Our Transit Equity Project

It will be no surprise to our readers to hear that that there are some in the community who believe that our transit system has become less equitable in recent years as light-rail openings and budget-driven bus cutbacks create a perception of different service for different parts of the community.

But is that accurate? Light rail certainly does not exclusively serve affluent neighborhoods. Can we find a way to get past the anecdotes and accusations and actually quantify who’s getting served how well by TriMet?

We have a new tool to help with this. As we discussed last month, Transit Score is now available. It’s a new tool, and it may not be perfect, but it gives us an easy-to-comprehend number that’s objective (at least it’s not derived by anyone with a view about transit operations here in our region).

So how do we propose to make use of Transit Score to answer our equity question? We plan to:

1) Aggregate a Transit Score for every census tract in the TriMet service area (there are 286!).

2) Correlate those tract-level scores with other information about the census tracts like income, ethnicity, density and potentially other factors.

We’ll do this whole process in an open way, so anyone who’s interested can look over our shoulders and verify our data, or come up with their own alternative analysis.

The rest of this post will be about how we’re accomplishing step one – coming up with an aggregated transit score for a census tract.

The approach we’re using is to lay down a grid (about 1/4 mile) across each census tract, then use a geocoding service to snap each grid point to the nearest intersection. This keeps us from calculating a transit score for a corn field, and also eliminates redundancy in less dense parts of the street network. Depending on the census tract, we wind up with a half dozen to a couple of hundred points in the tract. An example of such a set of points is shown below.

In the next step, we’ll get Transit Scores for each of those points – we have over 11,000 to get – and compute averages for each tract. More about that, and how you can help, tomorrow…

18 responses to “Our Transit Equity Project”

  1. The equity issue is more about what kind of service TriMet provides rather than access to service. True, light rail serves everyone but it is oriented primarily to downtown commuters and increasingly, those who are able to drive to park and ride facilities at stations. MAX is becoming more of a shuttle service for middle class suburban commuters wanting to avoid rush hour traffic and downtown parking fees rather than a part of an integrated transit system.

    The people that do not drive and have to rely on more than one route to reach their destination, which may not be downtown and during normal business hours, are the ones that are being shortchanged by the erosion of frequent and off-peak bus service.

    In this sense, TriMet’s service policies are becoming less equatable.

  2. Jim, my understanding is that Transit Score is essentially a measure of your ‘reach’ (places you can get to) via transit. If so, shouldn’t it measure the the effect you’re describing?

  3. The smart folks at PSU tell me that ACS data is available the census tract level, and that’s probably where I’ll start, although I haven’t had time to pull a data set yet.

  4. Why go through all of this?
    It should be abundantly clear that TriMet transit service is terrible for large tracts of it’s service region, Many neighborhoods and community members have complained for years.
    OPAL has provided detailed reports on how the service is lacking. In east Portland there are no N-S connectors from 122nd to Gresham. Many other areas have this problem with lack of local connections and adequate service. The McLoughlin area survey by Clackamas County showed the same problem with a high priority to be better local connections and low priority to added regional service with MAX. None of that will change with MLR added. In fact it will worsen as the $1.8 billion or more is borrowed and spent.
    The Westside is the same story. Horrible transit service anywhere but right next to MAX. Yet another corridor is in the making with MAX on Barbur/99 at the expense of better better service to all of the neighborhoods.
    The emphasis on rail transit and corridors has left many without adequate service and it is getting worse with cuts in bus service and fare increases. We simply cannot run rail like buses serve.
    With future bonding against operations revenue and the imminent crisis of funding fringe benefit liabilities the future is not bright for transit service in the region.
    The only prudent option is to stop the capital projects until such time as transit service and affordability can be stabilized.
    It’s my understanding that many of you otherwise strong rail advocates know this to be the case.
    Are you not then obligated to advocate for stabilizing TriMet service?
    Versus carrying on with all other the business as usual discussions as if the writing is not on the wall in front of you?

  5. That was my point.
    We have more than enough data to know exactly that TriMet is facing severe problems, rising costs and continued service reductions.

    The data shows clearly that they and the other sources cannot afford the the Milwaukie Light Rail.
    Pretending otherwise while chatting on about rounding up other data is a rather negligent distraction and far from advocating for sound transit service.
    TriMet is chewing through millions no one can afford.

    What are you advocating today?

  6. We have a lot of data about changes in service delivery. What we don’t have are quantitative data on how that impacts users and in particular whether it creates disparate impacts by race, income or other factors. That’s what I’m trying to provide.

  7. Ok fair enough.

    However, having listened to much of the OPAL testimony over the past 5 months the impacts are pretty clear and have been for years.
    Service in many poor neighbohoods is lousy.
    Poor neighborhoods is where service is needed the most. Fixed rail and corridors cannot adequately serve those many areas.

    But let’s flash forward to the end of what you’re seeking.

    Then what?

    Suppose you work reflects a similar portrayal of service and effects.

    Regardless of the variation we’re right back in the same quandry. The same decisions must be made that are being avoided now. TriMet cannot afford itself. It’s had to cut service.
    If those decisions are not made cuts will continue.

  8. I’m fundamentally sympathetic to OPAL’s concerns. One possible outcome is that this gives them quantitative data with which to make their case (or it does the opposite).

