Transportation Justice in Portland

Transportation is central to human life. Healthcare, education, economic opportunities, and recreational and cultural spaces are all made accessible by transportation. Transportation access had been directly linked to higher employment rates and better health outcomes, but also has immeasurable benefits in connecting people to opportunities.[1][2] But the reliability, safety, and affordability of transportation is not the same for everyone. Specifically, low-income, minority populations are less likely to have access to transportation than wealthy, white populations.[3] This disparity is what the Transportation Justice movement is attempting to fix.


Portland, Oregon is often ranked among one of the most “Green Cities” in America, but the bike paths and sustainable eateries which give Portland this title are mostly located on the west side of the city. East Portland struggles with many more environmental issues than West Portland and is also the location of most low-income, minority communities in the area.[4] Therefore, the environmental problems the eastside of the city faces are issues of environmental justice, because in the same city, income and race are the difference between healthy and unhealthy environmental quality.


Specific to transportation, there is a clear, unmet need for transit in low-income, minority communities compared to high-income areas in Portland.[5] The public transit systems do not properly service these communities; there are less stops and routes which run through them.[6] To add to this issue, Portland’s highways run through low-income, minority communities. Therefore, the people who can afford cars end up polluting neighborhoods of transit-dependent people, meaning the people who are not polluting are the ones experiencing the negative health effects of poor air quality.[7] Moreover, affordability of public transportation is also an issue. A monthly bus pass in Portland is 33% more than the national average, creating even more of a barrier to transit access.


The lawmakers and city planners in Portland do not purposefully ignore low-income, minority communities when they make decisions. But even without that intention, Portland’s transportation systems still end up having an unjust impact on the city’s low-income, minority communities, showing a systemic failure in the ability of government to protect all its constituents. The planning and law-making process excludes these groups, because they are not reflected in most decision-making bodies and, often, any chance for public participation is during work hours. Therefore, when plans are being made, the needs of low-income, minority communities are excluded, because they do not have representation in the planning process. But if the viewpoint of these communities were better incorporated in the process, it would help the Portland Bureau of Transportation make more just decisions. It would be a first step towards the inclusion of transportation justice in the city’s political agenda, which would make

transportation more accessible and affordable for all.


But even with advocates for low-income, minority communities in decision-making roles, transit justice cannot be achieved by only focusing on transportation methods and systems. Transportation inequity is a symptom of a larger issue of injustice in city planning. Cities are not built for low-income people, but rather they are built to cater to the people with the most influence’s needs, which typically is people of high socioeconomic status. Without the proper considerations made towards fixing inequity, transit systems can deepen those injustices.


In 2017, Portland Department of Transportation proposed implementing a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in East Portland. BRT has the potential to address the lack of service in the area. The new system would connect low-income, minority communities to opportunities around a city, but would also increase housing prices along the route and lead to gentrification.[8] In a Portland State University research study, it was found that the areas the route would run through were extremely vulnerable to changes in housing prices because most people living in the area are “housing cost burdened,” meaning they spend over 30% of their monthly income on rent.[9] Therefore, there is a need for transit development and methods of low-income housing to be developed in tandem, so people are not priced-out of their homes and forced to relocate.


Transportation justice is a piece of the larger environmental justice movement, so these intersectional issues of transportation, housing, and environment need to be addressed together in order to achieve equitable solutions. In the era of climate change, well-implemented public transportation is key to making cities sustainable, but also can lead to a more just community. The effects of climate change will be felt first and the worst by low-income, minority communities, so efficient, environmentally friendly systems, especially public transit, need to be developed before climate change can further exacerbate issues of environmental justice.


Works Cited

[1] Thomas W. Sanchez (1999) The Connection Between Public Transit and Employment, Journal of the American Planning Association, 65:3, 284-296, DOI: 10.1080/01944369908976058

[2] Arcury, T. A., Preisser, J. S., Gesler, W. M. and Powers, J. M. (2005), Access to Transportation and Health Care Utilization in a Rural Region. The Journal of Rural Health, 21: 31-38. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0361.2005.tb00059.x

[3] Karel Martens, Aaron Golub, Glenn Robinson, “A justice-theoretic approach to the distribution of transportation benefits: Implications for transportation planning practice in the United States,” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Volume 46, Issue 4, 2012, Pgs. 684-695, ISSN 0965-8564,

[4] Portland in Motion Retrieved (2011), “A Five-Year Implementation Strategy for Active Transportation,” from

[5] Martens, K. (2017). Transport Justice. New York: Routledge,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] When Public Transportation Leads to Gentrification. (2019, March 11). Retrieved from

