Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Fresno, is lack of spending on transit keeping unemployment high?

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark recently wrote an excellent article looking at per capital funding across the nation for transit. A large focus of his report was the inequality present in funding, and how low income areas, the ones which most need better transit, are the ones with the lowest amount of support for their systems. He draws the conclusion that the shift to local funding, instead of federal, can lead to big problems.

Naturally, Fresno is a prime example of an area that desperately needs more transit, but doesn't allocate sufficient funding for it. Later on in this post, I will use his charts to show that Fresno predictably ranks near last in the 65 cities he looked at.

He even calls out the city in an example:

In sum, this evidence suggests that states and local governments, left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies. Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately served.

One conclusion that can be drawn from his data is that the poor Fresno showing is simply a result of the circle of poverty.

For example, an area with more poverty will bring in less taxes. However, demand for services will be greater than in richer areas - higher need for welfare, police and important services that the wealthy can buy for their family, but the poor cannot (like preschool). One could argue that Fresno is too broke to provide services like buses or parks, because they're too busy providing other "essential" services on the limited income the city brings in.

Problem is, transportation is fundamental, and while I'm a big proponent of parks, the lack of a bus can mean the difference between staying unemployed and finding a job. A park is not so critical. While Fresno may indeed be broke, that doesn't mean much - what's more important to look at is what money is being spent on.

That is, say Fresno had $100m in tax revenue, but they spent $100m on road construction. Now the city is broke. But say they instead spent $50m on roads, and $30m on transit. Now the city is swimming in money, with a $20m windfall, AND they provided a great bus system!

The point of the overly simplistic example is that one needs to take a close look at where the money goes. Fresno CAN pay for a workable transit system. They just choose to spend the money elsewhere, on things like constant repaving, road widening and traffic signals at intersections that don't need one for another decade.

The big problem is that it's hard to lower the 15.4% unemployment rate when people can't get to the jobs. (Fresno ranks 364 out of 372 cities in employment according to the BLS)

If you're sitting unemployed in south Fresno, you have little money. Perhaps you can't afford a car, the monthly payments, the insurance, the gas and the maintenance. Maybe if you had a job you could, but right now, you're broke.

Say a job opens up in River Park that you qualify for....but the hours are 3pm-11:30pm. In Fresno, that person who's willing to work can't apply for the job because the buses stop running shockingly early - before 10pm.

Problem is, Fresno is filled with many unemployed folks lacking in skills, and the only jobs they can get hired at are those most others would pass over - that is, the jobs with the least pleasant hours. Reporting for duty at 5am to start serving up breakfast at a diner? Not if you're using FAX, no buses at that time. Cleaning up at a bar until 2am? No way to get home. Live in Fresno, and want to work at the new giant Wal-mart in Clovis? No bus service there.

You get the point. The lack of a usable transit network is part of the reason unemployment is so high - for the jobs that exist, the people who most need them can't get to them.

LA and SF have atrocious pavement conditions on their streets, because they repave something like every 30 years. Some of their streets look like war-zones. But while simulating the streets of Baghdad may be ugly, one can still get to work on a bumpy road. LA and SF may have shockingly low road-repair budgets, but they do offer comprehensive bus and train networks. Wouldn't more potholes be an acceptable price to pay if it means the bus system was usable? Wouldn't delaying the 20 road widening projects that are going on at any given time, until the demand actually requires them, be acceptable if it meant more buses?

What about biking to work? Just this weekend, not one but two cyclists were killed in Fresno. While a missing snake gets extensive newspaper front page coverage, those two stories barely added up to one paragraph of reporting. The deaths were on Chestnut and Kings Canyon and Jensen and Ivy.

The residents of Fresno need a safe and reliable way to get to work. Without one, the region will continue to stagnate.

From the article...

Guess who sits as the cities with most poverty AND the lowest transit funding?
Fresno and good friend Bakersfield.

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There's a strong correlation between conservative values, low income areas, and not providing the tools people need to get to work

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  1. Awesome article. This is the type of information that needs to make it to the forefront. It is the pure truth, the less we spend on the community, the poorer the community is.
    James Sponsler

  2. Adding more bus service will create more jobs at the public transit company, if the unemployed can qualify for them. The bigger question is what is the unfilled job rate? If there is, let's say, a 0.5% unfilled job rate; but a 15% unemployment rate (using the same adult population and geography base), all the bus service in the world will not provide the unemployed with jobs, except for the multiplier effect of hiring more employees at the transit company.

    If, on the other hand, one can identify pockets/clusters of unfilled jobs that the unemployed could fill if public transit were provided, then providing that public transit makes a heck of a lot of sense.

    1. Fair point. Do you know of any way to find that kind of data?

      One argument I would propose is that a north-side minimum wage job may go to a 17 year old affluent high school kid who just wants extra cash to buy videogames, because he can drive his car to the job. Meanwhile, the 30 year old who desperately needs the job (and probably has a better work ethic) ccouldn't apply for it because of the lack of bus service. In that case, the job is filled, but not to society's best benefit.

    2. It does make sense that there would be a higher employment in the tranist department but it does not stop there. Having worked closely with city officials, there are a number of companies that have rejected proposals to locate a business or businesses in Fresno/Clovis area based on the fact that we do not have a comprehensive transit system. It seemed appalling to these businesses that a metropolitan area of our size could function let alone support ourselves without a comprehensive system.
      Yes, studies come out every so often that say we have the 5th best bus system. But these studies are done with mostly low-major (100,000-350,000) cities. It is like being the 12yo in the 4th grade class. Of course you are going to get decent grades.

    3. One thing to add. So by not having a more robust transit system, we are short changing Fresno/Clovis residents out of job that are already here as well as those that never came. The scale of this is much larger than many would think.

    4. Anon, I find it quite interesting that the Lance Kashian development company, in advertising their office space, highlights that transit service is available frequently and all day. Thats not exactly true, and is rather misleading, but its obvious some tenants see that as very important in choosing their location.