Categories
Politics

The uphill climb for transit enthusiasts

Approximately five percent of workers in the United States take public transportation to work. In Austin it’s about three percent. In Nashville it’s less than two percent. Transit advocates are quick to point out that more people would use transit if the service was better–more frequent service, more sheltered stops, more efficient routes–and the research mostly backs that up. If you build it, they will come. The challenge, of course, is first you have to convince people to pay for building it.

In 2018, voters in Nashville opposed a $5.4 billion (or $9 billion with operating costs) transit plan by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. City officials in Austin are gearing up for another transit vote this November, with a price tag that is likely to exceed $10 billion, after a much smaller transit proposal–accompanied by millions in proposed road improvements of course, being Texas and all–failed in 2014 with only 43% of the vote.

So, what happened in Nashville? I covered a postmortem published by TransitCenter back in January, but, still, nobody from the core strategy team (or the opposition for that matter) with access to the polling data has really come forward yet with an earnest accounting for a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Many people have settled for some mild-mannered finger pointing at the Chamber, campaign, and former mayor. Most of what I’ve heard there is off-base, conjecture, or beside the point. Cooper’s team just wrapped up a series of public listening sessions to get input on the community’s transportation priorities. If there was ever a time for the serious people involved in the 2018 effort to come forward to help us understand everything we can about that experience, it’s now. I’m sure the folks in Austin would appreciate it too.

We can start to get a handle on a few things using Metro’s household survey. Some of it is surprising, given what we heard from supporters and detractors in 2017-2018; none of it inspires much confidence in future “go big” transit strategies in Nashville with massive price tags. That is, until we get comfortable with the idea of publicly discussing what we assumed to be true, why, and where we were right or wrong. Data will add considerable weight to that conversation.

Here’s what we know from the survey:

Transit is a top-five priority for Nashville residents. When asked to rank sixteen categories of city services, twelve percent of residents select public transportation as the top priority.

The other way to look at this is only twelve percent of residents think transit is the top priority, and asking people to raise taxes to cover an investment of $5.4 billion for #5 on that list is asking quite a lot. But no other service listed in the survey reaches even three percent after public transportation in first-priority votes.

The resident survey sample is now large enough to do some crosstabs, including race/ethnicity (white, black), household income (< $60,000, $100,000 or more), age (18-34, 35-54, 55 or older), location (USD or GSD), homeowners or renters, gender, and educational attainment (postsecondary degree or no postsecondary degree). We can also do breakouts looking at people who have taken the bus in the last year, commuted to work by bus (or by walking or biking), or have strong feelings about their access to transit or the quality of the system.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Public transportation fares a bit better as a first-priority service among white residents, higher income ($100,000+) households, young people (18-34), postsecondary degree holders, active transport commuters, and relatively new residents to the county. But the difference is slight, only by a few points and likely within the survey’s margin of error. It moves up to twenty percent or more in first-priority votes for people who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their access to transit or the overall quality of the existing system, but still trails education.

Further, people who actually ride the bus rank it no higher in priority compared to everybody else. In fact, affordable housing and public education each get twice as many first-priority votes as transit does from people who actually ride the bus.

And then there’s this:

I don’t think that chart needs much in the way of commentary. But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people on both sides during the transit debate make persuasive sounding arguments about how people would vote on the plan based on ridership, real or perceived.

So, if none of the groups we can break out confidently in the sample see public transportation as their clear first-choice priority, who are these transit enthusiasts who make up the twelve percent that do?

This is where it gets tricky because it’s fewer than 200 respondents to the survey, which means we have to be careful about saying anything with confidence until there is a larger sample. That said, here is what results show so far about the enthusiasts in Nashville:

  • 75% live in the USD (close to total population share, 72%)
  • 75% are homeowners (likely over-represented in sample)
  • 85% hold postsecondary degrees (ditto, but interesting)
  • 80% are white
  • 41% are high-income ($100,000 or more)
  • 52% are age 18-34
  • 26% have taken the bus in the last year

Let me repeat that last one, with the caveat of needing a larger sample before getting too sanctimonious about it: Of the twelve percent of residents–the transit enthusiasts–who think public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority, only about one out of four are actually riding the bus. Nearly the same rate for all respondents.

