A Local Option for Net Neutrality?

There are so many regulatory and legislative overhauls going on right now that it’s pretty hard to keep up. A big one that has gotten a little lost in the shuffle of tax legislation and Russian collusion is the overturning of Net Neutrality rules instituted by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama Administration.

I’ve been concerned about this because the internet is so crucial to so much of my life. Like basically everyone else, I stream Netflix and have social media accounts and check my email. But so many other devices are network enabled, including our lamps and our thermostat. I download GIS files, Census files, and all kinds of other information for work. It shakes me to the bones to think that my access to these resources could be compromised.

One of the more interesting proposals I’ve seen floating around is that municipalities should create their own locally developed and controlled broadband internet infrastructure. To quote an article from Vice:

Net neutrality as a principle of the federal government will soon be dead, but the protections are wildly popular among the American people and are integral to the internet as we know it. Rather than putting such a core tenet of the internet in the hands of politicians, whose whims and interests change with their donors, net neutrality must be protected by a populist revolution in the ownership of internet infrastructure and networks.

This idea appeals to me a great deal, even if the technical feasibility is unclear. Greenfield already has a non-profit, community-owned broadband provider called GCET. A group in Holyoke has been trying to get the municipal utility provider to invest in “Fiber to the Home” (FTTH) for years now, though the Greenfield model is a mix of fiber and community-wide wifi.

I think like a lot of people, I feel mostly helpless when dealing with federal-level issues. When something is happening that I disagree with, my ability to influence those issues is minuscule. But if there is a solution at the local level, then that inspires a bit of hope.

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The GOP Tax Plan Would Hit Massachusetts Hard

There have been so many articles about the ways in which the tax plan coming out of the GOP-controlled Congress is bad for America. To briefly recap:

  1. It raises taxes on the poor and lowers taxes on the rich (here);
  2. It actually raises the federal deficit, which conservatives generally consider the biggest long-term threat to America today (here);
  3. It will do nothing to spur employment growth, but will increase dividends and corporate profits (here);
  4. It raises taxes on the poor and lowers taxes on the rich (here).

I’m sure I left some things out.

Aside from being a Robin Hood in reverse, this tax plan would have probably derailed my education and, thus, my life had it been in effect in 2009. That is for one simple change – tuition benefits for graduate students would no longer be tax exempt. This sounds like not a big deal, but it is.

NPR wrote a story showing exactly what that would mean for an example PhD student. In 2016 this student earned a $30,000 stipend, on which she paid taxes – about $2,500. But under the new tax plan, she would be taxed on both her stipend and the value of her tuition (which is paid for through grants) – about $60,000 total. Her tax bill would then be about $7,500, a $5,000 increase. 

The Massachusetts Angle

This particular change in the tax code is appalling for me on a lot of different levels. Pragmatically, it discourages people to go into the very fields where we need a lot more people – those which require advanced training, such as scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. Philosophically, it punishes low-income graduate students, while people who fly in private jets will get a tax break.

Without going off on a tangent, I do think that issues of free speech and tolerance of a wide range of ideas needs to be addressed on college campuses – specifically liberal tolerance of conservative speakers and events. Richard Reeves published an article through Brookings pointing out that small liberal arts colleges (like my alma mater) are especially bad at allowing conservative speakers to go on stage.

es_20170314reevesfreespeech
In red are colleges that have disinvited conservative speakers since 2014. You can see that it tends to skew toward wealthier institutions. Source: Brookings Institute

 

Even more troubling, a recent Brookings Institute poll showed that 20% of college students think it’s acceptable to use violence to silence objectionable speakers. To re-emphasize, 1 out of 5 college students are OK with cracking some skulls if they don’t like what the people have to say.

I suppose it’s unsurprising then when our president said, “I love the poorly educated,” at a campaign rally. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a conservative congress is trying to stick it to all those (presumably liberal) graduate students seeking advanced degrees. But from the Mayflower to the US Geological Survey to the Space Race, The United States has historically been a place that values and supports the pursuit of knowledge. This tax plan is a distressing departure from that tradition.

A big reason I chose Massachusetts is precisely because it is a state that is defined by the presence of higher education institutions. Thought leaders from around the country and around the world come here to learn, discuss, and dream. That makes this element of the tax plan that much more dangerous to the state.

