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Interviews reveal transportation impacts of Albina displacement

Posted by on August 21st, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Biking on 122nd Ave in east Portland.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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Discussions of how gentrification and displacement are tied to transportation is something we’ve covered at length here on BikePortland over the years. But what’s missing from our understanding of these issues are perspectives from Black Portlanders who’ve been directly impacted by being uprooted from their close-in neighborhoods and living in a place that’s far less easy to get around in.

Research just published by former Portland resident Steven Howland gives us new insights about how severe demographic changes in north Portland have taken a toll on Black lives. Howland’s research was done as part of his pursuit of a Ph.D. of Philosophy in Urban Studies from Portland State University. His dissertation, ‘I Should Have Moved Somewhere Else’: The Impacts of Gentrification on Transportation and Social Support for Black Working-Poor Families in Portland, OR, was funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities and has been published by the Transportation Research and Education Center at PSU.

In 1990 Albina was 38% Black, but by 2017 it was less than 13%. Meanwhile East Portland grew from 1.5% Black to nearly 8% in that same period.

In 2017 Howland interviewed 27 working-age Black people with children — half of them lived in Albina and the other half had moved from there to east Portland. In addition to asking about mode preferences, Howland asked questions about the social impacts of being uprooted from Albina (an older, more dense and walkable neighborhood) to east Portland (a place with more arterial streets, and longer distances between destinations).

What Howland found was striking and should create even more urgency to make transit, walking and biking compete better against driving — and to prevent displacement in the first place.

Howland’s interviews reveal the human side of the challenges people face when they move from close-in to suburban neighborhoods. “I found that people in Albina were better resourced, on average, to accomplish their daily life maintenance,” he wrote. “Through easier transportation (including a higher rate of car ownership), better and stronger social support networks, and a higher density of nearby destinations, Albina residents could get around faster, easier, and accomplish more in a day. East Portlanders struggled far more. Clustering of destinations around the western edge of East Portland put those destinations out of reach for most of them.”

Here’s more from Howland:

“Given the level of disadvantage facing low-income Black populations based on where they can live and the resources available to them, mode choice has a drastic impact on their life outcomes… For low-income Black populations, the effects of racism, segregation, and sustained material hardship prevents their full participation in society. A society, which through suburbanization and orienting life and policy around the automobile assumes people will get around by a car and can travel long distances for their everyday life. They are thereby socially excluded from society, but we have limited knowledge as to the way this manifest in the lives of low-income Black populations or the effects it has on their life.”

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Despite strides Portland is making with transit, bicycling and walking infrastructure, they still lag far behind driving in perceptions of safety and desirability.

“We got this busy intersection here and these other cars that be speeding down the damn street, a residential street. They be doing 50 down a 25mph. Don’t ride it out here. I don’t trust it out here.”
— East Portland father

When it comes to using TriMet, many of Howland’s interviewees expressed frustrations with reliability and a fear of other riders: “This was spurred in part by the racially-motivated murders on MAX, but mostly because of their encounters with homeless people and people with untreated mental illnesses which also spilled over into overt racist acts against them or their children.”

His report includes harrowing accounts of walking in east Portland. “Yea, the drivers. You never know with the drivers. Like at night you really need them reflectors, because they drive like crazy down 162nd. It’s bad,” remarked one woman. Another bemoaned the lack of safe crossings: “There’s not that many crosswalks. I’m glad they just made one at 165th where I live. But crossing the street at night, it’s like you either have to walk all the way to 162nd or to 174th to properly cross the street. But I end up crossing the middle of the block. And people aren’t following the speed limits. Or they’re always pulling out the bar drunk or something.”

Despite bad reviews of TriMet and fears around walking, bicycling barely registered as a viable mode among the interviewees. Only three of the 27 people Howland spoke with rode a bike — and none of them did so on streets due to safety concerns.

“I’m not doing that. Sweating. People looking at me, I’m sweating, pedal pedal pedal. You know. Before it gets to that point, I would rather just walk to my destination. Because then I’ll have my purse with me where I’ll have a bottle of water or something. But yea I’m not biking it,” said one woman.

One father he interviewed in east Portland was too afraid to let his kids bike near their home so he’d load them in his truck and only let the kids ride when he visited family in Albina. “Where we stay at it’s real crazy,” the man said. “We tell ’em ride [bikes] at your grandma’s [who lives in
Albina] because the area over there is safer. We got this busy intersection here and these other cars that be speeding down the damn street, a residential street. They be doing 50 down a 25mph. Don’t ride it out here. I don’t trust it out here.”

Howland’s research comes in the same month that Willamette Week reported about how east of 82nd, overcrowded living conditions have contributed to COVID-19 infection spikes and fewer street trees lead to higher summer temperatures.

