Privatization is impacting the United States in nearly every sector, as ILSR co-founder David Morris indicates in this week’s Weekly Picks: Michigan’s prison food, Chicago’s public school sanitation, and Iowa’s Medicaid privatization is an example of the kinds of things that happen when you take the public incentive away from doing adequate work. Much more inside…… Read More
When Captain America meets Thanos for the first time in Avengers: Infinity War, the Star-Spangled Avenger stands his ground. For a split second, Thanos is taken aback by Steve Rogers’s grit. After all, he had just dispatched most of Cap’s caped colleagues with a flick of his begloved wrist. Yet despite having gathered the power to bend the universe to his whims, Thanos can’t break Captain America.
Facing a force with the will to resist him, Thanos loses his iron resolve, if only for a moment. A shadow of a doubt crosses his purple face as he grapples with our hero. In that window, Captain America might have stopped to ask him a simple question: Isn’t there a better way?
That question matters very much in Actual America, where a different single-minded force is playing purple space-god with the levers of power, reshaping the world in the name of an abstract cause. Spoiler alert: It’s the Republican Party.
In Infinity War, the umpteenth film in the sprawling superhero cycle from Marvel Studios, Thanos squares off against a full roster of Earth’s mightiest heroes. The nigh-omnipotent villain is running a single-issue campaign: He wants to wipe out half the population of the universe, in order to brings its resources back into balance. Black Panther, Thor, Doctor Strange, and all their franchise-wielding friends must unite to stop Thanos, in the hopes of saving trillions of lives (and earning at least as many box-office dollars).
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the same story has been playing out on the main stage in American politics over the last year. In order to justify sweeping tax cuts, the Republican Party has proposed slashing the social safety net. Both the GOP and the Mad Titan aim to radically reduce the public’s need for resources—the former by cutting them off, the latter by obliterating them. Thanos must assemble six all-powerful Infinity Stones to fulfill his agenda; the Republican Party has marshaled all three branches of government.
In Infinity War, this central conflict is also one of the movie’s biggest wrinkles. (Some mildly spoilerish stuff follows.) As Thanos gathers the six Infinity Stones, each one invests in him control over a different elemental property of the universe: space, time, power, mind, reality, and the soul. If he obtains the complete Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos can eliminate half the population of the universe with a snap of his fingers.
This MacGuffin also has the power to tear open glaring plot holes: If Thanos has the power to destroy half the population of creation, why can’t he conjure up the resources to feed them?
After all, if an Infinity Gauntlet-bearing Thanos wanted to, he could put an end to need and want across the universe; he could build housing for every Skrull, provide healthcare for every Kree, and feed the entire Shi’ar Empire. Presumably such a powerful tool could turn every corner of the galaxy into a veritable Wakanda, or at least a good approximation of a high-performing Scandinavian economy.
The same might be said for the GOP, which has used single-party control of the American government to pursue (and in some cases enact) a sweeping reform agenda. Thanos aims to end hunger and strife by cutting the universe’s demand by half—never mind the impact that such indiscriminate slaughter would have on universal production. The GOP has worked to balance the economy through a tax cut for the wealthy paid for by spending cuts for the poor—despite the many drawbacks for the economy at large and for the poor in particular. One of those plots is from a comic-book movie. The other sounds like the work of Doctor Doom.
When he’s not lobbing planetoids at superheroes, Thanos espouses a tragic apology for the heavy burden that motivates him. More in sadness than in anger, he must destroy half of all life, because traffic is so bad (or something). He’s a leader in the mold of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who condemned the ugliness of dividing the country into “makers” and “takers,” rueing his own words while chasing an agenda that benefited one at the expense of the other. His 2016 proposal to turn all federal assistance into a single block grant that states could then do with as they please is not as far-fetched as wishing away the poor with the Cosmic Cube. But it’s close.
If fighting poverty were the true goal, then Congress might propose to beef up social safety net spending. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped lift 8.4 million families out of poverty in 2015. While costs for the program ballooned since the Great Recession, they have started to level off. Researchers from Dartmouth and Wellesley concluded in 2016 that a modest boost in SNAP benefits results in more dollars spent at the grocery store and more nutritious meals. Yet the GOP aims to both cut SNAP spending and introduce onerous work requirements. If they really wanted to save federal dollars, they’d pour more money into SNAP, not less.
Unfortunately, none of the Avengers thought to hit Thanos with a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Explaining how expanding the social safety net builds opportunities that redound to the entire economy might have been more convincing than Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. Even an entity as radical as Thanos could come to see that a housing voucher for families with children under the age of 6 was worth a wink of the reality gem.
Earlier this month, Lyft announced that all passenger rides will be carbon neutral, indefinitely. The plan is to cancel out vehicle emissions by investing in carbon offset projects, while eventually folding electric and autonomous vehicles into its fleet. The move bolsters the company’s image as a greener, more socially conscious alternative to Uber, its major competitor, which has not made such a pledge.
