We’re still about a month from the end of autumn, and I’m exhausted with this season already. While the rest of the region seems to be giddy with seasonal decorations, flannel shirts, holiday calorie bonanzas, and leaf voyeurism, I find myself counting down the seconds until the winter begins.
Before you type out a PSL-fueled rebuttal, let me make my case against this lousy time of year.
My number one reason for loathing this time of year is that it seems impossibly dark, and I still have a month left of even shorter days to look forward to. Part of it is because I hate getting out of work when it’s pitch black. The evening stretches on forever; I find myself getting ready for bed and then realizing it’s only 7:00 pm.
But the truth is much deeper than that. The diminished daylight throws off my mood, my sleep, my energy – it just throws me generally out of whack.
I’m hesitant to complain too much about it being cold, because I chose to move to a place that is cold. We could have chosen Texas, or southern California, or Florida. But we chose to move to New England, and we knew what kind of weather we were getting into.
That said, commence the complaining about the weather.
My main gripe has to do with being a year-round bicyclist. I’ve often said, there is no bad weather, just bad gear. I stand by that. The issue that I have is the wide temperature swing between when I bike in the morning versus heading home at night (sometimes 30 degrees or more). So it takes me an extra several minutes in the morning to put on the layers of gear, and then also to stuff even more gear into my bag.
In my bike bag currently I have leg warmers, arm warmers, heavy gloves, medium gloves, light gloves, shoe covers, a poncho, a light jacket, a scarf, a helmet liner, and of course one smart wool sock – the mate is God-knows-where. I somehow stuff my lunch and work clothes into the few remaining crannies.
Finally, this is the season where stuff dies. Leaves brown and fall off the tree (which, of course, means it’s also leaf blower season). Gardens stop giving out tomatoes and cucumbers. Bees and butterflies stop flying (though, to be fair, so do mosquitoes). People say, “Oh my, look at the hills, alive with red and orange and yellow foliage!”
Dude, those leaves are dying!
Bring on the Winter
And this is why my favorite day of the year, hands down, is the Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year also hails the coming of the light – every subsequent day is a little brighter, a little closer to spring, a little closer to the thaw. I don’t think I’m alone in the jubilation this holiday brings – Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, New Years, and probably a bunch of other holidays all celebrate with a lights display.
I’ll try to enjoy fall in New England, as so many millions of others genuinely do. I’ll drink my pumpkin beer and eat my pumpkin pie and put out my decorative pumpkins. But I’ll breathe a sigh of relief on December 21st knowing that winter has come, and I can put the fall behind me.
I’m in a mild existential crisis thanks to my furnace. I feel like I’m seeing multiple signs telling me to ditch it, but then the incredible inertia of my home design telling me to just stick with it. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, as most of you know, there were a series of natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. And a few years ago, a natural gas explosion took out a big chunk of a block in Springfield. The moral of the story: natural gas is really dangerous, and it’s being piped right into my basement!
And then Hurricane Michael hits my childhood vacationland, the panhandle of Florida. Every year my family and I would drive down from Kentucky to the Redneck Riviera and rent a beach house in Perdido Key or, later, St. George Island. These are exactly the spots where trees were sheared off at the base due to the 155 mph winds. This storm was literally unprecedented, and it’s exactly the kind of storm predicted by climate change models.
Finally, the International Panel on Climate Change released a dire report indicating that if we don’t totally reform the fundamentals of the modern economy and decarbonize in the next 12 years, then we’re in deep trouble. Coral reefs will all die, large swaths of the earth will either be drought-stricken or, ironically, under water.
So when I look at my life and the things I can be doing regarding climate change, I’ve already ticked a lot of the do-gooder boxes. I eat vegetarian, I bike to work (my wife and I share a hybrid car), I compost, I donate to the Environmental League of Massachusetts and Sierra Club (and you should, too!). But then I look at that blasted boiler feeding my home’s steam radiators, and see the last ongoing carbon geyser in my life.
I’ve looked into electric boilers, but there are some major problems with that. For one, I’m not sure that an electric boiler would be able to actually produce enough steam for all of the radiators in my house – they are typically used for smaller areas. Second, our electrical panel is totally maxed right now, so we would need to upgrade our electrical system before adding a major appliance like that.
So that brings me back to my vexatious furnace. This really illustrates the limitations to thinking of climate change as a matter of personal responsibility. I’m a guy who cares a lot about this stuff, but I’m still stuck using a dirty fuel system. Imagine those who only care a little, or don’t care at all, or actively fight climate change policies! (For a provacative article, check out Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals.)
