Built Environment, Demographics, Development

How to begin addressing New Jersey’s “millennial problem”

Over the past few days, two articles have come out that speak to a few weaknesses New Jersey is suffering from at the moment. The first is a Wall Street Journal piece about how the state has a “millennial problem”, detailing how younger people don’t want to live, work, or play in the state’s sprawling suburbia, nor could they afford it if they wanted to. The second rightly suggests that our overbuilding of suburban office parks in the 20th century has put has at a disadvantage as younger people today look for work in dynamic urban environments and not the pastoral campuses of the generation before us. Both articles get at something I think about a lot, especially as a millennial that does live in this state. I was inspired to put together some ideas that elected officials and civic leaders would be wise to consider if they want to address the fundamental problems our state has going into the 21st century.

Though New Jersey overplayed its hand in building a sprawling suburban landscape in last decade, there are some remedies that would help to keep it relevant in this one. The first thing it must do is properly invest in its public transportation network. New Jersey’s links to jobs in the very hot New York City and Philadelphia job markets has always been a strength, and with more jobs moving back into central cities, these links must be made even stronger. NJ Transit has been starved of consistent funding for too long, and it shows through increased delays and frequent equipment failures. It needs a reliable and dedicated funding source so it can perform backlogged maintenance and network expansion. In my area of South Jersey, that means bringing the Glassboro-Camden light rail line, which will connect Gloucester County to Camden and Philadelphia, to life, and making the Atlantic City Rail Line more frequent and Philadelphia-focused, with possible new stops along the way.

Simply put, millennials aren’t going to flock to cul-de-sac neighborhoods where everything they want to do outside their homes requires a trip by car on a congested highway. People in my generation are basing our lives around proximity to our jobs and what amenities our communities can provide. In that vein, New Jersey land use policy needs to shift toward supporting zoning that allows denser mixed-use projects to be more easily built. In most post-war suburban towns, there is a strong separation of residential, commercial, and business uses, which mandates that residents need a car to get anywhere. More mixed-use projects, perhaps with retail on the ground floor and housing and/or office space on top, would mean more vibrancy through a diversity of uses and end the requirement that cars are an absolute necessity to live in the state. Given that we’re a generation more averse than any other to the expensive cost of owning a car, anything that can be done to reduce the need for one is going to be a win for the state. And if these mixed-use projects can be built near rail stations into New York or Philadelphia, we’ll start to see how truly synergistic our relationship with those two cities can be.

Finally, lawmakers would do well to increase investment in New Jersey’s own cities like Newark, Jersey City, Camden, or Trenton. The appreciation for a dynamic urban environment isn’t limited to external cities alone. Newark and Jersey City have come alive thanks to recent interest, and cities like Camden and Trenton could see the same if properly invested in. Indeed, EDA tax incentives are bringing hundreds of jobs back to Camden, a city that suffered historic disinvestment in the 20th century. If Camden, Trenton, Passaic, or Elizabeth are nurtured and successfully attract jobs like they once had, every community around them, and especially those suburbs on rail lines connected to them, will greatly benefit.

Just because the craze of suburbanization is nearing an end in the Northeast doesn’t mean that New Jersey has to suffer. With a little imagination and foresight, we can envision a state that successfully adapts to the changing tastes of the 21st century.

Built Environment, Development, Food and Drink, Transit

Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

This is a pretty hot take (as far as urbanist hot takes go), as it’s based more of a few random visits than an in-depth look at history, but here it is:

Burlington City should be more of a happening place.

