After the release of the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors, Quadrant Smart sits down with Katherine Levine Einstein, of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities, and one of the principal investigators of this survey. Associate Prof. Einstein explains the findings of the survey, how schools face the biggest impacts of Covid-19 through cuts and funding, and how transport faces a pivotal shift in the accessibility and necessity of travel.
The survey asked 130 mayors in the US a mixture of open and closed questions surrounding the outlook of their cities post-pandemic. It focused on education, transport and the distribution of local funding.
“The Menino Survey of Mayors is in its 7th year. I’m one of the principal investigators of this survey, along with my Boston University colleagues Max Palmer and David Glick” explained Prof. Einstein.
“Every year, we ask a nationally representative set of mayors a series of questions about their key policy priorities and how they’re adjusting to challenges of the day. This year, we were really interested in hearing among other things mayors’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how they thought it was reshaping their cities.”
Increased Pressure on Education
Prof. Einstein outlined that education was a consistent issue for Mayors. The survey found that 45% of Mayors are expected to make financial cuts to education. In contrast, this is 18% higher than the expected cuts to the police service and 20% more than bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure.
The pandemic has just been absolutely disastrous for school finances and the schooling of our most vulnerable children
“The places where they’re particularly concerned are schools. They’re locally funded in the United States and desperately underfunded just at baseline. The pandemic has just been absolutely disastrous for school finances and the schooling of our most vulnerable children” Prof. Einstein told Quadrant Smart.
Around 40% of school funding comes from local governments in the US and Prof. Einstein expressed this as a “huge problem if local governments don’t have money.” She went on to explain “I think it’s really similar to the UK in how catastrophic it is in exacerbating disparities.”
As is true in the UK, one of the biggest issues surrounding the closure of schools across the country is associated with access to education. The digital divide has seen children from the poorest families fall behind their peers who have access to laptops and Wi-Fi since the closure of schools.
Prof. Einstein encapsulated how this is an international issue as this is amplified in the US. She said: “It’s really important to note that when some children are sent home, there are some children with access to technology, to parents who can provide lots of enrichment, and there are others who don’t have that access.”
She went on to state: “The second inequality we’re seeing in the US is which schools have reopened. During the pandemic, at least in some places, there’s been a trend where the urban districts that tend to serve the most vulnerable populations have stayed fully remote.
“We’re in this very ugly scenario where our most vulnerable students are the ones being forced to stay home where they don’t have resources, and the more privileged students can get back into the classrooms to learn.”
This issue does not just have short term implications. With some children falling drastically behind their classmates due to the digital divide, the chances of them being able to catch up could be hampered if the findings of education funding in this survey are implemented into policy. This is feared to cause a generational long divide post-pandemic.
Mass Transit on the Tipping Point
Despite education issues dominating the survey, there was a large focus on mass transit and transport more generally. The survey shows that 90% of Mayors expect people to work remotely more frequently in the future and expects those that do travel to work will be more likely to walk or bike.
This may have a knock-on effect on mass transit, which Mayors have predicted. They anticipate that nearly 40% of people in their cities will use public transport less frequently. Despite this though, another 40% expect the use of public transport to stay the same. This split is interesting as it tips the future of mass transit on the balance.
Prof. Einstein takes a more pessimistic approach to the future of mass transit. “I’m sure this is the same as the UK where the ridership on these systems has been way down during the pandemic as people commute less,” she said. “When they do commute, they don’t necessarily want to be near other people.”
When they do commute, they don’t necessarily want to be near other people.
Naturally, Prof. Einstein explains, “in response to that declining ridership which funds so much of the transit in the US, there’s been a lot of talk about cutbacks to the service. This creates a vicious cycle where mass transit becomes less reliable, meaning fewer people take it, and it becomes even less well funded and so forth. Those are areas of big concern.”
Despite the two major issues in the survey, there were some positives to arise. Mayors overwhelmingly felt like their cities will be transformed positively post-Covid. 48% explained they feel there will be the opportunity for their city to be transformed compared to 14% feeling their city will be threatened.
The environmental implications of people ditching their cars and starting to walk and cycle to work will only bring positive change, especially in densely populated and large cities.