Archive | Transit Equity

Transportation Equity Event

Sponsored by T4American and a broad range of organizations:

Transportation is crucial to ensuring opportunity for all – connecting us to jobs, schools,
housing, healthcare, and grocery stores. But millions of working families and people of color live in communities where quality transportation options are unaffordable, unreliable, or nonexistent.

The type of transportation system we build, where we put it, who builds it, and how we
operate it have an enormous impact on our economy, our climate and our health.

To learn more about these issues and what we can do about it, we invite you to a box lunch event:

Who Gets Access?
Transportation Equity from the National to the Local
A box-lunch event and conversation with:

Radhika Fox, Federal Policy Director – PolicyLink and Executive Committee Member – Transportation For America

Lillian Shirley, President-elect – National Association of City and County Health Officials and Director – Multnomah County Health Department

Alejandro Queral, Healthy Communities Program Director – Multnomah County Health
Department

Ron Ruggiero, Executive Director – Service Employees International Union Local 49

Where:
SEIU Local 49 Hall
3536 SE 26th Ave. (at Powell Blvd.)
Portland, OR
on bus lines 9 and 10

When:
Wednesday, April 6
11:30 am – 2:00 pm

Be on time and eat! A limited number of box lunches will be available starting at 11:30 am.
Presentations will start promptly at 12:00 pm. Q&A with the panel will be from 1:00 pm to 1:45 pm.

RSVP to chris.rall@t4america.org. Reservations are encouraged.

This event sponsored by:

1,000 Friends of Oregon
Bicycle Transportation Alliance
Coalition for a Livable Future
Community Cycling Center
Josiah Hill III Clinic
Northwest Health Foundation
OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon
Oregon Public Health Institute
Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.
PolicyLink
Upstream Public Health
SEIU Local 49
Transportation For America
Urban League of Portland
Willamette Pedestrian Coalition

Updated: Transit Equity: Where Are You?

Update:

I am mortified. In the comments, Michael has identified a methodological error in the way I analyzed proximity to a regional center (downtown is after all, also a regional center). But in the process of re-computing those numbers, I discovered a computation error in my calculations for the system center, so both new correlation coefficients were incorrect, and my conclusion about poly-centrism unsupported…

Mea culpa… corrections below.

Original Post:

As promised, I’m continuing to add data to our transit equity data set. The latest addition is distance based – how far are you from a center.

The concept behind the Region 2040 plan is that we are going to become a poly-centric region. Portland’s central city will remain the center of the region, but we then also have 7 regional centers and a number of town centers. Housing, employment and services should cluster around each of these centers, reducing the need to travel long distances on a daily basis.

So today’s question is how strong is the effect of these centers on transit service? To figure this out, I calculated two distances for each block group:

1) The center of the block group to the ‘transit system center’ (I used SW 5th and Yamhill where all four LRT lines meet as my ‘system center’).
2) The center of the block group to the nearest regional center (I used the transit center in each regional center as that point, pulled from a TriMet data set on the CivicApps site).

Those columns have been added to our correlation data set spreadsheet.

The correlation results (negative because service decreases as you get further from a center):

  • Distance to system center: -0.58 -0.68
  • Distance to nearest regional center: -0.08 -0.48

By comparison, our correlation coefficient for density is 0.53, so distance from the system center is even more predictive of service level than density (although they certainly vary together to a strong degree – the correlation coefficient between density and distance from the center is 0.53).

The more significant finding is that the correlation for distance to a regional center is weak, our transit system is NOT very poly-centric yet. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s interesting to put a number on it. Unsupported by the revised data… In fact, the correlation with distance to a regional center rivals density as a reasonably strong correlation.

Transit Equity: Scale and Correlation

Yesterday I noted that the ACS 5-year/Census block group demographic correlations were significantly lower than the 2000 Census tract correlations.

So let’s look at the differences:

  1. Different (newer) data
  2. Different areas – we included all Census tracts that touched any part of the service district, while we only used block groups that were substantially inside the service district
  3. Finer-grained data (about 3 block groups for every tract)

So to start peeling it back, let’s isolate some of those differences. First let’s recall the 2000 Census tract correlations.

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.67 (1.00 would be perfect correlation)
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.40
  • Transit Score/Median 1999 Household Income: -0.52

So for apples/apples, let’s take ACS 2009 data for the same census tracts and correlate (spreadsheet here):

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.67
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.28
  • Transit Score/Median Household Income: -0.50

That’s a lot closer! What I think we see is that over the last decade, we’ve become more racially diverse and the population groups of color have dispersed through more of the region.

