Social Justice and Transportation

Last week I received an announcement for the Cascade Policy Institute’s Wheels to Wealth conference, subtitled “the role of auto ownership in reducing poverty”. My immediate reaction was that owning a car might be more of a financial burden than a benefit for a low income person, but I also thought about my own situation. I’ve eschewed using a car in my daily routine, mostly as a statement of my own beliefs about mobility, but also as a way of reducing expenses.

But there’s no question that a car offers choices.

And I can’t kid myself that I’m without choices. I went mostly car-free to avoid adding a third car to our household when our teen got his license. If I really need a car, there’s one available. Worst case I just rent one from Flexcar.

What would it be like to not have access to a car at all? While I’m proud that our transit system is not just the ‘last resort’ that it is for the carless in many cities (we have a good share of ‘choice riders’) how good a job have we done in making sure our investments are balanced to serve the needs of lower income individuals? Does the hub-and-spoke nature of our system focused on downtown disadvantage someone who needs to get from suburb to suburb for a job? Do we have social justice metrics to assess these kinds of issues (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in two+ years of TPAC meetings)?

Serendipitiously I got another notice, this one for a seminar at PSU next week (Oct 14) titled “A Social Justice Perspective on Transportation Policies: Comparing Distributions of Welfare”. Unfortunately I have a conflict that day, but I plan to watch the archive of the webcast.

What do other people think? Do our transportation system design choices distribute benefits justly? How could we measure? How could we do better?


14 responses to “Social Justice and Transportation”

  1. So here’s ‘my commute’ in response to this letter: I am a PSU student and have been car-free for a little over one year. I own a commuter-ified mountain bike and just bought a cheap scooter to get around town.

    I live in NW Portland and work in Tigard, down near Kruse Way where 217 and I-5 merge.

    Here is my Trimet trip to work:

    Hop on the streetcar @ 19th and Lovejoy, ride it to PSU. Wait around 15 minutes for the 44 bus and ride it to PCC Sylvania. Get off, wait another 15 minutes for the 78 to Beaverton. Ride the 78 for about 10 minutes; walk 10 minutes to work.

    All in all, it usually takes around 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours to get to work. I believe the commute is a total of around 15 miles or less… riding my scooter takes 20; driving on the freeway takes about 12 from start to finish (I sometimes carpool).

  2. Ironically, my commute is 5 minutes by foot but I drive because the underfunded PPS does not supply bus transportation for high school students. So we have these urban schools designed for bus transport and a totally overwhelmed rush hour as parents get their children to school (or kids drive themselves).

    It would take me over an hour to get to the airport via public transit. It takes me 15-20 minutes in my car even during rush hour.

    It would take me 45 minutes to get downtown on the local bus. It takes seven minutes (no joke) by car. Not even a close call.

  3. Justin,

    So that’s a case where the suburb-to-suburb service better serves your destination than the hub-and-spokes service does :-)

    How would we re-deploy the resources to make it more social just?

  4. Chris, NW Portland is hardly a suburb… but walking almost 1 mile to where the transit mall buses start (44 starts at the train station, which is a bit of a walk from where I live) takes quite a chunk of time, and so does transfering (2 buses and a streetcar!).

    I think, in this case, that going out to the west side is just suicide for your time… unless you are lucky to work/live right next to a bus stop. This is one of those cases where I really need to find a job IN downtown.

    I would like to add one thing: over the past two years driving this route (off and on, carpooling lately), the amount of traffic going south early in the morning – around 7:45 – has really seemed to increase… I wouldn’t be surprised if within 5 years it gets to be stop-and-go – as its almost at that point now.

    I must say that the 44 bus makes pretty frequent service between downtown and PCC Sylvania… without it, SW Portland would be terrible to try to travel back and forth – it really doesn’t take too long (25 minutes?).
    It’s transfering onto the suburban-only lines that suck; Kruse Way has got to have the worst mass transit connections in the world. Wait, I don’t think it has any, does it?

  5. Chris – didn’t someone mention a Hall Blvd MAX line or something once? If it connected from the Beaverton transit station down one of the busiest raods in Beavertron and connected to all the major malls/job centers, that might be a start. I’d love to see something ala Interstate Max going through that area, with nice and wide bike 8 ft. bike lanes… with TREES!

