Race, R, and Richmond’s new mayor

r_wpgraphic

Something unusual happened in the 2016 Richmond mayoral election that doesn’t fit neatly with our municipal self-story about how our racial politics work. I wrote an election wrap-up for Style Weekly that tells you quite a bit about how Levar Stoney won the mayoral race, but this one particular unusual thing fell out of scope of that because it requires a very small statistics primer to make sense.

Don’t worry, this is easy stuff, and it’ll help you understand a lot of things beyond what we’re talking about today.

There’s a number statistics nerds call R which, in a nutshell, helps you figure out whether or not two things are correlated to one another, and if so, how strongly1. It’s not the whole story, as totally nonsense things can be strongly correlated to one another, but it gives you an idea of what to examine more closely.

R always falls between -1 and +1, because there are two different kinds of relationships that are possible when numbers are correlated: positive, where more of Thing A means more of Thing B, and negative, where more of Thing A means less of Thing B.

The closer to +1 or -1 the R is, the stronger the correlation; the closer to 0 it is, the weaker it is:

fix_r

Now that you know what an R can tell you, here’s some real-world information: the vote share by precinct for two of Richmond’s 2016 mayoral candidates, Jack Berry and Joe Morrissey, was strongly positively correlated with the racial makeup of the precinct:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = +0.911
Precinct Berry Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.919

The relationship for those two candidates was so strong that if you knew nothing about a precinct but the percentage of its residents that are white and the percentage that are black, you would be able to reasonably guess the Berry and Morrissey vote percentage at that precinct with simple equations:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % ≈ 0.507(Precinct % Black) – 0.007
Precinct Berry Vote % ≈ 0.5613(Precinct % White) + 0.0764

That sounds like a really strong relationship, but we still need to look at the actual numbers on a plot to see if that’s real or not online task manager. If the correlation is actually strong, we should see the points clumped pretty tightly around the regression line. For these two cases, they definitely are:

fix-bermor_r

These results would seem to support the narrative of a racially Balkanized Richmond, where voters come in neat ethnic blocs. But neither of these candidates who performed mostly in line with racial groups won the mayoral election.

Levar Stoney did.

Let’s compare those same R values we dissected above with the comparables for the winning candidate:

Precinct Morrissey Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = +0.911
Precinct Stoney Vote % : Precinct % Black :: R = -0.182
Precinct Berry Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.919
Precinct Stoney Vote % : Precinct % White :: R = +0.160

Those numbers should absolutely leap out at you by this point: there was almost no correlation between the percentage of a precinct’s votes that went to Levar Stoney and that precinct’s racial makeup. Compare the plots:

path6630

So unlike for 2nd place finisher Jack Berry or 3rd place Joe Morrissey, you can’t write a simple linear equation to predict Stoney’s vote share based on race. Those two variables just weren’t related in any meaningful way.

Don’t mistake this for a Pollyanna proclamation of post-racialism. But it is significant that mayor-elect Stoney earned his new office with broad biracial support when the other top contenders earned most of their votes from single racial groups.

That’s your statistics lesson for now, but R—”Pearson correlation” if you’re nasty—is everywhere in the world around you.

Now that you know a bit about it, you’ll be able to easily pick out figures in my election wrap-up that are based on R and other numbers that measure “goodness of fit” (yes, this is a real statistical term).

  1. We’re just talking about linear regression today, which is just one kind, but you have to start somewhere, right? Also, this is a Pearson correlation.

Why Richmond doesn’t need a new train station on the Boulevard

Dr. Trani's "New Downtown" looks awesome you guys!
Dr. Trani’s “New Downtown” looks awesome you guys!

Famous unemployed persons Dr. Eugene Trani, former president of VCU, and John Watkins, former Virginia senator from Powhatan, have checked in with us through the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and boy oh boy, do they ever have some thoughts for us about where “downtown” is, how people use trains, and how much parking is required for everything (SPOILER: INFINITE!). Specifically, Dr. Trani has swooped in once more to make a sad case for building some sort of magical new train station on Boulevard rather than sending trains to, like, the very pretty train station we already have downtown.

