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Street Cars, Kids, and Jobs

A 10-year-old boy sells newspapers to passengers on a Buffalo streetcar in 1910.

Northern cities plan light rail. Will Buffalo?

Hamilton is so deeply in the shadow of gigantic nearby Toronto that nobody outside the neighborhood knows that it exists. But Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and other Rust Belt cities should sit up and take notice because Hamilton, with its 500,000 or so souls, is walking through some policy changes that have a special resonance in cities that are not likely to become international megacities like Toronto.

A decade ago, Hamilton went regional, merging its city and county governments. It already had a regional school district. Prosaic functions like property-tax assessment were never localized the way they are here. But some of the same patterns of suburban sprawl and suburban self-isolation, and the same kind of sorting of neighborhoods by income, were threatening to leave the old central city a lot like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and other Rust Belt towns—full of major cultural institutions, and home to the financial and governmental centers, but also home to most of the region’s poor.

It recently dawned on Hamilton that leaving poor kids in schools that serve only poor kids was a recipe for failure for both the kids and the community at large.

For the past two years, a community conversation has been underway in Hamilton, a conversation whose focus has been addressing the persistent reality of poverty in a region that is experiencing the new Canadian miracle of rising incomes, rising population, and rising prospects. Canada’s mix of stability and innovation has put it high up on several lists of business-friendliness. But there’s still poverty—even in a place where the European-style social safety net programs keep the wolf far from the door.

The conversation in Hamilton today is about schools—specifically, how to mix poor kids in with richer ones, so that all the pathologies of poverty get attacked early. But recently, the conversation turned to streetcars. And just as the data that the Canadians are utilizing to drive their policy decision about schools come from US sources, so do the data about transportation come from here. The question for Rust Belt cities is whether Hamilton, which deliberately and quite quickly went regional a decade ago while American policy elites and Rust Belt politicians continue to dither, will once again leapfrog us on a big policy initiative.

A cheap way to go

Streetcars, also known as surface-only light rail rapid-transit systems, are becoming a bigger presence in some American cities because streetcars are relatively cheap to install, power, and maintain. Streetcars share city streets with cars and buses in Toronto, Portland, Charlotte, San Diego, and elsewhere in North America the same as they do in most cities in Europe. Some systems, like the one that connects downtown Cleveland to a couple of its suburbs, run both alongside cars and on their own lanes. The Canadians point to a stack of studies that show that streetcars attract higher-income users than buses, and that they work very well in revitalizing poorer areas if they run many times a day. An hour north of Hamilton in the adjacent cities of Kitchener and Waterloo (the latter is home to a big public university and to Blackberry smart phones), a prospective streetcar line is causing a stir: Carloads of real estate speculators have been spotted inspecting properties along the proposed route.

This past week in Hamilton, community leaders met to map how to go from concept to execution on a new two-line streetcar system for the town they call the Hammer. Plans have been on the books there since 1978, including all the engineering that will be required to get trolleys up “the mountain,” otherwise known as the Niagara Escarpment. One problem the Hamilton folks have: overcoming the nay-sayers who point to Buffalo and say that light rail wrecked our city.

Bloodless engineers and history-innocent streetscape designers like to point out the many benefits of streetcars. Green energy types correctly point out that they run on electricity and that the electricity can be generated by wind turbines and hydropower, neither of which create emissions externalities. But the real issue for Hamilton and for every other city that is contemplating a streetcar system is neither aesthetics nor efficiency. It’s much more profound even than the question of the cost of the new infrastructure that streetcars require wherever they aren’t already in place.

It’s more or less a civilization issue. Should there be public space or will we keep it all private? Public space requires government, closeness, and the mixing of social classes. Streetcars are strands of the fabric of urbanism, which is about conviviality and clustering, not isolation. Oil-powered personal vehicles have made geographic isolation not only the landscape norm but also the psychological and hence the political norm, as suburban voters now vastly outnumber city-dwellers.

And then there’s the uncomfortable problem that so many would like to forget: the Cynthia Wiggins problem.

Poor, urban, and invisible

In December 1996, Cynthia Wiggins died trying to walk across Walden Avenue to get to her cashier job at the suburban Walden Galleria Mall. The scandal was that, at that time, city buses full of city people were not allowed to stop on investor-owned suburban mall property. That arrangement effectively excluded low-income city-dwellers from going there. (The landlord of the downtown shopping mall at Main Place has done his best to shutter most of the retail establishments there, in favor of commercial and utility tenants, thus further reducing retail options for carless city-dwellers.) Buses are now allowed access to suburban malls, but the overwhelming majority of people who go there drive to them—because the bus routes may go there, but Cynthia Wiggins’s bus commute took her 50 minutes to get the three miles from home to work just to cross the great divide from the black East Side into overwhelmingly white Cheektowaga. Buses are efficient compared to cars, but buses are slow: It takes a damned long time, an hour or more, to ride the bus from the Amherst Street Metro to the Galleria.

