When Google rolled out communities to the G+ crowd, I happened upon the Portland community. It’s about “life, the universe and everything in Portland, Oregon ☮♡☁.” Now, I live in Phoenix and think about moving to Portland fairly regularly. (When/if I leave PHX, there’s no place else in the US I’d rather go, frankly.) Over the years, I’ve come to recognize my current home town is the epitome of urban sprawl. My commute is 18 miles each way, which means 45min in my truck, 2hrs by bus, or similar by bike (albeit, often in 100°F+ weather). And those are the most appealing options.
Drew Wallner, a member of the Portland community, shared a link to a news story about Avis (the rental car company) purchasing ZipCar (the rent-by-the-hour car company) for US$500MM. The discussion got pretty lively and I found myself curious about living without a car. I mean, I’ve heard of ZipCar before, and Portland kinda has a reputation for being commuter friendly, but this was the first I’d ever come across a group of such individuals. I’ve never actually met anyone who lives like that – without a car – by choice. I thought other gearheads might find it interesting.
I asked them a bunch of questions. Personally, I can’t imagine living without a car, but know the things we have in common are what empowers us to get the most from our differences. What you’re about to read is basically a transcript of our conversation over a number of days. All I did was a little grammatical housekeeping before publishing.
HAVE YOU GONE CAR-LESS IN PORTLAND? WHY?
Grizwald Grim: I personally haven’t, but sharing in case I’ve managed to get some that do to circle me. :)
GBXM: See? That right there just goes to show how nice the people of Portland can be.
Barry Cochran: Almost. We have a car, but rarely use it since we came here. We use our car mainly to take the dogs to the dog park, to go out of town, and sometimes to buy groceries. My wife gets four free hours from ZipCar a month from her employer and that further minimizes the time we have to drive our own car. We also get discounted TriMet passes from our employer. When BikeShare gets started, I plan on trying that out, too.
Before we moved here, we had two cars. I commuted over an hour to work and my wife, half an hour. Even driving a Prius, I had to fill up a couple times a week. Here, it takes us about 2-3 months to go through a tank of gas. So I guess the main reason we’ve been so radical about going lowcar is that we really got tired of driving in Texas.
Also, it’s nerve-wracking to drive in PDX. There are so many pedestrians and bicycles and the other drivers are kind of unpredictable: either very passive or very aggressive.
Shawn Adams: I used to be basically car-less. I had a car; I just never used it. I’d bus it to work, bus it from work to school, and then bus it back home. I then went pretty heavy on riding my bike in the SW hills of Portland. It was a good 30min ride each way. As for why? Partially because I didn’t have a good car and partially because I just didn’t have a need to use the car. I also had no parking privileges at work, so I made due with what I had available to me.
GBXM: As a gearhead, I make a distinction between drivers and vehicle operators. The latter are more likely to be passive-aggressive behind the wheel. Combined with congestion, the efficiency (and pleasure) of driving is quickly diminished.
Are there really that many pedestrians and cyclists, compared to other cities?
How common are transpo benefits like ZipCar, Trimet?
Barry Cochran: Compared to the Texas town we moved from – which had essentially zero pedestrians – there are a lot more. Other Texas towns, even Austin, have some pedestrians, but not nearly as many as here. I’ve been to places that compared, but I would avoid driving in those places, too. We obviously don’t have as many people on the streets as say, New York, but I think there are quite a few for a city of this size.
As for bicyclists, here’s an odd little blog post that has some numbers, and here are some actual numbers (from the American Public Media program Marketplace), but it only refers to work commutes, not other errands.
Grizwald Grim: They were advertising a new rent-your-car-out for cash service on the radio (KNRK 97.4) recently. ‘Get Around’ maybe.
GBXM: Thanks for the link to Marketplace, Barry. I haven’t caught that show on the radio since changing jobs reduced my commute from 90 min to 45. I kinda miss Kai Rysdal. Anyway, the numbers look fairly similar between AZ & OR, though it’s clear more than double the people bus/train/bike/walk there as here. Interesting!
- AZ – solo car @ 79%, carpool @ 12%, public trans @ 1.82%, bike @ 2.23%, walk @ 4.92%
- OR – solo car @ 72%, carpool @ 10%, public trans @ 4.22%, bike @ 4.63%, walk @ 8.75%
And I’m familiar with services like GetAround; very similar to in the UK last summer. A testament to how reputable businesses protect their members, I was unable to join/rent, as I was not a licensed, UK driver.
This is all really interesting (and making a strong case for eventual relocation, my company has a location there). Currently, I have a would-be race car dismantled in my garage which I’ve not driven in years, and a dismantled SUV in my driveway, which is being semi-actively repaired for daily driver duties. It would be nice to be able to simply ride a bike to work or take clean, efficient mass trans without doubling the commute time. Which gets me back to the article…
How far do you regularly commute/travel by means other than personal vehicle?
What percentage of your most-visited locations is conveniently accessible via these modes?
I suspect transpo options shrink as you get further from the core, but how far out?
Is that a function of zoning/planning or consumer demand?
Think: Chicken & Egg. Are there more users of alternative modes of transportation in Portland because there are more options available (due to planning/zoning)? Or are there more options available because there are more people demanding them (there’s just a lot of cyclists and non-car owners there)?
