Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Do women pay a transportation ‘pink tax’?

This is a quick note, following my previous post, “Cities for woman: Transit and gendered spaces,” which raised the question of whether city planners and designers take women’s experiences and needs sufficiently into account.

A survey from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management concluded that women in New York pay, on average $26 to $50 a month more for transportation due to concerns about harassment and safety.

According to an article in amNewYork, the survey took place during September and October and asked New Yorkers about travel habits. Read more here and here. Of the women who responded, 75 percent had experienced harassment or theft on public transportation, compared with 47 percent of male respondents.

And 29 percent of the female respondents, compared with 8 percent of men, said they avoided taking public transportation late at night because of “a perceived safety threat.” From that figure, the report authors estimated women’s higher transportation costs.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Cities for women? Transit and gendered spaces

Bus route changes that force longer walks, especially at night, can be particularly discouraging to female transit passengers. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System bus, in 2010, by James Willamor via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently found myself listening in on a group call with Daphne Spain, author of Gendered Spaces (1992) and How Women Saved the City (2002). Spain, a sociologist at University of Virginia, studies and writes about ways women and men historically have been treated differently in both public and private spaces. And I now have two more books on my To Read list.

Spain talked about public transit, among other topics, and at one point noted India has created women-only trains because of the extreme harassment women there can experience.

As it happened, the conversation came a few days after I saw the viral video, “A Scary Time,” by Lynzy Lab. With more than 1.3 million views as of Nov. 5, the video from Lab, a dance lecturer at Texas State University, mocks some discussion that arose after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Congress that men’s fear of being wrongly accused of sexual improprieties dwarfs the fears women live with over sexual assault, harassment and not being believed.

Accompanied by a ukulele, and ending with a plea to vote Nov. 6, Lab sings, in part:

“I can’t walk to my car late at night while on the phone / I can’t open up my windows when I’m home alone / I can’t go to the bar without a chaperone … / I can’t use public transportation after 7 p.m. / … And I can’t ever leave my drink unattended / But it sure is a scary time for boys … / I can’t live in an apartment if it’s on the first floor … / I can’t have another drink even if I want more … / I can’t jog around the city with headphones on my ears. … / And so on.

But back to Spain. She noted that women are more dependent on public transit than men. She also mentioned that if bus route planning took greater notice of women’s concerns that bus service would run later into the night to accommodate night-shift workers at places like hospitals. (This, obviously, applies to male night-shift workers, too. But women are disproportionately more likely to use transit, and more likely to live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford to own a car.)

This resonated loudly. The Charlotte Area Transit System recently redesigned some of its routes, to make them speedier and more convenient to more passengers. It’s adding more cross-town routes. Without a massive infusion of funding – not possible in an era when federal transit funds are shrinking and the transit-hostile N.C. state legislature must OK any new sales taxes for places like Charlotte – this means trade-offs are required. The route changes dropped some stops on neighborhood streets and moved them to thoroughfares. That means some riders must walk farther.

A Charlotte Observer article on the pluses and minuses of the changes has this passage, with echoes of Spain’s remarks:

One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseegee Road has been eliminated by the changes. 

“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”

Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.

“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2-1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”

Men as well as women walking alone on a dark, deserted street are vulnerable to muggings, robberies, etc. But women, often less physically able to overpower any attacker, make easier targets. Plus they experience the additional fear of sexual assaults. Consider this, as reported in a Next City article, “Designing Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”: “A 2014 Hollaback!/Cornell University study found that 93.4 percent of women surveyed globally had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment in the last year, and more than half had been groped …”

This isn’t meant to say the CATS bus route changes were, on balance, a mistake. As CATS chief operations planning officer Larry Kopf told The Observer, while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority will benefit from faster bus trips and more efficient routes.

But it’s important to ensure that the concerns of women – about walking to bus stops along well-lit, not deserted streets, for instance – are treated seriously when changes are proposed.

