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A backwards incentive in Portland, where bus rides cost more than parking spaces

Posted by on November 17th, 2015 at 10:07 am

Bike-Bus leapfrog -1

We’ve made driving both cheap and convenient even though it causes a whole lot of problems.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Though lovers of bikes, transit and walking hate to admit it, driving a car is often the most convenient way to get around Portland. Until we start reconfiguring our roads to give more space to bicycling and dedicated transit lines, that will likely remain the case years into the future.

An odd thing about driving is that not only is it usually convenient; it’s also usually pretty cheap.

The question is, why are we also going out of our way to make driving so cheap?

At least, that’s the question asked Sunday by Tony Jordan, a member of the committee that’s currently advising the city on whether it should raise its downtown parking rates from $1.60 to $2 per hour.

When something is more convenient, Jordan points out, we usually have to pay more for it — and we usually agree that this is fair. An odd thing about driving is that not only is it usually convenient; it’s also usually pretty cheap. But an even odder thing, as Jordan explains, is that we’ve made driving both cheap and convenient even though it causes a whole lot of problems.

Here’s how Jordan explains it:

We are doing it wrong.

Global CO2 concentrations are regularly above 400 parts per million. Drought and famine caused by climate change are destabilizing our political environment as well as displacing and killing millions. Driving directly kills more than 30,000 Americans a year (just barely less than firearms). According to MIT, air pollution from driving kills more than 50,000 additional Americans every year.

Financially, the toll of automobile dependency is no less severe. In 2014, federal, state, and local governments spent $165,000,000,000 (165 billion) on roads, with much of that money being spent on construction of new roadways while our existing roads decay.

In the face of these (and many, many other) downsides, we should be using every tool available to discourage unnecessary driving. but we’re not. In fact, not only does the underlying policy of the federal government not discourage driving (even alone), it encourages it. Locally, Portland is trying harder than many cities, but we still maintain a bevy of policies that subsidize and prioritize the most wasteful and dangerous mode of transportation over the rest.

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Given that problem, Jordan then imagines a hypothetical trip downtown, maybe a couple going on a date. He looks at the cost of each option.

transit costs

Chart: BikePortland. Scenario: Tony Jordan of PDX Shoupistas.

I’ve added boldface for emphasis:

The Pyramid of Convenience

Being driven in a private-for-hire vehicle from your location to your destination is the most convenient and, likely, pleasant way to travel in the city. As such it’s quite expensive. To take a taxi or a Lyft from inner SE Portland (4 miles out) to downtown will cost upwards of $12 to $15 each way. A two way trip for a dinner and a movie will cost a single traveller $30 in transportation. Additional travelers add to the economy, however, and taking a friend along doesn’t double the charge. Nevertheless, the cost is rather high and reflects the convenience.

The second most convenient (and therefore valuable) mode is driving yourself or being driven with a friend and parking on street near your destination. The same 4 mile round trip will cost roughly $1.16 cents in vehicle wear, gas, etc. Street parking in downtown Portland for a 3 hour stay will range anywhere from $0.00 (after 7PM) to $4.80. Additional passengers add negligible cost. A couple going on a date from 6-9PM will spend ~$5.96 on transportation.

Slightly less convenient is driving yourself and parking in a city operated Smart Park. You may spend a little less time driving around, but you will have to travel farther to your destination. Things get a little interesting here, however, because Smart Park charges 24 hours, with a maximum $5 rate for nights and weekends. The same person or couple mentioned above will pay $5 for a 3 hour trip, regardless of whether it is during meter enforcement. Total cost ~$6.16, twenty cents more than a three hour stay at a parking meter before 7.

Public transportation is next on our list. It has its benefits, no concerns about driving drunk, you can, legally, read or text en route, you don’t have to look for parking. But you need to walk to the transit center or bus stop. You need to allow extra time for catching the line and for possible delays. You have to share space with other people and potentially stand. You will probably have to walk to your destination and all the same things apply to your return trip (assuming TriMet is still operating that late). Bus schedules are rarely aligned with social schedules, so you will likely have to arrive early or arrive late and you may spend some time waiting for a transfer. TriMet fees are charged at all hours of the day. A single person going downtown for a movie and meal will need to buy a day pass for $5. Additional travelers pay full fare, so date night will cost a couple $10 in public transportation fares (and they’ll have to leave for home around midnight).