Individual actions will only get us so far, which probably isn’t very far at all (and certainly not far enough). Collective action and substantive policy changes are probably the only way to really get us out of this pickle. But ditching my gas furnace probably won’t hurt, either.
A couple of weeks ago, the MGM Casino opened in Springfield’s South End. This was a years-long billion-dollar investment, and represented for many the long-sought hope for the city’s comeback – a symbol of a resurgence and new life pumped into a community which for decades has largely known only disinvestment and struggle. Having gone there last week for White Lion Wednesdays, I can say that it is, without a doubt, an impressive urban space that provides many much-needed amenities to the city’s downtown (bowling alley, movie theater, restaurants, etc.).
Looking around at derelict buildings in the region, I am forced to wonder if this was a weird outlier event. Will there be other MGM-scale investments in the region? Or maybe there are already and I just don’t know about them?
I was recently introduced to a new statewide dataset called MassBuilds, which tracks major real estate developments around the commonwealth. I’m sad to say that this dataset confirms what I already suspected – despite the fanfare and hubbub over MGM, the vast majority of new large real estate developments take place inside I-495 (the outer beltway of Boston). Don’t get me wrong, MGM is a huge investment by any measure (nearly $1 billion) and one of the largest in the state in recent years. But it is an exception to the overwhelming trend of where new large developments take place.
Using the MassBuilds dataset, I first took a look at major real estate developments by region since the year 2000. You might notice the same trend that I did.
You can see in the chart above, Metro Boston totally dominates the commonwealth when it comes to major developments. You can also see this remarkable disparity mapped:
Finally, I took a look at the top ten developments that had been completed or were in construction by total cost. The number one development is the new casino in construction just outside of Boston, coming in at a whopping $2.4 billion. MGM is number three at $960 million; the other nine developments are in Boston or a nearby community.
One caveat I would note is that the MassBuilds database was created and is maintained by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and so there might be an under-counting of projects outside the Boston region since they are the Boston-area planning commission. However, in absence of evidence to the contrary, this suggests that the red hot real estate market in the Boston region is fueling a development boom that’s largely not felt in the rest of the state.
It’s easy, as a knee-jerk reaction, to feel like the rest of the state (including the Pioneer Valley) is being left behind. I have to remind myself that being in a calmer real estate market has its benefits: fewer bidding wars and all-cash offers locking out many families from home ownership; less gentrification and displacement in low-income, majority people-of-color neighborhoods; fewer families struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table.
At the same time, as I look at the abandoned mill buildings, boarded up apartment buildings, and empty storefronts of Holyoke and Springfield, I can’t help but wonder – can’t we just get a small slice of that development bonanza going on 90 miles east of us? Just a taste, enough to get a few restaurants and a refurbished mill building (without needing slot machines to make the project pencil out)? Can’t we have our cake and eat it, too?
A couple of months ago the State Supreme Judicial Court decided that the Fair Share Amendment, AKA the “Millionaire’s Tax,” won’t appear on the Massachusetts ballot in November. The very quick rundown of the proposal was that for those making an income over $1 million, a new tax bracket would be applied. The revenue from that tax would have been dedicated to transportation and education.
It is pretty remarkable that Massachusetts has a flat income tax rate – 5.1% – so that a person making $20,000 per year is taxed at the same rate as a person making $2,000,000 per year (this stands in contrast to the federal income tax system, which has a “progressive” tax rate). Regardless, the Fair Share Amendment is dead and so now infrastructure-minded folks in the Commonwealth are searching for a new tax to support our underfunded transportation system.
At this point, the regional tax solution seems to be the bandwagon that most local and regional leaders have hopped on as a second-best solution. Right now, local governments have extremely limited taxation abilities, mostly limited to property taxes. This proposal would allow a region to levy a payroll tax to pay for transportation projects in that region.
Regional Taxes Perpetuate Regional Inequity
I understand why people are looking to regional funding initiatives to fund the shortfall in transportation investments. While the state and federal governments have traditionally been the sources of most transportation funding, these two sources have become increasingly stingy and unpredictable. Meanwhile, our transit systems go underfunded, our roads are a literal patchwork of asphalt patches, and our stoplights become increasingly ancient and unreliable.
However, the long-term implications of switching even partially to a regional funding source are grim for most parts of the state. To help me think about this, I looked at another locally funded service in Massachusetts – our education system.
Without getting into the nuts and bolts of how education funding in the Bay State works (though you can find an excellent video primer here), suffice it to say that there is a substantial local funding component for local school districts. The result is pretty striking – poor cities have low funding per pupil, wealthy districts have high funding per pupil.
