Will Cities Pay Federal Workers During the Shutdown?

The thirty-day mark of the government shutdown has come and gone, meaning some 420,000 federal employees have done a month’s work for free. Legally barred from striking—and driven, perhaps, by a higher sense of duty—FBI, secret service, and Transportation Security Administration agents; food inspectors; and air traffic controllers clocked hours to keep vital parts of the government running. This week, more workers previously deemed “nonessential” have been called back: IRS agents will return to work to deal with the looming tax season, and the Farm Service Agency will staff its office a few days a week to process loans.

The federal government won’t pay their salaries until President Donald Trump calls off the shutdown, something he claims will happen only after the Democrats agree to broker a $5 billion-plus deal to build a border wall. In the interim, local services have been stunted, and families are struggling. Now, in an effort to keep federal employees afloat (and to keep things running), some cities and states are weighing whether to start covering paychecks themselves.

On Wednesday night, San Jose’s city council was the first to approve a plan to offer no-interest loans to 500 federal airport workers at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. “We know for many customs and TSA employees who are living paycheck to paycheck, the shutdown has forced them into the decision of going to work, unable to pay rent, or driving for Uber,” Mayor Sam Liccardo told CityLab. “That’s a choice no one should be subjected to.”

And, as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport contends with the longest lines in the country—and prepares to host the Superbowl—Atlanta city council member Michael Bond also proposed giving loans to its TSA workers. Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms ultimately decided not to pursue the plan. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

The heightened focus on San Jose’s airport workers, as opposed to the thousands of others affected, is a matter of public safety, says Pam Foley, a San Jose city council member who supported the plan. “We want to make sure our airports are running efficiently, effectively, and safely for all passengers,” she said. It’s also a shrewd economic move, says Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank: “Cities really depend on movement of people,” he said. “San Jose is in the middle of Silicon Valley, and … there’s a lot of business that needs to get done.” To do it, they need to fly. In Liccardo’s policy memo, he alluded to this, too: “We must do so to … protect our regional economy.”

The TSA absence rates at Norman Y. Mineta have reached 14 percent from the typical 3 percent; nationally, the TSA reported an absentee rate of 6.1 percent on Wednesday, elevated from an average of 5 percent. On Wednesday, TSA leaders told the Washington Post that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.”

But other compensation programs for federal workers, regardless of position, have been announced, too. From Sacramento’s airport Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would offer unemployment insurance “to those hurt by the shutdown” across the state, though the Department of Labor says federal workers are technically ineligible for the benefit; and other Democratic governors from Washington, Michigan, and New York called on the Labor Department to issue clearer guidelines as to whether they could, too. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont is partnering with Webster Bank to offer interest-free loans to the 1,500 to 2,500 federal workers in Connecticut, “including air traffic controllers and certain Environmental Protection Agency staff,” the Connecticut Mirror reported.

House Democrats have also introduced legislation that would give out short-term loans to any federal employee, offering $6,000 interest-free from the Treasury Department. But through Congress, the path to passage could be long.

While federal workers have been promised back pay, even one lost paycheck could put families behind on mortgages, or hospital bills, or loan payments, or child care costs. “We’re trying to make this as easy on them as possible,” said a spokesperson for Foley. “Once you miss a paycheck, it’s a pretty steep climb to get back to where you’re level again.”

San Jose’s coverage plan takes the form of a short-term loan program because cities cannot directly pay federal workers to do federal work. The estimated $2.5 million program will be paid for out of the airport’s $50 million reserve fund, and will last up to three months. A more detailed plan will be solidified in the coming days, but Foley’s office said workers would be able to apply for loans up to the amount they typically make in wages. And when (and if) employees are given their retroactive paychecks from the federal government, they’ll be able to pay the airport back.

While Atlanta’s plan to pay their TSA agents is not moving forward, the city is strategizing on how to help all federal workers save in other ways, like suspending their water bills. “We certainly wouldn’t want to find ourselves disconnecting service to a federal employee,” Atlanta city council president Felicia Moore said. This strategy is being mirrored across the country: After Clovis, California, announced it would be offering interest-free loans to cover federal workers’ utility bills, the neighboring city of Fresno reminded federal workers that they, too, were eligible for full utility coverage under an existing plan for residents experiencing hardship. Jacksonville, Florida’s city hall is offering $500,000 in small grants to federal workers, though only four families have yet received them.

The path to getting all federal workers more consistent paychecks, though, rests in Washington. “We thank San Jose for stepping up to the plate, but unfortunately for the tens of thousands of TSA officers outside of San Jose, this issue will not be going away anytime soon,” the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, David Cox, told the Mercury News. “Our members live paycheck to paycheck and this partial government shutdown is crushing them financially.”

There’s significant disagreement about what, if anything, would actually facilitate a shutdown deal. But airports have been identified as one pressure point: Because they’re so crucial to economies and individuals, those who staff them may be uniquely positioned to leverage the federal government to end the shutdown, some lawmakers have observed. If more TSA sick-outs are staged, or if screeners were to plan a walk-out on a mass scale, the impact on airports could inspire mass revolt.