Both Uber and Lyft have repeatedly stated their intentions to vastly reduce private car ownership. The underutilization of personal vehicles—the average car is used just 4 percent of the time—is “the heart of our transportation problem,” Lyft cofounders John Zimmer and Logan Paul wrote on the company’s blog in June 2017. By cramming in multiple passengers, they argued, ride-hailing can squeeze out more trips per car and keep cars in use more of the time. This underpins the company’s stated plans to achieve carbon neutrality over time, since these trip savings “will dramatically accelerate the rollout of electric vehicles, displacing millions of gasoline-powered cars and helping the U.S. and world reach their climate goals,” wrote Zimmer and Paul.
But is vehicle ownership really what counts when measuring the industry’s environmental impact? Probably not, since car ownership isn’t what produces emissions. It’s using the car. “It doesn’t matter who owns the vehicle,” Clewlow told Wired last year. “It matters how many miles are driven on the road. So me swapping out a trip that I would have driven myself for a trip that I’m riding in is still the same number of miles.”
And, she added, it could actually be more miles, since drivers also spend a lot of time traveling without any passengers in the car. Estimates from two of the largest markets in the U.S. give a sense of how many of these “deadhead” miles in between trips are being driven. In San Franciso, it’s estimated that approximately 20 percent of the miles traveled by Uber and Lyft drivers arewithout passengers. In New York City, deadheading accounts for an estimated 50 percent of the 600 million miles that TNCs have added to the roads since 2013. That mean more emissions from empty Ubers and Lyfts, plus their drag on othercars that burn extra gas and generate more fumes as they all sit in worsened traffic.
The carbon offsets that Lyft is purchasing don’t cover those miles that drivers aren’t with passengers, according to Lyft spokesperson Scott Corriel. He explained that any time outside of passenger pickup and drop-off is time “a driver could be doing anything, including not driving.”
More broadly, neither Lyft nor any other ride-hailing company has seriously addressed the real heart of the transportation problem, to which they seem to be meaningfully contributing: more trips, more miles, more greenhouse gases.
Yes, the science is still imprecise: Ride-hailing is a new and rapidly changing industry, and measuring every on-demand trip that might have been otherwise made by car, bike, or bus is extremely hard to do. But the studies analyzing the effects of these transportation network companies (or TNCs, as they’re called in policy and academic literature) on urban environments so far seem to show more damage than healing. Last fall, in a major survey of seven U.S. cities, the UC Davis transportation researcher Regina Clewlow found that Uber, Lyft, and similar on-demand services were replacing trips that might have been made by transit, walking, or biking, suggesting that ride-hailing is contributing more vehicle miles traveled (VMT) than it reduces. Localized studies in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and beyond point to similar conclusions, and a coming report by the National Resources Defense Council and UC Berkeley researchers that studies TNC trip data is rumored to, as well.
Offsetting some of the pollution created by ride-hailing vehicles on the road does not change the fundamental dynamics of this market. Without serious policy interventions, demand for cheap, convenient rides is likely to grow if vehicles become more automated and potentially less costly to operate, and congestion is likely to worsen.
What about electrification? If the ride-hailing industry was actively encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles, that would help their case, but the extent of their support isn’t entirely clear. Last week, Lyft delivered a statement of opposition against a bill in California proposing to require that 100 percent of passenger miles in ride-hailing vehicles be delivered by zero-emissions vehicles by 2028. California Governor Jerry Brown has called for five million ZEVs in the state by 2030; recognizing the growth in popularity of ride-hailing services, the bill seeks to slowly ramp up EV adoption rates among ride-hailing drivers. Lyft, however, argues that the way the bill is currently drafted would “negatively and disproportionately impact low-income drivers” by requiring them to purchase newer, pricier vehicles in that time frame. (Uber says that it is neutral on the bill.)
Still, at current EV adoption rates, it will be a very long time indeed before every vehicle on the road is electric and not streaming tailpipe emissions as it moves and idles in traffic. At the end of the day, there is no mode nearly as friendly to the planet as walking, and after that biking, and after that sharing a vehicle with dozens of other people (i.e., a bus), not two or three.
In that context, carbon offsets arguably “become noise in the discussion we’re trying to have about how [TNCs] contribute to the overall function of cities,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former NYC DOT official whose research on the impacts of Uber and Lyft in New York City is widely cited. “The conversation is principally about greenhouse gases, and now they’ve changed the conversation.”
Maybe it’s unfair to pick on the ride-hailing industry. Vehicle miles traveled are rising across the U.S. for all kinds of reasons, and ride-hailing still makes up a very small portion of the U.S.’s overall VMT—somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, according to Coriell (though other estimates suggest it’s larger). And both Uber and Lyft say that their industry’s transformation of the transportation landscape is just beginning. There is evidence that a very small number of ride-hailing customers have given up their personal cars after adopting the “shared” approach to mobility, and who are, as a result, traveling fewer miles in a vehicle. This is good news for the planet, and for Uber and Lyft. “If we want to reduce VMTs, we need to focus on the 80 percent of people who are driving themselves alone in their personal car,” Coriell wrote in an email.