Person power is, by some measures, the least convenient way to travel. You must contend with the weather and with distracted drivers. Bike parking can be, at times, more frustrating than car parking and rates of theft are higher. A cyclist has no secure location to store bags or coats. Transit time is likely longer. Walking takes even longer and may be impractical for most trips. The cost, however, is (currently) free and you can leave whenever you want and arrive very close to your destination.

Of course there are some costs of biking such as new tubes and tires now and then, and of course there are lots of factors this calculation doesn’t capture such as physical health, the risk of a traffic ticket and so on.

But generally speaking, Jordan is describing the way most Portlanders think about these decisions. And though he doesn’t get into it here, these costs have been shifting. In the last 10 years, central-city transit fares have become a worse and worse deal compared to driving:

fare comparison

Portland says that because it isn’t willing to start knocking its buildings down to build wider roads, the only way to grow is to double its residents’ use of public transit and halve their use of cars.

If that’s the plan, maybe a good place to start would be to make it more expensive to drive than to catch a bus.

(Note: I adjusted two numbers in Jordan’s calculations: according to the latest estimates, each additional mile driven in a small sedan costs about 14.54 cents. He estimated 50 cents, but that includes fixed costs such as insurance, which most Portlanders pay whether or not they chose to drive for a given trip. The gist of his argument is the same; the driving couple saves money either way.)

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Subscriber

Thanks for the write-up! If you’re a like minded Portlander and want to help pass progressive parking policy, consider signing up for the PDX Shoupista mailing list, joining our slack channel, or bookmarking the blog at: http://pdxshoupistas.com

John Liu
Subscriber

I agree. Parking prices should be higher, and more destination neighborhoods (not just downtown) should have metered parking. The funds can be used to improve safety and attractiveness in those neighborhoods (streetlights, street trees, bike lanes, crossings, cleanup) to make the area more appealing to visit and hence offset the additional inconvenience to visitors (businesses will be worried about that).

How much higher? It should not be punitive. I’m thinking maybe +50% more, like $7.00/hour instead of $4.80. Remember that many people have very good, even compelling, reasons to drive. It doesn’t make sense to punish them when they have no choice.

Adam
Subscriber

Part of the solution includes adding parking meters on all commercial corridors and a neighborhood on-street parking permit system. Looking forward to hear the city’s plans for this at the parking open house tomorrow!

Robert Flory
Guest
Robert Flory

The analysis is for a couple going on an evening or weekend date downtown (?!) A better comparison is a weekday work commuter who would pay $5 for a Trimet day pass or $12 to park all day in a garage. Street parking isn’t available for an 8 hour work day, but $1.60 x 8 = $12.80

Trimet is a good option, although public transit in Portland is more expensive than in other major US cities.

none
Guest

You could included short term car rentals, like car2go. We use it to get downtown, and its only a few dollars more then the bus, but 4x faster!

canuck
Guest
canuck

Any study on the impact of increasing the cost of driving and loss of business $ coming into a downtown core?

9watts
Subscriber

I’d vote for Tony!

Greg
Guest
Greg

And lets not forget the ever so important “Will my bike be there when I come out?” cost.

soren
Subscriber

Limiting metered parking to downtown pdx and a few other select areas is like trying to fight a fire with a garden hose. The Hawthorne, Sellwood, Lloyd Center, Division, Alberta, Williams, Mississippi, NW, Hollywood, South Waterfront, Belmont, Foster, Sandy, Burnside, Kenton etc. commercial districts should all have extensive and expensive metered parking.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

Why do we have the expectation that costs would rise at the same rate across different modes? I would argue that parking requires less infrastructure, maintenance and administration than does a transit system that includes more human factors…such as salaries, benefits, etc. and that have infrastructure that gets deprecated more quickly. t’s not cheap to run a train. Those things add up over time.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…The question is, why are we also going out of our way to make driving so cheap? ” andersen/bikeportland

Obvious, easy answer: Attractively priced car parking is good for business. Since business is a major part of Portland’s lifeblood, attractively priced car parking continues to be important, and Portland business and many of the city’s residents know this.

