‘Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers,’ writes Bill McKibben in a new piece published Monday. ‘It required a wholesale industrial retooling.’
By Jon Queally, Common Dreams.
We’re under attack, says author and climate campaigner Bill McKibben, and the only way to defeat the enemy is to declare a global war against the destructive practices that threaten the world’s imperiled ecosystems and human civilization as we know it.
In a new piece published Monday in The New Republic, the co-founder of the global climate action group 350.org says there is simply no more time to waste and that a full-scale mobilization, like the one orchestrated by the U.S. government during World War II, is now necessary if the adversary—human-caused global warming and the climate change that results—is to be vanquished.
“World War III is well and truly underway,” writes McKibben. “And we are losing.”
With the introductory paragraphs reading like a battlefield assessment in which melting ice sheets, firestorms and historic floods represent the movements of enemy forces, McKibben offers a rebuke to the inaction of world leaders who have refused to acknowledge the scale of the attack:
For years, our leaders chose to ignore the warnings of our best scientists and top military strategists. Global warming, they told us, was beginning a stealth campaign that would lay waste to vast stretches of the planet, uprooting and killing millions of innocent civilians. But instead of paying heed and taking obvious precautions, we chose to strengthen the enemy with our endless combustion; a billion explosions of a billion pistons inside a billion cylinders have fueled a global threat as lethal as the mushroom-shaped nuclear explosions we long feared. Carbon and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time, the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization.
It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.
We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.”
But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments. (Over the past few years, record-setting droughts have helped undermine the brutal strongman of Syria and fuel the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria.)
It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict–except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planetwide occupation that follows.
Though McKibben has become known for marshaling his research and literary skills to inform and inspire the climate movement, he is not alone in pushing the theme of wartime mobilization.
In 2013, environmental journalist David Roberts, then writing for Grist, wrote how the metaphor of wartime mobilization “gets used a lot” but recognized it as an apt way to describe what will ultimately be necessary. More than three years later, following the Paris climate deal signed earlier this year and amid a torrent of increasingly ominous climate studies, the stakes are only that much higher.
“There is no time left for gradualism. That window has passed. This is a climate emergency — the moment to make a stand for the future. For each other. For our children.” —Russell Greene, climate activist”
Language appears to be failing us,” said Russell Greene, a DNC platform committee member and leading climate activist for the Progressive Democrats of America and People Demanding Action, last month.
“What is urgent? When is immediately? We have lost touch. We are living in the age of consequences. We can no longer pretend otherwise. With our every action and non-action we leave our imprint on generations. There is no time left for gradualism. That window has passed. This is a climate emergency — the moment to make a stand for the future. For each other. For our children.”
McKibben argues—despite the fossil fuel industry’s orchestrated effort to suppress or dismiss the scientific consensus—that there is no longer room for denial or delay.
With an eye toward the U.S. presidential outcome this fall and an unknown congressional makeup for the next administration, McKibben laments the loss of Bernie Sanders in the primary, bemoans the prospect of President Donald Trump, and indicates how Hillary Clinton—though the likely winner—may not willingly embrace the profound counter-assault needed to fight the unrelenting physics of carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases. He writes:
The next president doesn’t have to wait for a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor to galvanize Congress. Much of what we need to do can—and must—be accomplished immediately, through the same use of executive action that FDR relied on to lay the groundwork for a wider mobilization.
The president could immediately put a halt to drilling and mining on public lands and waters, which contain at least half of all the untapped carbon left in America. She could slow the build-out of the natural gas system simply by correcting the outmoded way the EPA calculates the warming effect of methane, just as Obama reined in coal-fired power plants.
She could tell her various commissioners to put a stop to the federal practice of rubber-stamping new fossil fuel projects, rejecting those that would “significantly exacerbate” global warming.
She could instruct every federal agency to buy all their power from green sources and rely exclusively on plug-in cars, creating new markets overnight. She could set a price on carbon for her agencies to follow internally, even without the congressional action that probably won’t be forthcoming.
And just as FDR brought in experts from the private sector to plan for the defense build-out, she could get the blueprints for a full-scale climate mobilization in place even as she rallies the political will to make them plausible. Without the same urgency and foresight displayed by FDR—without immediate executive action—we will lose this war.
As with every war, notes McKibben, victory is not assured. “We’ve waited so long to fight back in this war that total victory is impossible, and total defeat can’t be ruled out.”
But despite the enormous stakes and troubling odds, he continues, it is no longer an option to choose half measures against the enemy humanity now faces.
“The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?”
In anticipation of the Strong Towns tour, OregonPEN this week offers another Strong Towns interview, a June 2016 conversation that occurred in Detroit between Chuck Marohn and Janette Sadik-Khan, a creative and innovative powerhouse who helped New York City rethink the uses of streets. As Sadik-Khan says in the interview It just really underscores that it’s not a zero‑sum game between people, and buses, and bike lanes, and cars. It’s just about better balancing your streets. They can be used for more than just moving cars.
Chuck Marohn: Hi, everybody. This is Chuck Marohn. Welcome back to the Strong Towns Podcast. We are at CNU24 [Congress for a New Urbanism] here in the Detroit Opera House lobby.
I have [with me the person] who I think is perhaps the star of this congress, or the person that more people are showing up to see than anyone else. I’ve got Janette Sadik‑Khan, the former Transportation Commissioner from New York City. Welcome to the podcast.
Janette Sadik‑Khan: Oh, well, it’s great to be here. It just shows that everybody likes a street fight.
Chuck: They do. They do like a street fight. Your new book is “Street Fight.” I read it. I loved it. It is very readable, very approachable. I want to start with the very first sentence, and I want to ask you why you wanted to be the traffic commissioner of New York City.
Janette: As you know from that first sentence, I didn’t want to be the traffic commissioner of New York City. I wanted to be the transportation commissioner for New York City.
When I went to interview with Mayor Bloomberg, we were sitting around the table, as interviews always go, and that was one of the first questions he asked me. When I said I wanted to be transportation commissioner, not traffic commissioner, there was complete silence all around.
Chuck: I lost this job. [laughter]
Janette: Exactly. Like, “I got to meet the mayor. It wasn’t a total loss.” I kept going and talking about what I wanted to do in terms of making the streets safer and making it more inviting for people on foot, on bike, and by bus. I talked about things like congestion pricing, which were not exactly conventional at the time.
They weren’t that excited at the interview, which is why I thought I was never going to get the job. Actually, those ideas had been contained in the PlaNYC initiative that the mayor was on the cusp of unveiling. He didn’t want to spoil that announcement, so he didn’t evidence any enthusiasm. Fortunately, the story turns out well.
Chuck: You were the right person for the job.
Janette: It was really good timing. The mayor’s vision for where the city needed to go and how we were going to accommodate the million more people that were expected to move to New York City by 2030 really had profound implications for all
aspects of government but, particularly, how we used and organized our streets.
Chuck: You talk in that opening chapter about these dueling mindsets that sometimes paralyze our action. The one mindset being the megaproject. The other mindset being the rational, yet difficult to deal with, resistance of residents to almost anything.
Those being two very polar opposite forces that make it hard to do stuff. Can you talk a little about how that as the starting point becomes the challenge for someone like you walking into a job like this?
Janette: Absolutely. There’s a reason why our streets were in a kind of suspended animation for 50 years. The expectations for what people wanted out of their streets, could have on their streets, had basically reduced to moving cars and big infrastructure investments.
It really, in a way, pitted a kind of Robert Moses approach against a Jane Jacobs approach. In the 21st century, we can get beyond that very polarizing dynamic and look at a way to invest in our infrastructure that’s not just about megaprojects. It doesn’t need to take billions of dollars to get things done. There’s potential hidden right now in our streets if we look at them a little differently. It doesn’t take billions. It doesn’t take decades.
Moving beyond the Robert Moses megaproject, but also moving beyond the Jane Jacobs not‑in‑my‑backyard‑we‑can’t‑do‑anything‑different‑with‑our‑streets resistance.
Chuck: Resistance to that.
Janette: Resistance to basically anything.
That’s also been the problem in the sense that we didn’t create an agenda that communities could say yes to. That was a very big part of the program, was moving quickly, creating an agenda that people could say yes to, and moving with projects that people could see, touch, and feel. Then raise the expectations that they have for their streets.
Suddenly, when we put out these very quick plaza programs, and bike programs, people could say, “Oh, I see what you’re talking about. I want that in my backyard. I want that in my backyard.” That really dramatically changed the relationship that we had with communities.
Chuck: How difficult is it? Sometimes when people think of New York government, they think of this, “We got Mitch Silver sitting over here, the head of a massive bureaucracy in New York. Thousands of people, how do you get anything done?
How do you get something done in a huge system?” I see people in much smaller bureaucracies who say, “Boy, we just can’t get any traction.”
You had a much larger system, not only of people working for you, but also businesses, and residences, and all the things that everybody has to deal with. You had it on mega scale. How does the approach that you champion in this book help you deal with those dynamics?
Janette: We do have a city of 8.5 million people, 8.5 million very opinionated New Yorkers.
Chuck: [laughs] New Yorker have opinions, I see. This is new to me.
Janette: It did feel like, at different times, that there were 8.5 million traffic engineers because people had very strong opinions about their streets, which is wonderful.
We had 4,500 people at the New York City Department of Transportation. One of the very first things that we did was create a strategic plan, outlining where the agency was going to go to deliver on the vision that Mayor Bloomberg outlined in PlaNYC. That long-range sustainability program had big implications for our streets.
Looking at how we were going to move the big shift of a city agency in a new direction meant that we really needed to get everybody on board. All of those employees participated in the creation of this plan which outlined how we could build better bus options for people, better biking options for people, better pedestrian plaza, safer streets.
We have the safest streets in a hundred years after Mike Bloomberg’s administration. Again, setting the vision, and then actually using the data to follow up and look at what the impact of these projects were. We really went from streets that were governed by anecdote, like, “Oh, I like this. I don’t like this.”
You could go to a cab driver and say, “What do you think of this?” They’d be grrrrrrr [growls]. Not saying very complimentary things.
And then we had the analysis. That actually went a long way to turn small business owners, who were some of our biggest opponents into some of our biggest supporters. That whole vision, collecting the data, and moving quickly to show what can be done, was key. You take a look at an agency, like Mitch Silvers at the New York City Parks Department. What he’s done in a very short period of time with the Parks without Borders.
Literally tearing down the walls, the fences of these parks showing how quickly you can move to integrate public spaces into the fabric of New York City is very inspiring to see. What municipal leaders, like Mitch, and what leaders across the country are now doing with this new operating code. Almost a new DNA for cities.
Chuck: You have a whole chapter about reading the street. When I went through that chapter, I thought, “This feels very much like early CNU.” The Congress was a lot about going out. What’s the width of the sidewalk that actually helps people get down it? Can you talk just a little bit about that approach, the need to go out and measure things? Why doing that can illuminate something different — [more] than just the code book that we’re used to using?
Janette: It’s interesting because people really don’’ t realize how much asphalt there is to play with. There’s literally cities trapped between the lanes. When you redo the math, we don’t need 12-foot lanes. You can get away with 10-foot lanes. In some instances, nine foot lanes.
When you re‑purpose all that asphalt, you can build in new mobility, like bus rapid transit lines, a cycling network, safer sidewalks, safer streets. Doing the math of the street is really important.
Actually, friends of mine have said that it’s almost ruined their marriage because people read the book. They’re like, “Oh, look at this. We could do this at this intersection and this at this intersection.”
Chuck: That sounds like my wife. “Will you stop talking about it?”
“It doesn’t take a new subway line. You don’t have to have a new stadium. There are all sorts of opportunities that are hidden right in plain sight.”
Janette: Exactly. These very boring dinner partners. Really, this is all I want to do. People have not looked at, “It doesn’t take a new subway line. You don’t have to have a new stadium. There are all sorts of opportunities that are hidden right in plain sight.”
Chuck: If we contrast the Robert Moses Age and the mindset of, “We’ve got to build.” To be a successful commissioner, you have to have, under your tenure . . . we opened a new rail line somewhere [or] we did this big, huge multi‑million dollar project.
Are we just in an era of America’s evolution where the big changes are going to be at the block level and require a different mindset going in?
Transit is the future of this country
Janette: Transit is the future of this country. We need to invest in rapid transit wherever we can. It is certainly what makes New York City strong. You can imagine what the city would be like without a rapid transit system.
I believe strongly in that kind of infrastructure investment. We’re in an era also of constrained resources. We shouldn’t wait around for the money that we need at the federal government, at the state government in order to make some changes that we can do right here, right now.
This story is not just about a big city story. The book goes through the constant interventions that cities of any kind of size can use. When you think about New York City — Staten Island not so different from Detroit, Michigan.
You have to look opportunistically. You have to also tailor the strategies to meet the local needs. Detroit, here, under Mayor Duggan is really investing in transit, not only the downtown area but looking at, “How can we create a more mobile society, 20‑minute neighborhood? How do we create fast traffic transit lines on that radial network to make it work better here?”
There are lots of different kinds of lessons. The major infrastructure investments can be managed [are] some of the smaller interventions and really unlock the potential of cities. Half the world lives in cities today and 80 percent are expected to be there by 2050. The kinds of interventions we make now are incredibly important for the future of the planet.
Chuck: You have a chapter called “Follow the Footsteps” and I love it. It was probably my favorite chapter. When engineers come in, we have codebooks and manuals. They seem to have been written in stone back in Moses’ time.
Janette: They were. [laughs]
Chuck: They were, right, and [then] handed, bequeathed to us. We are not to question them. There is obviously a lot of stuff that comes with this. How much are you calling on people to be humble to go out and actually follow the footsteps? Can you talk us a little bit about what you mean by “Follow the Footsteps?” Why that’s an important design tool that maybe is not in the toolbox of most engineers?
Janette: It’s funny. It was a very important part of what we did. You can actually see the future of your city by looking at the trampled grass and where people are crossing. Those are all signs of where people have fallen through the cracks.
We actually did that in all across the city, and [we] literally looked where the problem areas were and then followed the people, then [we] re‑did our street designs to accommodate where they wanted to go. We did that in places like between 51st and 59th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue where people would cross mid‑block instead of walking all the way to the intersection.
We created six‑and‑half Avenue and nine blocks of this interconnected alleyway, which was great. We did this in Staten Island on bus‑stops, we did it in Bronx and Queens, and [we] literally just followed the people. You can see the outline of the city you need to build in looking at the trampled grass and at the crossings that are right there today.
Part of it is also looking at where the problems are. We did the largest traffic study in the United States, 7000 crashes, looked at where the problems were. That became our Rosetta Stone for investment, and so the who, the what, the why, the when, the where of these traffic crashes really guided all of our infrastructure improvement projects.
Again, that was following the footsteps, following the problem and then fixing what had been huge issue that have been…
Chuck: Can you tell the story of Times Square? It is one that I know others know but it would be good for our listeners to hear from you ‑‑ the brief story of Times Square.
Janette: A lot of people have been to Times Square.
Chuck: Iconic place.
Janette: Iconic place across throughout the world. It was really more known as a Big Traffic Jam. It was very, very crowded. In Times Square, we had 350,000 people that walked through Times Square every day, they were 90 percent of the traffic but they only had 10 percent of the space.
What would happen is people would jump into the street to try to get around the people that were actually walking. Four people abreast and looking up at the wonderful things, the billboards in Times Square.
The New Yorkers who were so crazy, wanted to get by [them] really quickly. [Locals] would go insane when we would see people walking like this [gazing up]. We would go into the streets. It was very dangerous. Times Square was under‑performing economically as a retail [center] . . .
Chuck: Which is crazy to think of.
Janette: Right. There it really was this tangle of traffic. When you think about it, Manhattan is on a grid, North‑South‑ East‑West, and Broadway is the only street that cuts diagonally through that grid. It does great things. It creates these different pauses but it also creates these hotspots of congestion. People have tried for years to fix it, slip lanes, signal changes, all the lights.
Chuck: All the traffic tracks.
Janette: All the conventional tracks. I went to Mayor Bloomberg with this idea, “How about if we close Broadway from 42nd [laughs] to 47th Street.”
Chuck: [laughs] Are you insane?
Janette: [laughs] That was pretty much his reaction, particularly since I was suggesting that we do this in an election year when he was up for re‑election.
We would restore the grid by doing it that way, because Broadway then would be restored with North‑South, East‑West. We would do it as pilot program. I said, “We will test it. We’ll see if it works. We’ll measure it. If it works, we keep it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll put it back the way it was.”
It’s a really strong message for other cities, to try it. You can’t argue that your streets are perfect so you can’t try anything. Again trying, measuring, experimenting, that was really a big part of also Mike Bloomberg’s DNA.
He is all about trying. He is sort of innovation as usual instead of business as usual. We went around the table, the same table where I interviewed the first time for the job, went around and asked all the Deputy Mayors what they think about this idea. Let’s just say, not everybody thought that was such a great idea at that time. [laughter]
Janette: He turned to me and he said, “I don’t ask my commissioners to do the right thing according to the political calendar. I ask my commissioners to do the right thing, period.” He shook my hand just like this and he said, “Let’s do it.”