I don’t know the deep history of one of South Jersey’s most historic cities (if you have more insight, I’d love to hear it), but this idea comes from having taken the River Line train a few times for dinner at Brickwall Tavern‘s Burlington location (the other, in a fascinating bit of upper-south/lower-central Jersey cultural exchange, being in Asbury Park). It’s got a downtown on par in size and scale with Collingswood’s or Bordentown’s, both DVRPC classic towns, though for some reason it doesn’t feature on the site. It has frequent rail access to Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia, something that might become even more of an asset thanks to the big projects going on in Camden thanks to a strategy of tax-incentivized development there and when the project to extended it to downtown Trenton offices comes to fruition. It also has old, historic buildings and neighborhoods thanks to it being one of South Jersey’s oldest cities incorporated in 1693 and it’s located along the Delaware River and its riverfront has plans for improvement. It seems to me to have a lot of elements of successful places, and it actually reminds me of many desirable historic Massachusetts towns.



But of course, since it’s in New Jersey, it’s been hobbled over the years by the state’s pro-suburban, anti-city policies. For instance, take a look at the border of Burlington City, where the downtown and old neighborhoods are, and Burlington Township, the suburban neighborhoods that ring the city:



This is a classic New Jersey move, and one of the reasons we have over 550 distinct municipalities. To me, the reason is pretty clear: politicians in Trenton spent the 20th century enabling suburbanites to disentangle themselves from cities and live a separate, oh-so-perfect suburban lifestyle without having to be a part of the historic cities and urban areas they would otherwise naturally be a part of. And just like in many other parts of the state, when they suburbanized in the 20th century, they built their own commercial outlets do they didn’t have to go downtown anymore: the shopping mall. In the case of Burlington Township, that takes the form of the failing Burlington Center Mall on the other side of I-295 from the city. The gigantic road its on also includes a Walmart and various other strip plazas.



But given people in my generation gravitating away from the incredibly boring, sterile suburbs the generation before us built and toward cities and interesting urban areas, I think Burlington City could see a renewed interest over the next decade. It’s got the bones and location to be successful. I think it’s an area to watch as we get further away from the failed ideal of 20th century suburbia and work on improving cities left behind by baby boomers.

Built Environment, Development, Transit

The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

Last November, the University City District released a report detailing the immense growth the neighborhood is seeing. Among the good news was “new commercial and residential developments in the works, including the 3.0 University Place office building and the apartments planned at 3601 Market St.” and a “milestone of 75,000 jobs in the University City area alone, a figure aided in no small part by the presence of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences.” It goes on to mention the nearly 30 real estate projects underway in the neighborhood and $1 billion University City Science Center expansion. Its office vacancy rate of 2% is the lowest in the entire region. And this report came out even before Drexel released its ambitious plans to partially cap the rail yards adjacent to its school and build an entirely new mixed use development over the next several decades.  Suffice to to say, University City is going to be hot for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for us? Well, if you live in South Jersey and work in West Philadelphia, you have two options. You can drive to work along either I-676 or I-76, two extremely congested highways. Or you can take PATCO to the Market-Frankford Line, which honestly isn’t a bad option. But the PATCO line only threads through a few towns; at the point where someone is driving 15 minutes to get to a station, they might justify just driving in entirely to themselves, increasing traffic, congestion, and general commute torture. Or they might decide to move out of New Jersey altogether, which is bad for the state. This is where an improved Atlantic City Line might come into play. I foresee several options for improving the line to where it would provide decent, reliable service to and from that super hot job market in West Philadelphia.

Better serve the end of the line that’s booming

If Atlantic City is failing, Philadelphia is very much not. So why not increase service along the end of the corridor that could use it? What this means is increasing the number of trains running between Philadelphia and Hammonton. It would be reasonable to say that Hammonton, located halfway between the city and the shore and with a 59 minute ride time from 30th Street Station, is perhaps the eastern edge of the reasonable daily commuting distance. (Anecdotally speaking, I personally know people who commute from there to Philadelphia every day.) As such, inserting shorter-running trains into the schedule during the current unacceptably-long 2 hour schedule gaps would increase the utility of the line for people going to and from Philadelphia, by far the larger job and culture center of the line’s two termini. Nearly everyone with an interest in transit advocacy understands that frequency is freedom, and that if people can rely on a regular schedule with reasonable, sensible headways, a line will prosper. Inserting trains into the current gaps starts moving you in that direction.

