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Free Public Transit

free rail zone public transit

The free rail zone encompasses our downtown and part of Lloyd district across the river. Graphic via Trimet

In the previous post, I wrote about our choice to live in a 1,000 sq ft condo in the city. Two of the main reasons why we like living downtown are because it is centrally located and the easy access to public transportation. As a bonus, our home is near the free rail zone and we can ride the streetcar and the light rail within the zone for no charge!

The cost of housing in downtown is higher than the suburb, but the public transportation helps us reduce expenses on the transportation front. We share one car and save on gas by taking public transportation to work. On a typical work day, we drop off baby RB40 at the daycare nearby and then each take the light rail in separate directions. Our employers help out with the public transportation cost as well, so going to work away from the free zone is not too expensive. I drive if I need to run an extra errand or if I have an 8am meeting. On the weekend, we can take the train to various parks, libraries, farmers markets, and shops in the free zone.

I think the free rail zone is great, and I’m sure others who live and/or work in the zone agree. We frequently overhear tourists who love the free zone and many students regularly use it to get to the University. The free zone was established in the 1970’s to help reduce air pollution and previously the bus rides were free in the zone as well. Sadly, this benefit is coming to an end this fall. Trimet, the organization that oversees our public transport system, is facing a budget shortfall of up to $17 million and is planning to eliminate the free rail zone in the next budget year. Among their budget reduction outline, they plan to increase fares, reduce services, eliminate the free zone, and more.

Who pays for the free rail zone? About half of Trimet’s funding comes from a payroll tax paid by area businesses (57%.) The rest comes from fares(24%), state and federal operating grants(10%), and other sources(9%.) So we are paying for the free ride indirectly through our payroll, federal, and state tax. Many other people who do not use this service also pay into the pool. I guess it’s part of big government, but I love the free zone. It’s too bad that the free zone is being eliminated. That’s the problem with entitlement programs, those who receive them don’t want to give them up.

Anyway, I will probably drive a bit more frequently after the free zone is eliminated. The parking fee will cost less than the tickets. Of course, if the destination is within a mile or so, I’ll plan on hoofing it. Also, Portland is the 2nd most bikeable city in the US. Maybe it’s time to get the bike out of storage and buy a baby trailer. Those things look scary to me though. What happens to the kid if you get into a bike accident?

Do you think a free public transit zone is a good idea or a waste of tax payer’s money? Tourists love the ability to hop around downtown without having to buy a ticket. Many office workers also use this to go to lunch at various spots around town. I often see many low income elderly people use this free zone service and I feel the worst for them. It will be a big impact to their small budget to shell out $3 to go to the grocery store or library.


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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. He spent 16 years working in computer design and enjoyed the technical work immensely. However, he hated the corporate BS. He left his engineering career behind to become a stay-at-home dad/blogger at 38. At Retire by 40, Joe focuses on financial independence, early retirement, investing, saving, and passive income.

For 2018, Joe plans to diversify his passive income by investing in US heartland real estate through RealtyShares. He has 3 rental units in Portland and he believes the local market is getting overpriced.

Joe highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. He logs on to Personal Capital almost daily to check his cash flow and net worth. They have many useful tools that will help every investor analyze their portfolio and plan for retirement.
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{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Wayne @ Young Family Finance May 23, 2012, 4:00 am

    I think mass transit is a great idea. Transportation is the second largest budget item for the average American and probably one of the hardest to do anything about. The more transportation options you have, the more money you are likely to save.

    • retirebyforty May 23, 2012, 9:13 am

      Cutting one car saved us a lot of money in the long run. A car cost a lot to run and maintain.

  • Kurt @ Money Counselor May 23, 2012, 7:17 am

    That’s awesome, I didn’t know any city offered free transit. I’m an advocate of making all transit free, everywhere. Stop building road and channel the money to transit instead. This is one of many reasons I’ll never be elected to anything. 🙂

    Joe, given your situation, sounds like you’re an ideal candidate to join a carsharing organization. Could you give up car ownership altogether, combine transit, biking, walking, taxis, car rental, and carsharing to meet your mobility needs, and save a bunch of money?

