As the Portland City Council debates whether to raise downtown street parking meter prices from $1.60 an hour to $2 and allow paid hours to extend into early evening, there’s been a lot of talk about the costs to a very specific category of person: a low-wage downtown worker who drives to work.
At the council Thursday, Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she was worried about downtown commuters who “have to park there because they can’t get to their job on transit at 5 o’clock in the morning or whatever it might be.”
Those concerns have drawn criticism from others who say, based on Census data and a city-conducted survey, that preserving cheap or free parking downtown would help almost no poor people, because virtually no low-income downtown workers arrive by car.
“Giving away something that wealthier people do more and use more than poor people is a lousy way to address equity,” said Ben Schonberger of the housing-supply group Housing Land Advocates, a member of the city’s parking advisory committee who testified at city hall Tuesday.
As an alternative to rejecting a meter rate increase because of the chance that it would impact a few hundred low-income people, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick has suggested that the city spend some of the $4 million generated by the meter increase to create a new program that would offer discounts below the current $5 per night for low-income people who use city parking garages.
Others, including parking advisory committee member Tony Jordan of Portland Shoupistas, have suggested that the city spend some of the new money on a program that would discount transit passes or subsidize night-owl bus service.
On Thursday, as the council took its first reading on the measure, there was an interesting exchange about this that didn’t make it into The Oregonian’s coverage: actual testimony from a downtown employee who is, though not low-income himself, the manager of seven low-income workers who sometimes have to arrive before regular TriMet service begins.
Here’s the exchange between Commissioner Fritz and Kraig Buesch, manager of Starbucks at Southwest 9th and Taylor and chair of the Portland Business Alliance’s downtown retail council. It came after Buesch (echoing a Pearl District neighborhood representative and another representative for the PBA) endorsed the rate hike because they said it would reduce congestion, pollution and overcrowded curbside parking.
Buesch: Anecdotally, I’d like to also say that my staff of 10 people, 7 out of the 10 would be considered low-wage earners, and none of the 10 park cars downtown.
Fritz: What hours is your business open?
Buesch: We are there from 4:30 a.m. until 7:45 p.m. If you’re interested, a couple things that Starbucks offers is — we’re testing in other cities and are interested in bringing this to Portland — partnering with services like Lyft and Uber to provide early-hour or late-hour transportation at a discounted or free rate for employees. We also subsidize — if you buy a parking pass or a transit pass, we have a program where you can get pre-tax dollars taken out of your pay statement to buy at a lower rate.
Fritz: How do your 4 a.m. workers get there?
Buesch: They bike or they walk.
As Schonberger said in his testimony, it may make sense for decisions about public resources like curbside parking to be based on “direct observation and supply and demand, and not anecdotes.” But so far in the city’s downtown parking debate, this is the only actual anecdote the city council has heard about how low-income workers use their streets.
Everything else about their needs (other than the city’s data, which showed essentially the same thing) has been hypothetical.
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction 5:30 pm: An earlier version of this post misspelled Buesch’s name.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.