I think this is a super un-smart idea, and it’s an idea that people like for really bad reasons.

So I couldn’t restrain myself. Below is my abridged line-to-line response to “Why Richmond needs a new train station on the Boulevard”, which is the title of the opinion piece but not a thing that is true.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is winding up a Tier II Environmental Impact Statement for the future of rail transportation on the 123-mile corridor from Washington to Centralia, which is 16 miles south of Richmond

This is mostly accurate! OK! We’re off to a good start here, with the Recitation of the Things.

There has been much publicity about how to get the trains through Hanover and Ashland. There has been much less discussion about the train station, or stations, in Richmond

That’s because everyone but you and miscellaneous other white dudes is pretty sure we should have passenger trains go to our passenger train station that already exists.

The federal government appears to want both station locations, and its one-size-fits-all regulations may prevent an objective consideration of the true, long-term economic opportunities available to our entire region

I like to think that Dr. Trani and Mr. Watkins sat down in front of a Ouija board and asked it to tell them what the US Federal Government really wants, and after a long session of sputtering, it spelled out to them, “the US Federal Government, an entity with thoughts and feelings which is hamstrung by one-size-fits-all regulations, whatever that means, desires passenger rail service to serve both Staples Mill Road and Main Street Station.”

The current study started with 15 possible station locations for Richmond but quickly narrowed the study to four locations: Main Street, Broad Street, the Boulevard, and Staples Mill. There are seven possible alternatives, with four being full-service single station options at each of the above locations and three being split service between Main Street and Staples Mill

This is correct! You can check out the seven service alternatives for Richmond yourself.

There should be only one station in the Richmond area. This would be similar to the other major cities from Washington to Boston and would improve the times of the trip from Richmond to Washington.

Fact Check: Boston has approximately one million stations (Route 128, Back Bay, South Station, and North Station), and it’s a pain in the ass. You literally can’t take a train from Maine to New York because of this. But sure, I’m with you on the principle. One station is definitely best. One station makes it easier, simpler, and more cost-effective to connect intercity passenger rail with frequent public transit and other local transportation services.

Only a Broad Street or Main Street station location will benefit immediately from Pulse BRT service scheduled to begin in October of 2017. This kind of connection to frequent, reliable mass transit is critical. We can’t afford to waste precious, potentially revenue-generating real estate on deeply underperforming assets like lots of parking. But oh? What’s this?

It should have excellent highway access and significant parking, if we are serious about getting people out of their cars and off I-95

OK. Stop. Garbage. If we’re serious about getting people out of their cars, we aren’t sending them to the train station in their cars in the first place. They’re taking transit, they’re riding a bike, they’re getting dropped off by a friend or a taxi or whatever.

And I’m gonna show you this graphic this one time, but I need you to remember it every single time this piece barfs up another superlative adjective followed by the word “parking:” if “parking” is a thing that we need at Main Street Station, well, there’s definitely room for it. Here’s all the land area being used for parking in the immediate vicinity of Main Street Station today:
mss-parking

If anything, Main Street Station area needs to go on a serious parking diet. So yes, “we need a Boulevard Station because Main Street Station can’t have parking” is nonsense. Moving on.

Second, it should be located in the “downtown” area, though modern definitions of what makes up “downtown” are changing. Unfortunately, the city and the federal government rely on a 1950s definition of where Richmond’s downtown actually is. Shockoe Bottom’s recovery since the floods is impressive, but it is no longer the “downtown” part of our city and it is not the true cultural or employment center of our region.

Wait. Back. Up. The. Truck. Downtown Richmond isn’t Downtown? Where on earth is Downtown Richmond? Who moved it?

It’s a funny thing about “1950s definition of where downtown actually is.” If you had a downtown in the 1950s, well, your downtown is still there today. Sure, there are good chances that, in a healthy city and region, other centers of significant activity have developed. But downtown is right where it’s always been: downtown.

