Learning from Portland: How to Grow Jobs and Reduce Traffic

Back in 1994, the Lloyd District in Portland faced a dilemma. The second largest employment area in Portland, including offices, a shopping mall, and some residences, was planning for major growth. The district wanted to double the number of employees from 15,000 to 30,000 over the next 15 years.

But there was limited access to the district from the freeway system, and 76% of workers and shoppers arrived driving alone. Only 10% used transit, and less than 1% rode a bike. Transportation studies showed that if employment doubled and drive-alone rates remained the same, there would be gridlock on the freeway.

The city would need to spend half a billion dollars – 5 miles of highway lanes, at $100 million per mile – to support all the new traffic resulting from the new development. Over and above the cost of the auto lanes, the district would need to add over $500 million of new parking structures. Surface parking was impractical, since the parking spaces for the new employees would require 70 acres of parking lot space of 200 acres total.

Lloyd District Map

A group of leaders from the city, including the director of the Bureau of Planning, the
Commissioner of Transportation, the General Manager of the transit agency (TriMet), businesses, and property owners got together to see if there was any way out of this seemingly intractable dilemma.

The leaders proposed a scenario that seems like a fantasy in most of the US today. What if the percentage of people arriving to the district changed dramatically – not by 15%-20%, which is considered ambitious in most places.

What if the percentage of people driving alone was slashed by more than half? Great idea, they agreed. Then they figured out how to make it happen.

Part of the solution was better transit service. The team collected and geocoded the addresses of the employees in the district, and identified locations where large clusters of employees lived. Then Portland’s transit agency created three new express buses travelling from those locations.

A crucial part of the solution was making transit financially appealing to employees. To do this, transit service needed to be cheaper than the cost of parking a car at work.

In 1994, all parking was free. The Districted added parking meters to formerly free parking spaces. Then, 51% the revenue from the parking meters was used to fund transit passes and other alternative commute programs.

In partnership with the transit agency a new heavily discounted transit pass was created, costing $330 rather than the previous $1,100. The price of the transit pass was intentionally set lower than the price of parking a car. Businesses had to commit to buying a transit pass for every employee. For every 2,000 transit passes sold, the transit agency provided a new bus.

The new development plan prohibited new surface parking lots and limited the amount of parking – only 2 vehicle parking spaces for every 4 employees, with maximum parking ratios for retail and commercial space.

The stakeholders also set a goal of 10% bike mode share. The city agreed to build bike lanes, and businesses agreed that all buildings would have bike parking available for at least 10% of employees. Over time the district added 2,500 bike parking spaces.

A successful outcome

Today, the Lloyd District consists of 8 property owners with 500 businesses, employing about 23,000 employees, and housing about 600 people. The drive-alone mode share is down from 80% to about 40%. Peak hour vehicle trips have actually declined by over 1,000 vehicles per hour.

The scarcity of vehicle parking (relative to other commercial developments) hasn’t scared away tenants or visitors. Just the opposite – the building vacancy rate is 4%, which is the highest occupancy of any district in the state. Employment grew steadily, even during the post 2008 recession. Visitor trips grew from 15 million to 20 million per year. The district plans to add another 4,000 housing units, to further improve travel mode share by enabling people to live close to work.

Helping people choose not to drive

The Lloyd District’s Transportation Management Association has a staff of 5 people, on a budget of $450,000 per year, who provide support programs to reduce solo driving. More than one third of the revenue comes from the property owners in the Business Improvement District. About a third of the revenue comes from parking meters. Other funding sources include regional grant funding and a commission on transit pass sales.

For employees and residents new to the public transit system, staff will help a new rider plan a trip, and will provide a “buddy” to ride a bus for a few days. There are carpooling and carshare programs. A “Commuter Connection” store sells bike gear, provides bike repair services, and lends bikes and helmets. There are regular educational events where employees learn about transit, bicycling, and walking options. There is a “commuter rewards” program with monthly prizes for people who commute without driving alone. The Transportation Management Association conducts a transportation survey for the entire district, and generates a custom report annually for each business.

These robust services are familiar in large, forward-looking corporations such as Google and Facebook. But they are very rare elsewhere. The Transportation Management Association provides these services to all of the businesses and employees in the district, including low-wage retail and service employees.

The secret to success – committing to the goal

Rick WIlliams, the Executive Director of the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association, says following this simple three step process ensured success:

1) Agree on the problem. The stakeholders agreed that they wanted to see employment growth in the district without worsening traffic congestion on nearby streets and highways.
2) Set a goal that solves the problem. The Lloyd district set a goal of 33% non drivealone mode share
3) Commit to the goal. The businesses in the Lloyd district needed to commit to the plan in order to build new buildings and add jobs.

More than that, the stakeholders had to believe that travel mode share is a variable – that it can be modified with sensible, well-designed, well-priced transit and bicycling services and infrastructure that give workers competitive alternatives to driving. In most of the United States, it is taken as a fact of life that most workers will commute by automobile. The status quo is seen as the preferred lifestyle, the natural result of a “car culture”, so efforts are not taken to give residents convenient and cost-effective alternatives.

The stakeholders also had to commit to controversial changes such as charging for formerly free vehicle parking, and limiting the amount of parking spaces for new developments. These choices paid off. More jobs and shoppers were attracted using cheaper programs and infrastructure (transit service, bike lanes, bike parking, etc) than if typical auto-oriented developments had been built.

Last but not least, the Lloyd Business District took proven, powerful transportation management tools, that are currently used by the largest and wealthiest employers, and made them available to smaller businesses and diverse employees. This enabled them to achieve ambitious traffic-reduction results for the whole area.

With ambitious goals, firm commitments, and effective collaboration, it is possible to make very large changes in the mix of transportation services that people use.

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