CityLab Daily: A YIMBY Defeat

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What We’re Following

Fear of committee: Last night brought a swift end to California’s ambitious attempt to overhaul zoning and address the housing crisis—at least for this year. The much-buzzed-about SB 827 bill would have allowed the construction of taller apartment buildings near high-frequency mass transit stations. But it lost a vote in a Senate committee, with two Democrats and two Republicans each voting against it. CityLab’s Benjamin Schneider has the story on where the YIMBY battle goes next.

Tennessee waltz: Tennessee lawmakers are retaliating against Memphis for removing two Confederate statues last December. In a last-minute amendment to a spending bill, the Republican-dominated House voted Tuesday to strip the city of $250,000 that would have been used for a bicentennial celebration next year. The AP reports that fellow lawmakers booed Representative Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis representative, as he called the amendment vile and racist.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Micromobility Wars Are Upon Us

As Bird, LimeBike, and Spin unleash dockless scooters in new cities, turf battles are breaking out.

Laura Bliss

Peter Calthorpe Is Still Fighting Sprawl—With Software

In an interview, the leading New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe discusses autonomous rapid transit, Buckminster Fuller, NIMBYism, and his new urban-planning software.

Richard Florida

Suspiciously Black in Starbucks

Starbucks doesn’t need to close its stores for bias trainings. It needs to change its entire design so that it doesn’t merely reflect the character of host neighborhoods, especially if that character is racist.

Brentin Mock

Understanding the Great Connecticut Taxpocalypse

The state relies on property taxes, and after the GOP tax bill, many fear that housing values will stagnate or crash.

Kriston Capps

This Town Took on Waze. Who Won?

Leonia, New Jersey, closed its major streets to non-resident drivers after navigation apps routed too many commuters through the town. But not everyone is pleased with the results.

John Surico


Chart of the Day

(Chris McCahil/SSTI)

One of the first takeaways from the new 2017 National Household Travel Survey is that the average American drove less in 2017 than eight years earlier—but driving has increased among Millennials. There’s more to it than that, though: The State Smart Transportation Initiative finds that high- and middle-income Millennials (earning more than $50,000) are driving less, with lower-income Millennials fueling the generation’s uptick in vehicle miles traveled since the recession.

CityLab context: What drove the driving downturn?


What We’re Reading

Inside a university’s controversial plan for Baltimore (The Guardian)

Uber makes peace with cities through a data-sharing deal (Wired)

Why restaurants became so loud, and how to fight back (Vox)

As the bioengineering of people and cities converges, where do we locate the public sphere? (Places Journal)

Creating bike lanes isn’t easy (Wall Street Journal)


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YIMBYs Defeated as California’s Transit Density Bill Stalls

An ambitious zoning bill in California that was aimed at alleviating the state’s acute housing shortage has not survived its first committee hearing. On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods.

Few in California argue that the lack of affordable housing isn’t a real problem: At the hearing of the Senate’s Housing and Transportation Committee, elected officials and members of the public on both sides of the issue frequently referenced the state’s severe housing crisis. But the bill’s opponents insisted that SB 827 was the wrong way to address it. Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch called it “the wrong prescription,” and Senator Richard Roth criticized its “one-size-fits-all approach.” The amendments added to the bill over the past few months, which scaled back the rezoning and added significant tenant protections, did not sway these critics.

The bill’s supporters, meanwhile, stressed the need for radical change to the state’s current approach to housing, in which long environmental review processes and strict local controls make new developments close to impossible in many areas. “The status quo isn’t working and we need to do things differently,” said Wiener. “We need an enormous amount of new housing at all income levels.”

In the committee’s vote, the bill lost four votes to seven. The only two yes votes from Democrats were from the bill’s authors, illustrating the disconnect between the bill’s progressive goals, and the demands of constituents from liberal (and often wealthy) areas.

Wiener and his YIMBY allies immediately vowed to resurrect the bill for the 2019 legislative session. In his statement about the bill’s defeat, he said he intends “to work on developing a proposal that meets the ambitious goals of this bill, while incorporating what we have learned since we introduced it.”

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

And now it’s dead. But SB 827—or the ideas it introduced into the national discourse on housing and development—may yet have a transformative effect.

A Pennsylvania Town Finds a Way to Save Its ‘Other’ Train Station

Lansdale, Pennsylvania, a small town situated 28 miles north of Philadelphia, is home to two historic train stations. One is the beloved Lansdale passenger station, a brick building constructed in 1903 which remains one of the busiest commuter stations in Philadelphia’s transportation system. Because of its high visibility, there were few complaints when it came time for repairs in 1999. The station’s rotted roof was replaced and its windows and doors were patched up, leaving it looking like its early-20th century self.

But less than two blocks away lies its counterpart, a stone freight station that Bill Henning, vice president of the nonprofit Discover Lansdale, calls “the ignored stepchild” of the pair. Also built in 1903, the freight station spent decades as Lansdale’s commercial heart before falling vacant for over 20 years.

