The Key to Good Health is Not in the Ignition: Portland, Oregon Tries a New Tool to Reduce Car Travel

By Lavinia Gordon

For years Portland has received kudos for its innovative and successful transportation and land use policies. Portland boasts of a vital downtown, a nationally recognized urban growth boundary, an award-winning light rail and transit system and as being the birthplace of the first modern streetcar in America. The city’s zoning code discourages excessive parking and promotes density around regional and town centers, andBicycling Magazine has rated Portland the best cycling city in the US every year since 1995.

Despite all this, more and more Portlanders are driving alone in their cars. Total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the Portland metropolitan area has more than doubled since 1980. Per capita VMT has increased from twelve miles per person per day in 1980, to twenty-one miles per person per day in 1998. Every day Portland residents drive their automobiles over 27 million miles, the equivalent of fifty-six round-trips to the moon!

The Health Connection

All this driving has serious side effects, in Portland as in other parts of the US. Transportation is by far the largest contributor to global warming and air pollution in the Portland region. Cars and trucks are expected to account for 43 percent of all local greenhouse gas emissions in Multnomah County by 2010. Transportation sources are also the biggest contributors (38 percent) of local air pollutants such as ozone and carbon monoxide.

It is no coincidence that our continuing infatuation with the automobile is coupled with dwindling physical activity and increasing obesity rates. Oregon now has the distinction of being the “fattest” state in the West. Over 60 percent of adult Oregonians and 49 percent of Oregon’s youth are overweight. As discussed elsewhere in this issue, obesity is linked to a number of chronic diseases.

The link between physical activity and health is finally getting attention. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that behaviors linked to inactivity and diet account for 300,000 deaths per year. This is the second largest cause of death after tobacco that results from a modifiable behavior. Large foundations that focus on health, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are directing much of their charitable giving to programs that encourage people to be more active.

There is No Silver Bullet

Short of perhaps raising gas prices to $5/gallon, there is no single remedy to our love affair with the automobile. Most of us have a need for an automobile some of the time. We just need to stop and think each time we reach for the keys. A city that has a wide range of alternatives makes driving “smarter” more feasible.

Portland has many of the essential elements for sustainable mobility: reasonable housing density and street connectivity, an excellent transit system, bike lanes and sidewalks that support biking and walking, a regional carpool system (including online ride-matching), taxicabs and car sharing (Portland was the birthplace of car sharing). If Portland has most of the essential elements to support sustainable transportation, why are more and more people driving alone in their cars? Portland is experimenting with a program that may provide some answers.


The City of Portland Transportation Options Division, with its funding partner TriMet, is conducting a pilot project to test the concept of “individualized marketing” to encourage biking, walking, transit and carpooling. Called TravelSmart, this innovative program creates a dialogue with people about their travel needs.

TravelSmart is based on the premise that a large percentage of people drive alone in their cars due to purely subjective reasons. While a large proportion of people have the means to bike, walk, carpool or take transit, misperceptions about the transportation system get in the way. Individuals may think it takes longer to use an alternative transportation mode than it actually does. They may not know that a bus is five minutes from their door and can take them directly to where they want to go. Or they may not know where their bus stop is, or how to buy a ticket or where the nearest bike lane is. Some people are simply afraid because they have never done it (biked, walked, taken transit, carpooled) and want someone to show them how.


TravelSmart is the brainchild of Werner Brog, founder of Socialdata in Munich, Germany. TravelSmart uses survey techniques to identify individuals who are interested in changing their travel behavior and then initiates a conversation with them to find out what types of information or training they want. Trained staffpersons make home visits to those who want specific help with walking, biking, transit or carpooling. People who are not interested are left alone.

Individualized marketing has been used successfully in Europe and Australia. In South Perth, Australia, a large-scale project that contacted 35,000 people achieved a 14 percent reduction in car travel, and biking, walking and transit usage all increased as a result.