Chuck: Let’s do it.
Janette: We did it. We did it over a Memorial Day. We closed it and put up all the barrels, two and half acres of new public space, and we measured it over six months.
I will never forget the night before. When we put the barrels up, we suddenly looked out. There was this expanse of asphalt. We realized we didn’t have anything nearby. What are we going to do? That’s terrible. We went to a discount hardware store and bought beach chairs…
Chuck: You put some chairs on the side of the front. That’s awesome.
Janette: $10.99 beach chairs…
Janette: Yeah, and we put those beach chairs out…
Chuck: This is New York City and here’s beach…
Janette: And here’s the beach chair. Beach chairs were king. We put them out, and that next morning, everybody was out on the beach chairs. The media was all about the beach chairs. They didn’t talk about the fact that we closed Time Square to cars, they talked about the beach chairs, “Did you like the beach chairs? The color of the beach chairs?”
In your hometown, when you are looking on those big projects, you just got to go buy some beach chairs, throw them all out, that will be the story that people cover. It was a huge home run, much better for safety, motorist injuries down 63 percent, pedestrian injuries down 35 percent. Economic blockbuster, became one of the top ten retail locations on the planet, and traffic moved better than it even did before.
Chuck: Isn’t that crazy?
Janette: We did that because we measured. We had GPS devices in all 13,000 yellow cabs. We collected 1.1 million records, and we were able to show actually that we can make this grid work better, and you can organize your streets better.
It just really underscores that it’s not a zero‑sum game between people, and buses, and bike lanes, and cars. It’s just about better balancing your streets. They can be used for more than just moving cars.
Chuck: I want to challenge you a little bit…
Janette: Oh, good.
Chuck: . . . because it’s a beautiful story, I’m in love with it. But I know that there are people who are listening, who are going to say, “OK, this is New York City, it’s like, one of the most unique places in North America. My city is not New York.”
In fact, I can tell you I’ve been to places and I’ve talked about Times Square as something . . . as an inspiration point for people, and they’ll say, “Yeah, but we’re not New York.” What would you say to people around the country in much smaller cities who say, “OK, these are great lessons for New York, but how is this a lesson for me? How does this translate to my town?”
Janette: First of all, I love the idea that people say, “We’re not New York.” Because when I was commissioner, people would say to me, New Yorkers, “Well, we’re not Amsterdam. We’re not Copenhagen, so we can’t do these kinds of changes,” and now it’s like, “We’re not New York,” which I think is a success.
Chuck: It’s awesome. You’re the yardstick by which we are measuring now.
Janette: Right. That’s changed, but the piece that is really interesting is that you’ve got cities all over the country that are looking at the Times Square model, not as Times Square ‑‑ we don’t have 350,000 people, we’re now 450,000 going through Times Square ‑‑ we’re much smaller. The idea though is experimenting and trying things, and really, you can paint the city you want to see and see how it works.
I was in Ottawa recently and they’re looking at taking the cars out of ByWard market. Not a Times Square, but a Times Square-like treatment. Again, inviting people back to their streets, creating better streets, is much better for business.
When we did the Times Square piece, we saw that retail sales soared. That also happened with our bus rapid transit lines. That also happened with our protected bike lanes, where we saw retail sales go up 50 percent.
The essence of it is that cars don’t shop, people do
The essence of it is that cars don’t shop, people do, so how do we create an invitation to bring people back to their streets. It doesn’t matter what size your city is.
Doesn’t matter the shape. New York City is a very big city, it’s not all about midtown Manhattan. We have communities not unlike yours, not unlike communities all across the country.
Take a look at Staten Island, take a look at outer Queens, Brooklyn. Very different communities of all different sizes. Again, you can take these lessons, these innovations. Try it, experiment. If you see something that works in another city that you think might work on your streets, try it.
It doesn’t have to take a lot of money. All of the projects that we did, all of the plaza and bike projects that we did in New York City, [all cost] less than one half of one percent of our capital budget. You can literally just change your streets with paints, and planters, and stones from old projects. That’s the important piece…
Chuck: This is something everyone can do?
Janette: Everyone can do, and we started with the street that we had and the budget that we had. There wasn’t an extraordinarily new slush fund of money that we brought to do this, and that’s, I think, the lesson for so many different cities now.
Take those traditional materials, use them in different ways and experiment. And what we found at the end of the Bloomberg administration is that these changes were really popular. 73 percent support for bike share, 72 percent support for plazas, 64 percent support for bike lanes…
Chuck: Which is crazy because it was literally a street fight…
Janette: It literally was. Now we actually have a new status quo on the streets of New York, and now people’s expectations have changed. We have community after community demanding these kinds of changes.
Chuck: I love watching Broadway expand, right?
The people are so far ahead of the press and the politicians when it comes to what they want to see on their streets.
Janette: Yeah. The next administration is building on those changes. The bike share system is expanding, bike plans are expanding, the plazas are expanding. Part of it is that these programs are so popular. The people are so far ahead of the press and the politicians when it comes to what they want to see on their streets.
Chuck: Yeah. I have one more question for you, but we’ve got quite a crowd that has gathered here now. If there’s one or two respectful questions ‑‑ she’s tough, she can handle whatever, but I’m not. I’m a Minnesotan, and I demand that everybody be nice and respectful. If there’s one or two respectful questions, you can come back up here and I’ll give you a chance to answer those.
[First] I’ve got one more question for you. There are a lot of people who see you now as a hero, in a sense. I’m sure you don’t, maybe, appreciate that, there’s a lot of people who are working in their jobs as a planner, as an engineer, as a government official serving the public, wanting to make change and they’re looking at the success that you had saying, “How do I do this? It seems so overwhelming to me. Where do I start?”
I know part of it is that you had great leadership that had your back, but beyond that — maybe there isn’t a beyond that, but I’m going to ask you — if there is a “beyond that,” what would be your advice to the person working in Omaha, who reads your book and is inspired, or the person in Tallahassee who wants to do this. How would you tell that person to get started?
Janette: Having a strategy for what you’re trying to accomplish is really key, so that you’re not just doing these kinds one‑off projects that don’t relate to a larger vision of where you’re trying to go. That’s really important.
The other thing is to experiment and to try things. One of the things that we found is that people . . . we’ve spent decades going through planning studies that take forever and computer models that people can’t really relate to. To be able to show the change in real time, on your streets, is really important. Changing the use of that street is key. Again, the experimentation is a very important part of it.
The thing that’s great about these kinds of strategies is [that], for most cities, a capital construction program takes five years, start to finish. That’s beyond a mayoral term, but we are seeing the innovation that’s flowering on the streets of this county at the mayoral level.
Chuck: Mayors are pushing the agenda.
Janette: Mayors are pushing the agenda, and so, when you can come up with projects that can happen within the four‑year‑term of a mayor, that is very sexy.
Working on showing the city what you want to see, literally, outlining the city that you want to see. Doing it quickly doesn’t cost a lot of money, and you can reduce the anxiety of change by saying that you’re going to measure it and see if it works, look at the impact, and if it works you keep it, if not you put it back. It’s a really great approach.
Chuck: Low stakes. Lower the stakes for people.
Janette: Lower the stakes. The guidelines have actually changed for cities. We saw a lot of leaders not wanting to try some of those things because they weren’t authorized in the MUTCD, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or the AASHTO [American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials] “Green Book.”
Now the National Association of City Transportation Officials has created the new urban street design guide, which actually outlines what you can do on your street. It’s been endorsed by the US Department of Transportation, so planners and leaders no longer need to worry about liability concerns, or that they won’t get federal funding by following the new operating code that you’re seeing so many cities adopt.
Chuck: Right. [To the audience:] Did any of you have questions? Go ahead, step up here. I’m assuming you don’t mind. Go ahead.
Audience member: Hi, Janette. Thank you for all the work you’ve done and sharing that with us in your book. I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. We’re not Manhattan, and we have a mayor who is not leading a progressive agenda in any kind of way in transportation.
He would like to continue re‑engineering the city in the mold of the suburbs. We have a DOT that is not really responsive when we come to them and say, “We’d like to turn the street into a two way street. We’d like to put this street on a road diet.”
What would you say is a good way to engage those people who might be resistant and bring them around, and try and help change their minds? Can we bring them information, is that the best way? Is it to show them examples that work? What can we do to help that?
Janette: That’s a really great question.
Chuck: It is a good question.
Janette: The Street Fight is not just about ‑‑ here’s what you do if you’re in midtown Manhattan, it’s really about what cities of all sizes can do to make their streets better.
A large part of the success in New York also happened thanks to the work of the advocacy groups in the city — a lot of people who come together for a very long time, that were passionate about their streets and wanted to see them work differently, so I think working with advocates is a really important way to push this new agenda.
The other piece is, I do think, it’s a really good point about bringing people to the city to see what the possibilities are that you’ve got right there, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, NACTO, has affiliate membership.
Working with the NACTO team to do a charette in Cincinnati and actually highlight some of the potentials that are [there], and play around with that, do a visualization about, “Here’s where it is, here’s what it could be,” really can build excitement around the business community. Local stakeholders then can help push that envelope at the municipal level.
Chuck: Go ahead, come on up, step up here. One more question, if you don’t mind.
Audience member: Hi, there. Peter from Vancouver, British Colombia.
Janette: Great city, Peter.
Audience member: Vancouver has taken a very aggressive and, in my mind, exciting approach to bike lanes. They’re just putting them in. They’re meeting with some resistance at that stage, but the resistance is slowly evolving. Do you see Vancouver as having done a pretty dynamic and pretty sudden hit? Is that an unusual pace of bike lane construction from what you’ve seen?
Janette: It’s a terrific implementation plan that they are moving forward with. People in Vancouver, the leadership understands that they need to build a more mobility options, and that a good city starts with building good bike lanes, and so you’re seeing that all over the city. Building more on the transit side is going to be challenge for Vancouver, and we saw what just happened on that ballot referendum, but I think that you’re seeing…
Vancouver is almost the green dragon of sustainability, and it’s really exciting to see it continue to lead the way in Canada, and also globally, about what the investment strategy is to ensure that Vancouver continues to grow and thrive in the decades to come.
Chuck: I’ve got to say, I had some chills when I imagined Mayor Michael Bloomberg whispering in your ear, “Don’t eff it up.” [laughter] Talk just a little bit about that as a final thought, because you didn’t eff it up. You did a great job.
Janette: No, no, but it was so funny, because you’re very excited, it’s the press conference, you’re being announced, you’ve got that press…
Chuck: You feel like this exalted time, like, “Hey, affirmation for me.”
Janette: [So] I’m there. You know when I outline [in the book], I spoke at the press conference, I thought I did a good job, we’re all excited about it. Then I stepped down from the podium in this blue room, this ornate — almost like the Detroit Opera House — beautiful room, and the mayor turns to me, and he whispers and he says, “Don’t [eff] it up.”
Chuck: Right. [laughs]
Janette: I thought, “Oh, my God! Don’t [eff] it up?” I was very embarrassed and I didn’t talk to anybody about it. B ut then I found out, about six months later, when I actually confessed to somebody that he said, “Don’t [eff] it up” to me, that actually, he said that to everyone.
He said that to all the commissioners, which made me feel a little bit better, but I think he was certainly critical to the success that we saw in New York City. That kind of leadership and vision ‑ it’s wonderful to see, particularly at a time where you’re not seeing that a lot at the federal and state level. I think mayors and cities are really the future of the planet.
Chuck: Thank you. Janette Sadik‑Khan. The book is Street Fight. A round of applause, please. [applause] We all are so happy that you are here at CNU. Thanks for being on the podcast
Janette: Thank you.
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“The hardest thing to see is what’s right in front of your nose”
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
In television-marinated America, where a reality show shuck-and-jive con artist can win a major party nomination for the White House, the amount of struggle needed to see reality accurately is magnified by several orders of magnitude.
One of the most interesting examples of that problem is in the rise and conquest of America by the “Big Box” stores, behemoth warehouses of goods that have done more to destroy the middle class than nearly any other social innovation, and yet are held blameless by most Americans for their sins, which are almost entirely unrecognized.
Happily, not entirely though. One of those engaged and often successful in the struggle to see reality is “Strong Towns,” led by its free-thinking president and founder Chuck Marohn, who will be touring and speaking in Oregon for three days in early October, with OregonPEN a principal sponsor of his Salem appearances.The schedule is Monday, 3 October, in Portland, Tuesday, 4 October, in Independence and Newberg, and on Wednesday, 5 October in Salem.
Another clear-thinking group is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, another heroic organization fighting against the tide of unreality and shuck-and-jive consumerism. Stacy Mitchell, of ILSR, is author of the outstanding book, “Big Box Swindle.“ Mitchell spoke with Chuck Marohn on a podcast interview recently, transcribed below.
The ghostly images are a perfect accompaniment to the theme this week — even stock graphic image suppliers can’t bring themselves to actually show real Big Box “power centers” (as they are known in the trade), so the graphics-seller whitewashes off all the identifying features, which only serves to show how soulless and ubiquitous the actual “Big Box” centers are.
Chuck Marohn: Hi everybody, this is Chuck Marohn with Strong Towns. Welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. This week is “Big Box Week.” We are taking a look at Big Box retail. When we were thinking about this a few weeks back, I said there’s nobody that I want to talk to more than Stacy Mitchell. I have her on the line today.
She is the co‑director of the Institute for Local Self‑Reliance. She directs their community‑scaled economy initiative. They produce research and analysis, and partner with a range of allies to design and implement policies that curb economic consolidation and strengthen community‑rooted enterprise.
Her book is, “Big‑Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega‑Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.” I love the book. I love the concept. I love your TED talk and I’m excited to chat with you. Stacy Mitchell, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.
Stacy Mitchell: I’m so glad to be here. At ILSR we’re huge Strong Towns fans.
You guys come up in staff meetings all the time. When we throw open discussion. It often starts with “Hey, I was just listening to the Strong Towns podcast, and they were talking about this.” We’re big fans. It’s great to be here.
Chuck: That’s humbling. As I was growing up, we had the mall. I have pictures of me on Santa’s lap at the mall and all that stuff, but we didn’t have the Big Box Store. Where did Big Box Store come from? How does its genesis relate to the mall movement?
Stacy: They both grew out of sprawl. They both grew out of the landscape that we started to create beginning in the 1950’s and ’60s. The sort of auto‑oriented, no man’s land of development. [If] we did not so heavily favor — with public policy, cars, and that kind of scattered development model, your Big Box retailing as we know it, would not exist. They were very closely linked.
We have the mall starting in the ’50s. Then it evolved into the idea of this free standing store that sold everything, or, a lot of the same kind of things. 1962 is the important year because that’s the year that Walmart, Kmart, and Target, all opened their first stores. There was clearly something in the air that year.
Chuck: A portion of the book talks about the subsidies that were given to the malls. There was maybe some logic to them at the time as they apply to the malls. I mean that’s arguable but they certainly became on steroids, once they were applied to the Big‑box stores.
The Big‑box stores used them in a special way that the people who even were creating them for the malls hadn’t anticipated. What were some of the steps going from that, you were going to have it downtown but all enclosed so now we’re going to one big store here, one big store here kind of process.
Stacy: I think from the standpoint of the companies that developed the idea of the big‑box store, it’s a cheaper thing to create. It’s a very cheap building, on very cheap land, typically, or just cheap as you can get. The first Walmart store people often go, harking back to ‑‑ Walmart tells its history from the standpoint of Walton’s 5&10, which is in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, a little Main Street store.
The Waltons had that store for sure, but the first Walmart is really on the outskirts. It’s in a place called Rogers. It was on a big open piece of land that was fairly cheap out on a major roadway, a very simple cheaply constructed building, staffed by a bunch of women who were paid less than minimum wage, under a weird loophole that the Waltons figured out that they could use to pay people. It’s all there from the beginning.
From the standpoint of those companies that develop the stores, they were going after mall revenues as well as downtown revenues. This was a really cheap way to push a lot of cheap goods out there and to have a format that not only would carry clothing, which is most of what a mall is. Most of the mall is apparel, but Big‑box stores would carry everything else in one place. That was the evolution from their standpoint.
From the standpoint of towns, it’s part of our system, part of the pressure that local officials feel is that they’ve got a show job creation. They want to be at those ribbon‑cuttings.
Unfortunately you when you develop a mall or a Big‑Box store, it looks like you’re creating economic expansion. You have a vacant piece of land. Now there’s building on it. There’s a bunch of people employed there. You’ve created jobs, you’ve created tax revenue. It becomes something that you can tout and you are for it and it’s very easy for Walmart or Target or whoever to come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to create these jobs for you. We’re going to create this tax revenue for you.
How about you give us a tax break? How about you help us buy down the cost of the land? How about you fund this?”
