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.

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  • Bob Clark

    I think the main reason bicycle travel has risen in central Portland city is the increasing cost of parking downtown. It has also been drier than normal the last year or so in Portland. When the weather gets dark and rainy there is a noticeable drop off in bicycles traveling across the Hawthorne bridge. Portland city’s reduction in road space with curve extensions and monolithic street cars is probably costing the city jobs, too. Most businesses still rely primarily on car travel. Taking a gander at New Seasons on division, for example, an overwhelming majority of the shoppers came via car and not bicycle. Portland’s unfriendly car politics is costing it good paying jobs no doubt.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve seen many people riding to free parking, then taking their bike off their car for the end of the trip.

  • v person

    “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.”

    That is an unsubstantiated conclusion. In cities like Amsterdam, which has much worse weather than Portland, the bicycle commuting rate is probably upwards of 50%. So the upper limit for Portland is what Portlanders make it, not what John Charles thinks.

    And yes, there are fewer people on bikes when it is dark and rainy. Duh.

    • Steve Plunk

      Comparing a modern American city to city in Europe that is hundreds of years old is ridiculous. Amsterdam was laid out in a time before the automobile. With narrow streets bicycles provide the only real option for many. Throw in the high taxes on motor fuel and it creates more incentive not to drive.

      So many modern planners just can’t let go of the European model. It’s silly to think transferring their system here will yield good results. No less silly than trying to use the train, an old technology, to solve traffic problems. No one wants to give up the efficiencies that an automobile offers the individual.

      The only way to promote cycling as a commuting option is to make auto’s impractical. Somehow I don’t think Metro will state the truth to Oregon citizens.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        >So many modern planners just can’t let go of the European model.

        And you want to know why? Because they go there on taxpayer provided junkets, take a spin or two around Amsterdam, think it was a lot of fun and can hardly come back and say “nope, wont work here”. A junket is even more removed from reality than a vacation, who wouldn’t come back in a god mood lauding the virtues of the place they had visited? Most of us do that even if we visit thirld world countries.

        When I was in my thirties I went to Holland and spent some time living there. The husband was a Dutchman and the wife was American. He had lived in America for the previous ten years in order to complete college and grad school. In other words they knew both countries very well. I talked with them and their friends extensively as I was fascinated by the bicycle thing. They had a lot of things in common. For one, they were all very proud of riding their bicycles. It was considered unmasculine and not being a true Dutchman to hop in your car to go to work. For another none of them thought any of this was applicable in America and they thought I was sort of an idiot for even asking the question. These were all left wing people, none of them shared my politics but they all thought the suggestions that any of this would work in America was ridiculous. Most of them had at least visited America, some had lived here so this was not coming from a point of ignorance. I was a little astonished by their reaction. Europeans, just like anyone, tend to be proud of where they live and think the world would be better if everyone did as they do. The reasons most often cited were two fold: For one, America generally had far too many hills. They could not imagine riding any sort of commuting distance here. Their words to me tended to be of a nature “Holland is flat you idiot, you can’t see that?” For another they felt the distances were way too far. This was significant. None of them travelled as far as we do to work or the grocery store. Therefore they went to the grocery store far more frequently than we do. For another, and this is key, their concept of distance was vastly different than hours. Holland is a tiny country running North to South for a distance that were it here one would not think twice about travelling in a day. I was in Northern Holland. Many of the people there had relatives who had moved to Amsterdam. For them, the concept of travelling there to visit at all frequently was something that never entered their minds. These were all university professors, all made substantial money so they had the means. It just simply never occurred to them to travel such a distance on anything but a very infrequent basis.

        • v person

          As hard as it is, try to use your imagination here. Portland is not Amsterdam. OK, fair enough. We also are not Houston, Atlanta, or Phoenix. We have a young population and a town layout that is for the most part easily adaptable to making cycling easy for many people. We also have good weather most days, meaning moderate temperatures. Even when we have rain, it is usually light, not a downpour.

          Over the past 15-20 years Portland officials have made policy changes that have gradually improved cycling safety and convenience, and as it turns out the number of people who choose to cycle has increased, as has the number of days they do so.

          Now I would think even so-called conservatives would find this to be a good thing. Bicycles take up less space than cars, are less noisy, they don’t pollute the air, and they leave more gasoline available for those who want to burn it. We also get a healthier population that reduces cost of health care for everyone. So what is with this anti-cycling obsession?

          For a quite modest investment, we are getting great results. Its not a “fantasy” if it actually is happening before our very eyes folks.

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >So what is with this anti-cycling obsession?

            Well, the better question is what it the need you have to characterize criticism of bad policy in this regard as an anti cycling obsession?