And this is not just an issue for CATS. The city of Charlotte should pay more attention to, and put more money into, making streets safer for all pedestrians, for the disabled, and for people riding bicycles (and today, scooters). Fewer than half the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on even one side.
Charlotte has many streets without sidewalks, like this one in a neighborhood near SouthPark. That can make pedestrians, especially women,  feel unsafe, particularly in the dark. Photo: Mary Newsom
Building a well-used, safe transit system means more than better and more frequent routes. It requires more sidewalks, improved sidewalks, better street-lighting (with energy-efficient LED lights that point downward so as to avoid blinding glare), and requiring development that creates “eyes on the street,” to reduce deserted areas.

Daphne Spain, in the conversation last month, mentioned that she serves on the Albemarle County (Va.) planning commission. In her time on the commission, she noted she hasn’t worked with a single female developer. “The people building our cities,” she said, “are still men.”


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Waiting for the creek to rise

Now demolished, the Midtown Sundries building was in a floodplain and flooded regularly. Photo courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
Now and then, during extremely heavy rainstorms, my daughter and I used to hop in the car and drive about a quarter-mile away to see if what we call the Creek House was inundated.
The house was built in the 1990s on a you-can’t-believe-it’s-legal site: within about 6 feet from a small creek.

That creek (one of about 3,000 miles of creeks in Mecklenburg County) has the boring official name of Briar Creek Tributary #1 and is neither large nor impressive. Except during a heavy rain. Then it deepens and widens – muddy and dangerously fast-flowing.

At one point, when the Creek House was being built, it was so close to the creek there was a two-by-four propped between an exterior wall and the far side of the creek.

It was a shocking example of how slack Charlotte and Mecklenburg County environmental regulations were, even though they were in some significant ways stricter than the state’s. I sent a copy of the photo to a fellow I knew in the county water quality program; he used it in a slide show urging Charlotte-Mecklenburg elected officials to require undisturbed vegetative buffers beside creeks. I can’t claim that photo is what led the county commissioners to enact the buffer ordinance. But I hope it helped.

Tonight, in Charlotte, N.C., we’re awaiting what may be 10 inches or more of rain from what’s left of Hurricane (now

Monday, August 6, 2018

Should affordable housing be treated as basic city infrastructure?

Here's an interesting piece in The Washington Post today that should be provoking some discussion among people concerned with housing affordability: In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich but rise for the poor.

The conventional wisdom is that a housing oversupply will cause the costs to go down the famous law of supply and demand. If we just allow developers to build plenty of housing, rents will sink. But that appears not to be happening.

The article, which is pegged to information from Zillow, does not address Charlotte specifically. So while maybe the same is true here it′s also possible that given the growth pressures in this fast-growing city – named by Zillow as the nation's fourth-hottest housing market – the top rents here are staying high.

The most significant ponderable here, I think, is whether – if that old law of supply and demand appears not as reliable as we′ve been led to think – the free market on its own can provide enough housing at a price more city residents can afford. The City of Charlotte is helping with its housing trust fund, but it seems doubtful we can simply build our way out of the problem.

I was talking last week with a zoning and planning lobbyist in Charlotte – a guy whose planning background doesn′t stop him from generally hewing to a basic free-market approach. He said he′s starting to believe cities should consider housing affordability as part of the basic package of infrastructure the local government provides like streets, police and fire service, parks, public health services, etc. Maybe the city builds it, maybe it helps other people build it, maybe it helps people afford it, or maybe there′s another way to accomplish this, he said.

For a generally fiscally conservative guy to propose that speaks, I think, to the reality Charlotte and many other cities face: Too many residents don′t earn enough money to afford much of the available housing. And beliefs about how the marketplace can provide it may need some readjusting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Want to know why Charlotte traffic is bad? One reason: You can’t get there from here

The lack of a connected street grid leads to congestion.
So there I was, heading to an 8:30 a.m. meeting near UNC Charlotte. Zipping up W.T. Harris Boulevard which I note is nothing like an tree-lined boulevard you might stroll down if you were a boulevardier I saw that ahead of me, traffic had stopped.

