Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Very few poor people drive to work downtown

Posted by on November 24th, 2015 at 1:49 pm

The Portland area has invested $4.8 billion in a regional public rail network, and currently spends $313 million a year to hold down ticket prices on the system.

Another several million dollars each year go toward expansions of the region’s biking network.

Despite that investment, at least one Portland city council member has been arguing in the lead-up to a hearing next month that the public should also be subsidizing downtown car trips.

His reasoning: some of the people who drive downtown are poor.

“If we’re charging for parking, we’re taking someone earning nine, ten an hour and we’re making that eight-something an hour.”
Commissioner Dan Saltzman

The issue is coming up as the city discusses possible rate changes for its parking meters and publicly financed Smart Park garages.

One of the questions that’s likely to come up during an upcoming City Hall discussion on Dec. 17: Should the city keep giving away its street parking after 7 p.m., even in areas where street parking consistently fills up at night with people visiting restaurants, theaters, clubs and bars?

In a work session last month, Commissioner Dan Saltzman argued that maybe nighttime meters should remain free in order to subsidize the car commutes of people who work downtown at night, such as janitors and dishwashers.

“It’s a subsidy for low-wage workers to have the meters stop at 7:00 pm, so why can’t we continue that?” Saltzman said. “If we’re charging for parking, we’re taking someone earning nine, ten an hour and we’re making that eight-something an hour.”

“Do you throw a big subsidy at everybody because some people might need it?”
Commissioner Steve Novick

Commissioner Steve Novick, who directly oversees the transportation bureau, disagreed.

“It’s a question of, do you throw a big subsidy at everybody because some people might need it?” Novick said.

A better option for holding down parking prices for nighttime commuters, Novick suggested, might be to create a low-price permit system for the Smart Park garages.

And if the money from a parking meter rate hike were spent on improving non-car transportation, that might come out to a win for low-income workers, both downtown and elsewhere.

Advertisement

Novick and Saltzman’s disagreement raises a fair question. Is it a good idea for the government to subsidize a particular activity by poor people, even if it also subsidizes the same activity among rich and middle-income people?

Here’s one way to start answering the question: How many poor people actually drive downtown?

The best available data (which is, unfortunately, from 2006-2010) suggests that the central business district (south of Burnside, north of Jefferson) employs about 1,000 workers whose households make less than $15,000 a year. Of those, about 350 drive to work. That’s about 2 percent of the district’s drive-alone workforce.

Here’s a detailed version of the chart at the top of this post.

The stripes to the right represent higher-income households. Mouse over each stripe to see what income they represent, and approximately how many drive-alone commuters to the central business district make that much money. (For this chart, we looked at data for the central business district because it had by far the highest worker volumes and therefore the lowest margins of error. These margins of error are substantial, though, and these shouldn’t be interpreted as precise. You can see the source data here.)

Another 2,500 or so downtown commuters are in households that make $15,000 to $30,000 a year. About 700 of those people drive to work. That’s another 3 percent of the district’s drive alone workforce.

The remaining 95 percent of drive-alone commuters to Portland’s central business district make more than $30,000 — in most cases, much more. As the above chart shows, half of the district’s drive-alone workers are in households that bring in more than $100,000 a year.

Among those richest downtown workers, 59 percent drive alone to work. That compares to about 35 percent of the poorest downtown workers.

Busted!

Hello subsidy.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

At the council’s Oct. 8 work session, Portland parking plan manager Judith Gray said there’s no question that higher parking prices are a disproportionate burden to the poorest people.

Then again, she added, a system that makes it hard to find a parking space also has a disproportionate burden on the poorest people.

People who are shift workers or low-wage earners, if they’re janitorial or working in restaurants, they have the least flexibility of all. If our system is not well managed, if it’s 99 percent full when they need to work, they don’t have an option. A lot of office workers or daytime workers other workers can be late. I worked in restaurants in Washington DC in the 80s. If you have to replace a daytime shift person, you’ve got to be on time. So a badly managed system is not an equity strategy for them.

Gray said she had an “open mind” for hearing ideas that could prevent poor people from being excessively hurt by parking costs.

Absent that, she suggested, the most broadly equitable strategy might involve the government charging what the market will bear for people who park cars on its land — and then “channeling the revenues to improve the system overall.”

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

106
Leave a Reply

avatar
18 Comment threads
88 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
41 Comment authors
lopHello, KittyEvan Manvel9wattsAlex Reed Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Brad
Guest
Brad

The city’s poorest are disproportionately hurt by the air pollution from too many cars on the road. Pull your head outta your a**, Portland. We are supposed to be increasing biking mode share, not car mode share.

Allan
Guest
Allan

Life is increasingly a burden on people with less money. Literally everything that costs money will hurt more if you have less of it. However that is a terrible argument for keeping parking prices down. We have a great transit system to offset it.

Adam
Subscriber

Reminds me of a quote by Enrique Peñalosa: a great city isn’t one where the poor drive, but one where even the rich ride public transport.

