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.

Poverty is Killing Hampden County

Hampden County is sick and losing years of life. Hampshire County is healthy and living long.   

That’s the conclusion of a recent county health rankings report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project. Hampden County ranks dead last in the state for health outcomes (how healthy people are right now) and health factors (how healthy people can expect to be in the future).

health outcomes
Health Outcomes – Hampden County Ranked 14th
health factors
Health Factors – Hampden County Ranked 14th

I dove into the data and on the following measures Hampden County ranks last (asterisked) or second-to-last (typically behind Suffolk County):

  1. High school graduation rate
  2. Teen birth rate*
  3. Smoking rate*
  4. Years of potential life lost due to poor health*
  5. % reporting fair/poor health*
  6. Chlamydia rate*
  7. HIV prevalence rate
  8. % Diabetic*
  9. Income ratio, highest earners to lowest earners*
  10. % kids with free or reduced lunch
  11. % children in poverty

It’s especially striking in contrast to the health outcomes of Hampshire County, which ranked third for health factors, and fifth for health outcomes (out of 14 counties). What is Hampshire County doing right, and Hampden County doing wrong?

Hampshire_Hampden Counties health table

When I ran some correlations across all counties, I was struck by the relationship between poverty and negative health outcomes (insert the usual caveat that correlation is not causation). These are the following correlations for child poverty:

  • 0.83 for fair/poor overall health
  • 0.78 for teen birth rate
  • -0.88 for high school graduation rate
  • 0.90 for firearm fatalities rate

Also, Chlamydia rate, HIV prevalence, and infant low birth weight rate all also have strong correlations.

That’s bad news, because poverty is tough. Most of all for the families struggling through it, but also for the communities trying to solve the problems that come with it. Incomes have stagnated among the lowest earning households, and public programs haven’t been able to fill the gap. Cities are left with an incomplete tool set to address poverty – tinker with the school budget, or increase law enforcement, or offer incentives they can’t afford to redevelop blighted properties.

And I’m also reminded that the most common tool cities use, out of a lack of other good alternatives, is to just push out poverty (also known as displacement or gentrification). This is usually accomplished through zoning that restricts multifamily housing and mandates lot sizes that only the affluent can afford. In hot real estate markets, abandoned buildings are torn down and luxury condos are built in their place.

Poverty is a deeply cyclical problem, intertwined with race and racism, and I continue to be vexed by the limited things cities can do to lift its residents out of the cycle. Historically, state and federal government have taken the lead through welfare programs, Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 and public housing, and Head Start, just to name a few. All of these programs have stagnated over recent years, and are threatened with being slashed in the near future.

The fact that Hampden County residents are going to live shorter, sicker lives than their neighbors in Hampshire County underscores the life and death urgency of figuring this out.

 

A Moment of Silence for Our 12 Lost Residents

The US Census Bureau just released 2016 population estimates for counties and metropolitan areas in the US. It’s no surprise that the Pioneer Valley has overall remained virtually unchanged, with a total population in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties of 700,665 people. That compares to an estimated population of 700,677 in 2015. That’s right – the Pioneer Valley lost 12 people last year. 

Population growth rate
Source: US Census Bureau 1-Year Estimates

This relatively stable population in the region is somewhat uneven across the three counties. Hampshire County (in green), which includes Amherst and Northampton, has shown consistent population growth year after year. Hampden County (in red), which includes Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield, has had mostly positive population growth, except for 2016.

pioneer valley

But Franklin County – that’s the very sparsely populated county bordering Vermont that includes Greenfield – shows consistent population loss year after year since 2012. I’m not sure why, but I know that Franklin County has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, and the sparse population means that a lot of people end up commuting pretty far to get to work.

In general across the country, rust belt areas and rural places have been shedding population, while major cities and the suburbs surrounding them have been gaining. This trend is also playing out here in the Pioneer Valley. You can see in this map put together by the Census Bureau showing which counties people are migrating from/to.

migration map

Domestic migration is when people move from one county in the US to another county in the US – it is not reflective of international immigration, nor population increases from births. The big winners in domestic migration tend to be in the southeast and west, and especially Florida. Though it should be noted that Hampshire County does show a modest level of in-migration.