Boston colleges
Boston-Area Colleges and Universities. Harvard gets four stars because it’s Harvard, I suppose. Source: MassGIS

The Boston area alone has 52 institutions of higher education. The Pioneer Valley has at least 15 (not counting some of the less prestigious institutions – sorry Baystate Medical Center Midwifery Program!). And, of course, some of the most august institutions in the country – with some of the most robust graduate programs – are located in the state, including Harvard, MIT, Amherst, and Williams.

PV Colleges
Pioneer Valley Colleges and Universities. Source: MassGIS

Universities as Anchor Institutions

Unlike the heavy industry which left the Pioneer Valley in the 1950s through 1980s, higher ed has been in the region for hundreds of years and is unlikely to go anywhere. Universities serve as “Anchor Institutions,” engines of economic development that aren’t easily transferable elsewhere (similar to medical institutions).

As this article from CityLab points out, “General Motors in Flint, Michigan, picked up and left. And with it went all of these jobs, and that really decimated the economy. Wayne State University in Detroit? They’re not going to be picking up and leaving.”

It doesn’t take an expert to see the economic impact that these institutions have on the region. Amherst, home to three post-secondary educational institutions, boasts among the highest real estate values in the region. The areas around Smith and Mount Holyoke are home to thriving cultural districts and numerous small businesses. What would Westfield be without Westfield State University?

This tax plan is going to hit the Bay State, and the Pioneer Valley, hard. An assault on learning is an assault on Massachusetts. I know that my life would have been irreversibly harmed if I’d had to pay taxes on the grants I received while earning $12,000 per year pursuing my master’s degree (it would have gobbled up virtually all of my stipend).

Unfortunately there are thousands of others in the same boat today, many of them our neighbors. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that at least that part of the plan, if not the whole thing, doesn’t pass.

 

Immigration Saved the Pioneer Valley

Hampden County is a region historically shaped by waves of immigration and migration. Springfield, the largest city in the county, has historically been a magnet for immigrants looking for economic opportunity. Holyoke, where I live, was founded as an industrial city right around the same time that waves of Irish immigrants were looking for work. And during The Great Migration, the Valley became a destination for thousands of black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow south and looking for a better life .

So I wasn’t surprised to see that immigration and migration still play a crucial role in the health of the region. I recently came upon an interesting Brookings report looking at the impact of immigration on population growth. What was striking was that for many US cities, without immigrants they would have seen a net loss of people.

migration
Source: Brookings Institute

Dark blue dots represent cities where US citizens are leaving, but new immigrants are at least partially offsetting their departure. Unsurprisingly, in areas where the cost of housing is high (northeast and California), or where job opportunities limited (the Rust Belt), Americans are increasingly deciding to go somewhere else. 

This is certainly true in Springfield:

migration_springfield
Source: Brookings Institute

In the Springfield metropolitan area, if it weren’t for immigration, the population would have declined between 2010 and 2016, presenting a few different challenges:

  1. Economic stagnation – The populations of Springfield and Holyoke have plummeted since the 1950s, leaving many buildings of all kinds (residential, commercial, industrial) abandoned and blighted. Without new residents opening businesses, occupying housing units, and shopping, the urban stagnation and blight of the two cities would have been even worse.
  2. Struggling city services – As the cost of doing business goes up, cities depend on an expanding economic base in order to pay for basic services (the most costly of which is running the public schools). Especially since Prop 2 1/2 tied the hands of cities to raise revenues, an expanding tax base is the best way to keep up with the cost of these services.
  3. Political irrelevance – Large populations bring political clout. The fact that Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts matters when the state is looking at new investments. A declining population means declining relevance.

The Immigration Controversy

Given the multiple studies on immigration showing the overall economic benefit immigrants confer (not just well-educated immigrants), it has baffled me that it’s such a contentious issue. But then I read an article in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart about immigration which put things into perspective.

Beinart argued that the tenor of immigration debates has polarized over the past decade (then again, what hasn’t?); today, liberals tend to deny any downsides of immigration, while conservatives reject any of the upsides (more on that here). If the large-scale, long-run impacts of immigration are mostly positive, Beinart contends, then there are many short-term problems associated with immigration.

According to Beinart, the biggest immediate impact is in the low-skill employment market. Immigrants without specialized skills coming into a region are competing, at least to some extent, with low-skilled workers already there. This could be in construction, custodial services, food preparation, farm labor, etc. A large, low-skilled immigrant presence is going to depress wages in these sectors (already low to begin with) for everyone.

The economist and policy wonk might point out that, in the long run, everyone is better off for having those immigrants (they are more likely to start small businesses, they occupy hard-to-fill jobs, etc.). But try telling that to an underpaid roofer; as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long run we’re all dead.” 

The Pioneer Valley Twist

The next big wave we can expect in the Valley is Puerto Rican climate refugees leaving the island after Hurrican Maria. Holyoke is already half Puerto Rican, and Springfield is a third. This is an interesting twist, because these folks are not immigrants – they are American citizens. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t reflective of every wave of immigrants in the past: desperately poor, leaving their lives, families, friends far behind them, and hoping for new opportunity.

I have substantial concerns about the capacity of Holyoke and Springfield to support a new group of transplants who will undoubtedly need a lot of services. State and federal authorities will be crucial to ensure that these two cities, already supporting large high-need populations, are able to effectively accommodate the education, healthcare, nutritional, and other needs of our new neighbors.

What I have no doubt about is that, in the long run, the Pioneer Valley will be healthier for welcoming these folks into our communities. There will be bumps along the way, for sure. But the newcomers of today sow the seeds of economic, political, and cultural vibrancy for tomorrow.

Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.

The Strange Politics of Weed

Back in November, Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana through Ballot Question 4. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the state which still outlaws happy hours dragged its feet on passing a recreational weed law for long enough to force voters to take it to the ballot.

Question 4 passed with 53.7% of the statewide vote. The legislature immediately took to revising the legislation, but then talks stalled for some time. My understanding is that the House wanted to significantly raise taxes on marijuana, and give a lot more flexibility to towns to ban marijuana dispensaries – two measures which supporters of Question 4 claimed would undermine the will of the state’s voters. It seems the Senate agreed with that sentiment, and fought hard against these measures from the House.

I found the aspect of local control over dispensaries especially interesting, since Question 4 as passed by the voters required that communities have a direct election to ban marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to allowing the city council or the planning board exercise that authority. To my knowledge, this would be the only land use which requires a community referendum to ban.

Ultimately, the House and Senate agreed on a middle path. The compromise bill that came out of the legislature stated that, “if a community voted against the ballot question last November and local officials want to implement the expressed will of their community by imposing a ban on marijuana establishments, they can do so between now and 2019 without going to the voters a second time.” (I cribbed this from my former State Senator Will Brownsberger, who gave an excellent overview of the legislation).

So I took a look at the communities that voted for and against Question 4. Here’s the map:

question_4

The pattern to my eye, if there is one, is that a lot of suburban cities and towns did not vote to legalize. In the Pioneer Valley, almost all of the communities surrounding Springfield voted against legalization. But, then, to be fair, a lot of suburban communities did vote to legalize. So I ran a few correlations.

correlations
Source: 2015 American Community Survey

As you can see, the strongest correlation to Question 4 vote was the Trump vote, but even that wasn’t a very strong relationship (generally 0.7 or higher indicates a strong relationship). This was really unexpected. I was assuming that communities with older, whiter voters would certainly be the ones the vote against Question 4; these correlations suggest otherwise.

Sure, I only checked a few variables, and it’s important to note that correlation is not causation. However, I was really surprised that the Question 4 vote doesn’t appear to line up much with political leanings, age, ethnicity, or educational level. Who knows, maybe recreational marijuana can be a great political unifyer in these tumultuous times? At the very least, it appears that weed has strange politics indeed.

I Refuse to Believe that Northampton is Suburban

I remember when I was a Freshman in high school living in Lexington, KY, I had a major chip on my shoulder for being a “boring middle-class suburban kid.” I basked in the Sturm und Drang of this, and in fact wrote a short poem called “Suburbs” when I was 14. As luck would have it, I still have a copy of that cathartic masterpiece:

Suburbs
by 14-year-old Price Armstrong

A bursting dam of lunacy engulfing the premises
Insanity shrouding the land like the smell of homemade biscuits
a madhouse of a town we call suburbia
a misspent youth of misspent money of misspent power
handed down to you on a silver platter
thoughtless spending all on the things you’ve never wanted but need to have
a blindness inflicted by your own ignorance
a judgement clouded with material possessions so thick
you can’t see your hand.
Oh look! A tree! You must care about the environment!
look! He gives to the poor!!
Nothing but ratty old shoes and shirts promoting last years fad
no thanks, I think I’ll stick to downtown
where the people don’t care
but at least they don’t pretend to

Good Lord, this poem hits all the usual critiques of the suburbs: conspicuous consumption, environmental devastation, hypocritical judgmental neighbors, and it ended with a shout-out to downtown. I’m cringing as I read this for so many reasons. First, the pretense that I spent any amount of time “downtown” when I was 14 is hilarious; when I wrote this poem, I spent 99% of my time miles from downtown Lexington, mostly because downtown was so dead back then (things have gotten better). Second, the scorn that I dish out is so laughable, as if I were doing more than just trying copy the cool kids’ angsty rejection of the mundane middle class. 

lexington neighborhood
My childhood neighborhood growing up circled in red, downtown Lexington starred in blue. I guess I used to live in the suburbs…

Nonetheless, my antipathy toward the ‘burbs never really changed – it just got deeper. The movie American Beauty became one of my favorite films; I loved the commentary on the banality of suburban living. My distaste for the auto-dependency, the social isolation, and the environmental devastation of suburban sprawl only grew, albeit in an incoherent, intuitive way. Until I became an urban planner, that is. 

Who knows, maybe those adolescent rebellions against the status quo (in this case, this suburbs) were what led me to the urban planning field. Most planners today recognize the value of human-scaled architectural design, of mixed land uses, of transportation options. They agree with Kunstler’s criticism that most post-war residential development is the “Geography of Nowhere.” These values tend to be urban values, and – as much as I hate to admit it – jibe with my angst-filled adolescent scorn for what I considered “suburban.” 

So you can imagine my displeasure when someone referred to my current city of residence, Holyoke, as a “suburb.”

Suburban vs. Urban

One of the reasons that my wife and I ended up in Holyoke had to do specifically with not wanting to end up in, what I referred to as, “The middle of nowhere.” Downtown Holyoke has a lot of multifamily housing, indistinguishable from what you’d find in the Allston/Brighton or Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. In fact, even though we live in a single family home, just around the corner from us are two- and three-family homes.

allston vs holyoke
Can you tell which one is the Allston neighborhood of Boston and which is Holyoke?

Furthermore, Holyoke has excellent transit service, is extremely diverse, and has an entire district dominated by heavy industry (admittedly a lot of it sitting abandoned). If you go downtown on a summer evening you will see people out in the streets, keeping cool while their kids run around and play. 

Finally, not that this is a desirable thing, Holyoke has a lot of the problems that bigger cities have – a high poverty rate, drug trafficking, property crimes, blighted structures, etc. When I think of a “suburb,” basically all of the attributes I just described don’t fit the mold.

So why would someone refer to Holyoke as suburban?

As much as I don’t want to, I can think of a few reasons: 

  1. As the Pioneer Valley has deindustrialized, more and more people commute elsewhere to work – especially Springfield and Amherst, even down to Hartford. Northampton, Holyoke, Chicopee, etc., are no longer the employment destinations they once were. 
  2. The population has only modestly grown over the last fifty years, but the urban footprint is much bigger. While brick multifamily residential structures downtown have burned down or been neglected to the point of collapse, single-family housing has spread ever further into the country.
  3. Much of the new commercial growth in the region has been around the malls and highways, and malls and highways are perhaps the most defining features of a suburb. Recent new businesses near the Holyoke Mall include a car dealership, a Chipotle, and an Applebee’s.

So, despite my best efforts, did I end up accidentally living in a suburb?

Defining the Suburbs

As with most things, people smarter than I am have already thought about this issue. I found a meta-analysis reviewing how the suburbs have been defined by other researchers, with most using some combination of the following:

  • Location – Where the suburbs are located
  • Built environment characteristics – Development patterns, architectural style
  • Transportation – How people travel
  • Land use and zoning – How land uses are integrated or segregated (e.g. single-family residential zone, commercial zone, etc.)
  • Political boundaries – Whether the area is a separate community
  • Socio-cultural – Class, race, cultural heritage, etc.
  • Styles of building, design, and planning – Who is building what and how the development process takes place
  • Time – How new is the development relative to other parts of the metro area
  • Critical assessments – Value judgment critical of the suburbs and implicit values and sensibilities that led to their development
  • Indices – Quantitative analysis resulting in some index, like a Sprawl Index.

Reading this paper made me realize the incredible challenge of defining whether Holyoke, or Northampton, or even parts of Springfield can really be called “suburban.” One of the challenges is that suburbanization typically is thought of as a post-World War II phenomenon, but the Pioneer Valley was developed well before this period. Holyoke was incorporated in 1850 and reached its zenith in 1920; Northampton was established in 1653 and, like the rest of the region, had its heyday during the pre-war era.

