BTA: Fix the mismatch between development, transportation

By Rob Sadowsky, Contributing Columnist

Transportation is not an isolated issue. Like the roads we travel on, transportation is essentially linked to our starting and ending points. Typically those points are where we live and where we work, but also includes where we shop, where we or our children go to school, and where we go for entertainment. The longer those points are from each other, the higher our costs of transportation become.

Our region has a mismatch when it comes to jobs and housing, meaning that our jobs are not always within easy reach of where we live. Families with lower-wage jobs often face the worst of this mismatch living farther toward the fringes of the tri-county area. This has not always been the case. When many of our large cities were developed in the 1800s, the urban core was the home of our working class and our underserved communities. The middle-class and wealthier communities trended toward the suburbs. People living in underserved communities were often steps away from their factories and warehouses, only the wealthy had carriages or cars.

Today, we face challenges with businesses locating in areas where land is cheap, taxes are affordable, or where taxes are discounted to attract the businesses in the first place. They operate on large campuses sprawled with manmade lakes filled with geese. It is the enlightened business that locates near transit stations understanding the importance of mobility in attracting quality employees.

So, if you live on the far east side of Portland or in eastern Multnomah County, you are most likely traveling farther to work than those living in the Pearl. This translates into higher transportation costs making the mismatch further inequitable.  We need to address this mismatch to effectively build a mobile workforce and one that reduces barriers. Transit-oriented development should be the focus of tax breaks. But it is not enough to simply build large office buildings near transit, we need to make our transit center attractive once you arrive. I’ve seen too many developments that sit empty or are underutilized because the design looks sterile or focuses only on businesses that operate during the day leaving the centers devoid of energy at night.

As a bicycle advocate, I want more people choosing the bicycle for as many trips as they can during their day. To get to this goal, I know that we need neighborhoods throughout the tri-county area that have integrated mixed-income housing.  We also need to place real costs on our parking so that parking in that huge lot in the suburbs is no cheaper than parking downtown, and they are both a higher cost than selecting transit. After all, I started biking to work every day not because I’m a crazy environmentalist who hates cars: I started biking to work every day because it was more convenient. I simply got to work every day faster and reliably. I was never late because of traffic or driving around looking for a parking space (and I had a six mile commute). Once I started biking, I learned about the other values including increasing my physical activity and reducing my contributions to global warming.

Too often transportation is not an issue addressed as part of a community development organization’s mission that is struggling to build better jobs and housing opportunities. In that same light, transportation policy groups often fail to understand the importance of economic development and affordable housing as integral strategies that improve transportation choices. One step that we should take in our region is to make sure that the voices of affordable housing advocates and real estate developers are heard around the transportation tables and vice versa. Housing and jobs should be addressed as part of sustainable transportation planning.  It has taken years of work to build the mismatch and it will take years of hard effort to address it.

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