Archive | July, 2005

My Commute: Ride Connection

When we think about commuting, we tend to think about trips from home to work. Or maybe home to school. But last week, I got exposed to another kind of commuting when I had the opportunity to do a ride-along with Ride Connection.

Ride Connection is a unique organization that coordinates a network of over 30 services providers. Last year they scheduled almost 300,000 rides. Their services range from fleet management to programs that teach seniors to be independently mobile.

Last week I had a chance to share a ride with a number of seniors participating in day programs at LifeWorks NW. LifeWorks provides a range of mental health services. The folks I was riding with were participating in a ‘structured day’ program designed for those with Alzheimer’s Disease. This program provides an opportunity for socializing, activities and often provides a much needed break for in-home caregivers.

Clients can arrive at LifeWorks in a number of different vehicles: medical transport (similar to an ambulance), vehicles with wheelchair lifts, or in buses. I rode along on a bus route, which reminded me a lot of a school bus route. All of my fellow passengers were mostly ambulatory, although with varying degrees of assistance ranging from canes to wheelchairs (although all were able to walk onto the bus). There are several buses operating out of LifeWorks, each of which has regularly scheduled morning and afternoon routes to pick-up and drop-off clients.

In this particular case, Ride Connection’s role is to organize vehicle maintenance and to train the bus drivers.

So here’s a shout out to the great services provided by Ride Connection (and to the great driver who hosted me) and a reminder that commuting can take a lot of forms.

An Introduction to Flexcar

What is Flexcar?

Flexcar is a carsharing service. We own and manage a large, fully-automated, self-service fleet of fuel efficient cars, trucks and vans. Businesses and individuals pay a modest annual membership fee, and then use an online reservation system and a “keycard” (proximity card) to enter and drive the vehicle that they reserved.

Unlike traditional car rental, carsharing is either hourly or by-the-day. Also, Flexcar’s pricing is all-inclusive. Rates include full insurance, gas and unlimited miles. Members typically cancel their own car insurance because it’s included in Flexcar’s rates. Upon joining, they cancel their insurance and sell their personal vehicle, thereby eliminating what is typically their second largest household expense: their car.

AAA estimates that it costs over $500/month to own a car (assumptions: new Taurus every 5 years; full insurance, etc). AAA’s figures, by the way, do NOT include Downtown parking. Instead of driving everywhere, Flexcar members rely primarily on public transportation, bikes and their feet, and only drive when they really need to (e.g. to get a big load of groceries, go to the Coast for a weekend, go to a meeting in the suburbs, etc.).

If a Flexcar member who doesn’t have car insurance goes to a rental car agency, they walk in expecting to pay something around $25 a day, but they eventually end up with a bill totaling closer to $60/day. Why? Insurance costs extra. Gas also costs extra. And if you’re an hour late, you get charged for an extra day.

With Flexcar, by comparison, the cost includes everything: insurance, gas, maintenance, cleaning, and a reserved parking space wherever you picked up (and later drop off) the car.

Also, with Flexcar, you can reserve & use a car, truck or van in 1/2 hour increments. So if you need a car for 3.5 hours, you’re not stuck paying for 24. Also, you don’t have to stand in line, sign a lot of paperwork, fill the tank (unless it drops below a quarter tank, in which case you fill it with an in-vehicle gas credit card). Once approved as a member (requirements include a reasonable driving record to be approved) you get a member number, and PIN and an electronic “keycard,” which gets you in the car. (Your PIN is also needed in order to enable your chosen car’s ignition).

How much does it cost?

Hourly: $7 – $9
Daily: $35 – $90 ($56 is pretty typical).

These prices include everything – gas, insurance, an unlimited miles. The daily rates very depending on the vehicle-specific “daily cap,” (the maximum charge for a 24 hour calendar day) which is either 5 hours, 7 hours or 10 hours.

Many Flexcar members go weeks without needing a car; others drive every few days. Some drive once a month, to get out of town for a weekend. Others drive the same vehicle (the one located nearest their home) every weekend. Some even have a recurring reservation (e.g. every Saturday at 10AM to 1PM) on the same vehicle for the next several months. For example, every Saturday at 10, a member might go to “their” Flexcar, open it with their keycard, enter their PIN, run all of their errands for the week, return the car, lock it up, and leave it for the next driver.

The incremental cost structure ($40 a year for a membership; no additional cost unless you actually drive) gives members a powerful (approx. $8/hour) incentive to drive judiciously. Over time, members tend to ride bikes, walk and ride transit more & more, and drive less.

What about availability?

Flexcar vehicles are usually driven 4-8 hours/day. 6 hours is pretty typical. When all of the vehicles in a neighborhood reach that threshold, we add more cars, thus keeping availability in sync with demand. 6 hours/day sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that this is over a 24 hour calendar day. So are cars are actually only about 25% utilized. Midday is “peak time,” so we recommend reserving a few hours in advance for a lunch meeting, but most members still make their reservations at the very last minute. This means that they sometimes don’t get the car closest to them, but with an ever-denser network, there’s almost never a problem getting a Flexcar somewhere nearby.

Who uses Flexcar?

