This guest post is by Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, a new “10-minute newsmagazine” and wiki about low-car life in Portland.
The Census estimates also show that despite tax benefits for TriMet commuters and our ever-growing number of MAX and frequent service bus lines, TriMet ridership isn’t keeping pace with either bikes or cars.
But these vehicle-vs.-vehicle statistics are like the GDP or unemployment rate: they don’t tell the story the way families actually live it. In the 50,000+ Portland households with more adults than autos — “low-car” is the phrase I like to use — we don’t usually think of ourselves as “bikers,” “drivers” or “riders.”
We just think of ourselves as people who gotta get around.
And that’s exactly what I see after spending a few hours peeling into these numbers. Here are four of the most interesting things I found.
(Disclaimer: As sharp reader Malex points out, some of these figures aren’t statistically significant, meaning there’s a 10 percent chance that trend #1, for example, is just an ongoing sampling error. Because these trends look fairly durable and better numbers are unavailable, I think it’s fair to report these figures, but I should have included a clear disclaimer about this up front. You can see her critique in comment #9 and my response in #19.)
The chance that a random Portland household doesn’t own a car is down 6 percent from 2008. It’s down 9 percent from 2006. Zero-car households are getting rarer in every measurable household size and every combination of workers except one: non-employed singles.
Nationwide, it’s just the opposite. Across the USA, more families of every household size are getting by without a car — willingly or not — in 2009.
Portland however, at least according to the Census numbers, is being weird. If you’re an activist hoping to entirely liberate local families from cars someday, you’re losing.
Thanks in part to trend 1, the old-fashioned stereotype that bikers and transit riders don’t own cars has never been less true. In 2006, 77 percent of our bike/motorcycle commuters and 71 percent of our bus/MAX riders owned cars. By 2009, that had leaped to 89 percent in the bike group and 77 percent in the bus group.
Why? Based on the numbers, I think it’s mostly because of the 10,000 Portland workers who voluntarily took up bike or transit in 2008 to save money during the gas spike. Once they tried it, looks like a lot of them liked it.
And in case you were wondering — yes, 14 percent of Portland’s bike/transit/motorcycle commuters now hail from households with three or more cars or trucks.
It’s true almost everywhere you look: Portland, Seattle, Austin, Pittsburgh, NYC, nationwide. Two-person households (especially two-worker households) are the biggest source of growth in today’s low-car culture. Some of these families are trading up from zero cars to one; some are empty-nesters and double-income-no-kids types. Whoever these families are, Portland grabbed 2,200 more of them in 2009, and they’re surely using a combination of vehicles to get around.
The share of Portland families that own 4 or more autos is down 28 percent since 2008. Welcome to BikePortland, kids! This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Here’s what all these trends tell me: More and more, Portlanders are using different vehicles for what each vehicle does best. For a few blocks, walking (on the rise in 2009!) can’t be beat. Neighborhood trips? Bikes. Crosstown? MAX. Job in the suburbs? Obviously most Portlanders still prefer cars for that.
Those of us who believe in safe, clean, active and social transportation are trying to change some of these trends. But as Jonathan often points out here on BikePortland, trying to divide ourselves into “bikers” and “drivers” simply isn’t accurate these days.
— The cover story of Portland Afoot’s October issue is about downtown Portland’s transit mall. BikePortland readers in the metro area can subscribe for $10 a year with coupon code “bikeportland.” Email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.