But Wilkinson says it’s not on cities to precipitate chaos in the hopes that the federal government takes action. “The argument that airports need to become a huge clusterfuck before the shutdown ends is kind of silly,” he said. “There’s a billion better ways to get the shutdown to end.”

And, says California Labor Federation spokesperson Steve Smith, though the political pressure of a total airport walkout “would be enormous … with a president who is so unpredictable, that’s a huge risk.” Agents are not only worried about getting paychecks in the short-term, but about their long-term job security.

Still, Wilkinson says that compensating workers, while arguably both humane and in cities’ immediate interests, is not the best political tactic for reopening the government. “Basically, all the stuff that really critically matters happens anyway,” he said. “And that insulates people from the pain which takes away the political pressure to come to a solution.” Sam Berger, a senior advisor at the Center For American Progress, observed this dynamic during the 2013 government shutdown, too. “During the 2013 shutdown, our biggest concern was making sure people didn’t show up to work.” And that wasn’t easy: “These are mission-driven people, and we’re asking them to abandon their mission.” With the promise of backpay, and, indeed, the promise of interim pay, the thinking goes, workers have less of an incentive to take bold action.

That convoluted reasoning could be part of the reason more cities aren’t following San Jose’s lead yet, says Wilkinson. Others may fear setting a dangerous precedent, creating the expectation that local governments will, and can, do the federal government’s job if forced to. Not all of them have an airport with a $50 million fund lying around—and many have already been stretched thin, attempting to cover other shutdown-related costs.

Or, cities are just making yet another political calculation: That the act of offering workers money is an aggressive political statement. “Clearly Trump is at war with liberal cities in some sense, and their ability to assert their autonomy and what sovereignty they have is a way of standing up for themselves,” said Wilkinson. San Jose’s Liccardo might benefit from taking such a bold stance. Atlanta, however, might have been more wary of doing so, as a liberal city in a republican state.

For workers going hungry now, though, political strategy is far from relevant. “I think it’s important for everybody to remember these are real people with real families,” said Smith. “We need to provide whatever support we can to these workers who have the burden of this incredible hardship for no other reason that political expediency of the president and the Republican Senate.”

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CityLab Daily: How Populism Takes Hold in Superstar Cities

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What We’re Following

Now That’s What I Call Populism, Vol. 2010: America’s current image of populism tends to graft on to the urban-rural divide. In that image, a movement fueled by the anger of the white working class—comprising the base that of support that sent Donald Trump to the White House—looked like an outgrowth of left-behind places. But populist movements can indeed take hold in diverse, progressive, urban areas. For proof, just look to Toronto.

A new study revisits the tenure of former mayor Rob Ford, digging in to the ways he turned key social issues—particularly toward feminism and the LGBTQ community—into a divide that pitted the city’s outlying areas against the “downtown elites.” It goes to show that the politics of fear and perceived economic and cultural threats can carry the day in an urban setting, too. In Trump’s case, it’s immigration, but in Toronto, it was fears of gentrification and the erosion of “traditional values” that gave Ford a target as he campaigned for office. CityLab’s Richard Florida writes on why “superstar cities are not immune to a brand of urban populism.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Los Angeles Passed a Historic Transit Tax. Why Isn’t It Working?

Voters who supported L.A.’s Measure M may like transit, but they don’t seem to want a city that’s built for it.

Laura Bliss

Remembering Atlantic City’s Black History and Segregated Past

After the Great Migration, black residents in the Northside neighborhood duplicated businesses that excluded African Americans, creating a thriving environment.

Carson Bear

The ‘Marie Kondo Effect’ Comes at a Weird Time for Thrift Stores

Netflix’s hit show has everyone tidying up, but that’s not the only reason second-hand stores are being flooded with donations.

Sarah Holder

Paris Will Make Public Transportation Free For Kids

In a plan to help families and reduce car usage, anyone under 11 years old will be able to ride metro and buses for free, as will people with disabilities under 20.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Mapping the Chicago Neighborhoods Most at Risk From Pollution

New research on municipal pollution may help organizers push for more equitable policy.

Sophie Yeo


Netflix and Burn

As we head into a long weekend, many of you might have the same plans we do: watching one of the two new documentaries on the ill-fated Fyre Festival of 2017. No matter if you pick Netflix’s Fyre or Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, either telling of the story of a wannabe-Woodstock on an island will pin some blame on Millennial culture. But the concert’s disastrous failure was also an exercise in ignoring the basics of urban planning, as CityLab wrote in 2017:

The logistical challenges involved in housing, feeding, and attending to the bodily functions of hundreds of thousands of festival-goers are often beyond the capacities of those who organize these events. These are, after all, essentially pop-up cities, often sited in impractically remote locations and architected by young visionaries with little feel for such infrastructural necessities as toilets, transportation, and tents. Fyre co-founder McFarland appears now to understand this, somewhat belatedly. “We were a little bit ambitious,” he told Rolling Stone. “There wasn’t water or sewage. It was almost like we tried building a city out of nothing.”

Yeah—almost! Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in festival-debacle history offer would-be organizers lessons that city leaders know all too well.