Remove the obstacles to speedier service

As it stands, the line doesn’t exactly run quickly. The time between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia, not a far distance, is currently about 32 minutes. Quicker only than taking a local bus, that time is far too long for rail service. Whether improving that involves track rehabilitation or scheduling improvements, that number has to come down for the line to be considered more convenient than driving. Beyond track improvements, the fact that the line is fully diesel-powered line also hurts its ability to move quickly. As such, it’s a much slower running line than its electrified cousins to the north. Frequent and fast are the two factors that guarantee ridership, so attacking the line’s inefficiencies on those two fronts would be the most important things to do to improve its utility.

Create a larger potential passenger base

With no stops between Lindenwold (where it provides a transfer to the PATCO High Speed Line) and Cherry Hill, the line runs through a part of the most densely-populated part of South Jersey without stopping. One of the suggestions for creating a larger pool of potential riders is to add a station at the Woodcrest park and ride station, where the line parallels the PATCO tracks, a move that would also act to create another useful transfer point. Putting a new station in the middle of the highly populated southern Cherry Hill/western Voorhees/Route 30 corridor area would add a lot of people to the line’s customer base. On the Pennsylvania side, I believe it to be possible to extend the line down to the Airport, which opens up an entire other realm of usefulness. The only way to get to the airport for the vast majority of South Jerseyans right now is to drive there and park your car. But if you park there for long enough, it becomes more expensive than taking public transportation, even if you make the connection at Market East/Jefferson Station to SEPTA’s Airport Line. Bringing the Atlantic City Line to the airport would give South Jersey a one-seat ride to the airport, which would be a huge improvement in service to a regional transportation asset for our part of the state. If you’ve ever been on NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line, you’ve seen people taking the train to and from Newark International Airport. It would be an immediate boost to ridership if the Atlantic City Line went to Philadelphia International.

Let people know the line exists

What may be the least expensive option might also be the most useful one in the short term. As it stands today, there are essentially no advertisements for the train line. When I wrote an article a few years back about taking the train down the shore, I had so many comments from people who had no idea the train even existed. Even if you imagine the train to be oriented toward Atlantic City and not Philadelphia, advertising the line’s existence would be a great way offer people an alternative to the insane parking fees (think $50 and in some cases during concerts, $100) that some casinos have been charging lately. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to believe NJ Transit wouldn’t want to capitalize on that price gouging to attract new customers.

These are just a few ideas that’ve been rattling around my brain for a few years now. It depresses me that NJ Transit lets this line decline without seriously considering doing anything to make it more useful for our region. Actually, it’s also kind of confusing. They spent money to build the Pennsauken Transportation Center to provide a transfer between the Riverline and the Atlantic City Line, but what good is a transfer to a train that only comes every 2+ hours? If you really want to improve the line, you need to make it fast, frequent, and reliable. And it wouldn’t be just for the exercise. It would mean improved prosperity for South Jersey to have quicker, simpler access to a hot Philadelphia neighborhood that’s only going to grow jobs in the coming decades.

Built Environment, Demographics

Chris Christie would rather you just die on the side of the road

I usually don’t comment on what New Jersey governor Chris Christie does. I don’t need to; enough has been said by commentators more thoughtful and knowledgeable than I about how his policies have done harm to this state that will take decades to undo. But last night I saw something that upset me so much that I had to say something. It was a tweet from Bike Jersey City announcing that Christie had pocket vetoed a bill that would have created a state-level panel to recommend improvements to pedestrian and bicycle safety. The panel would have, in the words of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition:

“…examined issues related to pedestrian and bicycle safety and would advise the governor, legislature, NJ Department of Transportation and other state agencies on solutions that will make New Jersey communities safer and friendlier for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

To be clear, I have skin in this game. Or really, a whole body. I ride a bike in South Jersey, mostly in parts of Camden and Gloucester counties, extremely often. I live in a town where it’s easier to get around by walking or riding a bike than it is by car. I regularly travel an hour away from home on my bike, mostly on county roads with shoulders that provide a modicum of separation from cars by becoming de facto bike lanes when I and others use them (and I do quite often see other people on bikes when I’m traveling).

