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.

19 responses to “Equity Versus Innovation? Which Kind of Equity?”

  1. There is no inherent conflict between “innovation” and equity. The question you are asking seems to be whether the city should fund the best solutions, whether innovative or not, to the cities most critical transportation needs. Or should they fund innovation for its own sake.

    If the purpose of the bike sharing program is to benefit low income residents, then it is a poor use of money. There are much better ways to address their transportation needs.

    What the bike sharing program will do is add a very attractive amenity to the central city and surrounding neighborhoods. Because many people use the central city, that will benefit a wide range of city residents (and non-residents).

    The equity problem is that this is true for almost any central city improvement. So if you make decisions on a project by project basis, the inevitable result is going to be inequity. To achieve equity at some point you need to make it a criteria in its own right.

    As active transportation investments become the norm, its not surprising there will be disagreements over which should have priority. That’s actually a good thing. Whichever projects “win”, the result will be more transportation options and less reliance on the automobile.

  2. “and I hope, and am working hard to ensure that, Streetcar will soon break out of the Central City”

    Chris, can you give us an update on this? I’ve been captivated with the idea of a satellite circulator streetcar operating in a town center (for example Foster/Lents) independent of the existing streetcar network. I recognize that the Streetcar Plan pretty much dropped this idea.

    I don’t see how extending a streetcar along any of the concept corridors would really classify as “breaking out of the central city.” and I’d love to see the streetcar used for town center economic development.

  3. Chris, if all the innovation only occurs in and benefits one area (ie the central city), you still have geographic inequity.

    Equity in the pursuit of innovation would involve bringing innovative projects to all areas of the city. Justice in the pursuit of innovation would involve bringing economically and socially beneficial projects to areas of the city that have been negatively impacted (ie absorbed the costs) of past projects and lack of investment.

    While there certainly are large populations of low income individuals in the central city – I am skeptical of the benefit that bike sharing will provide to them, particularly when issues of physical accessibility and appropriateness of mode for the individuals age and ability are taken into account. Add to the mix the possibility of imposing a fare for all streetcar use in the central city, and perhaps the eventual elimination of the free rail zone altogether, and it’s really hard to make an argument for applying the $2 million dollar to bike sharing. If you want to benefit those experiencing disparity in the central city, putting that same $2 million toward maintaining free rail service, or providing free fixed route fare to honored citizens and LIFT eligible individuals is a far more equitable and just plan that would actually provide a great deal of cost savings to TriMet, and allow them to restore and even improve basic service.

    And, at some point we need to recognize that we can take a break from constantly investing in the Central City to get other areas of the city, that have been donors to the last 3 decades of central city investment, back on track. The central city has a market surplus/capture in the billions. And, while a surplus is certainly a good thing, we need to seek a balance that allows all areas of our city to achieve the sort of market equilibrium needed to make 20 minute neighborhoods for all.

  4. Cora – I think I could position – with a straight face – bike sharing as a mitigation for the potential loss of fareless streetcar.

    (and I would note that the main reason we’re looking at having the streetcar not be fareless is to provide equity to streetcar riders on the east side who are outside fareless square)

    The Central City is the economic engine of the City, it generates many times its geographic share of tax revenues for the City. We can’t simply cut off investments.

    But I agree that we need to balance investments between the Central City and the outer areas. I would re-iterate that 70% of last week’s allocation went outside the Central City and the inner neighborhoods.

    What’s a rational policy for allocating resources between the center and the edges, recognizing that we can’t stop investing in the center but need to redress historical underinvestment at the edges?

    And positioning the bike share investment against transit service is simply not fair. The Metro funds are for capital, not operating, and this is a one-time seed investment, not an ongoing subsidy.

  5. I don’t think you can make an argument that it is a sufficient mitigation for loss of fareless streetcar for Older Adults and People with Disabilities, who are represented in large numbers among the lower income individuals who live in the Central City. Accessible circulator service is crucial to them. Providing a bicycle instead doesn’t mitigate.

