Andi Egbert, Minnesota Compass
Over the past year, Compass staff members have worked on a variety of related indicator projects to help organizations and foundations identify and compile the best data to monitor progress toward their goals. Andi Egbert worked with the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative as they developed their Central Corridor Tracker, a set of 13 indicators designed to understand the transformation that light rail will bring to an 11-mile stretch of University Avenue and nearby neighborhoods. She relates how knowledge from Compass kept that project “on track” and what’s “down the line.”
You probably could not find an 11-mile stretch anywhere in Minnesota that has more diversity – in residents, incomes, languages, cultures, or the mix of businesses – and all of these residents and businesses will feel the effects of the coming light rail line. Some of the poorest residents of the state, many with little to no English skills, live along the route. But the Corridor also connects the bustling epicenters of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where many of the area's most highly-skilled professional and technical employees head to work each day, and countless city- and suburban-dwellers go to play outside of work. About 42% of all the business addresses in Minneapolis-St. Paul are located in the Central Corridor, along with 15% of all the residential addresses.
One of the indicators was an interesting hybrid of data elements similar to what is found on Compass. For example, Compass has prepared data about the cost burden resulting from housing costs and how much transportation costs account for in a typical household budget. However, for this analysis, we examined housing and transportation costs together as a percent of income, based upon the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index. The general rule is that these two expenses shouldn’t exceed 45 percent of household income, or they will crowd out other basic needs. We found that an average household earning median income and living in the Central Corridor has housing and transportation costs well below that threshold. We anticipate that transportation costs will fall over time once the trains are running, but will be watching to see what happens to the housing cost component as well.
It was also fascinating to examine where the low- and moderate-income residents of the Central Corridor work, and how many of them they could reach their actual current jobs using transit (bus and/or light rail once running) within 45 minutes’ time. We did so to see if public transportation was a good option for commuters, especially those with lower incomes. Over time, we will be watching whether the light rail drives peoples’ choices about where they live and work.
Finally we conducted a survey with 51 key stakeholders representing businesses of varying sizes, all levels of government, community organizations and various cultural communities. This allowed us to understand perceptions around collaboration and communication – something key to a complex project like this that touches so many lives.
In addition to overall analysis, we examined the Corridor in 3 bands – the west segment (downtown Minneapolis to about Highway 280), middle segment, and east segment (roughly Dale Street to downtown St. Paul).
The west segment, which includes the Minneapolis business hub and the University of Minnesota, is much more densely populated, both with businesses and people, but has the fewest people of Color as a percentage. It is home to the most residents whose adjusted gross incomes top $100,000 annually (2007 data). It also has the highest “Walk Score,” meaning residents are most likely to find close, walkable access to a mix of amenities.
The middle segment is unique in that the most common industry is “health care and social assistance,” likely including many nonprofit organizations. It is also home to the greatest number of low- and moderate-income workers, but compared to the other two segments, they are least like to reach their workplaces within 45 minutes using only transit.
In the east segment, populations of color (mostly Asian, Black and Hispanic residents) are much more common, especially on the north side of University Avenue and north of downtown St. Paul. This small area of the Corridor has been deeply imprinted by immigration, perhaps more than any other cluster of neighborhoods in all of Minnesota. One in 4 residents is an immigrant born outside of the U.S. (often hailing from Africa or Southeast Asia). It is also the poorest segment, and amenities within walking distance are the least common.
It’s always a fascinating and creative journey for us to start from a set of lofty goals and then try to find the best indicators to fit those goals. It’s a bit like finding the right clothes to fit the person, so that as circumstances on the ground move and change, the indicator moves along well, too. Our familiarity with indicators helps to inform us about what data are out there, and which might best suit the purpose, given the tradeoffs between timeliness, precision, and geographic alignment. Groups who select indicators already on Compass have the benefit of a built-in set of benchmarks that allows them to see how their area of interest compares to other communities, regions, and the state as a whole.
Yes, it’s always exciting to zoom in so closely on an area and consider the lives therein, especially one quite literally in the backyard of Wilder Center. That was a powerful reminder that these data relate to real people in our community going about their lives – from small business owners fearful about revenue losses to residents benefiting from the new jobs construction has brought.
Of course, small geographies raise many data challenges too, particularly with survey data because the error margins can be too large to tell us anything meaningful.
Compass currently has data about the nation, 50 states, 7 regions, 87 counties, 52 cities and 300-plus school districts. But we currently don’t provide information about neighborhoods, and have been asked repeatedly why we don’t offer “more granular” data. However, thanks to generous funding from the McKnight Foundation and the insights and direction from a group of community advisors, we are now preparing neighborhood profiles for Minneapolis and St. Paul using the most recent neighborhood data. Look for them on Compass by the end of summer.
Andi is a research associate on the Minnesota Compass project. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.