Category Archives: Demographics

The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

richmond-times-dispatchBy Peter Galuszka

If one wants to know one source of Richmond’s malaise, she or he need look no further than the pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the mouthpiece of the city’s elite. This is especially true when one reads this morning’s edition. The inadvertent revelations about the city and what is wrong with its leadership are stunning.

Some background. Last week, Style Weekly, an alternative newspaper in the city, published a hard-hitting cover story taking a ground-up view of just how awful and neglected the city’s school buildings and system are. The coverage is very much contrary to the image Richmond’s “leadership” wants to sell about the city.

As the schools are mismanaged and families are abused, the Richmond elite, and the RTD’s editors are pushing other pet projects such as building a new baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom to replace a crumbling one elsewhere and a chamber of commerce trip to Tampa by 159 “leaders” to learn how another city works.

Full disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Style but had no input to the school story. I did file two blog postings about the schools story and received a number of highly insightful comments by readers. The basic problem, as several put it, is that  the schools are a mess is that the middle class has moved to the suburbs, the upper class sends its children to private schools and many of those left aren’t in a position to join the debate are have much influence. One out of every four people living in the city is poor.

The TD’s coverage today is a wonderful blueprint about exactly what is wrong with the elite’s thinking. Examples:

  • The front page features a catch-up story featuring short 125 word essays written by seven city council members and nine school board members. Three council members, Reva Trammell, Michelle R. Mosby and Cynthia Newbill – didn’t respond, perhaps wisely. The story states that judging from the responses, “momentum is building” for “substantive change.” The council, the school board and the mayor are working together. Mind you, this is not based on any real reporting—such as shoe leather in the school halls. Instead, one gets to read what the leadership responsible for the horrific problems thinks about them – sort of like interviewing the foxes after they raid the chicken coop. An added extra: the RTD claims it sent out its questionnaires before Style published its story, sort of like backdating stock options.
  • Flip to the “Commentary” section and a piece by John W. Martin, CEO and president of the “Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond and frequent opinions contributor to the TD. His piece is basically an extended apology for proposing a new stadium in the middle of the blooded ground of the country’s second-largest slave market – standard stuff. Especially bizarre is the art. It is a cartoon drawing of what appears to be an interracial couple happily walking near what could be a combined slave memorial ballpark. The man is white, blond, wears a Richmond polo shirt and is flipping a baseball. His arm is around an African-American woman in sports togs and carrying designer shopping bags. In front is an apparently mixed-race child in a Flying Squirrels baseball cap happily holding out his glove to catch the ball from dad. The effect is downright creepy. It insults the intelligence of the readers and hits a very sensitive raw nerve, given Richmond’s sad history of race relations and the TD’s historic support of segregation five decades ago when it really mattered.
  • Let’s move to the Op-ed page where there is piece by Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond business school and upcoming chair of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. She was part of the chamber’s trip to Tampa to “learn” how they do it (while Richmond’s school buildings crumble). Her important takeaways seem to be that Tampa puts lights on its bridges, that it is a big port city, the region has distinctive personalities and that there are some universities there. Her conclusion: “I fell love with Tampa during out visit, but “I’m still married to Richmond.” Now that is extremely helpful.
  • Lastly, there is an impenetrable story by TD publisher Thomas A. Silvestri about several fictitious people discussing Tampa. Unsure of the point, I read the endline bio of Silvestri. It says he used to head the chamber and did not go on the Tampa trip because he’s been there before.

So, there you have it folks. Instead of real reporting, you have Richmond’s elite, some of whom are responsible for the problems, interviewing themselves. And that is a big reason why the city is in such a huge mess.

More Virginia Families Choosing Cities, City Schools

by James A. Bacon

It has been the traditional pattern in Virginia, as elsewhere, for young people to move to core urban areas to live as singles and then migrate to the quieter, safer burbs with better schools when they marry and have children. That dynamic still is working but it is weaker than before. More young families are staying put in urban jurisdictions to raise their kids and enroll them in local schools, feeding the strongest population growth that many Virginia cities have experienced since the 1950s.

And that, notes Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog, is forcing many cities and counties to re-work their school enrollment projections and their capital spending plans.

Lombard displays the data in a way I have never seen presented before. The chart below (modified slightly for purposes of clarity) compares the number of births in a jurisdiction to the number of children who went on six years later to enter the school system in 2005. Jurisdictions to the left of the line, mostly urban city jurisdictions, saw a marked loss of school-age children. Localities to the right of the line, mostly suburban counties, had far more children enroll in their schools than were born there previously. The chart show the dominant post-World War II pattern of young families moving from the city to the burbs.

