PORTLAND – Three years ago, Janet Burgess was several months behind in the car payments for her Ford Taurus when it was totaled in a collision. She decided to use her insurance settlement to become debt-free rather than buy another car.
Burgess, 55, said she misses the convenience her car provided but not the bills that came along with it.
“It’s time-consuming getting around, but I don’t have to spend that money,” she said while riding a bus from the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue to her apartment in the Portland’s West End. “Knowing that it’s good for the environment makes it easier to accept.”
After steadily increasing every year since the end of WWII, car ownership in the United States declined for the first time in 2009 and again in 2010, the most recent year for which federal data is available. In Maine, the number of passenger vehicles has declined slightly each year since 2009.
The trend is more pronounced in Portland, one of the few communities in the state where it’s feasible to live without an automobile.
From 2004 to 2011, the number of registered passenger vehicles in the city plummeted from 49,900 to 38,200, a 23 percent drop. Traffic congestion has also declined, reversing an upward climb that had been the norm for generations.
From 2005 to 2011, the number of vehicle miles traveled annually on Maine roads and highways declined by more than 600 million miles, a decline of 4 percent, according to an estimate based on Maine Department of Transportation traffic surveys. In the Greater Portland area, excluding the interstate highways, the number of vehicle miles traveled annually declined by 79 million miles a year, a 7 percent decline during the same period.
At the same time, Portland’s Metro bus system, which now has a ridership of about 1.4 million passenger trips annually, has seen its ridership grow 3.55 percent in the first six months of 2012. The service has seen steady but modest ridership growth since 2000.
The statistics reflect two apparent trends: Families hit hard by the Great Recession and higher gas prices have cut back on spending by driving less or not at all. Selling a car brings in immediate cash, lowers debt and cuts monthly expenses. It costs nearly $9,000 per year to own a car, including monthly payments, fuel, maintenance and insurance, according to a study by the American Automobile Association.
In addition, the lure of the automobile as a symbol of freedom appears to have faded for many young people, according to national surveys. A growing number of young adults who could afford to own a car don’t want to and are moving to cities that offer other options.
“You are seeing two trends: One of necessity and one of choice,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, an anti-sprawl advocacy group based in Portland.
Young adults in America are driving a lot less than they did a decade ago.
For the nation’s 16- to 34-year-olds, the total amount of miles traveled declined by 23 percent from 2002 to 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation survey of household travel patterns.
Nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds would pick Internet access over having their own car, according to a survey released earlier this year by the Lempert Report, a marketing trend newsletter. The study speculates that the availability of virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact.
The decline in car ownership – particularly in new car purchases, which fell 33 percent in Portland from 2004 to 2011 — cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in lost excise tax revenues during the recesssion.
But 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.
In Bangor, a person without a car is a “bum or something,” but the car-free lifestyle in Portland is embraced by the environmentally conscious middle class, said Jessie Lacey, 30, who grew up in Piscataquis County town of Brownville Junction and later lived in Bangor. She moved to Portland six years ago.
Her daily commute consists of a 10-minute walk from her Grant Street apartment to her job as creative director of a Web marketing firm on Exchange Street, and she usually brings her dog to work.
Three years ago, she sold her Chevrolet Cavalier because she was tired of keeping up with the paperwork that went along with owning car, such as registration and insurance. She shops for groceries at the farmer’s market and Public Market House on Monument Square and sometimes takes a cab to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for bigger shopping trips.
“I could never have imagined not owning car until I was in Portland,” she said.
Eric Blumrich moved to Portland from New Jersey in 2010 after his research on the Internet led him to conclude that he could live in Portland without a car. An animator for a multimedia firm in New Jersey, he works at home and could live anywhere in the country.
He said it was difficult to live in New Jersey without a car because public transportation was so poor and services were so spread out. Staying there and buying a car would have amounted to a 20 percent cut in pay, he said. Moving to Portland, where the cost of living is lower and it’s easier to get around on foot, amounted to a 10 percent pay increase.
Blumrich, 42, who lives in the Parkside neighborhood, said Portland has a variety of interesting neighborhoods, small businesses and a bus system that is better than any system in New Jersey. For relaxation, he rides the ferry to Peaks Island and walks to the undeveloped side of the island.
Tim Schneider, 31, a Portland attorney, keeps a log of his transportation expenses.
He bikes to work most days, and uses a car-share service occasionally. Last year, he spent $600 on his bicycle, bus fare and car rental payments. That’s a big savings compared to what he would have spent on a car, he said.
The trends in car ownership have implications on city land use and transportation policy, said City Councilor David Marshall, who last week proposed that the city examine the feasibility of a streetcar or light rail system that would run through downtown.
Marshall, the only city councilor who does not own a car, noted that the council’s decision in 2008 to reduce from two spaces to one the number of parking spaces required for each new housing unit on the peninsula appears to be paying off. It has lowered development costs, and developers are now doing planning work for projects that will bring more than 700 units of housing on the peninsula, he said.
Marshall noted that Portland apartments are in high demand. In February, the city’s apartment vacancy rate of 2.5 percent was tied with Minneapolis as the nation’s second lowest, behind only New York City, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.
While the millennium generation is now flocking to cities like Portland, the baby boomers will also gravitate to cities like Portland as they downsize from their suburban houses and seek neighborhoods where can live without driving a car, he said.
“Take these two gigantic generations, and you will see both are heading to urbanized areas,” he said. “Portland is in a strong position to capitalize on this trend.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: