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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Paradox Prize Aims to Address the Gap Between Transportation and Jobs in Northeast Ohio, But Is the Problem Really a Paradox?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2019 at 11:01 AM

  • Photo by formulanone/FlickrCC

The folks at the Fund for Our Economic Future and other organizations want to hear from you. Well, more specifically, they want to hear your ideas for new and innovative solutions for one of the region's most wicked problems — spatial mismatch.

Over the next few years, the Fund plans to allocate up to a million dollars in the Paradox Prize for projects that seek to resolve a “paradox” they’ve identified within Northeast Ohio: the fact that many people cannot earn a living without a car but they cannot purchase a vehicle without a job. The organization, which last year released its “Two Tomorrows” report documenting the divergent paths the region can take over the next several years, is made up of a coalition of local funders, businesses, universities and civic groups. In January, the Fund received a large grant from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions to encourage this work.

In a conversation with Scene, the Fund’s Vice President Bethia Burke noted that, "The way that we came into this work is through the recognition that job access really matters to the overall long-term competitiveness of our economy.” Burke told Scene that the Fund promotes a extensive strategy that involves bringing jobs back to people as well as getting people to the areas where jobs are available.

Transportation is at the root of the problem, no doubt. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, advances in transportation technology have driven development patterns, creating highly inequitable spaces. With the growth of the automotive industry, business owners could purchase cheap, undeveloped land. Housing developers created suburban communities free of commercial interest where residents could live outside the city and commute in for their high-paying jobs. Over time, these actions can create a mismatch between where people live and where quality jobs can be found. Leaving those without the funds to purchase a vehicle at risk of not being able to acquire and retain a job. In Northeast Ohio, “because of the way that development has occurred,” says Burke, “good jobs are growing more in places that are farther away from core cities but also further away from people of lower-income which makes it harder to access them.”

Burke and the Fund’s Director of Mobility Innovation, Dominic Mathew, agreed that the Paradox Prize is not a complete strategy in and of itself but they hope it will get important conversations started. Burke hopes the Prize will bring attention to the “notion of changing the long-term development patterns of Northeast Ohio so that we are mitigating sprawl, aiming to bring incentives back and being thoughtful about land-use so that we have less of a people to jobs problem.” Mathew added that they would welcome proposals from existing transportation agencies, such as RTA, and that the prize may allow organizations to try new, innovative ideas.

But, here’s the thing. Is this really a “paradox?” Spatial mismatch has been an issue for decades and we know exactly why its occurred. Because those with power, money and access to resources have actively created this reality.
Development patters haven’t simply occurred. They’ve been created. By people. Without any significant deterrence from state or local public agencies. Indeed, some cities have bent over backwards to attract these “development patterns” that create and sustain inequities.

And that’s not to say that the Fund, or at the very least Burke, suggests that the issues have occurred by chance or that the solution will just magically arise. Indeed, Burke stated that, “In the long term, our fund is working with others like Team NEO, NOACA, Cuyahoga County and the Greater Cleveland Partnership to think about how the variety of decisions that we’re making and the incentives we’re offering, have driven the development patterns that we have and the negative consequences to the economy.” But, are the 15 local pilot projects set to be funded over the next three years likely to include progressive political action groups, union organizing efforts or civic leaders that will attend city council meetings to advocate for change? Perhaps if they include the words “micro,” “disruption” and “innovation,” they’ll have a better chance.

The Fund also hopes that the attention to the issue will be enlightening for business owners. According to Burke, months of extensive research within companies in the Northeast Ohio region, particularly those in Solon, have indicated that CEOs and HR professionals may not be aware of the constraints their employees face when it comes to transportation. Burke recounted that in conversations with these professionals, many saw tardiness or days off as a behavioral issue as opposed to an institutional one. The Fund hopes that the Paradox Prize will shed more light on the reality that many carless employees face and the barriers to job access for those without a vehicle.

Hmmm. Curious. Company leaders and those coordinating their hiring, firing and benefits packages, aren’t aware of the reasons why folks find it difficult to get to work? Or, perhaps, they do not care to know. More specifically, do they feign ignorance and hide behind the behavioral excuse to defend their own choices? Land-use patterns, public transit disinvestments and local/regional policies are some of the ingredients of the toxic sprawl cocktail but the active, direct and unabashed way that businesses have directly added to this reality is clear: wages are not high enough, pathways to promotion are stymied and overt and covert racism can create inequitable and unhealthy work spaces.

The Paradox Prize might prove to be a valuable endeavor. On their end, the Fund appears to be genuinely invested in promoting quality ideas about how to mitigate the negative externalities of sprawl. But, while we continue to rely on the philanthropic sector to promote social welfare, maybe we can begin to talk about the paradox of public agencies promoting economic development over social sustainability, the fight for a fifteen dollar minimum wage and the insecurity of tying healthcare to a job.

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