(Discover Lansdale)

For a town once defined by its status as a railway junction, the stations embody the essence of its history, especially the freight station. The North Pennsylvania Railroad founded Lansdale in 1872 to accommodate the railway they had built through the area several years prior. They selected its location based on its relation to other large towns; from Lansdale, trains could travel west to Reading, north to Allentown and Bethlehem, and south to Philadelphia.

What began as a minuscule community blossomed into a thriving small town. Farm equipment manufacturers, hosiery mills, grain mills, and steel plants all sprang up to take advantage of Lansdale’s prime location, giving the town a diversified economy that proved capable of withstanding major recessions. And for all of these companies, the freight station served as their point of dispatch.

However, the arrival of the truck as the primary method of transporting goods dealt a severe blow to many railroad companies, and the North Pennsylvania Railroad* was no exception. The company sold Lansdale’s freight station in the late 1970s, leaving one of the town’s most significant structures without a use. An attempt was made to convert it into an auto body shop, but by the time the new millennium rolled around, the shop had folded and the station vacated.

It remained that way until 2016, when the station came to the attention of Bill Henning and Discover Lansdale. The nonprofit, which works to promote events and businesses in town, recognized the significance of the station to Lansdale’s history, and saw the need for a multipurpose space and visitor’s center. They convinced the borough parking authority to purchase the station and its surrounding land, and then sell the structure to Discover Lansdale for $60,000. (The parking authority only wanted the space to create a new lot).

To Henning’s surprise, a survey determined that much of the structure was in remarkably good shape—the stone walls and roof had endured for a century with minimal damage. But the floor joists underneath the freight doors had rotted from rain and snow, rendering them unstable. In addition, electricity and plumbing needed to be installed before the building could open to the public. All told, the rehabilitation project was estimated to cost $250,000.

Discover Lansdale has raised around $70,000 thus far through private donations and by selling the station’s original yellow pine flooring (which needed to be removed to repair the joists underneath) to people looking for quality wood to build benches and bookcases out of. But equally beneficial to the bottom line has been the support of the community. The project’s engineer and electrician have provided work for free or at discounted rates, a local tavern raised $5,000 for the rehabilitation by hosting a beer garden in the station’s parking lot for two summers, and residents have come out in droves for the clean-up days that Discover Lansdale has organized.

(Discover Lansdale)

“It’s been amazing how many people have been coming out to swing a hammer, or pull weeds, or pry up nails,” Henning says. “I think a lot of it is because they like what [the rehabilitated station’s] purpose will be.”

However, Lansdale’s difficult history with historic buildings has likely played as much of a role in mobilizing the town. The Hotel Tremont opened in 1890 and eventually became the town’s finest restaurant, drawing customers from throughout the Philadelphia metro area. Meanwhile, the Lansdale Theatre became its most beloved entertainment venue. Both were met by the wrecking ball, in 1997 and 1979, respectively.

The loss of the Lansdale Theatre particularly stung. Soon after it was demolished, similar single-screen theaters in nearby towns were converted into multipurpose event spaces—exactly the kind of space Discover Lansdale envisions for the freight station.

If volunteer turnout has been any indication, the freight station won’t be going anywhere. Work has already begun on its new floor, and will resume once the snow and cold weather subsides. Though much fundraising remains, Henning is optimistic that the building will be open to the public by the end of 2018. All signs point toward a successful rehabilitation, and the preservation of a key link to Lansdale’s past.

“[The station] is symbolic. The town was here because of the railroad,” says Henning. “The fact that it’s both an old building and a railroad building makes it very important.”

This article originally appeared on SavingPlaces.org.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the North Pennsylvania Railroad as the West Pennsylvania Railway.

What Happens When a City Bans Non-Resident Drivers?

LEONIA, NJ—During morning rush hour, one of the first things you’ll notice on the streets of Leonia, New Jersey, are the yellow “resident” tags inside of cars. Nearly everyone here has one hanging from the windshield. Traffic is mostly contained to Fort Lee Road, a central stretch that connects drivers each day to the George Washington Bridge, two miles to the east. Along it, school crossing guards stand watch.

Off of Fort Lee, all is quiet on the residential roads, which are lined with old Victorians, with little foot traffic. Still, you can’t help but notice the prominent “Do Not Enter” sign: “6 am to 10 am, 4 pm to 9 pm,” it reads. “Residents Exempt.”

You may remember Leonia. A borough in Bergen County with a population just over 9,000, it made headlines at the end of 2017 when local officials here did something that no other town in America had done before: It shut off 60 of its public roads during rush hour to non-local drivers. Navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze had made traffic unbearable, said Leonia’s mayor, Judah Zeigler: An estimated 2,000 city-bound motorists were now being rerouted each day through its side streets as a turnpike shortcut. “We have had days when people can’t get out of their driveways,” Leonia’s police chief, Tom Rowe, told The New York Times in December.

Just days after Leonia police began issuing $200 fines to non-local drivers, the nearby town of Weehawken followed its lead, albeit slightly, enacting rush-hour restrictions on a specific right turn in an effort to ease traffic to and from the Lincoln Tunnel. And many other small towns across the country have floated similar complaints about diverted drivers taking over local streets—a growing backlash against the so-called ‘Waze Craze.’