My two questions on this recent data release are this:

  1. Shouldn’t I be thankful that there isn’t a surge of people flocking here? I just today saw a post on Facebook about a friend in Portland, Oregon whose house is being flipped, and so she’s going to have to find another rental. And it’s virtually unheard of in a bar or restaurant to have to wait for a table or cocktail.
  2. How long will this stagnation continue? I look at environmental stressors, especially water availability in the southwest and coastal hazards from climate change, and see the Rust Belt as prime real estate over the next several decades.

Of course, only time will answer these questions. Until then, I’ll continue enjoying the relatively light traffic, easy access to open spaces, and the high quality friends and neighbors who have already seen the light and chosen to call the happy valley home.

Commute Series: “Wait, you kayak to work???”

Walking, biking and transit are usually referred to as “alternative transportation.” But what I find really interesting are those forms of transportation which truly are “out of the box.”

Two summers ago I decided to kayak to work along the Charles River. I got an inflatable kayak, walked down to the river, pumped it up and then made my way to downtown Boston. I thought it was pretty cool, but then I was surprised to see a friend of mine kayaked to work, too!

I met Ted Sweeney while at the University of Oregon – the bike community brought us together (though he’s much more athletic about it than I ever have been/will be). I thought I would throw him a few questions about his kayak commute, since he does it a lot more than I have. The below Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your normal, non-waterborne commute like? How far do you usually have to go? 

A: I live in Ballard and work at the University of Washington, meaning that my commute is a 5-mile slog across North Seattle. Crossing the many north-south arterials that run to downtown means that transit is at least 45 minutes. My fastest and most common commute option is bicycling, as the Burke-Gilman Trail (one of the nation’s best and busiest rail trails) starts in Ballard and goes right through the university campus. The bike commute is a consistent 25 minutes, faster even than driving once parking is factored in.

But the most direct pathway from Ballard to the UW, the one with absolutely no traffic, no stoplights, no potholes, no fare to pay, no slick railroad tracks, and no texting drivers, is the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

lake-washington-canal

Q: Why did you decide to kayak to work? Is it for the exercise, the cost, the novelty? 

A: The kayak commute began because I needed calluses. In fall of 2014 I was preparing to do the first ever  Race to Alaska, an engineless small boat race from Port Townsend, WA, to Ketchikan, AK. Before embarking for the race in June, I needed to toughen up my hands because our sailboat had an auxiliary rowing system – I needed to be able to work those oars for potentially hours at a time. Adding kayaking to my commute meant I could work my hands a bit, so I kayaked consistently about once a week that winter in preparation. The race went well, we reached Ketichikan after about three blustery weeks on the wild British Columbia coast. I’ve kept doing the kayak commute off and on since, averaging somewhere around a couple times a month.  I find that what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.

misty-shot
“…what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.”

Q: Do you think kayak transportation will ever catch on? Do you know anyone else who kayaks to work?

Kayak commuting is a high-level urban eccentricity, and so it should be no surprise that there are at least a handful of Seattle weirdos who are also out there doing it. I’ve met another guy on the water who paddles Ballard – UW but to a much further point on campus than I do.  I know there are some people in the summer time who cross Portage Bay to the UW on kayaks and paddle boards from the Eastlake neighborhood. I’ve got a friend in Portland who was biking to the Willamette River, kayaking across it carrying his bike on the kayak, then biking to work.  But he got bored with that and now is biking to the river and then swimming across, towing his bike atop some pool noodles.  That guy is sort of my hero.