Just check out these spiffy pics from Google Earth and ask one question: “Which of these places looks, today, like an Actual Downtown?”

whichisdowntown

Job concentrations exist in an oblong, east-west axis between the I-95 James River bridge and I-195

Oh, that’s much clearer. Downtown Richmond is an oblong, east-west axis between two interstate highways, and it is this thing because “job concentrations” exist within this oblong.

A three and a half mile stretch of turf covering over 7 square miles of area. Well, OK, but, what you’re speaking of isn’t “downtown.” Trust me. You will be mercilessly mocked, and deservedly, for telling a city resident that your “favorite downtown restaurant” is in Carytown.

Downtowns are a special kind of thing. Though decent-sized cities have multiple business districts, and even multiple cores, in America your downtown is a specific core that is the historical center of commerce and government. In Richmond, this actual downtown is growing rapidly for the same reasons that so many others are. It already has good urban fabric, walkable streets, and regular transit service, and, of course, a very heavy concentration of jobs.

And downtowns aren’t geographically huge, either. Even in the ten largest cities in America, the most sprawling downtown core measures in at just about two square miles. Most are much smaller:

downtown-size

Which makes the assertion that this vast chunk of Richmond is “downtown” look positively farcical. Check out The Oblong East-West Axis overlaid with LA’s humongously sprawly downtown:

tranisize

Claiming such a vast swath of territory as “downtown” shows a deep lack of understanding of how cities function, what they are, or how they work.

This is the true and rapidly redeveloping downtown of our entire region, and neither Main Street Station nor Staples Mill Station serve it or help this emerging region core grow.

Here’s a quick story, dude: according to Better Housing Coalition, which just announced a substantial investment in transit-oriented development in Scott’s Addition, there are about 1,200 apartment units total in the neighborhood. That sounds like a lot of apartments!

But with all the activity in Scott’s Addition, maybe it would be easy to miss, but you know where in Richmond added 1,350 new units in just the last year alone?

Oh! That’d be Downtown! Like, actual Downtown Richmond. Not whatever this thing is.

Finally, the location should contribute to RVA’s efforts for economic development, with a particular focus on recruiting and retaining young professionals to live and work in our area.

Major Spoiler Alert: You will read this meaningless phrase, “young professionals,” used several more times, for no apparent reason. Get your shot glasses ready, we’re making it a drinking game, OK?

Main Street Station is an iconic building that has had more than $80 million of renovations and is the choice of the city of Richmond to be the single train station for Richmond. But it has many problems, including being in a very congested area with little or no parking.

What does “very congested area” mean? Short Pump is a very congested area.

“Congestion” is not a thing that pedestrians really experience in cities our size, so when someone says “congested” in Richmond, I assume they mean “sometimes I have to wait in my car through a stoplight cycle before I can go to the next intersection.” Good transit, biking, and walking infrastructure obviates the need to worry about that.

As for the thing where we’re working through $80 million in renovations for Main Street Station right now: that actually does matter. Make no mistake: the Boulevard Station option absolutely means closing Main Street Station. No more train service there. Period. It’s right there in the plans:

doesmeanclose

Eh, maybe we can use it as an ice skating rink if we do this Boulevard Station, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It also has major rail infrastructure problems that would be very costly to remedy

The entire point of this whole process is that we are going to spend money to remedy rail infrastructure problems.

The recent attempt to relocate the baseball stadium adjacent to Main Street Station should be a message to us all about the conflicting passions and histories of the Shockoe Bottom area

If you took away the message “it is impossible to do anything in the Shockoe Bottom area ever,” you weren’t paying even the slightest bit of attention.

Staples Mill is not “downtown” and even with the announced parking expansion would continue to have parking problems. It is not an attractive option. The area around the train station has done little for economic development, and it may be many decades before its surrounding low-density, strip retail development could actually power the entire region.

Agreed. Go on.