Perhaps Uber’s foray into biking and transit access will so dramatically scale up demand for a fully car-free lifestyle that the fossil fuels its drivers are burning now will ultimately be neutralized. “The way we think of it is in terms of people miles traveled, not vehicle miles traveled,” said Adam Gromis, a manager of sustainability and environmental policy at Uber. “We want to maximize people movement while reducing vehicle movement, over time.”
But the planet can’t wait forever. As long as Uber and Lyft are offering cheap, convenient access to the backseat of a gas-powered car, it’s hard to see how demand, and the probable contributions to VMT, will decline. After all, growth is their prerogative. This is where public policies and regulations come in. Supporting public transit so that it can be competitive to ride-hailing is probably essential. Reshaping streets so that buses and other more carbon-efficient modes are prioritized may be, too. A better understanding of the impacts of on-demand transportation is probably called for: with the exception of a few local studies, the public has little idea of how many miles these cars are driving. Laws that require companies to share data could be designed so that, for example, deadhead miles can be accounted for and dealt with.
Lawmakers and conscientious consumers can celebrate carbon offset pledges and bike-friendly pivots by TNCs. But they shouldn’t be distracted by them. In every part of the transportation industry, environmental commitments could go much further. To ensure that ridehailing firms fulfill their promises, users will have to push.
Under a sign that read “FUTURE CITY,” three mayors pondered whethertitan tech companies such as Amazon could be models of equity and prosperity in cities. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf brought up a concept called “tech-quity,” which she explained meant that companies should be expected to conduct themselves in ways that contribute to local diversity and inclusion goals.
The forum was part of a conference Pittsburgh hosted last week on prioritizing “people, planet, place, and performance,” or what the city calls “p4,” in urban planning and development. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who moderated the conversation between Schaaf and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania Mayor Marita Garrett, responded by bringing up the possible consequences of cities placing restrictions on companies they are recruiting or trying to keep. He pointed to the NFL team, the Raiders, leaving Oakland, in part because they couldn’t get better public financing deals.
“Sometimes you lose well, but I felt like we didn’t need to be subsidizing billionaires,” said Schaaf drawing applause. “I really think that we have got to stop this race to the bottom. We’re not going to prostitute ourselves to companies either.”
Schaaf apologized to Peduto at one point saying she knew this was “a sensitive subject” for Pittsburgh right now, and indeed it is. A group of people had gathered outside the p4 conference to protest the city’s wooing of Amazon’s coveted HQ2 operations. The protesters said they targeted the conference, in part, because the “p4” values are in conflict with the kind of living cost hikes that could come with a new Amazon headquarters.
This is the conundrum facing many mayors today: If you believe that the affordable housing problem is the result of wages not keeping pace with rising living costs, as many studies suggest, then you want to bring an Amazon headquarters in because it will bring higher-paying jobs with it. However, Amazon can’t employ everybody, so low-income households could get stuck paying higher rents because of the company’s effect on the housing market.
To address such equity concerns, Schaaf has been steering Oakland towards policies that prioritize the needs of historically marginalized populations—and she’s been getting in some trouble for it. When she sent a letter to Uber, as it considered Oakland for a new office, telling them to kick in on the equity front, or else, Uber chose or else. This stands in contrast to Pittsburgh, which has enjoyed a perhaps too-welcoming relationship with Uber.
At the p4 conference, Schaaf was adamant that she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone in the federal government who wants to dictate how she deals with her residents, whether they are documented or not. The following is her conversation with CityLab, edited for length and clarity, about changing the power dynamic between tech companies and cities; how Oakland is pioneering racial equity policy through its legalized cannabis program; and what to do about Trump’s policies on immigration.
You say cities should not prostitute themselves to land companies like Amazon, but what about cities that have been suffering economically—ones that could really use that kind of stimulus?
I don’t want to pass judgment on cities that are in very different positions than Oakland. Part of your job as a mayor is to recognize where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. Certainly when I became mayor, I could feel that Oakland was on the verge of a boom—that we didn’t need to entice people to come to our city. They were getting prepared to come anyway. So I don’t want to pass judgment on cities that do look at ways to spark growth. At the same time, I do think that we hurt each other when we enter into bidding wars.
A lot of cities saw that when trying to get Walmarts to come to their cities, giving away huge tax breaks only to later be abandoned. We have a giant empty Walmart in Oakland that’s been empty for two years now. You have to recognize the worth of your city and recognize our interdependence as cities. We as mayors have to stop being competitive and be more cooperative.
But Oakland did submit an HQ2 proposal to Amazon along with neighboring cities, right?
