Upcoming Panel Discussion: 3 Ways to Take It to The Man

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As some of you may know, I’m pretty engaged in the bicyclist community. I serve as the Vice Chair of the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Co-Chair the Steering Committee for the River Roll and Stroll (a very cool open streets event in its second year) and also volunteer as a Bicycle Maintenance Instructor at the Holyoke Urban Bike School.

A general effort woven throughout my life is trying to improve biking conditions, certainly a consequence of being an almost-daily rider since I was 18. I even did it professionally as the Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) from 2011 to 2014. Since then, I’ve worked in the public sector, first for MassDOT and now for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. So I’ve seen both the nonprofit and the governmental sides of transportation planning.

This Saturday, I am going to be putting that decade-plus of experience to use at the MassBike 2018 Advocacy Boot Camp, an event where bicycle boosters from around the state can learn and network with other folks who want to improve bicycling. The title of my panel discussion is “Mass Mobilization: Working Within the System,” and I’ll be talking about how advocates can engage with public sector staff to further better biking conditions.

Here are three points I plan on making at the panel on Saturday.

1. Throw Their Own Policies in Their Faces

Bike advocates should feel like they have the wind at their backs in Massachusetts. That’s not to say that all fights will be easy, but there are many things going in our favor. For example, MassDOT released a Project Development and Design Guide in 2006 that prioritizes biking and walking facilities in roadway design. One of the most powerful arguments an advocate can make is that, for state roadway projects, MassDOT engineers need to stick to their own design guidance. Many municipalities also have Complete Streets policies – hold municipal staff accountable to the policies their own town/city has adopted.

Be polite. But don’t let them off easy if they are violating their own guidance.

2. Get Letterhead

Public sector professionals, especially those who engage the public frequently, have to deal with what I will generously call “zealots.” These are people who have a pet cause and, at every opportunity, speak at length to that cause. They will corner public employees, electeds, and anyone else to discuss their issue for extended lengths of time.

They undermine their own credibility by being so fanatically focused on their one issue, when public employees have to balance a number of competing issues at the same time. One way to avoid this pitfall is to instill the sense that, when you are advocating for better biking, it’s not because of a personal obsession, it’s because you represent a movement.

As one advocate put it (I’m paraphrasing), “I thought one day, ‘Hey, it’d be cool to have a bike path on this old railroad right of way. So I put together a website, Friends of the Community Path. Next thing I knew, a local newspaper picked up the story of a new grassroots movement that had formed and was demanding a new community path. And I got an email from a local elected official who wanted to talk to the group’s president.”

So get letterhead, a logo, business cards, a website, and anything else that will help to legitimize your cause when you talk to decision makers.

3. Don’t Wear Stinky Day-Glo

The stereotypical image of a bicyclist usually involves a lot of day-glo and lycra. I have been to so many public meetings where at least one attendee is a dude wearing his bike clothes, freshly sweaty from his 15 mile bike ride to get to said meeting. It may not be fair, but that first impression is probably not a good one. And then, after assaulting the olfactory senses of the planner or engineer running the meeting, you make your pitch for why bike facilities should be included.

It’s an uphill fight.

Instead, an advocate should consider taking the bus to the meeting, or maybe arrive early with a change of clothes and a stick of deodorant. You want these planners and designers to see you as a peer, to see themselves in your shoes. And, believe it or not, most people will go their whole lives without donning day-glo for an hour-long bike ride to get to a semi-professional meeting.

Public Employees Count on Advocates

In the end, any public sector employee who cares about the work they’re doing really depends on advocates to help them do their jobs. Even though civil servants should be apolitical, their work is still directly impacted by elected leadership. Mayors and City Councilors give policy direction which the staff is carrying out. So we depend on advocates to make the phone calls, write the letters, and show up to public meetings to demand that we do the right thing.

Without effective advocacy, we’ll keep getting the broken post-war urban development model that has failed our cities in so many ways. The most enlightened and dedicated civil service won’t change that without advocates backing them up.

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Mapping Generation Screwed

An article recently came out from the Brookings Institution, The new economics of jobs is bad news for working-class Americans – and maybe for Trump. In the first paragraph, the article points out two startling facts:

  1. “Americans with college degrees can account for all of the net new jobs created over the last decade.”
  2. “[The number of] Americans with high school degrees or less who are employed, in this ninth year of economic expansion, has fallen by 2,995,000.”

Using household employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they put together this useful, jaw-dropping, table of employment statistics.

job losses_gains

If you look in the first red square, you will see that people with a high school diploma or less lost nearly 4.5 million jobs during the recession, whereas people with a college degree gained over 4.3 million jobs.