That’s a carrot that a lot of local officials have found very hard to resist.
Walmart, through its big development years, was asking for and often receiving subsidies on one out of every three stores that it built. It’s received over a billion dollars from local governments to fund its expansion, and of course a local hardware store, local bicycle dealer, those guys never get a dime of this sort of public money.
We’ve also discovered, in the end, that the jobs and the tax revenue that we thought we were going to get is completely not the case at all. It’s the opposite, we lose more jobs than we gain.
Chuck: When we start talking at Strong Towns about Big‑Box stores, one of the pushbacks that I always get from people is that, “Well Chuck, it’s a market preference. The free market system has spoken, and has shown a clear preference for this kind of development. Clearly they’re more successful, they’re more competitive than the Ma and Pa retailer.” How is that starting from a false premise?
Stacy: It’s starting from a false premise in two really big ways.
One is the government help, and there is a lot of government help that has gone to these companies. The direct subsidies, and the billions of dollars to help fund their expansion.
There are also a lot of tax loopholes. Walmart, for example, Target, they’ve been able to get out of paying income taxes in about half the states. Which again, if you’re a small business, you can’t do that. You’re paying income taxes on 100 percent of your business earnings.Guess what? Your biggest competitors are not.
There’s a particular kind of loophole at the state level that exists in about half the states. Same thing with federal taxes, if you have a Ma and Pa grocery store, do you have a shell company in Luxembourg where you’re shifting your profit so that you don’t have to pay federal taxes? Of course not, but all these big guys do.
The result is that local businesses pay a higher tax rate, both at the state and federal level, than their biggest competitors. We’ve got all the ways in which we subsidized the car, and how car‑dependent these kinds of developments are, down to the way that our zoning laws work.
As you know well, lots of towns have basically zoned in such a way that the only kind of development that is allowed is a Big‑Box model of large‑scale shopping center, large‑scale, Big‑Box store development along these big roads. You’re not actually allowed to build the kinds of projects that local businesses can find space in, and can actually compete in.
Government has stepped in and really put its thumb on the scales in a big way, and has heavily favored Big‑Box retailers against small businesses.
The other big way that that idea of the free market, this is what consumers want, that kind of thinking, the other big way that that goes wrong is that it ignores the huge hidden costs that we all pay for these stores.
Those costs come in many forms. One of the most measurable is the fact that a huge number of their workers rely on public assistance, because they don’t make enough to get by. Walmart, for example, is a hugely profitable company, but most of the people who work there are on food stamps, public health insurance, and so on because their wages are so low.
That’s a price that everybody pays, whether you shop there or not. It doesn’t show up on the price tag, and so again, it’s a kind of hidden subsidy. You can look at the environmental destruction. You can look at the impact that it has on the quality of life in our communities, and our civic and social well‑being.
There’s a whole bunch of hidden costs that are not really factored into the price, and therefore it’s not really a fair playing field.
Chuck: If I’m a state, let’s just take my state. I’m the state of Minnesota. I’m projecting out my budget for the next 12 months. I’m getting a healthy amount of income tax, which is coming from the people who work at these places. I’m getting a healthy amount of sales tax, which the mall transactions take place, the better off I’m doing, but I’m not getting property tax. I’m not getting any of the local taxes tied directly to the wealth of the community. I’m more of a transactional type of entity.
At the end of the day, if I can pump up the size of the stores, pump up the number of transactions, pump up the basically gross GDP statistics, that’s good for my next 12 months budget forecast in a way that cities don’t directly benefit from.
Here’s what I’m trying to understand. This is what I really don’t quite get.
“I think it’s very clear, when we take a long view, that this type of development just destroys cities, financially. “
The state, like you said, has created all of these loopholes, and subsidies, and programs that are benefiting these people.
I think it’s too simplistic almost to say, they just have better lobbyists, [laughs] although that’s part of it. I think the incentives for the state maybe are misaligned with what the incentives are for local governments. Does that make sense?
Stacy: It does make sense. I’m not sure that’s my assessment.
Chuck: I’d like to hear your assessment.
Stacy: I think the short‑termism is definitely true, but I think it’s true on the part of cities as well as states. That’s a huge thing, in the sense of, yeah. I want to show that I’m doing development. I’m creating jobs, so I’m just going to say yes to anything that comes my way. Even if what I’m approving . . .
There’s a ton of research. Maybe even I know better, as an elected official, that this thing is going to destroy more jobs in the long term than it’s going to create. That it’s going to cost more in public services than it’s going to generate in tax revenue. Those things are true for Big‑box retail. They’ve just been approved to such a huge extent.
I’m not sure there’s a real huge difference between state and local on that.
In a lot of ways the local officials have driven, and been much more aggressive proponents of this kind of development, in my observation.
“Local officials have driven, and been much more aggressive proponents of this kind of development”
States are a little bit more removed. I think the state tax loopholes that we were talking about, it is a question of the lobbyists, and of the fact that it’s not something that your average citizen is really engaged in, or knowledgeable about. Or that a small business owner is even aware that it’s going on. They’re not aware that they’re not able to take advantage of something. That means they’re paying a higher tax rate than their competitor. They’re not organized in any way to have a voice, even if they are. In that black box of law‑making it’s very easy for the lobbyist to have even a bigger hand than they do normally. I think that’s part of what goes on there.
Cities, between the potential property tax revenue from these things — which they look at as an add‑on, without really thinking, oh. “In 10 years I’m going to lose all this revenue from my downtown.” Or “this thing is going to require so much, in the way of police services and road maintenance, because of the nature of the development, that I’m going to pay for it all. I’m going to lose all that tax revenue.”
It’s just going to go right out the door in higher services cost. They don’t really do that math, . . . very often. Then, that little bit of sales tax, particularly — it’s a lot more in places like California and Arizona, where cities do rely a lot on sales tax, this kind of development is on steroids.
In New England, we’re safer, because there generally isn’t a local sales tax. Our cities are a little more sensible about this. In places like California and Arizona, they can’t get enough of it, because they just look at that sales tax dollar figure. Often it means they’re attracting dollars that are now being spent in a neighboring town at some other mall. That mall is going to go dark.
They’re going to have the shiny new development that everyone is going to come to. Then in a few years some other town in the region is going to build the latest and greatest Big‑Box power center. That’s going to undermine [the others.]
There’s also this lack of regional cooperation that feeds the whole thing. In the sense of, I’m going to get what I can right now in the short‑term as an elected official. I’m not going to pay attention to the huge economic cost regionally of this over the long‑term.
“It really makes no sense, unless you’re Pavlov’s dog, just drooling over the next treat.”
Chuck: To me, when I look at the local government side, it’s completely irrational.
It really makes no sense, unless you’re Pavlov’s dog, just drooling over the next treat, but not thinking anywhere beyond next week. I’m trying to discern whether or not at the state level it’s somewhat rational.
In other words, if the state government has a policy that puts out the local shoe store, it’s not like people buy less shoes. The guy who runs the local shoe store now becomes the shoe salesman at the Big‑Box store. They’re drawing a salary, so the state gets essentially the same amount of sales tax revenue. The same amount of income tax revenue. Maybe even a little bit more, if we can induce people to spend more. If we were just looking, strictly, at state policy, maybe it’s rational for them ‑‑ because of where they get their revenue from ‑‑ to favor this kind of bigger top‑down, let’s grow the GDP top‑line as fast as we can.
Because the state doesn’t have to police this.
The state doesn’t have to provide fire protection.
The state doesn’t put in the road and the sewer and the water, and have all those liabilities.
I guess what I’m trying to figure out — and this has been something brewing in my mind for a while: Do we just have very different incentives in place? The state government has one set of rules that they’ve set up that really benefits them. At the local government level we’re kind of induced to do really dumb, crazy things because of the system. Do you see what I’m saying?
Stacy: I do. I think, in a big picture way, there is an element of that going on.
I do think the part about cities are sort of induced to do really stupid things is definitely true. Because the position the cities are put in, in terms of their limited powers of raising money, the kinds of tax streams they have to rely on, and so on, is very constrained.
The lack of support in most states for broader regional cooperation around planning issues also really undermines their authority. Yeah. They can control theoretically what goes on in their borders, but what happens outside their borders has such a huge impact on them that, in effect, they’re between a rock and a hard place a lot of times. That’s, in a lot of ways, the fault of the state. That part I agree with.
It may also be true that the incentives for other kinds of development outside of retail are [irrational.] The revenue incentives, from the state’s perspective, say, [is to] green light everything. With retail, I still think there’s a tremendous amount of irrationality at the state level.
Because on the income front, just to take that piece of it, the rise, the growth of Big‑Box retail — which, just to be clear, these are companies that over the last 25, 30 years, have come to dominate a huge portion [of sales.] If you go back to the 1980’s, local independent retailers had more than half of all retail sales. Their share is now down to about 23 percent.
You’ve got a company like Walmart, which captures $1 out of every $10 Americans spend on everything, $1 out of every $4 we spend on groceries, and in 40 metro areas, $1 out of every $2 we spend on groceries. Just to give a sense of the economic power of that company in particular. Then you add in Target and the others, huge, huge, hugely powerful.
As those companies have grown to have that kind of dominance in our economy, they have undercut two key pillars of the American middle class.
One are small business owners. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of those. Businesses that typically supported a family, were anchors in their community’s local economy.
The other pillar of the middle class that they’ve heavily affected, are manufacturing jobs, often unionized manufacturing jobs. That again, also paid family‑supporting kinds of wages.
As those companies have grown to have that kind of dominance in our economy, they have undercut two key pillars of the American middle class.
Walmart and Target have come in and they’ve sent those jobs, obviously, overseas, and they’ve played a huge, direct role in doing that. They’ve destroyed a lot of those small business livelihoods. In their place, what they have given us are jobs making an average of $9 an hour in their stores.
A huge part of the inequality story in this country is really you can lay it right at the feet of these companies. Because they’re not only retailers, but because they’re the gateway through which consumers go to reach everything that’s manufactured, they have a huge control over the nature, shape, location of manufacturing. So for those reasons, they are really directly responsible for a growth in the number of people who are working, but poor, and the shrinking of the American middle class.
Those things are obviously very bad for state governments in the long run too. I’m not sure that their rationality on this particular slice of it is any more [than that.] That they’re any more rational than cities are, though I think you’re right. In some bigger, broader ways, there’s something about what you’re saying that rings true to me. In this case, I think it’s different.
Chuck: I want to get into that manufacturing part of this because one of the things that we’re hearing right now, in this election cycle in particular, is that we have off‑shored a lot of jobs, we’ve lost our manufacturing, we need to get manufacturing back. Yet, when we talk to people at the local level about, “OK, you need to shop local, locally produced goods,” they’ll say, “Well, it’s more expensive.”
My reaction to that always is well, yeah, if you want people to have decent wages, you’re going to have to pay more for your iPod and your power drill. I mean, that’s the way things work out. Can you talk a little bit about how the Big‑Boxes use their predatory pricing to force down costs and how that relates to what our expectations then become as consumers? There’s a downward cycle there that we’re trapped in, and I’d like you to explain that.
Stacy: All of these companies push manufacturers year after year to lower their costs.
Chuck: Which, as a consumer, I love, right?
Stacy: Yeah, I mean, in theory. Manufacturers have done that in a number of ways. Obviously sending jobs to lower‑wage countries is one way that they’ve managed to meet those price requirements of the Big‑box retailers. Another way that they’ve managed to meet those price requirements is by dramatically cutting their R&D budgets.
This is hard as a consumer because the result of that is that there’s not as much innovation and new product development going on as there used to be. It’s hard to know what you’re missing because it’s missing. There’s a way in which it’s hard for us to calculate or recognize what we’re giving up as consumers because of that loss.
The sectors where you find that that’s not true are sectors where there’s still a really strong, independent channel. Toy stores, for example. Independent toy stores have certainly shrunk, but they remain the outlet for innovative toy designers. They’re not getting their stuff on the shelves of Target, at least certainly not right away when they come out with a new product, but they are getting all this support from independent toy retailers. There’s a way in which the independent channel really matters for R&D, and as the Big‑Boxes have pushed manufacturers, those budgets have really been cut.
The other way that manufacturers have met those lower price points is by cutting corners in the quality of their products. You used to be able to buy a pair of Levi jeans that was really sturdy and would last for a long time, but there was a point when Levi’s realized we can’t continue to do that and sell our product to a shrinking number of retailers. We need to be on the shelves at Walmart. In order to be on the shelves at Walmart, we have to use less rugged material, less rugged sewing processes, and so on.
The result is a product that doesn’t last nearly as long. You might be paying less, but you’re having to replace it more often, so it’s not really clear in the long run that what we’re paying is actually significantly lower because of the degree to which we now have to throw things out and replace them. As I said, there are all these hidden costs in terms of product development that’s not happening as a result of this.
Chuck: We as consumers demand the lower prices, but the lower prices affect the jobs that people can have and the amount that they can get paid. Then that fuels a demand for lower prices. Yet, you hear this when you watch CNBC. Unemployment is going up and they say, “Well, that’s good for Walmart.” [laughs]
Well, it’s good for Walmart. Why? Because the less money people have, the more they’re going to shop at the cheapest possible place for the cheapest possible stuff.
It seems like we’re trapped in a cycle where the lower we make prices, the more bifurcated our economy becomes. The reason I brought up the current election is you see this attempt to blame whoever. If you’re on the right, there’s someone to blame. If you’re on the left, there’s someone to blame. A lot of this is just us, isn’t it? Us as Americans demanding something that at the end of the day is irrational, right?
It seems like we’re trapped in a cycle where the lower we make prices, the more bifurcated our economy becomes.
Stacy: Well, it’s true, when we think of ourselves as actors in the economy, we think of ourselves almost exclusively as consumers. Right?
Chuck: Right, yep.
Stacy: It’s a very narrow, short‑sighted way to think about yourself, because your economic well-being is just as much a function of the quality of the job that you have. Whether you’re able to apply your trade in a meaningful way, and get a decent wage out of it, has as much or more influence on how well you’re doing economically. Yet, somehow we ignore that when we’re out in the world. We just think of ourselves as consumers. We’re trained by the media and everyone else to do that.
We focus narrowly on that low price, and the consequence of it is all of these lost job opportunities that we’re all paying for, fewer opportunities for ourselves, fewer of us who are able to make a decent middle‑class living than used to be. We’re undercutting our own well-being as we do that, and of course the more desperate people are in terms of your working that nine‑dollar‑an‑hour job, it seems like the only place you can afford to shop is Walmart. It becomes this terrible self‑reinforcing cycle.
This consumer mindset was really created in the 20th century. Americans didn’t used to be that way. We used to have a much broader conception of ourselves. If you go back and look at the debates that used to go on in the 1930s and ’40s when A&P and Woolworth’s and these other chains were coming to the floor. You go back and look at the debates about Standard Oil and the trust busting and that whole era, earlier and earlier in American history.
It’s fascinating because people talk about themselves as producers, as farmers, as small business owners, as workers. When they articulate what they’re concerned about in terms of those monopoly companies, that’s how they articulate it, not as a consumer. This consumer identity was really invented sometime after the war. It’s a huge disservice to us. I think one of the bigger‑picture things that we need to rethink as we think about who we are.
That said, I do want to just go back to the policy issues because I think that if we try to solve this problem [we need to think of ourselves as more than consumers.] It works in reverse, what you’re saying. If we try to solve this problem purely as consumers, we’re not going to succeed. I’m a big believer in “buy local” campaigns. I’ve been involved in helping a lot of independent alliances get started around the country and do great “buy local first” messaging campaigns and education on this issue to help people think about those choices, why they matter, what those hidden costs are, and to really bring those to light.
Those initiatives have had good success, and we’ve measured it through surveys and other things, but they’re only so far that we can go with that. There’s only so much we can align our collective decisions as individual consumers in such a way to get the outcomes that we want in terms of the economy, especially when we’re pushing uphill against all of these ways in which public policy is pushing us in the exact opposite direction, towards more Walmarts, more Amazons, and more consolidation. It’s those things.
We have to change the underlying rules of the game in such a way that the hidden costs of the Big‑Box retailers are actually forced on to their balance sheets, and that the independent businesses and the truly community‑supporting enterprises are freed up from the constraints and unfairness that they’re under to actually be able to compete and thrive because they can. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that model. It’s that we’ve made it impossible for them to really succeed.
“We have to change the underlying rules of the game in such a way that the hidden costs of the Big‑Box retailers are actually forced on to their balance sheets“
Chuck: I’ve mentioned the election three times. We are not a political organization. I certainly [laughs] don’t have a candidate preference in the craziness that is our national debate, but it seems to me like what you’ve just said illuminates so much. I feel like we have two parties, one of which is saying, “There’s no problem here. Look away.”
The other one is saying, “We’re going to keep the underlying game and just change things — Redistribute the spoils after the bad game is run.” You’re really saying if you don’t like the outcome of this game you’ve got to change the rules of the game. Is that a fair assessment of what you said?