That was 2005. Now look at 2013 below. What’s different? Well, around 2006, per capita Vehicle Miles Driven peaked — people began driving less. Smart Growth advocates suggest that the younger generation is less infatuated with cars and prefers to live in walkable communities with access to mass transit. Then in 2007-2008 came the real estate crash and the Great Recession. As Lombard observes, mortgage rules tightened and it is harder now for families to buy a house in the ‘burbs. People are staying put. Only one-third as many homes were sold in Virginia in 2012 as in 2005. The number of Virginia families with children living in rented residences has increased 15%.

The shift in school enrollments is marked: Urban core jurisdictions are exporting fewer families with children, and counties are importing fewer.


Lombard sums up the impact on school systems:

Elementary schools have been among the first to feel the impact of the change in growth trends. Most rural and suburban elementary schools have too much classroom space because fewer families have moved to their divisions. At the same time, many urban school divisions, after decades of shuttering schools, are reassessing their capital improvement plans so they have enough space for the increases in enrollment.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are several points to be made.

First, this data refutes the commonly held notion that most young families with the means to do so all will desert core cities and move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Clearly, some young families are still making the move but more are staying. Whether this trend represents a fundamental shift in lifestyle preferences, a temporary effect of economic hard times or a little of both is hard to say. But the fact is undeniable: An increasing number of young city dwellers is growing, which is driving population growth in urban cores.

Second, it is good to see that analysts at the Weldon Cooper Center’s demographics research group, which publishes StatChat, are beginning to document this seismic demographic shift. If these insights get incorporated into the state’s official population projections, it will impact how dollars are spent in many areas, not the least of which is transportation. Kudos to Lombard for work well done.

Third, once middle- and professional-class families begin enrolling their children in urban-core jurisdictions in larger numbers, it could have a profound effect on how those schools are perceived. If the perception of inner city schools improves from dismal to not-so-bad, even more families might be willing to forego the suburban relocation. It’s way too early to say that that city schools have reached a tipping point but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

The Long, Sad, Inevitable Demise of Small Town America


Map credit: Brookings Institution

by James A. Bacon

In theory the past decade should have been very good for America’s small towns and rural areas: The fracking revolution has created an energy boom in places as far flung as western Pennsylvania and North Dakota. High prices for agricultural commodities have propped up incomes across the grain belt. Yet, despite the strength of the natural resource economy, non-metropolitan populations are shrinking.

Summing up Bureau of Census data through 2013, the Brookings Institution concluded that, outside of energy boom towns and retirement magnets, the future does not look good for small town America. Communities outside of metropolitan statistical areas showed the third straight year of population loss in 2013. Small cities and towns dependent upon manufacturing have been particularly hard hit.

In this blog, I have frequently cited the work of urban geographers who explain that a knowledge-based economy favors large metropolitan regions with large labor markets of skilled and educated employees. Knowledge-intensive companies gravitate to regions where they can hire workers with the skills they need, and workers gravitate to regions where they can find employment. While this trend does not trump all other considerations — Detroit is a case in point — it is powerful. Only in unique circumstances — a university town, an energy boom town, a town blessed with extraordinary climate or beauty — can small towns fight the tide. Small towns dependent upon light manufacturing especially appear doomed to long-term decline.

In his recently published book, “The Economic Viability of Micropolitan America,” Gerald L. Gordon asks the question, can micropolitan areas (urban centers with populations between 10,000 and 50,000) survive? Gordon is best known in Virginia as CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, one of the most respected and successful economic development enterprises in the country. But he also has an academic bent and when he’s not closing big deals like the relocation of Volkwagen USA and Intelsat to Fairfax County, he’s teaching economic development as an adjunct faculty member and doing his own research.

The latest book is one in a series aimed at extracting economic development lessons from communities large and small around the U.S. For this book, Gordon interviewed the mayors of 70 micropolitan communities, including two in Virginia: Danville and Martinsville. While small-town mayors maintain an up-beat outlook as their communities’ chief salesmen, the outlook Gordon describes is grim.

One rampant problem is the brain drain, the loss of residents with skills and education, to larger metropolitan areas that offer superior career prospects. The small towns’ problem is the inverse that of the major metros. Lacking a skilled and educated workforce makes it difficult to attract higher-quality employers; the lack of higher-quality employers makes it difficult to recruit or retain educated workers. Writes Gordon:

The loss of a primary employer means more than the loss of jobs and taxes. It can also mean the loss of the best of the workforce in the city as well as private support for organizations and causes throughout the community. This brain drain is an extremely serious for micropolitan cities.

