Close, But Not Too Close

Shopping malls have a complicated relationship with public transit. Mall managers want buses to bring in shoppers and workers but don't want them to pull up too close to the door. Why? Various reasons are given, most having to do with safety, but class almost certainly plays a role.
by | April 2004

Shopping malls have a complicated relationship with public transit. Mall managers want buses to bring in shoppers and workers but don't want them to pull up too close to the door. Why? Various reasons are given, most having to do with safety, but class almost certainly plays a role. They don't want poor or working-class people standing at a mall entrance, waiting for a bus. This attitude bubbles up from time to time in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. A few years back, one of the area's biggest malls complained that the transit agency was using its entrance as an unofficial transfer station. (Eventually, the mall helped the agency find a suitable place a short distance away for transfers.) Now, another area mall is complaining about the same issue. Again, both parties agree that a close-by transfer station is probably preferable, but in the meantime the transit agency is considering re-routing buses toward the food court entrance, rather than the stores. "In the short term," said the agency director, "there is not an easy solution." But is transit really detrimental to malls? Hard to say. A passenger survey of the routes serving the Tampa-St. Petersburg mall showed about half of the riders exiting buses at the mall went inside to work or shop; the rest just waited for a connecting route.


If you want your neighborhood to be gentrified, it helps to have proximity to work and entertainment, a pleasing streetscape and a mix of building types. The houses can be dilapidated, but they must be the kind that, with new kitchens, roomy bathrooms and a fresh coat of paint, you'd be proud to have your friends visit. The problem in many older suburbs is that the housing often falls into the "I Love Lucy" zone: not old enough to be historic but too dated and small for today's homebuyers. Cleveland's inner suburbs have a lot of this kind of housing, and they've banded together to find ways of changing things. Their solution: Buy a few "up-and-down duplexes"--houses where the owner has added a second story and rented it out--gut them and turn them into fashionable side-by-side townhouses. The First Suburbs Development Council, an association of 14 Cleveland suburbs, is showing builders how to turn these houses into something desirable by, in effect, tipping them on their sides. The first demonstration house is an 83-year-old up-and-down in Cleveland Heights, which, when renovated, will become a pair of townhouses with three bedrooms, two- and-a-half bathrooms and garages. When the renovation is completed, the First Suburbs group will show it off, sell it and move on to other projects.


Public safety officials in suburbs around the country have noticed a disturbing new trend. As more and more Hispanic immigrants are moving to suburban areas, a disproportionate number have been involved in automobile-pedestrian accidents. Take New York's Long Island suburbs, where experts say 15 percent of residents are Latinos. Officials there say 35 percent of pedestrian deaths in Nassau County and 21 percent in Suffolk County involve Hispanics. Why? Because Hispanics on Long Island are twice as likely to walk or bicycle to work as whites and six times as likely to catch a bus. Even if they're taking transit, they must walk to bus stops along roadways. And because many work late, they often walk in the dark. "This is part of their desperate situation," said one priest who works with recent immigrants. "They have no choice but to walk. If they're lucky, they get a bicycle. They're on the road, they're on the street." Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much that officials can do, other than to slow traffic and, over time, build more sidewalks.


One stereotype of a government job is that once a public employee is hired, it's nearly impossible to fire him. That perception may be reality, at least in Houston. The city of Houston has about 20,000 workers who've been on the job at least a year and are, therefore, past their probationary periods. How many of those city employees were canned last year? Amazingly, just 84, according to the Houston Chronicle, which combed the city's civil service records. Only 19 were fired for poor job performance (26 were fired for behavior problems, 20 for not showing up for work and 19 for drug-test violations). "That's phenomenal," said one private-sector labor lawyer. "They either have an amazingly well-performing work force, or they're not rooting out poor performers." Almost certainly, it's the latter. Take the case of the woman who spent 12 years on the city's payroll, mostly as a 911 operator. Over the years, she amassed 10 written reprimands and 55 days of unpaid suspensions for a laundry list of infractions (not showing up for work, sleeping on the job, lying to supervisors, insubordination, etc.). Eventually, the cops transferred her to a job in the mayor's office, where she answered citizen complaints. Only then was she fired for failing to meet "even the minimum threshold proficiency necessary to work unsupervised at her job." The new mayor, Bill White, admits there's a problem with a system where employees "can feel their jobs are secure regardless of their performance, except at the extreme."

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