And it will not help recruit young professionals to live and work in our area

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS *glug*

Also, Staples Mill is not easily accessible from the southern or western quadrants of our region, nor is it served by transit

Whereas Main Street Station is, because it is downtown, at the confluence of a zillion major highways and surface streets, due very soon to be served by high-quality rapid transit, and even easy walking distance over nice streets on a tight grid to hotels, restaurants, and all kinds of other nice stuff. On the Boulevard, you can get off a train and walk to … well, I guess Starbucks is only a 15 minute walk away, and it has a drive-through. And there’s a Wawa coming. So those are pretty urban amenities.

In contrast, the Boulevard has many positive features to become a signature entrance into RVA, particularly if a “starchitect,” a well-known architect, would design the station

Oh! A “starchitect!” Maybe we could hire the award-winning firm responsible for some of Philadelphia’s most beloved institutional structures. Doesn’t that sound cool? Oh, wait. That’s already been done for us! The Seaboard Air Line and Chesapeake and Ohio hired Wilson Brothers to design an outstanding, landmark train station — in 1901. We call it “Main Street Station” today, and it already exists.

The Boulevard has great highway access and plenty of room for extensive parking

Remember this when later on, these dudes suggest their Boulevard station will, quote, “get people out of their cars,” because they really mean “get people out of their cars once they arrive at this train station and then get them immediately back into them when they return from wherever.”

It is located at an Interstate highway exit

Main Street Station is also located at an interstate highway exit — a series of them, in fact. This is not an actual differentiating factor. They are both at interstate highway exits. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen, Trani. It’s not going to happen.

and is already the site of many popular destinations, with the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Bow Tie Cinemas complex, and The Diamond ballpark already attracting more than 1.5 million annual visitors

Riddle me this: What’s the first thing I want to do after I have made an intercity rail journey from a different city? Do I want to schlep all my baggage and go to a museum or see a movie? Do I want to go to a minor league baseball game with my wheelie suitcase wedged between my legs?

Or is it more likely that I want to go to my hotel via frequent, easy-to-use rapid transit, and then take a nap?

The emergence of Scott’s Addition as a major center for business, housing, and entertainment is only the first step of the development of the Boulevard, which should be rebranded as RVA’s Diamond

OK, so this is cute. I see what you’re saying. So, like, we called the baseball stadium The Diamond out of a desperate lack of imagination, because a “diamond” is the shape of the field on which the game baseball is played, but the idea here is, maybe we can use “Diamond” to mean “very nice, precious thing” instead.

Which is a pretty generous thing to call a low-slung assortment of warehouses, body shops, and self-storage units with no sidewalks.

It’s true that Scott’s Addition is growing. But to suggest that it’s a few rehabs of low-density buildings away from rivaling downtown for urbanity is just silly.

Combining the Boulevard station with the nearby Greyhound station could turn the Boulevard into an accessible transportation hub for the entire region, and a destination for travelers from Alexandria to Norfolk

Do you not believe that Greyhound service could be delivered at Main Street Station for some reason? The high-volume intercity bus service Megabus is currently operating a brisk business from the Main Street Station parking lot. Bring the Greyhound service downtown too! This is good for everyone!

The development that would occur at RVA’s Diamond would be dramatic. Retail, housing, entertainment, and business would flock to RVA’s new downtown

“RVA’s New Downtown” sure sounds appealing. The word “new” is right in there, and man, new things sure do outperform old things, don’t they? Except that RVA already has a downtown, which is conveniently located Downtown. Main Street Station is there!

RVA’s Diamond would be especially attractive for young professionals

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS SHOUTOUT NUMBER THREE! DRINK!

But seriously, when people say “young professionals,” it’s kind of an old person dog whistle for “educated, white collar white people that don’t require extensive public services.”

We could add a dozen more points, but suggest we just stop here and ask two simple questions: Could a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station support anything like these benefits?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

Would a Main Street station or a Staples Mill station do anything to get people out of cars and onto more sustainable modes of transportation?

Staples Mill? No. Main Street? Yes.

We believe that the answer to both questions is no

I don’t think you read your own questions very carefully.

If we do nothing, we will wind up with a two-station option of Staples Mill and Main Street. Only if we stand up and demand that the Boulevard be seriously considered will this great possibility occur.