One resident in Takoma Park, Maryland, began posting fake wrecks to throw Waze’s routing off. Town officials in Los Altos Hills, in California, installed “No Thru Traffic” signs (and were reportedly able to get Waze to reroute drivers elsewhere). Nearby, Los Gatos closed certain roads on popular weekends to prevent beach traffic from navigation apps. In Los Angeles, one local official has confronted Google over a reroute that sends cars down a dangerously steep street. And a Tel Aviv suburb has sued Waze, an Israel-based company, accusing them of creating a neighborhood traffic jam.

But the Leonia ordinance might be the most dramatic example of a town taking drastic measures to combat the effects of a disruptive mobility technology. It raises a host of thorny questions about the responsibilities of private companies when they impact public space, and how government can, and should, respond. “Demographic explosion and the growth of urban areas are just going to make this problem worse,” said Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, where he has extensively studied the effects of routing apps on traffic. “It’s a real time bomb. There’s no doubt.”

To see how this battle was playing out, on a brisk April morning, I took a short ride from New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to Leonia.

Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that congestion had improved, but they were split on its consequences. Many residents said the ordinance’s most passionate proponents were young parents, who had felt that the town’s roads had become unsafe thanks to the extra traffic. One resident of 38 years, who declined to be named, was glad to see more safety on Fort Lee Road, which has seen deaths in the past. But she felt that the rules were “kind of idiotic”—the town, she said, should have gone after the tech companies behind the apps, not the drivers who use them. (Borough officials have said that the town is in touch with Waze, although any algorithm-retooling effort thus far has not been made clear.)

Bob Fitch, who bought his family home in Leonia in 1968, said the road laws had “certainly stopped that problem of drivers finding their way through our neighborhood’s roads.” But when his son had come to visit from Florida, he said he had been stopped by police for not having the yellow tag in his car: Fitch thought this run-in was a “little too aggressive” for a Leonia native. He was also somewhat taken aback when he’d returned from vacation without even knowing the ordinance was in place. “How could there have not been a vote on this?” he asked. (In fact, the ordinance was approved by the Borough Council in December, and Mayor Zeigler said then it was “thoroughly” researched.)

The biggest issue I heard was about the ban’s effect on local business. In February, several shop owners marched on the mayor’s office to protest the road laws. Some small businesses cited revenue drops as high as 40 percent since December. One employee told me that Leonia was a “ghost town” in the first few weeks after the traffic ordinance was signed.

In response, the town promised to install new signs that were more informative and welcoming than the existing “Do Not Enter” signs. “We believe that these signs are scaring some non-residents, and they’re worried that they’re not able to shop or dine at their favorite Leonia destinations,” Zeigler said in a news release. The road law was later amended to clarify that anyone visiting Leonia to do business was allowed to do so at any hour. A brown banner was also put up across Broad Avenue, one of Leonia’s main drags: “Leonia, NJ. Open for Business.”

This might serve as a rare reminder that navigation apps also offer potential economic positives to those communities that find themselves targeted by rerouted drivers, who might come upon eateries or businesses they wouldn’t have found otherwise by using the apps. Gladys Calero, who has owned Rumba Cafe for 15 years, told me that “people from all over” North Jersey come to eat at her cozy Colombian restaurant. But since the restrictions, she has seen a “big decline in foot traffic,” and that every local business she knows has been affected. “There are just less cars here now,” she said. The banner, she said, “was one of the solutions they think will help,” but she’s not holding her breath. “Let’s see when the seasons change,” she told me around lunchtime. “Maybe things will get better.”

The economic impact issue was also the most divisive. Most of the small business owners I spoke with refused to give their names, out of fear of retribution from customers, who, they said, believe that the businesses are putting profits over traffic safety. “When a customer walks in,” one employee told me, “I never know who supports the laws, and who doesn’t.” There was also a race factor: The town boasts a growing Asian population, largely Korean-American; several business owners who’ve resisted the law said they have received hateful remarks for speaking out against it. In the end, they all repeatedly stressed that they wanted what was best for Leonia.

A few days after my trip to Leonia, I gave Jacqueline Rosa a call. Rosa is an attorney who lives in Edgewater, a waterfront town a few miles away. She filed a legal complaint in early February, contending that her right to access public roads was being denied by Leonia’s road laws. “I’ve done business there, I’ve used some banks there, I’ve been to the bakery and Italian restaurant there,” she told me. “So I said, ‘I’m not gonna get stopped and tell people where I’m going.’ I can’t get home. I’m not a New York City commuter.”

She’s received a number of calls in support, she says. The only public middle school and high school for Edgewater students is in Leonia, and many parents, she heard, had been stopped while dropping children off in the morning, making them late to work. It was difficult to tell, however, if traffic in Edgewater had gotten any worse as a result of Leonia’s restrictions, she said. “Traffic comes with the territory,” she argued. “You don’t move across the street from New York City and expect there to be little traffic.”

Rosa’s lawsuit claims that Leonia’s road restrictions intersect with federal and state highways, yet were never approved by the state’s department of transportation, which is legal grounds for invalidation. Now she is waiting for the department’s response and expecting an answer within 30 days. “Whatever ruling comes down in the Leonia case is obviously going to be precedent for any other town that does it,” she said.