Take notes, Woodstock 50! And read: What Urban Planners Could Have Taught the Fyre Festival


What We’re Reading

Portland’s land rush for new Opportunity Zone tax breaks (Bloomberg)

Taxis in New York brace for battle over a $2.50 surcharge (New York Times)

Cities are tucking climate change fixes into new laws (Wired)

D.C.’s Metro says it’s losing $400,000 a day during the shutdown (Washington Post)

Biking is rising fast during the Seattle Viaduct closure (Streetsblog)


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Paris Will Make Public Transportation Free for Kids

When Parisian elementary school students head back to class after the summer break this year, life may well turn out to be a little cheaper for them and their families.

Starting in September, Paris is making all public transit free for people under 11, including non-nationals. Preteens aren’t the only ones getting a bonus, either. All people with disabilities will get free public transit until the age of 20, while high school students between the ages of 14 and 18 will be entitled to a 50 percent tariff reduction. To make transit access for this group even easier, any 14- to 18-year-olds who buy a travel pass will also get a free bikeshare account as well.

The plans, which apply across the Greater Paris region and cost an estimated €15 million a year, are part of a staggered plan to make things cheaper for people with mobility challenges. Already last spring, the region introduced a (means-tested) scheme by which adults with disabilities and all people over 65 got a free annual travel pass if they were on a low-to-medium income. This new plan to extend cheap or no fares toward younger people should make the public transit system more widely accessible and prove to be a happy cost-saver for families.

It should do more than that, too. As more families leave their cars at home to capitalize on the low- or no-fare policies for their children, it could push a modal shift that would reduce pollution and congestion on Paris’s roads. Furthermore, the plans should help to consolidate public opinion behind the city’s long, fairly uncompromising battle to whittle away the urban space granted to cars.

This battle has been going on in Paris for some time. As CityLab has reported, the city’s roads are steadily being pedestrianized or seeing their number of car lanes reduced, and the most polluting cars are experiencing a staggered ban from the inner city. The chief critics of these plans have claimed that they are intended for the benefit of wealthier people in the city core at the expense of suburbanites, who often have lower incomes and need cars to make their commutes feasible.

By making public transit ever more accessible and affordable, the Paris region serves to provide its own argument against this, and also open a door for the few who are finding running a car that little bit harder. There are already some murmurs of a close-to-total ban on cars in Paris’s historic center coming in the near future, and ensuring that public transit access to the area is easy for everyone seems a sure-fire way of winning public support. For the time being, however, Paris City Hall has ruled out going down the same route as Luxembourg and making public transit free for all.

This is surely good news for any Parisian young people hoping to save some cash, especially in the inner city, where daily journeys such as the school run are quite easy to make—and commonly made—via public transit.

Some families may nonetheless find their savings under threat from a different quarter. According to the teens interviewed in this article, many due to receive a cost reduction are hoping the savings that parents make will be redirected to another vital outlay: their pocket money.

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The ‘Marie Kondo Effect’ Comes at a Weird Time for Thrift Stores

Community Thrift is a second-hand staple in San Francisco, a spot consistently mobbed with shoppers and donators alike, employees say. For the past week, though, the mob of people armed with donation bags has grown. By a lot.

Another weird thing has been happening, says Susan, who works the front desk: People have been thanking their objects before giving them away. She rolls her eyes.

“People are influenced easily,” says her colleague, Rene.

The influencer here, of course, is Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant-turned-author whose book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, re-popularized the idea that the first step to achieving inner peace is to give away the useless piles of things you’ve accumulated over the years. (Per the KonMari method, you’re first encouraged to hold the stuff, think about the stuff, and thank the stuff for its service). The guru’s new Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, has drawn people further down the anti-hoarding rabbit hole: Binge all eight episodes and you might find yourself purging your earthly belongings.

That’s the sell, at least. And, according to the benefactors of all that tidying, it seems to be working.

Community Thrift. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

At the downtown Salvation Army, a few blocks down Valencia Street from Community Thrift, I met donations processor Richard Washburn, who said he’d packed two and a half trucks full of stuff (clothing, house-ware, coffee pots) in four hours—something LeAnn Trimmer, the office’s business administrator, says usually takes two days. At a San Francisco branch of the national thrift chain Buffalo Exchange, five people waited in line to donate bags that were stuffed or overflowing. It was a rainy Monday afternoon, usually a shopping lull.

“Clothing has really inundated us right now,” said Clint Smith, who’s worked at Community Thrift for 17 years. He slouched on a stack of wood cabinets, wearing a vintage-looking Giants jacket. “We’re treading water trying to get rid of everything.” Salvation Army’s Trimmer agreed. “Usually, donations dwindle after the first of the year,” she said. But December has come and gone, and the donations rate hasn’t slowed down the way it usually does. “The piles are still high.”

Across the country, things are trending similarly. At Beacon’s Closet, New York City’s famed used-clothes emporium, a clerk told in November. “And not valuing an item of clothing when it comes to the end of its life.”

