, the survey shows that 92% of commuters in East Portland rely on driving, as do 86% of commuters in SW Portland.

Pure transit use in Portland (with no auto driving involved) has remained completely flat; it was 10% in 1997 and 10% in 2009. In TriMet’s strongest market (workers in the downtown core) transit use is actually declining. According to the annual business census reports published by the Portland Business Alliance, MAX/bus use dropped from 45% of commuters to 43% from 2001-2008, while the streetcar share was 1% or less in all years.

Metro, TriMet, and other local jurisdictions have bought the notion that expensive rail transit investments, coupled with severe zoning restrictions around transit stations to ensure high-density development, will dramatically increase transit use; but actual evidence shows that the strategy is not working.

For example, auto commuting at the commercial office building at the Beaverton Round is 90% of all commuting for that building. For the Orenco Gardens development south of light rail in Hillsboro, auto use is 80% of all commuting. At the Elmonica Court Apartments across the street from the light rail stop in Beaverton, 96% of commuters drive. All along the MAX system, from Gresham to Hillsboro and up to North Portland, one can find similar results by simply observing how people travel near MAX lines.

While bicycle commuting has gone up from 3% to 7% of all city commuters, it’s unlikely that this number will grow significantly. It actually hit 8% last year, and that may have been the high-water mark. Most people will find bicycle commuting impractical no matter how much money the city spends on bike lanes.

For instance, after the city took away two auto lanes of Holgate Boulevard in outer SE Portland last summer in order to create monster bike lanes, I went out there on three separate occasions to do counts. The weather was beautiful on all days, and I varied the times/days so that I chose a weekday mid-morning, a Sunday afternoon, and a Thursday morning at the peak hour. Of all vehicles observed, more than 98% were automobiles, and none of the cyclists turned into the new light rail station (the ostensible reason for creating this 30-block bike lane was to encouraging bike commuting to the new Green Max line).

Despite the fact that the regional strategies to reduce driving have failed, the earnest folks at JPACT are convinced that this time, the central planners will finally get it right! If the $2 billion we spent on rail transit caused no change in travel habits during the past decade, we’ll double down and build rail lines to Sherwood, Lake Oswego, Milwaukie, and Vancouver, while letting highway congestion get worse so as to force a few commuters onto the slow trains. Of course it will fail again, but a lot of planners will stay employed. Perhaps that’s the real goal.

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