According to press reports, Mayor Zeigler did not comment on the case, but said the town’s bill was “in the early stages and open to adjustments.” In the past, borough officials have cited a Supreme Court decision from 1977 that affirmed local government’s right to restrict commuter parking as provable precedent.

Systemwide, it’s not clear whether states have the authority to block local traffic rulings like Leonia’s. Alexandre Bayen expects “a lot of pendulum swings” around similar court cases, he said, with aggrieved homeowners attempting “more and more radical things to resist, and then the system probably fighting back, to bring it back to equilibrium.” A class-action lawsuit is a possibility: While it may be difficult for a small town like Leonia to take on a huge corporation like Google alone, municipalities could conceivably group their grievances together and sue the app’s makers for disturbing the peace.

But to actually address the effects of mobility tech on towns and cities, public agencies must unpack what Bayen described as a matryoshka—a Russian nesting doll—of issues, where solving one leads to another. Should suburbs receive some sort of payment for absorbing motorists bound for the urban center? If so, how would you measure the amount of traffic, and its impact? How do even you classify trips? (Think thru-traffic to New York, vis-a-vis visiting Gladys’ cafe for lunch.) And lastly, how do you charge for it?

“It’s a data problem. It’s a private vs. public sector interaction problem. It’s a legal problem. It’s a policy problem. And we haven’t even gotten to the equity issues yet,” Bayen said. “If you start to charge for some piece of roadway, whether it’s a freeway or city [street], then who gets affected by it?”

From a technological perspective, it wouldn’t be difficult to answer those last two questions: Connected cars could be tracked via GPS or sensors. But the politics are another story. For example, Bayen said, in California, an impact fee can only be charged on “new construction,” not existing roads, and in some states, a congestion pricing scheme has no legal basis. The judicial framework does not exist right now to create a coherent ecosystem of traffic flow, especially when responsibility is often divided between local, city, state, or federal control.

What’s needed, Bayen says, is a universal agreement of how thru-traffic should be handled by different jurisdictions. For example, officials from Leonia, its surrounding townships, and the states of New York and New Jersey would come together under a “joint position,” he explains, that lays out exactly what they want to see on particular roads, and install proper institutional framework to achieve it. It sounded like a new social contract for mobility in the 21st century: “They could say 70 percent go this way [during rush hour], and 30 percent go this way.”

But that will require striking a grand bargain between what’s optimal for both a major city and small town—a difficult proposition, he admits.

Still, what’s happening right now—where towns need to make their own streets less accessible to keep traffic under control—isn’t working either. After rush hour had ended in Leonia, the streets were notably calm. There were only a handful of people in the shops and cafes I visited on its main thoroughfares. That quiet might be typical for a suburban weeknight in New Jersey, but it somehow felt particular to Leonia.

“If the only thing you can do to defend yourself is to make your own traffic more inefficient,” Bayen said, “the whole system has gotten to a place which is really not desirable.”

How ‘Evicted’ Became an Exhibit

To write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on evictions, Matthew Desmond did his homework: The Princeton sociologist spent two years living in two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods—one a largely white trailer park, one a mostly black rooming house—embedding with the families he chronicled and following their lives as they suffered the hazards of unsafe housing and the psychological distress that flows from eviction.

To build out its exhibit on Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., spent $586 on particleboard at Home Depot. The show, which opened over the weekend, features house-shaped frames on which curators have plastered photos, infographics, and quotes from Desmond’s book.

The figure is inadvertently revealing. What the Building Museum spent to give shape to Desmond’s book is roughly the same as what one of Evicted’s subjects makes in a month. Lamar, a Milwaukee father and double-amputee who can’t collect disability, earns $628 a month; he spends 88 percent of that on his rent, before he is evicted.

An installation in the National Building Museum’s “Evicted” exhibit. (Carl Cox/National Building Museum)

Evicted,” which opened over the weekend, goes to lengths to show the broad strokes of the eviction crisis in America. It’s filled with statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that reveal the plight of poor families. It distills the policy analysis of Desmond’s book to three critical points: Incomes are stagnant, rents are rising, and the government is not filling the gap.

In places, the exhibit, which was curated by Sarah Leavitt, makes elegant points with simple strokes. A wall of dangling keys illustrate the disproportionate effect of evictions on black women. Gold keys show how many Milwaukee women renting their homes have faced eviction by race, which works out to 1 in 15 white women, 1 in 12 Hispanic women, and 1 in 5 black women.

An infographic installation on view in “Evicted” at the National Building Museum. (Kriston Capps)

Empty light sockets and coat hooks in the exhibit flick at the problem of substandard housing. Another installation comprises the sidewalk detritus that flags an eviction: mattress, lamps, chairs, dressers. Better still are the photos from evictions in Milwaukee by Michael Kienitz (which also appear in the book). To truly evoke the crisis physically, though, the show would need to go so much further: Some of the most revolting details in Evicted involve the scores of cockroaches that thrive in the sinks, drains, cabinets, and beds of the family that lives next door to Lamar.