A new Brookings Institution study of the millions of carless households in the top 100 metro areas finds that America still has a problem called “spatial mismatch.” Let’s call it the Cynthia Wiggins problem: Many of the jobs for low-wage workers are far from where low-income people live, and while there are transit systems (mainly bus routes) in place, the distances are so long that the trip to work is an hour or more one way. If one owns a reliable car, an hour commute in the Buffalo area means you can live anywhere from Cattaraugus Creek to Lake Ontario, or east to the hills of Wyoming County. Don’t have a car? The only real option is to live where there’s public transportation, i.e., in the city.

So long as oil remained affordable, the separation of income groups by highway miles was affordable even to people of very modest means. But now, gasoline purchases as a share of family income have leaped. And since the credit-bubble economy blew up in 2008, the Cynthia Wiggins problem has now spread to the suburbs, where public transit access is much more difficult than in the relatively densely settled city. New data from the Census show that poverty is rising in the suburbs, where the cost of driving is greater because distances are greater. Food Stamp recipients in Erie County went from just over 100,000 in 2008 to over 143,000 in 2011—and you can’t buy gasoline with food stamps.

The big new report from the New American Foundation says that America is going to be seeing more of the same for years to come—which is to say, suburbanized poverty, high unemployment, slow job-growth and not a lot of new disposable income for our consumption-driven economy. The report recommends new infrastructure inputs, specifically transit, because so much household income already goes into gasoline.

Streetcars should be part of that infrastructure for tomorrow. Yes, for job access. Yes, for efficiency. Yes, so that greenhouse-gas emissions can drop. Yes, so that we can connect workers in far-flung suburbs so that they don’t have the Cynthia Wiggins problem.

But the biggest reason, the most important reason, is to meet the great civilizational challenge that our privatization mania created for us, and that burdens us, especially in the north—namely, the spatial isolation of kids whose parents are in low-wage jobs.

The terrible number 77

Of the 32,000-odd kids in the Buffalo Public School system, 77 percent—more than 28,000—are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. According to a forthcoming analysis by Ryan Keem, a graduate student in applied economics at Buffalo State College, they constitute almost half the poor kids in Erie County, which last year had about 130,000 kids in school.

Unlike Hamilton, and unlike Raleigh, North Carolina, we do not have a regional or county-wide school system. Keem’s analysis shows that there is a statistical correlation of .77 between low scores on the standardized statewide math and English tests for fourth and eighth graders and high concentrations of poverty. He is looking at black kids, white kids, urban and suburban and rural kids. The correlation is there. It’s not about race. It’s about household income. Where the poor kids are clustered, the poor kids perform below standard. Where they are mixed with higher-income kids, they perform better.

The reality of residential clustering by income is not going to go away. Families occupying 5,000-square-foot manses in well ordered neighborhoods are part of a structure—including a localized school system funded principally by taxes levied on the value of real estate—which needs for their manses to stay valuable. But the lesson of regionalized school systems, like the one in Raleigh, is that kids from low-income households and low-income neighborhoods can be mixed with kids from higher-income households if they get to travel to schools where the mixing by income is made to happen. The evidence is that at everybody wins and nobody loses.

Also good, from the point of view of property-taxpayers, regionalizing the property-tax base for a countywide school system seems to have had beneficial effects for the entire county. As Gerald Grant reported in his book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, administration costs are lower, as one would expect, because 28 separate school districts (the number in Erie County) require 28 separate administrative structures. The cost of moving kids around in Raleigh in order to achieve their goal of having no more than four out of 10 poor kids per school is an issue, but no more so than here, where kids are bused already.

Up in Hamilton, they’re trying to connect these dots. The Hamilton Community Foundation’s CEO asked every member of his board to read Grant’s book. They have taken Grant’s analysis to heart, and now they’re moving toward a plan to start mixing poor kids into schools where the family incomes are higher—which means coming up with a good system for moving them around. Connecting transit customers through a faster, more energy-efficient system means investing in a landscape that will refocus private investment into areas that today have a higher proportion of poor people. But American experiences and American data show that mixing kids from different income groups achieves better outcomes, and so does having streetcars. Communities do better when these two things get done in tandem.

If we were to reorganize the way public money is spent on schools and on transportation at the same time, we would fix up the school buildings in the city where the school census has dropped from 45,000 in 2000 to 32,000 today, making sure that state-of-the-art technology is on hand everywhere that technological dysfunction used to be the norm. (The good news is that we just did that in Buffalo, through the Joint Schools Construction Program.) And then we would take the next step—we would make sure that kids and their parents had a way to get to where the new technology has been installed.

“[L]imited job access via transit in most metropolitan areas leaves many jobs out of reach for zero-vehicle households,” say the Brookings researchers. In other words, if you’re too broke to drive, you need a quick way to get there.

We can solve the Cynthia Wiggins problem. Installing streetcars costs about $600,000 a linear mile. Everywhere that streetcars get put in, higher-income people use them as well as the car-less poor. Everywhere that streetcars get put into a shared roadway, that is. Everywhere that there’s a community leadership that understands the desirability of shared public space, that is. Everywhere in North America that doesn’t want to remain the Rust Belt. One wonders: Will any of the new subsidies for new jobs coming out of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new economic development councils be tied to getting people to the new jobs? We have invested untold billions of taxpayer dollars in going it alone, which has bought us isolation, sprawl, population decline, and pockets of intransigent poverty. Will the next money buy us more of the same?

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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