That’s where Marie Kondo comes in. She reminds people to acknowledge that inherent value; and at least starts to challenge them to think more about where its second life should begin. Partly, this is the great irony of her theory of austerity: Decluttering is what happens after you’ve accumulated mountains of goods, and it’s most freeing when you know you can replace whatever, if you really need or want to. It’s as much a product of the fast-fashion moment as a reaction to it.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in business over the last few years, both as a result of the KonMari method, which has brought decluttering to the forefront, as well as the increased popularity of secondhand fashion,” a Buffalo Exchange spokesperson said. The Autism Awareness thrift store in Tampa, Florida, which employs autistic workers and equips them with vocational training, even has a sign out front encouraging the connection: “Donate to us what doesn’t spark joy for you. It may be for someone else.”

But treasuring objects before you trash them—and avoiding “trashing” them in the typical sense of the word—is part of the beauty of KonMari-ing, Trimmer says. “I think it’s brilliant.” The commercial venues selling hand-me-downs, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, are supporting working-class and low-income shoppers. And if too many piles accumulate, clothing bales are sold to companies to recycle or re-use in bulk. Community Thrift is a non-profit originally created to address the AIDS crisis, and it now partners with 200 local charities. When you buy clothes, you can pick which charity to disburse funds to.

“The Salvation Army was recycling before it was cool,” says Trimmer. It certainly helps that a Netflix show is making it even cooler.

Community Thrift’s cup overfloweth. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

Still, there’s at least one group of people immune to Kondo’s magic—not because they don’t believe in the gospel of thrift, but because they’re indoctrinated already.

“After working here for a long time, you learn: Quality over quantity,” Smith said as he surveyed shoppers fondling used couches. “You don’t want to end up having a hoarder scenario.”

Owen, another Community Thrift employee, said he tried to watch Tidying Up, but couldn’t stick with it.

“It reminded me too much of work.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the name of Beacon’s Closet.

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Remembering the Dining Fad of ‘Pizza and Pipes’

By 5 p.m., in a commercial section of Mesa, Arizona, the line to order pizza stretches past the arcade, out the door, and onto the sidewalk. But the main attraction isn’t the pepperoni pie: It’s a giant pipe organ, played by a professional, with an accompanying light show during your meal.

An organist performing at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa. (Organ Stop Pizza)

Believe it or not, this used to be a fairly common dining experience, offered by more than 100 such establishments in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. It was Ye Olde Pizza Joynt in Hayward, California, that pioneered the “pizza-and-pipes” restaurant in the 1960s. (If this sounds a bit like Chuck E. Cheese’s, you’re not wrong: Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s, told The Atlantic in 2013 that his inspiration for every parent’s nightmare was a pizza-and-pipes restaurant.)

Today, Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa is one of the few restaurants left. The restaurant’s organ, the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” lives up to its name—it’s the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world. The Wurlitzer sits atop an 8,000-pound console, which controls the pipework, percussion, and lighting via 1,074 individual keys, buttons, and switches. It’s even bigger than the organ at Radio City Music Hall, although that is a classical organ (the type you’d find in a church) and the Wurlitzer is a theater organ. And yes, there is a distinction.

The “Mighty Wurlitzer,” the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world. (Organ Stop Pizza)

“It’s kind of like comparing a 747 to a Cessna type of thing: They’re just different,” said Jack Barz, the co-owner of Organ Stop. “There are so many more things you have to do with a theater organ because of all the different sound effects and instruments—[there are] actual real, live instruments that it controls.”

Theater organs, or “unit orchestras,” were designed in the era of silent films as a cost-saving measure to include the variety of sounds and instruments required by the score, so that one musician could be paid instead of many. Once talkies began, many of the organs fell out of use and sat unplayed for decades. Organ Stop’s Wurlitzer was built in 1927 for the Denver Theater; it’s currently insured for $5 million.

The first location of Organ Stop opened in Phoenix in 1972. After a few successful years, original owner Bill Brown opened another location in Mesa in 1975, followed by a third in Tucson in 1977. The Tucson and Phoenix restaurants have since closed down. Brown sold the Mesa restaurant to two of the managers and one of the organists in 1984. A few months later, in 1985, Barz started working there as a dishwasher, before rising through the ranks.

In 1995, the then-owners decided they wanted to open a bigger location in Mesa. So they closed down the original spot, which sat 335 people, and moved to their current location, which has room for more than 700. This wasn’t a simple move: Over a five-month period, each of the nearly 6,000 pipes of the Wurlitzer was moved four miles down the road to the new venue, and the organ was reconstructed.

In the first Mesa restaurant, it was a primarily older crowd of retirees and winter visitors. “For whatever reason, once we moved in here, we’ve really been able to tap into the family market,” Barz said. “So we really bill it more as a multi-generational facility.” Organ Stop attracts visitors from all over the state, some of whom organize bus excursions from places a few hours away, like Tucson, just to come for dinner.

The song selection is as varied as the crowd. Saturday is the most popular day of the week to host birthdays, and there were at least five separate celebrations taking place when I visited. The organist played songs from Moana and Frozen, requested by attendees of a child’s party seated up front. Later, after a spirited rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1902 rag “The Entertainer,” the organist wished another guest a happy 100th birthday.

Despite it being a craze a generation ago, there are only three pizza-and-pipes restaurants left: Organ Stop, Organ Piper Pizza in Greenfield, Wisconsin, and Beggars Pizza in Lansing, Illinois (shown in the video below, from 1984). What happened to the rest of the pizzerias with organs?