Stacy: Absolutely. We have a lot of our own history that we can draw on in doing that.
We’ve lost sight of the fact that democracy, as it was conceived here, was both about dispersing political power and dispersing economic power. The Boston Tea Party, when they went and dumped all that tea into the harbor, it was as much a protest about the power of East India Company, this huge international trading company, as it was about the power of Parliament.
Chuck: I actually have a quote of yours because I love that the British government thought, “We’ll give them cheap tea with the East India Company and they’ll just shut up.” The colonists go out and say, “No.” Here’s your quote from the book. You say, “Local self‑reliance and dispersed ownership, the colonists judged, were essential to political freedom and democratic self‑government.” I thought that was beautiful.
“Local self‑reliance and dispersed ownership, the colonists judged, were essential to political freedom and democratic self‑government.”
Stacy: Yeah, it’s so true and that’s the history. We’ve lost sight of it at different points.
We had the Gilded Age in the late 19th century when we just had these huge monopolies form, but we regained our footing. In the teens and ’20s and ’30s, we put in place these really strong anti‑monopoly policies, not only in terms of sort of anti‑trust legislation, but also in a whole bunch of other ways.
Public policy really favored small‑scale enterprise and said, “We’re going to have a level playing field. No matter how small a business you are, you’re going to be able to compete on fair terms. We’re going to make sure that the hidden costs of that kind of consolidation are acknowledged. We know in the end that our liberty, our democracy, everything that we value as citizens depends on having that freedom from centralized power.”
That centralized power is not just centralized political power, government power. It’s also centralized economic power. I think you’re right. The current construction of the two parties ignores that. You just don’t have either party really out there with this critique that is about local self‑reliance, true democracy, and liberty across both the economic and the political sphere.
I will say it was really nice to see, a couple weeks ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts gave a really terrific speech that’s worth reading about growing concentration and the power of Walmart, Amazon. She names a bunch of names and talks about it, not just in terms of the hidden economic cost of concentration and consumer prices and all that stuff. She talks about it from the standpoint of democracy and the fact that these companies have gained control of our government and what that really means.
It’s a wonderful speech and I feel there hasn’t been any one at that level of politics in decades, who’s said what she said. I’m hoping, somewhere in all of this crazy political alignment, we might actually reconnect with that part of our history because it’s so important right now.
Chuck: We had an Independence Day celebration here a couple of weeks ago. This is the fourth or fifth year in the row, I’ve looked at our local parade which, as an adult — I remember back as a kid, there being all kinds of floats and all kinds stuff going on. I remember marching in it for different local businesses that had supported my baseball team as a kid.
Our parade today was pathetic. It had people driving their monster trucks through and the lawn mowers and a couple of service clubs, but all the businesses were gone. Home Depot doesn’t have a float, Costco doesn’t have a float, Walmart doesn’t have a float, Target doesn’t have a float. I was reminded, again, how much is missing in terms of the local ecosystem of businesses here.
I’d like to give you an opportunity to talk about that. We had a guy here, who used to own the local grocery store, who now is the night manager at the Walmart. I know this guy, I grew up with him. He’s a nice guy, but he used to own a business. He had a building, it was building equity, he was creating wealth for himself and his family.
Now, sure, he might have a retirement plan and he might be one of the handful there that has a healthcare benefit or what have you, but he’s not building wealth. He’s a consumer now, not an investor in other local bank, the local marketing people, the local newspaper, all that.
How does the Big‑Box scene change that local ecosystem and why is that so important?
Stacy: When a Big‑Box retailer comes in, you might lose anywhere from 20 to 40 local businesses, depending on the particular situation, and that loss is consequential in a couple of big ways.
One is, that you talk about in terms of the engagement of local business owners in the community, in the way which they support local causes and tend to be engaged because their future, both personally and financially, is tied up in their community in a very deep way.
You lose, as well, what it means to have a local decision making, if you’re a business owner and your town is considering whether or not to cut the property tax rate. If you’re Walmart, you’re all in favor of that, because you’re going to pay less property tax. If you’re a local business owner, it’s a very different calculation. Yeah, your business is going to save some money on its taxes, but your kids go to the schools that that tax revenue funds.
Now, you’ve got a way more complicated decision and what we see is that local business owners make decisions about their business in ways that are much more aligned with the needs of the surrounding community, because they’re part of the community. They rise and fall with the community, in a way that a distant chain store does not.
The other thing that’s really important from the civic and social health angle of what the rise of Big‑box stores has done to America, is that local retailers tend to create the places that foster interaction.
When you shop at a neighborhood business district and you’re set up along a public sidewalk and you’re going in and out of stores you’re much more likely to get into conversations. Maybe the person that you’re interacting with at the business, the owner, they know you by name, you tend to run into people, your neighbors, the other folks that you know.
We know from studies that people have a lot more conversations when they’re running their errands, standing in line at the bakery or they bump in to someone at the hardware store or what have you. There’s a lot of interaction that goes on in that kind of situation.
If you think about it, that’s the stuff that’s like, yeah, all those conversations seem meaningless, these are a lot of acquaintances, they’re not deep friendships necessarily, but all that stuff really adds up to the sense of community, the sense of connection. How you run your errands is really how you experience your community to a large extent.
That’s all completely uprooted in the Big‑box model. You’re shopping at a large store that’s usually designed to draw from a regional area. You’re getting there driving alone in your car, typically, rather than being there on foot.
Researchers have followed people around in those situations. You don’t tend to run into people and have those happenstance conversations. There’s a lot of ways those companies have designed their spaces in order to encourage you to get in and get out, so it’s purely transactional and they’re not really supporting.
How many times have you stood around in the parking lot at a Target and engaged in a meaningful conversation with someone? It just doesn’t happen in the same way.
The end result of all this is, sociologists have done these studies and they’ve found that, if you live in a community where a large share of the economy is in the hands of businesses that are locally owned, people in that community are more likely to belong to community organizations.
They’re more likely to go to city council meetings, they’re more likely to know their neighbor and they’re more likely to vote than people who live in communities that are otherwise demographically the same, but where the economy is dominated by one or two or three big businesses and they don’t have those local economic structures anymore. It makes a huge difference in the long run.
Again, it’s this rise of Big‑Box retailers, connected to these things in ways that we don’t…these big picture issues about what’s going on in our country that we don’t even necessarily recognize.
Chuck: One other thing that has always startled me about cities and the way cities approach Big‑Box stores, is the asymmetry of commitment. Business land within our city boundaries, we run all the utilities to it and beyond it then for other things, we agree to provide police protection and fire protection. Those are promises that extend beyond this generation, they are indefinite.
Yet, the big box stores have a 12 to 15 year commitment. [laughs] What is the impact of a dark store? Are cities starting to wake up to the risk that, the day a Big‑Box store is built, that’s the highest tax value it’s ever going to have? From that point on, there’s only one direction, really, for it to go, and that’s down.
Is that starting to have an impact as the case studies pile up and more and more cities have experienced this?
“Are cities starting to wake up to the risk that, the day a Big‑Box store is built, that’s the highest tax value it’s ever going to have?“
Stacy: There are a growing number of places that have been saying no, and there are more cities that have put in place policies, either store size caps or zoning policies, other kinds of ordinances that limit or prohibit Big‑Box development or limit or prohibit chains in general.
There has been an uptick in the awareness of the costs and more places taking proactive steps to protect themselves and to steer development in a different direction. Those places still remain very much in the minority, which is unfortunate.
The growing amount of Big‑box plight that is out there is really startling. In lots of places, lots of metros that have dozens of vacant Big‑Box stores that are unlikely to be redeveloped into new retail.
As you noted, the lifespan of those [is often] 10, 15 years maybe, before it goes dark. Often cities are approving these things in the context of 30 year comprehensive plans or in the context of 30 year property tax breaks on a property that actually isn’t going to open for more than 10 or 15 years, at best.
Again, it’s back to the long term thinking that’s really missing. We’ve so overbuilt retail in this country, we now have lots of dead malls. There are more that are going bankrupt. In the last couple of months, the bankruptcy rate for mall properties has really shot up and is only going to get worse.
More people are shopping online. The amount of retail space that we actually need is going to shrink, even as we are continuing to build more.
Chuck: I want to give you a chance before we’re done here. You and I have talked about a lot of the bad stuff today, but your book also has a lot of positivity to it, and a lot of things that are trending in the right direction, people who are pushing back and positioning their cities and their neighborhoods to do better.
You talk about this being not even necessarily a government‑led thing, but an individual‑led thing. Can you talk a little bit about that? I sense you have some optimism here. Can you share that optimism with people?
Stacy: Absolutely. Over the last five, six, seven years, there’s been a tremendous growth of independent business alliances. Sometimes they’re known as Local First groups. There are now about a 150 of these organizations around the country and they probably have 50,000 small businesses as members. These are organizations that have a lot of community citizens or ordinary folks who are supporting them, as well.
These organizations have been doing a lot of on‑the‑ground education about all of the stuff that we’ve been talking about today and also providing a space for independent businesses to network and figure out how to be stronger together and to be more effective in what they’re doing.
In a lot of those cities we’re seeing the tide shift in the other direction. We’re seeing a return of independent book stores, we’ve added over 500 new independent book stores in the last five years nationwide. We’re seeing a big uptick in the number of locally‑owned neighborhood grocers, which is growing partly out of this new neighborhood workable urbanism thing.
Chuck: The foodies. [laughs]
Stacy: It’s also growing out of the local food movement, it’s coming from different angles. We’ve got more independent pet supply stores and fabric stores. These are all small trends while there’s still this big picture trend of, Walmart is continuing to grow and become bigger, we’ve got Amazon now that’s really becoming aggressive and has a lot of implications for local communities.
That’s still happening, but there’s this growing counter trend. The big question now is, will that counter trend continue to grow and at some point, overtake the bigger picture trend? I’m hoping that it will.
The key question right now is, can what is largely a consumer oriented movement, shift into being a movement that’s about changing policy? A movement that’s about rebuilding community and changing how we do economic development, changing how we do planning, getting rid of these tax inequities and subsidies. Bringing back anti‑trust and making it about democracy, changing how we think about monopoly and so on.
Can we go in that direction, because there’s a huge amount of support out there? When I started working on this issue, right around 2000, so it’s been over 15 years now and I used to go out and give talks to communities and groups of people. At that time, a lot of people didn’t really exactly know what I was talking about. It would take them a while to catch up with chain retailers.
Now, that’s not the case, people are on board. It’s more a question of, “How do we deal with this? How do we change things in a way that will lead us in a different direction?” The change in public opinion is there and we’re seeing evidence of some change in some communities where things really are headed in a different direction economically.
The question is, can we now grow that into a movement that shifts some of these bigger forces that raid against our local economies?
Chuck: In the closing moments here, can you talk a little bit about the Institute for Local Self‑Reliance, the work that you do and how people can get a hold of you?
Stacy: ILSR is a 42‑year‑old, national non‑profit organization. We’ve got a staff of about 18, we’re in Minneapolis and Washington D.C. and Portland Main and we work all over the country. We do research and then we develop policies and tools to help communities take charge of their local economies and create a more equitable and sustainable future.
Our Independent Business project which, if you go to our website, you can find by clicking on Independent Business, has a bunch of resources from, here’s some local zoning ordinances that people have created, that help support local business, here’s the history of anti‑trust and how we can change that. Lots of research and analysis, you can find.
One of our most popular tools there is, something we call a Key Studies page, which is all of these studies about the economic and fiscal and community benefits of locally‑owned businesses and then also the costs of Big‑box retailers, as well. It’s a huge compendium of all the information you need to make the case.
Chuck: Stacy Mitchell, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast. You’re brilliant and I love your writing. I’ve got to say, I will admit something, I’m like what Imelda Marcos is to shoes, I tend to be to books.
When I saw your book the first time, I picked it up and I thought, “Oh, I really like this!” I started thumbing through it and I went and bought it. I have this huge stack of books I’m going through. A few months later, I was some place and I saw your book and I thought, “Oh, I really have to read this! This looks like such a good book,” and I bought it a second time. I own two copies of your book.
Stacy: Excellent. That’s great. Now you have an extra one to give to the right person.
Chuck: Thank you, and thanks everybody for listening. Keep doing what you can to build strong towns. Take care.
Announcer: We need your help. If you think this strong town message is important, don’t keep it to yourself. Pass it on. You can get more information and sign up to be a member of Strong Towns at strongtowns.org.
Chuck Marohn, president and founder of Strong Towns, has an Oregon tour scheduled for October. Marohn will be appearing and making presentations on Monday, 3 October, in Portland, Tuesday, 4 October, in Independence and Newberg, and on Wednesday, 5 October in Salem. OregonPEN.org is a principal co-sponsor of the Salem appearances and presentations.
Strong Towns (ST): Hello, everyone. Welcome to the “Strong Towns” podcast. This August, we hosted a week of content on our website focused on “Suburban Poverty,” exploring the causes and effects of the suburbanization of poverty in America.
Today we have with us special guest, Elizabeth Kneebone, to speak on the subject. She is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co‑author of the book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”
Her work primarily focuses on urban and suburban poverty, metropolitan demographics, and tax policies that support low income workers and communities. Elizabeth, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.
Elizabeth Kneebone: Thank you for having me.
ST: Let’s start by going back a few decades. I wanted to ask when you think that the concept of suburban poverty, first, was even acknowledged. When was the first research started, to be done on this subject?
Kneebone: The reality is, even though it runs counter to our popular perception, poverty has always existed in the suburbs. From their initiation, from their first birth and development in this country, there have always been poor people that were a part of the suburbs.
It’s only been more recently, especially since the 2000s, but even in the proceeding decades, that we saw the pace of growth of the poor population begin to pick up in the suburbs.
It was in the 2000s that we really passed this tipping point. For the first time, there were more poor residents living in suburbs than in big cities. I feel there was a recognition in terms of the research and the literature around poverty in the suburbs.
In the ‘90s and early 2000s, there was a lot of great work done by a number of researchers like Myron Orfield, Rob Puentes. Lucy and Phillips wrote a great book about poverty in the suburbs, about distressed suburbs. [Confronting Suburban Decline, by William Lucy and David Phillips.]
In particular, that work tended to focus on older inner‑ring suburbs. Particularly in the Rust Belt, in the Midwest and Northeast, older industrial areas, where you had a number of these inner‑ring suburbs that were very urbanized.
They were affected by industrial transformations, economic transformations happening in a lot of these regions as manufacturing declined, the steel industry declined. A lot of these places were dense, very urbanized, very close to the central city.
[Suburbia] is exhibiting a lot of similar challenges that urban areas have long dealt with. What we saw then later in the 2000s, and a lot of all the work that I have done has focused on is, those challenges are persistent, they’ll still exist in those inner ring suburbs that have the struggled for longer with these challenges.
We really saw particularly in the last decade, a rapid growth of poverty even beyond those inner ring more urban core type suburban communities. What we saw is almost every major metro area experienced a growth in their suburban per population over the 2000s.
That growth really touched those older inner-ring places, middle tier communities and even exurban communities on the suburban fringe. More communities that we tend to think of as typically are stereotypically suburban in that, “Leave It To Beaver” middle class vision. I think that is often evoked when people talk about the suburbs.
Really what we just saw is that poverty has become more of a regional phenomenon. It’s touching a lot more people in places than before, and a number of communities that people long thought were immune to these trends are now also struggling with the challenges of poverty.
ST: What got you interested in studying this topic?
Kneebone: I didn’t set out [laughs] to study poverty in the suburbs. It really was the numbers, especially the rapid change that we saw in recent years that caught my attention and that of my colleague Alan Berube, that really led us into delving into this area of research more deeply and following it until we, in fact, ended up writing a book about the scope of work that we had undertaken.
Part of it is, I think that with this rapid growth that we saw, particularly since 2000, the poor population in suburbs grew by 65 percent between 2000 and 2014. That’s more than twice the pace of growth that we saw in big cities in urban areas and other anchors to these regions.
Now, there are more than three million more poor in suburbs than in cities.
Even as of 2000, that wasn’t the case. There were still a majority of poor living in cities.
The magnitude and the rapid pace of this trend really begged a lot of questions, trying to understand what was driving these trends, what were the implications of this shift, and to try and unpack the experiences of different types of communities, because it is something I feel like it is less understood, or less studied, and quite the detail that we’ve seen in urban areas and urban poverty which has long been a challenge.
ST: In your book you discussed three main topics ‑‑ how poverty became suburbanized, what the impacts of the suburban poverty are and then what some steps forward might be. Let’s talk about the first one. What do you see as the main causes of suburban poverty based on your research?
Kneebone: There are number of different dynamics that worked together to help drive up the numbers that we’ve seen and the growth and poverty in suburbs that we’ve seen. Particularly in the last 15 years or so.
Some of this is about more poor residents moving to suburban communities, but I think an even larger piece of the story is about the downward trajectory or downward mobility of suburban residents. Who may have always lived in the suburbs but became poor over time.