I think the key to making a kayak commute realistic is to have a safe, calm waterway that at least partially makes the connection between home and work. Making it time-competitive with other commute options is just about impossible – the best time I got from home to desk was about an hour and a quarter when towing the kayak by bike trailer, once you factor in the bike ride, locking the bike, putting on the dry suit, packing the kayak trailer up, paddling, schlepping the kayak up to the office, and changing.  Again, that’s compared to a 25-minute bike commute.

bike-rig
Ted’s Bike Trailer/Kayak Setup

I think safety is a limitation to widespread adoption.  I wear a gasketed dry suit year round when I do this (and of course a personal flotation device (PFD)) and I carry a VHF radio and lights for the boat. Being on the water, even relatively safe Lake Union and the Ship Canal, is no joke.  Taking the safety precautions adds time and complication that makes the commute take longer, but it’s essential to do this in a safe way.  It’s a serious undertaking to be out there, around commercial boat traffic, vulnerable to the weather and in water that is cold all year long.  People should be dressed for immersion, wearing a PFD, able to self-rescue, and aware of what the weather forecast means for water conditions.

Q: What’s the best part of a kayak commute? The worst part? 

A: The best part of the commute by far is getting into Lake Union and getting around Gasworks Park.  I get a wide open view of the downtown skyline and Space Needle over the flat expanse of Lake Union.  In the evenings when I’m not pressed for time I like to paddle a ways out into the lake and just float in quiet contemplation for a while admidst this scene.  That’s a pretty awesome commute perk.

night-shot
Night shot of the city from the water.

The worst part is just dealing with all the gear involved, as well as worrying somewhat about the security of the kayak – I have a pretty good out of the way spot away from the water to stash it and it’s pretty big to steal, but I haven’t devised any locking method as of yet.

sunrise
That tranquil water, in the middle of a bustling city.

Q: What else should people know about a human-powered waterborne commute? 

A: Like bike commuting, the first step to a happy water commute is to just get out on the water and learn to safely enjoy being out there, controlling your craft, and learning your limits and capabilities.  If there’s a river or lake where folks live and they haven’t found a way out onto it, I highly encourage them to do so.  It changes one’s whole perspective on the city and its infrastructure.  Once you’re comfortable and confident on the water, the possibilities for creative human powered water travel are extensive – kayaks that fold into backpacks, inflatable stand-up paddle boards, canoes, rowboats, floating bicycles.  Stay safe and enjoy the inevitable gasps – “Wait, you KAYAK to work????”

ted
Ted in action!

Three Take-Aways From TRB

In early January I went to the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. For transportation nerds, it’s a truly magical conference: 13,000 researchers and practitioners, experts and neophytes, all crowded into the Washington DC Convention Center discussing hyper-technical aspects of transportation. Bombast and pontifications flow alongside paper-cup coffee and greasy hors d’oeuvres – ideas spread, findings shared, and collaborations begin. 

The conference is complemented with the DC Transportation Camp, a one-day event guided by the participants, typically skewed younger and more technology-focused than the TRB conference. 

Between the TRB Annual Meeting and Transportation Camp, I gleaned three main take-aways from my week in DC.

1. Electric Vehicles Won’t Fix Climate Change

As you know from prior blog posts, I’m extremely concerned about and interested in climate change. Since electric vehicles (EVs) promise to cut down society’s carbon footprint, I attended a couple of sessions on them. 

I left these sessions disillusioned. While I think corporate and public transportation fleets will continue to electrify, the household consumer market is going to be slow-going. One set of researchers looked at characteristics of everyone who bought an EV in 2013 – income, ethnicity, housing type, etc. They used that demographic profile to estimate the maximum percentage of the total car market for EVs under peak conditions – if everyone like these people bought an EV. The results? A whopping 2.44% market penetration. The other 97.66% would still drive gas-powered cars. (Understanding Potential for Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption Using Large-Scale Consumer Profile Data by Rubal Dua, Kenneth White, and Rebecca Lindland.) 