    • retirebyforty May 23, 2012, 9:16 am

      We joined Zipcar for 3 months when our old car broke down. It was OK, but we were reluctant to go anywhere. With a car, it’s a lot easier to hop in and drive out. We can do it, but we’d rather have one car. 🙂

  • Kathleen @ Frugal Portland May 23, 2012, 7:48 am

    I think Trimet is really spendy compared with driving, especially since I don’t work downtown so I don’t have to pay for parking.

    • retirebyforty May 23, 2012, 9:17 am

      Yeah, it’s too bad the tickets are not cheaper. They should have a $1 short hop ticket or something like that. Oh well…

  • [email protected] dog ate my wallet May 23, 2012, 11:28 am

    Seattle has a free ride zone (for busses, not our new light rail), but it’s only for the downtown core- it doesn’t even extend to Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is), so it doesn’t do anything for tourists. It’s a good idea, but not executed well here.
    Of course, if I worked downtown, I’d take the light rail every day. I hate driving and parking downtown. As it is, I get my company’s subsidzed public transit pass (I pay $35/yr for unlimited use- talk about a benefit) and take the light rail or busses anytime I want to go downtown for an event.

    • Steve May 23, 2012, 12:57 pm

      Seattle’s free ride area is ending this Fall. Similarly to Tri-Met, King County Metro is facing a budget shortfall. The City of Seattle does pay KC Metro for the free ride zone, but reportedly not enough to cover the costs of running it.

      What’s amazing to me is that one trip on public transit costs about the same as a car trip (once you own the car) and yet the transit fare is only the tip of the iceberg – only 24% of the cost of operating the transit. On the other hand, road building and maintenance should be considered part of the cost of a car trip as well.

      I also get a free transit pass from my work place and it’s great. We do own two vehicles in my household but one is a decade+-old truck we haven’t brought ourselves to part with yet.

      • retirebyforty May 24, 2012, 3:02 pm

        Here it’s more expensive to take public transit. The ticket cost $2.50 one way and gas would have to go way up to match that. Owning a car has a lot more cost associated with it such as insurance and maintenance. I’m pretty sure taking public transit is much cheaper than owing a car in the long run.

    • retirebyforty May 24, 2012, 2:56 pm

      I heard that Seattle’s free zone is going away as well. That’s too bad. I hate driving in downtown Seattle too. It’s confusing, but I guess that’s just unfamiliarity. Driving in downtown Portland is pretty easy. 🙂

      • Steve May 24, 2012, 3:10 pm

        It must be familiarity because I get lost every time I drive in Portland, but I can navigate Seattle’s downtown. But then I work downtown so if I couldn’t navigate it I’d be in a bit of trouble eh?

  • krantcents May 23, 2012, 11:38 am

    I like the idea of a free zone. It encourages peopl eto take public transit and leave their cars at home. I wish more cities would do it.

  • jim May 23, 2012, 12:39 pm

    Its too bad its going away. I think we could all save a lot of money if we supported and used public transit more. Its not always practical but for the center of a big city theres no reason not to have more public transit.

    Don’t you have a monthly pass? If you use it to commute to work a monthly pass ought to save you enough to make it worth the cost. Buying daily tickets is usually the most expensive way to go if you use the system a lot.

    • retirebyforty May 24, 2012, 2:57 pm

      A monthly pass doesn’t make sense unless you take the public transit almost everyday. If I take public transit to work 5 days/week, it would cost about the same as a monthly pass, but I do it less than that.

  • jim May 23, 2012, 12:42 pm

    BTW, side topic… sorry for arguing semantics but I wouldn’t call free buses an “entitlement program”. Technically an entitlement is something that you have a right to via some obligation. Social security is a good example since you paid in taxes with the promise of a specific commitment of retirement benefits, so we are entitled to social security. Free benefits paid for by tax dollars are not really entitlements, its just free services from the government. People may feel entitled to get free stuff but that doesn’t make it an entitlement program.