    The areas out in the ‘burbs are just way too spread out; the local governments out there really need to focus growth in TODs. Dense growth, too: walking a mile on top of a 30 or 40 minute bus ride takes forever, so there shouldn’t be any surprise when people drive.

    I suppose bus-only (BRT) lanes would also be a cheaper way to connect town centers than a MAX…

  6. Justin, my point was that ironically, since I suggested the system was more oriented to hub-and-spoke riders, that you would be better served if you lived in Beaverton somewhere on the 78 line :-)

    Washington County Commuter Rail is in the final Federal funding process right now. It will provide service from the Beaverton Transit Center to Washington Square, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville (but only during commuter hours).

  7. Portland’s transportation system is designed for the politically powerful and their downtown allies. The low income worker be damned.
    According to Mr. Burkholder’s op-ed piece average Portlanders pay about 15% of their income for transportation. What Mr. Burkholder failed to mention is that low income people pay a lot more. In some income groups they may pay as much as 40%, or close to it for transportation.
    Northeast Portland is one of the areas lowest income neighborhoods. Adjacent to it and about 5 miles up MLK Jr. Blvd is the Rivergate Industrial Park home to about 60 companies and probably 6000 jobs with some degree of turnover that might be a benefit to those living in Northeast Portland however Trimat’s service to the area is best decsribed as poor. With just three trips in the morning and three in the afternoon, as I recall, you are out of luck if you have a chance to get on with a company, but work the swing shift.
    Prior to the Interstate lightrail opening Trimet ran a bus down MLK and thru the Rivergate Ind Park. The service was not more frequently but it took about 30 minutes and one bus to make the trip to the 6000 block of N. Marine drive from Killingsworth and MLK jr.Blvd. After the MAX line went in Trimet rerouted that bus. Today if you live near Killingsworth and MLK and wish to get to the 6000 blk of N. Marine DR you take three buses and it is about an hour.
    The phrase I believe is sacrificed for the “common good”.
    Trimet needs to have its monopoly ended and we need to bring some much needed competition to the transit marketplace. Planners want me out of my vehicle then give me some options.
    How do we measure improvements? Jobless rates, crimne and the related social problems are fairly good indicators of isolated neighborhoods. If we increase the services and see those indicators turn around then we might conclude that there has been some success.
    Off the top of my head I recall a study that mentioned AC Transit in the Bay Area. They wanted to save $4 million, so they made the needed cuts, but ended up costing the community about $40 million. Not having transit is pretty expensive.

  8. I live in “suburbia” (Hillsboro) but luckily I am a few blocks from the max line, so it takes I think 32 minutes to get from there to Portland. Also, by choice, I live 2 miles from work, so it takes about 10 minutes for me to bike there. I pretty much don’t use the bus because I am impatient, and I only really take the max because I’m too lazy to bike over that hill. ;)

  9. The place to start for me is the basic principle that every penny invested in transportation is a failure of good city planning. That is, if cities were designed so that EVERYONE could get to a job, a grocery store, school, etc., without having to get on a bus or in a car, all that hard earned money we put into just moving our physical bodies from one place to another would be ours to keep and spend. Many cities around the world have very high rates of trips centered in the area people live. Here in the Portland area this ranges from a high of 35% or so in the inner city to less than 10% in the less dense suburbs.

    That said, a well designed city ALSO would protect housing as a human right, not a market good, like education, fire and police protection, health care (oops, thought i was in Canada for a second there! ;)

    What we are seeing is that areas with good access are now becoming the most sought after neighborhoods in the region and housing costs are soaring, displacing many lower income people who used to live there (for example, my neighborhood, Irvington, has changed from being considered a “ghetto” when I first bought my house (as a low paid schoolteacher…but that is another story) is now only accessible to those who earn 3 times the median income.

    Irvington is a wonderful mix of housing types, with neighborhood commercial and a dense network of streets for cycling and walking within a few miles of the highest concentration of jobs in the region (Lloyd District and Downtown as well as Swan Island) but it is no longer affordable to the average person. Providing more transit, highways or subsidizing car use won’t solve this problem, only investment in another, ignored part of the public infrastructure, housing.