Another researcher, Dan Welch from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, discussed how EVs tend to be more expensive up-front but cost less to operate than regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, the break-even point is after about 8 years. That’s a time frame which, in my opinion, isn’t short enough to attract any but the most far-sighted consumers, who are already motivated to buy an EV.  However, that leads to another set of research showing…

The cost isn’t even the biggest obstacle to getting EVs into the market. The biggest concern is “range anxiety,” that drivers will have to go more than 50 or 100 miles sometimes, turning their car into a really expensive hunk of useless metal in their driveway.

typical-daily-miles
Source: manitobaev.ca

Axsen, Langman, and Goldberg from Simon Fraser University dived into this and other consumer concerns in their paper Confusion with Innovations: Mainstream Consumer Perceptions and Misperceptions of Electric Drive Vehicle Technology. Beyond range anxiety, there are fears about:

  • Resell value
  • Pace of technological change (and speedy obsolescence)
  • Poor understanding of battery maintenance
  • Obstacles for those urbanites without garages (and, thus, without a spot for a charging station).

Put differently, most people will look at them and see an inferior, risky product that costs more than the alternative. So without one of two necessary conditions:

  1. Even more massive government subsidy or
  2. Dramatic reduction in the cost of batteries

I am skeptical that EVs will ever do anything more than just scratch the household consumer market, especially in the time frame needed to put a dent in climate change.

2. Autonomous Vehicles Will Increase Congestion (Probably A Lot)

Transportation Camp had a session where Robert T. Milam from Fehr and Peers used regional Transportation Demand Models to look at how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is going to affect traffic congestion (notes here). Assuming all vehicles in the region are automated (a big assumption, I know, but bear with me), the result was an increase in VMT between 12% and 68%, and a reduction of transit trips between 16% and 43%.

20170107_120901

That’s huge. Aside from the environmental catastrophe, the congestion impact from even the low-end of the prediction is likely to be dire.

Then there’s the blow to transit. One reason so many cities like Seattle and LA have been able to pass referenda on increasing transit funding is because higher-income people are finally starting to use it. If those high-income riders are siphoned off from the system into autonomous vehicles, then transit is likely to re-enter the death spiral of the 20th century.

Boosters of the technology will dismiss these findings, arguing that if we use AVs as a shared service (like autonomous Uber or Lyft), then VMT might actually go down at the same time that costs go down. Sure, it might work that way in a few places like New York or San Francisco; the rest of the country is in for another spurt of autophilia.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Boosters Are Too Dismissive of Automation’s Economic Impacts

In numerous interactions I had with those lovers of AV technology, a common thread was a disregard of the economic impacts. Those bullish on automation insist that the people whose jobs will be taken can just go on to do other, more meaningful work.

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to economic dislocations right now – underemployed Rust Belt voters just installed a president with empty promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, many of which were lost to automation. Looking at transportation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 3.6 million workers drive a truck, taxi, school bus, or transit bus for a living. We should all take a moment to think about what it will mean when 3.6 million more people are forced into lower-skilled, lower-paid work.

job-in-each-state
Most Common Job in 2014. Source: Planet Money

With so much news about what’s real and what’s fake, about truth and lies, TRB struck a special chord for me this year. Truth is hard to find, and often even harder to accept. I wanted to hear that electric vehicles are our savior, that vehicle automation will fix all of our problems. The truth is messier, more complicated, and takes work to uncover. TRB reminded me that there are literally thousands of smart people dedicated to revealing the truth, just in my tiny corner of the research world.

Godspeed, I say, and keep fighting for the truth – no matter how inconvenient.  

Warming Ourselves, Warming the World

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the pounding knock knock knock of our steam radiator’s discontent. After two hours of youtube, random DIY websites, and twisting knobs and pulling levers, I figured out how to clean the water level sight glass (ew) and drain/flush the boiler (also ew). All in the pursuit of warmth.

Daylight is scarce, snow and ice cover the grass, and my wife is perpetually wrapped in blankets; it must be that time of year when I’ve started obsessing again over the windows, doors, the attic, and any other areas where hot air is escaping and cold air creeping in. Part of this is to avoid the kind of shocking triple-digit heating bills that pain my bank account so terribly, but just as important is a matter of climate change.