That problem feeds another one: The erosion of the business tax base and the loss of higher-income individuals reduces the resources available to small towns and cities to make the investments in education and infrastructure they need to grow. “The ‘Catch-22′ is that the community then becomes less attractive to potential new residents and employers.

If there is a magic formula for success, Gordon didn’t find it. Indeed, his summary chapters are remarkably pessimistic — not for any apocalyptic language, which he studiously avoids, but for the simple paucity of plausible economic-development strategies beyond the well-worn ideas of diversifying the economy and revitalizing downtown.

That’s not to say that the future of micropolitan America is hopeless. There is a niche for people who prefer a slower-paced life in a tightly knit community where everyone knows and supports one another. For the most part, those people are retirees. I confess, I did not read all 70 of the community profiles, but I saw little discussion of what it takes to become a successful retirement community — something any region with access to beaches or mountains can reasonably aspire to. Continue reading

Map of the Day: Impact of Conservation Easements

2006 population distribution, Beltway to Winchester.

2006 population distribution, Beltway to Winchester.

Luke Juday is using his mapping tools over at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy to project what Virginia’s population distribution could look like 25 years from now and 50 years from now. You can see those maps here. We’ve re-published many of his maps here at Bacon’s Rebellion, so you may find them familiar. But Juday is always tweaking, and always looking for more geographic databases to play with, and he has done something really new: He shows how conservation easements in Loudoun and Fauquier counties could shape Northern Virginia’s growth trajectory over the next half century.

Beltway to Winchester 50 years from now -- conservation easements in blue.

Beltway to Winchester 50 years from now — conservation easements in blue.

As Juday writes, “Conservation easements matter”… at least when they achieve critical mass, as they have done in the Middleburg-Upperville hunt country area. The easements could play a major role in blocking the western advance of the Washington metropolitan region, forcing development south toward Fredericksburg.

Please note that Juday does not describe these maps as a “forecast” or “projection.” Rather, they are a visualization of how population would be distributed if (a) Weldon Cooper’s planning district-level population projects prove accurate, (b) no “game-changer” roads are built such as the Prince William Bi-County Parkway and (c) regions develop at their current level of density. The visualizations ignore zoning, which is too complex to include in his mapping routine, and it does not reflect the very real possibility that Americans (and Virginians) are driving less, with the implication that trend would have for greater urban density and infill. Finally, I would add, the map doesn’t consider the likelihood that northern Piedmont landowners will continue to place land in conservation easements, meaning that the swaths of blue will get even thicker and more formidable.

Even with all those caveats, the visualization shows how, over a long period of time, conservation easements could become as important as rivers, bays and Interstate highways in shaping Northern Virginia’s future.


The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

65 Is the New 25

Whoah! Why so many old people hanging out at the University of Richmond?

Whoah! Why so many old people hanging out at the University of Richmond?

by James A. Bacon

As Baby Boomers reach their retirement years, the Age Wave is washing over the country. The big push among the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation was to head south, settling in Florida and Arizona. But Boomers have other ideas. They are more inclined to age in place. And if they do decide to move, they’re less likely to head to the old retirement havens. New regions are emerging as retirement hot spots.

Nerdwallet ranked the nation’s 75 largest metropolitan areas by growth in the 65+ population as a percentage of total population between 2007 and 2012. The result was a real grab-bag of communities, only two of which, Phoenix and Jacksonville, are located in Florida or Arizona. Rainy, overcast Portland, Ore., ranked No. 2 on the list (microbreweries and golf courses) and Detroit No. 5. (Livonia, a large suburb, has large retirement communities).

Then at No. 9, there’s good ol’ RVA. States Nerdwallet: “Retirees in Richmond enjoy the area’s rich history, architecture and cultural offerings, which include a symphony, ballet, orchestra and many theaters and art galleries. The University of Richmond … hosts the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, providing local residents over the age of 50 with access to learning opportunities regardless of their educational background.”

I doubt the author of the piece has any first-hand familiarity with the Richmond — I’m guessing he checked the web for local amenities — but I’ll say that he hit close to the mark. Richmond does attract the culturally inclined. It’s difficult to enjoy the rich array of activities while working and raising children but when we retire a few years from now, my wife and I are looking forward to living here. We hope to travel a lot, but Richmond makes a wonderful base of operations. (In our discussions, we never even considered the Osher Institute. But UR is a five-minute drive from our house — that could be a significant added attraction).

Charlottesville and Williamsburg are up-and-coming retirement destinations, too. They didn’t make the list because the Charlottesville MSA was too small to be included in the survey and Williamsburg was submerged in the much larger Hampton Roads MSA. But quality universities are magnets for both communities.