    But let’s say it does point to growing inequities. My personal view is that a rational response would be to first re-prioritize operational dollars. That would almost certainly slow the pace of Light Rail expansion, but I don’t think it would stop LRT investment. But at least we’d have a way to talk about such choices with data.

    For example, TriMet could produce multiple GTFS files (which are what both Google Transit and Transit Score use to understand what service TriMet delivers) with different service configurations and we could ask the Transit Score folks to score the alternatives.

  9. BTW – the methodology I’m using is by no means specific to TriMet. This approach could be used for any transit district covered by Transit Score. I hope before this is over we can open source the code so other folks could use it to answer equity questions in other cities.

  10. OPAL has overblown the issue of equity, is short-sighted and too narrow in its vision. If poor, and particularly transit dependent populations, live in dense, transit-supportive neighborhoods, why on earth would TriMet not want to serve them and boost ridership? The answer is that they already serve these areas. The poorest parts of the region still have some of the best bus service in the region (North Portland, McLoughlin Blvd., Cully/Killingsworth, Montavilla, Lents, Powell Blvd, etc..).

    East Portland (east of I205) is the primary market lacking a good grid of transit service, but it also lacks street connectivity, sidewalks, mixed-use neighborhoods, significant employment, and safe street crossings. Essentially, what OPAL is asking for is TriMet/transit to make up for all the other deficiencies in these poorly planned suburban areas. OPAL should really take a longer view of the situation and ask for safe infrastructure, street connections, more local job opportunities, and the framework for better transit service to get things going. Restoring service on bus lines with very little use does very little for anyone, poor or rich.

  11. While I don’t embrace all of Jayson’s comments, he does raise an interesting question we’re going to need to address. What are the factors that legitimately would correlate with lower transit service?

    Lower population density would clearly be a factor. Sidewalk or intersection density might be others.

  12. I read Jayson’s message to OPAL as this,
    “Shut up and move to where there’s already better transit service”.
    The poor, and particularly transit dependent populations, live in many large tracks around the region.
    Are they all supposed to move to denser, transit-supportive neighborhoods?
    The answer is that they can’t and despite the spotty adequate bus service in some locales and corridors there are many locations lacking a good grid of transit service.
    East Portland (east of I205) is but one of many areas lacking a good grid of transit service.
    The McLoughlin/Milwaukie to Gladstone area is another sorely lacking in local grid connections. It’s a large area of poor and blue collar neighborhoods who have clamored for better bus service for decades. Instead they are stuck with McLoughlin, River Road and Oatfield road N-S corridors with little or no cross access connectivity. Just like the East County problem.

    East county doesn’t lack “street connectivity” and it’s sidewalks although in need of upgrading in many places are not an obstacle to better bus service.

    As for “mixed-use” neighborhoods, what are you suggesting more of this http://bojack.org/2010/09/another_mixeduse_bunker_that_n.html#comments

    The attempt to spur, by spending countless millions on subsidized development, the transformation of the region into a higher density /mixed use vision is one flop after another with no learning curve. That’s why Metro’s Michael Jordan called for better ideas. HE said it’s not working.

  13. Steve S wrote:

    Why go through all of this? It should be abundantly clear that TriMet transit service is terrible for large tracts of it’s service region, Many neighborhoods and community members have complained for years.

    Which is why we need to ensure adequate funding for our infrastructure, including transit.

    However, some people around here instead seem to be recommending a dose of equine medicine for TriMet–i.e. when the horse is sick or lame, the proper course of treatment is to shoot it.

  14. East county doesn’t lack “street connectivity” and it’s sidewalks although in need of upgrading in many places are not an obstacle to better bus service.

    The grid past 82nd is MUCH less connected and sidewalks are a huge issue. People who can’t conveniently or safely get from their home to the bus stop won’t take transit. The ‘transit shed’ is effectively reduced in those areas. Which is not to say the fix is providing less transit, it should be improving the access!

  15. Pretty interesting!
    I like the comments by Steve S, its seems pretty clear.

    If you live on Bethany Blvd in Washington County the score would be D-, if you live at NW23rd&Everett in NW Portland your score would be A+.

    See how easy it is?

  16. Citing Jack Bogdanski’s interpretation of funding a normal development study (without noting the results of that study or the subsequent actions/inactions by PDC) as an example of poor development practice is not helping your argument Steve.

    I’m intimately familiar with that specific site in Lents – and while PDC did fund a DOS for the building (DOS’s are done to assess project feasibility) – it’s important to note that they didn’t opt to fund the actual project, and that the failure of that particular project was due to gross mismanagement by a developer/owner from the untested private market who had no public partnership.

    In addition, the building is such a wreck of a money pit that PDC declined to purchase it even after it went into foreclosure. (Saving the tax payers that nightmare). That building is actually a prime example of what happens when PDC doesn’t get involved or have any input or leverage over the quality of construction or financial details of a project that occurs in a historically disadvantaged area.

    In the meantime there are many more positive and successful examples of complete projects and projects in the hopper in the Lents Town Center and we’re well on our way to becoming a vibrant mixed-use town center. And, that’s what the residents of Lents(of which over 50% earn less than 50% MFI) want for their neighborhood. (see the multiple studies, surveys, plans etc. that document public input over the course of the last 14 years).

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