On the first piece, that movement [of poverty] to the suburbs, I often think that sometimes that gets even more attention because maybe it’s more visible as communities are changing, as new populations may be moving into communities, it’s sometimes more visible then that longer run decline or some of the economic impacts we’ve seen more recently.
But a lot of that movement is driven by things like where is affordable housing located within regions. Some of this speaks in some markets where there’s been a lot of redevelopment in cities. Housing prices have risen, there are housing-price pressures causing people to work further out in the region for more affordable communities.
But we know that’s only a small piece of this larger puzzle. Some of this is also about suburban housing that has aged into affordability over time as it has gotten older. People with means moved out to newer communities and moved back into the city. You have these communities that maybe were once un‑affordable becoming more affordable to lower income families.
Also the use of subsidies, especially we’ve seen a shift towards more portable housing vouchers as the way of delivering subsidies and those are meant to offer people choice, the ability to move to different communities. We’ve seen a shift over the 2000s to what now about half of voucher holders in major metro live in the suburbs.
Of course, in terms of housing you have the impact of the housing crisis. The subprime boom in the mid 2000s—about three quarters of loans in our major metro areas that were subprime were made and in suburban communities.
After the collapse of the housing market, about three quarters of foreclosures took place in suburban communities. So that also affected and helped shape these housing markets and these trends. In addition to housing you had jobs suburbanized over time.
Some of the most of the suburbanized sectors and industries are in service industries, retail, construction, manufacturing. Industries that may have lower paying jobs but also ones that were hit hard by the great recession and that economic downturn that took place in the late 2000s.
In addition a lot more of the low wage work force – and my colleagues did an analysis – about two thirds of lower wage workers in our major metro areas live in suburbs. Part of, not just what types of jobs are available in [the] market, helped influence these trends, but where those jobs are located, and where the workforce for those jobs live matters as well for how poverty distributes within the regions.
ST: One of the topics that interested me a lot because I come from a social service background was the fact that you guys talked in your book about how suburbs have been harder to reach with social services, and that there is not the existing networks of non‑profits, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, things like that to help people. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Kneebone: Absolutely. Even before talking about the impacts or the implications of these trends, I think one other piece I would just mention, and what’s helped drive these trends over time, I think is often first top of mind is the Great Recession itself. The deepest downturn since the Great Depression, and that definitely helped exacerbate these trends.
We saw the numbers really spike following the onset of the Great Recession and spikes in unemployment. In many ways, because of the housing‑led nature of the downturn, suburbs bore the brunt of that downturn more so than in past recessions. Particularly in the first year or so of the recession, we really saw unemployment in suburbs even outpace the growth that we saw in cities. They really saw a very similar impact, cities and suburbs, over the course of the recession.
It’s a mistake to think that is what really drove this tip towards the suburbs. As in, if we put all the blame on the recession, then we [might] think, once we get into recovery this will tip back. Suburbs will rebound faster, or this was just a momentary blip. That’s just really not the case, because we’ve seen structural shifts in the economy as well.
The typical household income was falling, even before the onset of the Great Recession. We’ve seen a real shift towards lower paying jobs in the service sector parts of the economy.
If we look at some of the occupations that are most likely to grow, or grow most quickly in the next 10 years, you see things like home health aide or childcare providers. Jobs that may only pay $20,000 a year for someone who’s working full‑time. If you’re raising a family, that’s not enough to get you above the poverty line. A lot more of those jobs, as I mentioned before, are in the suburbs.
That’s all to say, even as we get into recovery and start to see the recovery really trickle through and take hold in the poverty numbers overall — which has been very slow to happen in this recovery. The idea is, suburbs haven’t bounded back more quickly.
In fact, [suburbs] are likely to continue to see the challenges of poverty persist, alongside the urban challenges that we continue to address in these regions. That really brings us to your question about the safety nets. What are the challenges that that new geography of poverty raises?
One of the immediate challenges that we saw, particularly in the wake of the recession and this rapid growth of poverty, is that the safety net tends to be less developed in suburban communities. There just isn’t the same history of building up that type of resource in many of these suburban communities.
The same level of investments we’ve seen in cities over time, often haven’t been made in these suburban communities. You often see fewer providers located in the suburbs, to begin with. They may be smaller or stretched over a larger area, serving a much more diffused population or multiple jurisdictions with what services they’re able to offer.
The continuum of services in the suburbs often tends to be patchier than what’s available in cities. If you’ve lost your job in the downturn, or need assistance with retraining or connecting to a different employment opportunity, many suburbs may not have that workforce type of job training provider there.
We saw in many cases food banks or food pantries were the canary in the coal mine, and many of these communities [are] seeing some real rapid increases in demand for services.
We heard more than one anecdote from providers we talked to over the
years, of people who used to donate to these services, now having to come and seek help. [We heard] really, the strain that many of these providers were facing. Their budgets may have been hit by tighter local budgets, by cutbacks in government services.
Philanthropy often is less present in these suburban communities. Some research that our colleagues have done on where philanthropic dollars go, they still tend to disproportionately go to urban areas, the central city, as opposed to suburbs. Even in regions where there are now more poor people in the suburbs, because some of that comes back again.
It’s a chicken and the egg challenge about capacity. If you don’t have providers who can be competitive for philanthropic or government grants, it’s hard to get more resources flowing to these communities. We also see relatively few dollars being dedicated to building capacity in these places. That makes it really hard to figure how to break that cycle and grow the capacity that’s necessary, given the scale of need many of these places are facing.
ST: Yeah. That point about the lack of philanthropic dollars going to the suburbs was really interesting to me. Obviously part of that is historically, we think of urban areas as being more poor and having more poverty. Do you think that part of it might also be that poverty is less visible in the suburbs? Like, people are still living in a single-family home.
They still probably have a car, even if they are fairly low income. Versus in an urban area, you see a homeless person sleeping on a park bench and things like that.
Kneebone: Yeah. I do think that. This is something we’ve heard from providers too. Part of the challenge with attracting more resources to these communities is exactly that. Both popular perception of where poverty is and where it exists within regions, and the sense that just the built environment, or the way these communities have developed over time, may make poverty more hidden.
You may have a business or charitable donations that are being [donated by] someone who lives in your suburb, who are giving their donations to the central city or to another part of the region. Because they don’t realize the extent to which need has grown in their own community. In a lot of instances, providers are just trying to deal with this first‑order education challenge.
To make sure that funders, both philanthropic, corporate and individuals, really understand the geography of need, and the way that may have shifted, in some cases quite rapidly, in recent years. They can start to attract more resources to these really under‑resourced places.
ST: You mentioned the built environment, and that’s something we’ve talked a lot about at Strong Towns. One of the topics that seemed very prevalent in conversations about suburban poverty was the transportation issue. The fact that suburbs don’t have a lot of transit options or bike options or safe walking options. How does that affect the suburban poor?
Kneebone: It’s a top priority. It’s a top challenge in many of these communities. It’s one of the first things that we hear about in talking to communities who are grappling with these issues. Some of the research we’ve done has shown, when you look at things like transit, public transit tends to be less available in suburban communities in the first place.
If you look at headways, or how often there’s a bus coming to that bus stop, there are often more limited schedules. The connectivity can be much lower than what exists in urban cores, where transit may have been more invested in. The denser [urban] development patterns more readily serve those types of transit connections.
It can be harder to get to jobs via transit, let alone all these other services that we know are less present in the suburbs and maybe more spread out to begin with. It can really exacerbate a number of challenges in trying to connect to both jobs, and the types of wraparound supports that can help low-income families.
Whether downturns in the economy, or you’re trying to get a more stable footing, as they’re looking to work their way out of poverty. You mention safe walking. This is something that people, I think, often don’t think about. The transit or infrastructure conversation – we’ve spoken with suburban school districts that talk about the difficulty of serving unincorporated parts of the county where there are no sidewalks in trying to be able to make sure that their students have a safe way to walk to school, if they don’t have other transportation options.
Especially when you’re looking at unincorporated parts of the county, who is the voice? Who advocates for the low income families? Who takes on these issues of infrastructure to create a safer built environment that helps people connect to their day‑to‑day needs?
It really does raise this question. Being poor, no matter where you live, is a challenge, but there may be unique challenges, unique hurdles that have to be overcome when you think about poverty in a suburban context.
ST: Continuing the transit topic, you shared a statistic that I found surprising in the book, which is, I’m just going to quote right from the book that, “77 percent of working age residents in low income suburban neighborhoods, have at least one transit stop serving their neighborhood within three‑quarters of a mile.”
You bring out the fact that that doesn’t mean that the bus is going to a place that most residents need to go, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be reliable in showing up at frequent intervals.
I’ve certainly – when I’ve been driving through a suburb and seeing a bus stop, it’s always surprising, because I have a perception that there’s no public transit. But you have this fact that, sure there might be a bus, but it’s not necessarily going to be super helpful for everyone there. I thought that was an important point, for sure.
Kneebone: That’s right. If you think about the schedule, it may be not only that the headways are longer you’re waiting an hour between when the bus comes, or may be the bus only comes during rush hour in the morning a couple of times, and rush hour in the evening a couple of times.
Your window of actually being able to access that resource is limited. But then layer that on top of the fact that, like I mentioned before, if two‑thirds of the lower‑wage workforce are living in suburban communities, these are workers who may not work typical nine to five schedules and likely don’t. They may need to get to work at night, or on weekends, or those off‑peak hours, where there may not be no service at all.
That coverage number tells you something and I think it’s an important context for this discussion, but it really is not enough to just have the bus stop in your neighborhood. It really does matter the way we connect people.
In fact, what we found in that research as well is, if you look at that 77 percent, what share of jobs, if you have a bus stop, if you have a train stop, what share of jobs in the region can you reach in 90 minutes? The shares were much lower. It was about one in four jobs for the suburbs, compared to 40 percent of jobs if you live in the urban core.
What part of that number really reflects is that, if you build a system where many older markets are, for instance, built this way, we have a hub and spoke transit network, that’s really designed with the idea that veteran communities in the suburbs want to get into this the urban core to work downtown, so you have this city to suburb connection.
We know, more and more, as jobs have de‑centralized, as populations have become more suburbanized, that their job centers in the suburbs would require you to make a suburb to suburb commute, because again, a lot of the affordable housing may not be in the part of the region that has the biggest job corridors, or job centers.
Those types of connections can become almost impossible in many markets, which again, just makes transit not an option at all, because of the way this system is networked.
ST: When we had our week focus on suburban poverty on our website, a couple of people wrote articles for us about the transit issue and specifically talking about the fact that even when you do have busing, it’s still a challenge and not as feasible as it is in urban areas, because of the way that the suburbs are designed.
Even if you put your best foot forward and try to implement a good busing system, people are still spread out that it’s very hard to serve everyone in an adequate way.
As you mentioned also, yeah, those historic models of all the buses converge in the downtown and then everyone transfers to go somewhere else, don’t really work in the same way in the suburbs, because they’re not always designed around that central hub. That definitely, it seems like a big challenge.
Kneebone: That’s right. I think that [if] the public transit system that does exist in suburbs, it can be transformative for people living in those communities. It really is a lifeline.
In the book, we talk about a suburb in Houston, Pasadena, where their organizations, their neighborhood centers was working with the community, the transportation piece really clearly rose to the top of the list. It’s like this is the key challenge we’re cut off from transit options.
Just being able to put a bus line into a nearby transit hub made a big difference for that community. It really helped give them connectivity that they didn’t have before.
Likewise, we refer to Penn Hills in the book, which is a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, where they really felt the impact of cuts to bus line services, because again, that was a lifeline connectivity to the rest of the region.
At the same time, not all suburbs are going to be able to be well served by transit. It may not be the efficient option. It’s also thinking creatively about what is the total transport strategy look like that can make the most of transit where it can be efficiently used to help connect people to different nodes and parts of the region.
Then also, what might other transportation options be within these regions to make sure that we’re helping people overcome some of that what we call, a special mismatch, between where they may be able to afford to live, and where economic opportunity lies in the region.
ST: We’ve talked about the transportation challenges, we’ve talked about the social service challenges of reaching the suburban poor, what are the other main impacts and challenges that come to mind for suburban poor that you guys discovered through your research?
Kneebone: When you think about meeting the needs of the growing poor population, the two that we discussed are often the first thing that communities are thinking about, or trying to grapple with. The transportation connectivity, and then figuring out how to make sure people are getting access to really needed services.
Those are the immediate near term how do we meet the needs.
The challenge looking beyond that is, as we think about long term, how to make sure people get to a point where they don’t need to stay tuned at services, is a longer term broader strategy about connecting people to economic opportunity.
Through education and training options, but also understanding how land‑use decisions, governance decisions, investments in housing, transportation and economic development also will work together to affect access to opportunity through the built environment.
A lot of what we talk about is this need for more cross‑cutting strategies that really look to play that longer-term game, to connect people to economic opportunities, so they have the opportunity to work their way out of poverty.
It also means not just cross‑cutting from a policy perspective, from thinking about not just transportation as a silo, or housing as a silo, but how those policy areas interact and intersect. It’s also thinking across jurisdictions and jurisdictional boundaries.
One of the questions, I think, or challenges, that quickly comes up when we think about the lagging resources in the suburban context, the lagging capacity that’s needed in these communities is, are we playing a zero‑sum game? Is the suggestion then that you take resources away from the city and give it to the suburbs? That would just be a mistake.
That would be a very short‑sighted interpretation of what these trends mean. If anything, I think it really underscores the regional nature of these challenges and also aligns with the reality of the regional labor market. These labor markets don’t stop at the city boundary or the suburbs.
These are metropolitan areas because they’re regional labor markets with inner‑connectivity across these jurisdictions. These always says we think about what is the right way to distribute resources, to address these challenges, to think about how to overcome some of the capacity gaps in some of these communities.
That it calls for a more regional approach as well, so that we rather than saying, either or playing a zero‑sum game of figuring out how to back the most effective and efficient strategies at a better scale for addressing these issues.
ST: Did your research mostly focus on the impacts of suburban poverty for the individuals, or did you guys study all the impacts for as you were just talking about regional governments, or suburban governments? How does poverty affect the area as a whole?
Kneebone: I feel like this debate comes up, and we bring this up in the book, that when we start discussing, how do you address this? That there’s often a false choice or a debate that comes up between people‑based strategies versus place‑based strategies. That’s too simplistic, and again [it is] not really an either-or thing.
We talk in the book about how do you — even as we think about what we traditionally would term people‑based programs – it’s understanding how those types of investment intersect with place, and then how can we be more effective with our traditional place‑based investments as well. It calls for a more comprehensive approach.
By [the] nature of that, it really calls us to think about some of the governance challenges that come with trying to address these challenges in the suburbs, the fact that many suburban landscapes, particularly in older industrial areas and older regions are really fragmented. You might be talking about hundreds of jurisdictions that are trying to grapple with the challenge that is much bigger than any one border or any one jurisdiction.
Again, this brings me back to why we’re really calling for this more regional framework, it gets above that very parochial, very fragmented map, because these challenges really do cut across, so many types of places.
The idea [is] that, economically, these are really regions that sink or swim together. There’s been a lot of great research and discussion about why you don’t want a city to be pitted against the suburbs. The central city is – having a healthy core – is really important to having a healthy metro area.
With this research then, [that] pushes that conversation to expand to, say, you also don’t want your suburbs to atrophy or to become distressed as well, [because] that becomes a drag on the broader regional economy, the competitiveness and health of the metropolitan region.
It really is now, again, getting past these too simplistic either-or discussions to think more collectively about how you create health in competitive regions.
ST: What are some of the steps forward that you guys have thought about through your research? What are some ways that we can start alleviating suburban poverty?
Kneebone: Writing the book was a great opportunity to spend a lot of time in different regions across the country where these trends may have played out somewhat differently, but we see common themes emerging from so many different markets that are still grappling with these issues.
The most innovative thinking and forward looking models we’ve seen developed on the ground by local actors, by regional leaders, while they came from different places, the leader wasn’t necessarily the same in each market. The focus of the intervention wasn’t necessarily the same in each market.
In some cases you had a strong non‑profit taking the lead, in some cases it was a consortium of municipal governments, or a strong philanthropic funder, or a very strong collection of school districts. You see the leadership coming from different directions, and it may be focusing on things like housing, or education as a leading issue area, or a community development.
What we really focus on in the book is informative, in that there seems to be three common characteristics of these models that I think helps pave the way for what is a more modernized approach to dealing with poverty in place look like given the scale of the challenges that we’re talking about today. I guess, that suggests, that we need a new model. I think that we do. We make the case in the book that we do.
The approaches that we’ve built up over decades – this is the one on poverty really, of addressing poverty in place – have left us with a pre‑fragmented array of programs that aren’t always easy to navigate, especially if you’re a smaller community, you come into these challenges, newly or for the first time, or dealing with that at a scale you haven’t dealt with before.