Of course, use of cars can be, and has become excessive in many areas, including Portland, so ways to have other modes of travel be appealing,safe and functional, are ever more important. Basically, many cities, including Portland, have not done a good enough job of making those other modes of traffic more appealing, etc, than driving.

I guess some people like it, but riding the bus doesn’t much appeal to me at all. The light rail is far better, though during rush hour, it really is not pleasant to ride the train. Much more comfortable driving or riding in a personal car.

In terms of bike infrastructure, the city makes small gains in improving it for practical, comfortable and safe riding, but in terms of the larger picture, of a far greater percentage of commuters biking rather than driving or riding light rail, the city is way short of what’s needed.

maxD
Guest
maxD

Great article and very compelling case for increased parking rates! What about increasing taxes on surface parking lots? Raises some revenue and promotes redevelopment! I would like the City to also consider ways to prioritize transit with transit-only lanes, special signals, etc.

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

The bus costs more AND takes me an hour and a half to get home from work? Awesome. Thank god for the bicycle.
Interesting article. Be nice to see Portland prioritize public transit someday.

Brian E
Guest
Brian E

The IRS figures the operating cost for a car to be 57.5 cents per mile. that is more in my line with my experience.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2015, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car, van, pickup or panel truck will be:
57.5 cents per mile for business miles driven, up from 56 cents in 2014….

….The standard mileage rate for business is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile, including depreciation, insurance, repairs, tires, maintenance, gas and oil.

Lester Burnham
Guest
Lester Burnham

It would be nice if more normal people rode the bus and train out from where I live in east Portland. Because of that I’d much rather ride a bike to work and only to work because we have secure bike parking. Otherwise I’d rather drive to do anything else in the inner city.

oliver
Guest
oliver

I’m angry that Tri Met used $4.50 fuel costs to raise the fare to $2.25, and now that fuel is less than half that, the price of the fare is $2.50.

rick
Guest
rick

$2.50 is a lot to pay for 2 1/2 hour bus trip.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

My family of 4 is going to Zoo Lights soon. Should we drive there and pay $4 to park, or Max there and pay $15?

Jack
Guest
Jack

Additional flawed incentive: If someone is out on the town and has a few drinks before needing to get home, the punishment for being caught riding a bicycle while intoxicated is the same as the punishment for being caught driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated, despite the obvious reduced potential to do harm.

So why not just drive?

Aside from the ethics that stem from having compassion for others.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

This is a great discussion to have for Portland [and one I used to have a lot at the City of Vancouver]…it is even more timely given that there is no longer a transit fare-free zone in the city center. One could rationalize the “underpriced” [non market rate] parking in the CBD when transit was free but this relationship has not flip flopped.

Carrie
Subscriber

My family and I make this choice regularly. And it so disappoints me that the car wins frequently. If we are headed to a Thorns game, even though we now live near the MAX Orange line so it is really convenient for us, it costs 4x more to take the MAX to and from a game than it does for all of us to get in the car and drive and park. Sure we *could* ride our bikes, but again with the mixed ages of the four of use, it’s just not ‘worth it’ in time and effort because it’s easier to drive and park. If it were more difficult (less parking or significantly more expensive), then we would take MAX and/or ride bikes. Which I feel we should do.

J_R
Guest
J_R

To me the big disparity is the cost of long-term and short-term parking. From what I remember, monthly parking in downtown Portland is in the range of $100 to $120 per month. That works out to $5 to $6 per day or about 60 to 70 cents per hour. Short-term parking in on-street metered spaces is about $1.60. Why the big discount for all-day parkers?

Because of the difficulty finding parking and the cost (especially if one gets an over-time parking ticket if one says a few minutes too long), I’ve all but given up shopping in downtown Portland for most of the year. Instead of Powell’s, I buy my books from Amazon. I’d like to buy local, but the extra cost and hassle is too great.

hipstercide
Guest
hipstercide

Yesterday I wanted to go from my home in SW to have lunch with a friend downtown.

