Urban sprawl, transportation, and poverty

I’ve been thinking since I read Paul Krugman’s column “Stranded by Sprawl” about successful urban areas and public transportation.  I lived for a number of years in Richmond, VA and for part of that time I didn’t drive or have a car.  After I acquired a car, I realized how limited my world was without one.  There were many places I couldn’t get to without driving and even if there was a bus, service was often erratic and infrequent.  I don’t know if thing have changed since I left twenty years ago, but I know that the counties surrounding the City of Richmond were where the new office parks and shopping malls were springing up.  I was lucky because I did live within easy walking distance of a nice shopping area with restaurants and some stores so I could leave the car behind when I met friends for breakfast or dinner.  But I didn’t live near any of the “projects” or poor areas which were pretty segregated back then.

One of my first memories of my Boston move was one of my new neighbors lamenting that the view from the back of the houses on our street was marred by looking down at the roofs of a large public housing project.  In fact, there are actually four projects within easy walking distance.  After I went to work for the Housing Authority I learned that public housing developments were scattered through the city neighborhoods.  The BHA takes pains in trying to maintain the grounds of each (with limited resources) so they don’t become a blight on the neighborhoods and several have been totally redesigned and no longer have the dead end streets which only serve to isolate residents.  Contrast this with the Atlanta described by Krugman

When the researchers looked for factors that correlate with low or high social mobility, they found, perhaps surprisingly, little direct role for race, one obvious candidate. They did find a significant correlation with the existing level of inequality: “areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.” This matches what we find in international comparisons, where relatively equal societies like Sweden have much higher mobility than highly unequal America. But they also found a significant negative correlation between residential segregation — different social classes living far apart — and the ability of the poor to rise.

And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

Is Detroit in trouble because its land area is too big?  I don’t know.  Detroit is 138 square miles with a population today of around 700,000 people.  Boston is 48 square miles with a population about 50,000 people smaller. In Boston, we gripe about the public transportation all the time and worry that some neighborhoods that are more affluent have better service, but we are always working on it.  I haven’t read anything about public transportation in Detroit:  It is the Motor City.

Boton T

Back to Krugman

The apparent inverse relationship between sprawl and social mobility obviously reinforces the case for “smart growth” urban strategies, which try to promote compact centers with access to public transit. But it also bears on a larger debate about what is happening to American society. I know I’m not the only person who read the Times article on the new study and immediately thought, “William Julius Wilson.”

A quarter-century ago Mr. Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, famously argued that the postwar movement of employment out of city centers to the suburbs dealt African-American families, concentrated in those city centers, a heavy blow, removing economic opportunity just as the civil rights movement was finally ending explicit discrimination. And he further argued that social phenomena such as the prevalence of single mothers, often cited as causes of lagging black performance, were actually effects — that is, the family was being undermined by the absence of good jobs.

My worry about Boston is that it will become more and more like Manhattan where only the well-off and the very poor can afford to live.  Jobs, particularly tech jobs, are moving back into the city and near suburbs from further out along the outer ring highways.  Will we end up with a shrinking middle?

These days, you hear less than you used to about alleged African-American social dysfunction, because traditional families have become much weaker among working-class whites, too. Why? Well, rising inequality and the general hollowing out of the job market are probably the main culprits. But the new research on social mobility suggests that sprawl — not just the movement of jobs out of the city, but their movement out of reach of many less-affluent residents of the suburbs, too — is also playing a role.

What’s to be done?  More investment in infrastructure in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles.  More investment in light rail systems.  More investment in maintenance of what we have for cities like Boston, Chicago and New York.  Unfortunately this is another thing in which the House Republicans are not interested.