Launching the Portland Pilot Project

In September 2002 the first test of TravelSmart in the United States was launched in the southwest Portland neighborhood of Multnomah Hillsdale. This neighborhood has a population of about 14,000 people, a density of about five to seven persons per acre and a median household income of about $50,000. The neighborhood has good transit and benefits from two well-developed and inviting town centers, but because it is hilly and without many sidewalks, it poses a challenge to cyclists and pedestrians.

The first step in the pilot project was to conduct a baseline survey of the target population. The survey provided detailed information about travel behavior in the pilot area. There was a 65 percent response rate to a mail-back travel diary sent to 1,200 randomly selected households. The survey found that 64 percent of the trips in the target area were by people driving alone in their cars, 10 percent were walking trips, 5 percent were public transit trips and 1 percent was bike trips. The remaining 19 percent were trips by passengers in cars.

Many people are surprised that work trips make up such a small percentage of overall trips; in the test pilot area, work-related trips make up only 25 percent of all trips. This is fairly representative of the region as a whole. The large majority of people’s trips are for shopping or for leisure activities (56 percent in the target area). TravelSmart is one of the few transportation demand management tools that address the non-work trip.

Trip distances are also of interest. Of all trips from the target area, 12 percent are less than half a mile and 22 percent are less than one mile. Almost one-half of all trips (46 percent) are less than three miles. At the same time, most people say they are willing to walk a half-mile and many say they are willing to walk a mile.

Individualized Marketing

While the surveys are essential to evaluate the impact of TravelSmart, the heart of the program is the second phase–individualized marketing. Individualized marketing takes the first 600 households responding to the baseline travel survey and segments them into groups based upon their responses,

This “intervention” is where the dialogue happens with participants who want information and training. About 41 percent of those contacted were interested in finding out more about transportation options. They received the information they needed, either by mail, telephone or personal at-home visits. People already using environmentally-friendly modes (26 percent) were given a small reward. The remaining 33 percent who didn’t want to participate were not contacted again.

Preliminary Results

In May of 2003, results from the first “after survey” of the Portland TravelSmart Pilot Project were announced. The pilot showed that car travel in the target area decreased by 8 percent, and travel by environmentally-friendly modes increased by 27 percent; those vehicle trips were shifted to walking and public transit. Of the gains made in environmentally-friendly modes, they occurred across all age groups and all types of trips–work trips, leisure trips, shopping, etc.

These preliminary results are both promising and consistent with pilot projects in Europe and Australia that use individualized marketing to reduce car travel. The government of Western Australia has invested over $10 million in TravelSmart programs. It is so convinced of the economic benefit of TravelSmart that it has diverted capital funds originally intended for highway construction to large-scale individualized marketing campaigns to reduce car travel.


If They Build it Will They Come?

Is it enough to simply build better transportation infrastructure and provide better service? Some would argue that building more bike lanes and light rail lines and providing more frequent transit service is the key to increasing biking, walking and transit.

Few would dispute that improved and better bike lanes, safe sidewalks with good connectivity, more frequent transit service and new light rail lines go a long way toward encouraging alternative modes of transportation. But if people don’t know how to use these alternatives or where they are, or are just plain timid about trying something new, the capital investment in transportation infrastructure will never be fully utilized.

The key to TravelSmart is providing specific information to those who want it, while leaving in peace those who don’t. TravelSmart is about encouraging a lot of people to make small changes in the way they travel, which makes a big difference in the long run. Almost everyone takes one or two trips per week where they can leave their car at home.

Portlanders will know more about the capacity of TravelSmart to increase biking, walking, carpooling and transit when the final survey results are analyzed in January 2004. Plans are also underway to launch a large-scale TravelSmart project next spring to coincide with the opening of the new Interstate MAX light rail line in North Portland.

Lavinia Gordon is a project manager for the Transportation Options Division for the City of Portland, Oregon. She manages projects to reduce car travel and encourage transportation alternatives such as biking, walking and transit. Lavinia has worked in the area of transportation demand management for the Portland Department of Transportation for over twelve years.

You May Also Like