Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility

By Don MacGillivray

Portland’s transportation system today is inequitable, contributes to climate change and presents safety risks due to the traffic on our crowded streets. There is a significant need to improve the system to address these and other issues.

We are now experiencing worsening traffic and more auto accidents along with rising carbon emissions. It is expected that by 2027, almost one-third of the region’s roads will be even more congested. 

Over three-quarters of Portland residents believe traffic congestion is a serious problem. Improvements are always underway, but planning for the future must include the provision for an additional 400,000 residents over the next 20 years.

The use of vehicles powered by fossil fuels accounts for approximately 42 percent of the carbon emissions in the region. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by lessening the need to drive and by pricing transportation appropriately can improve climate outcomes as well as provide funding needed for these improvements.

The City of Portland, Metro and the Oregon Department of Transportation are working on ways to address the challenge of climate change, congestion and safety through pricing. 

Each agency makes decisions for different parts of our region’s transportation system. The projects undertaken by these three agencies are coordinated with each other, allowing them to cooperate and learn from one another.

The City of Portland is advancing a new report titled, Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM). It expects to develop improvements in transportation by changing its economics on multiple levels. 

This is a partnership between the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (PBS). The project began in 2020 by exploring a variety of issues and suggestions for many needed improvements.

These transportation challenges affect everyone, but they disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), low-income Portland residents and disabled citizens. Automobile access is unavailable to 27 percent of Black households, double the percentage available to white households. 

Past transportation decisions and historic land use disinvestment has disproportionately harmed low income BIPOC communities. This has resulted in the demolition of neighborhoods, gentrification, longer travel times, unequal access to transportation options and increasing risks to personal safety. 

The POEM project looks closely at the issue of equity while addressing climate and the issues around funding.

Improvements in pricing such as off-peak travel, various non-driving options and carpooling can improve travel choices and encourage behaviors that will add capacity to the system. 

Other cities have effectively used pricing to reduce congestion, cut pollution and manage the demands for road space. Pricing will also generate funds to reinvest in future mobility improvements.

Pricing refers to strategies that involve charging people for driving and the other uses of the roads. These charges can vary based on different factors such as, road congestion, the time of day or what type of vehicle is using the road. 

Widening and building roads is very costly, both financially and environmentally, therefore other solutions must be considered.

Changes in transportation economics will help people consider the impact of their travel choices and increase the efficiency of local transportation. 

For some time, there has been regional and statewide interest in changing the pricing of transportation, called “congestion pricing” or “value pricing.” 

Cities such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco have demonstrated that pricing strategies can help reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips and support more efficient, sustainable and equitable modes of transportation.

To improve mobility for people and goods throughout the city, we will need to use a variety of transportation tools. This includes efficient allocation of road right-of-way, building improved infrastructure, providing greater mobility, offering incentive programs and equitable pricing with reinvestment. 

Both publicly and privately owned off-street parking can be improved with fee revision.

The POEM community task force is comprised of 19 members representing diverse perspectives, interests and expertise from across the community. They will inform and advise PBOT and BPS about changing the pricing of local transportation. 

After two years of analysis, a majority of 16 task force members voted to approve all the recommendations in the report that is going to City Council. It is expected that the new pricing strategies will move forward.

The POEM community task force has used many of the concepts in a Mobility Equity Framework document developed by the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, CA. They are committed to building a just economy by working with a variety of partners advocating for and building momentum for trans-formative change.

Pricing is a promising and under-utilized tool that could help make our transportation system more efficient. However, it is important to choose appropriate tools and exemptions that will allow the revenue to be used in ways that advance the goals of transportation justice. 

The POEM task force believes that the city should continue to study the impact of mobility and partner with communities, businesses and organizations to explore improvements to the transportation system that will benefit all Portlanders. 

Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility

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