Each community developed with its own city center, its own economic hub, its own identity. Transportation was difficult and expensive before highways, and even more difficult and expensive before the trolley. By necessity, most Pioneer Valley communities developed with their own economic base, their own sense of identity, and had transit-oriented, mixed use centers. Holyoke and Northampton and Chicopee have a history beyond being just suburbs of Springfield, whereas Levittown could not have existed without New York City.

PV cities
Represented by stars, each community had its own economic base and its own identity. 

New England is really old compared to a lot of the country, and urbanized earlier than the rest of the eastern seaboard. It is probably this unique history which throws a wrench into the dichotomy of urban/suburban.

Sure, it’s just semantics. Sure, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But as a matter of pride, as a matter of identity, and in order to live up to the standards set by the 14-year-old version of myself, I want to state for the record that I do not live in a suburb. I refuse to believe that Holyoke or Northampton are suburbs of Springfield! 

 

Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Since moving to Hampden County, I’ve thought a lot about economic development, about why Holyoke and Springfield have so many blighted, abandoned structures, and about what we can do to fix that. But then a discussion I went to last Tuesday evening, “Places that Matter,” turned to the topic of gentrification, which was surprising. Surprising because when I think of Holyoke, I think of a place far away from even the prospect of gentrification. And yet a spirited conversation ensued nonetheless. 

The gist of the meeting was that some Architecture and Planning professors at UMass-Amherst had developed an online historic preservation tool. The tool pulls posts from Twitter and Flickr and then places mentions of specific Holyoke places on a map. Based on the number of mentions a certain place gets, it is ranked as an “important” place in the city. Ultimately, this could be a tool to help inform where historic preservation efforts should be targeted, rather than the traditional method of a Historic Preservation Commission and perhaps a few community members at sparsely-attended evening public meetings deciding what places are historically significant.

I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd at this presentation – it was about half white folks and half non-white, primarily Puerto Rican. Toward the end of the event, we discussed how we would like to see these “important” places marked, preserved, or otherwise commemorated.

At first, people suggested typical things – wayfinding signs, maps, plaques, etc. But then the question came up, who are we creating these designations for? And that led to a discussion about how do we ensure that the primarily non-white and/or Latino community residents benefit from this new attention to historic or “important” places in their neighborhoods, and not just “tourists” or “visitors.” Which, it quickly became obvious, “tourists” and “visitors” were code for “gentrifyers.”

The Broken American Economic Development Model

As far as I can tell, America basically doesn’t have a good economic development model for cities.

The model seems to be basically this: Wait around until a blighted area becomes desirable, at which point developers build luxury condos and boutique dog pedicure (“peticure”?) businesses, and just accept the skyrocketing housing costs. Residents, especially those who rent, get pushed out of the neighborhood while homeowners benefit from an incredible windfall that they more or less lucked into. This has happened in Boston’s South End, New York’s Williamsburg, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights, even here in the Pioneer Valley’s Northampton.

And then there are those areas which never gentrify, which is most of them. According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, only 8% of census tracts gentrified since the 2000 census. In those places, the millennial white collar hipsters never appear. Here in Massachusetts, think Fitchburg, think Orange, think Springfield, and yes, think Holyoke.

boston census tracts
Map of gentrified Boston census tracts since 2000. Source: Governing Magazine

So given the fact that there are basically two pathways for an impoverished neighborhood with blighted buildings and a lack of services (skyrocket into unaffordability or languish in poverty and disinvestment), economic development efforts leave residents – especially poor residents, especially people of color – with only bad options. But time and again, I have seen residents opt for the status quo because at least they won’t be displaced. And who can blame them?

Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Of course, I’m not sure that Hampden County is going to be struggling in any significant way with gentrification in the near future. There may be certain places, like Longmeadow or maybe Atwater Park in Springfield or the Holyoke Highlands where housing affordability is a widespread issue.* But the population in these urban areas has declined from their record highs, meaning that the housing stock far exceeds the demand for housing. And then there are the numerous redevelopment opportunities for housing afforded by the abandoned mill buildings sprinkled all over the valley.