Both of those families were evicted by the same landlord, Sherrena, who lives large off the high rents she imposes on her extraordinarily cost-burdened tenants. The Building Museum’s show doesn’t quite capture the “profit” aspect of Desmond’s book (like Sherrena’s Camaro or trips to Jamaica). One bar chart shows how 90 percent of landlords have representation in eviction cases, compared with just 10 percent of tenants. The first bar rises above a viewer’s head, while the second bar hardly meets a viewer’s ankles.

Two maps showcase the national reach of the affordable housing crisis. One uses boxes of different sizes to illustrate the number of evictions in each state for 2015 (although it would be more telling to show the per capita rates). The callouts on this map are horrifying: In Arkansas, tenants can get criminal convictions for failing to pay rent, for example; Maryland eviction cases receive an average of just a few seconds’ worth of attention in court.

Maps like these serve as a teaser for Desmond’s latest project, Evicted Lab, the first nationwide database of evictions. As Desmond will be the first to explain, a national map of known evictions is far from complete: “Informal” evictions—when landlords pay tenants to leave, threaten them with deportations, or otherwise push them out of their homes—may in fact outnumber the formal ones.

This gap in our national understanding of the affordable housing crisis is a crisis itself. It isn’t the central lesson that emerges from the exhibit, which is studiously not slick but nevertheless rich in data and tidy graphics. But it ought to be a big takeaway, thanks in large part to Desmond’s work. What we know about evictions in America is terrifying, but what we don’t know is even worse.

Six Degrees of Acquisition: How to Improve Public Procurement

It is time to start compiling our information, experiences, and results in easy to share formats for our peers in cities, towns, and counties around the world to see and learn — in consumable volumes, at convenient times. Using the power of digital platforms and the availability of public data sets, governments can connect with others who are tackling the same issues. We must harness the fact that we are less than six degrees away from a successful acquisition.

The Micromobility Wars Are Upon Us

Save your battles over affordable housing for another day. There’s a new urban crisis afoot: the scooter.

Not the Razor scooters that kids used to zoom around on, but dockless scooters—the electric, rentable, bitty-wheeled cousins of the dockless bike. They seem to have first emerged in Santa Monica in September 2017, when scooter-share startup Bird dispatched hundreds of its motor-assisted, foot-powered black vehicles into public streets without city permission. Since then, LimeBike, Spin, and other players in the dockless bikesharing industry have entered the fray, spraying thousands of their own scooters onto the sidewalks of San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Washington, D.C., and Austin.

Like their pedal-powered relatives, the scooters are available to book via app and can be parked and picked up anywhere, thanks to GPS and sensor-enabled technology. And much like the early days of Uber and Lyft, their out-of-nowhere appearance of these scooters has triggered a backlash from locals in virtually every city. Meanwhile, the players are competing fiercely for territory.

These battles reached new heights this week. On Monday, LimeBike launched the opening salvo in Austin: It inserted more than 200 bright-green scooters into public rights-of-way, having sent a sorry-not-sorry letter to Mayor Steve Adler last week. Previously LimeBike had been negotiating with Adler’s office to launch its various wares through a city-backed dockless mobility pilot program. But after Bird unleashed its signature black scooters into the streets earlier this month without any announcement (and the city responded with only a timid attempt at enforcement), LimeBike took its gloves off.

“It is now apparent that our competitor will be allowed to operate without any significant repercussions,” LimeBike CEO and founder Tony Sun said in the letter, which also referenced Bird’s illegal arrival in Santa Monica. After the company refused to recognize a cease-and-desist order there last year, the city took Bird to criminal court and eventually settled for $300,000. “[W]e are considering our next steps as a company if the City of Austin is unable to vigorously enforce its dock-free mobility policies,” Sun wrote.

The same day, scooter-rage reached fever pitch in San Francisco. There, the city attorney’s office issued a cease-and-desist order against LimeBike, Spin and Bird for routinely breaking the law and “endangering public health and safety,” following a mess of complaints from residents about disorganized parking and hazardous sidewalk usage, epitomized by a hashtag befitting of this fraught political moment: #ScootersBehavingBadly.

The scooters aren’t actually banned in San Francisco—the city has given the three companies until April 30 to submit plans for how they’ll straighten out. But that didn’t stop a major scooter-share investor from penning an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle accusing the city supervisor who is pushing to regulate the new mode with “refus[ing] to embrace the changes necessary for our city to reach our climate goals.”

Followers of the earlier emergence of shared mobility modes such as ride-hailing and dockless bikes may detect a pattern here. San Francisco had previously asked that electric scooter companies hold off on launching services until a new scooter-permitting process was completed. Bird was the first company to disobey that request when it deployed in the Bay Area in late March. Announcing the launch, Bird also challenged its competitors to match its “Save Our Sidewalks” corporate pledge, in which the company promises to organize scooters at the end of the day, remove underutilized vehicles, and remit some revenue to the city to support bike lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure.  