    If we spent a fraction of what homeowners receive in the federal and state homeowner’s mortgage interest deduction on building non-market housing, and in those areas with good access to jobs and services, we wouldn’t be dealing with issues like people “driving to qualify”.

    Kruse Way, as a jobs rich area, should have just as many housing units, of all sizes and prices, available in ITS neighborhood.

    Using transportation as a solution to a housing/land use problem is doomed to failure. Just look at our freeway system: pour endless amounts of money into more roads to solve traffic congestion and you get… MORE congestion.

    We have made some strides hear in the Portland region, though. In addition to the lower average cost per household for transportation, a recent poll by Bob Moore for Metro found that 64% of region residents think the transportation system is good to excellent. Compare that with Seattle area with 38%. And Seattle has had the money and has built the roads without strong land use vision and policy.

  10. “Today if you live near Killingsworth and MLK and wish to get to the 6000 blk of N. Marine DR you take three buses and it is about an hour.
    The phrase I believe is sacrificed for the “common good”.”

    Well not the common good. The route changes specifically helped people at 15th and Killingsworth by improving their access to Riveragate since the 8 now connects to the 16.

    That said, I agree that Rivergate, Marine Drive and Columbia Boulevard are not well-served by transit. And there is a lot of energy going into improving auto-access for people from Clark County to the jobs there and not much effort to make those jobs more accessible to people who live on the Oregon side of the river.

    “Trimet needs to have its monopoly ended and we need to bring some much needed competition to the transit marketplace. ”

    I see little reason to think competition will increase service for underserved low income communities. Quite the contrary. If I were going to compete with Trimet it wouldn’t be by trying to create a market for transit but by trying to provide service where people already use it. Luxury buses from Hillsboro to downtown are a more likely money maker than trying to get swing-shift blue collar workers to jobs in the Columbia Corridor.

  11. Ross writes: The route changes specifically helped people at 15th and Killingsworth by improving their access to Riveragate since the 8 now connects to the 16.

    M.W replies: and people who previously caught the bus on MLK now have to take a longer trip. About an hour as oppossed to the previous 30 minutes. That is a sacrifice for them. Not an improvement.

    Ross writes: I see little reason to think competition will increase service for underserved low income communities.

    M.W replies: But there might be increased service. You and I don’t know and won’t know until the market is opened to allow such services to be created. It works in other cities. Why not in Portland? There might be plenty of room for a St. Johns Jitney Service. We simply don’t know.

  12. “and people who previously caught the bus on MLK now have to take a longer trip.”

    And the people who catch the 8 have a shorter trip. I don’t think there is any doubt route changes help some people at the expense of others.

    “But there might be increased service.”

    Or there might be less service. We don’t know. But there are very few markets that benefit the poor at the expense of the wealthy.

  13. First of all, people who live on Line 8 don’t necessarly have a shorter trip to Rivergate. All it did was move the transfer location from MLK & Dekum (to the 6) to Jubitz (to the 16). However, timing with the Rivergate bus may have improved since many Line 8 trips used to end at 9th & Dekum and did not connect with the 6. Moreover, they can now also take the 72 or 75 to MAX and ride to the Expo Center.

    Lines 6 and 8 could be switched beyond MLK & Lombard, but then I-5 delays that affect Line 6 would also affect OHSU riders. In fact, Line 5 was seperated from what’s now Line 44 because of delays. There is also some logic in having Rivergate be served by the bus that serves Front Ave. They are both industrial areas and both have many railroad crossings.

    Oh, and even with Frequent Service, there’s up to 30 minutes of waiting on a trip that has 1 transfer (up to 15 minutes to wait for each bus)

    Second, I agree that having people live closer to their work is a better idea. Personally, I’ve always lived near a downtown (Salem and Portland) and in the jobs/college that I’ve had, I’ve almost always had to commute to the suburbs (Beaverton, Clackamas). It’s kind of ironic in that downtown is where many jobs are.

    Overall, TriMet does consider social justice when planning service. The Transit Investment Plan shows some examples, including providing 6 Frequent Service bus lines & MAX to N/NE Portland and putting new buses on St Helen’s Rd (Line 17) due to pollution from truck traffic.

    That’s it for now. Gotta go to the siminar.

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