Portland Maine Vehicle Registrations | 2004 - 2011

July 29, 2012

Portland at forefront of decline in car ownership

Many do it out of necessity, others by choice, but the trend is steady.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Today's poll: Car ownership

Have you cut back on the number of vehicles you own, either by choice or necessity?



View Results

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Janet Burgess, a West End resident, boards a Metro bus at the Forest Avenue Hannaford supermarket. She says she misses the convenience of a car, but not the bills that came along with car ownership.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Jessie Lacy gave up her car three years ago. Her daily commute now is a 10-minute walk, often with her dog, from her Grant Street apartment to her job on Exchange Street.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer


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Today's poll: Car ownership

Have you cut back on the number of vehicles you own, either by choice or necessity?



View Results