Not exactly a compelling track record for convincing an undecided voter–37% of residents are neutral or don’t know when asked about the quality of transit in Nashville today–that if you build it, they will come, even given the limitations of the current system.

Two-to-one was a painful result and an expensive lesson. As Cooper’s team looks ahead to whatever new plan they have in mind, we should be talking openly about what happened in 2018–a conversation that should be led by serious people with first-hand experience and data. We should also share as much of that wisdom as we can with Austin and other cities contemplating a transit referendum. Hopefully that’s already happening and I just don’t know about it.

If not, we are missing an opportunity to learn something we can apply to our next shot at transit in Nashville.

Categories
Politics

Nashville: Are Metro meeting attendees representative of the community?

It is said that decisions are made by those who show up. Let’s hope that Metro policy makers are looking beyond the sign-up sheets at public meetings for community input on their decisions.

There’s a growing body of literature on the shortcomings of public meetings in both process and representativeness. See, for example:

Public meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them.

Who Is the “Public” at Public Meetings?

In Nashville, we have self-reported data on residents who say they have attended a public meeting about Metro business in the last year. Luckily for us, we fare quite a bit better than some of the communities in those articles in terms of race/ethnicity diversity at Metro meetings. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year. Sixty percent of those meeting attendees were white, which is a bit lower than the white share of the total population (65%).* Black residents were 30% of meeting attendees compared to 26% of the total population in Nashville. Metro meeting attendance was also generally representative of Asian and Hispanic residents.

While Metro gets relatively high marks for representative participation (or at least attendance) in terms of race/ethnicity, we need to improve public engagement in other areas. The most dramatic contrasts are in housing tenure and educational attainment, but several aspects of the survey results stand out to me based on my analysis of the data.

  • There is a thirty-point difference in the share of Metro meeting attendees with a bachelor’s degree or higher and the bachelor’s-plus share of the total population. In fact, a remarkable 35% of self-reported attendees had graduate degrees.
  • Unsurprisingly, homeowners are disproportionately represented at meetings about Metro business, 74% compared to 54% in the total population. Renters are 46% of Nashville’s population but are outnumbered three-to-one at Metro meetings.
  • Residents attending meetings about Metro business generally have higher incomes, but the gaps are not as large as I would have guessed given the differences in educational attainment. Thirty-seven percent of attendees at Metro meetings reported household income of $100,000 or more, compared to 27% for the total population. Middle-income brackets are within a few points of each other. Lower-income Nashvillians are, as you might guess, underrepresented at meetings. Residents reporting $30,000 or less in household income account for about one in ten attendees at Metro meetings, according to the survey results, compared to nearly one in four in the total population.
  • As you might expect from reading the literature or attending Metro meetings yourself, attendees do tend to skew older, but, again, the differences can be surprising depending on how you define the age cohorts. Younger people (age 18-34) are 38% of the total population in Nashville and 33% of meeting attendees, according to the survey results–underrepresented but not by as much as I would have guessed. Similarly, if you define “older” as age 55-plus, which I’m increasingly seeing in the literature and in materials from advocacy groups, then older residents are 31% of Metro meeting attendees and 30% of the total population, which is much closer than I would have guessed.
  • Studies mentioned in the articles linked above have found that men are disproportionately represented at public meetings and that is also true in Nashville. Fifty-three percent of respondents who have attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year self-identify as male, compared to 48% in the population.
  • Given the location of most Metro meetings, it also makes sense that attendees who live in the urban services district (USD) are slightly over-represented, 76% compared to 72% overall.
  • Finally, I don’t have a comparable statistic for this for the total population, but people reporting attendance at Metro meetings have lived in Davidson County for an average of 32 years. We can’t say for sure why newer residents are not participating in Metro business at higher rates, but I’ve personally witnessed their perspective being diminished as somehow less valuable compared to that of longer-term residents here in the land of “Nashville Nice” and in other places I’ve lived–and that’s not just me projecting.