So what does a pocket veto mean for the bill? It essentially means that Christie did nothing with the bill on his desk. He simply let it die, ignoring the hard work of legislators who worked to get an entire government, except for one man, to agree to something. That he would insult his colleagues by ignoring that feat alone is horrible, but to do so on a bill that would help save lives and make our communities safer and more livable is a disgrace. I’m sure there are some who think our state government is big and convoluted enough, and who might say “good for Christie for not creating more big government.” I wish we didn’t have to create a board to examine bicycle and pedestrian safety either. But New Jersey has spent the last 60 years creating an environment hostile to anybody not in a car. It’s not just a problem in New Jersey, but in most of post-war America, as studies like Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design illustrate. But New Jersey does suffer to a very high degree when it comes to the safety of non-driving road users, having built up most of its congested suburbs for use by car. Simply put, the people who designed our roadways barely considered that anyone would use them who didn’t drive. And when they did, they were laughably inadequate.

A typical New Jersey intersection. Can you spot the crosswalk?

A typical New Jersey intersection. Can you spot the crosswalk?

This isn’t just a personal issue for me, but one that speaks to where New Jersey sees itself in the future. The state has been put on notice that its mid-20th century suburban advantage is now a 21st century disadvantage, with headlines like “Diamonds to dinosaurs: NJ towns struggle under weight of massive office park vacancies” and Sprawl withdrawal: Young NJ residents push toward cities and away from suburbia.” I’ve publicly worried here in the past that the state’s leaders will allow it to become irrelevant in a world where young people just aren’t buying into the distant, drive-only suburbia their parents built. Some communities close to Philadelphia and New York understand what’s happening and have pivoted toward walkability and thriving downtown activity. But there are those in Trenton with the mindset that it’s still 1970 and that everyone wants the big house on a big plot of land with a two car garage where you can’t see your neighbors. Some people might want that, but the prevailing winds have changed direction in a big way.

Sadly, Chris Christie will not be the one to help usher a new direction into the statehouse. Yesterday, in addition to his veto of this safety bill, he also vetoed legislation that would have required twenty minutes of recess for children and that would have raised the smoking age to 21. These vetos show that the distractions of running for president trump the welfare of the children of New Jersey in Christie’s mind. It’s a disgusting thing to do, and this state will be a much better place once this self-serving and hateful man is gone from our lives.

Built Environment

Amazon’s Robbinsville Fulfillment Center and the Real Life Negative Effects of Job Sprawl

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about what might seem like the abstract negative effects of suburban sprawl, but here’s a real world example you can see for yourself. In an NJ.com article titled “Amazon’s mega warehouse gridlocks traffic in N.J. towns”,  Cristina Rojas writes that the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Robbinsville is causing horrible traffic jams in the area. According to the article, “traffic grinds to a halt for miles when more than 4,000 employees are going in and out during rush hour”, and “school buses get caught up in the traffic, kids who drive to school arrive late and it has become nearly impossible to get in and out of the neighborhood that sits across the street from the Gordon Road entrance.” The mayor is now working with residents and other officials to find a “solution” to the traffic nightmare. Unfortunately for residents of the area, the solution is that this warehouse should never have been built in Robbinsville in the first place.