You can see in the above chart a finding that’s not all that surprising – the wealthy western suburbs, vacation areas on Cape Cod and the Islands, and vacation areas in the Berkshires end up spending the most on a per-pupil basis. Rural areas and our Gateway Cities spend the least. If you are interested, you can find the full data set here.
To underscore my point, we can take a look at the incredible disparity looking at the Merrimack Valley and the adjacent, affluent Boston suburbs:
You can see that Weston, Concord-Carlisle, Cambridge, Burlington, and Lincoln-Sudbury have among the highest spending per pupil.
Compare the above map with the map of childhood poverty in the same region:
You can see that childhood poverty, with a few exceptions, is almost the inverse of funding per pupil. Here is the statewide map, where the relationship is a little harder to see but still evident.
Finally, here is the table of the lowest income communities in the commonwealth (source: ACS 2016 5-year estimates) and the corresponding rank statewide in per-pupil funding.
Median Household Income
Rank in statewide per pupil funding
Mount Washington town
North Adams city
New Bedford city
Fall River city
Southbridge Town city
Greenfield Town city
The average funding per pupil rank for the above towns: 157
And here is the list of the 25 highest-income communities in the commonwealth:
Median Household Income
Rank in statewide per pupil funding
The average rank in per-pupil spending for these high-income communities: 103.
The Dangers of Regional Transportation Funding
This was a quick demonstration with many caveats to show that regionally funded services, like education, tend to result in a very uneven funding environment where the wealthy communities do fine, and poor communities struggle.** This alone is enough to sound off alarm bells in my mind.
I also see another danger in regional transportation funding. I have no doubt that the Boston area, with its tremendous traffic and expensive parking, would have no problem funding additional transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure. Perhaps also some HOV lanes, HOT lanes, and expansion projects at key choke points.
However, in the rest of the auto-oriented state, I have grave concerns that the commuting motorists will have outsize influence on choosing transportation projects for the region. This will probably result in more investments in suburban areas, with a focus on roadway expansion projects. This would be fine, were it not for the obesity epidemic, local air quality degradation, and the looming catastrophe of climate change. I would expect for Regional Transit Authorities to have a hard time competing for funding against a lane expansion project, especially when users of RTA service tend to be underrepresented in local government.
Given the fact that so many legislators and local leaders have strongly endorsed regional transportation funding as the solution to our transportation investment conundrum, I have no doubt that this will continue to be the cause celebre that many rally behind. I caution that any legislation take into account the real danger that in the long term local and regional transportation funding will be nice indeed for wealthier parts of the state, while poor parts of the state continue to fall further behind. And we must ensure that those projects funded through regional initiatives comply with stated policy goals of public health, environmental quality, and sustainability.
In short, we must ensure that the Commonwealth ensures common wealth for all parts of the state.
**Though this article isn’t actually about education, but rather was using it as a cautionary tale for what could happen with regional transportation funding, I do want to note that it is especially bad for poor communities to have such low education funding rates per pupil; students from poor communities actually need much more funding per pupil in order to compensate for typically underserved households. Some examples are extra English Language Learning services, speech language services, remedial tutoring, computer equipment, field trip funding, and free and reduced lunch. Affluent communities have households that contribute thousands of dollars beyond their taxes to their children’s educations; poor communities have households without the ability, or sometimes the interest, to contribute anything.
I recently came across an article from the Brookings Institutions predicting that the US will become a majority people-of-color nation by 2045, pushing forward the predicted date by a few years. At that point, white non-Hispanic Americans will, for the first time in history, comprise a minority of the population.
Of particular interest in a follow-up article is that the white population, for only the second year ever, actually saw absolute declines in the total population. The reason is because the fertility rate among non-Hispanic whites is far below the fertility rate of other racial/ethnic groups. It also reinforces a point I’ve heard multiple times over the years: We could stop immigration entirely today, and the nation is still going to be minority-white by mid-century.
Of course, Springfield and Holyoke – the largest and third largest cities in Hampden County – are already majority people of color. This is largely thanks to the substantial migration of Puerto Ricans which (I have been told) started in the 1970s as a result, surprisingly, of the tobacco farms in the Connecticut River Valley. And in the wake of Hurricane Maria, this migration from Puerto Rico is only going to pick up. You can see in the below map that Hampden County was the landing pad for even more weather refugees than Philadelphia.
The Politics of Change
I can’t help but think about an episode of This American Life (Will I Know Anyone at This Party?). It was about residents of St. Cloud, a Minnesota town which has seen a surge of immigrants from Somalia moving into the community. Even though the total Somalian population was only about 10% of the total population, long-time residents were outraged at the immigrants settling there (many people referred to their presence as a “burden” on the community). They wanted the federal government to block any more immigrants from coming to their community.