A few days later, San Francisco-based rival Spin released a handful of its own dockless scooters, and its CEO, Euwyn Poon, responded to Bird’s pledge on Medium. “Our competitors’ recent overtures, including a recent ‘Save our Sidewalks’ campaign, come off as insincere given recent criminal complaints and settlements,” he wrote. “Unlike the other operators, we reached out to the appropriate stakeholders before operating in San Francisco.” But, as LimeBike did in Austin, Spin followed Bird’s lead and and started operating in the Bay.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bird is the most aggressive in the pack—its CEO Travis VanderZanden was formerly an executive at both Uber and Lyft, and it has $100 million in Series B funding to pursue its vision of deploying scooters and scooters alone in 50 U.S. cities. Its competitors, meanwhile, are more focused on bikes. Following the Uber-esque business ethos of move-first-apologize-later, Bird is essentially forcing its rivals to enter cities faster than they might have otherwise. It’s classic tech industry hubris.

But the upside to the “micromobility wars,” as lawyer-writer Jim McPherson recently dubbed this multi-city e-scooter standoff, is that it seems to force local regulators to move a little faster. After Bird settled with Santa Monica earlier this year, the city issued a stopgap emergency ordinance legalizing the scooters under certain conditions. Now, both San Francisco and Austin are hustling to update codes and regulate the new mode. Yesterday, San Francisco city officials heard proposed legislation that would permit scooter companies and enforce laws around parking and usage. And Austin authorities are feeling the pressure: “In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, (the department) recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot time frame,” Austin’s transportation department director said in a memo to city council on Monday.

That would seem to be a good thing—like their bicycle brethren and unlike their ride-hailing predecessors, electric scooters have the potential to replace trips that might otherwise be made in cars. Cities that want to cut down on vehicle miles and emissions should encourage them, not shut them down. No wonder #ScootersBehavingBadly has already created its own backlash, complete with counter-hashtags, from pedestrian and cycling advocates (and certain faux anti-urbanists). They argue that scooter crackdowns are a distraction from the real threat to street safety: #CarsKillingPeople and #CarsAreTheProblem.

Whether they are saviors or sidewalk menaces, dockless bikes, scooters, and other micromobility modes may face a very uncertain future once the venture capital that funds them runs out. The scooters are considerably pricier to rent than bikes, which rent for about $1 per 30 minutes; both Bird, Spin, and LimeBike charge scooter riders $1 to start and then 15 cents per minute thereafter, which comes to about $10 per hour. That could make for a profitable business model, especially once it’s legalized. But there are many questions about how well these things actually perform at their mobility tasks. Compared to bicycles, they are limited in their range and speed: On a full charge, the maximum range of Bird scooters is just 15 miles (other companies seem to go a little further), and have a claimed top speed of 15 mph. It’s too soon to say whether that’s quick and efficient enough to sustain “last-mile electric vehicle sharing,” as Bird describes it services.

For now, perhaps the scooter’s moment in the limelight of urban turf wars should be savored for the levity it brings to the news, compared to the national and international political scene. There are much graver battles happening between private interests and public good, and indeed other scooters to indict. “Apparently Bird, or LimeBike, or both, misinterpreted Trump’s order last week pardoning scooters. Or perhaps I’m confused,” quipped Ben Wear, a transportation reporter for the American-Statesman in Austin. A city can dream.

Energy Democracy Media Roundup — Week of April 16, 2018

This week in Energy Democracy news: Legislative action on solar energy on the state level, both positive (Kentucky) and negative (South Carolina); a nonprofit is bringing small-scale renewables to the rooftops of poor residents of Brooklyn; a rundown of the showdown in Decorah, Iowa regarding local control over their energy future; and an interesting report from Maryland detailing the benefits of distributed renewables.… Read More

The post Energy Democracy Media Roundup — Week of April 16, 2018 appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Suspiciously Black in Starbucks

Over the weekend, a video circulated on the Internet of police handcuffing and removing two black men from a Starbucks in Philadelphia last Thursday, April 12. The incident is illustrative of what pains many African Americans about the threats of gentrification: The men were reportedly charged with trespassing, and for a neighborhood like Philly’s Rittenhouse Square, where the trespassed Starbucks is located, that may have been true in the eyes of a cafe manager trying to interpret the motives of two black people sitting in the establishment without ordering something.

On VisitPhilly.com, Rittenhouse Square is promoted as “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive neighborhood.”

Even though Philadelphia has a large African-American population, Rittenhouse Square is one of its whitest neighborhoods. The charges of trespassing against these two black men have to be viewed through that lens. It must also be answered whether the two men were simply trespassing on private property or whether they were trespassing on property located in an “exclusive” neighborhood—meaning excluding people who look like them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has something to say about that, having collected data on police encounters with African Americans across the city since 2011 as part of a consent decree concerning racially discriminatory police patterns. What the ACLU found is that the police service area where Rittenhouse Square is located has “the highest racial disparities in pedestrian stops in the entire city”—67 percent of the people stopped there are African American, despite the black population in this area being only 3 percent.

“Are Black people not welcome in this neighborhood? That’s the message that is sent by police officers who repeatedly stop African-Americans there without cause,” reads a statement from Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “There was no need for this incident to end with these two men in handcuffs. And it wouldn’t have, if Commissioner Ross and the leadership of District 9 were serious about ending the mistreatment of Black people in that neighborhood and all over Philadelphia.”

