Transportation Pricing for Equitable Mobility

When we talk about traffic congestion, we usually talk about how frustrating it is compared to the way things used to be. We are exasperated that it takes twice as long to get to work as it used to.

The truth is, though, that we can’t go back to the way things used to be, because that old approach isn’t working any more, and it won’t work in the future. People will continue to be born in Oregon while many more move to our state, and we all need to get places every day. We need a system that can move more people more efficiently.

The transportation system we have been using for the last hundred years, even when it isn’t congested with traffic, is really only good at one thing: people who have a reliable private car can hop in that car and get where they need to go. People who aren’t able to drive a private car are left with few options.

This system is bad for a lot of other things – death and injuries from car crashes, air pollution, climate change, and unsustainable community design. These negative impacts affect all of us, but they particularly hurt families and individuals with low incomes and communities of color.

Traffic congestion makes these existing problems worse. As the population grows the impacts become even more inequitable as public roads become overcrowded with parked and moving private cars. People making the choice to drive alone in their cars are clogging up the already congested roadways, and those drivers slow down the more conscientious carpool commuters and the thousands of public transit riders.

The people who suffer most are our neighbors who have been forced by the cost of housing to move further from their jobs, stores, and gathering places. But make no mistake, traffic congestion affects all of us.

The roads belong to the public. 

Images of Sisters in the fall.

We own the right-of-way, the sidewalks and curbs and the street. In Oregon, we give away for free the use of those publicly owned resources, mainly for people to store and drive their personal cars.

The only people able to take full advantage of this giveaway are the people who have money to buy and insure a car, the physical ability to drive, and the ability to get a drivers license.

Anyone who does not or cannot drive does not reap the same benefits from the public right-of-way (even though a good portion of local roads are paid for through property taxes and other fees that have nothing to do with driving). And we all pay the costs of poor air quality, climate change, and the risk of being killed on the road.

Some cities around the world have approached differently the challenge …

… of safely and efficiently moving people and goods. They charge for the use of the right-of-way instead of giving it away. This encourages people to use other options. Some get there at a different time or using a different transportation mode, or others skip taking the trip if it’s not important.

A small price can make a big difference, leaving the roadways clear for the movement of people and stuff that really need to get somewhere quickly at the moment.  Critical to the success of this approach is making sure people have options. We can use the money paid into pricing systems to improve transit, biking and walking options.

Indeed, even where the roads aren’t crowded, a transportation system is equitable only if everyone has a reliable, convenient and affordable way to get where they need to go.

Oregon Environmental Council addressed Portland’s City Council on July 10 in support of  a task force being formed to evaluate options for pricing the use of the transportation system in order to make the system more equitable.

“Oregon Environmental Council has long been a proponent of pricing the right-of-way,” Sara Wright, Transportation Program Director, said in her testimony. “Pricing approaches centered on equitable mobility outcomes can give people access to places they need to go, reduce climate impacts, reduce air toxics, improve traffic safety, and strengthen the economy. We can price our community-owned resources and make sure that the benefits of the changes go first to the most disadvantaged communities.”

If we center equitable outcomes, we can re-imagine a transportation system that supports clean air, climate stability, and healthy families living in economically vibrant neighborhoods.

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1 Reply to "Transportation Pricing for Equitable Mobility"

  • Teresa
    November 2, 2019 (2:09 am)

    There is something quite astonishing to me in that we have a growing consensus that climate change is real and dramatic change is needed to stop this runaway train. Yet we seem totally unprepared or even able to fully acknowledge our personal responsibility for helping turn the tide by changing the way and how we consume.