Back in September, the DC Council's Transportation & the Environment Committee held a hearing on the Transportation Benefit Equity Amendment Act of 2017.
this bill requires certain employers to provide alternate transit benefits (such as access to a commuter highway vehicle, transit, or bicycling benefits) in an amount equal to that of the market value of employer's currently offered parking benefit. Covered employers may opt out of compliance by paying a monthly fee for each employee who is offered parking benefits. The bill also establishes a Fund, the Transpiration Demand Management Fund.
This is basically a parking cash out bill. It would encourage more people to bike, walk and take transit by putting money in the pocket of those who do so. (It would also likely add to DC's tax revenue as any money paid to pedestrians, and most of what went to cyclists, would be taxable). This has been tried in California, on a much more limited scale, and it was found to decrease single occupancy vehicle commutes by 10-12%. There's reason to believe that because DC is so much more transit, bike and walk conducive that it would cause an even larger shift.
A few years ago, when I was first chair of the legislative committee of the BAC, we made a list of all the legislation that we would change if we could. Then we ranked it all on two axes. One was importance and the other was viability. This ranked high on the importance - in that it would have a large impact - but low on the viability side because we didn't think it could garner Council support (same as we felt about the Contributory negligence fix). So I'm pleasantly surprised to see the bill proposed and supported. And even more pleased to see that t's not just supported by some council members, but at the hearing it was supported by most of the people who testified.
The support came from transportation and environmental advocacy organizations as well as at least one ANC and several citizens. WABA, the DC BAC and PAC, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, ANC4C and the US Green Building Council all strongly supported it because of the way it would encourage more walking, biking and transit use. During WABA's testimony, Greg Billing testified that the bill wouldn't cost any business any money - which was a theme and source of discussion throughout the hearing. CM Mary Cheh pushed back, asserting that that wasn't true; but Billing responded that the pay out was optional, in that a business was not required to offer anyone any benefit. This point was echoed by CM Charles Allen, who sponsored the bill and noted that the bill doesn't mandate a benefit. It mandates that when one is offered, that it be equitable.
Giving commuters more choice in how to get to work has shown to decrease the number of drive-alone commutes by 10-12%, reduce traffic, improve air quality, and promote health and well-being.
Opposition came from two sources. Business organizations opposed it because it would increase the cost of doing business; and social justice organizations thought that most of the benefits would go to rich people who can afford to live close to work. Two positions that seem to be a little bit in contrast to one another.
Will Handsfiled testified on behalf of the Georgetown BID and argued that it would create new regulatory and compliance burdens adding additional expense to businesses. He stated that the BID supported the goals, but that DC had not exhausted all of its other options for increasing transit and active transportation use. He also said that a better policy would be to get the federal government to end the policy of making parking benefits tax free. DC should do more and the federal government should reconsider the tax-free status of parking benefits by either lowering the maximum or getting rid of it altogether. But, neither of those things is really an argument against the cash out. There probably is an added regulatory burden, but from DC's perspective, it is probably worth it.
The DC Chamber of Commerce made a similar argument to the BID's but then added some new ones.
They were concerned that some businesses would be burdened with fines, which I'm not too sympathetic with. I prefer it when auditors and enforcers work with out-of-compliance businesses to come into compliance before resorting to fines, but opposing a rule because some of your members will break it is not going to win a lot of supporters.
They tried to argue that it is redundant since the Sustainable DC Act of 2014, and the current state of transit parity in federal parking and transit benefits, already achieve these goals. But neither of those deals with bringing similar benefits to biking and walking.
They argued that it micromanages relationship between employers and employees and takes away employer choice. This is basically saying that this regulation is a regulation. I mean that's what regulations do.
They argued that it harms those who have already signed leases, but CM Allen said that the law specifically has a carve out for existing leases.
Somehow they argue that it will have a disproportional impact on diverse businesses, small businesses and non-profits, but how they got to that conclusion is unclear. They also brought up customer parking, but Allen pointed out that this bill has nothing to do with customer parking.
They said the law would run afoul of Cheh's moratorium on employer focused legislation, but Cheh countered that the bill doesn't mandate that employers give anything, only that if they give a benefit, they give it equitably. Allen said that this is about choice and flexibility for the employees, but that a handful of people are telling businesses that this is a mandate, which it is not.
Finally, the Chamber argued that some people don't live close enough to walk or bike to work, but Allen said that this is why the bill also funds transit. Mic drop.
Another opponent, oddly enough, was the DC Policy Center. They believe that "The bill has good intentions (less congestion, better health, cleaner air), but social injustices will increase as a consequence." Their logic works like this: People who walk and bike are richer than people who drive and take transit. So a policy that gives more money to people who walk and bike will only be giving money to the wealthy, possibly at the expense of the poor. And it will lead to gentrification. Like the Georgetown BID they argue against this policy because it isn't the BEST policy choice (not because it is a bad policy).
If we truly want to make D.C. a more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly city, we should start with our broader housing and transportation policies. We should expand D.C.’s stock of affordable housing and promote dense, mixed-income developments along transit-accessible corridors; improve both Metro and bus networks so that they are an accessible and reliable option for all residents. And—in conjunction with these measures—we should continue to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists, so that residents of all neighborhoods can safely access these healthier modes of transportation.
Those are all good policies, but creating more incentives for people to walk, bike and use transit is good policy too.
They come dangerously close to adopting the line of attack of anti-bike lane forces - that bike lanes bring gentrification
While correlation is not causation, data show us that where you find walkable, bikeable communities, you also find gentrification.
Pardon me, but this position is bananas. I generally support the same goals as DC policy center (and Charles Allen noted that he and they were often allied too) but if they're going to become anti-active transportation because it causes gentrification, I suspect that will be less often true.
Some of their arguments imply that they don't think this will benefit people who ride the bus.
People who biked to work were also younger (median age 34), but earned more than the median salary ($60,000). Those who took the
bus, on the other hand, were at about the median age (35), but earned less ($32,000). Those who drive earned slightly more than the median
wage ($55,000), but were older (median age, 41). If we were to adjust for age differences, we would find that those who walk and bike to work are richer than those who drive or take the bus. That is why they can afford to live close to where they work.
But since this bill will require more employers to offer transit benefits, it will also help people currently riding the bus who are not getting a transit benefit but who have co-workers who are getting subsidized parking.
Another line of reasoning they take is that most of the people who drive live in MD or VA and changing their mode of transportation simply isn't an option, and the same is true of reverse commuters or shift workers.
The bill would have little relevance to [drivers who commute from outside of the city]—unless their employers decide to eliminate the benefit—and will do little to change their behavior.
The bill is also irrelevant to the world of reverse commuters.
That's probably true, but to the extent that it reduces the number of solo drivers it will reduce congestion. And to the extent that it moves people to cleaner modes of transportation, it will improve their living conditions. People don't need to change their behavior to benefit. And I'm not sure that arguing that this will benefit DC residents to the detriment of out-of-District workers is a compelling case to make to the DC council.
But here's where we really disagree.
But beyond investing in infrastructure and improving safety, D.C. Government does not need to favor those who walk or bike to work.
This is not the way DC (or most other governments) have seen it for at least a decade. There are good reasons to favor walking and biking (and transit, they keep forgetting that this is a pro-transit bill) over driving. They even mention the reasons in the beginning (less congestion, better health, cleaner air). It's like they forget all the thing they say up front when coming to their conclusions later on.
Mary Cheh pushed back against them. She repeated their line that the DC Government "should not favor those who drive" by pointing out that the current system does exactly that by subsidizing parking. Charles Allen also disagreed with their analysis. He said that he'd been trying to meet with them and talk about it, because he disagrees and doesn't think it will lead to less economic justice.
NspireGreen, a sustainability consulting firm, was mostly supportive, but also worried that the bill will reward rich people who can afford to live close to work. For that reason they specifically opposed the section which will give any benefit, beyond the Bicycle Commuter Benefit limit, to people who walk or bike. Which seems like an odd position for an organization dedicated to sustainability to take.
DDOT testified last and they support it, but they want to discuss rulemaking, staffing and other important consequences of the bill.
This bill is a big deal. I'm surprised it's not getting more attention nationally (I guess it's getting lost in the flurry of bigger news). If DC passes this, it will serve as a test case for the parking cash out idea that has been kicked around for years now (CA has one, but it has a lot of limitations). I would have expected national organizations who support or oppose this to get more involved. Maybe they are, but just not in public. But this bill has the potential to be a game changer. I think it's the most important piece of bike and walk commuting legislation to be proposed in the last 20 years; and it's important for transit users as well. If you haven't yet, a letter of support to your Council member or, better yet, to the at-large Council member of your choice can only do good.