On April 16, 2018, a coffee beans roast sign sits in front of protestors holding an “End Stop & Frisk” sign inside a Starbucks where two black men were arrested five days earlier in Philadelphia. (REUTERS/Mark Makela)

To be clear, the two men arrested at the Starbucks were not randomly selected and approached by police and then patted down for drugs and guns, as per the usual stop-and-frisk modus operandi. Instead, a Starbucks manager called the police, who came in squad deep, and used their discretion to make an arrest. However, criminal justice activists are treating the Starbucks ordeal as akin to stop-and-frisk practices, perhaps because of the context of the neighborhood where it happened. And this may not be the first time that black people have had problems in that Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former criminal defender who is quite sensitive to the overpolicing of African Americans, declined to bring charges against the two men who were arrested. There have also been protests at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks almost every day now since a video of the incident went viral over the weekend. The Starbucks manager who called the police has since left the store and claims that she did not intend to have this end in arrests. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized publicly on behalf of his company and met with the two men in person on Monday, reportedly to ask forgiveness.

“Ambiguity was part of what caused the problem, the ambiguity about when and whether to call the police,” said Johnson in an interview. “There are situations where it’s appropriate to call the police, situations where there are threats or disruptions in our store. This situation had none of that and these two gentlemen did not deserve what unfolded.”

Many of the people involved in the apologia have invoked “unconscious bias” as a culprit in this racial spillover, and Starbucks announced today it was closing all of its stores next month for a racial bias training. Even the NAACP said in a statement that the “Starbucks situation provides dangerous insight regarding the failure of our nation to take implicit bias seriously.”

It’s not clear what makes this an act of the unconscious or implicit variety, though. If a neighborhood is selling itself as “exclusive” then it’s more difficult to draw the line between covert and just plain ol’ overt racism. Starbucks, by design, does not separate itself from the character of its local host gentry. As it reads on the Starbucks store design webpage: “We believe a coffeehouse should be a welcoming, inviting and familiar place for people to connect, so we design our stores to reflect the unique character of the neighborhoods they serve.”

The only ambiguity is how Starbucks defines “welcoming,” “inviting,” and “familiar,” given this is not what African Americans in this neighborhood seem to experience. Instead, the Starbucks manager may have been doing what she was supposed to do, by carrying out her company’s store design mission, by reflecting the character of a neighborhood where black people are stopped and frisked at an extraordinary clip. In that case, training for “unconscious bias” is not what’s needed; what’s needed is a fundamental change of its design—one that allows a Starbucks store to actually make good on its inclusive goals, even if located in an “exclusive” neighborhood.

Despite Starbucks’ stated goals, and campaigns like its controversial “Race Together” experiment, many people still protest when a Starbucks is scheduled to open in their neighborhood. When opening in a black community, a concern is whether the cafe actually will adopt the character of that black neighborhood, or if it will traffic in the kind of values that personify it as a “white space,” as Jamelle Bouie calls it in Slate.

Indeed, while the Starbucks design is supposed to embrace the feel of its host community, the stores still, for the most part, look the same no matter where you go. The logo of the Norse mermaid remains ubiquitous, for instance, which may send its own kind of signal to people of color. We also know that Starbucks itself fuels the kind of rising property values that gives gentrification a bad name among struggling low-income workers.

What many black people want assurance of, when they see a Starbucks opening in their community, is that they will be able to walk into this new establishment without suddenly being made to feel like a trespasser. It’s not that black people don’t want sophisticated amenities in their neighborhoods, or that they don’t drink coffee. The racial income and wealth gaps are real, as is black poverty, but there are certainly enough ably-incomed African Americans who can purchase a $5 macchiato if they choose. What they don’t want, though, is to be viewed with suspicion because of their skin color. That is one of the parts of gentrification that is most difficult to live with.

A year ago, I wrote about the rise of coffeehouse culture and how this had begun to redraw, or maybe even calcify the class- and color-lines of what is considered an urban hangout. The TV show “Friends” helped popularize the coffeehouse in this regard, with its all-white cast of characters regularly frequenting a cafe near New York City’s Central Park. These white characters creatively loafed in this coffeehouse free of the consequences that usually come with being un- or under-employed; free of concerns that they’ll be stopped or frisked when leaving the cafe; free of the pressure of diversity— given few if any black characters or consumers ever patronized this fictional cafe—and free of the agony of worrying that they would ever be viewed with suspicion in their coffee club, whether they were ordering something there or not. These are the kinds of values that coffeehouse culture signals to people of color, and the unnecessary arrests in the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks sees those values to their logical conclusion.

Understanding the Great Connecticut Taxpocalypse

Wall Street is warning Connecticut that its cities and towns could be in danger. An analysis released by Moody’s last week says that recent changes to federal tax law may wreck municipal finances across the state. From Stamford to Hartford, that’s not exactly a surprise to Connecticut residents.

Back in December, when Congress passed a major revision of the tax code, the bill included a cap on the state and local tax deduction. Wealthy households in high-tax states especially benefited from this provision, making the state and local tax (or SALT) deduction an easy target for a unified GOP government.

In states with high local and state taxes—due today, don’t forget!—the new dispensation could lead to stagnant property values. That, in turn, affects property tax receipts. And Connecticut relies on property taxes like almost no other state.