            No one is anti bicycle. You have a bike? Fine, go ride it, I have no issue with it. I have said this to you time and time again. You still reply to any post I write that is critical of the current policy of taxing gas using vehicles to pay for bicycles as having an anti bicycle obsession. I have nothing against your silly bicycle. I have everything against you asking me to pay for it.

            You don’t like it? Fine, go out and buy someone a motorcycle. That saves more gas than a Prius and costs less as well. It also uses up not a lot more road than a bicycle. It’s way more practical for commuting as well.

            You like your bike lanes and all that sort of thing? Great, thank a car or truck driver. They paid for all the improvments you love.

            It’s a bicycle, not a halo.

          • v person

            “I have nothing against your silly bicycle. I have everything against you asking me to pay for it.”

            You betray your feelings by calling my bicycle, which is very special to me, “silly.” You Peewee Hermanize me in doing so. The thing is Rupert, bicycles are no longer just weekend toys. They have become a serious and rapidly growing mode of transportation here in the Portland area. Why do you, down there in Springfield, resent that we here in Portland (the subject of this post) have chosen to spend a small portion of transportation funds on a mode of transport you think is “silly.” I mean, why even involve yourself in a debate on Portland transport options unless you have a bone to pick with bicycles? To the extent you are helping to pay for cycle lanes here, I am helping to pay for road widening down there. Do I complain about your local road widening projects? Nope. You can have your bike free community if that is what you want.

            “Great, thank a car or truck driver. They paid for all the improvments you love. ”

            Yeah…well I’ll just thank myself then since I have a truck and a car and I drive them occasionally. And when I’m cycling the truck driver can thank me for there being one less car on the road. It would be a very polite world, all of us thanking each other all the time.

            And for the record, I have no problem if the gubmint decides to also charge me a bicycle registration or licensing fee to help pay for transport facilities.

          • Anonymous

            I was a full time bike rider in my 20’s, it was fine, then. I had lots of time and I was young, no kids or wife or responsibilities.

            I don’t have the time now, to commute, I ride now for pleasure.
            My commute then was only about 2 miles. I stopped commuting with my next job in construction. The bike did not allow me to carry what I needed for work. and I worked all over the city.

            Bikes will have their place, mostly with the young. Nothing wrong with that.

            But to think we are going to somehow force people to bike ride or use transit is totalitarian in nature and does not belong in a free country.

          • Steve Plunk

            As an avid cyclist and conservative I like to see bicycles on the road but I have a libertarian streak in me that doesn’t like my government using social engineering to accomplish it. I also don’t like the large investment in cycling programs that yield small returns.

            Let’s stick with what works, not what we wish would work.

          • v person

            What “doesn’t work” about investing a small amount in cycling infrastructure? THe growth in commuting numbers suggests that it does work just fine.

          • Anonymous

            It is not a investment unless you receive a return in profit.
            More bike riders do not = profit!

            If investing in Bike amenities returned a profit, we could use that profit to keep investing in more bike amenities.

            This is not a investment, it is a subsidy. Or a drain on our tax systeem.

          • v person

            “It is not a investment unless you receive a return in profit.”

            Really? So all those people who gave money to Bernie Madoff and did not receive a return profit did not actually invest? Everyone who lost on their 401Ks last year were not invested? You think profits are somehow guarenteed?

            And by your logic, we also are not “investing” in roads, bridges, schools, sewer systems, or anything else that is public spending that improves our lives but do not return dollar profits.

            That is a limited view I don’t subscribe to. In the case of bicycling infrastructure, we invest in it expecting the return to be increased safety and increased numbers of people cycling. By that measure the investment has succeeded.

          • Anonymous

            I was talking about the subsidies to bike riding, that are not a investments but a subsidy. There is no return on a Bike road, path or bike bridge that will need more subsidies to keep them cleaned and operation in the future.

            It is not a investment

            Did people give money to Bernie Madoff for bike amenities?

          • v person

            “Did people give money to Bernie Madoff for bike amenities? ”

            Not as far as I know, but in retrospect that money would have been better spent. A new bike lane or 17 Rolox watches? Which has greater value? We report, you decide.

            We are not subsidizing bike riding. We are spending taxpayer funds to make it safer and more convenient. The argument you have is apparently with the source of funding, or with a notion that every public service should be fully financed by those who use that service. But we choose to finance lots of services that are not fully funded by users, including schools, libraries, police, and fire fighting, to name a few. Making streets safer for cyclists keeps people from being maimed or killed, and it strikes me that this is a reasonable use of public funds.