Instead of subsidizing parking, we should focus on improving public transport. The working poor depend on it more than driving, and after all, no one is stopping the rich from using it.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Sane, decent public policies would force the price of housing down, and the price of driving up.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Does anyone else get the impression this City Council can’t get anything right?

9watts
Subscriber

Catherine Lutz has written eloquently about the ways automobility hurts the poor disproportionately. Might be a good read for our friend Dan Saltzman. Carjacked is her book; she also has articles about this, including this one which I’ve mentioned here before:

Catherine Lutz. 2014. “The U.S. car colossus and the production of inequality.” AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 232–245.

from the abstract:
“I ask how the car-dependent mobility system of the United States not only reflects but also intensively generates the inequalities that characterize U.S. society. I propose that “compulsory consumption” and the automobile’s centrality to the current regime of accumulation can help account for this.”

and from the article itself:
“This material allows insight into the several significant pathways by which the car produces or amplifies inequality in the United States and, potentially, elsewhere. I argue that the car system not only reflects inequality but also actively produces it, massively redistributing wealth, status, well-being, and the means to mobility and its power. While declining wages, rising corporate control of the state, and rising costs of higher education and health care are also crucial to these redistributions, understanding the car system’s special and deeply consequential inequality-producing processes is key to any attempt to solve a number of problems. Prominent among the problems that the U.S. car system exacerbates are inequality of job access, rising wealth inequality, and environmental degradation and its unequal health effects.”

Mike
Guest
Mike

I say take away the subsidies. If they don’t want to drive downtown, they can just move there and walk or ride their bikes wherever they need to go.

If they can’t afford to live or drive downtown, then maybe they should look elsewhere for a job.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

So, the low-wage workers all work after 7pm? Or they live downtown? I’m not sure I get this line of thinking.

I know that the 7pm rule did make it easier for me to drive to PSU for night classes, but I was usually happier when I rode my bike. The 7pm rule definitely helps subsidize people living in $1000+ per month downtown apartments, as they don’t have to pay for a garage when they return from their jobs in Beaverton. It also helps subsidize folks that drive in from the suburbs to party in Old Town and the Pearl on the weekends.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

housing for cars or housing for people?

Planning for car housing takes about 300 to 350 square feet for structured parking (parking stall [aka “car room”] plus access aisles [aka “car hallway”] per stored car. This is a similar amount of space as the next generation of SRO units being planned in SF and Boston.

Perhaps instead of the city council planning for “subsidized” car housing in the CBD the parking should be set at market rates and a set aside of the collected funds go into SROs for workforce singles. (Perhaps built on the upper floors of new retail or office structures.

Why have low wage single workers have to drive from a far off suburban apartment district (commute time value plus car costs) to work in a CBD low wage job? It does not make as much sense as living in the CBD and walking or biking to work.

mark
Guest
mark

I am almost positive this elected official is worried about the poor people.

It has nothing to do with enhancing SOV travel.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

We’ll get more benefit if we charge for parking and subsidize express trains full of people and their bikes from 5-7 miles out with no stops (or maybe 1 at 3 miles.) Except, how do we get room for the express train to go around the stoppy one?

Meanwhile, in Portland: making it cheap and easy to drive turns out to be expensive and difficult.

Evan Manvel
Guest
Evan Manvel

Fabulous analysis, Michael.

Hopefully this article will encourage more data-driven decisions, which too often lose out in the traditional psychology of parking policy.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Michael, I’m curious about the lower income brackets. Does that include PSU students (who may live on/near campus) and have a part time job?
If so that could be skewing the data.

Randy
Guest
Randy

For whom the bridge tolls… If you want to drive downtown, aka, worst air pollution in Oregon, then please pay your polluting fee. Those who commute by bike should get 6 free bike tires per year.

Mike Reams
Guest
Mike Reams

This is one common problem with subsidies intended to help the poor. They usually wind up helping the relatively well-off far more than the poor.

realworld
Guest
realworld

Michael,

You need to change the head line to “Very Poorly minded people drive to work downtown” we shouldn’t make poor people feel bad about their good decisions.

Steven Howland
Guest
Steven Howland

It’s fairly unreasonable to ask TriMet to improve service hours to the extent they would need to in order to accommodate downtown service employees working graveyard shifts. However, given the numbers are pretty small, it may not be unreasonable to take a chunk of the money that would be garnered by an increased meter or smart park charge and set up a low-income parking assistance program. It could be operated in a number of ways with many downsides to each, but there’s really not a good way that I can think of. One way is to have that pot of money available for employers to provide free parking for low-wage employees working late-night shifts. Another would be to have low-wage employees go directly to the city for a parking permit. Employers would likely not go through the process of the paperwork involved with a parking subsidy from the city so few would partake. Also it would be ripe for fraud Late-night low-wage employees and the hours of city offices often don’t align and makes it a large burden to require them to wait in a city office and have all their necessary paperwork in order in order to get a permit from the city. It’s just a thought.

uber driver
Guest

I take uber to avoid paying for and searching for parking before 7 pm. It’s a deterent for high income people as well