Of course, attending a public meeting is not the only way to participate in local decisions. Forty-one percent of Nashville residents contacted a Metro elected official in the last year, according to the survey results. About one-half of those people also attended a meeting about Metro business. While I don’t have access to comparable data for other cities, 49% percent of respondents contacting a Metro elected official and/or attending a Metro meeting in the last year seems encouraging to me, even if it was just one call or one meeting. Knowing where we stand today is at least a starting point.

Demographics of people calling or emailing Metro officials appear to be very similar to those of people attending Metro meetings–67% were bachelor’s-plus in educational attainment, for example–so I don’t think we can say conclusively that meeting attendees are any less diverse than engaged people not attending meetings (although the survey sample is not large enough to parse results by presence of young children in the household, which can make attending evening meetings really tough).

I plan on doing a series of these posts because (1) it’s important people understand that what you hear in the echo chamber of city hall may not reflect the broader viewpoints of the community; and (2) I can’t locate the resident survey page on Mayor Cooper’s website so I assume it was taken down along with the rest of the material from Mayor Briley’s and Mayor Barry’s tenures; and (3) the survey results on Metro’s open data portal haven’t been updated since May 9, 2019; and (4) I’m concerned that means the survey won’t be continued.

Hopefully demonstrating how to use this data and why it’s useful for residents and policy makers will change their mind.

After all, I hear that performance management is en vogue again.

* Metro’s resident survey is administered to only the adult population age 18 or older. Unless otherwise noted population statistics reported here are also for age 18 or older.

Categories
Economic Development

What can economic developers really do about low wages?

The latest economic development news out of Michigan is a pledge to do something about lagging real wages, or, rather, ask state officials if they will do something about it.

Many of the state’s leading economic development organizations and private foundations have banded together under Rising Income For All to request that state policy makers adopt United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) statistic for estimating cost-burdened households as the “universal measure of success in meeting the goal of an economy that as it grows, benefits all.”

ALICE, like predecessors such as MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, EPI’s Family Budget Estimator, and the Family Budgets tool by Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, shows quantitatively why traditional metrics–unemployment rate, poverty rate, even per capita income–can provide only incomplete pictures of what economic distress looks like today to the growing ranks of cost-burdened households, especially if regional cost of living differences and inflation are ignored. According to the latest available ALICE data from United Way, 43% of Michigan households are unable to cover basic household necessities.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s been about ten years since “traditional” economic development advocacy groups started saying, at least publicly, that “not all jobs are good jobs.” Now some economic development leaders in Michigan appear ready to take another step in that direction, which, to my knowledge, is the first coordinated statewide effort among local economic developers to do so, publicly. I can’t recall anything similar in other states, but please let me know via email if you are aware of something that should be mentioned.

What gets measured gets done, as I’m sure some of the people on the Rising Income For All roster might say, so I’d call this a good sign for the future of economic development in Michigan. As an instructor, I would also give them high marks for compelling calls to action:

“For the first time ever Michigan is a low-prosperity state with a strong domestic auto industry.”

“In every county in Michigan, 30% or more of families can’t afford basic necessities.”

https://risingincomeforall.org/

There will undoubtedly be detractors. It’s not too difficult to be cynical about economic development. As the media coverage points out, as of yet the Rising Income For All supporters have not offered any specific proposals to achieve their stated objective, beyond state recognition of ALICE. They should probably be ready to explain why their advocacy for better math doesn’t appear to extend to the minimum wage.

Further, according to data from Good Jobs First, companies investing in Michigan have received state and local subsidies totaling nearly $16 billion, ranking third among states. How would Rising Income For All supporters characterize the return on investment for those projects in the interest of fighting wage stagnation?

How far are economic developers on board with the initiative prepared to go? Will they advocate for changes to the state’s tax credit programs to ensure that only companies committed to real wage increases receive subsidies? Will local economic developers encourage their boards and elected officials to make changes to tax abatement policies? Are they willing to sign an economic development non-compete agreement to improve their collective negotiating position with companies in the pursuit of Rising Income For All’s vision for inclusive prosperity?

What gets measured gets done. We shall see.