            And again, I have no argument against fees for cyclists that can help pay for these things. But I don’t think there is any reasonable way to make a fee high enough to pay 100% of the cost.

          • Anonymous

            It is a subsidy no matter how you spin it!

            A investment will have return, that can be reinvested, unless the investment goes bad and you have to go for more subsidies, because your investment had no return.

            Spending money on bike paths, by taking it from auto and truck user fees, or any other taxes, is a subsidy.

            It walks like a duck and swims like a duck, it’s a duck!

    • jim karlock

      Of course the primary means of motorized travel in the EU-15 countries is PRIVATE CAR – 78% of all motorized travel.

      In the past 20 years, transit has lost about 20% of its already small market share while ONLY auto & air have gained.

      Planners who say most people use transit in Europe are either fools or liars.
      Planners who think that duplicating Europe’s form will cause us to function like Eurorpe are double fools.


  • Major Spinkel

    Yeah,right, and they just announced further declines in riders.

  • Anonymous

    v dean,
    Typical. touting another fantasy. This time Amsterdam. You delusion runs across every issue.

    Google horrible trffic in Amsterdam and read what europeans think of driving there.

    If you think Amsterdam represents any remedies or improvements for our region you’re ripe for a Metro councilor clone position.
    Your igorance, foolishness and propagandizing advocacy knows no integrity.


    I read an excellent book written prior to 1968 when it was translated from the Italian text to English and published in New York, New York. The authors were Alexei Gutnov and other planner architects from the Univeristy of Moscow in the former Soviet Union. The planners here in America refer to their ideals originating from Europe. Reading the book published in Moscow clearly narrows the located to Eastern Europe. The title of the Book is ‘The Ideal Communist City.’ That fits in with the ObaMao program that will become effective when he appoints a Zoning Czar.

  • John A. Charles Jr.

    Some people have misinterpreted my original post as being hostile to cycling. In fact, I was simply being critical of planners who use unrealistic expectations for setting policy. Expecting that any one mode of travel will triple by 2035 is silly. We’ve been through this before.

    Back in the early 1990’s, I was on an advisory committee to the city of Portland for drafting the Central City Transportation Managment Plan. When officially adopted by the Council in 1995, the plan set a goal of 60% of all commute trips on transit by 2010. Of course it’s easy to set aggressive goals with compliance dates 15 years out — by the time we have to hold anybody accountable, all the elected officials who adopted the goal will be gone.

    Sure enough, it’s late 2009, and the transit mode share of all commute trips in the city center has been steadily DECLINING, now down to 44% from 46% back in 2001. It never came close to 60% and it’s highly unlikely that it ever will.

    Citywide, pure transit use (no use of autos for getting to the transit stop) has dropped from 12% of commuting to 11% between 1998 and 2008. And JPACT thinks it’s responsible to set a goal of 33% by 2035, at the same time TriMet is cutting service?

    I think it’s great that cycling has increased in Portland — but projecting that it will go from 7% of commute trips to 21%, and basing public policy on that expectation, is not credible. I think JPACT should have adopted more conservative targets based on actual trends over the past 15 years.

    John Charles

  • Terry Parker

    HALF A BILLION DOLLARS – That is the estimated price tag for a full build out of the bicycle master plan Mayor Adams is pushing to be adopted.

    HALF A BILLION DOLLARS – So bicyclists can have an undue hierarchy bestowed that treats them like elitists with special privileges and immunities.

    HALF A BILLION DOLLARS – That allows bicyclists to continue acting like spoiled little children whom expect mommy and daddy – in this case other taxpayers and motorists – to pay for the specialized infrastructure they clamor for and exclusively use.

    HALF A BILLION DOLLARS – To maintain the persona of today’s bicyclists in Portland that is one of irresponsible freeloading deadbeats that arrogantly refuse to follow even the simplest of traffic safety control devices and rules of the road

    HALF A BILLION DOLLARS – That takes away road capacity and parking from the drivers that actually pay the transportation taxes.

    Motorists and taxpayers in Portland ought to be outraged by not only the stacked deck special interest self-selection process used to develop this plan, but also because of the excessive price tag to create a socially engineered policy to increase bicycling and financially support a bunch of freeloading pedal pushers that only provide lip service. This can only lower both the standard and quality of life in Portland and have a negative impact on the economy. .

    If arrogant bicyclists want to takeover the portions of streets for themselves, reduce motor vehicle capacity and parking, and thereby create more congestion for drivers with cycle tracks and other bicycle infrastructure, then bicyclists also need to takeover the same proportional amount of financial responsibility from drivers. Things like public golf courses, public swimming pools, city owned tennis centers, etc. are all funded with user fees. So MUST bicycle infrastructure be funded by with bicyclist only paid transportation user fees, bicycle licenses and bicycle registration fees coming directly from the wallets of the bicyclists that use it – NOT from siphoning off motorist paid taxes, NOT from other rustled sources and NOT with any kind of new back door tax on utility bills or elsewhere that must be paid by the general public.

