Portland: Turning the Dial Toward Equity (How Far?)

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.





7 Responses to Portland: Turning the Dial Toward Equity (How Far?)

  1. Alan Robinson October 4, 2022 at 12:05 pm #

    Is there a role for opportunity rather than just equity in defining service needs? I’m thinking in particular of the opportunity to expose even priviledged communities to the operations and needs of transit.

    Where this comes in, in your concept map, is the service to Lewis & Clark college. This is a fairly small post-secondary institute (made famous to us physicists as the home of David Griffiths) with a fairly high-income student base and in a wealthy low-density neighbourhood. By ridership and income equity metrics, this service should be cut. As an opportunity to educate youth that would not otherwise likely be exposed to transit on the value of needs of transit service, perhaps the value of ridership on this line could be multiplied.

    Mind you, if I were a student or faculty at L&C, I would attempt to capture some of this educational value by getting the college or student body to chip in to funding either service or discount passes. Nothing says priviledge like cheap words.

  2. John Charles Wilson October 5, 2022 at 10:16 am #

    Thanks for posting this! I think Tri-Met is one of America’s better transit agencies. While my familiarity with Portland is limited, I am glad to see their transit system is so forward thinking!

    Anyway, I linked to this post on my blog, https://minneapolistransitblog.com as well. I hope my thoughts are appreciated!

  3. asdf2 October 8, 2022 at 12:12 am #

    “equity” is a loaded term. My natural reading of it means that all riders should be treated equally. By definition, this seems to indicate to me that a goal of “equity” means designing the system to maximize ridership, and designing the system around any other social goals is effectively saying some riders are more important than others, and all riders are no longer considered “equal”.

    For the most part, I believe that if you design the system to be useful for everybody, it will automatically be useful people of whatever priority demographic group you care to name, while focusing too much on demographics misses the forest for the trees, and ends up leading to service that is less-useful for everyone. All too often, “equity-focused” service means planning routes based on anecdotes and vague feelings of sympathy for certain subgroups, which is not the way to grow ridership. After all, nobody uses “equity” to design a road network, and for good reason.

    I also think transit agencies tooting “equity” should be very careful what they wish for. Like it or not, keeping a transit system funded for the long term requires long-term political support, and the record of government programs explicitly targeted at poor/disadvantaged people getting long-term political support is extremely dismal, particularly in a country like the U.S. Like it not, when a government service is used widely by the middle class (e.g. roads, parks, airports, New York Subway, public schools), it is popular with voters. By contrast, when a government service is focused explicitly on poor/disadvantaged people (e.g. housing subsidies, homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, transit systems in cities where only poor people ride the bus), it enjoys much less support. Over the long haul, like it or not, transit agencies need middle-class riders to get the votes for continuing to pay for service with middle-class tax dollars, and if the “equity focus” ends up being too successful, once the political winds shift, it won’t be able to get the votes anymore.

    There’s also the question of what exactly transit is for. If the goal is to relieve congestion or lower carbon emissions in any kind of meaningful way, you have to get some form of broad-based ridership across the economic spectrum. If the goal is to simply run a special needs service, the people who do ride it may be very grateful for it, but it will *not* reduce traffic congestion, and will quite possibly *increase*, rather than decrease carbon emissions if the buses themselves are diesel-guzzlers and the number of cars they take off the road, sufficiently tiny.

    • Johnny October 8, 2022 at 7:06 am #

      The problem with designing transit for maximum ridership is that some people have a greater need for transit than others. If you won’t take the bus unless they increase the frequency from every 15 minutes to every 10 minutes, it probably means that you have another decent alternative, and transit is not very important to you. If you still take the bus even if it only goes once an hour, you most likely don’t have another alternative, and transit is very important for you.

      If the goal is to relieve congestion or lower carbon, it’s much more efficient to set up congestion pricing and increase gas prices, even though it’s politically impossible. You still need to increase transit of course, but that’s mostly to satisfy the resulting increasing need of transit. Transit cannot do much on it’s own to reduce car driving.

      If your only goal is to reduce driving, then you should probably reduce transit to poor people. They can have a cramped bus every 30 minutes or so, they won’t afford car driving anyway. Spend the money on high-frequency luxury buses to upper-class areas instead.

    • Wanting equity not equal October 16, 2022 at 11:00 pm #

      I make an effort NOT to treat people equally. . I am in my 50s and have a rotator cuff injury. I will generally not give my seat to a man or woman below 60. But if an eight month pregnant woman got on I would give up my seat as most people would . WHY? Equity . We do not treat eight montj pregnant women equally because we all want equity of outcome. We want everyone to get to the end of the
      bus trip without anything bad happen. So if Jarrett runs buses past a maternity centre he may give them an unequal amount of buses so no pregnant women have to stand

  4. RossB October 19, 2022 at 8:06 am #

    “If you still take the bus even if it only goes once an hour, you most likely don’t have another alternative, and transit is very important for you.”

    That is not necessarily true. Consider commuter rail or long distance commuter buses. These often run hourly. They serve business professionals who have great flexibility with their schedule. They can basically work around their commute.

    Consider the opposite, like a checker at a grocery store, or an LPN. There isn’t much value in showing up early, and you get fired if you show up late. An hourly bus requires a huge amount of waiting and becomes practically useless. Throw in a transfer and it just doesn’t work.

    Now consider other factors, like day care. Show up late and you have to pay extra. Some people can afford this, some can’t. Add all this together and it is quite likely that working class people are more time constrained. Thus the difference between a bus every half hour or a bus ever fifteen minutes is huge. It is the difference between buying a car or feeling like it isn’t needed.

    The thing is, either way, you still have the same set of ridership/coverage trade-offs. When Jarrett Walker wrote this (https://humantransit.org/2018/02/basics-the-ridership-coverage-tradeoff.html) he didn’t focus on income, but things don’t change if you do. There isn’t that much difference between focusing on “ridership” and “low income ridership”, or “coverage” and “low income coverage”. Either way there are the same trade-offs. It isn’t that difficult to just focus on low income riders, but even if you do, you end up with tough decisions that are quite similar as if you focused only on overall ridership.

    The easiest thing to do is have a weighting system. Low income riders count as say, 1.5 people. That way, the system is skewed slightly to favor those riders. Figuring out that number, as well as figuring out how to balance ridership and coverage is the hard part.

    • JAMES GARNER October 26, 2022 at 10:09 am #

      There’s another factor to consider that you touch on. Trip chaining. Day care, yes, but also shopping. You generally can’t trip chain with hourly service. Possibly with half-hourly service. But, attempt trip-chaining with hourly service, and you could have a two to three hour trip. Been there, done that. There’s more to life than work trips, but hourly service generally limits your options.

      Also, I echo your comments about being late. Very few people willingly take a bus an hour early just so they are certain to be at work on time. In my mind, this is one of the biggest incentives to drive that we provide. We pat ourselves on the back for 80% On-Time Performance. That’s four out of five mornings. Being late once a week will get many people fired as unreliable. Therefore, better frequency and reliability are needed.

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