During the recovery, people with a high school diploma only gained back 1.4 million jobs. Those with a college degree gained an additional 7.5 million jobs on top of the 4.3 million gained during the recession.

For those without a college degree (there are about 38 million of you, and more every day), there are actually 3 million fewer jobs available to you today than in 2008. For those with a college degree, there are about 12 million more jobs for you today than ten years ago.

So what does this mean for those young people entering the workforce without a college degree today? Unfortunately, they are Generation Screwed.

Graduation Rates and Advancement to College in Holyoke and Springfield

The chart from Brookings shook me to the bones. I volunteer at an after-school program in Holyoke, working largely with kids from low-income households and who attend Holyoke Public Schools (which are so underperforming that the state took them over). A lot of these kids are smart, motivated, and energetic – but it’s impossible not to see the huge structural obstacles they face to graduating and attending college.

For example, I can think of two teenagers I’ve worked with who have shown a shockingly low level of literacy, struggling to spell basic words. If you make it to the 9th grade but can’t spell the word “bike,” then can you image trying to write college essays in just two or three years?

It is impossible to overstate how heartbreaking it is to see these talented young people struggling against such a fierce headwind. School only gets harder as you get older – low literacy turns from something you can bluff your way through into a crippling liability. Inability to do basic math (like order of operations) keeps you from ever advancing to Algebra II, let alone into the STEM fields we so desperately need more students in.

And if, through some miracle, these young people make it to a 2- or 4-year institution after graduation, the academic and social support needed to navigate this even more intense academic setting is daunting. Academics expect you to be able to write a coherent essay, to be able to type and email and print out assignments, to be able to present yourself appropriately (e.g. wear a tie) when you’re supposed to (and they expect you to know when you’re supposed to wear a tie).

To put an exclamation mark after the obstacles these kids face, let’s look at some maps:

graduation Rate
2016 Graduation Rates. Data Source: Mass Department of Education

Above is a map of school districts. Some school district data is missing, but you can clearly see a pattern here – Holyoke and Springfield have graduation rates under 80%. Holyoke’s graduation rate is an embarrassing 62%, while Springfield’s isn’t much better at 69%.

Of those who graduate from high school, let’s take a look at how many go on to a 2- or 4-year college program.

college attendance
2016 College Attendance Rates. Source: Mass Department of Education

Holyoke and Springfield are no longer at the bottom of the list; about 65% of high school graduates from both school districts attend college. But when taken as a whole, only two-thirds of high schoolers graduate, and only two-thirds of them go to college – that is less than 45% of high school students in Springfield and Holyoke who will successfully make it through high school to attend college.

The other 55% of kids in Holyoke and Springfield? They are the ones entering the cohort of Americans struggling to deal with 3 million lost jobs since 2008. They are Generation Screwed.

The Other Side of the Coin – Longmeadow and Amherst

In contrast, two of the wealthiest school districts in the valley are Longmeadow and Amherst (Amherst shares its school district with Pelham).

  • In Longmeadow, which has a median household income of over $110,000 per year, 97% of all high school students graduate. Of those, 92% go on to college.
  • In Amherst, which has a median family income of over $92,000 per year, 89% of high schoolers graduate. Of those, 83% go on to college.

About 90% of kids in Longmeadow and 75% of kids in Amherst are entering the cross-section of Americans where employment is booming (college educated), while only 45% of kids only a few miles away in Springfield and Holyoke are doing the same.

This is not to say that everyone in these two communities has an idyllic, perfect life. And it’s not to say that students in these schools don’t work hard to graduate and go to college. But it does demonstrate the last point that I want to make – today, your ZIP code predicts a lot about your economic success in life.

The Geography of Escaping Poverty

I just read an article on CityLab about the different things we as a society should do to help people escape poverty. In that article, they published this map from the Urban Institute showing rates of upward mobility. While economic mobility is bad in this country, it’s really bad in some regions.

upward mobility
Source: The Urban Institute, via CityLab

If you look closely, the Pioneer Valley can be seen in western Mass as a bright orange blob, indicating the worst upward economic mobility in the state.

So what can we do?

Well, the CityLab article highlights these things:

  1. Get families with young kids out of impoverished neighborhoods
  2. Humanize poverty
  3. Give the poor better information on available resources

There’s a lot more good insight on this issue which I don’t have room to go into here, but I highly recommend checking out the article.

Political and Social Consequences

 

In the end, it’s clear that the American economy has left behind whole swaths of our fellow Americans. Education is a key factor, but wrapped up in all of that is class and race. Inequality and poverty are pressing problems, and ones that are only going to grow until we get serious about addressing them.

Until then, as the Brookings article suggests, we should continue to expect political turmoil and growing resentment and social divisions. People vowing to tear down the status quo – a status quo which is terribly broken for so many Americans – will gain ever more traction.