So next let’s deal with the fringes of the region. If we drop the tracts largely outside the service district here’s what we get (spreadsheet):

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.62
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.28
  • Transit Score/Median Household Income: -0.50

So the density correlation drops, because we just dropped out some tracts with low density and effectively no transit service.

But the big jump comes when we move to block groups (spreadsheet):

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.53
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.23
  • Transit Score/Median Household Income: -0.39

So the big learning for me is that scale matters – looking at a census tract level averages things out too much, and we’re likely to have more insights analyzing block groups.

[As always, better statisticians are welcome to correct me.]

What’s next – we’ll accumulate some more metrics for possible correlation, then we’ll start to look at outliers (things that don’t have service levels the correlations would predict) and hopefully we’ll recruit a real statistician who can help us do some multivariate correlations.

Transit Equity: Starting to Look at ACS Data

You’ll recall that back in October we did our first correlation between Transit Score and several demographic factors, based on the 2000 Census. We came up with the following correlation coefficients:

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.67 (1.00 would be perfect correlation)
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.40
  • Transit Score/Median 1999 Household Income: -0.52

Based on that, we set two key goals for our next steps:

  1. Get newer data!
  2. Look at finer-grained information, specifically at the Census “block group” level rather than the Census tracts we had used for our first analysis

We went on to compute Transit Scores at the block group level in November.

On December 14th, while we were busy getting ready for the holidays (and playing with Transit Appliances) the Census released the first set of American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year data.

ACS is important because it is updated continuously (not just every 10 years) and because it contains much more demographic information than collected in the Census. But it is a sampling process, not a census, so the data is an estimate.

The 5-year data represents an average of ACS data collected between 2005 and 2009, and is the first data set that gives results down to the block group level. So over the break between Christmas and New Years I grabbed the data and matched it up with our Transit Scores. You can find the correlated spreadsheet here (MS Excel). And here are the correlation coefficients:

  • Transit Score/Density: 0.53
  • Transit Score/Percent non-white: 0.23
  • Transit Score/Median Household Income: -0.39

Obviously the first take is that the correlations are weaker than they were for the prior data set. But the reasons need a little bit of looking into. Tomorrow we’ll explore some of the possible factors…

Rethinking transit: Funding and equity

A discussion of funding and equity in transit.

After a whole lot of conversation on the particulars of TriMet and the agency’s present situation, time to take a few steps back, and give some thought to how things might be different. We’ll start with two issues which are frequently conflated (and some say, rightly so)–funding and equity. By “funding”, for purposes of this post, I speak mainly of operational subsidies coming from general taxes–capital projects are a different ball of wax. I do assume that some subsidy is required–there are few first-world cities out there who have complete transit systems which are operationally profitable. I also assume that this is OK–transit is a public good, and on that basis ought to be entitled to some level of public subsidy. I know that some readers object to this, but that debate is not the topic of this thread.

Equity, in this context, refers to the levels of service provided to different parts of the metro area. Chris has been spending a great deal of time mapping service levels, and analyzing the results; here we consider the question of what should be, rather than what is.

There’s a reason these two topics are lumped together in this thread. One common “formula” for equity is that transit service ought to, in some fashion, be proportional to taxes paid. This is a common refrain heard often from taxpayers in suburban areas with high payrolls and minimal transit service; recently we received news that some business leaders in Boring want to withdraw from TriMet. We’ll get to that debate in a moment.

What sort of taxes?

If one makes the assumption that transit is to be partially funded by general taxation (an assumption that is being made for purposes of this discussion)–the first question becomes: What sort of taxes? Ad valorem property taxes? Income taxes? Payroll taxes? Sales tax? Other forms of consumption tax? Fees on unrelated activity (i.e. development charges)?

TriMet, of course, uses the payroll tax as its primary funding source–according to PortlandAfoot, the payroll tax provides around 55% of TriMet’s operating revenue. Payroll taxes have some advantages–they’re easy to collect (businesses who pay them have to process payroll taxes for other purposes such as Social Security and Medicare; and employees need not do a thing); they have less effect on minimum-wage employees (as the taxes collected don’t count towards the wage paid); and they are relatively stable. On the down side, they are less stable than property taxes.