    • Steve May 23, 2012, 1:00 pm

      Perhaps the phrase was wrong but the concept is spot on. It’s one of the many government programs where everybody pays for something that benefits a subset of people. According to Naked Economics, that is an inevitable side effect of democracy. The few people that are benefited really care, and will vote for the person that promises to give or continue the benefit. The majority of people that don’t benefit don’t care that much because it’s a relatively small amount of money.

  • [email protected]&More May 23, 2012, 5:09 pm

    I’ve never had the option of free public transit. Washington DC definitely didn’t have it. I think that while it is unfortunate that they are taking it away I bet it will definitely decrease their costs a lot. The other options sound like raising the taxes or raising fares, the latter of which may hurt the people who truly depend on it in the long run.

    • retirebyforty May 24, 2012, 3:00 pm

      They need to enforce fare better. Many people don’t buy a ticket and hope to not run into the fare inspectors.

  • Well Heeled Blog May 23, 2012, 6:46 pm

    Forget about free public transportation, I’d settle for ANY convenient and accessible public transportation, even if I do have to pay for it. While in Boston I walked and took the T or the commuter rail, and I loved it. It’s probably about the same cost as a month’s worth of gas, but once you add in the the cost of depreciation, gas, and insurance, it’d be much cheaper than owning a car.

    • retirebyforty May 24, 2012, 3:02 pm

      Sorry to hear that. Are you in the burb now?

  • Charles May 24, 2012, 1:06 pm

    If you receive a free lunch you do tend to like it.

  • Forest May 24, 2012, 11:05 pm

    I strongly believe that if you provide free or affordable public transit and free healthcare you are setting your area up for more productive people in general. If you can enable the population they will aim and succeed to a higher standard. So many poor families get stuck far out from town and end up staying local and never leaving their suburban areas, their kids don’t either and their kids, kids…. Bring in affordable transport suddenly you increase the chance of communities interacting and mixing and working with each other…. Just a theory :).

  • Little House May 25, 2012, 7:02 am

    I love the idea of free and convenient transportation. That’s definitely one benefit of living in an urban area, even if the transportation isn’t free, it’s readily available. As for the bike and baby trailer, what about a baby seat on the front or back of the bike? You might feel more comfortable with having baby RB40 on the bike instead of trailing behind you.

    • Steve May 25, 2012, 8:59 am

      I did a little looking into this yesterday. Found a lot of “Obviously a bike trailer is safer because it’s more stable and lower to the ground” and “Obviously a seat on the bike is safer because cars can’t see a trailer.” There are arguments either way and it probably comes down to what you are more comfortable with. If there has been a real study comparing the two, I didn’t find it. So it’s just a matter of opinion/preference.

      • Steve May 25, 2012, 9:01 am

        P.S. How old is Baby RB40 now? Kids aren’t supposed to ride on a bike (neither trailer nor seat) until age 1. Before that their neck muscles aren’t strong enough to support their head plus the helmet.

        • retirebyforty May 26, 2012, 1:54 pm

          He is 15 months old, but I would still be very nervous about putting him on a bike. He is very wiggly. I see bikers biff it all the time and a little kid could get seriously hurt by a simple accident.

  • Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog May 25, 2012, 1:03 pm

    Interesting idea, but honestly I’m not sad to see this go. Even if the fare there was 50 cents or 75 cents, people would probably still ride it, and there’d be revenue generated for the funding agency. I doubt they will lose many riders adding the fee.

    • retirebyforty May 26, 2012, 1:55 pm

      I wouldn’t mind a small fee, but they are moving to one price ticket. I think it will be close to $3. That’s a lot to pay to go 10 blocks or small local trips that the seniors are taking now.

  • Broke Professionals May 27, 2012, 2:29 pm

    I live in an area with basically no really useful public transportation (short of a few bus stops that would take me an hour+ to walk to), but I did spend 4 months living in DC years back, and that city’s system is fabulous. We’re going back for a wedding in the fall, and I can’t wait to get my weekend Metro pass!

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