When you have that lack of capacity, it’s really hard to navigate this very fragmented array of programs. The other challenge is that a lot of these programs were built with distressed inner‑city neighborhoods in mind and don’t map very easily onto the suburbs in many cases.
It’s a fairly inflexible system that doesn’t really respond or recognize the scope and scale of today’s need, and the diversity of places that are really grappling with these issues.
This brings me back to, what are the three key elements that we’ve seen in some more innovative on the ground models that could really inform state and federal policy around place‑based anti-poverty programs?
What we saw, number one is that these models are figuring out a way to get to a better scale, whether in the scope of services or issues that
they’re addressing or geographically. They’re getting to a better scale.
The second element is they’re figuring out ways to be more collaborative and integrated, getting us back to that crosscutting, whether it’s across juridical boundaries or across policy silos. That’s very related to scale as well. They’re figuring out how to collaborate and integrate.
The third piece that we really noticed was this figuring out ways to fund strategically. Given the strain on budgets at every level of government and even philanthropically, that one pot of money or one funding stream isn’t going to be enough to tackle a lot of the scope and depth of these challenges. Figuring out a way to diversify funding streams, bring in public and private support and braid it together.
Often to use that money effectively, it’s figuring out how to work with data effectively. How do you use data to help target where interventions are needed and what types of services are needed. Also, to measure what’s working, so that we can keep trying to use the limited funds that we have more effectively and efficiently.
We’ve seen these principles applied in a number of different ways and a number of different markets, but I think those three key features really suggest a different way of moving forward. That you can allow for more flexible approaches that target the shifting needs within each market with those principles at the core.
The fact that you are trying to measure what’s working, and chart what’s working, and bank on successful, strong providers and models. Then give them a lot of flexibility in the way that they pursue the strategies needed across a real diverse array of places.
ST: You noted that they’re several broad trends that we can see in many different types of suburbs that are experiencing poverty all over the country. Have you seen through your research that suburban poverty is disproportionally affecting one demographic or a set of demographics more than others or is it a pretty varied group of people who are experiencing this?
Kneebone: It’s such a diverse place. Part of that reflects the fact that suburbs are really a diverse array of communities. Not all suburbs look the same or developed in the same way. What we’ve seen is when we [seek to] “tell the story of suburban poverty,” you can tell any number of different stories.
Whereas I think, a lot of the times, the popular narrative or the media narrative often tends to focus on, especially post-recession, the new poor. It paints this picture of a middle-class family who fell on hard economic times and are now having to seek safety net services for the first time, or really come to terms with being poor for the first time. That story exists. That absolutely exists.
It raises a particular set of challenges. How do you make sure those families are connecting to the safety net services they’ve never used before or they may not be aware of that they can benefit from? That is a real narrative that’s happening in a number of places.
There’s also generational poverty in the suburbs.
There are communities where you have pockets of concentrated poverty. We’ve seen the negative effects of that often in an urban context, but increasingly those types of very poor communities, that limit access to opportunity, those are growing very quickly in the suburbs. Some have been there for quite some time. That’s a very different experience than that first narrative that we often hear about more often.
There are also, increasingly, new immigrants are bypassing cities altogether and moving to the suburbs, the ones that are struggling with economic hardship. That again calls for a different set of policy prescriptions or, at least, a more tailored set of policy interventions that take into account cultural competency and integration goals as well.
There are so many different experiences of poverty in the suburbs that I feel are worth bringing to light. They really do have, at the end of the day, explicit policy responses that may be different or need to be tailored in different ways to meet the same end of helping these residents and families connect to the types of economic opportunity that can get them out of poverty over time.
ST: That reminds me. I did want to ask you about, you mentioned generational poverty. Have you seen or noted the experiences of the elderly who are living in suburban areas? Are there particularly any challenges for them?
Kneebone: Yes. There are now, as I mentioned before, more poor residents living in suburbs and in cities. That’s true across age groups. That’s true for children, for working age adults and for elderly. In fact, the elderly skew even a little bit more ‑‑ the elderly poor [are skewed] towards suburbs [more] than those other age groups.
There are again, a specific set of challenges that come along with that. As well as, someone’s aging in the suburbs, potentially in a house they’ve lived in for a long time. Many of these communities weren’t built with the same infrastructure, supports, or services that are often more readily available in cities.
As a person is aging, and maybe loses the ability to drive, it can be very isolating in a suburban context. They may not have been able to afford a car in the first place. Maybe they get to the point where they can’t drive themselves around anymore, if there aren’t transportation services, if there aren’t safety net providers or other community services that can help the elderly connect with the food supports that they need or medical services that they need.
There’s infrastructure around aging that may not exist in a suburban context. We see a lot of communities around the country really grappling with that, especially as the boomers age and we see a larger number of the elderly in suburbs of all income levels. It’s raising infrastructure questions and service questions.
Within that demographic, the poor are even more constrained. I feel like that’s a challenge many communities are already facing and it’s only going to continue to grow as the population continues to age.
ST: At Strong Towns, we focus a lot on municipal finance and debt and this concept that we call The Growth Ponzi Scheme, which is the way that many towns and cities and suburbs have implemented large public infrastructure projects that they plan to pay for with debt. They might not be thoroughly calculating the maintenance costs that are going to come due 20 or 30 years later when that infrastructure starts to deteriorate.
Suburban roads and sub‑developments are a great example of this. They’re built in anticipation of huge growth and population increases. They’re these huge, wide roads. These sub‑developments that are built about 50 houses at a time that might not have a plan for who’s going to move into them.
A couple of decades down the road, everything starts to deteriorate and then the suburb is looking more shabby and there’s not enough money in the property taxes to pay for that maintenance. Is that something that you guys notice as having any intersections with suburban poverty? Is that related?
Kneebone: I would say, to the extent that, when that life cycle happens, that changes the home values. That changes what’s affordable. I think that in a way, a lot of these issues intersect in so many ways that if you build this up without the ability to maintain it, and then as things begin to deteriorate, people with means move away. Housing prices decline. It opens up opportunities for low‑income families to move in, but there’s still not a plan in place to keep up the infrastructure.
That’s where I feel like you run the risk of building a new pocket of poverty – the disinvestment that we’ve seen transform a lot of urban cores decades ago. A lot of suburbs are struggling with this and, in a way, it creates challenges we’ve seen before but in a new context that may bring even more barriers.
If you now have this pocket of poverty that is becoming dis‑invested, it’s becoming more distressed over time, but now that pocket of poverty isn’t in the urban core where it may be close to transit or may be close to services. Instead it’s on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.
In some ways it’s even more isolating for the residents who live there to be able to connect to where the jobs are, where the services are that they need. It raises real questions about how do you finance the basic services of this community.
That intersects with something we’ve talked about before ‑‑ the jurisdictional map of these places, the governance challenges that can come from a fragmented development pattern where now, if this is a municipality of 20,000 people that begins to lose population and decline, what’s the viable model moving forward then? How they meet the growing needs of their community, let alone their basic services that they need to pay for in terms of safety and schools etc.?
We see, in those sorts of development patterns, the intersection of a financing model that maybe is not sustainable with the jurisdictional fragmentation that can complicate the capacity needed to deal with challenges that then intersect with a changing demographic or a growing low‑income problem that has particular needs.
Together that creates a lot of challenges that we’re seeing in suburban communities across the country. Not all suburbs are in that category. [But there] is one particular tier of distressed suburbs where, if we don’t think more regionally about how to change that trajectory, really run the risk of becoming some of these very isolated, distressed pockets that may, in fact, just contribute to this generational cycle of poverty and distress.
ST: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and for doing this pioneering research in the first place. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?
Kneebone: We’ve a number of projects all continuing to understand how, in some way, the built environment, how the sub‑metropolitan map intersects with poverty and opportunity and access to opportunities. We’ll continue to study poverty trends.
As new data become available to understand how this trend is shifting over time, how concentrated poverty’s changing over time across different types of communities.
We’re also looking at how investments and different types of infrastructure affect access to opportunity. Soon we’ll be putting out a report, for instance, looking at broadband at the neighborhood level and how access to broadband may vary across different kinds of neighborhoods and for different parts of the population, for racial and ethnic minorities, for the low-income population, for different age groups and in different parts of the region. Thinking about how that affects access to opportunity.
We’re doing more work on regional affordable housing strategies as well, as we think about balancing housing options, investments and revitalizing areas, opening up opportunities. In lower poverty, high-opportunity communities, what are the types of regional cross-jurisdictional tools that are being developed and have proven successful in helping to create a more balanced distribution of affordable housing?
ST: That sounds fascinating. I will continue to follow your research. Elizabeth Kneebone, thank you so much. Her book is Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. I highly recommend it. It is a fairly quick and very readable information piece. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Kneebone: Thank you for having me.
ST: Take care.
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David Bragdon’s talk to the Portland City Club on Oregon’s inability to make mobility improvements
What Bragdon failed to point out is that the root cause of the problem is Oregon’s century-old Constitutional dedication of gas tax revenue to “highway purposes” only. This foolish commitment of revenue to serve only one form of travel creates a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem in the United States that has led to dominance of the automobile and the destruction of much of what made American cities productive and wealthy. It’s not enough to fix funding allocation models if the ultimate use of the funding is still restricted because of how it was raised, no matter who spends it,
Oregon’s gas tax was the first in the nation; Oregon needs to be first in the nation to abolish the foolish dedication of gas tax revenue to supporting only more of the same paving.
Greg Macpherson: On a range of innovative transportation strategies Portland is recognized as a national leader from public transit investments to bicycle infrastructure to pedestrian first design. But other cities and regions are moving ahead deploying innovative strategies and accessing new funding sources. Portland may no longer deserve its reputation for being out front on transportation.
Our speaker today on this topic is David Bragdon who has spent a long career in transportation including a year spent driving a taxi cab. From 2003 to 2010 he served as president of Metro, the Portland areas elected regional government.
He subsequently served as director of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Long‑term Planning and Sustainability. David Bragdon is currently executive director of Transit Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York working to improve public transportation across the country.
He will speak first and then have a conversation with our moderator Mirk Mirk. She is the online editor at Bitch Media and hosts the feminist podcast, Popaganda. Please join me in welcoming David Bragdon and Mirk Mirk to City Club.
David Bragdon: Coming back to Portland is always fun. For me it’s familiar and fresh at the same time with a little bit distance you get a little perspective as well. I think about somebody I knew in college who won a fellowship to go study in New Zealand afterwards and I asked, “What are you going to be studying?” and he said, “I’m going to study American government”.
I said, “Why would you go to New Zealand to study American government?” He said, “You can’t study that in America, no perspective. A fish would be the last to discover water.” The perspective on Portland from far away I think is really helpful.
I’m lucky now to be working for a civic foundation or foundation we’re committed to improving urban mobility across the country. This is a time of a lot of change in that field after four or five decades of pretty much stasis, where transportation was provided by large bureaucracies, slow moving.
There’s a tremendous amount of dynamism in the world right now, a lot of it in the private sector but a lot of it in the public sector as well. We fund studies, we commission work directly, we do grant making to universities and civic groups around the country.
There’s a couple of pieces of work that I really want to draw on today. One is on the topic of governance which sounds really boring, and I apologize for that, but it counts for a lot. It’s not government which is a thing, it’s governance which is how institutions relate to each other, how decisions get made, where there is cooperation, where there is not.
This came up in part because of a dilemma they were facing in Chicago among many other things that they were facing that the vast job growth scattered around the suburbs and the people needing jobs in the South Side of Chicago and the inability of them to connect on transit.
This was originally framed as, “This is an operations problem.” The think tank that we commissioned to do this work did a few interviews and quickly concluded this is actually not an operations problem the operations people could fix this in one meeting or maybe two meetings. It’s really a problem of the fact that the CTA is controlled by the mayor and PACE [suburban Chicago area bus service] in the suburbs is controlled by the collar counties and those individuals weren’t talking to each other, there wasn’t cooperation.
The operations people couldn’t actually do their job because of this governance issue. We found a lot of different governing structures around the country on how they work to have some perspective, on how Oregon functions in that way too and how it compares to other places.
The other work that I’m really drawing on is one that does feature Portland, it’s called “A People’s History of Recent Transportation Innovation” in which we looked at this phenomena that’s happening around the country and Ted’s quite right, so much of this started here in terms of taking back the streets for people pedestrian plazas, biking, green infrastructure for storm water management, the idea that streets are for more than just moving cars as quickly as possible.
We were asked a question: Given that transportation is generally a fairly routinized bureaucratized undertaking, how did these changes occur? We’re really interested in change and how change can come about in that type of circumstance. We profiled six cities, Portland, Chicago, New York, Charlotte, Denver, Pittsburgh. What we found is despite the diversity of those cities, very different cases in each type, geographically demographics, something they had in common, entirely in common is that in every case change originated outside the conventional institutions of the transportation establishment. It started with citizens and that case was most stark here in Portland.
Portland is the first chapter in the book and rightfully so. With the civic activists, whether it’s AIA [American Institute of Architects] chapter, downtown eventually became the downtown plan. The people in Southeast Portland trying to preserve their neighborhoods and fighting the Mount Hood Freeway and taking back the city in that sense, long before the elected officials had caught on and long before the agencies had also caught on.
What we find is it takes an elected leader to actually grasp those things and actually make them happen and that’s certainly the case here. Quite rightly Portland is the first chapter in that book chronologically because it happened here first. There’s a lot of momentum from the good things that have happened here in the past. Just last month the Orange Line opened. There’s good celebrations around that and there should be.
Just give you a national perspective on that. TriMet is a national model in terms of project delivery, in terms of design, the workforce here is also a national model. I was talking to a federal official last week who covers the Southwest and Texas and so on and he tells to the agencies in his part of the country, “If you want to understand project delivery, you have to go see how TriMet does it.”
When you think about this just by comparison you have Gresham 86, the Hillsboro in 98 interstate, the airport, Clackamas, and now Milwaukie. Every one, with the exception of the tunnel under the hill, which is a geologic factor nobody could have seen, without exception they’ve delivered each of those on time and under budget. That’s very rare in the industry.
TriMet is also a leader in open data involving people in the operations in terms of opening their data and fare payment. There’s a lot for Portland to be proud of in all this and you should take pride in it. But don’t be complacent about it. Because as I said a lot of places are emulating it. And here comes the tough love part, there are some places that are actually outpacing Portland right now and doing a lot.
Let me tell you a little bit about those. Denver, Colorado, in the last 10 years has invested $5.5 billion in transit. That’s a Milwaukie line every other year or so. They have multiple lines under construction at the same time. Every year they’ve been improving the bus service, doing more of that.
Last month, Mayor Hancock proposed an 18 percent increase in the transportation budget to improve streets for biking, walking, to speed up transit. This is part of their economic competitiveness strategy to attract people.
They’re also leveraging the investment they made in flood controls along the creeks to create a regional trail network pretty quickly. When Mike Winter started the intertwine, he did that whole calculation about, “We have a plan here in the Portland area about our trail network.” He did the calculation of how long will it take to build it out at the current rate. I think the estimate at that time was 190 years, so not very fast. That was five years ago, so now it’s 185 but still.
Los Angeles, a place that often we lampoon, where car is king, Mayor Garcetti is reclaiming those big arterials. He’s created a great streets program. He’s got a skunkworks of architects and designers in his own office independent of the city DOT, because they weren’t moving fast enough. He created a little unit in his own group to redesign those streets.
They’ve rezoned areas and put things in the zoning code to reduce parking requirements, all types of things that would have been unheard of in Los Angeles just five years ago. On the transit side, they have a capital plan of 45 billion, that’s billion with a B, in terms of their transit system.
This is happening everywhere. It’s not red, blue state. It’s happening everywhere. The place that has built more rail than any place else in this country over the last 15 years is Salt Lake City, of course, in the most conservative state in the country by many measures. Houston, just this summer, overhauled their bus network to make it more frequent, increasing the number of people who have access to it.
Here’s the side story on that. That was actually done by a Portland consultant, Jarrett Walker, who really learned his trade when Portland did the same thing in 1984. Portland did it in 1984, Houston’s doing it in 2015. That’s a 31‑year’s difference. The point is, they’re catching up.
The interesting thing to me, too, is encountering Portland people like Jarrett working elsewhere around the country and taking these lessons around the country. There’s a little bit of bittersweetness to it, though. I ran into somebody I know who works for another construction company. We were at a national conference in some other place. I said, “How’s it going?” He said “It’s going great. I am busier than ever. It’s really, really terrific. Business has never been better.”
I said. “What are you working on?” and he said, “It’s kind of funny. We’re closing up our work on the Orange Line now. When we do that, it’s going to be the first time in 20 years that I haven’t had work in Portland. Every Monday morning, I’m at PDX getting on a plane to Los Angeles and I come home on Friday afternoon. I’m really busy, but I’m in another city.”
I ran into somebody this week I used to work with, here at Metro. Specializes in environmental impact statements for transit projects and she’s doing that now in Seattle. Let me finish the Seattle story because this one sticks in my craw, and I know it’s really good Randy Miller is not here, because he’d have an aneurysm, knowing how Randy Miller feels about Seattle.
