Last month a majority of voters in a Northeast Portland neighborhood supported a new parking permit zone, but because of ridiculous rules from 1981, the City of Portland says the proposal failed.
The permit election, in the Eliot Neighborhood, had a 53% turnout. For comparison, the 2018 primary, in which voters renewed the Children’s Levy and re-elected Commissioner Nick Fish, had a turnout of roughly 30%.
Of the ballots returned in Eliot, 54% were in favor of the permit proposal, a simple majority that would be sufficient in almost any other election. In total, 28.9% of all eligible ballots were mailed in (postage not included) to support on-street car parking management, but since city code requires a 60% supermajority for a parking permit, a minimum of 30% of all eligible households must vote yes to charge less than $7 a month for parking. Mayor Ted Wheeler was elected in 2016 with yes votes from only 27.9% of registered Portland voters.
Petitioning For Relief
New Portland parking permit districts can be initiated in two ways. In the first way, the neighborhood or business association can request that PBOT look into parking occupancy in an impacted area. The neighborhood associations in Portland are generally run by volunteers elected to the board by a minuscule percentage of eligible residents (it’s not uncommon for 20 people in a neighborhood of 7000+ to be the only voters).
In the second method, neighbors must circulate a petition and collect signatures from 50% of addresses in their proposed boundaries. Brad Baker, an Eliot neighborhood resident who helped organize six canvasses “in groups ranging from 4-6 people,” and reports they “were told to not include large buildings that you can’t access the addresses from the street [in the proposed permit area] because if you can’t get in the building, you can’t get them to sign on to your petition.”
Baker says this petition requirement “makes it practically infeasible to include large buildings, so the areas that would probably benefit most from managing parking are not included.” Furthermore, Baker suspects the process insures “only those wealthy enough to be in single family homes can benefit from an improved parking management.” Indeed, in some neighborhoods, permit boundaries have been drawn to exclude larger multi-family buildings, thereby excluding tenants of those buildings from access to cheap on-street parking that homeowners enjoy.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who was most recently re-elected with 31.7% of the registered vote, worried at the 12/15/2016 council session that allowing tenants of apartments to participate in neighborhood parking politics might dilute the power of single-family homeowners. If apartment dwellers get a vote and “the multi-family building has a lot of people in it, then it could be really lopsided as to who wants the parking permit system and who doesn’t.”
A Hurdle Too High
When all was said and done and the ballots were counted, only a simple majority of voters had agreed to on-street parking management. More canvassing may have helped; however, due to the supermajority requirement, organizers would have to turn out 3 pro-permit votes out of every 5 to tread water.
In 2014, a large Stakeholder Advisory Committee (more than 20 members) was convened and met 10 times. The Centers + Corridors Parking Study SAC developed, and unanimously endorsed, a parking management toolkit and a new residential parking permit program. Although among the suggested improvements was a reduction of the required majority to a more commonly accepted 50%+1 threshold for a ballot success, the minimum turnout requirement remained in the proposal.
When Portland City Council considered the new permit policy on December 15, 2016, Commissioner Amanda Fritz felt that common democratic practices wouldn’t suffice for parking permits. “I’m concerned,” Fritz comments at 34:13 into the hearing video, “about only 50% of the residents and only 51% can vote for it so 26% of the area residents and including if the multi-family building has a lot of people in it, then it could be really lopsided as to who wants the parking permit system and who doesn’t.”
The policy never even got a vote.
Pass The Policy On The Shelf
Portland has had a well developed and progressive parking policy on the shelf for 4 years. Even today, the permit districts allowed under that recommendation would, likely, be the most advanced and effective residential parking permits in the country.
City Council should hear that policy again and pass it, which would be a major step in using smart transportation policy to combat climate change, traffic violence, and housing access inequity.
The primary innovation of that proposed parking policy was to remove parking decisions from the political tug-of-war engaged in at City Council. On-street parking is one of the most valuable city assets and management of that asset is one of the most effective transportation demand levers. Portland has hired many smart professionals to work for PBOT who should be empowered to make simple, data-driven decisions about parking, so long as they adhere to city goals and equity policies.
Will future generations look back and wonder why Portland City Council maintained a higher democratic bar to protect access to free parking for homeowners than the commissioners themselves had to clear to be elected? The clock is ticking on climate action. How many more years will we waste attempting to conduct pilots to convince City Council that their own transportation professionals are competent and educated enough to do the jobs they were hired for?