Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Hour Long Commute and Institutionalized Failure

click to embiggen.

The above map his a heat map by census tract illustrating percentages of populations that commute more than an hour each way to work.  The deepest, darkest purple shows areas where more than 12.42% of the population must commute more than an hour to work.  The nationwide average is high 20 minutes and virtually every city falls within a 25-30 minute range for average commute.  NYC and San Jose have longer average commutes, but they also have higher incomes.

Appropriately, this is graphic is listed under quality of life on policymap.com.  Because no one wants to spend that much time simply in transit between two points unless it is really, really worth it.  However, the deepest darkest purple here isn't for higher incomes.  It's for the lowest incomes in the city, where it is not uncommon to find median household incomes in the low to mid-teens of thousands of dollars per year.

The more infrastructure we build northward, the more we cater to the inertia of the 'favored quarter' creep.  Investment follows investment.  And it keeps heading in one direction as long as you allow it rather than re-orienting investment and growth around large employment centers like downtown...lest you completely kill those large employment centers.

The answer to this problem isn't highways to get to jobs more than an hour away.  All that does is force more cost issues upon the people that can least afford it.  The answer is creating investment opportunities back towards the core so the jobs stop flowing northward in the name of predatory regionalism.  (We need qualifiers with the word regionalism because there is a good kind and bad kind.  It can't possibly be a positive form of regionalism when policies undermine the urban core, because ultimately that hurts the entire region.  Your first clue is when Dallas County loses 266,000 jobs while the region gains 1.2 million people.)

It's thus not surprising that this same area of South Dallas, bounded by I-45, I-30, and the Trinity Forest (note the presence of two highways), has lost 40% of its population since 1990.  That number is far worse when looking further back in time.  Unfortunately, the exact data is hard to come by.  But when all economic opportunity has been stripped from a community, wouldn't you leave as well?  That is, if you had the means?  And those with means did.

We have cut off opportunity from entire parts of the city, specifically with the notion of trying to connect people with highways.  We've done the opposite.  It's obvious that highways disconnect across them, but the constant job and population creep northward is indicative of a deeper, systemic, and more pernicious form of disconnection: distance.  Traversing that distance is not the answer, particularly when our solutions to traversing that distance, more highways, only serves to exacerbate the problem, by moving things further and further away.

The highway builders, thinking they're serving populations as they exist, don't realize that they themselves are the scientist with their finger in the petri dish stirring it around and affecting the very results they're supposedly objective about.

The real solution is a change in proximity.  However, that brings to bear the fear of gentrification.  So we build highways to access cheaper land at the edge and further depress land values in the core, which only puts more pressure on the poorest among us to get cars and get on the road.  Or just drop out of a society that has failed them altogether.  A clumsy, facile understanding of gentrification as entirely bad is what seems to be undermining progress and any ability to grow south.

Gentrification, by another name is investment.  It's increased land value and thus increased opportunity.  In the against the conventional wisdom nature of urbanism, it is actually higher land value (demand) which allows the market to deliver more affordable housing in more affordable locations (near transit and near jobs).  It's also the new investment and the new residents with money moving in to an area that create the market for local entrepreneurs to benefit by starting up new services or restaurants.

What's needed is targeted investment and land values that are worth investing in coupled with training programs for the locals in order to empower them to participate in a new burgeoning local economy.  All of that is far cheaper and more beneficial than a new highway.  And more than a new highway, what is really needed is a new mindset that actually understands how cities work.