In Portland, Counterposing Demands for Equity and Innovation

America’s top cycling city is gearing up for a new milestone. This week, the Portland City Council approved $2 million in funding needed to install the city’s first bike-share system. The buzz about this project so far on the internet has mostly reflected varying degrees of delight.

A protester holds a photo of Angela Burke, a 26-year-old woman who was killed last year trying to navigate Barbur Boulevard. Photo: Portland Tribune

But Chris Smith at Network blog Portland Transport says that at the last-minute, some opposition arose from an unexpected place. A coalition of pedestrian advocates and public health officials argued that the city should prioritize safety improvements in some of the city’s farther-flung neighborhoods, including deadly Barbur Boulevard. Instead, a package of four transportation projects were put forward, including money for bike-share, but not for pedestrian improvements on Barbur.

Smith said this was the first time he could recall active transportation activists in Portland working at cross-purposes, and he thought the issue boiled down to a conflict between the important questions of equity and innovation.

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 therefore 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).

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.

Both perspectives seem valid, especially when you consider a recent study that found bike sharing in Barcelona is saving lives by reducing air pollution related mortality. But the truth is, Portlanders shouldn’t have to choose. Just the $100 million that has been spent planning the controversial CRC highway project could have paid for both these projects 30 times over.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that the City of Brotherly Love got its first green-painted bike lane. MARTA Rocks obliterates complaints from exurban Atlanta residents about the proposed 1 cent tax hike to expand public transit. And the Transport Politic examines Norfolk, Virginia’s new Tide light rail line from the perspective of cost savings and U.S. construction trends.

Quick note: Angie Schmitt is on her way overseas for the next week and a half. As a result, the Streetsblog Network will be on hiatus until after Labor Day. Be safe and enjoy the rest of your summer!