In short, I think there will be enough housing to keep prices pretty low for a long time.

population chart
Population of Springfield and Holyoke. Source: US Census Bureau

So I was glad that we went through the exercise of identifying important place. And I’m glad that we thought about how to mark where these important places are. And I’m certainly glad that we’re already thinking about what it will mean if we succeed and the “secret” of Holyoke gets out (that it’s a wonderful, diverse community with many excellent cultural, architectural, and natural resources). Gentrification is a legitimate concern. However, and I could be wrong here when I say this, but I think we’re a long way off from needing to deal with it in any big way here in Hampden County. 

*I should note that housing affordability will always be a major issue for households in or near poverty. When I talk about gentrification, I am specifically referring to housing affordability problems expanding beyond households in poverty to impacting middle-income households as well.

 

Are Goals to Reduce Car Use Racist?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a public meeting regarding a project to totally redo Cabot St. in Holyoke, between Race St. and the Willamansett Bridge. This is a major commercial strip with a grocery store, liquor store, and pizza place along it, in addition to numerous apartment buildings. On-street parking lines both sides of the street, and there are no bike lanes.

cabot st
Cabot St looking north; Capri Pizza on the left, C-Town grocery store on the right. Source: Google Maps.

The presentation showed that bike lanes were not going to be added, but rather “bike-accommodating shoulders,” and in other parts just sharrows. They were even narrowing the sidewalks to create more width for these “bike-accommodating shoulders,” but didn’t remove any of the on-street parking.

My blood started to boil, because I had seen it happen too many times before. A roadway improvement project is developed, and bike facilities are left out or inadequately provided for. If we are going to have true Complete Streets, then we must include separated bicycle facilities – all but the most fearless bicyclists refuse to ride in anything that mixes with car traffic.

cabot st vision
An alternative vision for Cabot St: Parking on one side, buffered bike lanes, and plenty of width for sidewalks. Source: Streetmix.net

I suggested that we could just eliminate one side of on-street parking to accommodate wider sidewalks and two buffered bike lanes. When I suggested there might be enough off-street parking, I was really surprised at the push-back. The mostly Latino neighborhood residents spoke at length about the importance of parking, and how scarce parking is in the project area. I was told that in other projects in the neighborhood, a furor was sparked when it was suggested that we remove on-street parking.

I stood my ground. I noted that these are the neighborhoods in Holyoke that have the lowest rates of car ownership (between a third and half of all households own zero vehicles), that this is exactly where we need to be steadfast in implementing our Complete Streets Policy.

holyoke_no_vehicles
Number of households with zero cars. Source: 2014 5-year American Community Survey

I noted that this street is never going to be redone in our lifetimes once this project is complete, and whatever decisions we make today will stick around for decades. And, importantly, I noted that ample car parking is not in the recipe for truly great urban spaces, and Holyoke could be a great urban space.

I don’t think I captivated any hearts or minds with my pleas.

“VMT Reduction Goals are Racist”

I remembered a talk that I attended at a transportation conference some years ago (don’t remember which one, but I think it was TRB). There was a panel of experts arguing for and against VMT goals. For those unfamiliar, VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled, and some states and cities have set goals for lowering the amount of driving as measured by VMT. Massachusetts has a goal of tripling biking, walking, and transit use by 2030, though not any explicit VMT reduction goal.

One of the panelists made a bold assertion against VMT reduction goals. He said something to the effect of, “We spent half a century building infrastructure that was too expensive for most minorities to use because they couldn’t afford a car. Now that minority car ownership is rising, we’re starting to tell people that, ‘Oh, no, actually, we need to drive less.’ VMT reduction goals are the very definition of racism!”

I was floored. There are so many negative impacts from the tremendous amount of driving we do as a society, ranging from 40,000 traffic fatalities per year, to feeding the obesity epidemic and asthma rates near highways, to contributing about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Less driving could only benefit humanity, couldn’t it? How in the world could it be racist?

Aspiring to Driving

I’m reminded of the conventional wisdom that poor people don’t like the idea of soaking the rich through taxes because they, too, could be rich some day (for a more nuanced article on that, see here). At the risk of making too broad an assumption, it makes sense that neighborhood residents at this meeting – even non-driving residents – would defend parking. After all, even if they don’t own a car, they sometimes get rides from people who do, and they hope to own a car as soon as possible.

So of course my pleas would fall on unreceptive ears. From my perspective, I grew up with cars as my primary means of transportation until I was about 18 years old. Cars are nothing special, taken for granted, and so it’s easy for me to eschew them. However, for a kid who grew up riding the bus and was “transportation poor” – always scrounging for a friend or relative to get her to places the bus didn’t go – a car could be an aspirational sign of having “made it” and a crucial part of a safety net.

