Portland, ME Advice/University of Southern Maine
February 26, 2018 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Hi everyone, I'm currently reconsidering relocating to Portland, ME to study a 1 year program at the University of Southern Maine. I do not have a car and don't plan to get one during school, and although I've asked someone familiar with the area and have researched online, I wanted to ask here in case any previous USM students or locals might have more insight.

From what I understand, Portland is very bikeable -- but otherwise, and in the winter, walkability and public transit aren't enough to prefer that over a car. It seems some undergrads definitely go without a car, but I see reviews that people often carpool and you'll want to have a friend with a car. I went to a school in a small college town where everything was in a central location so I could access mostly anything I needed by walking or taking a free town bus. We also had minimal snow.

Even though it wasn't NYC, I got by really well without a car, though admittedly I used mostly the cafeteria and didn't grocery shop much, which may have required more extensive bus rides or carpooling. I see USM mainly has housing on their Gorham campus which takes a 40 min bus ride apparently, and housing in Portland can get pretty expensive (from a southerner's perspective).

I wanted to ask in case there are alumni here with experience and there is a possibility of making it work somewhat conveniently without a car. The premises being my classes are only on the Portland campus and I got an apartment close by.

Thank you in advance for your time!
posted by dancer4life to Travel & Transportation around Portland, ME (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My dad lives there and Portland is EXTREMELY walkable, but if you can manage the cold.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 10:09 AM on February 26, 2018

I worked at USM for quite a while. There are 2 campuses. Gorham is a pleasant town, limited public transportation. Shuttle bus between Portland and Gorham campuses while classes are in session. You can bike until there's snow and ice, then it gets dangerous; the streets get narrower because snow is pushed to the curb. No car means no trips to lakes and mountains. There's a pretty good beach in Portland, and a nice beach in So. Portland, available by bus. No car means no worrying about where to park it when the streets have to be cleared of snow and parking is banned. Going anywhere in January when it's 2F and breezy pretty much sucks, but you adapt to winter faster than you might think.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on February 26, 2018

I lived car free for my entire adult life, and Portland, ME forced a break in that streak. It's righteously hard to get around without a car. I lived a few blocks away from that campus (and over in the Rosemont/Deering neighborhood), and getting anywhere useful from that neighborhood was kind of hard without a car. I wouldn't live any further east than the school, or at least not by far.

The peninsula is very walkable, but that's a very expensive part of the city to live in, and not necessarily close to the campus. Tourists often talk about how walkable Portland is, because they don't really operate in most of the city; they stick to the downtown peninsula area, which by all measures is really walkable, dense, and quite nice to operate in...but that's not where most people in Portland live.

The claim that Portland is bikable depends entirely on where you come from originally. The infrastructure is kind-of-sort-of there with bike lanes and a couple of good bike trails, but they're largely unusable in the winter (unless you are a gung-ho to the extreme cycler...I mean, there are a few out there, but they're not fucking around). The biggest problems I found when the weather was nice is that drivers in New England often pass on the right, which is insane and terrifying when you're on a bike, which is a year-round problem. The other big issue I had biking was that the city doesn't clean up the gravel from winter storms for months after nicer weather arrives. The loose gravel is honestly a bit more of a problem than other road conditions.

The bus system is effectively nonexistant. It kind of sort of works, but is often late and is not to be relied on for timing's sake. The school shuttles might give you more reliable options, but I've got no experience with those.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:16 AM on February 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

If your program is on the Portland campus, you'll be fine, I think. I live in Portland now (in the Woodfords area, very near campus) and find my neighborhood to be very walkable and certainly bikeable. If you are in Oakdale (closest to campus), Woodfords, Parkside, or Highlands, you'll be fine. East or West end or Rosemont (and farther out) would be much harder.

Probably 1 in every 10 families I know lives without car. However, housing costs near campus are pretty high, and the rental market (and the entire housing market, actually) is extremely competitive, so that's the trade off. 1BRs regularly run $1000 to $1200, so you're likely to end up in an apartment share situation.

Also Theora's comment above is a good one - for a couple of months each year it can be tough to leave the house. There are two supermarkets and a few laundromats within a 1 mile radius of campus, plus a bunch of other neighborhood stuff (Big Sky Bakery, CVS/Wallgreens, etc).

If your program is primarily on the Gorham campus, I think you'd have a much harder time without a car.
posted by anastasiav at 10:33 AM on February 26, 2018

Portland has car sharing (via UHaul and maybe zipcar) if you need a car for a few hours here and there. I've also rented a car from Enterprise at the airport, and it can be as low as $15/day (and rarely more than $30/day).

The Portland area is bikeable, as reported, but there are some hills to deal with. I bike in Portland, Westbrook and Gorham year-round and I've never been in danger of being called extreme (they plow well and in winter I use a bike with metal-studded tires and aside from adding extra layers there's not much more to it). We may also get a bike share program this year, but I've heard that claim in various other years. I don't want to derail this into all bike commentary, but don't hesitate to ask if you have more bike-related questions.

Living in Portland would be more interesting and convenient than living in Gorham since your classes will be there and since Portland has so much going on. A forty minute shuttle commute is certainly doable, but you might find issues getting back to Gorham outside of shuttle hours. If you did choose to live on the Gorham campus, the downtown is adjacent to campus so you could walk to everything. But it is a small town so "everything" is not a lot. You would have the basics - large supermarket, Chinese food, chain coffee place, pizza place, a couple of restaurants - but for anything else you'd need to get to Portland somehow. The adjacent city of Westbrook has more going on, but there is no bus line connecting them (there are plans to add a line, but no timeline in place yet).
posted by mikepop at 11:23 AM on February 26, 2018

Not a lot to add to the comments above, but to offer a contrasting perspective on the Metro buses; I used them for years and rarely had an issue. I primarily used them to commute from Westbrook.

My experience was that the buses were quite reliable and even run in some pretty bad snowstorms. However, they only go where they go, so you'll want to check the maps.

The buses have bike racks on the front, and I would frequently see people attaching their bikes, then using the bike to get that last mile to wherever they were headed.
posted by selfnoise at 12:04 PM on February 26, 2018

I grew up in Portland, and my parents still live there (in the Deering Center/Rosemont neighborhood), so I'm back quite regularly, including in winter. Though it's obviously doable, I would not really want to live there without a car--or without, at least, a generous friend with a car. It's definitely bikeable, but even adventurous bikers would be stopped by some of the winter storms, especially since not all streets are plowed well. As furnace. heart noted, some parts of Portland are very walkable, but by and large they are the expensive/touristy parts.

And while there is housing stock near USM's Portland campus, Portland is in the middle of a housing bubble right now (as anyone will tell you: it is because of people from Massachusetts coming in and buying up all the houses and inflating prices), and that neighborhood wasn't especially cheap to begin with. That said, I would rather pay a little too much for a place in Portland than live in Gorham, especially without a car.
posted by dizziest at 12:30 PM on February 26, 2018

I lived in South Portland and before that I lived in Portland for nine years. I owned a car that whole time, but for a good chunk of it I only used it for grocery runs and trips out of town. You can definitely do it if you're willing to bike in good weather and brave the walk in bad weather, get wet occasionally, and live with the inconvenience of however long it takes you to get places.

The biggest issue, as others have pointed out, will be housing. It's not cheap and the market is super competitive. Vacancy rates have been hovering in the low single digit percentage range for years now. If you can find housing close to campus in Portland, I'd say you can pull it off. But be realistic about how much hassle/expense you're willing to put up with.

And a final note: I love Portland. It's a cool small city with personality. There are touristy areas, for sure, but plenty of local stuff, too.
posted by that's candlepin at 1:30 PM on February 26, 2018

Just wanted to say, thank you so much for all of the helpful responses and quick replies! I really appreciate it.
posted by dancer4life at 6:04 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

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