Other common forms of taxation would be difficult to apply in Oregon.

  • Levying a local income tax would be a big headache for taxpayers, who would have to prepare (potentially) a third set of tax returns in addition to the state and federal forms they have to fill out now. (Four years ago, the City of Portland considered a city income tax to help fund schools–an idea which was quickly rejected).
  • Property taxes have the advantage of stability, and many transit authorities use these for funding. A major limitation on use of property taxes in Oregon is 1990’s Ballot Measure 5, which limits property taxes to 1.5% of value (0.5% for schools, 1.0% for other services), excluding bonded indebtedness. This is a total limit; not a per-agency limit.
  • Use of sales taxes to fund transit is also common. Sales taxes have a tendency to be regressive, unstable, are far less deductible from federal income tax. And Oregon’s anti-sales-tax tradition almost assures that TriMet will not be collecting revenue from the region’s cash registers any time soon.

The payroll tax has one other interesting attribute–which is both a strength and a weakness. It relates directly to employment–being paid by employers on payrolls–and many consider that equitable because a primary class of transit users are commuters paying to get to and from work; thus employers are “paying” to have transit provided to their employees. On the other hand, employers are not similarly charged for roads and highways (which are funded via other means). And, as the Boring situation shows (as does the withdrawal of Wilsonville from TriMet two decades ago), this gives employers–especially those located in areas with high concentrations of jobs a lot of leverage. In both cases, high-employment communities are asserting an unfair allocation of service hours–claiming that because their community provides a high proportion of payroll tax revenue (relative to population), it is entitled to a higher “share” of transit service.

The funding mechanisms for roads, on the other hand, aren’t employer based–payroll taxes do not fund road construction. Instead, the funding mechanisms for these come primarily from general fund sources (city/county property taxes), fees (construction assessments, license/registration fees), and fuel taxes–a kindasorta user fee; none of which has anything to do with where one works. Other than providing free parking at the job, employers generally don’t subsidize employees who drive to work. While roads are subsidized (how much is an interesting debate), the sources of the subsidy are generally unrelated to the workplace.
How to assign service hours, anyway?

That brings us to the whole concept of equity: TriMet has a limited budget, and thus a limited number of service hours. Let’s take a look at the map which Chris worked so hard to create:


View Larger Map

The first thing you notice is: Most of it’s blue or cyan, and the cooler colors on the map mean “lousy transit”. The only red or orange (“excellent transit”) is downtown and along the Banfield corridor. Green (“decent transit”) is found in much of the City of Portland, in East County, along the Westside MAX line, and to a lesser extent along the Barbur and McLoughlin corridors to the south. But much of the area in the Portland metro area is ill-served by transit.

For many, though, that’s the way it ought to be. Providing decent bus service to low-density sprawl is difficult and expensive, and such places are designed around the automobile–the vast majority of transit users in these places are those who cannot drive. Providing good service to high density areas is easy–there’s lots of potential passengers, and owning an auto in these places is often more expensive or inconvenient, so a higher percentage of residents are likely to take transit. If one views the payroll tax as being paid by employees instead of by employers (an argument could be made that if the payroll tax didn’t exist, wages would rise somewhat), this is equitable from a funding point of view as well–high density areas contribute more dollars, and thus “deserve” more service hours allotted to them.

Some urbanists go further, and propose that dense areas receive levels of service that scale greater than linearily with population density.

However, the payroll tax isn’t paid by the workers, it’s paid by the boss–and levied at the place of employment. People who live outside of the TriMet service district, but work inside it, have payroll tax paid on their behalf; people who do the opposite (live in town but work elsewhere, i.e. in Washington) do not. Thus, attempts by areas with a large concentration of industry to withdraw from the service district are a credible threat.

And, there are quite a few TriMet lines with extremely low ridership–whose only purpose, it seems, is to maintain a minimal level of service to a given geographical area in order to justify collecting taxes from that area. One of those lines, the 84, is the subject of the next section.

The Boring situation

At the present time, the idea of Boring withdrawing from TriMet is still an idea–but it might have some legs. The city of Damascus to the west has long been outside the TriMet boundary (despite being surrounded by it). Some of the complaints lodged by the Boring business owners are entirely legitimate–the service to Boring is very limited, and is designed for Boring residents to get to jobs in the urban parts of the Metro area, not the reverse. (One line, the 84, provides weekday-only service to the are, and only three runs per day). It’s nearly impossible, given current scheduling, for a Gresham resident to take the bus to a job in Bornig. And given Boring’s extremely low density–it’s a small town surrounded by rural lands; more of an exurb of Portland than part of the continuous metropolitan area, providing good service would be difficult.