My choices were:
90 minutes walking and bus
60 minutes bicycling
15 minutes driving

Can you guess which I chose?

Portland’s transportation policies need more carrot, less stick. If we want fewer people to drive, we need better transit.

Champs
Guest
Champs

I’m not against the argument, but the model doesn’t make much sense. The subjects will not make driving decisions based on the price of parking.

I live just outside the streetcar loop (with a rent to prove it), and it’s still more than a four mile round trip to the outer frontier of the SW quadrant. People who do live within that rarefied radius, regardless of means, are either car-dependent or not.

TK
Guest
TK

As I see it, the main problem is that we have an economy that is based on unreasonably cheap gasoline. We subsidize the price of gasoline through worsened health, both for ourselves and for the planet, yet a significant tax to reflect the true cost of this commodity would be regressive.

What is needed is a systemic reevaluation of the car culture and all that we bargain away for the convenience of driving ourselves around our cities. Only then can we develop comprehensive policies that allow us to reflect the true cost of driving without adversely affecting those who can afford it least. Those policies will likely involve not just gas taxes but also close-in affordable housing and living wages (to name just two things that would need to change).

I know none of this would be easy or realistic, but neither is it realistic to assume we can keep carrying on the way we have for the last 100 years.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Hear, hear, TK: “…neither is it realistic to assume we can keep carrying on the way we have for the last 100 years.”

Another great article, Michael.The toughest challenge is to get people to stop seeing driving as a right and to see it instead as a privilege. And it should be a rare privilege.

Ditto for air travel (which should be a very rare thing indeed–are we insane?), but that’s a story for another day.

kittens
Guest
kittens

But isn’t it in writing that the goal of meters not to produce income but encourage turnover of available limited supply?

kittens
Guest
kittens

Totally on board with the idea that we need to raise parking meter rates. It should be free to take the bus/train downtown and cost $15/hr to park. And we can call that free area something cool like Fareless Square.

Unfortunately TriMet has proven time and time again that it is on a downward death spiral when it comes to speed, frequency, dependability and most importantly, quality.

Not many businesses REQUIRE a car all day. And if they do, they should be in a less congested area.

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

Not to nitpick, but a couple going on a date from 6-9 will actually only spend $2.76, not 5.96, as they only pay for 1 hour of parking. It’s especially significant in the “how people think about it” context, because I know when it’s close to 7:00 the equation changes dramatically if I’m feeling lazy.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I just want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with driving.

Driving definitely incurs costs, and these should be targeted specifically — CO2, for example, with by a carbon tax; peak hour capacity with congestion pricing; parking issues with smart metering (raising prices as capacity becomes scarce, lowering them when capacity is abundant), etc. All of these proposed solutions are well within our capacity to implement.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

My initial reaction to looking at the chart at the top of the page was “why does the bus cost so much?” But then I realized that the purpose of the graph was to further the narrative of the headline. When compared to driving alone (which, sadly, represents the majority of trips), the cost of the bus drops by half, ranking it below the cost of driving. And the cost of driving alone to work (one of the most common trips) is significantly higher than the cost of taking the bus.

So are the incentives really “backwards”?

Jeff Snavely
Guest
Jeff Snavely

Dan A
My family of 4 is going to Zoo Lights soon. Should we drive there and pay $4 to park, or Max there and pay $15?Recommended 10

Should I spend $15 or buy a car, and insurance? Oh, and the $4 parking?

If you already have a car in the driveway, any cost comparisons become pointless.

kittens
Guest
kittens

The problem with cars like pollution in general is that it is a incremental expense. Parking per hour tends to be seen as immediate. Yes owning, maintaining a car is more expensive than most modes even if you are taking taxis and buses but people’s brains don’t work that way.

Mike
Guest
Mike

I agree that vehicle use in Portland (& every city) should be more expensive. However what is Oregon doing to get people driving to the Portland metro area or south to Salem to have a viable alternative. Their high-speed rail project between Eugene and Portland is moving at a snail pace, won’t improve travel times and has limited runs. So if I want to come to portland for work or fun it makes me sense to drive even though I hate it.

