What does it mean to make a bus network design more equitable or “just”? These terms mean different things to many people, but in this case the core idea is a redistribution of bus service resources, particularly toward people with lower incomes also toward historically excluded racial groups.
In Portland, where I live, we’ve been working with the local transit agency TriMet on a bus network design effort that has two overriding motives: ridership and equity. And as we look at how much to invest in equity, we have a big question for the community to think about: How much redistribution of service toward lower-income areas should we do?
TriMet’s project will eventually develop a near-term plan for expanded bus service. Thanks to a new Oregon state funding source and some other revenues, the agency has the financial capability to run about 10% more bus service than it ran in 2019, and more than 30% more than TriMet runs right now. The constraint at the moment is the dire shortage of bus operators, but once that’s resolved this level of service will be possible.
These goals, ridership and equity, overlap more than they differ. If we were planning only for ridership we’d still offer good service where there are lots of people with low incomes even if equity weren’t a separate goal.
However, there are cases where people with low incomes need services that wouldn’t have especially high ridership. With the suburbanization of poverty, more and more of these people live in areas with low density and/or street networks that present obstacles to efficient bus service. Another example is service to industrial areas: These tend to have poor ridership because of the low density and terrible pedestrian environment, but they are much valued by the people who rely on them to get to lower-wage jobs. So in these cases, the equity goal is the only reason we suggest more service there.
Note the word suggest. The Service Concept we’ve released is just that, a concept. It is not even a proposal, and it’s certainly not a recommendation. We are not saying that we have it right. We are putting it out there to start a conversation.
We drew the Service Concept map around a conference table with TriMet planning staff, and in an earlier phase we also had staffs of most of the cities and counties in TriMet’s service district as well. In our professional judgment, it’s a good illustration of what you might do if you were trying to expand both ridership and equity. We’re sure the public feedback will give us lots of great ideas for how to refine it.
But we are also asking the public a specific question: How far should we shift the priorities toward equity?
One approach you could take is to spend the new resources on the needs of people with lower incomes, while retaining all the services that are there now. This would get you some improvement in equity, but we wondered if that would be enough to match the public’s priorities.
So we (staff and we the consultants) decided to put out an illustration of what it might look like to turn the dial even further toward equity.
The concept map cuts some existing services to make an even larger investment in equity-improving services. The service cuts happen in places where the service has neither a ridership justification nor an equity justification. These areas are low ridership because of physical features like low density, poor walkability, or disconnected streets. They’re also low equity priorities because they have relatively few people with lower incomes.
In shifting service in this way, from higher-income areas to lower-income areas, did we go too far or not far enough? That question is purely about values. It has no technical answer. That means that my opinion doesn’t matter and I won’t express one. We are asking the community this question, as part of TriMet’s survey about the concept, and that will lead to a decision by the Board on how far we will turn the dial in creating the final plan.