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

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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.

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Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

Suburban Sprawl: Our defining feature and biggest challenge

This article is being cross-posted to the site BlueJersey.com, the state’s “progressive source of news, political analysis and activism in New Jersey”.

Everyone who’s ever driven through New Jersey has seen it. Town after town, subdivision after subdivision of vinyl-sided, single-family housing. It is one of the hallmark features of the Garden State along with our shore towns and Bruce Springsteen. Having grown up in the 20th century with the popularity of the automobile, it provided shelter for a booming post-World War II population and the millions of children born to it. But the American dream our suburbs helped to fulfill have become something of a nightmare. And as the problems that plague these towns get worse, they threaten to undermine the viability of the entire state.

Everyone knows that New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation, with the average property tax bill in the state coming in at $8,161. And for that ever-increasing figure, municipalities across the state are receiving fewer and fewer services as the infrastructure that serves them, such as roads, rails, water, and sewer systems age. The high cost of maintaining these basic services is in part due to the large number of individual municipalities there are in New Jersey (565 at last count). Each town manages its own police and fire departments, school districts, government, local roads, and water/sewer systems. With each town working on its own to maintain its infrastructure, there’s no hope of taking advantage of economies of scale when it comes to paying for things towns need to survive. This means towns have to rely on the state for money they can’t get through property taxes, and municipal aid from Trenton has been falling for the past several years.

As a reaction to the sheer number of towns in the state that need their own costly administration, the nonprofit organization Courage to Connect formed to promote the benefits of municipal resource sharing and outright consolidation. The first township/borough consolidation to occur since it formed, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough became one municipality in 2013. At a State of the Town address earlier this year, Mayor Liz Lempert listed out the ways this consolidation has saved the town money. The new town has fewer employees, the tax rate is lower than that of the separate towns, improved municipal services, and what Lempert calls a more responsive government. Notably, Senate President Steve Sweeney has been a proponent of municipal consolidation as a way to lower property taxes.

Another area where our suburban sprawl hurts us is the vast transportation network built to move people around it. To say that New Jersey is known for its highways almost as much as its sprawl would be an understatement. We are after all the “What exit?” state. But while New Jerseyans have traditionally loved getting in their car for most trips they take, even short ones within their own towns, they have never loved paying for it. The Transportation Trust Fund, set up in 1984 by Governor Tom Kean to pay for our roads, bridges, and trains, has failed to keep pace with the cost of keeping those assets modern and safe. Governor Christie has been notably silent on the issue for fear of the need to raise taxes at a time when he is calculating his every move should he wish to jump into the 2016 presidential race. In the meantime, less and less of the Transportation Trust Fund goes toward actual asset maintenance every day. Within the next few months, the fund could be entirely dedicated to paying off past debts. This means more bridges will become unsafe, commuting times will rise, and public transportation will face service cuts, fare increases, or, more likely, both.

Complicating the state’s transportation problems is Christie’s canceling of the ARC tunnel project by shortly after he entered office. The potential pros and cons of this project aside, it remains the case that major pieces of transportation infrastructure linking New Jersey with New York are in dire need of fixing or replacement. The trans-Hudson tunnels, badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, have been given only 20 more years of useful life before they need to be shut down by Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. And the 100-year old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River frequently malfunctions, causing delays on the busiest train line in the country. Without serious attention, these problems will only get worse in the future, especially as both Amtrak and NJ Transit’s ridership numbers continue to increase year after year.

All of this not only results in a more costly commute for the state’s workers, but higher operating costs for the state’s businesses as their products encounter delays traversing the state. The transportation fund is in such dire straits that transportation advocates have joined together with community and business leaders to form Forward NJ, a unified force calling for a permanent fix to our transportation woes. And with good reason; a state with nearly 9 million people, 90% of whom drive to their daily jobs, cannot have a below-average transportation network without a seriously negative economic outcome.

So what’s the future for towns in the sprawl? It doesn’t look good. The increasing number of baby boomers hitting retirement age are finding it hard to pay their growing property taxes, leaving them with no choice but to leave for less expensive states. And millennials, that coveted demographic between roughly 18 and 34, by and large prefer the state’s older towns with walkable downtowns connected to either Philadelphia or New York by public transportation. Indeed, Dean of the Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes recently appeared on NJTV News reporting on this trend, calling for the reinvention of the state’s suburbs in order to remain economically competitive and socially viable in the years to come.

The facts on the ground support this notion. The places seeing investment right now tend to be the state’s older towns, both pre-war streetcar suburbs and those developed after the mainstream adoption of the personal car. In North Jersey, towns like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark have seen investment over the past decade, as have towns along NJ Transit’s network of trains delivering commuters into Manhattan. And in South Jersey, older towns like along the PATCO train line into Center City Philadelphia like Collingswood and Haddon Township are seeing an array of infill projects including new shops and restaurants. Even Cherry Hill, the region’s showcase post-war suburb, is seeing an uptick in projects that will densify the township. Even the state’s long-distressed cities, long abandoned by private investment in favor of far out suburban development, are seeing new money.

And cities like Trenton, Newark, and Camden are receiving more attention now than they have in decades. Even under a Republican governor, investments are being made in these cities’ schools, and tax breaks being given to companies relocating there. The results of these dramatic methods won’t be known for decades, but it’s a stark contrast to Trenton’s history of sending these cities money with little or no oversight or overarching methodology to facilitate their revitalization.

No one call tell the future, but a new pattern is definitely emerging. One of our state’s biggest challenges in the coming decades will be how to mitigate the social and economic costs of our sprawling suburbs. It’s clear that they’ve simply become too expensive to maintain. And as people both young and old leave the state for more attractive places, there will be fewer New Jerseyans living in these towns to pay the cost to maintain them.