Categories
Economic Development

Memphis: Stop Comparing Yourself to Nashville

From the clips this morning: New data shows more people moving from Nashville to Memphis. The story is likely gated so here’s the portion that got my attention:

I get it, Memphis has its challenges. I don’t want to diminish them or in any way discourage data mining in service of better understanding your city or local economy. I can even forgive burying the lede in that story on the margin of error. It’s frustrating when new data is available on a topic of general interest but you can’t say anything for sure about year-to-year changes because of the margin of error.

But there’s no reason to stretch that far for talking points that can tell a more complete story about the local economy. Here are a few:

  • Nearly one out of five dollars in state gross domestic product (GDP) is generated in Shelby County.
  • Real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth in Shelby County is averaging about 1% per year–nothing to crow about but certainly not declining.
  • Nearly 40% of the state’s transportation and warehousing industry is found in Shelby County.
  • Real value of durable goods manufacturing in Shelby County is up by more than 40% since 2010.
  • Total employment in Shelby County is growing by an average of more than 7,000 jobs per year.
  • Population growth is a challenge, as mentioned in the story, but Memphis isn’t exactly hemorrhaging residents. According to the Census Bureau’s annual population estimates, Memphis was one of 165 cities or towns in Tennessee with fewer residents in 2018 compared to 2010. But Memphis is only losing one resident per day, on average–not exactly an exodus. By contrast, the county is gaining about three per day.

From an economic development standpoint, the local economy is also very competitive in several industry clusters. According to the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School, Shelby County ranks in the top twenty counties for medical devices (#6) and transportation and logistics (#19):

There is no question Memphis faces challenges and the city has work to do to achieve inclusive economic development for its residents. But so does Nashville, and every other fast-growing community across this country. Indeed, growth can often make that challenge more daunting. We see this in places like San Antonio, too, where community leaders are quick to compare the city to Austin. But why? The two places are very different–demographically, economically, and culturally. Perhaps they also have different goals for the future of their communities and what they can offer to residents of today, and tomorrow.

So, Memphis, by all means continue to track your performance on the metrics that speak to you. And make sure the people telling that story reflect the diversity of your wonderful city. Nashville has very little to offer to that story.

Categories
Data Releases

San Francisco again outpaces the field

San Francisco was the top performing large county economy for the second quarter in a row in 2019Q3, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics published today.

Year-over-year employment growth in San Francisco in September was 3.5%, up slightly from 3.4% in June. Davidson County (Nashville) was second again, at 3.4%. Rounding out the top five were Wake (Raleigh) at 3.3%, Maricopa (Phoenix) at 3.2%, and King (Seattle) and Travis (Austin) tied at 3.1%. Overall performance among large counties of 500,000 or more jobs was unchanged from 2019Q2, but there were fewer counties with net year-over-year losses in 2019Q3. We should not make too much of quarterly movements given the likelihood of BLS revisions to the data when the full year is available. That said, it appears job growth accelerated in Raleigh and Dallas in 2019Q3 and slowed in Las Vegas and Atlanta.

San Francisco retained its pole position in wage growth among large counties, as well, but it didn’t quite reach the milestone I discussed in November with the 2019Q2 release. The average weekly wage in San Francisco in 2019Q3 was $2,273, up 7.6% on a year-over-year basis, not adjusted for inflation. The average weekly wage in San Francisco was 93% of the average weekly wage in Santa Clara County, which is the narrowest gap for Q3 dating back to at least 2001 (it was 78% as recently as 2011). So we’re not there yet, but the day is coming soon.

Rounding out the top five for wage growth were Hamilton County (Cincinnati) at 6.4%, Wake (5.3%), Denver (5.1%), and Dallas and Tarrant (Fort Worth) tied at 4.9%. Travis (Austin) was next at 4.8%. Davidson (Nashville) was down the list a bit at a very healthy 4.1%.

Interesting side note for the Silicon Valley watchers to keep an eye on: The only large county with a net decline in the average weekly wage in 2019Q3 on a year-over-year basis was Santa Clara (-0.3%). That is the second quarter in a row finishing in the bottom two of the ranking.

Again, not to make too much of it until the revision is out, but notable that the average weekly wage was growing faster in areas of the country like Cleveland and Detroit than it was in Silicon Valley last year.

Next update with 2019Q4 will be on May 20.