According to Barz, many pizza-and-pipes restaurants attempted to expand their menus to include more upscale items like prime rib as a way to increase revenue. It turned out that people truly wanted pizza with their pipes—and after an evening at Organ Stop, you can see why. Diners sit at long communal tables, sharing pizzas and mozzarella sticks, mesmerized by the music and accompanying light show. This isn’t the time or place to concentrate on your food. Not when a massive organ on a rotating elevated platform is playing movie themes.

The 18,000-square-foot Organ Stop was designed around the Wurlitzer, with 46-foot ceilings. “We built it large, and it just happened to be able to accommodate 700 because we wanted the organ to be able to speak,” said Barz. “That’s why it’s so cavernous in here—so that the organ can just really speak and develop a sound.”

Despite packing hundreds of customers in on a regular basis, Barz said he has no plans to expand. The cost and effort required to find another theater organ and build the right space for it would be too much.

Having said that, if you’ve ever wanted to get into the pizza-and-pipes business, you’re in luck. “The restaurant is somewhat, quasi for sale right now,” Barz said. “So if someone has several million dollars that they want to invest in a really cool restaurant, tell them to call us.”

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Los Angeles Passed a Historic Transit Tax. Why Isn’t It Working?

In November 2016, Los Angeles County made history. A whopping 72 percent of voters approved Measure M, a sales tax measure set to generate $120 billion over 40 years to expand rail, rapid bus, and bike networks. With it, the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority promised to “ease traffic congestion” and “transform transportation” across the region.

But that promise is likely to remain unmet, judging by history. Between 1980 and 2016, L.A. passed three major transit sales tax measures and built 110 miles of rail. Yet ridership on L.A.’s transit system has been slipping for years, while the number of miles traveled in private cars is rising. Other American cities that have passed major transit measures are facing the same conundrum.

Which is? Voters might love transit, but that doesn’t mean they plan to ride it. And transit agencies that appeal to voters with pledges to solve traffic woes might be digging themselves into a hole.

Those basic disconnects at the heart of a landmark sales tax measure are the subject of new research by Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. His research is full of wisdom and warnings for other cities keen to replicate L.A.’s superficial success.

Trends in transit ridership, rail ridership, traffic congestion and ballot successes in Los Angeles County, 1980-2016. The brief spike in transit ridership in the 1980s was driven by significant, temporary fare cuts. (Michael Manville/Institute of Transportation Studies, UCLA)

When Measure M hit the ballots, Manville suspected that there’d be divergence between Angelenos’ choices at the ballots and on their commutes. He wanted to find out who actually planned to ride L.A.’s shiny new rail system, now that the money was there to expand it. “What I was trying to get at is, how invested are people in the idea of moving around differently?” he told me.  

So Manville surveyed 1,450 adults online and by phone one week after election day. The questions touched on attitudes towards transit, congestion, and Measure M, along with a host of other policies that could affect transportation in the region. In particular, he wanted to know who respondents imagined would be most affected by the success of the transit measure.

The survey also wove demographic and socioeconomic indicators throughout. Anticipating that the first survey skewed towards white, affluent, and non-immigrant individuals—a slice of the population least likely to ride transit in Los Angeles—Manville followed up a few months later with an shorter survey that intercepted transit users at busy Metro stations.

The results? The outcome of the election itself made clear that L.A. voters want more trains and buses. But there seemed to be little expectation among most voters that they’d necessarily use them, Manville found. Demographically, the average Measure M supporter resembled someone with a very high likelihood of driving: They owned cars, enjoyed free parking at home and work, and had higher incomes. Voters who reported wishing to drive less were no more likely to vote for the transit tax, and nor were people who thought they lived closer to a station.

Instead, the top predictors of whether a voter supported Measure M were their political party and their frustration with congestion. Liberals and especially Democrats were more apt to cast a pro-transit ballot than conservatives and Republicans; the more strongly a respondent identified as a Democrat, the more likely she was to vote for Measure M. This isn’t surprising: The demographics of left-leaning voters more closely align with riders, who generally live in urban areas and fall under a certain income bracket. And the modern GOP’s antipathy toward public transportation is legendary. But in Manville was surprised to find that, in his analysis, “when you control for all of those factors, it’s the partisanship that stands out,” he said.

So party identity strongly swayed voters. Support for the sales tax measure (which was strongly tied to positive feelings about public transit in general) was also driven by the belief that building trains and buses would help address congestion and emissions, just as the campaign promised. Almost 70 percent of Measure M supporters saw solving either of these problems as transit’s main objectives.

In truth, taming traffic isn’t what transit does best—done right, it brings low-cost, efficient mobility to the masses, even when the roads are jammed. But only 20 percent of L.A. voters believed that the point of Measure M was to improve mobility for lower-income Angelenos. That was striking, but not necessarily unexpected, since ads and political rhetoric around the sales tax increase had barely mentioned the benefits to people who currently ride the system.

