Thursday, June 6, 2013

Op-Ed: East Portland Bus Stops Deserve Attention

Inequity manifests itself in many ways within the City of Portland. In a city that prides itself on its progressive policies and green transportation options, the disparities in TriMet’s bus stop accommodations are inexcusable. The contrast between the built environment and amenities at bus stops in Central Portland versus East Portland is abhorrent and needs to change. I implore TriMet to prioritize improvements to the “top three” worst bus stops, as identified by OPAL’s (Organizing People, Activating Leaders) East Portland Bus Project.

OPAL, a local transit justice and advocacy nonprofit, started their exploration of bus stops in East Portland in 2011 (1). After receiving $63,000 in funds from Metro’s Regional Travel Options grant program (1), OPAL kicked their plans into action. OPAL’s goal was to empower East Portland residents to lead the process of identifying, assessing, and prioritizing improvements to stops along major bus routes in their neighborhood (1). Some of the routes looked at include bus numbers 9, 10, and 14 (2).

Clearly, as OPAL discovered, this issue of inequity in bus stop accommodations occurs at the local level, and thus requires local level change. As a regional agency, TriMet holds the power to listen to and act on OPAL’s recommendations.

OPAL’s three “winners” included the following bus stops (2), listed with their respective average on and offs per day.

#1) SE Powell & 122nd (248 on/offs)
Source: Portland Afoot
#2) SE Powell & 127th (38 on/offs)
Source: Portland Afoot
#3) SE 82nd & Foster (285 on/offs)
Source: Portland Afoot
Official TriMet policy recommends installing a rain shelter at bus stops that average 50 boardings each day (3). Two of the stops OPAL identified meet this criterion, and still do not have said rain shelter.
Source: Portland Condo Loft Search
Currently, these stops look like they belong in a different city when compared to a downtown streetcar stop.

In addition to the importance from a policy perspective, I feel that this issue has a great deal of significance from an equity perspective as well. Spatial mismatch, gentrification, and rising housing costs have led to low-income people and communities of color living further from employment opportunities and depending on transit. Despite high transit use, accommodations such as shelters, benches, and lighting are disproportionately missing from bus stops in East Portland. All of Portland’s transit riders, regardless of class, race, or geography, deserve these features at their bus stops.

Improvements to the built environment can also increase ridership, which directly benefits TriMet. Critics may cite the costs of improving these stops, but I believe that the long-term benefits and equity considerations outweigh this concern. The Portland Plan strives for healthy connected cities, equity, and affordability (4). As a partner in this plan, TriMet needs to step up and show East Portland that their bus stops deserve just as much attention as the streetcar.

Clearly, the lens through which we view public transit impacts how that transit takes shape. If we continue to focus on transit as an economic development tool and tourism enhancer, we will continue to perpetuate an inequitable Portland. We need to shift this thinking towards using the lenses of job connection, health, equity, and self-sufficiency to make public transit priorities. OPAL focuses on transit-dependent riders, rather than transit-oriented development. Their focus on empowering these riders to lead community-based participatory research also addresses issues of access, mobility, equity, and the social determinants of health.

Having gone to past OPAL meetings, I think that TriMet also needs to take cues from how OPAL does their work and engages community members. Their bus stop project is just one part of OPAL’s work; other aspects include Bus Riders Unite! and Campaign for a Fair Transfer (5). The process of choosing the “top three” bus stops was community-led, with area residents as the researchers. 
Source: Portland Afoot
The final meeting to decide on the worst bus stops took place in East Portland, at the Rosewood Café on SE 162nd and Stark (2). OPAL’s meetings include food, childcare, and Spanish translation. These meetings also take place at times convenient for many working families, usually on the weekends, or in the evenings. These details and accommodations significantly impact the turnout at meetings and level of empowerment and engagement present amongst community members.

As Portland grows in size and diversity, TriMet needs to address the disparities that OPAL has so clearly highlighted. East Portland residents deserve investment from TriMet, to ensure that their regular bus stops are safe, attractive, and enjoyable places to wait at. TriMet’s commitment to their riders should pay extra attention to those riders most dependent on their services. OPAL has already done the work; all TriMet needs to do is listen and act. 

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