We always used to make fun of it. They would never get their act together on transportation. They could have Major League Baseball and they could have . . . Mount Rainier could a little bigger than Mount Hood, that’s OK, but transportation, we had that locked down. They’re going to open the line that now goes from the airport to downtown. They’re going to extend that to the University of Washington in Capitol Hill in March. Those two stations, that will double their ridership because of those destinations.
University of Washington, which is now 25 minutes to an hour from downtown, will suddenly be 11 minutes from downtown. They’re going to start construction on the line from Bellevue across the lake. They have on the ballot for next fall, a Sound Transit expansion measure of $15 billion more. Now this is the governance piece of this and this is what’s happening up there. It’s not just that regional level, as important as that is. There’s also coordinated activity happening at the county and the city level where they’re all on the same page.
Seattle Metro is run by King County, one unit of government. The biggest user of it is people who live in Seattle, different entity. Now, the City of Seattle passed their own measure to supplement the budget of King County Metro by $50 million a year to improve the transit service in the city. They’re in fact buying service. There’s an element of competition in that they could maybe procure those services someplace else.
They’re using really sophisticated metrics to decide what it is they want to buy. One of those metrics is they’re going to keep measuring what percentage of the population is within a quarter‑mile of a bus that runs at least every 10 minutes. That’s a very user‑based type of metric as opposed to the type of metric that we’ve sometimes used that are about our own operations as opposed to our benefits to the public.
City of Seattle next month will have a measure on the ballot for city streets, improving those for biking and walking. That’s to the tune of $930 million over 10 years, $93 million a year over the next 10 years. Tremendous amount happening there. To top it off, there’s also the state government up there. This summer, they increased their gas tax 11.9 cents a gallon. That is a 30 percent increase in their gas tax, just 175 miles up the road here.
This is also happening in other places. Again, it’s not Red, it’s not Blue. States like Vermont also increased their gas tax. Pretty liberal place, but so did the state of Wyoming. Wherever there’s a value of proposition, people believe in these investments. They’re improving them. There’s this wave of investment going across the country.
People are figuring out that Dwight Eisenhower is not going to be reincarnated and even if he were, he wouldn’t win the Republican primary. The federal government is not likely to be the partner that it’s been over the last 40 or 50 years, and places are having to figure this out on their own.
Portland used to be leading the parade on figuring this stuff, going against the grain, and doing things before everybody else. Now, in some senses ‑ and this is again the tough love part. Take it that way, please – [Portland] is doing a little bit of watching the parade go by while there’s some wheel-spinning here. You have to ask, “Why?” You have to ask why, in a governance sense, there’s systemic reasons for that.
In City Hall here, it’s been gripped for the last two or three years, about a debate about whether or not there’s going to be a street fee to maintain the streets in good condition. Now, think about that. In comparison, the people in Seattle, people in Denver, people in Los Angeles, they’re actually planning how they’re going to improve streets. They’re figuring which one is going to go first. Is it going to be Arapahoe? Is it going to be Colfax? Is it going to be Crenshaw Boulevard in LA?
The debate here is not about improving. It’s about can we keep things from getting worse. Even that is an open question. I know there’s a lot of optics around that and reasons for it and we can get into that, but it’s a sad thing.
In Salem, while up the road in Olympia, they were raising the gas tax by 30 percent, the legislature here chose not to fund transportation. Again, there are a lot of reasons. I’m 3,000 miles away. I can’t speak to exactly why that is. Certainly it didn’t help that at the last minute it came out that the state transportation department had been promoting figures about greenhouse gas emissions that were wildly exaggerated and had no credibility at all.
It’s Oregon, so everybody is polite. It’s chalked up to, “Well, it’s a mistake.” Everybody does make mistakes, and that’s certainly understandable, but you have to ask, when mistakes become chronic, when inaccuracy in forecasts become chronic, is there some systemic reason for that? Is there some institutional reason that needs to be fixed? It’s probably not just a matter of lack of facility with mathematics if these forecasts are continually off.
That was the same agency [that] in 2010, a blue ribbon committee of experts from around the country said that the finance plan for the Columbia River Crossing was implausible, and [found] a series of other data errors around that project. Again, if it becomes a pattern of inaccuracy, you really need to look behind. It’s not simply accidents that are happening.
I know these things are in the background and history is history. People remember there have been recent city audits, that in some senses the city hasn’t been perfect with money in terms of the parking meter situation and the findings that in the past money had been promised for maintenance. Those are holes that we need to dig out of politically, as well as the literal ones. This is all part of the backdrop I think, as the continuing sense that there’s a crisis in transportation.
The last time that was said, and this is probably also some of the history of it in Salem, the last increases to the gas tax in 2001, ‘04, and 2009 prompted a huge run up in debt such that ODOT’s debt service, in terms of the state highway fund, is now 35 percent. [35 percent] of it is going to debt service to bond‑holders, rather than to projects. That’s 35 percent today. It was two percent in 2001.
If you think about what that means in a management sense or in a sense of accounting, it means that when more revenue was provided, the agency became less likely to live within its means. There’s a little bit of perversity there. It makes you wonder, “Well, do we want more money to go there when they’re not living within their means?”
It means the request of the legislature or the voters are, “You gave me a nice allowance last time and I used it to run up a big credit card bill. I didn’t take care of stuff and now I’d like more money.” It’s not a very persuasive case to most parents of teenagers and it’s not very persuasive to voters.
This question of performance, is it a persistent thing? Is it something structural? I think it is. I think there are structural things that you could fix that would solve many of these things. The statement that Oregon has a transportation finance problem . . . . I don’t know. I don’t know how anybody would know. The agencies are so opaque, it’s hard to know whether there’s truly a finance crisis here or transportation finance problem.
What there definitely is is a transportation governance and management problem, and that’s the thing that needs to be fixed first. Unless that gets fixed first, the crisis will persist. There’s some lessons from other places and how places are reforming their transportation organization to make them more accountable.
Again, this is systemic. Most of the folks involved in this situation here are good people, hardworking people. The Portland City Council today if you could get them to sit down and take [a test], probably, the aggregate IQ on that city council’s higher than it’s ever been.
The leaders of both houses [in the Legislature], really talented, smart, dedicated people, and public minded people. Remember, this is coming from somebody who lives in New York, where if you follow this, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President in New York are actually under indictment and awaiting trial. No kidding.
Count your blessings here in Oregon, you have public servants who really want to do the right thing. Nobody is on the take. The opportunities are there. Smart people. You just need the right system.
Same for the Portland Department of Transportation, whatever the sins of the past, of a few bad apples in the parking meter company, it’s in the past. 99 percent of them are doing a great job and they’re nationally known for doing it. But again, if good people can’t make the system work, then you have to say there must be something wrong with the system.
Here’s how some of the reforms are looking.
First of all, let me describe how decisions have been made in the last 50 years in the world of transportation plan, which is primarily for cars. It’s been very top down, very mysterious, very much for the oracles of the agencies. There’s a technical part to it, and then there’s a political part to it.
The technical part was [that] the priority is the flow of cars, how many cars can we get to move and how fast can we get them, based on forecasts that invariably show traffic going up in the forecast. Even though our experience over the last 10 years that it’s actually going down, it’s always shown to be going up, and with the assumption that cost is no object.
We’ve been conditioned by an era in which 90 percent of the money was coming from the federal government. In fact, a planner at ODOT said, “Well, we’re not allowed to consider costs because the federal government won’t allow us.” It’s not actually true. They are supposed to consider that, but that’s been the conditioning.
The drawbacks to that approach, hone in on the capacity issue. It doesn’t account for induced demand that as you build more space, it fills up with more cars. The forecasts – the drawback with those is that they tend to be overstated almost every time, and the fact is, funds are limited.
That’s the technical part of the flaws there. There’s the political part too that we all know, which is legislators who are on particular committees. They have rank . . . Well, you might get an interchange in your district. That’s the unscientific part.
How are other states dealing with this?
Let me tell you about Massachusetts. Massachusetts in 2013 raised the gas tax. They raised $600 million a year for transportation. Deval Patrick, the governor at the time, really went to bat for that. The only way he could get the legislature to agree to that in 2013, is he started in 2009 and said, “I need to shake up the transportation agencies. In fact, I need to blow it up.” They had been dug by the Big Dig. There were costs overruns, forecasting errors, all kinds of things. Public credibility, very, very low.
He cleaned house, brought in new management, but then he also changed the structure. He and the legislature went to statute and changed the structure. There were three key reforms.
One was instead of having project selection done strictly on the basis of alleviating traffic congestion ‑ which is a fool’s errand ‑ they were going to evaluate projects in terms of economic impact, social impact, environmental impact.
Secondly, they were going to have an independent board. An independent board not in the transportation department, but an independent board charged with the fiduciary integrity of the state to evaluate all of those claims.
Third, they also recognized, “You know what? Western Massachusetts is different. The rural area is different. We’re not going to have a statewide package that suits Beacon Hill or Back Bay in Boston and also Pittsfield.” They separated that way.
Pennsylvania, that same year, Republican governor, Pennsylvania, $2.3 billion a year increase. Really significant thing here in terms of governance again. Transit in the state of Pennsylvania is a local concern. [As] it is in Oregon. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, they’ve been on their own in terms of generating their own revenue for transit.
In this bill in 2013, for the first time, state money went to those transit agencies in
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, because the state legislature recognized, “You know, I am a state legislator, but my job is not only to the state government, it’s to the people in the state and in my district,” so the money went to transit. It was just a calculation that said, “The state that has an income tax, and if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh aren’t mobile, the state is Appalachia. That’s what they have,” and that’s why they invested in mobility for those cities.
They also increased the money going to local streets, recognized that’s where most the trips are, but they conditioned some of it on competitive grants that localities had to apply and not just say, “Well, we’re going to alleviate traffic.”
California is probably the best case where delegating authority to metropolitan regions, a large slug of money was taken that had been spent by the California Department of Transportation, was delegated to the metropolitan planning organizations in the large districts of the state, the Bay Areas, Southern California, and so on. It came with strings from the state. The state set high standards for spending it in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help the economy, connect people with jobs, other types of performance measures.
In summary, all of these places, none of them just put money into the same old formula, the same old system, the same old agencies. All of them delegated more money to the local level. All of them recognized that the urban and rural are different. All of them got a lot more careful about project selection and evaluation and using this clear criteria in out standards.
While they’re implementing reforms ‑‑ frankly, I haven’t seen this much of that here at the state level ‑‑ Oregon is not a leader in that. The bill that didn’t pass in the 2015 legislature was actually pretty much old school. A lot of big road widening at the edge of town, shortchanging local maintenance, no really institutional reform, no performance measures to speak of, some key projects for key legislators if they vote in the right way.
That’s the way things used to be done, but it’s not the way it should be done anymore. These things have a cost. They really do have a cost. Flawed governance leads to poor decision-making. It leads to irrational priority setting and wastes money. Let me just give you a few examples.
The Ross Island Bridge was renovated early 2000s because it’s owned by the state government. The Sellwood Bridge, far worse condition, languished for years because it happens to be owned by a local government. Even when that local government … bless their hearts. I mean, imagine you’re elected to the county commission and you think you’re going to deal with jails and health clinics; and suddenly you have this big engineering and planning problem.
Bless them for doing it, but the solution requires that people in Troutdale, who are 25 miles away, very unlikely to use the bridge, are going to be paying for it for 20 years. People in Milwaukee and Lake Oswego who use it every day won’t pay at all. There’s these inequities in the system. There’s also this inability for the people to know who is responsible for what.
There’s a growing tendency toward more accountability in a system to build. The
pinnacle of that is probably Transport for London where they created an agency in 2000 that manages the transit as well 9,200 miles of arterials, as well as the bike share, as well as the car share, the bus lines, some which they’re competitively contracting out.
They were doing all these competitive things. They’ve had tremendous real estate growth as a result of transit investments, places like King’s Cross. If you have a bad experience on the tube, you know who’s responsible, the Transport for London. That’s the mayor. If you have a bad experience with the taxi, you complain to Transport for London. It’s the mayor’s responsibility. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for him next time. If the bus is late, that’s his fault too. If you come across a pothole, no question who’s responsible for that. It’s Transport for London. It’s the mayor. People know who they call.
Imagine this pothole here where I’m driving across the [Sellwood] bridge. I guess it’s the county who, like I say, they’re busy running the jails. It’s probably the mayor, though, because I remember he ran a campaign about potholes. Actually, no, it’s the commissioner, who doesn’t even work for him, who didn’t campaign about potholes. The accountability is a little fuzzy there.
Now, maybe I drove for three blocks on Barbur Boulevard or on Powell. That’s owned by the state, so that must be the governor’s pothole. You think, “Well, now, why would the governor of the state – he’s got a whole state to worry about — care about a pothole on the local street. Is that really the right official to be responsible for that?” A lack of clarity.
The basic problems in Oregon that I think need to be fixed in terms of government are pretty simple. One is this mash‑up of ownerships where cities, counties and the state all own pieces of road in the metropolitan area. That’s one.
The second is the totally random allocation of funding.
As you know, the primary funding of the gas tax and related [is] 50 percent to the state, 30 percent to counties, 20 percent to cities. You think, “Well, but Oregon benchmarks everything. There must be some reason for that.” Actually, there really isn’t. It has nothing to do with mileage. It has nothing to do with need. It has nothing to do with return and investment. It’s just always been that way.
The two simple thing that need to be happening to fix that, one is deciding who’s going to be responsible for what. Secondly, then just holding them responsible to do it, and award the funding accordingly. It sounds simple, I know. I know organizational change is really, really hard. Reorganizing the Solid Waste Department at Metro is like rewriting the Treaty of Ghent or something.
It’s not to be taken lightly. Ask Governor Patrick in Massachusetts. It’s not easy. On deciding who’s going to do what, there’s some basic principles. Jarrett Walker, the transit consultant [notes] it’s never going to be a seamless system, but you can figure out where the seams are, where they make sense. We do that in other systems that are multi-layered.
The insanity of Oregon’s transportation governance system can be illustrated by another [one] — an opposite, but very similar. Oregon’s criminal justice system. Pretty complex topic, but it’s crystal clear who does what. The state sets statutes, murder in Baker City, murder in Bedford, murder in Portland. It’s all the same. There’s a certain standard.
If you have a sentence of more than a year, you’re going to the state penitentiary. Counties run jails. If you’re sentenced up to a year, you’re going to be in a county jail. Cities run police departments. They each have their own specialty. They each reinforce each other. None of them are better than the other. They’re all indispensable.
The point is they’re solving the problem at the level where it’s most competently solved based on geography, based on the resources, based on the accountability. That’s a watchword called subsidiarity that the European Union uses to decide what will be done by the EU and what will be done by the member states.
Erase the boundaries on all this ownership. Drove me nuts when I hear staff say, “Oh, that’s an ODOT road. That’s a [Portland] DOT road.” It’s all our roads. It’s taxpayers’ roads and we ought to say that.
The second piece of that, then, is to spend the money on the things that really count. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but that’s going to be some kind of merit-based, competitive type of process rather than an annuity or guarantee based on 50 percent, something based on the value that the public is getting.
These sound like really wonky things. These are complicated intergovernmental things, but they’re really important.
Unless you get the governance right, the decisions won’t be right, and the money won’t be well‑spent. The real benefits of these include the value for money, but there are other benefits too because there are very few of us that actually like transportation just for the sake of transportation. For the rest of us, it’s actually a means to something else.
It’s a means for people to get to work. It’s a means for more people in our society to get to more work. It’s about the air that we breathe. It’s about the neighborhoods that we want to have. It’s about all the things that those activists and mayors that we’ve talked about cared about and worked for.
Oregon has been a leading innovator on all of those things, great track record of that. The evidence is all around you. Take a look. Pioneer Courthouse Square. There’s Cooper Mountain. It’s 260 acres on the south slope of Cooper Mountain near Beaverton, preserved by Metro and the voters.
On a day like this, you can see across the Tualatin River to the coast range. All you’ll hear is the hawks. That’s pretty special. The waterfront that could still be at Brownfield and in some other cities, it might’ve been turned into a football stadium to be used 8 times a year and empty 357. Instead, there’s world-class scientists doing cancer research, and a neighborhood that has some of the most expensive housing and some of the most affordable housing right there in that neighborhood.
The buildings along Division and the new shops.
Does that cause some heartache about parking and change? You bet. Of course, it does, but these are all choices. Isn’t that scene out there, whether you don’t like fedoras, or hipsters, or the baby strollers, isn’t that better than the empty grocery store or the porno theater that used to be there?
More to the point, what we’re talking about today, isn’t it better than the six-lane trench highway that was once proposed to be there? These things are all choices. They’re not just places. They’re choices. Oregon’s got a great record of making the right choices.