[9] National Institute for Transportation and Communities. (2017). Planning Ahead for Livable Communities along the Powell–Division Bus Rapid Transit: Neighborhood Conditions and Change (NITC-RR-912). Retrieved from

6 thoughts on “Transportation Justice in Portland

  1. Hazel, this is great! I’ve never been to Portland, but I did learn about this exact issue at the DukeEngage Academy and it hit me very hard. Transportation is an absolutely crucial feature of a city and you’re right – it can feed into or mend injustices that already exist in cities. I learned in that same workshop that Oregon was founded on the basis of being a white utopia. It makes sense to me, then, that it would still have a lot of injustice and challenges for minority populations, decades later. When something is founded with that deep of an intention of injustice, it takes extremely high levels of intention to mend those injustices.
    While reading your blog, I was thinking a lot about public transportation in Philadelphia. The buses and underground subways and trolleys have a reputation for being ridden primarily by low-income, minority populations. Even with that in mind, though, I am sure it is still so inaccessible, whether spatially, economically, or both, to so many of low-income and minority residents. So sad to think that something that I take for granted and consider a public good really is quite exclusive.

  2. I thought it was really interesting to read more about environmental justice issues in Portland because as you mentioned, Portland is usually thought of as a “green city” and I was previously under the impression that from an environmental perspective, they were doing well. I did not think that maybe these environmental initiatives were not equally distributed, thus making Portland not fully worthy of its status as a sustainable city. This makes me call into question other cities that have these labels, and whether or not their initiatives and programs are environmentally just. While any environmental work that a city does is a step in the right direction, it is important to also analyze the environmental justice of this work to make sure that they are equitable improvements, which seems to be a pitfall of Portland’s current environmental initiatives.

  3. Hey Hazel! Your blog really resonated with me. I wrote my own on green space inequalities, and I think we ended up saying a lot of the same things. Lawmakers and developers don’t usually make purposeful decisions to exclude communities from opportunities- although redlining certainly provides a strong example of how purposeful exclusion can exist- and yet, in every city in america there is a neighborhood or an ordinal direction that lacks proper trees and transportation. I think you are right in saying that affordable housing needs to grow in tandem with city development. Otherwise, current residents will get priced out of their newly planted and transit-connected neighborhoods.

  4. Wow Hazel, such an eloquent and informative article. It is very clear this is a passion of yours. Although I have never been to Portland, this summer I participated in Duke Engage Seattle and had similar thoughts about transportation in the city of Seattle. I remember being shocked at how expensive the public transportation was, with one way fares costing upwards of $3 for trains and bus routes. I know many cities offer discounts to seniors and youth, but I would be curious to research if cities offer discounts to low-income or homeless citizens. In big cities, it can be extremely burdensome to travel around, and transportation should be a right for these citizens. Bike trails are great, but only for those fortunate enough to be able to afford a bike or use the rental services like LimeBikes

  5. When people think about environmental justice, transportation might be one of the last things that comes to mind, but it is crucially important for all the reasons you mentioned. Environmental justice is a broad, intersectional term that covers more than disproportionate exposure to hazardous waste and the effects of disasters. These flashy environmental justice topics are important as well but so are unseen issues like transportation justice.

    When I lived in Portland for DukeEngage Portland, I was amazed by the public transportation options as compared to my suburban home. However, soon I began to understand the issues you analyze and the stark differences between East and West Portland when it comes to transportation access, tree cover, and much more. I also learned about the work that my roommate’s partner organization is doing to work for transportation justice in Portland and was impressed by their dedication to equity in the city.

    OPAL Environmental Justice works to organize people and activate leaders in the grassroots fights for transportation justice, housing justice, climate justice, and green justice. They have organized all kinds of campaigns that support everything from youth bus passes to the Oregon Green New Deal to housing affordability measures that reduce displacement. They are collaborating across groups and organizations to work for a just transition that supports the rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable (OPAL Environmental Justice, 2019).

    Importantly, their leadership is representative of those impacted by these issues—young people, transit dependent people, and minorities that guide the organization in the right direction. These are the kinds of people that need to be included in decision making and planning processes about transportation and city planning in Portland so that these kinds of environmental injustices do not persist in what is widely considered one of the greenest cities in the country.

Works Cited
    OPAL Environmental Justice. (2019). Campaigns. Retrieved from Organizing People, Activating Leaders website:

  6. Wow, Hazel! I’m glad that you brought up public transportation because I think that’s not an issue people instantly think of when they think of environmental issues. I also think it’s great how you emphasized that public transportation issues are a consequence of larger, systemic issues like urban planning, housing equity, and political representation, and how we need policy solutions that address these issues in tandem. BRT sounds like it could be a viable solution, but I’m glad that studies have preemptively identified unintended consequences of the project, such as housing gentrification.

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