Portland equitable mobility plan: Tax parking lots, require equal commute benefits

  • The Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) Task Force recommended a citywide flexible commuter benefit program (parking cash-out), a tax on privately-owned off street parking, and accelerated implementation and expansion of performance-based curb pricing.
  • Fees for urban delivery and transportation network carrier/for-hire (TNC) services recommended to reduce congestion and pollution.
  • The Task Force also recommended a “unified financial assistance system,” potentially in the form of cash payments, to mitigate impacts of pricing strategies on low income households.

After meeting for eighteen months, Portland, Oregon’s Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) Task Force issued it’s final recommendations which include: flexible commuter benefits (parking cash-out), increased on-street parking metering and permitting, development of a fee on privately-owned off-street parking lots, and accelerated implementation of the city’s existing performance-based meter pricing policy. The proposal also recommends the city develop a “unified financial assistance system for households living on low incomes that could be applied across pricing programs and transportation services to reduce burdens on these households and administrative complexity.”

The Task Force was asked to consider “if and how new pricing strategies could potentially be used more intentionally to improve mobility, address the climate crisis and advance equity for people historically underserved by the transportation system in Portland, including, but not limited to, low-income Portlanders and communities of color.” The group heard from subject matter experts regarding parking pricing, tolling, congestion pricing, cordons, and many other traffic demand strategies and discussed and debated the merits of each strategy given Portland’s geographic and political particulars and while centering equitable outcomes and transportation justice.

It will take several years to implement the Task Force’s recommendations, assuming they are accepted by Portland’s City Council, but there are many innovative solutions proposed which should be explored in other cities.

A Parking Based Alternative to Congestion Pricing and Cordons

The POEM Task Force did consider road usage charges, highway tolling, and London-style cordons, but Oregon’s Constitution mandates that road, gas, and vehicle registration revenues be used “exclusively for the construction, reconstruction, improvement, repair, maintenance, operation and use of public highways, roads, streets and roadside rest areas in this state.” Furthermore, the city lacks sufficient jurisdiction to toll the highways that run through the city and the bridges that cross the Willamette River. Because of this, the Task Force felt that tolling and cordons would be less likely to manage congestion while advancing the goal of equitable mobility for all Portlanders. Instead, if implemented, the recommendations would seek a similar effect as a cordon by using fees on parking, urban delivery, and TNCs.

  • By accelerating performance-based parking for the central city, drivers would pay the market rate for on-street and publicly-owned off-street parking.
  • A tax on privately-owned parking lots could be implemented as a peak-hour entry/exit surcharge for commuters parking all-day in central city lots and garages.
  • Congestion-based surcharges for urban deliveries and TNCs would discourage peak-hour deliveries and encourage passengers to use other modes, such as transit or e-bike share to enter or exit the central city.
Private garages, like this one in Downtown PDX, would be subject to some form of tax or fees under the recommendations.

Such a system would be more porous than a cordon, but designed properly, could be quite effective with less technological investment and fewer jurisdictional and privacy concerns. In addition, the revenues from parking and TNC/delivery fees are not restricted by the Oregon Constitution and could be spent on transit subsidies and other multi-modal improvements and incentives.

Level The Playing Field For Commuters

The first near-term recommendation from the POEM Task Force isn’t actually a pricing strategy nor a new idea, in fact it’s one of the first ideas Donald Shoup proposed for parking reform: parking cash-out.

A “flexible commuter benefits program” (h/t Cheryl Cort and the Coalition for Smarter Growth) would require employers who pay for or subsidize parking for their commuting employees to provide an equivalent taxable cash benefit to employees who do not drive and park. Many employers provide a transit pass to employees who don’t drive to work, but the cost of a monthly transit pass in Portland is less than 1/2 the cost of a monthly parking space in Downtown and people who commute by bike or on foot may prefer a cash benefit to a transit pass they don’t use often.

Cities should seize upon the opportunity provided by the disruption of the last year to encourage mode shifts for commuters as people return to the office. A citywide (or regional) flexible commuter benefit program is a great way to do that.