Whatever we’re doing to improve the lives of people who live in east Portland, we need to do more of it. Faster.

You can follow Howland on Twitter and learn more about this research on TREC’s website.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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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

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Joseph E
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Joseph E

Re: “Only three of the 27 people Howland spoke with rode a bike on a regular basis.” That’s 11%. The city of Portland commute share was 7% at the most, in the whole city, and it’s been only 1% or 2% in East Portland. So if over 10% of Black people from Albina who have been displaced to East Portland are frequently riding bikes, that’s actually a really high number compared to their neighbors.

Shawn
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Shawn

When I first moved to Albina just 10 or 11 years ago, it was still essentially a food and commercial desert, with very few businesses in walking distance and many vacant lots. It certainly was not the dense urban environment we have in the neighborhood now, much of which was developed in the past decade. It was also much more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, in my opinion.

I am not in favor of displacing long-time residents of any neighborhood, but I think it’s fair to point out that gentrification also includes improvements to quality of life for those who remain, including the many people of color who still live on my block and in the surrounding neighborhood.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

Caption under map: “In 1990 Albina was 38% Black, but by 2017 it was less than 13%. Meanwhile East Portland grew from 1.5% Black to nearly 8% in that same period.”

You are implying a geographic migration that isn’t actually supported by the data. East Portland became more black not necessarily because black people from inner Portland moved there (though obviously many did), but much more because most Somali and other African refugees were settled there (the cheapest part of town) and never lived in inner Portland. Most inner Portland blacks who moved out of Albina and other inner Portland neighborhoods left the city altogether, usually to places that are more affordable and less overtly racist.

Toby Keith
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Toby Keith

Jonathan, you do realize people have lived out here for a very long time with lousy infrastructure? But now because people of color have been displaced to this part of the city it’s an issue? Or does this give you another reason to latch on to people of color for woke points?

Kana O.
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Kana O.

Thank you for highlighting this research, Jonathan.

I found it interesting how much the interviewees who drive appreciate transit for the resiliency and redundancy it can provide in their lives (even as they begrudge its insecurity and relative unavailability). This transit-as-backup consideration led even interviewees who primarily drove to try to find housing on transit lines accessible to their jobs and find housing that was relatively close to destinations, such that most of their driving trips were still pretty short; all interviewees’ commute trips by car were less than 3 miles if they lived in East Portland and less than 5 miles if they lived in Albina. That is to say, having a car while poor wasn’t found to necessarily expand employment opportunities; if the safety net of the transit network isn’t underneath you, you lack the confidence you can still hold down that job if your personal vehicle fails (a real concern for those on a shoestring budget).

Some highlights from my read-through:

Indeed, for nearly every driver, they based their housing location based on proximity to a bus line so they would always have that backup available to get to work in case something happened to their car. The precarity of their jobs meant they had to ensure they could get to work, otherwise they could be without a job.

However, rarely were their cars used to access jobs they would not otherwise reach by transit. Given the number of previous studies that have stressed the importance of car ownership for getting a job, this may be a finding unique to Portland or it may be unique to the economic times where unemployment was under 3% and jobs were relatively easy to find nearby. It could also reflect Portland’s transit system being robust enough for low-income Black households to get to jobs.

“I’m thinking worst case scenario something happens to my car, I just walk to work. That’s why I keep everything within walking distance. Like if I ain’t got a car…well I did all those things before I got the car”

Among those I interviewed, almost no one driving their car was regularly driving it very far to work at the time we talked. The furthest anyone in Albina was driving to work was about five miles, but most of them were driving three or fewer mile to work. No one in East Portland was driving further than three miles to work. Derrick was commuting 18 miles, but recently changed jobs to be closer to work.

…the densities of people and destinations in Albina supported hypothesizing high transit usage while a relative scarcity of transit and long distances between destinations in East Portland was more conducive to driving. However, I found that East Portland residents were more likely to use transit than Albina residents.

Most studies on retail and grocery access focused on disadvantaged neighborhoods that were heavily populated by low-income and minority populations. But in Portland, living near a grocery store was not really a problem…food price mattered more for access. And most the stores with lower prices clustered along the I-205 corridor in East Portland. I found similar results, in that nearly all those with access to cars in Albina traveled to East Portland for groceries seeking out lower-cost food.

Richard Herbin
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Richard Herbin

Great article.

casual observer
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casual observer

The comment about not liking to ride Trimet “mostly because of their encounters with homeless people and people with untreated mental illnesses which also spilled over into overt racist acts against them or their children”. This is a very real issue. My son spent all last year commuting to school at the Marshall campus on Trimet with his diverse group of friends. He spoke of incidents almost weekly of homeless and mentally unstable people harassing them on the Max with racial slurs and other taunts.