The type of retiree who is inclined to move to Virginia because of its cultural offerings is precisely the kind of person we want coming here. People who patronize the ballet, visit art museums and audit college classes are far more likely to be educated and affluent. Educated retirees are the demographic flip side of educated young people that so many regions covet. Those in the 65 set may no longer be in the entrepreneurial stage of their lives but they have more disposable income and they have more time to get involved in the community.

Richmond BizSense published a story this morning about an unnamed New Jersey couple moving to Richmond that just purchased a magnificent house on Monument Ave. for $1.52 million. For a modest price (compared to New Jersey) they get a 7,760-square-foot house with marble bathrooms and one of the premium street addresses in the city. The new homeowner was quoted as saying, “I’m moving to Virginia and I want to have a house that shows off the history of the South because I’ve never lived in the South.”

Welcome to the South, honey, I’m sure you’ll love it here. And we’ll be happy to have you.

Virginia’s Behind-the-Scenes Transportation Planning Revolution


Nick Donohue

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration is generating big headlines by re-thinking mega-projects like the Charlottesville Bypass and the U.S. 460 Connector favored by the previous administration. Those projects came to the fore because federal regulatory authorities made it clear they had major problems with them, leaving Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne scrambling to keep ahead of the situation. But if you want clues to what long-term transportation strategy will look like under Governor Terry McAuliffe, the man to watch yesterday was Nicholas Donohue, the deputy secretary of transportation.

Donohue briefed the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) about VTrans, Virginia’s long-term transportation planning process, explaining how the McAuliffe team would take a different approach to forecasting travel demand and how the process for allocating road dollars would be subjected to a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Layne underlined the importance of Donohue’s academic-sounding digressions into the flaws of the “Travel Time Index” and the impact of mass transit on property values. “How we look at projects and analyze them will change substantially,” he said. “The intent is to make decisions less political. … This is the beginning of a really significant change in how we allocate monies in the commonwealth.”

Donohue is the policy wonk who exercises influence behind the scenes. A Virginia Commonwealth University graduate in urban studies, he served as assistant secretary of transportation under Governor Tim Kaine. During the Republican interregnum, he joined Transportation for America in Washington, D.C., an advocacy organization closely affiliated with Smart Growth America. In 2011, he co-wrote an op-ed piece published by the Reason Foundation advocating tolled HOT lanes, Bus Rapid Transit, smart transportation systems, private inter-city bus service and improved connectivity for secondary roads.

Yesterday, Donohue calmly dismantled core assumptions that have long underpinned transportation planning in Virginia. Under the aegis of VTrans, previous governors have forecast long-term travel demand and estimated the transportation funding needs based on that forecast. Traditionally, the VTrans product has emphasized vast funding shortfalls, in the tens of billions of dollars, over the following 20 years. One thing the McAuliffe administration wants to do, said Donohue, is to ask, “What did we say before, and did it happen?”

As it turns out, federal forecasts were pretty bad, he said, showing the following chart showing how they consistently overshot the mark:


Virginia’s forecasts suffered from similar biases in the past, he said. Now VTrans will begin considering non-traditional indicators of travel demand. For example, Donohue said, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds not getting their licenses has edged up from about 10% in 2000 to 15% today. A National Association of Realtors (NAR) survey found that a majority of respondents indicated a preference to live in walkable communities with mixed-use development. More families are moving into multifamily housing. And a NAR analysis found that the sales prices of houses located near transit out-performed other housing by 41% over the last five years.

Once the state has a more realistic view of transportation demand, the next step is identifying the most cost-effective projects. Federal law requires states to adopt performance-based planning. “Under performance-based programming,” he explained, “you have to say what you think is going to happen, and then you compare back, so you can see if you get the results you thought you were going to get.”

“The [performance] measures we pick are really, really important,” he said. “Sometimes, measures we thought got to the issue may not fully capture it.”

Donohue took exception to the “Travel Time Index” metric, devised by the Texas Transportation Institute, commonly used in transportation analysis. That metric measures how long it takes, on average, for someone to drive to work during peak congestion compared to how long it takes during normal hours. Thus, in Chicago, if it takes 35.6 minutes to get to work during rush hour compared to 24.9 minutes to take the same trip in off hours, the trip takes 43% longer, giving Chicago a Travel Time Index of 1.43. By that measure, he explained, Chicago has worse congestion than Atlanta with a Travel Time Index of 1.35.

That metric has its uses but it can also be deceptive, Donohue argued. Atlantans may experience less rush-hour delay but they tend to live so far from their workplaces that they still spend more time commuting than their counterparts in Chicago: 57.4 minutes compared to 35.6 minutes. Congestion may be worse in Chicago but the commute is 20 minutes shorter. Who is better off? Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading