Portland drivers still go solo, despite a hefty public investment

Despite Portland's reputation as a city whose residents often leave their vehicles at home for the day's commute, carpooling and car-sharing certainly haven't caught on yet.

A city-sponsored, carpool-matching Web site is believed to have produced only about a dozen car pools in the 14 months it has been online. At a site-creation cost of $120,000, along with the $232,000 that Metro has paid out in the last two years for staff and marketing, that's more than $29,000 per car pool.

And a private car-sharing company that's been promoted on another city Web site for an even longer period isn't making money, either. In fact, it has such low brand awareness that the office of one of Portland's key transportation planners hasn't heard of it.

What gives? After all, in 2000 Portland was named Money magazine's best big city nationwide because, among other things, it had 'reined in urban sprawl' and 'made decisions É to honor the pedestrian over the automobile.'

Cynthia Thompson, who manages the city's Transportation Options Division, blames the slow start on a lack of marketing money and the fact that the project is still in its infancy.

Thompson's Web site,, went online in late April 2002. She said it takes about three years to build the 5,000-person database required to make a meaningful number of carpool matches.

CarpoolMatchNW has had about 1,500 people enter their transportation data in its first 14 months, which puts it on pace to have 5,000 potential participants in three years, she said.

And Lance Ayrault, chief executive officer of the private car-sharing company Flexcar, said the endeavor should be making money in the Portland market by the end of this summer.

The company, which took over Car Sharing Portland in 2001, is based in Seattle and operates car-sharing programs in more than a dozen cities in five states and the District of Columbia.

Thompson said the Portland area has only roughly 11 percent of its workers commuting by car pool, a figure that she said has held steady in recent years. 'Carpooling's not for everybody,' she conceded, noting that irregular work schedules, responsibilities for children and errands all are reasons that people give for driving alone.

Her optimism about carpooling is based on the experience of cities such as Seattle, whose commuters have the same crowded schedules as those in Portland but where the percentage of car pool users has been as high as 20 percent.

'Seattle has thriving car pools and van pools,' Thompson said. 'You'll notice that it even has car pool lanes. It's much more of a focus there. That's why we saw real potential here Ñ it's an untapped market.'

Just how untapped is clear from the Household Activity Survey, done for Metro in 1994 and 1995 and still used by both Metro and the Office of Transportation as the benchmark study of how and where metro area residents travel.

According to that study, residents of the tri-county area and Clark County, Wash., spend 65 to 80 minutes a day just getting around. They commute an average of 6.6 miles one way. And 81 percent of them, who work somewhere other than downtown Portland, get there by driving alone.

That's the bad news, in terms of traffic congestion and vehicle-caused air pollution. The good news, according to the survey, is that only 48 percent of respondents who work downtown commute by driving alone.

Small change, large impact

The difference between the two groups is extremely significant, said Jacob Brostoff, transportation advocate for the nonprofit organization 1000 Friends of Oregon.

'Even a teeny, teeny change makes a huge impact in the way the system functions,' he said, citing a study of a Los Angeles mass transit strike that resulted in 'huge congestion' when mass transit riders had to commute in cars.

The success of alternative transportation programs, including carpooling and car-sharing, should be measured in terms of their impact on the system, not the number of people who use them, Brostoff said.

'Almost universally, things that reduce travel demand, like carpooling and car-sharing, are a better deal for taxpayers than building new roads,' he said.

'Studies show that new roads lead to new trips,' he said. 'They induce demand. But if you can get people out of cars (via alternative transportation), they tend to not go back to cars.'

Fisheries biologist Kris Petersen is a believer. For months, she has been getting chauffeured from her home in Hazel Dell, Wash., to her job in Northeast Portland. No gas money, no wear and tear on her car, no search for a parking space, no parking costs. Just free door-to-door service, plus an average savings in travel time of 20 minutes Ñ sometimes as much as 40 minutes Ñ each day.

Petersen says she owes it all to CarpoolMatchNW, through which she connected with Mark Adams, an electrical engineer who works for PacifiCorp in Northeast Portland and lives just three blocks from her in Hazel Dell.

According to Adams, the arrangement is a win-win situation for both, even though Petersen seldom drives and he doesn't require her to help pay for his gas. That's because the car-sharing allows him to zoom along in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that exist on segments of south- and northbound Interstate 5.

'Fifteen or 20 minutes a day,' Adams said of the time he now spends with his family instead of being stuck in traffic. 'That's worth it to me.'

Thompson said the city's carpool matching program has received $116,000 from Metro for each of the last two years to staff and market the program, and will receive the same amount for the fiscal year that starts today.

Past marketing efforts have included meetings with transportation coordinators for Portland area businesses and participation in transportation fairs. This summer, Thompson said, the division plans to hand out fliers about the program at downtown parking garages.

Wheels when you want them

In May, Flexcar's fleet of 50 vehicles logged 6,000 hours of use, or approximately four hours per vehicle per day. For Flexcar to make money, that average needs to increase to six hours per day, according to Bill Scott, the Portland general manager. 'That's the real challenge.'

Flexcar parks its fleet of light trucks, minivans and cars at various sites throughout Portland and Vancouver. It gives its members an electronic card and a code that allows them to access whichever vehicle they have reserved. Members pay for their use by the hour and the mile.

Flexcar members pay a one-time membership fee of $25. They then can choose between a plan aimed at occasional users Ñ $8 an hour, 10 free miles per hour Ñ or one that provides price incentives for more frequent use and longer travel.

Prices range from $35 per month for up to 5 hours and 50 miles to $525 per month for up to 100 hours and 1,000 miles.

But the company seems to have low name recognition, despite its long-term inclusion in the city transportation office's Web site, as well as bus-bench billboards paid for by Flexcar.

'I can't speak for Commissioner Leonard, but it's news to me,' Randy Leonard's chief of staff, Ty Kovatch, said of the company, which bought out Car Sharing Portland in 2001.

But Seattle-based CEO Ayrault said he's 'positive that Flexcar is going to make money in Portland. Otherwise, we wouldn't be there.'

According to Ayrault, Flexcar's existing customers experienced 'a lot of concern' when the company changed its pricing structure last summer. 'Members were used to having lower-cost vehicles,' he said, 'but that just wasn't a sustainable business model for us.'

He said that those customers have adjusted and that Flexcar has experienced what he describes as a 'tremendous pickup in membership' as a result of marketing its products to companies instead of individuals.

Additional information about carpooling and car-sharing is available online at (click on Getting Around Portland), and

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