*Would you say most people in Portland who’ve gone car-less or otherwise relegated their personal vehicles to random, utilitarian/recreational use have done so because of some overall sense of environmentalism there or because it’s just easier to live without them on a daily basis?
Thanks for entertaining this discussion with me. As much as I’m a gearhead, I would like to be able to ride a bike to work so I could keep my vehicles as playthings for weekend adventures. Your comments are sincerely appreciated.
Barry Cochran: For work, my wife and I commute by bus from downtown to the University of Portland; it’s about 8 miles. It takes about 45 minutes. Theoretically, it would take about 15 by car; however, in my experience, the only times I’ve been late have been the few occasions when I drove. Probably this is because I drove on one of the clogged freeways, the I-5 or the 405, and the bus takes alternate routes.
We have one grocery store (Safeway) within walking distance that we go to if we just need a few items, but do go to the Freddy’s (Fred Meyer) once a week, almost always by car, because we need a giant bag of dog food and more items in general than we can comfortably carry. There’s a first-run movie theater nearby that we can access probably faster by MAX train than by car, and we don’t have to pay for parking. Actually, we could also walk there. There are tons of niche movie theaters we get to by bus. We’re members of the Art Museum and walk there frequently. The library is close by via streetcar or walking. We have a neighborhood pub and several restaurants and a food cart pod within half a mile. Lots of others are easily accessible by bus or MAX.
Weirdly, the hardest place to get to via transit that I like to go to a lot is Forest Park. There is another big park, Marquam Nature Park, though, that’s a short walk from here. There are also no fenced dog parks within easy walking distance. (Do you see a theme here? We would seriously consider totally getting rid of the car if it weren’t for the dogs. I’m not really joking.)
Your question about transit options shrinking is interesting. I am aware – and more aware when I wander farther out – that it is so easy for me to use transit because I live downtown. But the city and TriMet have tried to expand service to the suburbs and met with some resistance.
Clackamas county is a fairly conservative area that has fought expansion of the MAX. The MAX was also supposed to go over the new Columbia River Crossing bridge, and there’s also a battle over that. There’s some perception that the “Portland” that everyone in the world thinks exists is the near west side of the river and the east side west of 82nd. East of 82nd feels neglected, and I don’t get that far out often enough to judge the validity of their complaints, but if I had to guess, I’d say that’s the answer to “how far out.”
And I’d guess some chicken and some egg, but keep in mind that many people here are very geeky about transit, and very much into advocacy. Many pedestrians are LOUD pedestrians, and many cyclists are LOUD cyclists, and many transit riders are LOUD transit riders. You can get a sense of this from Twitter (@portlandafoot, @pdxcommute, @trimetstalker, @transitsleuth, others).
As far as going car-less, there’s probably any number of reasons. I think environmentalism is a factor, but in general I think it’s just seen as a more carefree sort of lifestyle that appeals to young people and others who don’t want extra hassles. I know this is often hard for car people to wrap their minds around, but it’s just easier to not have to find a parking space and all of the other middling annoyances that go along with answering to an automobile.
Finally, I’d add – in accordance to your “playthings” comment – when I do drive here, I generally do enjoy it more. It can be stressful in the city, but it can also be fun, especially driving some of the very windy tree-lined roads like Terwilliger or Skyline, or driving the Gorge or out to the Coast. I also think that driving in Portland makes me a better driver because I have to pay so much attention, whereas driving in Texas made me a much worse driver. That’s just me; it obviously doesn’t hold true for everyone. Hope that wasn’t a too long-winded response.
Grizwald Grim: I agree with you on the east of 82nd part, but I find that’s where I most enjoy being when I’m ‘downtown.’ Of course, I attribute that to the number of piercings and tattoos that adorn the area locals. If I were in my 20’s again, that’s where I’d want to live.
Lisa Silvey: I own a car, but use it only for transportation outside of PDX. 99% of the time, I go by foot or bike when in Portland. IMO, Portland is enjoyable to traverse by bike/foot/public transportation, but mostly slow, aggravating and expensive by car.
If you’re not looking specifically for a PDX resident, you might connect with Chris Baskind he is car less in FL, a very non bike/public transportation friendly place.
Mr. Baskind got the ping and stopped in for a moment.
Chris Baskind: I’ve been happily without a car over three years, and – beyond being fairly flat – my part of Florida offers nothing substantial in terms of mass transit or even bike lanes. But I’m not moving kids around, and I generally work from home. Our needs are all different.
Ken Gerts: Family of 4 living with one car here! There are tons of options: cycling, Car2Go, GetAround, TriMet, taxi, walking… I never find myself stranded.
GBXM: Lots of feedback. Thank you everyone.
It sounds like the alternative modalities are generally more concentrated in the core – which seems par for the course in most major metros. But it also seems Portland maybe pushes that level of service options further out than most which, combined with a progressive population, contributes to the reputation. Maybe the lesson learned here is that, where there are options available, we’re more likely to use them.
I’d like to thank everyone in Portland for taking time to share their experiences and perspectives with us on this one. As the sun sets on what’s been an unusually rainy weekend in Phoenix, I think it would be nice to have alternate options for getting to work so both my vehicles could be considered recreational.
Special thanks to Ben Latterell for generously allowing the use of his images with this story. You can see more of his work at plusben.com (which redirects to his G+ profile at press time).