portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

abandoned railroad

The New York Times published an article on the decaying infrastucture in Russia, in particular The Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Siberia.  While the United States does not have infrastructure falling apart in the same way, the I-35 W bridge tragedy in Minneapolis last year awoke the American conscience to the necessity of infrastructure upkeep and its costs.  As we go forward with infrastructure investment in the 21st century and debate what means transportation are best and most economically efficient it is important to keep in mind the cost of maintenance going forward.  The cost of transportation infrastructure is not truly depicted in the cost of construction, maintenance costs occur every year.

America has the twofold problem of historically not calculating the cost of maintenance when building transportation infrastructure and frequently choosing to build the cheapest option, which of course also usually deteriorates fastest.  While Stephen B. Goddard’s references in his 1994 book, Getting There,  are slightly dated, he also describes an awful lot of the infrastructure in this country:

In a nutshell, the Europeans build their freeways thicker and with a deeper base than in America.  Washington also gives states an incentive to neglect maintenance by paying 90 percent of the the cost for new roads , yet nothing for their repair.

In America the lowest bidder usually wins a highway contract, which removes incentive for innovation.  And neither are contractors held responsible.  When in 1991 Congress considered a bill requiring contractors to build to performance standards, the measure had the support of Washington’s highway establishment, state officials, and advocacy groups; but the Transportation Builders Association lobbied successfully for Congress to kill it.

I am not suggesting that the U.S. is in danger of approaching Russia’s level of difficulty.  Rather, all I am suggesting is that as infrastructure debates go forward we examine the total cost of a system; the cost of maintenance, operation and construction.  When we examine the cost of infrastructure on construction estimates alone we are practicing negligent economics.  A road that must be rebuilt every 20 years is not actually as cheap as it first looks.  We should invest more money up front to make our investments in infrastructure last.  In addition, a change in federal procedure would benefit all, if allocations for transportation funding included commitment to upkeep of new infrastructure, for at least a period of time.