Built Environment, Development, Transit

Stemming the tide of population loss in New Jersey

Kala Kachmar recently wrote an introspective article on the exodus of both retirees and millennials from New Jersey to other, less expensive states (in the case of the former) or more interesting locales (in the case of the latter), wondering aloud what the state can do to stem this loss. It’s something I’ve thought about frequently, and I’ve developed a few thoughts on the subject.

First things first: New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation and are often cited as a reason people are leaving the state. Our taxes are high for several reasons, a large part of which is to pay for our overly built-out, sprawling infrastructure (our water lines, our sewer lines, the roads to connect all of our towns). Given the traditional structure for each town to face these costs alone, a movement has sprung up to consolidate towns in order to save money in this area. Courage to Connect was integral to the decision several years ago by Princeton borough and Princeton Township to merge. Since that merger, the town has saved on municipal costs, according to a recent address by mayor Liz Lempert. At the legislative level, South Jersey Democrat and Senate President Steve Sweeney has been “the state’s foremost evangelist for service sharing”, the goal of which is to save money and lower property taxes.

Another important issue the state must confront is that a very large number of people entering the workforce after college don’t want to work in the soul-deadening office parks that characterized the state’s employment scene in the 20th century. WHYY’s Newsworks site has been talking about this, and towns like Holmdel have been trying to figure out how to give their sprawling office parks new life.

A related issue that goes hand in hand with where millennials work is where they live. NJTV News recently had an interview with Dean of Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes who says “New Jersey needs to reinvent the suburbs to provide the equivalent of urban areas in the suburbs.” What this will mean in practice is refocusing on a unique asset the state all but ignored as it built up suburbia: its older towns with downtown commercial strips. People are increasingly drawn, even in South Jersey, to towns with old bones, due to their walkability and downtowns dense with shopping and restaurants. They truly offer a chance to capture some of the renewed interest in urbanized spaces at a time when it’s a motivating factor for young people leaving the state.

And for those people who do chose to stay and grow in New Jersey, it’s important to foster walking and biking as much as possible. The state right now almost exclusively caters to car traffic at a time when millennials are choosing a car-lite or car-free lifestyle and the elderly are finding themselves unable to continue driving. Much more needs to be done to foster the walkability and bikeability of New Jersey’s towns; we have a lot to offer that you won’t see as you speed by at 55 miles per hour on our 4-lane superhighways.

Complementing an increased effort to get people out of their cars is proper funding to maintain and expand public transportation, which is seeing record growth as people reject traffic jam-filled commutes in favor of taking the train to their jobs. PATCO, PATH, and NJ Transit are good systems in desperate need of care, but the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund jeopardizes their future usefulness. If people are going to work in Philadelphia or New York and live in New Jersey, they must be able to rely on public transportation to get them to their jobs.

And if New Jersey residents aren’t going to work in cities in another state, then we need to make New Jersey attractive for the kinds of industries experiencing growth at this point, that being things like the service economy the majority of whose employees, again, want to be in interesting urban settings and not in office parks in remote locations. The state could learn from any number of its peers in the region about how to attract and retain 21st century jobs.

Hopefully somebody in the state legislature takes these considerations seriously, because if they don’t, New Jersey is going to continue to lose good jobs to other states, cementing itself as a niche bedroom community and not much else.

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4 thoughts on “Stemming the tide of population loss in New Jersey

  1. Great blog. I’m totally in!

    I was one of those young people who left New Jersey a generation ago in search of urbanity elsewhere – in my case San Francisco back when it was still possible for mere mortals to afford what was then a run down old building in a bad part of town. I was lucky to be ahead of the curve and have prospered over the years.

    Why did I leave the green lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs of Toms River? As a nerdy bookish teenager I was pulled over by the police on a weekly basis. Why? I was riding a bicycle. I wasn’t a skateboard rat or any kind of punk. I was just riding an ordinary bike to school, work, the library, and back home at the end of a long day… And that constituted probable cause as far the the police were concerned. “Let’s see some I.D.” “What’s in your backpack?” “What are you doing out after dark?” I can only imagine how much worse the situation would have been if I hadn’t been white. The message was clear. Respectable people drive cars. Pedestrians and cyclists are clearly impoverished and up to no good so we have to keep an eye on them. I hated that whole culture – the insecure middle class worrying about “the wrong element” infiltrating their pristine strip malls and office parks. I left and never looked back.

    The sad thing is that Toms River had a lovely Colonial era downtown with great historic architecture. A lot of it was removed or mothballed over the years as the Ocean County Mall opened in the 70’s and killed off all the mom and pop shops in town. In order to prevent blight many old buildings were replaced with parking decks and grass. Toms River is the county seat so the government buildings are all well maintained, but the place has become a sterile office park rather than a vibrant neighborhood.

    Only Island Heights, a charming Victorian era neighborhood, has managed to hold on to its good bones and great old buildings, but it has no business district so you still have to drive to a do anything if you live there.

    It’s entirely possible to reinvent Toms River and make it more walkable etc, but the culture there doesn’t want it. “Public transportation and mixed use density are for Communists!” So why fight a losing battle? I voted with my feet – and I don’t think anyone there misses me at all. I wasn’t their kind.

    • “The message was clear. Respectable people drive cars. Pedestrians and cyclists are clearly impoverished and up to no good so we have to keep an eye on them.”

      Wow, I can’t believe you said that. I’ve been having a conversation with friends and online the past week about this very thing. I just left this comment on a post about a similar topic on the Strong Towns blog:

      “I live in a very walkable pre-war suburb, so while I do drive on occasion, I often walk, bike around or take public transit (including the train to work each day). One time, I biked an hour to a friend’s house the next county over. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant ride, but it wasn’t necessarily harrowing. It was fun and I enjoyed it. However, my friend’s parents were completely bewildered that I had biked to their house. Moreso, they were kind of condescending toward my decision to do so, like it was wrong somehow.

      Fast forward a few months to another time I got to his house without a car. This time I took the bus. I’m sitting there listening to my friend’s mom talk really badly about that place she drives to for work, where “people walk around waiting for the bus”. Like in her mind, merely not having a car makes you a second class citizen.”

      That mindset, that anti-anything-but-cars culture, is so strong in New Jersey. There *are* good, successful, walkable places in North Jersey and to a lesser extent South Jersey, but the overall thinking at every level here is to worry about getting a million cars from A to B without caring about any of the extremely expensive externalities that entails. Case in point, right now in New Jersey, the Transportation Trust Fund is bankrupt. Unless they find a way to pay for it, by later this year it’s going to go 100% toward debt repayment. The answer is of course to raise the gas tax, which is what replenishes it, but nobody wants to pay for the roads they’re addicted to. So, we’re going to go bankrupt. They’ve already started to close down smaller deficient bridges. I just don’t understand how a bunch of adults can sit around and argue while the state literally crumbles. The entirety of the suburban experiment has bankrupted the state, and now we’re suffering the consequences. Roads, bridges, sewer and water systems, they’re all old and need to be fixed, but there’s no money.

      Anyway, yeah it’s a huge mess here. They’re feeling it now though; that infrastructure is crumbling, the huge office parks in the middle of nowhere are going completely empty, the companies that aren’t given tax breaks to move to Camden are moving to the South, a nontrivial amount of young people and retirees are leaving most of the state, and the economy at the shore is imploding because of Atlantic City. This state is going to be dragged into the 21st century whether it wants to or not. It really has no other choice.

  2. Pingback: South Jersey’s sleepy downtowns are waking up | South Jerseyist

  3. Pingback: How job sprawl keeps New Jerseyans impoverished (and how we might be able to fix it) | South Jerseyist

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