It was a regional proposal and it did not offer any local incentives. It also recognized that Amazon would be expected to address the transportation and housing challenges that level of employment growth would cause. Now we’re very proud of what we had to offer. We have world-class universities. We are in the middle of Silicon Valley, which is the most innovative region arguably in the world. We have an incredible public transit system. We have a talent pool to rival any. So it’s not like we didn’t think about why any company would want to come to our region. But we were clear that we weren’t going to pay them for the privilege, and we were clear about the responsibilities that we expected them to undertake. I guess that wasn’t a very effective plan—we didn’t make the shortlist, right?
In Oakland this “tech-quity” movement is also about creating a tech ecosystem done right—to be intentional and say that technology can be led by women and people of color. It can have a workforce that is not just diverse but inclusive, and tech companies can and should be more mission driven. As Freada Kapor [Freada Kapor Klein of the Oakland-based Kapor Capital] says, we don’t need more photo-sharing apps, but we do need to disrupt poverty.
What are the other ways that Oakland is working to address equity issues, and racial equity specifically?
One good example in Oakland is our Kiva loans—crowd-sourced, zero-interest loans. Part of why they’ve been so successful is we got several local companies to provide matches. PG & E and Kaiser are examples of companies that would match dollar for dollar any Oakland business that was seeking loans. We’ve closed more than 530 zero-interest loans for very small businesses, 70 percent of them owned by women of color, and 90 percent owned by people of color. That has been intentional because we’re talking about trying to disrupt institutionalized racism. The fact that traditional commercial lending requires you to already have money, to have a certain credit score, to have collateral, to show a cashflow—that really doesn’t help groups that have been historically excluded from business ownership.
When we looked at the data of marijuana enforcement, when it was still illegal, there is clearly a race disparity in our enforcement patterns. We saw nearly all marijuana-related charges were brought against African-American and Latino men. We needed to make up for what was obviously a racially disparate system of enforcement so we created an equity candidate program for someone who either had been charged with a marijuana-related crime or who lives or has lived for a certain number of years in a part of the city that had a disproportionate number of marijuana-related arrests. And those are all low-income communities of color.
This is interesting because legally it is very difficult to target a program explicitly based on race, right?
Unless you can prove past racial bias. In California, we have Prop 209 that prevents governments from doing race-based contracting or preferences. But the exception to that is if you can actually demonstrate actual discrimination that needs to be rectified. We collected the data and demonstrated that bias. I’m not proud of it, but I am proud that we’re willing to collect and publicize the uncomfortable truths even in a progressive place like Oakland.
When we looked at the group that we felt had been unfairly targeted for marijuana enforcement and asked what their barriers are for getting into this new business, [they said]the upfront capital, particularly for real estate,because real estate is expensive in Oakland.
Ideally we wanted to have a revolving loan fund to help these companies get started, but our challenge is we don’t have enough money to fund the initial capital for that. So we allowed companies that do have the money to go to the front of the line [for obtaining business permits], if they would sponsor an equity candidate, either by providing them with the cash for rent or providing them with the actual real estate for operations.
Are you getting a lot of interest from other cities about this program?
Absolutely. Everybody and their mama is coming to Oakland to see what we’re doing.
Besides providing sanctuary for cannabis, you are also doing this for immigrants. Are you concerned about the legal precedent that courts could set if they rule against your sanctuary policies?
It’s worth taking those risks for justice. We have a broken immigration system. California’s economy would fall apart tomorrow if you deport all of the undocumented workers. It’s also an inhumane system that rips families apart. But this administration is particularly disturbing, not just in their enforcement policies—which at least according to one report that I saw has more than tripled the number of deportations of people who have committed no crimes at all—but the rhetoric, the ugly lie that immigrants are dangerous criminals, is offensive, false and racist. All the data clearly shows that this is a lie and what is so disturbing is that it’s just fanning the flames of racism and hate by deceiving the American people.
A number of cities got letters demanding proof of compliance with the federal law. The press release that they put out about it listed the cities [that got these letters] and specifically said that one was sent to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf—calling us out by name, and I’m sure that was not by accident. My understanding is that the law requires that you provide [immigration] information to the federal government. We have a policy that we don’t collect that information. That is part of our argument about why we are in compliance. It is not our job to do immigration enforcement. Oakland is roughly one-third immigrants and that includes our undocumented immigrant community. They need to feel safe to call the police, to report crimes, and to serve as a witness when a crime is committed. That is key for everyone’s public safety. The courts so far have ruled in our favor with just about every case finding that this president has overreached his authority.
Putting your title and the politics to the side for a moment, how are you coping as a woman being threatened by name by men in high seats of power, in this particular moment?