    Also, if all of the innovation always has to occur in the central city first, the inner ring (not edges) areas (east of 60th etc) will always be playing catch-up or be given the same lame – you can go downtown to use it- line that we always get. I know it seems like a stretch, but we have similar issues with arts programming. The cultural facilities have been centralized. People can access them in the central locations, but temporal issues come into play that effect ease of access. I can’t go to the symphony, a play or a concert that runs particularly late downtown because I can’t get transit service to get home. In the same way, my bike share use is also restricted by the temporal factor of when I can and need to even be downtown. When my workplace moves to Gateway, bike share will pretty much be pointless for me.

    A rational policy for justifying further investment in the central city going forward would be to develop a measure of utility of that facility for neighborhoods that have historically experienced disparate infrastructure investment. If the measure of utility on bike share is low for say – Powellhurst Gilbert, the measure of utility for extremely low income individuals in the central city needs to be extremely compelling to justify the investment. I don’t think bike sharing is that compelling. As a concept – it’s great. I support the concept. As far as equity is concerned, I just don’t think there’s any quantitatively compelling benefit, and that it actually perpetuates negative trends.

    Yes, it was unfair of me to pit operating shortfalls against capital investment. But, I can’t help but think if some of the bonding costs around the capital investments were able to be offset – we might have less of an operating revenue problem. I’m sure there’s some non-federal match requirement issues in there mucking up the logic too. But, the main point is that, particularly when issues of active transportation come up, we need to remember that active transportation isn’t just for marathon runners and rock climbers. And, that even facilitating a 2-4 block trip for someone that would otherwise be physically required to request a $30 ADA trip has an overall positive effect on their physical and mental well being.

  6. “Equity” versus “innovation” is a false dichotomy.

    Nowadays innovation is taken as an absolute good, which it is not. A new thing can be bad or good, depending upon what it actually is.

    Equity, or, in the words of our constitution, “…to promote the general welfare…” is an absolute good, and commonly held to be so.

    Sorry, but that is scholastic theology talking.

  7. Jim, I’m a firm believer that the only sustainable source of continued value creation is ongoing innovation. But of course, not all experiments pan out.

    Cora, I made essentially the same 2-4 block argument last night at a meeting in the face of someone trying to define safety as the sole criterion :-)

    I don’t think there is one right answer. This is a balancing act. Cora, your “equity-weighted utilities” idea is an interesting one. I’d still give bike sharing a very high utility score, but that’s an opinion and reasonable people can disagree.

  8. Chris Smith: I don’t imagine that bike sharing works if the Free Rail Zone continues to exist, most of the short trips people might take by bike in the central core are served just as well by MAX/Streetcar. For that matter I’m quite skeptical of the project because most downtown trips are walkable and many who would bike downtown already do so (and therefore don’t need a bike for bike sharing).

    On the other hand the Sullivan’s Gulch trail would create a brand new bikeway that would make commuting to work downtown feasible as far out as 82nd and maybe beyond. Even leaving aside the equity argument, the benefits to transportation make this project a much better one. I’d have put bike sharing on the bottom of our priority list, I’m sorry that it didn’t.

  9. Sullivan’s Gulch is a great project and I hope it keeps moving forward.

    But I disagree about bike sharing being competitive with Streetcar or MAX. It’s a complement. It’s how you get to all those places in-between the rails quickly after your rail trip gets you as close as it can.

  10. Chris Smith:

    You can take the MAX up and down the transit mall, which is basically all of downtown from a north/south standpoint; there are approximately 16 city blocks in one mile in Portland, which means that almost the entirety of downtown Portland is walkable for anybody fit enough to bike. For instance on Timbers game days you’ll see loads of people walking from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Jeld-Wen Field, it’s roughly at 10-15 minute walk. Using bike sharing might shave five minutes off of that time, is that what we’re spending 2 million dollars on?

    Our downtown is SMALL and easily walkable, plus we’ve got good, free north/south and east/west transit right through the middle of it. I’m just not seeing the value in adding bike share into the mix.