And this isn’t something happening in far-off corners of the country like Appalachia or Detroit – you can find it right here in the Pioneer Valley. And so we can and must begin to fix it, right here, in the Pioneer Valley.

Two Keys To Getting Bus Riders

The other day, I was at a meeting in Springfield, MA and a city planner asked me the question, “What are you [the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority] doing to attract new bus riders?”

His question was spurred on by a lot of things happening in Springfield that would benefit from having more people ride the bus – the development of the MGM Casino in downtown, bringing thousands of more people in the congested city daily; the recent adoption of the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan; increased interest in transit from the local Pedestrian and Bicycle Committee; the pain of the last round of cuts to the bus system, and the looming threat of yet more.

ghg reduction targets
Springfield GHG Emissions Reduction Targets. Source: PVPC

As I formulated an answer, I was reminded of something that David Block-Schachter, Chief Technology Officer at the MBTA said on a panel a few months ago. In response to the question of, “How do you improve the customer experience for bus riders?”, he responded with something like (I’m paraphrasing):

“You know, riding the bus is pretty unpleasant. You get to the bus stop and maybe it’s too hot or too cold out, or raining. You stand there waiting for the bus to come and hope it’s not locked in standing traffic. You get on the bus and you’re shoulder to shoulder with strangers, some of whom might be coughing or sneezing or smelly.”

Since then, Elon Musk has raised the ire of many transit professionals for voicing largely the same points. At a tech conference earlier this month, he said (via Wired):

“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

While Elon Musk was using this criticism as a basis for dismantling public transportation, Block-Schachter used it as a launching pad for ways to improve the customer experience. He explained ways that transit agencies can reduce the bad parts about transit and enhance those reasons why, despite the “pain in the ass” of doing so, millions of Americans take transit every day.

Toward Better Buses

Despite the obvious problems and annoyances that come with riding transit, people still do so, and indeed do so every day. Why? Well, here is why I ride the bus:

  1. I save a bunch of money by taking the bus or biking (I wrote about that here – roughly $5,000 per year)
  2. I help the environment by not driving.
  3. I get to read on the way to work.
  4. Occasionally I get to chat with a coworker who also rides the bus.
  5. I hate driving.
  6. I hate parking.

I’d like to think that those reasons are enough to convince most people to bike, walk, or take the bus to get where they’re going, but alas, 88% of workers drive to work in the Pioneer Valley. So how can we make the bus more attractive?

The Livable Streets Alliance out of Boston has a campaign called the “Better Buses” initiative, which states that a better bus:

  • Provides consistent, reliable service on a network of streets where buses are given dedicated right of way.
  • Improves safety for bicyclists and pedestrians by traveling in specific, predictable lanes with platform-level boarding.
  • Stops at enclosed bus stations that welcome riders with real-time data and device-charging stations.
  • Appeals to all commuters because of its reliability, speed, comfort, and cost.

These are all great suggestions. But I have two other thoughts.

Transit Needs Density (and Vice Versa)

The way we build our cities dictates the level of transit use. Elon Musk is right that most people will always choose to drive themselves because of all the annoying things about using transit. Cities should be designed, from the building density to the roadway layout, to encourage transit if you want people to use it.

Cars are fundamentally incompatible with cities due to simple geometry: cities exist so that people can be closer together to share ideas, and pool resources for things like infrastructure, stores, workplaces, etc. Cars, on the other hand, require that things be spread out so that they can easily navigate at high speeds, and will have a place to be stored (i.e. parking). Cars and people have fundamentally opposite needs, and it’s a simple matter of geometry, not values or opinions.

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A chart showing transit mode share correlated to population density. Source: Greater Greater Washington

Transit Must Be Sexy

 

It’s no coincidence that car companies have ads all over the place showing rugged men in trucks, or attractive Millennials in crossovers, or whatever. Car companies have invested a huge amount of money selling cars as a lifestyle, not just a way to get where you’re going.

I’ve always thought that things like T: The MBTA Musical, or the Twitter account @OptimistMBTA are doing a great marketing job of normalizing the MBTA as the default way of getting around Boston. Sadly, the PVTA doesn’t have any similar level of cultural presence, though could benefit greatly from that kind of media exposure. People need to be reminded of why they should ride transit, because otherwise they’re being hit over the head constantly of why they should be driving.

optimist mbta
@OptimistMBTA Tweets

Of course, cultural cache and urban design aren’t really within the control of a transit agency. I at least have hope for Springfield, however, that some of the issues that are within their control can be engineered to the benefit of the bus service. So many goals, from the economic to the environmental, will be furthered by doing so.

 

**Note: These views are my own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

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.

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.

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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.