You expect it on some Charlotte streets Providence Road, for example, or I-77 at rush hour. But usually the drive up Harris Boulevard is smooth and, if not congestion-free, at least mildly and manageably congested. Not this day. My Google maps showed the section ahead as blood-colored, meaning extreme congestion. As I sat there, or crept forward, I watched the clock, fretting that I would be late for the meeting.

I cast about mentally for ways to get around the congestion. Being fully stopped, and not having reached the Old Concord Road interchange, I looked at the maps on my smart phone in search of escape routes.

There were none. My only realistic options were to get on Old Concord Road and drive far out of my way, braving either the morning university traffic or go even farther out of my way over to North Tryon Street with its multiple traffic lights, both options likely to make me arrive even later. (I screenshot the map at right about 10 minutes later.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

More parking? Less parking? The debate continues.

Tobe Holmes of University City Partners describes changes coming to the UNC Charlotte part of the city when a light rail extension opens early in 2018. In the background is a new parking deck with retail on the ground floor, built by the Charlotte Area Transit System. Photo: Mary Newsom 
In the playbook for transit-oriented development, as a city adds more transit service it needs less parking. Here's the reasoning: Building too much parking is an incentive to people to keep driving. Parking lots and decks create large, unfunded environmental and health costs, including but not limited to the heat island effect, water pollution from gallons of storm water runoff and the American obesity epidemic from too much driving.

As Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension light rail project nears completion (March 2018 is the projected opening), parking decks are rising along the line, including two huge decks near the UNC Charlotte campus where the line will end.  People who pay attention to such things ask whether we’re overbuilding parking. One recent example is this opinion piece from Charlotte Five – “It's insane to keep building huge parking decks along the light rail line.”

The piece responded to a previous article - “It would be insane for Charlotte to stop building parking for apartments — right now.”

Three thoughts about all that:

1. I think both arguments are right. We need less parking in the long run, but for now we continue to need parking. (There is a whole other topic to be addressed, not here and not today, on how to shrink the number of surface parking lots being built.)

2. In this case it’s not planners who should feel the most heat but lenders – who may not even know

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Eviction, Charlotte-style

Amid much local conversation recently about economic mobility in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, not much publicity has been paid to evictions, although sometimes it seems as if every civic leader you talk to has read, and is raving about, Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted. (See the PlanCharlotte.org book review here. And yes, I'm among the chorus of fans of the book.)

But at today's Housing Affordability Symposium, I just heard some eye-popping numbers from Ted Fillette, a long-time attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who has worked for decades on housing issues. Some of what Fillette said:

  • Every year more than 35,000 eviction cases are filed in Mecklenburg County.
  • Those cases are channeled through small claims court. Three courts run concurrently daily, five days a week and 50 weeks a year. Each magistrate (the judge for these cases) is assigned 30 to 120 cases per hour.

“What does it take to assume you only need 30 seconds or 60 seconds per case?” Fillette asked. “The presumption is people will not know their rights, can’t find the courthouse, or won’t have a defense.”

Speaking in the small auditorium where I'm sitting, Fillette describes the process: “What happens when 80 or 100 people show up, in a room about this size, and a magistrate calls 100 names per hour?”

If the tenant doesn’t hear his or her name the magistrate writes on a notepad to enter a judgment against the tenant. The tenants aren’t mailed the judgment. The first time many people learn a judgment has been entered against them is when they get a note from the sheriff, and the sheriff’s deputies show up. “They have five minutes to get the kids, pets, medicine, anything they can carry, then the house is locked up,” Fillette said. They have seven days to retrieve their belongings. If they have no place to move their things, the landlord can sell, destroy or throw away all their belongings.

“And there’s a record at the courthouse that stays there forever. ... It’s as much of a permanent scar as a criminal conviction.” Being evicted makes it difficult to ever rent again.

Fillette said that of the 35,000 eviction cases a year, his office will represent about 400 -- and win 95 percent of those cases. “It’s the ones we don’t see that matter.”

Of the people in eviction court, 95 percent are African-American women, or disabled or elderly, he said.

“What’s happening to African-American men in the criminal system is happening to African-American women in the court system.”