Moreover, when Manville surveyed folks at train and bus stops, he found a lot of unhappy captives: 70 percent of riders did not own a vehicle to make their trip; 40 percent would have chosen to drive if they could have. This was consistent with Manville’s last piece of headline-grabbing research for UCLA: Part of the reason transit use has been steadily declining in L.A. seems to be that lower-income immigrants—historically, the people who have been L.A.’s transit riders—are buying and driving more cars.

Thus, few Angelenos viewed transit as an amenity that directly benefited them. People voted for Measure M as an expression of their political beliefs, and in support of a broader social good—someone else will use this public service and improve congestion, just not me. There’s nothing wrong with that winning a $120 billion sales tax measure on the basis of that mentality, Manville told me, if the goal is to achieve political victory. But L.A.’s transportation presiders are also hoping people will ride the trains they’re spending billions to build. That’s where the problem lies: “The campaign strategy that delivers funding doesn’t offer an obvious path to the transportation outcomes you actually want,” Manville said. “You have the money, but it’s not clear how that gets you more ridership.”

Or even less congestion. Measure M’s central promise to reduce L.A.’s infamous traffic delays contained a contradiction, Manville notes. “People who vote for transit because they believe it reduces congestion are often voting for transit because they want driving to be easier,” he writes in the analysis. “But transit works best in places where driving is harder.”

And, in a final set of survey questions, Manville found that Measure M proponents weren’t nearly as keen on the types of land-use and structural changes that could actually make driving less appealing in L.A., such as more paid parking, highway tolls, increased housing density, and narrower streets for bus and bike lanes. L.A. voters like the idea of transit, but they don’t seem to want a city that’s actually built for it.

The lesson should be a sobering one for transit agencies around the country, many of which have banged the gong of traffic relief to rally car-driving voters for transit plans. (Denver comes to mind.) This tactic may be politically expedient, but it fails to map a clear path towards increased ridership. On the other hand, Manville said, the recipe for transit success is not mysterious: Build good service, and make driving hard. The second part is politically difficult. But failing to rise to the challenge is limiting L.A.’s potential as a real transit town.

Transportation agencies should learn from L.A. and pick their fights now to take the necessary steps to price driving and make room for buses and bikes, Manville told me. In sprawling, congested, liberal-leaning cities, he said, “getting voters to the polls is the easy part.” Breaking old habits: much tougher.

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CityLab Daily: The Shutdown Is Screwing With Cities

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

What We’re Following

Tick tock: Mayors are watching the clock as the federal government’s partial shutdown reaches its fourth week. The consequences may be less visible beyond D.C., where the majority of the 800,000 furloughed federal employees work, but the impacts will start to trickle down to cities in far more dramatic ways over time. Here are a few examples of what that might look like as federal funds freeze up:

  • Food assistance: The USDA will continue to provide food to local food banks, but furloughed workers could mean a dramatic uptick in customers, especially if SNAP loses funding. The department could also soon run out of funds to store and transport that food.
  • Opioid services: Cities could have to foot the bill for keeping federally funded anti-opioid centers open if the shutdown extends beyond 30 days. Grants that support victims of violence and drug abuse also became inaccessible when the shutdown started; the longer it drags on, the greater the risk that nonprofits will run out of money while waiting for federal reimbursements.

  • Late rent: Renters who receive Section 8 assistance have already had monthly payments end, putting millions at risk of eviction. But if the shutdown continues through February, more funds to local housing authorities that help low-income renters find housing could dry up.

That’s just a portion of the mounting pressures cities face during the shutdown. Karim Doumar takes a deeper look today on CityLab: The Shutdown is Screwing With Cities and Mayors Are Not Pleased

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

This Isn’t a Border Wall: It’s a Monument to White Supremacy

Like Confederate monuments, President Trump’s vision of a massive wall along the Mexican border is about propaganda and racial oppression, not national security.

Bryan Lee Jr.

The Verdict’s Still Out on Battery-Electric Buses

As cities experiment with battery-powered electric buses, some are finding they struggle in inclement weather or on hills, or that they don’t have enough range.

Alon Levy

Alabama Can’t Make Birmingham Display Confederate Monument

The legal decision was monumental both for its dismantling of a pro-Confederate law and the implications for cities’ rights in the face of states’ rights.

Brentin Mock

How Social Media Will Save Historic Lighthouses

While other attractions feel cursed by Instagram hoards, the United States Lighthouse Society is embracing social media.

Daisy Alioto

Why Do Cities Discount Public Input in Expanding Bikeshare Systems?

Under 10 percent of new Citi Bike and Divvy bike docks are sited where residents suggested using interactive online maps, a new study shows. But that doesn’t mean city officials weren’t listening.

Greg Griffin and Junfeng Jiao


Who Can Ditch the Car?

(Institute of Transportation & Development Policy)

Getting people to commute without a car isn’t a sprint or a marathon, it’s a Rubik’s cube. That becomes clearer when you look at commuting data that goes beyond simply how popular different types of transportation are. The chart above, included in a new report from Institute of Transportation & Development Policy, shows what percent of jobs, people, and low-income households are located near frequent transit in various cities. The green dots, meanwhile, show the share of people who commuted by bus, train, bike, or walking in 2015. That ranges a lot—from 49 percent of people in Boston to only 4 percent in Nashville. It’s this discrepancy, ITDP argues, that holds the key to solving the urban commuting puzzle.