The sense that I got was that so many of the residents were terrified of the fact that these Somalians represented a clear change to their community. It wasn’t anything specific that the Somalians did or any specific negative impacts. It was just that they were so… foreigh. They were Muslim, they spoke with accents, and of course they were black. Conservatives in St. Cloud especially started voicing the same nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that ultimately got Donald Trump elected and has recently been the main fodder for the Republican Party. And this was with only 10% of the population being non-white!
And so I am pondering this unstoppable demographic shift of America becoming a majority non-white country. What will it mean for our politics? What will it mean for the younger generations, which are already majority non-white? Will our idea of what it means to be “white” change (after all, the Irish didn’t used to be considered white)? Or will it ossify into an even more tribal winner-take-all voting bloc?
Minorities will be the source of all of the growth in the nation’s youth and working age population, most of the growth in its voters, and much of the growth in its consumers and tax base as far into the future as we can see. Hence, the more rapidly growing, largely white senior population will be increasingly dependent on their contributions to the economy and to government programs such as Medicare and Social Security. This suggests the necessity for continued investments in the nation’s diverse youth and young adults as the population continues to age.
I just hope that we as Americans have the good sense to recognize that the only colors that matter when it comes to voting priorities are red, white, and blue; that the nation’s young people are our future, no matter what country their parents came from; that America is built on diversity of thought, of culture, and of its people. I don’t have much reason to hope that this will come true given current politics, except that the future prosperity of the country depends on it.
There was a post recently on a Facebook group, Hello Holyoke!!! [sic] where someone complained that the city’s taxes are the highest in the state (spoiler – they’re not, though they are relatively high). Many others bemoaned the high tax rate, and blamed it for failing businesses, empty storefronts, and blighted mill buildings. This post inspired a lot of passion, vitriol, and bile from those who commented (pro-tip: once the number of comments on a post exceeds 20, it’s best not to read them).
I don’t know too much about tax policy, and especially about municipal tax policy. That post got me interested in looking to see what tax rates are like across the valley, and how the various communities fall. Fortunately, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue has a really handy table showing all municipal tax rates, and so of course I made some maps.
Taxes Across the State
First, a comparison of taxes across the state. Property taxes are based on what’s called the “Mill Rate,” or taxes per $1,000 of assessed value. For example, Holyoke has a residential mill rate of 19.17. That means that our tax rate is 0.01917% of the assessed value of our house.
Interestingly, most communities have just one property tax rate. A handful, including Holyoke, have a split property tax rate, where commercial property is taxed at a higher rate than residential. I’m not really sure why that is, except that perhaps the thought is that commercial and industrial property is less easily movable? I don’t know but would be interested in finding out.
Anyway, you can see that residential tax rates are lower inside Route 128, near Boston, and higher in the rest of the state. Commercial tax rates, on the other hand, are all over the place, though they do seem to be higher in the higher-population urban areas.
Those two maps, of course, are only showing the tax rate – not the actual amount of money being paid in taxes. Property values are WAY higher in the Boston area, so even though the rates are relatively low, the tax bills are still relatively high.
Taxes in the Pioneer Valley
I also got curious about how Holyoke compares to our immediate neighbors. So let’s take a look.
The two maps above confirm that Holyoke’s tax rates are relatively high – though generally on par with Westfield and Springfield, two of the other largest communities in the Pioneer Valley. But property values in these communities are pretty low.
So, with low property values, even a high rate doesn’t translate into especially high property tax bills. You can see this in the average residential tax bill.
Of course, this is just the residential tax bill. As shown above, Holyoke has a very high commercial tax rate – actually, the third highest in the state after Holbrook and Pittsfield (side note – where is Holbrook?). Regardless, commercial property values in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield are also relatively low, meaning that the relatively higher rates probably still don’t translate into a disproportionately high tax bill compared to surrounding communities.
Thoughts on Economic Development
Now for the policy deep dive. The real question, of course, has to do with tax rates and economic development – that’s what the guy who posted was really complaining about. I don’t pretend to be an expert on economic development or tax policy, but it does seem to me that there are a lot of places in Massachusetts that are expensive to do business, and yet business is booming.
Kendall Square in Cambridge has some of the most expensive property in the world, but is a power-house commercial district nonetheless. Despite the sky-high cost of developing or renting property, Fortune 500 companies locate there because they have Harvard and MIT a stone’s throw away to pull talent from. They have ample high-end housing and restaurants and bars. And they have bike paths and the Red Line and the Charles River Basin. The cost of doing business, including local taxes, doesn’t seem to be a major impediment.
