By Dylan Rivera-Oregon Live

Because Portland-Vancouver drivers log 20 percent fewer miles a day than most U.S. urban dwellers and spend less on cars and gasoline as a result, the region’s economy saves $2.6 billion a year, or about 3 percent of the area’s annual economic output, according to a new study for the Chicago-based CEOs for Cities.

And most of that money, which otherwise would go to far-flung car makers and oil companies, appears to go instead to housing, entertainment and food in the Portland-area economy.

“It stimulates local businesses rather than rewarding Exxon or Toyota,” says the five-page report titled “Portland’s Green Dividend” and authored by Portland economist Joe Cortright.

As cities from Los Angeles to Miami look to remake themselves with rail transit and mixed-use housing, the report could have widespread implications.

It raises the question of how much it costs Americans to live in cities that require residents to drive for nearly all their daily needs. Though transit, bicycling and walking are relatively minor contributors to Portland’s savings, the study implies that development patterns that shorten commutes and facilitate walking, bicycling and using transit can have a positive economic impact.

“This isn’t all about transit,” Cortright said in an interview last week. “Most people are still commuting by automobile, and shorter commutes are better than longer commutes, and that’s a principal factor here.”

Driving comparatively less saves the region $1.1 billion in out-of-pocket expenses that come with car ownership, Cortright estimates. That equates to about 1.5 percent of all personal income earned in the metro area in 2005.

Spending 100 fewer hours a year behind the wheel saves $1.5 billion in time spent traveling. That figure, added to the $1.1 billion, yields the total $2.6 billion.

The study uses standard transportation planning formulas for calculating the personal cost of traffic tie-ups, said Todd Litman, a transportation consultant with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, B.C. But estimating the cost savings for the entire region may be an innovative step, he said.

And, it might actually undercount some of the value of driving less, Litman said. That’s because as the region curbs the growth of car travel time, it also adds relatively pleasant transit travel time that is not figured in — and the pleasant travel time is less expensive to commuters, he said.

Cortright’s study relies heavily on the number of “vehicle miles traveled” per person, per day in the metro area — 20.3 in 2005, compared with 24.3 for the median of the 33 top U.S. metro areas that year. Based on a speed of 27 mph, Portland-area residents spend in total 100 million fewer hours traveling each year.

Oregon transportation planners peg the cost of an hour of automobile travel at $15 an hour. At that rate, saving 100 million hours a year adds up to the $1.5 billion figure Cortright estimates.

But that $15 an hour treats all time spent traveling the same, when those minutes are not equal, Litman said.

Time spent alone in a car is largely unpleasant and costly, and therefore people are willing to pay to avoid it, Litman said. But time in high-quality transit environments is less unpleasant than driving — and Portland is adding those kinds of minutes, he said.

“A lousy bus ride is expensive, and waiting for a bus by the side of the road is an expensive minute,” Litman said. “But waiting in a nice transit station with a monitor telling you when the next bus or train will arrive with a Starbucks espresso in your hand is an inexpensive minute.”

Like much of the debate about land-use and transportation planning, perspectives on Cortright’s study vary. Bill Conerly, an economic consultant and chairman of the libertarian-leaning Cascade Policy Institute, said fewer miles traveled per day do not necessarily mean fewer minutes spent stuck in traffic.

Portland-Vancouver area residents spend more time traveling than people in other cities because the region hasn’t built enough roads, Conerly said.

“One way to get people to travel less is to make the whole traveling experience more miserable,” Conerly said. “Anyone who comes in on the Banfield and Terwilliger Curves knows that the daily commute is miserable here.”

Critics often argue that the region’s land-use and transportation systems change the playing field, prompting consumers to pay more for housing close-in, to avoid spending time in rush-hour traffic.

But there are many indications that people are happy with the system they have, Cortright said. About 60 percent of area residents rate their transportation system “good” or “excellent,” compared with 35 percent nationwide. And no one forces homeowners to pay more for close-in housing, he said.

Portland residents are twice as likely to use transit to commute to work and seven times more likely to bicycle than the average urban U.S. resident. They also buy hybrid Toyota Priuses at the highest rate in the nation, double the rate in Los Angeles, where drivers could presumably benefit more from greater fuel efficiency.

“No one’s holding a gun to anybody’s head to make them buy Priuses,” Cortright said. “This is consistent with making choices about living in denser neighborhoods.”

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