I’m very clear about what my purpose in this life is. And of course I have concerns, but no one elected me to be fearful. No one elected me to not try to make my community a better place. No one elected me to not stand up for every member of my community that I represent. And I have felt incredibly supported by my community. I’ve felt very threatened by a lot of very angry people outside of my community, but I do not regret standing up. While it has been strange to see the level of energy and offense that the attorney general and even the president has paid to me personally—and certainly I would suspect that the fact that I’m a woman contributes to that—I do not regret it. I think it’s important that we continue to shine light on racism and bias and that we continue to push for a more humane and just government. I feel like my act was in its own strange way, very democratic. America is a country of immigrants, and we purport that we stand for these values of liberty and justice for all. So I think what I did was quite patriotic.
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What We’re Following
Reclaim the city: The pioneering Danish architect, urbanist, and planner Jan Gehl helped transform Copenhagen into one of the world’s most bike-, people-, and climate-friendly cities. In an interview with CityLab, Gehl describes how studying public space turned the city into a laboratory, and how to be systematic about caring for people:
What we have done in Copenhagen is to make the people who use the city visible and to document what is going on: Where people go, how many there are, how long they sit on benches, how many café chairs we have. We do all this every year, just as if we were traffic engineers. Now the politicians have all the information about the life of the city. Then we can ask them to make their choice.
The new movie Little Pink House dramatizes the Supreme Court decision that changed the way Americans saw eminent domain.
There’s more to America’s opioid epidemic than death statistics—and even those can be unreliable. The map above shows just how much states may undercount their opioid death rates. The dark shades represent the biggest difference between reported opioid mortality rates in 2014 and corrected rates based on analysis from the University of Virginia.
Advocates of bike lanes, shared streets, and walkable cities could take a lesson from their adversaries: If they want to build communities where people, not cars, occupy the pavement, show the receipts. Count all the pedestrians, cyclists, strollers, and café loungers going by, just as highway planners have long tallied up road users in vehicles. Bringing hard data is the only way the government will listen, according to , I refer to the example of Bogotá. There the mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, realized that 80 percent of his people had no access to a car, while only 20 percent did. But all the investment had gone to the 20 percent for a long period. So he said that, if the economy in Bogotá was to improve, the trick was to have the 80 percent become more mobile so they can move around and get jobs in other parts of the city. So he created bicycle systems and bus rapid transit systems. That is an interesting strategy: Should we use the money for the 20 percent or should we use it for the other group? What will give us the best economic gain for the entire society? This was his way of thinking.
Of course, there is also this prestige thing. Promoting individual mobility by giving everyone a ton of steel and four rubber wheels was a great idea a hundred years ago. But it is not a great idea in cities. The bigger the city, the worse the idea.
There are a lot of people saying, especially in the automobile industry, “Once we get the autonomous cars, all the problems will be solved.” But as far as I can see, no problems would be solved, except the problems of the automobile industry—how they can sell another five billion units. I really think it would be wonderful if the future was all about good neighborhoods for walking and cycling combined with a really smart, quick public transport system, where you could take your bike or wheelchair and your shopping bag and whatever you need to take.
I think we haven’t thought through the challenge of technology for city mobility. We are stuck with some 120-year-old ideas that the industry is desperately holding on to. I tell students: Whenever you hear the word “smart,” beware, because that is somebody who wants to sell as many millions as possible of some new gimmick. And he is not necessarily giving you a better quality of life.
Which three tools would you give to a politician who is interested in designing a city in a bicycle-friendly manner for the future?
If I could give one piece of good advice, it would be based on what we know from Copenhagen. For many years, going back to the 1950s, whenever there was a city planning problem, the traffic engineers were running to the mayor and saying: “Look, we need six more lanes here and three more lanes here and 2,000 parking spaces.” They had the statistics and the arguments ready. On the other hand, there was not a single city in the world that had a department for people and public life. The cities knew everything about traffic and nothing about people, and how and why people use the city.
What we have done in Copenhagen is to make the people who use the city visible and to document what is going on: Where people go, how many there are, how long they sit on benches, how many café chairs we have. We do all this every year, just as if we were traffic engineers. Now the politicians have all the information about the life of the city. Then we can ask them to make their choice.
The moment you start to get the people visible and city life documented, then you can start to plan and make policies: “Here is where we are, but we want to be here.” That’s what the politicians always have done with car traffic. Now we have tools to be just as systematic in caring for the people.
We often get asked questions from urban planners, policymakers, and real estate professionals asking how they should prepare for the future of mobility, today. Some are architects and developers wanting to know how their buildings and planned communities should be designed in a shared automated future. Some are planners and policymakers wanting to know if […]
, which gave him a grant that financed a new tour around Spain, this time using drones to capture aerial photos and video.
“Many of these sites are now locked down or there is security. And from the ground I was always frustrated because I didn’t had a shooting angle that would give a general perspective,” Redondo explains. “From the air this all becomes easier to understand.”