What We’re Reading

Verdict expected today for Chicago cops charged in cover-up of Laquan McDonald shooting (NPR)

What makes a vegan-friendly city? (The Guardian)

How to think about the costs of climate change (New York Times)

Student debt hinders Millennial homeownership (Curbed)

Microsoft pledges $500 million to tackle housing crisis in Seattle, Eastside (Seattle Times)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Ford Nation: How Populism Took Hold in Toronto

Conjure up the current image of a populist politician: someone like Donald Trump may come to mind, a politician who feeds into the anger of the white working class in left-behind places. But large, superstar cities are not immune to a brand of urban populism.

Before Trump, the late Rob Ford rose to power in Toronto, arguably North America’s most diverse city, filled with tall towers, dense walkable streets, and a vibrant knowledge economy, with a long history of progressivism on social issues. Rob Ford’s rise was not just a one-off event: It was part of a much broader populist movement dubbed “Ford Nation” that ended up propelling his brother Doug to the much more powerful post of premier of Ontario.

The rise of Ford’s brand of populism in Toronto is the subject of a new study by my University of Toronto colleagues Daniel Silver and Fernando Calderón-Figueroa, and Zack Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. Their detailed research is a warning to all of us, especially to left-leaning urbanists, that populism can grow in superstar cities. So exactly how did Ford’s populism emerge in Toronto and Ontario, the largest city and largest province of a country whose national political scene is often noted as virtually immune to populism?

For one, Rob Ford did not fit the conventional image of a populist. We think of populists like Trump as being anti-immigrant, but Ford embraced, and was embraced by, a wide band of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. In addition to the white working class, his base of support drew heavily from recent immigrant groups like Arab Muslims, South Asian Hindus, Caribbean Evangelicals and others. The study notes that more than half (57 percent) of Ford supporters said more should be done to protect the rights of racial minorities, a striking departure from the coalition that often supports Trump and other populists in Europe. That said, Ford’s appeal was still rooted in more traditional values regarding family, gender, sexuality, and religion, similar to many conventional populists. As the study points out, “Ford supporters held the LGBTQ community in much lower regard than immigrants and non-whites, and rated feminists lowest of all.”

Whereas American and European populism is premised on geographic divides between thriving cities and left-behind rural places, Ford’s populism was based on divides within a successful city—in the economic and cultural differences between the downtown core and outlying areas. Take a look at the map below, which compares the large difference in attitudes on key social issues separating the more progressive city center from the outlying areas that formed the base of Ford’s support.

“These changes were focalized in the downtown core,” the study argues. “The downtown is home to the Gay Village and to numerous university professors who proudly and forcefully advocate for feminism and LGBTQ rights. Ford’s supporters could present themselves as defending traditional religious and family values against secularism and feminism imposed from above. The concentration of secular and feminist attitudes in the downtown core further amplified the sense that defenses against them must be directed against not only individuals but also the places they inhabit.”

Average scores of Ford supporters’ favorability toward groups per ward

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. Scores of Ford supporters only. (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

The study makes the important point that populist movements are a political response to economic and cultural threats. Populists build their support by promising to protect their followers from these perceived fears. In Toronto, the threat was not immigration, but the threat of urban gentrification and the so-called “urban elite”—everyone from bankers and government officials, to young urbanites and the creative class—and the erosion of traditional values for gender, sexuality, family, and religion.

These threats were a product of Toronto’s long-running post-industrial economic transformation and deepening class divides, originally identified by my other University of Toronto colleague David Hulchanskiseparating the prosperous downtown core of knowledge industries from the less-affluent, working-class, mostly immigrant neighborhoods at the city’s fringes. The study quotes a letter to the editor of one of Toronto’s leading newspapers by a Ford supporter:

Ford appealed to the residents of the city’s outlying areas in several ways. He was against big government and wanton public spending, going after the public sector “gravy train” and advocating for lower taxes. He was someone who would stand up for “the people” and against the “downtown elites.” Nontrivially, he famously returned all of his phone calls, something which created a tight bond with his constituents and supporters. As the study points out, Ford supporters rated the importance of local politicians that “really care about people” much more highly than non-Ford supporters did. Ford framed his rhetoric in terms of these overlapping geographic and class divides, lashing out against bike lanes and the so-called “war on the car.”

For all those proponents of regional government out there, let this be a cautionary tale. Ford’s support came from neighborhoods that were originally parts of separate jurisdictions, but were later amalgamated into the city in the late 1990s by a conservative provincial government aiming to dilute the power of the original city’s liberalism.

Attitudes toward media treatment of Rob Ford in the 2014 Toronto election

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

Ford’s struggles with his weight, with alcohol, and infamously with drugs, did little to undermine his support. In fact, they made him appear even more authentic to his supporters, creating a deep and lasting emotional bond. As you can see in the chart above, Ford voters were much more likely to think the media gave him a much harder time than he deserved. A similar pattern comes through in the map below which shows how outlying areas were much more likely to say that the media has given Ford a difficult time than the more liberal downtown.