Rethinking Exemptions and Discounts

Higher parking meter rates, delivery fees, and surcharges will have a bigger impact on lower income households even though they are likely to incur fewer charges due to lower overall consumption. One of the tougher challenges faced by any government looking to use pricing to reduce single occupancy trips and congestion is figuring out how to provide protective relief for low income households without making the programs ineffective. Low income drivers, and particularly low income drivers who are BIPOC face institutional hurdles to accessing rebate and discount programs, which often require providing the same documentation to multiple agencies or taking precious time to go to an office or fill out forms. On top of that, the individual needs to know that the program exists in the first place.

The POEM Task Force grappled with this issue at nearly every meeting and came up with some innovative solutions that would provide more flexible and equitable transportation subsidies for low income households and reduce bureaucratic and administrative overhead and complexity.

Foremost, the Task Force urged the city to develop “one set of income-based policy standards” for rebate and exemption programs, to apply to current and future programs. Portland is already piggybacking other programs like the “Golden Transportation Wallet” onto the low income transit pass verification of TriMet, the regional transit agency.

But exemptions and discounts for parking permits and tolls only benefit low income households which own and operate cars. The recommendation acknowledges this by suggesting that “cash rebates or payments” are preferred as they allow individuals to make their own choices about transportation. Furthermore, the Task Force recommends the city explore “a unified financial assistance system for households living on low incomes.” Such a system could operate like a universal basic income (UBI), providing a cash subsidy or perhaps a credit for city services that could be used to pay parking fees, transit, water bills, etc.

A program (statewide or regional would be best) to provide a cash rebate or dividend from climate related tolls, taxes, and fees would be a simple, equitable, redistributive, and effective way to mitigate the regressive impacts of economic strategies to reduce driving and GHG emissions. Such a program would deprive wealthy opponents to pricing of the ability to use low income households as a prop to defend their desire to maintain their own subsidies to drive and park cars cheaply.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well…

Opponents to paid parking and demand-based parking pricing often claim the city is gouging or just seeking revenue through pricing. As a result, many cities set prices too low to impact demand or to even meet the true costs of administering the pricing program. POEM’s report acknowledges that “pricing policy is only effective if it reduces traffic demand and/or raises enough revenue to fund effective demand management or multimodal improvements” and “[s]etting rates or surcharges too low to affect demand or fund improvements is inequitable.

This is a critical point to make when advocating for paid parking, congestion pricing, or any other similar program. If your city is charging $2 per hour to park in the restaurant district and all the spaces are full, then the fee isn’t solving the problem and the city isn’t providing any value for the cost. If the market clearing price for parking in that area is $5 per hour, then increasing the price to $3-4 dollars IS gouging. The consumer will remain frustrated, the streets will remain congested, businesses will not have supportive turnover, but the city will collect more money just because it can.

A pricing program should deliver value to the community, either in the form of funding effective programs or actually providing a less congested road or curbside. No one wants to pay for parking, but an effective program will likely have much more support.

Now For The Hard Part

This recommendation is a very strong output from a large and diverse group of stakeholders. There were 18 voting members of the Task Force present at the final meeting on July 12th and all of the recommendations passed with at least 16 votes in favor. In the Fall, the recommendations will go to City Council where, hopefully, they will be accepted and adopted as city policy, with direction to the relevant bureaus to get busy developing implementation plans.

The recommendations are necessarily vague on program design. How effective and innovative the city’s flexible commuter benefits program, private parking tax, and low income mitigation policies end up will depend on the leadership of Portland’s elected officials and grassroots advocacy community. But other cities don’t need to wait to review this document and apply the concepts to their own climate action and transportation plans. Hopefully, Portland won’t be alone, or will even be beaten to the punch, in implementing such a comprehensive suite of transportation demand management.

Note: The author of this post was a member of the Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility Task Force.

You can support this podcast and a parking reform movement. Join the network or donate today.

1 thought on “Portland equitable mobility plan: Tax parking lots, require equal commute benefits”

  1. Tony, first, thanks so much for serving on this task force and for publishing its work in such a readable form. My problem is different. I need SAFE parking and an electrical hookup to charge my electric assist bike. My building has a garage and I was successful in getting management to install two bike racks in that garage. However, the front wheel of the non e-bike I keep for guests was stolen. So, it’s neither safe, nor does it have an electric hookup where I could recharge my electric assist bike. So, I’ve been keeping it in my kitchen. But now, I need more space there. Seems Felicia Williams was on a City task force that came up with rules for multifamily buildings and I will check with here too. Did your task force discuss this?

Leave a Reply to Mary Vogel Cancel reply