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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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