In three weeks, the photographer went to 12 sites around the country, many of them in the south. From an aesthetic point of view, he was surprised by what he found: “staircases going nowhere, strange shapes, the geometries of the roof of a house. These are little treasures that before where imperceptible for me.”
“In Spain, you don’t talk about these sites anymore,” Redondo explains. “They are far from the cities, a little lost from plain sight. And politicians are always telling us that Spain is better—that we are growing again.” These projects remain there as scars in the landscape, without plans to either finish them or demolish them.
“Nobody wants to be responsible of this,” the photographer adds. “We need to remember these places, what we did here and what we should learn for the future. We need to know that these buildings are still there.”
Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2016, Cary, North Carolina, realized it had an opioid problem. Five overdoses were reported that week. Three were fatal.
“That weekend hit home that Cary is not an island, that we have all the same social problems as everywhere else,” deputy town manager Mike Bajorek said. “Sometimes you just need that one pivot point to say, ‘Hey, we need to do something.’”
The city knew it had to act fast. As overdoses spiked 70 percent the next year, officials realized they didn’t have enough information about the extent of the problem to create targeted initiatives.
The thing is, there’s more to the opioid epidemic than death statistics, and even those can be unreliable. With a lack of detailed, up-to-date data, cities are waging their own digital war to learn what’s really happening in their communities. Cary, for one, is going underground—to mine data from the sewage.
Down the drain
Cary will be the first in the U.S. to tackle opioids through something called sewage-based drug epidemiology. The field is relatively new, but it’s increasingly being employed across the globe to find traces of substances like marijuana and cocaine in human waste. With a $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’s Mayors Challenge, Cary officials have partnered with the MIT-affiliated company Biobot to deploy small robots into the sewage system to collect samples of the city’s waste. The samples will be measured for their concentration of opioid metabolites, which get flushed out of bodies after opioid consumption.
The devices will extract samples from the 200,000 gallons of wastewater that flow through each sample area—gathering information for areas of roughly 5,000 homes each. That will help researchers determine a baseline level of opioid consumption.
“From there, we can identify significant changes in that consumption, and in which part of the city,” Biobot cofounder Mariana Matus said. “We can also tell the main type of drug driving those dynamics—is it more prescription or illicit opioid?” Metabolites are like fingerprints; each drug produces a unique kind after it’s consumed.
The science first made headlines in 2005, when researchers in Milan studied the concentrations of cocaine residues in Italy’s Po River. What they found was equivalent to about 40,000 daily doses, or about 27 doses for every 1,000 people. The findings far exceeded official estimates, which indicated just 15,000 doses per month. Cary’s project is expected to reveal a similar disparity.
The city plans to combine the results with existing data. “We’ll know specifically, from census data, what are the demographics of the area, the social, economic, and land use,” Bajorek said. “We’ll answer questions like how far is the nearest park or greenway? What’s the unemployment [rate], and how many people are insured?”
Cary’s opioid problem hasn’t quite reached the critical levels seen in other North Carolina cities. In Wilmington, home to some 117,500 people, police responded to more than 500 overdoses in 2017. Bajorek knows, though, that his city could very well be catching up. North Carolina is grappling with one of the nation’s worst opioid crises, with related deaths jumping from fewer than 200 in 1999 to nearly 1,400 in 2016, according to official records. Data also shows that the state administered naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug, more than 13,000 times that year. In 2016, one report showed that four North Carolina cities, including Wilmington, made it to the list of the nation’s top 25 cities for opioid abuse.
“Because we are not in a reactive or crisis mode, we can be proactive,” Bajorek said. Ultimately the city plans to make the results from the sewage study public, with the hopes that other analysts and nonprofits can put the information to good use. If the pilot proves to be successful, they hope to share their story with other cities that are desperate for solutions.
Getting the right numbers
A recent examination of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, performed by University of Virginia economist Christopher Ruhm, estimates that states may have undercounted opioid deaths by 20 to 35 percent between 1999 and 2015. That translates to thousands of deaths each year.
Much of the disparity can be attributed to how death certificates are filled out at the state level, and differences from one state to the next, Ruhm said. Several states don’t require certificates to list the specific drugs involved in deaths. Ruhm found that in one-sixth to a quarter of overdose deaths recorded in those years, no drugs were listed at all.
He developed a prediction model based on the details of confirmed opioid-related deaths. When corrected, the number of deaths in 2015 rose from 33,091 to 39,999. That’s nearly 7,000 deaths potentially not accounted for. In a previous study, he found the death rate in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Louisiana, and Alabama may be more than twice as high as what’s reported.
Insufficient data is troubling. For one thing, those numbers determine federal and state spending on initiatives to combat opioids. But for researchers like Ruhm, and for local policymakers, there’s a larger problem. “If you don’t have good data, you don’t necessarily have information on the nature [of the epidemic],” including the age, race, and location of people affected, he said. “If we’re going to try to target policy, you need some of those nuances.”