In case you missed it, the Arctic has been screaming this winter with temperatures up to 60 degrees above average. Sea ice in the Arctic, as a result, is way below the historic average extent.

n_stddev_timeseries

I already posted about climate change and the contribution that the transportation sector makes to greenhouse gas emissions. However, when combined together, heating and electricity are actually the two largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley.

ghg-inventory

I thought I would take the opportunity of plunging temperatures to look at how we heat our homes in the region, mostly because I was curious, but also as a way to think about how we can transition away from fossil fuels. All of the below maps are taken from the 2015 five-year American Community Survey. 

The History of Heating

My home was built around 1922, and demonstrates the history of using fossil fuels to heat buildings. When it was first built, there was a coal furnace. I know, because I can still see bits of anthracite coal scattered around the side of the house. At some point, it was converted to oil heat – again, I only know this because there were two holes in the side of the house where intake pipes used to be. Finally, the heating oil system was replaced with a natural gas furnace.

I was pretty surprised to find that gas is the most popular heating fuel category for Hampden County – a little under half of all households heat their homes using natural gas.

counties_gas

Looking at the town-level map, it looks like natural gas is a primarily urban amenity. I guess that makes sense, because you need to have the pipe infrastructure delivering the natural gas into people’s houses, and that’s a lot easier when houses are closer together.

gas-heat

Going back a step in time for my house, there are still a lot of homes heated by oil. There are a bunch of reasons why heating oil isn’t very good:

  1. You have to truck the fuel around, making the environmental impact that much worse.
  2. A lot of the heating oil tanks were installed underground and ended up leaking and contaminating the soil, creating brownfields.
  3. On a personal note, the one time I had heating oil I was a broke 20-something living with a bunch of other broke 20-somethings. We would always run out of fuel on a Friday afternoon and were too cheap to pay the extra $20 bucks for a weekend delivery, meaning that we would just be freezing until Monday morning.

oil-heat

Shockingly, there are also a handful of homes still heated using “coal or coke” according to the Census Bureau – talk about old school! The question becomes, where do they even get coal?

coal_heat

The Future of Heating

As we transition away from fossil fuels (because we will, we must), the future of heating must be mostly electric, with geothermal almost certainly mixed in. Holyoke is a great example of what the future of home heating should look like, since 95% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources (hydroelectric and solar primarily).

Surprisingly, electric heat is not that that common in the region – no town exceeds about a quarter of households using electric (except Sunderland which is almost 40%!). This could be partly the inertia of past heating systems, or the fear of losing heat in the event of a power outage, or a little bit of both.

electric-heat

In the future, I’m hoping that we can leverage more solar power for passive heating. My house has a giant tree on the south side that substantially diminishes the ability to install solar panels, but that’s not true for a lot of homes. You can see in the map below that very few homes right now have solar heating, but, surprisingly, Holyoke is leading the way!

solar-heat

A Path Forward

Unfortunately, converting heating systems to more efficient or planet-friendly fuel sources can be very costly. Even though a homeowner might save a bunch of money in the long run, the lumpy expense of replacing the heating system can be prohibitive. And unlike the vehicle fleet which, eventually, turns over cars from old dirty ones to newer cleaner ones, houses (and their heating technology) tend to stick around for decades or centuries.

We’ve started looking at converting to more efficient steam heating systems, and I’m also getting interested in a geothermal exchange system. I would also like to convert from natural gas to an electric system and take advantage of all that green electricity Holyoke produces. These are all big expenses, though programs like Mass Save could help.

In the end, any serious climate action must include getting rid of all heating oil-fueled houses and, eventually, natural gas heated homes as well. Even though the federal government is unlikely to do anything about climate change (other than deny it) over the next four years, the future of the planet literally depends on small things like furnace upgrade programs. In the meantime, I’ll look to state governments to lead the way.