Cities: May 2009 Archives

Via Gerard Vanderleun, I found a provocative blog entry on the cost of light rail and other forms of fixed-route mass transit:

When Phoenix was building its light rail system, I made the following two-part bet:
  1. I could take all the money spent on construction and easily buy a Prius for every single daily rider, with money to spare
  2. I could take the operating deficits for light rail and buy everyone gas to run their Prius 10,000 miles per year and still have money left over.

This bet has been tested in a number of cities, including LA and Albuquerque, and I have not lost yet. Now the numbers are in for Phoenix initial ridership, and I am winning the first half of my bet in a landslide.

He says that buying a Prius for each of the line's 18,500 daily riders would cost $425 million; the light rail line cost $1.4 billion.

In the same entry the blogger challenges the idea that light rail serves the poor:

...light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor. They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus. But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

A commenter says there's a worse enemy to affordable transportation for the working poor:

It seems to me that making transit services a city-imposed monopoly is a pretty ferocious enemy. If private companies were allowed to operate buses and jitneys under traffic rules comparable to those for delivery trucks now, and if people were free to advertise carpooling arrangements involving fees, would low-cost non-personal-auto transport be worse or better than it is now?

Also, it might be interesting to run a back-of-the-envelope calculation on the impact of limiting imports of relatively economical Japanese cars, too. How many marginal buyers became unable to afford their own car? I have no idea, but it might be large. Possibly the number compares to the number who ride buses every day?

The theory, as I understand it, is that cities with some combination of great public amenities, natural beauty, and a vibrant cultural scene will attract the Creative Class. Bright young people now pick a place to live, whether or not they have a job waiting for them. The presence of these creative young people will attract employers who need intelligent and creative employees and who will pay them well. The creative young people themselves, as they mix and mingle around town, will create new ventures that will attract new dollars into the local economy.

The recession may be giving us a chance to see how that theory plays out in the real world. Via See-Dubya, I learned of a May 16, 2009, Wall Street Journal story headlined "'Youth Magnet' Cities Hit Midlife Crisis: Few Jobs in Places Like Portland and Austin, but the Hipsters Just Keep on Coming":

This drizzly city along the Willamette River has for years been among the most popular urban magnets for college graduates looking to start their careers in a small city of like-minded folks. Now the jobs are drying up, but the people are still coming. The influx of new residents is part of the reason the unemployment rate in the Portland metropolitan area has more than doubled to 11.8% over the past year, and is now above the national average of 8.9%.

Some new arrivals are burning through their savings as they hunt for jobs that no longer exist. Some are returning home. Others are settling for low-paying jobs they are overqualified for....

The worst recession in a generation is disrupting migration patterns and overturning lives across the country. Yet, cities like Portland, along with Austin, Texas, Seattle and others, continue to be draws for the young, educated workers that communities and employers covet. What these cities share is a hard-to-quantify blend of climate, natural beauty, universities and -- more than anything else -- a reputation as a cool place to live. For now, an excess of young workers is adding to the ranks of the unemployed. But holding on to these people through the downturn will help cities turn around once the economy recovers.

Portland has attracted college-educated, single people between the ages of 25 and 39 at a higher rate than most other cities in the country. Between 1995 and 2000, the city added 268 people in that demographic group for every 1,000 of the same group living there in 1995, according to the Census Bureau. Only four other metropolitan areas had a higher ratio. The author of the Census report on these "youth magnet" cities, Rachel Franklin, now deputy director the Association of American Geographers, says the Portland area's critical mass of young professionals means it has a "sustained attractiveness" for other young people looking for a place to settle down.

One of the Portland migrants actually had a job on arrival, but lost it:

Tyler Carney, a 29-year-old computer programmer, moved here from Tulsa, Okla. in September when the Internet-security company he was working for relocated to downtown Portland. He was laid off two months later, and today is living off the $417 in weekly unemployment checks. He has trimmed expenses, such as cutting out restaurant meals, ending cable and switching to slower Internet service. Mr. Carney is spending most of his days job-hunting, but has no plans to go back to Tulsa anytime soon. "Portland is a little more progressive than Tulsa was, as far as the culture goes," he says. "This town is awesome. Tulsa tended to roll up the streets at night."

The company, not named in the WSJ story, appears to be Vidoop. Vidoop, which specializes in the user authentication aspect of computer security, was founded in Tulsa. In February 2008, they hired Scott Kveton of the OpenID Foundation as "VP of Open Platforms and the Director of the company's new West Coast office in Portland." In June, they announced that they would move the entire company to Portland. The reasons for the move seem to fit the Creative Class theory of economic development:

"The food was the kicker," [co-founder Joel] Norvell joked. Portland's restaurant scene helped sell them on the Rose City, but it's the city's community of software developers that hooked them. Although Vidoop's tools are proprietary, they interface with an open source login standard called OpenID. Vidoop hopes to tap into the collaborative spirit behind open source software that's prevalent in Oregon's developer community. "We need a certain kind of developer with a certain kind of expertise, and that just did not exist in Oklahoma," [co-founder Luke] Sontag said.

In September, a group of employees moved by caravan from Tulsa to Portland, a trip involving "forty-two people, eight pets, five U-HAUL(R) trucks, four RVs, two trailers, two cars, one camera crew and one blueberry bush."

In November, Vidoop announced a layoff. Last week, there was another layoff.

MORE: Vidoop not only moved the company to Portland, they moved the band Black Swan (now known as No Kind of Rider) as well, but the band seemed more than content with the Tulsa scene:

Any of you who know any of us will know that over the two years of our existence, there's one topic that we talk about the most:

the Tulsa scene.

It is the fans who come out to show after show (even in the same week), when we have nothing to put in their hands and the bands who support each other, share and trade shows, verbally abuse each other during Halo and generally push each other to be better.

It is the venues and the record store that incubated us when we had no equipment, 4 songs and even fewer fans at the show -- that invite us back even after we blow the speakers on their sound system.

It is the coffee shops and bars you can visit any night and see all these people and not even talk about music, but about everything else in the world in a real way. Its that we have journalists in our local papers who actually give a damn about GOOD music, who will both promote AND show up at a show.

(Found via Oklahoma Rock.)

One of Vidoop's programmers was Black Swan's lead singer, Sam Alexander, so the company president offered to move the whole band to Portland if the programmer would stay with the company. In Gary Hizer's profile of Black Swan in the Feb. 27, 2008, Urban Tulsa Weekly, band members talk affectionately of the Tulsa music scene.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from May 2009.

Cities: April 2009 is the previous archive.

Cities: June 2009 is the next archive.

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