Maybe some of these residents don’t drive, but they also don’t necessarily identify as “bicyclists” or “pedestrians.” Rather, I wonder if they think of themselves as people who are on foot or on bike until they get a car. And to hear some guy who they’ve never seen before say that not only do we not need more parking, but really they should just give up that goal of car ownership and keep biking and walking and using the bus even though it’s really inconvenient and maybe even embarrassing to boot… well, I can understand if that message might not resonate.

Balancing Fairness and the Public Good

So is it racist to try to reduce driving in a mostly minority neighborhood where residents put cultural and aspirational value on car ownership? Is it projecting my values onto a neighborhood that doesn’t share them? Is it fair?

I’m reminded of a common argument about international climate change agreements (I’m restraining myself from going into a long tirade about the US pulling out of the Paris Accord). Now that industrialized nations have been contributing to climate change for 150 years, we want developing nations to just cut out all the fossil fuel use pronto. We’ve done our polluting, now it’s your turn to pay the price for it.

In the end, though, as with climate change, we all pay the price for our love affair with the car. Hampden County is the least healthy county in Massachusetts, and lack of exercise is one of the reasons why. Economic development does not spring from ubiquitous parking, but rather a vibrant streetscape with pedestrians and businesses and greenery and mixed land uses. And Cabot Street has seen a number of crashes over the years, some of them fatal, some of them with pedestrians and some with bicyclists.

My hope is that as this project rolls forward, we can balance the public good with the values of the neighborhood residents. Ultimately, they must live with the project in a much more immediate way than I (however, I should note that I take Cabot Street every day on my bike trip to/from work). I’m hopeful that as the projects gels, we can find a solution that the neighborhood can embrace, while at the same time creates a vibrant public space conducive to healthy living and solid economic development.

 

**Author’s Note: I realize I’m diving into a lot of charged issues here, and welcome feedback!

Can Transit Survive the 21st Century?

I had the great pleasure of presenting a session a couple of weeks ago at the National Planning Conference in New York City, the annual planning conference put on by the American Planning Association.

Working with Shannon Greenwell at MassDOT and Patrick Sullivan at the Seaport Transportation Management Association, we put together a discussion asking the audacious and foolhardy question, what will transit look like in the year 2100? Is transit still going to be around? More importantly, should it?

It ended up being a pretty interesting discussion, with a lot of provocative ideas and a good deal of disagreement, which is exactly what we wanted. A transportation expert once said, “All traffic models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s how we thought about this long-range planning session – we knew we were going to be wrong about our prognostications, but perhaps we could at least be useful.

Transit Barely Survived the 20th Century

The first point is that transit barely survived the 20th century. If you look at transit ridership in America, it peaked in the late 1940s and has been more or less stable, on a per capita basis, at much lower levels since then.

ridership
Source: APTA

At the same time that transit took a plunge, car use soared. Today, in any given area except for some of the largest cities, between 75% and 85% of all work trips are made via automobile.

Many urbanists have been rejoicing at a couple of trends since 2005. Per capita car use has been on the decline, and transit ridership has been going up (if you look at the blue line in the chart above, you can see that absolute ridership has been increasing).

But over the past year many transit agencies, including PVTA, have seen year-over-year declines in fixed-route bus service. At the same time, we are starting to see the trend in car use edge back up.

declinin ridership
A slide from the presentation. 

Our presentation explored three key uncertainties over the next century that are going to have an incredible impact on transportation, and the future of public transit:

  • Autonomous Vehicle Technology
  • Climate Change Policy
  • The Aging Population

These certainly aren’t the only three things that will impact our transit systems, but we focused in on them as playing an outsized role.

Autonomous Vehicle Technology

For those of you unfamiliar with Autonomous Vehicle Technology, it has the potential to change our lives, our cities, and our economy as much as automobiles did during the last century. Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, and a lot of other firms are working on the technology to render drivers obsolete. The tech side could be complete by 2025.

av tech

This matters for transit a whole lot. A rule of thumb is that about 75% of the cost of operating a bus is paying the driver in the seat. If we didn’t have to do that anymore, then we could run buses anywhere, right?

Let’s take it a step further. Why run these buses all over the place when we can have small sedans or vans buzzing around, a la Lyft, just waiting for the next person to request a ride. Would rubber tire bus service become obsolete?