  11. Chris – others have already made a point I was going to address about equity not being inherently opposed to innovation. However, one related point is that people promoting the use of the 2014 Regional Flexible Funds for bikeshare are still handwaving about equity and attaching it to bikeshare as an afterthought, which I find very disappointing. Equity, in the form of “serving underserved communities”, is listed in the RFFA evaluation criteria. Equity and how to serve a broad population, including the currently underserved, is something that should be seriously considered as a project is conceptualized and developed in all cases, but especially when it’s being nominated for funds using that as a criterion, and I don’t see that happening for bikeshare in a serious way, even after we spent the time to bring it up as an issue.

    Also, I am rather discomfited by your suggestion “let’s try not to fight”. I experience that as a message to those who disagree with you that our opposition was and is seen as misplaced and gratuitous, as if we were ‘trying to fight’ and did so because we had the wrong idea of what the big picture is. If I’m mischaracterizing the intention, then I apologize, but that is how it comes through to me, because I don’t quite see what else it might mean (feel free to clarify).

    On the contrary, I tend to believe what you suggest initially: that it is a learning moment. It’s the moment when we have enough people with enough different views and experiences who are active in advocacy that we don’t all agree (on something big), and I think that’s positive because it pushes all of us to engage with differences of opinion and gives us a chance understand the values we are advocating for at a deeper level. I would rather have avoided publically disagreeing with people I respect, like, enjoy working with, and usually agree with, but I am glad I did it because it resulted in an outcome that both generated important discussion and attention on a neglected issue (equity) and also highlighted the need to fund all of these great projects, which is what we’re all looking for in the end.

  12. Alexis, I plead guilty to trying to come up with an equity argument after the fact. I’m still trying to figure out why we weren’t addressing that squarely going in. I think it may be that some of us (including me) were not up-to-speed on the latest rules of the RFF process.

    As to the “don’t fight” injunction, my request is only that we not do it in front of City Council. We should have a robust process in which we as a community of advocates can sort out our priorities and present a unified position to our political leadership.

  13. Chris, thanks for clarifying. Do you have any suggestions for creating a process like that? Certainly in the circumstances here, with only a week or so between the announcement of nomination and the city council meeting, that would have been tough to do, so one thing I’d like is for PBOT to announce further in advance on this sort of thing. I will also cop to having some awareness that the issue might come up, since I knew what the BTA was doing and that I didn’t support it, and waiting to see if it would really be an issue before acting (because I’d rather not fight). Which then meant there wasn’t much time. So I’d also like to see myself step up sooner.

    Honestly though, I’m not sure we would have come to consensus. And it’s probably politically naive of me but I still think that’s okay for City Council, and the city as a whole, to know. Very few constituencies or communities are monolithic and it is Council’s job to take input and make a decision.

  14. Alexis, I’m actively talking with folks now about how and where we might house a process like that. But you’re absolutely right that we all got caught flatfooted last week.

  15. The reason equity is an issue is that the disenfranchised lack power. If you want to create an external process, then you somehow need to empower the disenfranchised as part of that process.

    I am highly skeptical that a representative group of active transportation advocates are better able to find a balance between equity and innovation than the city council is. Part of what is happening here is that, as active transportation has become more part of the mainstream agenda, the need to leverage equity advocates for active transportation projects has declined.

    Assuming bike sharing is done right, it will be used even by people who ride their own bike downtown. The issues of bike parking, security and maintenance will make bike sharing more convenient. Downtown is walkable, but taking 10 minutes off a 15 minute walk to a business meeting or lunch is a significant savings.

  16. The reason equity is an issue is that the disenfranchised lack power.

    This statement hits the nail on the head. I was watching transit advocates in LA and SF and it really brings home how here in Portland the disenfranchised have absolutely no say in what happens. There is nothing for them here.

    The whole equity thing is a farce from where I sit.

    There is no equity and there is not going to be any equity, I don’t care how many fancy titled bureaucrats they hire that have “equity” of “diversity” in the job title.

    If the Portland power elite cared about equity they would have stopped expanding the system years ago.

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