From a point of view of number of users, Boring isn’t entitled to very much service at all; but from a point of view of who pays the bills, Boring has a decent gripe. The annual payroll tax contribution from the community is $2 million; but operating the 84 only costs a fraction of that. Were Boring to withdraw, it would likely mean service cuts elsewhere in the metro area. (An unanswered question, though one which may be mooted by the current service patterns as indicated above: How many employees who work in Boring live there, vs. how many travel there from other parts of the metro area, vs. how many live outside the current TriMet service boundaries?)

Several other exurbs, more distant from Portland than Boring is–have withdrawn from the district over the years. Canby, Sandy, and Molalla all now operate their own transit agencies, which focus on their respective communities. Given Boring’s present exurban nature, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their situation. Were Boring to withdraw from TriMet and form their own transit district (perhaps providing service to Damascus as well), that might produce a net benefit for transit users in the region, even if it produces a small negative for TriMet. (If such a district could reach a transfer agreement with TriMet, so interchanging between the systems doesn’t cost riders extra money, so much the better).

On the other hand, it might well be the case that the business owners in question simply want to take the money and run–we’ll see.

What about Wilsonville?

A more controversial departure from TriMet occurred in the city of Wilsonville in 1988, when the city elected to withdraw from the TriMet service district, and form its own city-run transit authority, nowadays called SMART, or South Metro Area Rapid Transit. SMART operates six bus lines (providing six-day service; no busses run on Sunday)–three of which provide half-hourly service within the city, and three of which provide connecting service to neighboring transit agencies (TriMet, Canby Area Transit, and Cherriots in Salem). Like the current situation with Boring, Wilsonville businesses complained that payroll tax dollars collected in the city of Wilsonville were being unfairly diverted to subsidize transit service in Portland–and indeed, TriMet did not, at the time, provide significant levels of service to the city. (At the time, Wilsonville had not experienced a major residential boom, and had the unusual distinction of more jobs than residents within City limits). So the city withdrew and started WART, later renamed to SMART. Intra-city service is free (the lines to Tigard, Canby, and Salem are not)–and the city’s employers got a tax cut in the bargain as well

The relationship between the two agencies has been somewhat fractious over the years. Early this year, when TriMet discussed reducing service frequencies on WES to deal with its budget crisis, Wilsonville leaders blew a gasket. WES, despite its many faults, is a useful way for TriMet commuters seeking to reach Wilsonville, as one can get to the Wilsonville transit center on a single TriMet ticket, and then transfer to SMART’s free intra-city lines. (Use of the SMART 2X line, between Barbur TC and Wilsonville, requires paying an extra fare to SMART–the two agencies do not honor transfers from each other).

Discussion

Given all of that–how should TriMet (or transit agencies in general) be funded, and how should it (they) allocate service? Is the payroll tax fair, or should something else be used? Is the current service too Portland-focused? Or, is too much money being wasted on unproductive routes to suburban areas (particularly wealthier neighborhoods without much in the way of transit-dependent populations)? Should political subdivisions receive “level of service” guarantees from the agency?

A few specific ideas to consider:

  • Should cities (or smaller-scale entities such as neighborhoods) have the ability to “purchase” more frequent service than their population or density might otherwise merit, through some sort of local assessment? (We see this already with some types of capital improvements–Portland Streetcar, for instance, was largely funded with a Local Improvement District).
  • Could the Dial-a-ride program be expanded to other classes of transit-dependent riders (beyond the elderly or disabled) to permit the elimination of unprofitable bus lines?
  • Are more smaller transit agencies a good thing? Or is it better to have a single region-wide agency? (Or what of the Seattle model, where numerous local agencies–KC Metro, Community Transit, Pierce Transit–provide local service, and a separate agency–Sound Transit–focuses on regional trips?)
  • Is “local control” a value worth defending (in the transit context)–or does it lead to inequitable results, particularly when wealthy areas try to separate themselves from poorer areas in order to avoid subidizing them?

Keep in mind: The assumption of this site is that public transit is a useful thing–so this thread is not an invitation to discuss proposals to privatize or defund it altogether (i.e. fares should pay 100%).