Well, there you have it. We have a great possibility that can occur, of locating a new passenger rail station, designed by a Starchitect, for Young Professionals, in a New Downtown, “RVA’s Diamond,” where it will be disconnected from rapid transit and Actual Downtown and surrounded by just oodles and oodles of parking, guaranteeing that it will be just as sad as Staples Mill in perpetuity because it won’t generate any activity outside of its walls.

Where do we sign up, Richmond?

All kvetching aside, and I did a lot of kvetching

Main Street Station should absolutely be the station for Richmond. It’s actually downtown, it’s actually going to be served by excellent public transit, and it’s actually already a beautiful train station that exists.

All the arguments against it, and for the alternatives, come from a profoundly anti-urbanist view of Richmond’s future that continues to assume the vast majority of people will, in perpetuity, originate all trips from a car, and that we should make our development decisions to accommodate cars first and people second.

That’s not how we’re going to grow, y’all. It just ain’t.

You should keep up with the DC2RVA Rail Project closely as they work through the Tier II EIS process. It’s important work!

And if you want a robust Richmond, I’d encourage you to submit a comment supporting Main Street Station as Richmond’s single passenger rail hub. It’s the right thing to do.

CNU’s Richmond mayoral poll doesn’t tell us much about district-level preferences

Because polling for local elections is both notoriously challenging and expensive, the newly released public poll of voter preferences in the Richmond 2016 mayoral election from the Watson Center at Christopher Newport University is both the first, and likely the last, public poll Richmonders have to go on in gauging how the city will vote.

The citywide results of the poll of 600 respondents has an adjusted margin of error of ±4.9%, but the margins for the individual districts are much, much higher — ranging from ±13.1% to ±16.3%. And those numbers matter, because the successful candidate will need to win a plurality in 5 of 9 council districts to be seated.

What gives here? What is a margin of error? And why does this mean it is very unlikely that Bruce Tyler will capture 11% of the vote in Michelle Mosby’s Southside 9th District?

Like most matters in statistics, margin of error makes the most sense when you just put it into a sentence:

A poll result of 50% with a ±5% Margin of Error means we can say, at the chosen confidence level, that the “true result” lies somewhere between 50 minus 5, or 45%, and 50 plus 5, or 55%.

Or hey, let’s make it even simpler:

±5% Margin of Error tells us that the “true result” is somewhere in a 10% spread around the reported result from the sample.

Not too bad, right? It’s not bad to have a large margin of error, but it’s really important to be aware of it when you’re trying to make sense of a statistic. A large margin of error can result from a lot of different factors, but in this case, it’s the most common bogeyman of all: small sample size. CNU just didn’t make contact with enough voters in every one of the city’s nine council districts to be confident that the sample they wound up with was particularly representative of the population in each council district. That shows up in the results as a large margin of error.

Let’s put a particular result into a narrative sentence again to explain it:

In Richmond’s 3rd Council District, 29% of respondents to our poll gave Joe Morrissey as their first choice for mayor, with a margin of error of ±14.1%. This means we can say with 95% confidence that, if we could somehow have spoken to to every registered voter in Richmond’s 3rd Council District, somewhere between 14.9% (29-14.1) and 43.1% (29+14.1) of them would give Joe Morrissey as their first choice for mayor.

You can fill in the blanks of that sentence with the results for these leading candidates, reflecting the full range of possibilities given by the district-level margins of error, and see just how massive a ±13.1% (26.2% spread) to ±16.3% (32.6% spread) margin of error really is:

moe_table

That doesn’t mean you can’t tell anything from the district-level results, of course. Overall poll leader Joe Morrissey (citywide 28% ±4.9%) has a higher floor and higher ceiling of registered voters who would be likely to make him their first choice in a larger number of districts than any other candidate. This is expected, and there’s some interesting variation here that’s worth considering.

These margins are so big though because the pollsters can’t be very confident they got a representative sample from the very small number of voters contacted in each of the nine council districts. Of the 600 respondents polled, if an equal number had been from each district, that would be just 67 voters to represent an entire council district of roughly 25,000 people. That means larger margin of error.