Taxes are a consideration in business decisions about location, but they are not the only one. Although firms welcome tax incentives, availability of transportation and low labor costs more often drive business decisions about expansion or relocation. Corporate site selection professionals rank the availability of skilled labor and adequate land and infrastructure higher than they rank tax policy.
At a macro-scale, taxes appear to have a fairly tenuous connection to broader economic performance. The Brookings Institution put together this chart during the most recent debate on slashing the corporate tax rate:
Yes, taxes shouldn’t be any higher than they need to be (of course!). But economic success depends on so much more than the mill rate – Holyoke and the rest of the greater Rust Belt would be well served to remember that quality of schools, quality of life, and quality infrastructure are all crucial ingredients to effective, sustained economic development.
Tomorrow (Thursday, 3/1), I am going to be speaking at a panel discussion at Hampshire College, How to Be Div Free: Building a Career as Unique as Your Education. This panel will focus on perspectives and advice for the transition between college and professional life. Since I was thinking about what advice I am going to give to these college students, I thought I would go ahead and write a blog post.
The motto of Hampshire College is Non Satis Scire, which means “To know is not enough.” The whole concept of the school is that the process of pursuing knowledge is just as important as attaining the knowledge itself. The leaders of tomorrow aren’t made by memorizing multiplication tables; the leaders of tomorrow ask the difficult questions and dedicate themselves to finding answers.
My first and most important piece of advice is to push yourself to continue learning. Read blogs, twitter feeds, magazines, books – read a lot, especially on subjects related to your field. Just keep reading. Fluency in your domain is crucial to nailing a job interview, a happy hour with colleagues, or being able to string together a coherent memo.
Just as important, perhaps even moreso early in your career, is to continue learning the crunchy technical skills that are valued in your field. After I graduated from Hampshire, I took time to learn several computer skills which are relevant to the planning profession (Excel, Word, GIS, Adobe Acrobat Pro) and then some which are less common in planning but still useful to know (R Statistical Software, python, SQL, Adobe Illustrator and InDesign).
Periodically I’ve had down time at work to dedicate to this type of learning. More often, I’m squeezing these online classes into my nights and weekends. Even though it’s not the most exciting use of a Wednesday evening, I’ve found it essential to making myself professionally competitive.
The second piece of advice is to sell yourself. My dad once told me, all of life is buying and selling. When you’re at a job interview, you’re selling your skill set, your knowledge, your dependability, your affability. When you make a pitch for a promotion or raise, you are selling why you are an essential part of your company and why they should work to keep you on board. If you are an entrepreneur or free-lancer, then the need to sell yourself is even more obvious.
To that end, a few notes on how to sell yourself:
Don’t be bashful – In your resume, cover letter, and job interview you need to be assertive about why you are the best candidate for the job. Because humility is a virtue that is drilled into us from a young age, doing this is really uncomfortable, so I suggest practice interviews.
Be specific – Reference specific work products, projects, or programs you’ve worked on. Start a personal blog or volunteer for programs related to your job. Whatever you reference should demonstrate the great work you could be doing for that firm. Specific stories about these experiences are even better.
Look the part – The first interview I ever had, a housemate thankfully told me that I should wear a tie and slacks. Thank God she did, because I would have looked like a total schmuck otherwise in my flannel and cargo pants. Presentation and first impressions are important.
A key skill in selling anything is haggling. If you get to the point that they offer you a job and salary, you should always try to negotiate up. I remember one time I got the call after an interview, “We would like to offer you the job, at a salary of $XXXXX.” I remember writing on my notepad, “OMG $XXXXX!!!!” and, at the exact same moment, saying, “This is great, but is there any wiggle room on the salary?” Just by asking the question, I was able to negotiate the pay up by almost 5% more than what they originally offered.
Salary negotiations are uncomfortable, especially when you’re just starting a career. Again, this is something you should practice if you’re worried about it. A good place to do that is at a flea market, where you can do actual haggling. Just like in salary negotiations, a market seller expects to go back and forth on a price. I usually get 10% – 15% off my flea market finds just by asking the question, “Is there any wiggle room on this price?” Remember – whether on the phone with a potential employer or at the flea market, the worst they can ever say is, “No, final offer.”
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.
“Americans with college degrees can account for all of the net new jobs created over the last decade.”
“[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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Get families with young kids out of impoverished neighborhoods
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.
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.
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:
I save a bunch of money by taking the bus or biking (I wrote about that here – roughly $5,000 per year)
I help the environment by not driving.
I get to read on the way to work.
Occasionally I get to chat with a coworker who also rides the bus.
I hate driving.
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.
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.
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.