Even Cary’s method has its limits. The results won’t reveal where the drugs are being used with any specificity, or how they’re distributed among the surveyed population. And with finer-grain detail comes ethical and privacy concerns. Bajorek and the Biobot cofounders said the very design of their analysis—studying a few molecules from hundreds of thousands of gallons of water—makes it impossible to trace anything back to a particular neighborhood, let alone an individual. Plus, Bajorek said, the intent isn’t to find “hotspots.” They’re more interested in finding correlations.
Putting the crisis on the map
In an ideal world, real-time data could monitor spikes as they occur. But there’s a lag time when it comes to releasing official numbers; the most recent confirmed data on opioid-related deaths, which largely depend on toxicology reports, is from 2016. And even preliminary data can be months old.
CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program tracks hospital and emergency room visits that are suspected to be opioid related, but that’s limited by hospital participation and lack of data sharing across jurisdictions.
Yet data sharing is key, especially when it comes to proactive measures like tracking where drugs are coming from, and where they’re going next, according to Jeff Beeson, the deputy director and chief of staff for the Baltimore/Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area—a program created by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to combat drug trafficking.
“When we look at the drug threat we’re facing [in the Washington, D.C., region], they’re coming up through the southwest border, sometimes through New York and New Jersey and into Baltimore City,” he said, adding that Baltimore City is a distribution point for drugs into neighboring cities. “If we look at the [pattern of] overdoses in Baltimore City, we’re able to track [the drugs] and establish sort of a warning system when spikes occur.” That, of course, requires cities to share their data, and in real time.
That was, in large part, the idea behind the syndromic surveillance program Beeson and his team designed. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, or ODMAP, harnesses technology like ESRI’s mapping services to bridge the gaps left behind by traditional efforts.
For one thing, it doesn’t take the term “real time” lightly. In 2016, the agency equipped first responders with a mobile app to document suspected overdoses as they were responding to them—and on location. On the other end, public health and law enforcement officials could watch as dots popped up on an interactive map. Each dot represents one victim, and each is color-coded to indicate whether it was a fatal case and whether naloxone was administered.
”Right now, I can take a look—because first responders responding to an overdose scene are instantaneously putting data into the system,” he said. “Takes them two seconds to log into the app, and it uploads immediately.”
By adjusting the filters, agency staff can zero in on, say, all the nonfatal cases over a week, or a year, or even over the last 24 hours. They can look for clusters within a city or within a neighborhood, or—because the team has so far partnered with more than 250 agencies across 27 states—around the nation. The hope is that analysts can eventually detect where batches of opioids are entering a city from, and address the issue at the source. And that officials can predict where the next spike will be and get a head start organizing initiatives.
Pinpointing the solution
While advancing technology to measure the toll of opioids certainly has its value, stopping their spread also means getting victims treated as soon as possible. And for many cities, that’s yet another challenge.
In eastern Maryland, Anne Arundel County’s fire departments and police stations will become 24/7 “safe stations,” where addicts can seek guidance and, more importantly, immediate treatment. Officials in Anne Arundel had expected roughly five people to use the program each week. Five months into the program they were seeing triple that estimate. Herein lies the problem, especially for Annapolis, where the rate of overdose surpasses the county’s average of 18 per every 100,000 people: Heavy traffic, and at all hours, meant responders were struggling to find available beds at treatment centers.
So Annapolis is piloting the Substance Use Disorder Bed Finder project, an effort to map all the available beds in and around the city in real-time. Officials are currently working with only six centers, but hope to expand to as many as 70 centers across the region. Data about bed and staff availability come from surveys collected at least twice a day through a mobile app, and are fed to a dashboard accessible to first responders and crisis teams who can instantly search for beds based on different criteria. Before the app, the teams would have to call as many as 30 different centers, emergency planner Mary Kate Hudson said.
“We don’t want people who go into a safe station and have to wait so long for a bed that they walk out,” Hudson said. “They have to be in their right state of mind to come in there in the first place, and for them to not get the help that they need is just a disservice to them.”
She added that everything gets archived, including information that the centers put in about staff shortages and other resource challenges. That will be presented to policymakers as evidence for the need for more funding.
From harnessing mobile apps to sending robots into the sewers, these experimental solutions highlight how urgent the opioid crisis has become. “Ideally the national government would set a framework so that we get consistent data, and cities will implement those frameworks,” said Ruhm, and not just for monitoring opioids. “It’s a broader drug epidemic in ways that aren’t getting enough attention.” But between funding and resource challenges, various privacy laws, and lack of data-sharing, that ideal world hasn’t come to fruition. And cities, which are at the front lines of the epidemic, have to fill in the gap.
“This problem is wearing people out so badly that everybody is open to any suggestions,” said Kevin Simmons, Annapolis’s deputy fire chief and director of the Office of Emergency Management. “When we developed a prototype of [the Bed Finder tool] and asked everyone to come to the emergency operation center to look at it, within 20 minutes they said, ‘We’re behind it.’”