Look at those things. Don’t take them for granted. They didn’t happen by accident. They happened because people cared. They happened because people like you and me stood up, said, “We think things could be different. We care about this place.” People agitated. Other people invested. Other people proposed ideas that seemed crazy at the time, and are now being emulated nationally. Ultimately, that’s the edge here. It’s the people.
Some of the people who did that are in this room today. There are others who passed away, who are not here, but we remember. There are others who are in this room that are probably grandchildren of people who did those things. That’s really the legacy I want you to grasp. I expect a lot from you. Don’t let me down.
Sarah Mirk: If you’re just tuning in on OPB, I’m Mirk Mirk. I’m here with David Bragdon. We’re at the City Club Friday Forum, and we’re talking about transportation. Hi, David, it’s good to have you back in Portland.
David Bragdon: Good to be here.
Mirk: I want to talk about the human impact of transportation spending. You talked about how other cities are taking the streets back for people versus Oregon’s totally random allocation of money on transportation spending. That’s what you said. I’m wondering, how should we change the way that we value transportation projects?
How should we change the way that we decide what transportation projects are worth spending money on so that we prioritize those projects that people actually want and need now versus what people decided we needed 50 years ago, which were mostly car-centric freeway projects?
Bragdon: There’s a lot of discipline going into this now. There’s no right answer to it. In fact, we’re funding some research that a couple of organizations are really looking at. How do you make decisions based on the performance and the life cycle of the asset? I think the important part is expanding the criteria that you’re using.
The sole measure is not how many cars you can move. Literally that was the measure. It’s called level of service, volume over capacity, V/C. Adopting other measures in terms of economic impact, freight mobility, environmental impacts, I think California is probably is in the lead of figuring that out. It definitely is more subjective, but it’s the right types of value judgments the policy makers ought to be making, as opposed to horse-trading or just letting a formula run on decade after decade.
Mirk: Instead of determining the value of a transportation project based on expanding car capacity, looking at other things like the environmental impact?
Bragdon: Right. Right. They’ve been doing that in the Bay Area. It actually really changed the list of [projects], including transit projects. To tell you the truth, because not all transit projects [are worthy]. This same type of discipline, it’s not all about ending road projects. It’s about getting better road project but also better transit projects.
Mirk: How do you think that would change life for the average Oregonian? How does it change a city or state to invest more heavily in public transit, biking and walking than the old freeway models?
Bragdon: Economic change is happening in the country, and what’s happening with household budgets. For most people, transportation is the second biggest part of their household budget. If you are devoting a large share of that to automobile ownership, first of all, you’re owning an asset that depreciates the minute you buy it. Then you’re paying to insure it, and a lot of people, you’re having it sit 22, 23 hours a day. That can be a pretty big hit.
Some of this have been quantified by Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, that if you’re not burdened with car ownership, you have more disposable income for other things. Certainly, that’s an economic benefit. I think the ability to have the freedom to move around and get to more potential employers, that’s an economic benefit.
The ability of people who, for reasons of age, young or old, don’t drive or shouldn’t be driving, the ability for them to have freedom of movement around the city and really explore the city, and for parents of those young people to not be sentenced to life as a chauffeur for their children’s childhood.
I think there are a number of benefits and that’s all quantified by the fact that the real estate market across the country, including in Portland, is saying people want the types of neighborhood that are walkable and have transit. There’s clearly a market for it.
This is like a lot of other things where the people and the market is way ahead of the policy maker, particularly at the federal level, in the sense that transit ridership is up, the demand for new projects is up, and Congress is cutting those funds. The experience on the ground, the demographic changes ‑ and we documented some of this in public opinion research ‑ it’s really moving that way.
Mirk: It sounds like those economic benefits that you just mentioned that are all super important for the average person are not always factored into our transportation planning or our understanding of the economic impact of transportation projects.
Bragdon: Right. They haven’t been, but they are increasingly in some places.
Mirk: As somebody who used to live here in Portland, you grew up here and now live in New York, also sort of grew up there. [laughs] When you lived here, did you have to own a car? Do you have to own a car now in New York?
Bragdon: Well, I think one of the interesting things that’s happening is this emergence of other forms of shared mobility that are not transit, but that are not privately operated and owned. I’ll answer to your personal question. Yeah, some of the time here I owned a car but sat at the garage a lot of time.
Those drove me a little crazy because just writing the check for insurance. I’m paying $700 a year, or whatever it was, just to insure something that was sitting six days a week, but I needed that to be able to go do grocery shopping, or there might be something I’d be going out at night, and use it once or twice a week.
The emergence of network companies like Lyft, which are really just taxis, but enabled by the demand response of bike sharing, car sharing, and just the rise of biking on your own, I think the net effect of a lot of those things is it enables one to live a life free of car ownership. I was one. I think there are many people who own a car but only for certain types of trips because there is no other way to accomplish those trips, like going to the grocery store once a week or something.
With the availability of some of these services, being able to not own a car becomes a lot more practical. That’s why we think things like Lyft are actually a supplement and a good extender to a transit system rather than a competitor.
Mirk: You talked about two messages that feel like they’re at odds with each other, but they work together and that we need both. That there’s a fallacy around just needing to put more money into our transportation system.
While other cities are putting in more money into exciting projects like Denver, Seattle, Los Angles are all putting in more money in public transit systems. You’re saying that in Oregon, we both need to better use our money and better figure out where our current existing money goes. Once we figure out those better systems, we can invest more into public transit.
Bragdon: Yeah. State funds are a little more strict because of the gas tax restrictions. There are federal funds that are more flexible. If there was more competition around those and they weren’t automatically kept by the state, that would be an opportunity for communities around the state to be able to compete for those. What I’m saying is that there shouldn’t be annuity or a guarantee, an entitlement based on jurisdictional ownership of the past.
Again, I’ll try to relate this to another field. The criminal justice system, we went and asked the head of the corrections department, “How should we spend money?”
I assume he’s going to go to bat for his aid. He ought to. He’s going to say, “Well, we should have 50 percent spent on penitentiaries, 30 percent sent to county jails, and 20 percent sent to police departments.”
That’s the formula for transport. You got to make sense for criminal justice too. Right? Not logical?
Oregon has overhauled higher education. If there were still a higher education department, and you went to the board and you went, “How should we spend money on education?” They’d say, “Well, 50 percent to universities, 30 percent to community colleges, 20 percent to K‑12. That’s how transportation does it, got to make sense.
We’d say that’s crazy. It’s the schizophrenic and conflicted role that the state government plays. Again, this is a systemic comment. It has nothing to do with personalities. It’s that a state can be a regulator of local government, it can be a conduit of funds to local government, and in some senses it can compete with, but it can’t do all three legitimately. You can’t be a contestant and a judge at the same time.
Think of the sewage system, that DEQ regulates local government’s discharge. Now imagine if DEQ was also running a few random sewage treatment plants in competition.
That’s what’s crazy about this patchwork, that the state government owns 82nd Avenue or Powell Boulevard. There’s really no state interest in that. It needs to be managed cohesively.
Mirk: When you say, entitlements based on jurisdictional priorities of the past, do you mean basically making decisions based on the status quo, but just because we’ve been funding these things this way, doesn’t mean we need to keep funding things this way. We need to figure out better systems of funding those or what we should be funding?
Bragdon: Right. It’s all our money. I think that these things get treated as if they’re etched in stone, or it’s a product of history.
The City of Milwaukie can’t have a stoplight on Mcloughlin Boulevard so that people can get from downtown, to Milwaukie, to the park across the street. After all, that’s actually not McLoughlin Boulevard, that’s Highway 99. Before I‑5 was built in 1965, that was the way to get to Salem. Because people took that route from Portland to Salem 50 years ago, the City of Milwaukie can’t have a traffic light where that community wants to have a traffic light [today], is just crazy.
Mirk: I just want to briefly ask about TriMet, and then we’ll go to Q and A from the crowd.
You used to be the president of Metro and have a lot of experience with TriMet here in the city. I’m wondering, how have you seen TriMet change over time here? What can we do now to make TriMet more equitable, just on a local level?
Bragdon: I think that Portland gets a lot of notice for the rail system, rightly so. In many cities, including London, London has twice as many bus passengers as Tube passengers, the importance of the bus system shouldn’t be understated. There are ways to speed up buses. We’re doing some work on that around the country, some emphasis on that.
You mentioned equity too. I think having that as a way of making capital investment decisions would actually have changed some decisions in the past.
The Wilsonville to Beaverton Commuter Rail, $160 million, carries 1,500 people a day. Most of them, higher than average income relative to the transit-riding population. Division Street passenger bus, 18,000 people a day. We’re only now starting to think about, “Well, how can we help those 18,000 people?” They are not of the same economic [class].
I think if you looked at those investments, which this is again, it’s history, but it’s a lesson from history, you might say, “You know what? Those 18,000 people deserve real attention.”
Mirk: If you’re just tuning in OPB, I’m Sarah Mirk. I’m here with David Bragdon at City Club’s Friday Forum. We’re talking about transportation. We’re going to take a question from the crowd. Here’s your special reminder. Hang on.
Bragdon: It ends with a question mark.
Kennedy Bertelson: Hi, my name is Kennedy Bertelson. I’m here as one of the civic scholars. I know that the city just spent upwards of a billion dollars on the new MAX Line and just set aside eight million to work on improving 122nd.
While I understand the city’s desire to make large and noticeable changes, to make wide scale transportation easier and more accessible, I’m concerned that the city is spending around all that money, and then specifically around $8 million on a street that is functioning without major problems, when the streets surrounding 122nd don’t even have sidewalks. What are your thoughts on that?
Bragdon: My thoughts are that the transportation field has been dominated by consideration of large projects. They’re considered really dramatic and sexy, and that what’s increasingly the case is that these finer grain changes, when multiplied over the scale of a city or nation, are really very significant.
Those are the type of systemic changes that come about when you think of spending money differently and actually do some analysis of who’s going to be impacted the most. It’s like my earlier comment about the bus system.
I know 122nd is dangerous. I know Commissioner Novick and others have really committed themselves to make that safer. I can’t speak to the exact tradeoff of that street relative to the others that you mentioned, but I know there is a lot that needs to be done there.
Mirk: You mentioned finer grain changes. Can you explain what that means?
Bragdon: I mean that, for example, while we’re going to do more with crosswalks, we going to do them all over the place. I think a small intervention repeated over and over, systemically across the landscape, can be very significant.
Mirk: Investing a little bit of money in things, in small project cycles. A few crosswalks, a few sidewalks, versus big sexy projects.
Bragdon: Yeah, and not confusing jurisdictional size with importance. There is another fallacy around in the world of transport about, what’s of statewide significance? There is an assumption that has to do with length or size.
Bend to Vale, across eastern Oregon, that that’s of statewide significance because it’s very long. In terms of actual demand and number of people…I’m not saying this to slight the need for there to be a good highway there. I’m just saying that that alone may not be as economically significant as 18,000 people who each ride the bus two miles along Division Street, because the 18,000 people even though they’re going two miles, that’s an enormous impact in terms of demand on the system and greenhouse gas conservation, and those sorts of things.
I think taking this more systemic view and saying, “Well, even though bus service seems so prosaic and local, collectively it has a huge impact.”
Mirk: Cool, let’s take another question.
Audience Member: You gave about us 5 or 10 seconds on the Columbia Crossing, but I wanted to ask you a comment on that. You’ve been gone five years.
During that time, that whole issue arose and was decided ‑ at least temporarily decided, we think ‑ but using all the examples you’ve used and the perspective that you got, and you’ve been around the block, so to speak, we were going to spend about three to four billion dollars, 90 percent of which was going to be federally funded. It was going to be the huge project, sexy as you say, tremendous number of jobs in the midst of a depression, almost, and we couldn’t do it. What does that say about our system and our governance?
Bragdon: It is exactly a governance issue. It’s interesting, I wondered if that would come up, because everybody’s so polite. It’s such a huge issue, and I think ignoring it is to risk repeating similar mistakes.
When you have $200 million spent, and a failure of that magnitude, it really does behoove us to actually look at what happened. There were certainly a lot of engineering mistakes, a lot of forecasting mistakes, a lot of permitting mistakes. The list goes on. All of those are on ODOT. ODOT, the director popped himself up and said, “This is ours. This is ours. This is ours. We’re in charge.”
Then everything falls apart. Suddenly it’s everybody else’s responsibility. The current spin on it, and there was such much spin about this, that again, some real serious analysis ought to be done. The current spin is, three or four right-wingers in the Washington legislature killed this thing that otherwise was nirvana and beautiful.
Dexter Fowler on the [Chicago] Cubs the other night, he struck out to make the last out, was the last that ended the Cubs season. To say three right-wingers in Olympia killed the Columbia crossing is like saying Dexter Fowler destroyed the Cubs season. There were 26 outs before that. There were 162 games before that.
The Columbia Crossing died because of a series of errors, and inaccuracies, and half-truths, at best, at the highest levels in Salem. That’s the story of it. It was a zombie.
Say the Washington legislature had done something. Fact is this also part of the spin. The Oregon legislature didn’t actually appropriate a dime. That was more clever optics. They passed a bill saying they would. You’ve mentioned 90 percent federal [funding]. Are you living in the 1950s? There’s no 90 percent federal [funding], especially when the Republican member of Congress from the district is opposed, so you think the Republican [majority] Congress is going to give 90 percent to a project that the Member of Congress from that district didn’t want?
There was always mythology around it.
Now, where do you go from here? I think it is a failure of governance. I think the thing was doomed when it got assigned unilaterally to the [state] highway divisions. When you took urban, complex, multi-modal project and give it to agencies that are not urban, not locally accountable, uni-modal, they’ve built overpasses here and there, but…
That expertise does exist in the region. I think that’s the solution. Between TriMet which has delivered projects, in terms of community relations. They worked with downtown Gresham, Hillsboro, Milwaukie. They dealt with difficult community, but they did it in an inclusive way that — ODOT and WSDOT, it’s just not in their DNA, partly because they are more distant. They’re not accountable to us.
If you had a working group of the transit agencies at the cities, there was actually a real good working relationship among the local officials. If you could leverage that, make the two Port Authorities, again, the port of Portland, my God, more than 100 years of project delivery. Anybody knows about freight mobility, they know it, in terms of engineering projects that are delivered. In terms of dealing with — they wouldn’t have neglected to talk to the Coast Guard about building a bridge across the second longest navigable waterway in the United States. Like, “Oh, we forgot to talk to the…”
There is a lot of competence is this region, that competence was not put in play on that project. Instead it was done in this top-down command and control from Salem and Olympia. That is what doomed it.
Audience Member: A follow up on that . . . what if despite all that we’d have built the damn thing? When it’s all built and we spent all that money, it turned out, like so many people pointed out that, we may have done a lot about the bridge and immediately on the bridge, but, Jesus, it’s problem done by the Rose Garden or what’s it called now, Moda Center. He wouldn’t have done anything about it. You have a comment about how that might have turned out?
Bragdon: That’s one of many technical flaws that they continually stonewalled, either through incompetence or dishonesty at the highest levels of ODOT, just refused to acknowledge. You say, well what if the right-wingers in the legislature and Olympia had let it happen, and the spin, “Oh well, now it would be under construction.” Well, the finance plan did not add up.
The EIS had holes in it. Where you’d be right now is probably in federal court actually, seriously. Again, TriMet’s never had a successful appeal against them. These things can be done. There is expertise in the region to do it. I think where you’d actually be right now is ODOT and WSDOT would be back at their Legislature saying, “Oh you know what? We miscalculated. It’s going to be a little bit more. I know we told you that the federal government is going to pay, but . . . .”
Because you know what’s actually happening in Washington [D.C.] They have not actually passed a meaningful transportation Bill since ‘07 or ‘08, something like that. I think if, for some reason it continued lurching up, it would not be under construction today. It didn’t add up.
Mirk: We’ve only two more minutes left and it’s only fair to read a question from the card. This is going to be the last question. The subject of higher speed rail seems to have fallen off the radar screen. Will it or should it ever come back?
Bragdon: Yeah, I think that is also is another illustration of the governance issue, in that, the Obama administration made a big commitment to that, eight million dollars. A lot of it has gone to California. They channel a lot of that through the state governments, but a lot of these corridors, particularly in the mid-west, they run through multiple states.
When you heard what was going on in Ohio, and Wisconsin, with Republicans taking over and turning them in – same, more in New Jersey. If you’re trying to do something between New York and Philadelphia and Chris Christie is the governor of the intervening state, it’s really hard to do things.
I think that’s a real challenge in this country is that the corridors other than California and Texas really aren’t encompassed in any one state. I think incrementally is the way to go. I think that was the other mistake the administration made is shooting for the moon and saying, “We need to 160 miles an hour.”
I think more reliability, but at a more moderate speeds, but having the reliability, I think really can work. It has been shown to work. The [Amtrak] Cascades is testimony to that, Washington State was very successful on that. They got about 800 million dollars. Oregon got three [million] or something to put a roof on the Union Station because the application wasn’t very compelling.
Again, it’s a competence issue there.