Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The New Gateway to the Middle Class: Tech and the Role of Gov’t

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.

--Horace Mann, Secretary of Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848

Last week, BetaBoston published a piece titled, Tech, the great equalizer, still struggles to make it to Dudley Square,” about still-nascent efforts to bring the opportunity of the Boston tech ecosystem to neighborhoods in need of economic development, such as Roxbury and Dorchester.

Incubators like DreamFactory and Smarter in the City are essential to ensuring that entrepreneurship—the 21st century ladder to the middle class—is available to all. However, I believe that the very title of the piece is indicative of a misunderstanding of how government can and should help the tech economy to thrive in all neighborhoods. The great equalizer is not tech. Instead, as Horace Mann noted 165 years ago, it is education.

The clustering effects seen today in New York City’s “Silicon Alley” or the Massachusetts Avenue corridor from Harvard to Kendell Square in Cambridge are the result of proximity to talent—the straw that turns the drink of any industry, particularly one that demands such high-skilled labor.

As important as education is to this puzzle, it is not the only reason why “clusters” have formed in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. Rather, as described in Start-up City, a report I wrote for then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, creating a tech ecosystem that can power growth for all requires significant public investment in infrastructure, a streamlining of government “red tape,” and measures to ensure that young people can afford to live and work affordably.

When we apply these key ingredients to Roxbury, it becomes clear that we cannot simply divert the tech economy to Dudley Square. Instead, we need to take steps to draw the industry to the neighborhood. Many of these steps are already taking place. Indeed, like many urban neighborhoods across the country, Dudley has experienced substantial change in recent decades, thanks in part to a plunge in crime and innovative programs like Boston Main Streets, which has helped remake neighborhoods into mixed-use, 24-hour communities.

But more must be done. As Ed Glaesar noted in a recent piece on Dudley, private sector investment is essential to the community’s success, which means that Boston must reduce barriers to opening new businesses, including one-stop permitting with guaranteed decision times.

In addition, while Dudley is one of the busiest bus depots in the entire City, the “Silver Line” service that is termed “Bus Rapid Transit” pales in comparison to grade-separated systems in other parts of the world, like Bogota, Columbia or Cleveland, Ohio. The Silver Line doesn’t even qualify as “basic” BRT, let alone warrant a bronze, silver, or gold ranking from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Thus, 65 years after the Massachusetts Legislature authorized $19,000,000 to build a subway under Washington Street to Dudley Square, the neighborhood continues to be at the margins of the MBTA’s transit network, despite being at the geographic center of the Hub.

As MassDOT found in its 2012 report on transit needs in the neighborhood, the relocation of the Orange Line in 1988 created, “A city with several high-frequency rail lines radiating out from downtown in multiple directions, but with the largest gap between lines coinciding with the location of the city’s highest concentration of minority, low-income, and transit-dependent residents.”

The answer is not to throw out the Silver Line, but to remake it as true BRT, with off-board payment, and a dedicated right-of-way, taking lessons from other cities and transforming the Washington Street corridor in the process.

In college, I taught civics to 8th graders at Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, a historic campus that is now in the process of becoming a grade 6-12 STEM-focused institution. In many respects, I had little in common with most of my students. I grew up white and privileged, in a rural town with a two-parent family. Most of my students were black and working class, whose homes were often headed by single parents in multi-story apartment buildings.

But what we lacked in common was more than made up for by their excitement to learn—about how their city/government functioned, about what college was like, about the limitlessness of their own futures.

It is our responsibility to ensure that opportunity is available for these students and all our youth. But it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen by taking a piecemeal approach to economic development. Instead, government should stick to what it does best—preventing crime, building infrastructure—from transportation to broadband—and making the State a partner, not an obstacle, to business growth.

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