Average scores for views of media treatment of Rob Ford in the 2014 Toronto election by ward

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. Higher scores indicate a greater share of residents who agree that “the media has given Rob Ford a harder time than he deserves.” (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

Indeed, Ford’s bond with his supporters was so strong that it transcended him. It was, and still is, embodied in a broader movement dubbed “Ford Nation.” When Rob Ford withdrew from the 2014 mayor’s race due to his battle with the cancer that ultimately took his life, Ford Nation transferred its dedicated support to his brother, Doug. And even though Doug Ford lost that race to John Tory, the city’s current mayor now serving his second term, he ultimately led the Conservative party to victory in the Province of Ontario, where he now serves as premier, a position far more powerful than mayor of Toronto and considerably more powerful than governors of large U.S. states. It’s as if a populist had become mayor of Los Angeles and his sibling went on to become governor of California.

Ford is not the first nor only populist to rise to power in a big city. As the study notes, left-wing populists have risen to power in Mexico City, Bogota, and Manila. In Europe, Pim Fortuyn built his base of support in Rotterdam before surging onto the national stage; and right-wing populists have been successful in cities in Austria, Spain, and Italy. American cities have not been completely immune to urban populism, either. On the left, the study points out, Dennis Kucinich’s rise as mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s foreshadowed elements of what we now perceive as left-wing populism. And on the right, two New York City mayors—Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani—presaged some of the personal elements of Ford’s populist appeal. And, of course, Trump himself is a New Yorker.

When Rob Ford’s originally rose to power in my adopted hometown of Toronto, I predicted that if he could take power in such a thriving diverse and progressive city, more would likely follow. After reading this study, I am more worried now than ever.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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What Cities Are Getting Wrong About Public Transportation

Each year, the U.S. Census releases an update in “commuting mode shares” in its American Community Survey. This is an annual accounting of the share of people in every U.S. city who bike, walk, or ride public transit to their jobs, as well as drive. Mostly the latter: Nationally, about

Mode share is the result of a puzzle to match where jobs and people are. (ITDP).

In the chart above, you can see the power of density: Philadelphia and Boston benefit from compact city blocks, while Louisville and Charlotte suffer from sprawl. Transit networks in Denver and New Orleans reach plenty of jobs, but could improve by reaching more people; Memphis and Indianapolis, on the other hand, need more jobs located closer to frequent transit. (A spotlight report paired with the indicators gets further into the nitty-gritty for Dallas, Denver, and Nashville.)

Ultimately, the breakdown of the numbers demystifies the tradeoffs being made in service networks that say, a subway map or bus schedule cannot convey alone. It also underscores the importance of frequency, not just access. “If you’re doing well on accessibility indicators, but doing poorly on population near frequent transit, what that likely means is you have transit near people, but that transit must not be frequent,” says Chestnut. “If something leaves like once an hour, that’s not a great commuting option.”

But making progress on these indicators does not necessarily mean having to overhaul your public transit options or build new systems from scratch. Consider Minneapolis and its progress on biking. If you factor in improvements in bike infrastructure, the population living near frequent transit jumps 9 percent, rising from 64 to 73 percent. “We only included protected bike lanes as a way to travel by bike in the transportation network,” says Chestnut. “It goes to show that number of people who have access to frequent transit can be improved without having to put in vast sums of money.”

That access could improve even more as the city builds on its ambitious Minneapolis 2040 plan, a comprehensive effort to curb the influence of single-family zoning and add more housing density. “Minneapolis has been getting a lot of attention for land use and zoning recently, but the way they invested in bikes shows that protected infrastructure matters too. If people don’t feel safe on their bikes, they’re not going to take them.”

When Minneapolis added protected bicycle infrastructure, like this bike-pedestrian bridge,is also boosted the number of city residents who could access transit networks. (Jim Mone/AP)

Another avenue where each city has room for improvement is with providing better transit service to people living in low-income households that earn less than $20,000 a year. Los Angeles may not reach as much large of a share of its total population with frequent transit in its car-centric sprawl, but where it does reach matters to a larger share of low-income households that rely on it compared to say, Atlanta. The indicators make that task appear not as difficult as you might think: Transit networks do reach where low-income people live; it is just that service needs to be more reliable.

“In almost every city, a larger share of low-income households were near frequent transit more than the share of the population as a whole,” says Chestnut. “But for low-skill jobs that pay less, those indicators are much worse than for getting to all jobs. In D.C., one fifth of all jobs are accessible within 60 minutes, but if you look at [jobs that don’t require a high-school diploma or college degree], it’s only 4 percent. A lot of that has to do with how poorly the Metro runs on the weekends. If people can’t easily get around, it makes their lives so much harder.”

While the report may not be wonky enough to make causational arguments or to engineer the granular day-to-day decisions that planners make, it could focus the conversations that regular residents have about how their transport network is performing, and exactly where it needs get better. “You need to have goals,” says Chestnut. “You need to have climate goals; you need to have mode goals. We wanted to do this because we could benchmark cities and find out if they’re doing better a few years later. If they do a bus redesign, are they going to do better on these indicators? Cities need to be measuring these things and they need to have targets to meet that people can understand.”

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