October 23, 2012  4:32 PM

Region's residents slowly curbing auto use, but cars still dominate the commute

A recently-released study shows that residents of the Portland region are slowly starting to curb their auto use, after decades of investment in alternative transportation systems.

The region's emphasis on transit and bicycle infrastructure and smarter zoning haven't been a panacea that gets everyone out of their cars, but the improvements have been chipping away at auto use.

Still, people overwhelmingly use their cars to get around when they leave home, the study found.

About 6,400 households from the Portland metro area, including Clark County, took part in the 2011 Travel Activity Survey. It's the first time such a study has been conducted since 1994.

The study found that 83.7 percent of the time someone in the region went somewhere, they took their car. That's down from 87.3 percent in 1994. The percentage of people driving to work dropped from 90 percent in 1994 to 81 percent in 2011.

Even though the "overwhelming percentage" of all trips in 2011 were by car, Metro Council President Tom Hughes said Tuesday "the devil is in the details" of the percentage drop.

"How many cars does that take off the road? How many miles does that take off the road? How many tons of pollutants are not in the atmosphere?" Hughes said at a Metro Council work session.

Some of that data is yet to be parsed out by Metro researchers. But Mike Hoglund, director of Metro's Research Center, said Tuesday it's important to look beyond the percentage numbers.

Hoglund pointed to the average distance of trips out of the home, which decreased 13 percent from 1994 to 2011, from 5.1 to 4.4 miles per trip.

"That means the land use plans are working," Hoglund said. "There's been investment by the public and private sector in providing destinations where people want to go."

He also pointed to the drop in the daily vehicle miles traveled per household in the Portland region, which fell from 30.9 in 1994 to 22.7 in 2011, a 28 percent decrease.

The report showed some conflicting data on the growth of transit use in the region. Nearly half of the people who commute to work in downtown Portland now use transit, up from one-third in 1994. Overall, the percentage of transit commuters in the region has nearly doubled, from 5.6 percent to 10.9 percent.

View the report (PDF)

But the percentage of transit riders was flat in Portland between the Willamette River and Interstate 205 – 6 percent in 1994 and 2011. Population growth in the area means there are more transit riders, even if the percentages haven't changed.

"Since TriMet has spent several hundred million dollars to build the Yellow, Red and Green MAX lines and a network of frequent service bus lines, this is pretty surprising," said Michael Andersen, a transportation writer, on the BikePortland blog.

Much of the growth in transit ridership has come from younger residents – ridership rates roughly doubled among people aged 15 to 44, with 9.5 percent of trips by 15 to 24 year olds coming on buses and trains.

Two-wheeled trips also saw increases, with 2.8 percent of trips in 2011 taken by bicycle, up from 1.1 percent in 1994. Commutes to work by bike soared from 1 percent to 4.6 percent.

In central Portland – downtown, the South Waterfront, inner Northwest and the Lloyd, Pearl and Eastside Industrial districts – the percentage of trips by bike rose from 2.8 percent in 1994 to 13 percent in 2011. In Portland from the Willamette to I-205, excluding the aforementioned central Portland neighborhoods, bike use rose from 2 percent to 8.1 percent in the same timeframe.

Still, the study showed that suburban residents aren't yet embracing bikes as a way to get to work or run errands. Just 1.5 percent of trips made by residents of the Oregon suburbs (and Portland east of I-205) were made on bikes. That number dropped to 1 percent in Clark County.

The study found that 28.5 percent of adults in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties owned a bike; comparatively, 92.4 percent of households in those three counties had cars.

The $1 million study was conducted for Metro by NuStats, an Austin, Texas based firm.

Metro News editor Nick Christensen can be reached at nick.christensen@oregonmetro.gov or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.

Learn more about Metro's Research Center

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