For Biobot, the partnership with Cary to mine data from the sewer will be the company’s first time testing the idea on a real-world problem. They’re currently looking for five other cities to work with, and further down the line, they’re eyeing applications on other types of drugs.
“We essentially talked to as many city officials as we could, asking them what’s on top of their agenda with regard to health threats in the community,” said co-founder Newsha Ghaeli. “The opioid epidemic was the number one answer we got from almost everyone we spoke with.”
Sarah Holder contributed to the reporting of this story.
A Hollywood movie about eminent domain—you have to love it. The drama, heartbreak, and nail-biting suspense of urban planning, up on the big screen.
It helps that the heroine of the new film Little Pink House is out of central casting. Susette Kelo, a single mom and paramedic, was a classic holdout, refusing to go along with the government’s grand plans for redevelopment in the struggling waterfront city of New London, Connecticut. Played by Catherine Keener (in a Hollywood footnote, Brooke Shields was once interested in the role), Kelo fought City Hall and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court.
And, it’s important to point out, lost.
The 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London in 2005 affirmed states’ ability to use eminent domain for economic development, under the interpretation of one key phrase of the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
But Kelo’s backers ended up winning for losing, as planners across the country got spooked, and some 45 states moved to restrict the use of eminent domain; pro-property rights forces were invigorated for court cases to come, vigilant against other kinds of infringements on private landowners—including regulations characterized as so onerous they might as well be a physical taking. The case attracted strange bedfellows: Jane Jacobs, Ralph Nader, and the NAACP lined up on Kelo’s side, as did Rush Limbaugh and assorted libertarians. It dovetailed with the Tea Party movement, stirring further suspicions about deep-state government treading on basic freedoms.
The story itself is indeed tragic. Post-industrial New London, like New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford, has long sought regeneration. The city boasts many elements that could help it rebound: a stop on the Amtrak Acela Northeast Corridor line, a busy ferry terminal and waterfront, eds and meds, industry, and a sense of place. But, like many smaller legacy cities, it has been challenged.
Just about two decades ago, Connecticut Republican Governor John G. Rowland moved to jump-start the local economy, installing a local college president as head of the New London Economic Development Corporation and luring the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, then on the brink of releasing a profitable little pill called Viagra, to inhabit a massive redevelopment site on the banks of the Thames River. About 90 key acres were at Fort Trumbull, which required the demolition of more than 100 residences and two dozen small businesses. Most sold their property voluntarily; Kelo and 6 others refused, and the fight was on.
Written and directed by Courtney Balaker and based on a 2009 book by Jeff Benedict of the same title, Little Pink House sweeps up all the drama of this David-and-Goliath battle. Kelo was ultimately compensated quite well—$442,000, three times the original appraisal. Today the eponymous home still stands, symbolically re-assembled and moved nearby, and with a plaque out front, perhaps as an inspiration to others. The development deal itself disintegrated, leaving New London pretty much back where it started.
Lessons from this mess fall into two categories: planning and the law. Litigator Dana Berliner from the Institute for Justice (which is depicted in the film, in the person of Kelo’s heroic lawyer), thinks the case shows, among other things, the dangers of top-down, grand-scheme planning. Earlier this month at the annual Lincoln Institute journalists’ forum that I help organize, she appeared to talk about the case with Harvard professor Jerold Kayden, an expert on property rights jurisprudence. As today’s developers and planners know well, community engagement is paramount.
There was virtually no flexibility, needlessly, in New London; the redevelopment could have been reconfigured to avoid destroying houses, but the project team never really entertained that idea, just as Robert Moses refused to move the Cross-Bronx Expressway alignment by a few blocks to spare some destruction.
Eminent domain wasn’t really the entire villain in this story; there are plenty of examples of the justified and responsible use of the tool. Today it is considered more of a last resort, and it’s bad form to just throw around the term “blight” to justify massive disruption. Now the emphasis is on the rational assembly of disparate parcels, particularly for infill projects that otherwise wouldn’t be coherent. Good planning, design, and placemaking—and understanding the community and the needs of stakeholders—have never been more important. The big silver-bullet approach often isn’t as productive as more targeted, incremental efforts that build on the good urbanism of small cities like New London.
In terms of land and the law, Kelo wasn’t a game-changer in the long march of court cases that have defined the balance between government actions and private property rights—Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon, Penn Central v. New York, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, Dolan v. City of Tigard, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, and more recently Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. But the national publicity that this case kicked up still hangs heavily in the air.
There will surely be another test of whether government goes “too far,” the standard established by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes back in 1922 in the Pennsylvania Coal case. Notably, the newest Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, opposes the Kelo decision and railed against it when it was announced. As city leaders and planners anticipate that next showdown, they may find it hard to get New London out of their heads, just like when John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” comes on the radio.