Our latest student-written story comes from a master’s degree candidate in the Business and Economic Reporting program at New York University
By Carl A. O’Donnell
Philadelphia newcomers like Shane Smith, 24, wax rhapsodically about the city’s “deep sense of community” and “awesome nightlife.” For Smith, the city is an escape from suburbia where “there are always large gaps between where you are and where you want to be,” he says.
In Philly, Smith doesn’t need a car because “You can walk out the door and find ten great coffee shops or restaurants on every other block.”
Smith’s attitude reflects a broader generational shift. More and more young people are abandoning suburbs and cars, prompting a migration to cities, according to the advocacy group U.S. PIRG.
This has had a dramatic impact on Philadelphia. In the past decade, the city has gained 50,000 residents aged 20 to 34, spurring the first net gain in population since the 1950s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By 2035, Philadelphia anticipates another 100,000 new residents, said Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
As this flood of newcomers gradually reshapes the city, alternative modes of travel are experiencing a renaissance. Biking, car sharing and public transit have all seen significant bumps in usage. In some cases, this is shifting political or market forces in favor of new transportation investments. In others, it’s simply placing strain on an aging system.
One of the most positive case studies is the city’s response to increased bicycle commuting. Philadelphia has historically been quite supportive of bicyclists, having prioritized bike lanes for the past 10 to 15 years, said Jastrzab. But until recently, most lanes were built where it was easiest to construct them, typically on the outskirts of downtown, said Nicholas Mirra, communications coordinator at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
This has changed dramatically in recent years. Since 2000, the influx of newcomers has helped boost bicycle commuting by 150 percent, shifting political will in favor of more bike lanes, Mirra says. The city was quick to respond. In 2009, it constructed major bicycle thoroughfares in the heart of downtown. Today, Philadelphia is in the process of connecting older lanes into a viable commuter network, he said.
Another example of quick adjustment is ZipCar, which rents vehicles by the hour. The organization came to Philly in 2007, locating most of its vehicles in Center City, where about 80 percent of newcomers live, according to Jastrzab.
Since then, each ZipCar has seen enough use to offset 15 personal vehicles, said Peter Bruvik, general manager of ZipCar’s Philadelphia branch. Today, the organization operates 300 cars in 150 locations in the city and suburbs, and is planning major expansions well beyond downtown.
But perhaps most significant for the city’s future is the massive increase in ridership of the public transit system, SEPTA, or the Southestern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
Since 2006, the total number of rides has jumped 14 percent, or roughly 41 million. To SEPTA, this seems like a long-term trend, not just the cyclical effect of gas prices or unemployment, said Andrew Busch, SEPTA’s public information manager. If ridership continues to grow at this rate – which it should, given population growth projections – SEPTA will likely have to increase capacity, said Larry Eichel, director of the Pew Foundation’s Philadelphia program.
Unfortunately, SEPTA is struggling just to maintain its existing infrastructure. Many bridges are over 100 years old, with some replacements priced at $60 million. Multiple stations are nearing the age of 90, with repairs to City Hall station alone priced at $100 million.
Worse yet, nearly the entire SEPTA train fleet – two thirds – is approaching the end of its productive life. The cost of all these repairs and replacements will be roughly $5 billion. Meanwhile, SEPTA’s annual maintenance budget is only $300 million, about one third the size of New Jersey Transit’s or that of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, said Busch.
The essential problem is that, unlike bike lanes, increasing train ridership doesn’t necessarily boost funding. Fares only cover 40 percent of SEPTA’s operating costs, and not a dime of maintenance. The rest comes primarily from the state and federal governments.
In largely rural Pennsylvania, this means that rail transit typically wins more funding only if Philadelphia builds an unlikely coalition with surrounding suburbs. Simply concentrating more young, train-loving voters in Philly won’t shift the state’s political balance, said Carolyn Adams, a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University.
In the long term, public transit in states like Pennsylvania will likely only improve if the federal government senses a deep and lasting shift in the attitudes of American voters, Adams said. But this assumes that today’s trends towards urban living will continue. There is compelling evidence to the contrary.
For example, parents tend to flee Philadelphia so that school age children aren’t plunged into the deeply underfunded school district, Adams said. And, no, the increased tax revenues from the 100,000 anticipated newcomers wouldn’t come close to shoring up the district’s budget, she added.
That said, there are signs that many talented young people are here to stay. Historically, companies often dodged Philadelphia’s unfriendly tax structure by operating in the suburbs, encouraging the labor force to follow, said Eichel. Today, this seems to be changing.
About a dozen suburban firms recently established branch offices in Philly, said Jastrzab. And rents for office space in University City, near the University of Pennsylvania, are rising quickly. The reality is that the relatively small cost of taxes is increasingly overshadowed by the benefits of Philly’s talented labor pool, said Adams.
This labor pool may be hesitant to leave. For the time being, Shane Smith – who is graduating from Temple University with a degree in economics and is currently creating his own mobile app – is a committed urbanite.
“There are more unique businesses and more life in an urban community,” he said. “So when you step outside, the world around you is just more interesting to observe.”<
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