Job sprawl, the movement of employment from historical city and population centers outward into low density suburbia, has been a factor in the development of America since the 1950s. It’s effects of solidifying impoverishment in New Jersey have been at work since then, with poorer residents historically suffering longer and more difficult commutes while wealthier residents have easier access to jobs. Though much has been made about white collar jobs moving back toward metropolitan cores, jobs most accessible to lower-skilled workers tend to remain located in sprawling, low-density suburbia best accessible to those with a car and poorly served by public transportation. The Amazon fulfillment center is a perfect example of this kind of development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

To its credit, the Greater Mercer Travel Management Association tries to relieve this congestion and mitigate the car-dominance of the area by operating a shuttle that runs between the Hamilton Marketplace and the warehouse. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Marketplace itself is a sprawling suburban development, making it difficult to get to in the first place. Though the shuttle connects to NJ Transit busses to nearby communities like Ewing, Trenton, or Lawrence Township, and Princeton, a grueling, two-seat bus and shuttle ride to manage adds layers of mental exhaustion to what is already a physically demanding job.

The answer, to me, is that this warehouse should not have been built in such a rural, inaccessible place that requires a car or difficult transit connections to get to, but rather in one of the state’s struggling cities, where it would have been accessible not only to lower-skilled residents who desperately need access to jobs, but also accessible to the transportation resources that already tend to exist there, such as rail lines in addition to bus service. Specifically, this being a blog about South Jersey, I would loved to have seen this come to Camden, a centralized city with excellent public transit that needs jobs just as much as any impoverished town in America.

Overall, I’m extremely disappointed that leaders around the state did not advocate for these warehouses to get built in or near the communities where they could do the most good. The jobs at these warehouses, which mainly require lower amounts of skill, would make an immense difference in the lives of those living in places like Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth, or Newark. But from what I’ve ever read, no attempt to locate these jobs near those who would most benefit from them was made. Anyone who thinks that we can one day get the manufacturing jobs that built the American middle class back is fooling themselves. This is a lost an opportunity to bring some semblance of honest jobs back to places that lost them decades ago. And it stands notably in contrast to the enormous tax breaks being given to companies hiring white-collar employees to locate in cities like Camden or Newark. We spend so much money on tax breaks for these companies, so much money on social programs aimed at alleviating poverty in our cities, but why do we not attempt to attract employers there who would hire who’s hiring needs would match the skills of the local population? What Christie and others in the state pushing for corporate tax breaks (notably Senate President Steve Sweeney) are trying to do is force revitalization into these cities by bringing in white collar jobs and their white collar employees. But a more holistic, less expensive, and more human approach would be to work with employers who have a chance at giving jobs to the residents already in these places. We’d have a healthier state both socially and economically.

Coming back to Robbinsville, one thing’s for sure, and that’s that online shopping isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the swell in employment that the holidays bring. As MarketWatch wrote last week, shopping in person is beginning to take a backseat to online shopping during the time around Black Friday. A lot of that shopping is done on Amazon.com, and a lot of those boxes are filled by workers in its Robbinsville fulfillment center. The residents of the area are going to spend the foreseeable future battling the traffic this warehouse has brought, and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a patchwork of public transit fixes to the problem of horrible site placement for workers. If anyone we elect had the foresight to see that continuing to build in this sprawling fashion would have these negative consequences, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation today.

Built Environment, Demographics

Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.

But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.

Route 38 through Maple Shade.

Route 73 through Maple Shade.

Routes 38 and 73 through Maple Shade are prime examples of soulless, placeless development representing a true geography of a cultureless nowhere.

Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.

Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.

Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town's success, if they embrace it.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town’s success, if they embrace it.

Built Environment, Demographics

How job sprawl keeps New Jerseyans impoverished (and how we might be able to fix it)

I often blog about the somewhat abstract problems that the high level of suburban sprawl has created in New Jersey. But a recent New York Times article written by Mikayla Bouchard highlights a very specific problem created by the increasing distance between people and jobs. In her article, Bouchard highlights the role that simply getting to and from work plays in determining whether or not those living in impoverished neighborhoods have a chance to escape poverty. She writes:

“In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.”