On the other hand, if we follow a private-ownership model, maybe people won’t mind traffic all that much if they get to read the paper or sleep or work on their way into town. Maybe traffic and air pollution and urban sprawl will get even worse because driving suddenly becomes “me” time or “productive” time. Would commuter rail service become obsolete?

Climate Change Policy

Another major trend in the future is climate change policy. Transit stands to benefit a lot if the US and/or the world gets serious about climate change. The energy needed to move transit, on a per capita basis, is a fraction of what it takes to move a person even in a very efficient compact car.

The wild card is whether we will ever get serious about climate change. In 2016, The Pew Center released a poll showing that about half of all Americans don’t think humans are the source of climate change – despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

climate change

I won’t get into how depressing it is that half of my fellow citizens don’t accept climate change as something that we are causing. But the question becomes at what point, if any, will we actually get serious about climate change? And if the answer is “Never,” then will transit ever be able to compete with the ease and convenience of automobiles? Or self-driving automobiles?

Taking it a step further, it should be noted that in major cities subways are especially susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges. As climate change renders transit systems more and more unreliable (like we saw after super-storm Sandy), will we see riders abandon these systems? Will the subways that have served our cities for decades become unusable, and/or unused?

The Aging Population

Finally, the aging of the population is going to play a key role in what our transit system looks like in the future (full disclosure: this was my section, so I’ll do my best to not over-inflate its importance relative to the prior two).

I am 32 years old now; in one year, I will either be 32 years old – or dead. Those are my options; those are everyone’s options. So the average age of the population is relatively easy to forecast, using some assumptions about mortality rates. And Census Bureau has done that, showing that we’re going to increase from about 40 million people age 65 and over today, to about 80 million in 2050.

The wildcard is immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates that without immigrants, the US population will plateau at around 338 million people. Furthermore, non-native-born women are much more likely to have kids than native-born women, meaning that the 338 million Americans in a no-immigration scenario will also, on average, be pretty old.

immigration

This becomes important because older Americans are more likely to need door-to-door (paratransit) service (think those wheelchair accessible vans you see going around, “The RIDE” in Boston for example). This is due to dementia, vision loss, or any number of other impairments which make driving impossible. But as more people use paratransit service, the budget for regular “big bus” service dwindles.

As some communities become more and more dominated by senior citizens, could we imagine a transit system that only provides door-to-door service? And if the vehicles are self-driving, why not? Will big bus service even exist anymore?

Final Thoughts

I should finish by saying that I’m actually very optimistic about the future of transit. As Jarrett Walker has written about extensively in his blog and book, the simple geometry of cities and cars dictates that transit is a necessary attribute of density (just like transit depends on density, density too depends on transit). In our biggest cities, rail transit will probably never go away nor be replaceable. Cars, even self-driving cars, just take up too much space.

But on the other hand, this is an important discussion to have, especially for those places smaller than our biggest cities. In a very real sense, we as planners must be good stewards of public funding. Put bluntly, what if we build a commuter rail line that no one ever uses because they are in self-driving cars? We will have wasted millions of dollars that could have been better spent.

The discussion didn’t provide too many answers, but it did provide a lot of good questions. And if the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us nothing, it’s that finding the right question can often be the more important than the answer.

Commute Series: Unicorn Sighting

When I was in college, I was involved with a community bike project. I was one of a bunch of bike geeks who would get together and wrench on “Yellow Bikes,” which people could ride freely around campus and drop for the next person to use. There was no end to the one-upsmanship during those Saturdays trying to turn rusty piles of parts into working bikes.

One afternoon, there was a new guy working on an old heap, and he started talking about a mythical bike he saw once:

Yeah, man, it was amazing. It’s a reverse recumbent tricycle with a teardrop shell, and it can fly like the wind. You can get up to 30 mph on a flat straightaway pedaling that thing – but it totally dies when you try to climb with it. Still, it’s truly a magical machine.

The image caught my imagination. For a while I entertained the idea of building or buying such a bike, but that dream faded into momentary flights of fancy, and then dwindled into but a faint ember. Until last week. I spotted my unicorn.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that this guy really flies! He even outpaced me with my electric assist bike – he was definitely doing 30 mph or even faster there for a minute.

Anyway, happy Bike Week! It’s a beautiful one, so don’t forget to hop on two (or three) wheels at least once while the sun is shining. You may even spot a most magical ride.