Equity Versus Innovation? Which Kind of Equity?

Last week we had a significant achievement for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Portland City Council approved a $2M application to Metro for Federal Flexible Funds to seed a bike sharing program, one the key strategic objectives of the BTA.

But this didn’t happen easily. The bike sharing proposal was part of a package of four projects also including access improvements in East Portland, a highly-rated freight project (the Metro criteria insist on a percentage for freight) and safety improvements on Foster Blvd.

Two other projects fell below the cut-line: initial funding for the Sullivan’s Gulch trail and a package of sidewalk improvements on Barbur Blvd.

Advocates for both these projects argued forcefully that the excluded projects were a higher priority than the bike sharing project. In particular, a coalition of public health and pedestrian advocates argued that the equity goals of the Metro process were more strongly served by the Barbur project.

As I testified at Council (while supporting the bike sharing application), all 6 projects are worthy – there are no dogs here – all of these are important needs. But this situation was unusual in a couple of ways:

1) We don’t often face multiple active transportation projects being so explicitly pitted against each other.
2) I can’t recall a prior time when active transportation advocates were not all in strong alignment.

I suspect this is a learning moment in the maturation of active transportation advocacy here in Portland.

Fortunately City Council, in the form of an amendment from Commissioner Nick Fish, provided a funding path for the two excluded projects and everyone left mostly happy (exactly how that funding will come about is still not entirely clear).

But what about the core of the question? Is a bike sharing system (launching in the Central City) less equitable or less important than sidewalk improvements in neighborhoods with substandard infrastructure?

And is equity the only value we need to be striving for?

I’m a big fan of innovation. In an era of diminished resources, we have to figure out how to do things differently – more efficiently – better. Bike sharing is an example of doing things differently. It has the opportunity to transform how we make short trips and make transportation more economical and efficient for many users.

Very often when we innovate in transportation, we do it in the Central City and inner neighborhoods where we have the highest density and therefor the greatest likelihood of success. This has been the pattern with Streetcar as one example (and I hope, and am working hard to ensure that, Streetcar will soon break out of the Central City).

So is it not appropriate to spend some portion of our investments on innovation? By Commissioner Fish’s reckoning, some 70% of the funding allocated on Wednesday was being spent in the outer neighborhoods.

And what kind of equity are we measuring? Geographic equity is one factor. And redressing past underinvestment an entirely valid priority.

But the Central City also houses some of the lowest income people in the City (and paradoxically some of the highest – but very few in between). If we can make sure the bike sharing program is accessible to our lower income residents (Can we make it cheaper than a TriMet monthly pass? I suspect so!), then it seems to me that we’ve gone a ways to address income-based equity.

Let’s keep the big picture in focus, and try not to fight amongst ourselves.

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