While the focus for most people sharing this article has been the issue of the country’s inadequate transportation networks (and rightfully so; transportation of all sorts is not only inadequately funded not only at the federal level, but often at the state level, as is the unfortunate case in New Jersey), I think there’s a larger issue at play to consider. After all, transportation is merely a means to an end.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.30.32 AM

The bigger issue here is that over the past decade, the distance between people and employment in metropolitan regions has increased. A study by the Brookings Institution published in March details that on average, “the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent” between 2000 and 20012. As the policies that encourage suburban sprawl have pushed people further and further from the urban core of regions, employers followed suit. The above chart effectively shows which areas of the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metropolitan region have seen job loses and which have seen job gains. The findings of this study correlate to the experiences described in the New York Times article. The below table shows the raw numbers, including which groups saw the largest decrease in nearby jobs.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.30.57 AMAs the numbers detail, the highest poverty areas saw larger-than-average decreases in nearby employment. What this translates to is that the most vulnerable population must travel increasingly further to find meaningful employment. And given that most “lower” and “middle” class jobs haven’t seen wage increases in quite a long time, this group is most likely to spend a large amount of what little money they make just getting to and from distant workplaces. What this means is that the chance to save money, to afford an apartment or house closer to your job, is extremely small. In the end, the cycle of poverty is solidified because sprawl has pushed jobs further and further away.

You can see this play out by looking at where residents of the city of Camden work. A study done by CamConnect revealed that an astonishing 79% of residents had to travel outside of the city to work, and that 53% of residents travel outside of Camden County for work. (And despite the proximity of and easy public transit connections to Center City, “only 4% of residents held their primary job in Philadelphia”, highlighting the similar lack of middle class jobs in that city as well.) In a city with a poverty rate that hovers around 40%, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that many people make their daily commute on public transportation. What this boils down to is the most poverty-vulnerable population in the county has to travel the furthest for work and spend more of their time and money getting there. Our pattern of suburban sprawl has guaranteed that, for the time being, their chances of escaping poverty are small.

So, why is this bad? Other than the moral argument that it’s unacceptable that the richest country in the world seemingly happily keeps large swaths of people imprisoned in toxic environments, what does it have to do with anything? Well, an argument can easily be made that this isn’t just a moral issue. Taxpayers end up spending millions upon millions of dollars on social services for those living in neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to the kinds of things that suburbanites take for granted, like good schools, clean grocery stores, and yes, access to jobs well-paying jobs. Some people would happily take those services away altogether, but, tattered though the fabric of our social contract is, that’s not going to happen. This means that at the same time towns attempt to keep building subdivisions and office parks in the middle of farm land, the state is going to keep trying to mitigate the negative social cost of doing so, and no one is much the better for it.

What can be done about this? I propose that we can stop the series of tax breaks aimed at wealthy companies to move to cities like Camden. Noble though the idea may be, there’s a large amount of skepticism that local city residents will be the recipients of the jobs coming in. Instead, these incentives should be used to support local businesses, which have a much higher chance of actually resulting in employment for people living in the city. That would wipe out the drag on households that having to travel to distant jobs engenders. It would result in people having more money invest in locally, which would enrich the community and eventually mean fewer people need to turn to costly social services and benefits, saving taxpayers millions in the long run.

We could further incentivize locating a business near transportation. Downtown Camden, for instance, is awash in a sea of parking lots located very close to both heavy and light rail in the form of the PATCO High Speed Line and NJ Transit’s River Line. And speaking of the River Line, there are many towns along its length that could benefit from increased investment and jobs.

Overall, anything that tilts the balance back toward areas accessible by more people than distant office parks, the better the general health of the region will be. As we’re learning, there is a very real financial and social cost to the sprawl that’s pushed us all apart. We don’t all have to live in cities, but moving jobs a little closer to where the people are would make a huge difference toward future prosperity.