For the past week, Portland Press Herald reporter Tom Bell has been researching a story on Portland's declining rates of car ownership. The story ran in today's paper, and even I thought that its findings were surprising: the number of registered cars in the city has fallen, Bell found, by 24% in the last 8 years.
And, a corollary: because Portland one of the few places in New England that people can live without the hassles and expenses of car ownership, it's becoming an increasingly attractive as a place to move to: "the city's apartment vacancy rate of 2.5 percent was tied with Minneapolis as the nation's second lowest," writes Bell, "behind only New York City, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors."
This is a trend we've been hearing about on the national level for quite some time, and particularly where my generation is concerned. But what Tom found locally was particularly striking. Even before the Great Recession began, the number of registered passenger vehicles was declining steadily, even as the city's population has been on the rise:
Bell's article profiles a few Portlanders who have gotten rid of their cars in recent years and don't regret it. They cite the many hassles of car ownership: onerous paperwork, the expense, and the deleterious effects that cars have on the urban landscape and the environment in general. But the cost factor seems to be the most important one. The American Automobile Association estimates that owning a car costs, on average, roughly $9,000 every year. So getting rid of a car can provide a huge boost in a household's disposable income. I personally don't think that it's been much of a coincidence that Portland has gained dozens of new neighborhood-oriented businesses and restaurants in this same 8-year period that car ownership has fallen off a cliff: without the hassles and expenses of babysitting cars, we have more time and money to spend right here in the city. Bell's story alludes to this phenomenon as well:
"The decline of car ownership presents opportunities for the city's economy. Its high population density, mix of services and retail stores, access to public transportation, car sharing services and extensive bicycle network have made it not only possible to live without a car but made the city a magnet for those who want to."And as more car-free households move here, more businesses will be able to spring up to serve their needs in the neighborhoods where they live. It's a virtuous cycle that's leading us to a more vibrant, prosperous city.
This is a positive trend. But it's happening in spite of the city's housing and transportation policies, which are still focused overwhelmingly on building cheap or free parking.
In the same 8-year period that car ownership went down 24%, the City of Portland sunk millions of dollars into tax-subsidized parking garages in Bayside and the Eastern Waterfront district, while public bus services, which are still frustratingly meager, haven't received any new investments from city government. And in spite of our housing shortages, it's still largely illegal for developers to build new homes without expensive parking spaces; every single "affordable" housing development built by the city's nonprofit developers in recent years has been forced to include expensive and little-used parking garages.
People want to live in Portland without worrying about automobile ownership. The City ought to let them, instead of forcing them to pay exorbitantly for roads and parking we don't use.