from Human Transit
by Jarrett Walker
Portland is supposed to be one of America’s great transit success stories. Is it still? Do we know what it’s achieving? Do we know how to measure it?
A couple of months ago Portland reader Adrian Lawson pointed me to an Oregon Catalyst article ridiculing the Portland Metro goal of tripling non-auto mode share by 2035. The author, John Charles, Jr., is the CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, a conservative Oregon think tank that opposes Oregon’s land use planning system and generally favors roads over transit, so this is not a surprising view.
But the article cited some data that I found curious. Adrian was kind enough to analyze it for me.
Since 1997, the City of Portland’s annual survey has been asking people who work outside the home what their primary means of getting to work. The answers are in this chart. (The margin for error in 2009 was about +/- 1.7%, sample size was 3,194. Links to the sources are in small print at the end of this post.)
(I’ve aggregated two responses “Transit” and “Drive+Transit” to get the transit scores shown. The “Drive+Transit” response has always been in the range of 2-4% with no trend over these years.)
Remember, this is (a) only residents of the City of Portland, not its suburbs, and (b) only about the journey to work, not other journeys. It’s also (c) self-reported by citizens rather than observed behavior.
The data covers 12 years during which Portland opened four major rail transit projects:
- The huge Westside extension of the light rail system (1998), which linked Portland to the “Silicon Forest” high-tech centers of Beaverton and Hillsboro, should have made a big difference for Portland residents commuting to those areas, though unfortunately most of the jobs are in business-park formats that are not easy to reach from the stations.
- The Portland Streetcar was a mostly new corridor but close-in to downtown where it competes with walking. It opened in 2001 with small extensions to RiverPlace in 2005 and the newly developing South Waterfront area in 2006. South Waterfront is a major new employment area in a spot that’s hard to reach by other transit, but much of it is still under construction, so the jobs aren’t all there yet.
- The Red Line was a rail extension to the airport, and then-undeveloped land around it, replacing a bus line. The Red Line served two airport-area stations that will eventually have job centers around them, but those centers are not there yet. Still, the Red Line should have made it easier for airport employees to get to work, especially as it was a new link between the Airport and Gateway, where many east-side bus lines converge.
- The Yellow Line was a frequent light-rail line pretty much replacing a frequent bus line. (The Yellow Line is actually shorter than the bus line it replaced, as it does not yet extend across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington, though it is clearly pointed that way.)
Much of this period was a major real estate boom. Most the dense urban fabric of thePearl District (mostly residential with ground floor commercial, 5-20 stories, adjacent to downtown) was built, and smaller infill energies played out all over the city. The other large project of the decade was South Waterfront, a mix of major employment, medical school, and residential served by a small streetcar extension but otherwise rather isolated from the downtown.
If we’re to believe the data, the journey-to-work results of all this investment, and all these people living closer to transit, didn’t amount to much. Transit mode share for work trips went nowhere. Drive-alone mode share was down around 5% on the decade but mostly near the end. The most striking trendline is bikes, up from 3% in 1997 to 7% in 2009. There was a lot of work on bicycle infrastructure during the decade and a lot of activist energy. Most people I talk to in Portland are impressed by the rising volume of cyclists and taking this trend seriously.
More troubling to me is that walk mode share stayed at around 5% even though all of this infill around downtown should have been causing some drop in average journey distances to work.