    Providing specialized bicycle infrastructure for the bicyclists that use it is a privilege, not a right. Therefore accepting the burden of responsibilities that comes with any specialized bicycle infrastructure, including the price tag payment, must come directly from the bicyclists themselves. This burden must NOT fall to or be placed on everybody else.

  • Terry Parker

    The Streetcar Fantasy is in Reality a Fallacy

    Whom ever said “Oregon is for dreamers” had it correct. The view from Portland’s City Hall continues to be tax and spend – there is nothing the taxpayers can not afford because the there is a bottomless pit of ready cash out there by increasing socially engineered taxes on working class – even if it hasn’t been figured out how to grow money on trees.

    Producing the steel rails for streetcars and digging up the streets to put them in is less than eco friendly and harmful to the environment, but that continues to be ignored and/or addressed as an essential part of the discussion by streetcar advocates. It takes decades of streetcar operations to offset the negative effects. Additionally, the up front costs for streetcars continue to be unrecoverable through the fare box.

    Various requests have been made to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to separate out the costs for the tracks in the streets and the station stops, and to separate out the costs for the electrification over the streets. PBOT has not and either can not or will not disclose those figures. Streetcar activist and now anti-automobile Portland Planning Commissioner Chris Smith at one time said those figures are simply not available. So where is the transparency to the public? How can the City of Portland even justify spending taxpayer dollars when they do not know what they are paying for? Moreover, how many more miles of overhead electrification could be installed if there was no need for track work?

    Instead of spending $10M to 12M plus per mile, the concept of building a web of streetcars needs to be scrapped and replaced with a less costly, clean and modern electric trolley bus system plan that in its most basic form, only requires overhead wires be installed over the streets. Unlike streetcars operating in mixed traffic that stop and obstruct motor vehicle lanes when boarding passengers (thus creating congestion and causing motorists to consume more fuel); with curb extensions eliminated at transit stops, electric trolley busses can pull over to the curb when boarding passengers and let other vehicles pass thereby reducing stop and go traffic helping to increase fuel efficiency for motorists. Nationally, motor vehicle engines idling in traffic waste 2.3 billion gallons of fuel a year. Keeping the traffic flowing on the street must be viewed as a priority.

    The unsustainable trajectory of local taxpayer funded subsidies going to outdated hobby rail playthings that only generate even more taxpayer subsidies to be accrued by flush well-heeled developers needs to be reversed. The $3M a year cost to operate the existing Portland Streetcar and the taxpayer subsides to transit in general needs to be weaned off from being dependent on welfare style public assistance, thereby becoming financially self-sustainable. Methods must include increasing fares, eliminating free fare zones, charging for freight on transit such as transporting bicycles, charging high density developers along transit routes extra fees to pay for the costs of increased service, eliminating raiding parking meter revenues to subsidize streetcar operations, and eventually, reducing the size of ever increasing payroll tax that goes to transit.

    Specific transit planning must start with objective purpose and need with mode choice coming not first, but last, and only after what is currently missing; an in-depth comprehensive comparison study of the overall cost effectiveness of all transportation needs for each route – thus replacing just making bias assumptions compiled by a stacked deck group of special interest cronies whom are railroading through their own slanted agenda.

    Additionally, no definitive statistics have been produced that clearly demonstrate the streetcar in itself (without additional taxpayer funded subsidies to developers) actually encourages new development or transit ridership. Using cherry picked data from a highly subsidized “no fare” streetcar line on a new route that runs through a former railroad yard, an obsolete warehouse district and ex-industrial sites to imply the streetcar is actually encouraging the new development is a deception that lacks credibility. Again no objective figures can be produced by bureaucrats to back their ramblings development is tied to the streetcar.

    Comparatively, other Portland neighborhoods that have underdeveloped land where the developers also receive taxpayer funded subsidies, but do not have streetcars, are also developing rapidly. Moreover, the majority of the streets recommended for streetcars already have long time transit service where established and occupied development currently exists. Any redevelopment along these lines will likely create gentrification and eliminate existing jobs.

    The bottom line is that one more streetcar line that gums up streets and is not financially self-sustainable equates to one more huge, unnecessary and excessive expense for taxpayers. Lavish overpriced streetcars crawling along on fixed rails and impeding traffic flow do not belong on high volume traffic streets.

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