There is tension between goals of broad support, specificity in individual pricing, and privacy.
Last week Portland moved a step closer to putting an equitable price on driving and use of the right of way. Most often referred to as “congestion pricing,” the idea of charging for road use during peak hours, or in congested locations, has been used for decades in cities around the world—London, Singapore, Stockholm—but so far has not been widely adopted in the United States. In 2019, the Portland City Council directed the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to explore pricing strategies, which led to the creation of the Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) task force. After meeting for 18 months and being presented with expert technical information, the community task force published its final report which will be presented to City Council on October 13.
The report is impressive, and an excellent primer for anyone who would like to know more about the subject. It takes a broad look at numerous pricing options including prices on: parking; ride-hailing services such as Uber, Lyft and taxis; urban delivery services such as parcels and food; highway tolling; cordon or area pricing and road use or per-mile charges.
Following each pricing strategy is a “Highlights from Task Force discussion” section in which they analyze it according to their “Equitable Mobility Framework.” These discussion sections are the gems of the report and should be helpful to the City Council and bureaus. Rather than try to present a consensus position, the Highlights are divided into “promising opportunities” and “important considerations” sections which reveal the support, concerns, tensions and spitballing of the group as they worked through the various options. They have pre-chewed the food for Council, and presented the heart of any debates.
And there are tensions between the various aspirations. On one hand, the group notes “the urgent need for better demographic data on who drives and parks where in Portland.” On the other hand, “they felt privacy protections should be taken very seriously and be easy to understand.” One person’s data is another person’s privacy.
Among the Task Force goals are to “balance complexity with clarity” and to “build coalitions,” which to me argue for a “keep it simple stupid” approach. But that could possibly be at odds with, “the location of pricing infrastructure should be considered so it doesn’t overtly impact BIPOC or communities living on low incomes.” There is tension between goals of broad support, specificity in individual pricing, and privacy.
For those who want something done sooner rather than later, the report recommends pricing options which can be put in place within one to three years, without the city having to coordinate with outside entities. Most promising is a “flexible commuter benefits program” which stipulates that any employer subsidizing employee parking also must offer cash or alternative transportation payments to employees who do not drive to work. That is a no-brainer, and something that has been in place in other U.S. cities for years. Other suggestions include fees for privately-owned off-street parking, urban delivery, and for-hire transportation.
The report maintains a tone of urgency. 600,000 new residents are expected to live here by 2040 and “many of the problems we’re experiencing now—like worsening traffic, increased risk of crashes and rising carbon emissions—are due to get worse.” It is exciting to see Portland exploring these options. Mark your calendar for October 13th and stay tuned for more coverage of what is sure to be a robust debate.
— Lisa Caballero, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for over 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.