150+ private companies use Flexcar. They find it more convenient and cost effective than owning, insuring, maintaining and parking underutilized fleet cars. About 6 public agencies in Portland/Vancouver also use Flexcar’s service. Demographically speaking, Flexcar members (close to 6k of them in Portland; 30k nationwide) are typically well-educated transit riders who live and/or work in the City. About 1/3 don’t own a car; the rest use Flexcar as an occasional second car. Our “second car” clientele use our service because it’s simply more convenient (self service, incremental, predictable pricing, no paperwork, decentralized) than renting a car.

Trend is Not Destiny

Today I attended a joint meeting of MTAC (Metro Technical Advisory Committee) and TPAC (Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee – on which I am a citizen representative). The purpose of the meeting was to review the 2030 population forecasts, which will help drive the next update the Regional Transportation Plan and the next UGB (Urban Growth Boundary) expansion.

The headline, as has been reported elsewhere, is that between 2000 and 2030 we will add 1.1 million residents to the region, reaching the population level that had originally been planned for 2040.

Ironically, on the way to the meeting, I was listening to a podcast of Smart City (a radio program out of Memphis that is regretably not broadcast locally) talking about the problems of Detroit, which has seen its population shrink by 50% since 1960. Anyone want to pick which problem to have?

The interesting part of the discussion today was not about the faster than expected growth, but rather about the choices and assumptions we will need to make:

Can Damascus come online fast enough to absorb much of this growth?

Will we run out of exception lands and need to begin expanding the UGB onto Exclusive Farm Use lands?

How much infill can we expect? Metro has lowered the forecast for infill, but as Al Burns, a planner from Portland put it “if we expand the UGB, of course we won’t get the level of infill we want.” Al quoted Lewis Mumford: “trend is not destiny.”

Others from Portland made a compelling case that Metro’s input data is missing all the 1/4 acre and under infill developments that are happening in Portland.

If we build a 10-lane bridge over the Columbia on I-5 we get both more commuters and more jobs in Portland. Don’t build it and the jobs go to Vancouver.

Which cities get the growth? Both Portland and Washington County were lobbying for more housing, while Gresham was lobbying for more jobs.

Watch this space…

Bicycling in Downtown Portland: How to Make it Better?

For over a decade, bicycle planners have been grappling with various concepts for how to make it easier to bicycle downtown. It is a consistent complaint of potential cyclists throughout the region that downtown is a frightening place for cyclists. A recent Bicycle Transportation Alliance member survey revealed dozens of suggestions, some contradicting each other, some unlikely. I propose that we need a comprehensive look at bicycling in downtown.

Yes we have Waterfront Park and the Eastbank. What a great loop! Soon we will have bicycle lanes on Naito Parkway. We have bicycle lanes on much of SW Jefferson and SW Broadway, and a piece of SW 3rd. The question of bicycle lanes on other streets is a big one. The traditional location of a bicycle lane, in between the right-most travel lane and the on-street parking (as on SW Broadway), may not make the most sense given that there are parking garage driveways on so many blocks, a high level of on-street parking turnover, and heavy right-turn movements every other block. It makes sense on SW Broadway because it has enough of an uphill grade to create a speed differential with cars. But on 2nd, 3rd, 4th? The left side has the same issues. Placing the bicycle lane in between the middle lanes may work, but is contrary to current practice and may be confusing.

Many say we don’t need bicycle lanes at all in downtown; bicyclists should just share the lane. Confident cyclists know that traffic signals are timed at 12 mph or so, such that you can bicycle in the middle of a traffic lane (“take the lane”) and hit all the signals. Personally I prefer to bike in the middle lane on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, avoiding the conflicts with right and left turning vehicles. But “taking the lane” only works well for very confident cyclists, not the new cyclists we are trying to attract. Bicycle lanes would also allow bicyclists to bypass traffic in congested conditions, a very attractive proposition signaling that bicycling is a better way to navigate downtown.

Another emerging concept is that of a “shared lane marking,” or a bicycle stencil placed in a travel lane to indicate that bicyclists and motorists are to share the lane. At least this would let motorists know we belong. But a) it’s not a standard marking yet (nationally or in Oregon), and so would need to be accompanied by a lot of education and outreach to help people understand its meaning, and b) which lane to put it in? Cyclists seem to distribute themselves evenly between all three lanes on 2nd, 3rd, 4th, even Broadway. Shared lane markings in all three lanes?

What about the bus mall? The new bus mall will have a continuous travel lane that cyclists can share; how well will that work? What about the east-west streets? Connections and routes in Old Town & the Pearl? How to connect it all together to form a cohesive network?

These questions are not easy to answer, and will require a collaborative approach between the City, the downtown business community, and cyclists, among others. The potential payoff is huge. Already there are almost 9000 daily bicycling trips over the downtown bridges, with many hundreds of additional trips from neighborhoods west. These trips have translated into improved health, and have had positive impacts on available downtown auto parking and traffic. Tourists visiting Portland seek opportunities to rent bicycles and enjoy the City by bicycle. The challenge is on: how do we make downtown Portland more bicycle-friendly so that we attract new daily bicycle riders?