So Portlanders if you want to have less cars on the road start looking beyond your borders and start lobbying the Legislature.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

We know how to change mode split and get more commuters to leave their cars at home. In the 90’s Lloyd TMA (now Go Lloyd!) instituted an area wide transit subsidy program with 6,000 or so employees enrolled; at the same time PBOT in partnership with Lloyd put in on street parking meters. There followed a dramatic shift from drive alone to transit. On Swan Island acres and acres of valuable industrially zoned lane are dedicated to auto storage, free to employees, but not “free” to someone! Its the biggest, most costly commute option incentive in place there; some major employers, Vigor Industrial and UPS, have very generous transit subsidies. Sadly Daimler Trucks NA does not, and they account for almost half the area’s employees. They are a “car company” after all!
Yes, raise meter rates downtown, add meters to close-in commercial streets, impose a carbon tax to get gas up to over $3 for a start. And put in place a $5 per month per spot on all parking, public and private; use those funds to get TriMet fares down to $1. Corvallis does something like this.

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

If the goal is to limit parking downtown, why not just outlaw parking downtown? Give it a try – see if the commissars take the bait.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Charge whatever surface lots charge. Period.

S Brian Willson
Guest

What our modern, western “developed” species needs now more than ever is creative imagination. We have lived in the century-long blip of oil that has conditioned our minds that speed and volume are “progress”, when in fact our way of life is totally unsustainable. We are spoiled in our comfort and convenience, built on outsourcing the consequent pain and suffering inflicted on other peoples and Mother Earth. We shall soon enough painfully learn that Nature Bats Last. And since we have considered ourselves as separate from and dominant over nature, rather than being an intrinsic part of her, we are on the verge of striking out. Nature does have a carrying capacity and we long ago exceeded it.

The private auto-mobile, and massive grid electricity, both enabled by the burning of fossil fuels, have produced what are now molecular particles of mass destruction. This blip will not be repeated, nor be maintained. It is sobering to realize that both sets of my grandparents were married in the 1890s before grid electricity and before the private automobile.

Will we adapt with a new consciousness that understands Indigenous values of living in local and bioregional reliance, where relationships build on principles of slow and small? Probably not, but we are capable of radical, quick shifts if we can really experience the necessity to do so in order to survive.

I was in Cuba in 1991 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Consequently, Cuba’s supply of oil immediately ceased. I watched the first boat load of bicycles being unloaded in Havana harbor (from China). At the same time, I witnessed the arrival of the first of many thousands of teams of oxen that were to replace tractors. I re-visited Cuba in 2000 and saw how the Island nation of 11 million people had now developed a decentralized organic garden food economy and 250,000 teams of oxen were in use by farmers throughout the country having replaced replaced tractors. There were organic gardens in virtually every Hanana neighborhood, in fact more than a thousand of them. Small scale solar was installed on most rural school roofs. The 1950s cars that remained on the roads were required to pickup people standing along the road needing rides.

If we could see, or more precisely “feel”, how close we are to the dangerous precipice of collapse, even being extinguished, due to our “modern” way of life with cars and endless dependence upon more and more electricity, we could change as if in an instant. Sharing and caring, living with less and local, would become memes.

If Portland is wise it would make bus riding free; it would do everything to discourage and limit car use in the inner city; do everything to encourage walking and cycling, especially erecting seriously protected lanes. At any rate, our dependence upon the convenience enabled by of the one century blip of easy oil, is now in the way of our creative imagination.

9watts
Subscriber

Hello Kitty, Soren,
starting at the bottom since it was so hard to nest properly above.
On the technical challenges of switching over to renewables:
http://beyondthisbriefanomaly.org/2015/08/30/an-integrated-view-of-energy-transition-what-can-we-learn/#more-2008
One sentence excerpted:
“Add the battery storage component though, with the annual capital investment reaching a combined US$10,155 billion, and the situation takes on a decidedly more extreme character. Remember, this is still not total annual investment in energy supply, just wind & PV generation capacity and the batteries for storage.”

I’ll be curious for your response.