With 69 days to go, it’s still very early season for local elections, and especially here in Richmond. Current poll leader Morrissey is a household name throughout the city and across all social and economic groups, and in a race few are truly tuned into or engaged with, a preference poll tends to exaggerate support for the known.

But the results from individual districts in CNU’s poll are just too noisy to tell us a lot we, or the campaigns, don’t already know. Interpret them loosely and with extreme caution.

Richmond and Henrico: A Tale of Two Revenue Streams

henricoline

You could almost write the story arc in Mad Lib format by now: Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposes a thing. The Internet Comments Sectiontariat, knowing that the administration proposing the thing is that of Mayor Dwight C. Jones, not exactly the most popular executive in Richmond’s history at this point, reacts with universal condemnation and horror, certain that whatever the thing is, it is probably as bad as building three new Redskins Training Camps inside of 6th Street Marketplace.

Here’s the thing though: when the administration says Richmond’s government can’t afford to do the things citizens want it to without collecting more revenue, and that taxes and fees may need to rise, that didn’t come from nowhere. A quick and dirty comparison of the tax take between the City of Richmond and the neighboring county of Henrico offers a really easily overlooked possibility: maybe Richmond really just doesn’t take in enough money.

Let’s start with by far the largest source of revenue: local property taxes. In the current budget cycle, Richmond expects to bring in $250,225,128 in property tax revenue for its 214,114 citizens — $1,169 per capita. Henrico is anticipating $408,950,000 total for the 318,611 county dwellers, which makes $1,284 in property tax per capita, nearly 10% more than Richmond.

rvarev-proptax

What gives? Even though Henrico’s property tax rate of $0.87/100 is substantially lower than Richmond’s $1.20/100, the county’s taxable property value is about $35.6 billion to Richmond’s $20 billion. With nearly 80% more value to collect on, the county collects more revenue even with a 35% lower tax rate.

So what would put the two in parity? To oversimplify, Richmond could just about match Henrico’s property tax revenue per capita under two scenarios tackling the equation from either end. If Richmond’s taxable property value increased by about 15%, or $2.9 billion, that would just about do it without moving the current tax rate. The city could also raise the real property levy to $1.37/100 at the current book value. That’s a 15% increase, but just about what Petersburg is currently collecting.

Since raising property taxes is pretty unpopular, this should lend a little clarity to why the Jones administration has put such a strong emphasis on economic development, even if there’s a lot of (legitimate) disagreement about some of the ways they’ve pursued that goal.

What’s going on here then? Surely property taxes make up a bigger slice of the pie in Henrico, and that explains the disparity?

Nope. When considering all revenue, the gap is even more vast. Richmond is anticipating $709,152,771, and Henrico is looking for $1,256,906,591. On a per capita basis, that means Richmond is collecting $3,312 in total revenue for every citizen, while Henrico is collecting $3,945 — about 19% more.

rvarev-total

When we talk about our priorities for future local government budgeting, we have two really unfortunate and hugely unproductive instincts in Richmond:

  • To assume there are simply vast inefficiencies lurking in city administration that, if someone just had the guts to go in and eliminate, we could afford to do anything we wanted, and
  • To turn every discussion about future budgeting into a referendum on past budgeting — and I know you, Richmond, I know you have a project or expenditure on the tip of your tongue that you want to fume about right this second — on the premise that if we just hadn’t spent some money on whatever that thing was, we would be able to afford whatever the thing was we want to do now.

You’ve gotta let those go, y’all. Nobody is going to find a way to trim 20%, or even 10%, from the city’s budget without completely crippling even the most basic public services, and we can’t take back money that’s already been spent to put towards something else.

Focus on what’s real and what’s right now. Richmonders want their government to spend more money on schools like Henrico, but Richmond’s government doesn’t bring in as much revenue per person, and its debt capacity for capital projects is tapped out.

Sometimes, it’s just this obvious: we can’t afford to do what we want because we just don’t have enough money.