“Because fewer people are going to be able to deduct the property tax, there is the concern that this will lower the demand for housing,” says Richard Pomp, professor of law at the University of Connecticut. “That will lower a municipality’s property tax base at the next reassessment.”

Capping the state and local tax deduction, while doubling the standard deduction for married couples, means fewer households choosing to itemize, or more households owing more to Uncle Sam. In high-tax states—namely California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—these taxpayers may balk at then paying higher local rates to make up a shortfall.

“There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the recently passed sweeping federal tax reform will adversely impact a majority of property taxpayers and towns and city governments across Connecticut,” says Kevin Maloney, communications director for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, in an email.

“Limiting the ability of Connecticut towns and cities to write off property tax paid annually will only place more pressure on the property tax in Connecticut, making Connecticut local economies and tax environment more uncompetitive and depressing the value of homeownership,” he adds.

More than 41 percent of returns in Connecticut included a SALT deduction in 2014, the last year available. The average amount for this deduction was $19,000. Property taxes represent an absolutely vital source of revenue for cities in Connecticut: According to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, property taxes account for 60 percent of local revenues—twice the national average.  

Connecticut also ranks as the state with the highest income inequality across the nation. This is reflected in enormous disparities between rich and poor cities and their ability to fund services through property taxes. Yet despite the stark difference in their circumstances, both rich and poor cities are likely to feel the sting of the new federal tax regime, thanks to high fixed costs (such as pensions) that affect everyone—and a state government whose finances are as tricky as any city’s.   

Hartford, which flirted with bankruptcy just last year, nevertheless faces brighter prospects than many Connecticut cities. (Even Moody’s agrees). Still, the city is not as rich as its suburbs, says Vasishth Srivastava, spokesperson for the mayor’s office. Its property tax base runs to $4 billion, about the same as its suburbs, Farmington and Glastonbury, smaller enclaves with higher median incomes. The difference: Half of the real property in Hartford is tax exempt—the hospitals, universities, and museums that make Hartford an employment hub and tourist draw.

As Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin puts it, “You cannot run a city on the tax base of a suburb.” The city’s new budget, released on Monday and subject to state oversight, reflects its precarious position. Despite new reductions on services on top of deep budget cuts passed last year, the budget imagines a $50 million gap between revenues and expenditures, assuming no big changes from the state government. A state committee now signs off on any spending by Hartford, including this budget, after the state retired more than $540 million in debt owed by the city last year in order to help Hartford stave off default.

Cities across Connecticut are balancing service cuts with spending cuts and tax hikes. Making matters worse, the state’s population is shrinking, as residents follow companies out the door. Hartford plans to weather the storm by doing what it can to draw more residents of all sorts to the city—a strategy to keep the bottom from falling out. (The insurance company Aetna planned to leave Hartford before its acquisition by CVS; for now, it’s staying put.) The Hartford campus of the University of Connecticut relocated last fall from West Hartford to downtown. The city also picked up a minor league baseball team, the Yard Goats, from New Britain—another effort to keep students and empty nesters in town.

“Hartford as well as the other major urban areas have limited taxable property that pays property taxes,” Pomp says. “Anything that might drive down the value of real estate is a possible threat.”

But there are many cities and towns in the Nutmeg State with far dimmer prospects. The “significant headwinds” predicted by Moody’s pose an even larger threat in Bridgeport, a long-suffering industrial city in the state’s southwest. A shrinking tax base and plummeting property values has generated a vicious cycle of ever-higher tax increases on remaining residents: As The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels reported in 2016, Bridgeport’s punishing vicious cycle has led to the highest tax burden in the nation.

In that year, a Bridgeport family making $75,000 a year faced a tax rate of nearly 16 percent. The city’s wealthy households have already fled the city, for the most part, but the GOP tax bill could still drive others away. But Bridgeport’s high taxes slam the middle class, too. The city is asking the state for a deal like Hartford’s—so far, unsuccessfully—although it is not volunteering to submit to a state oversight board.  

“Hartford is blessed by having an extremely bright and high-energy mayor who seems to be turning the corner,” Pomp says. “One doesn’t have the same confidence in Bridgeport.” (Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim served 7 years in federal prison on corruption charges between his prior term as mayor, which ended with his conviction in 2003, and his reelection in 2015. The mayor’s office did not answer a request for comment.)

Fairfield, an affluent town next door to struggling Bridgeport, suffered a major blow when General Electric decamped to Boston two years ago, leaving its corporate headquarters after more than 40 years in Connecticut. Despite the generous corporate tax cuts that Connecticut gave GE, Fairfield could not compete for the culture, convenience, and concentration of tech workers offered by Boston. The question now haunting cities across Connecticut is whether residents will follow suit.

No one can say for sure. For starters, the very wealthiest households in Connecticut may make up enough in tax cuts from the Republican bill to offset their higher property tax obligations. But if wealthy households don’t make out OK—if Moody’s is right and Connecticut cities are screwed—then the first tell may be when wealthy snowbird households decide to spend more than half the year in Florida.

“It could be that the estate tax combined with the new cap on state and local taxes will be just enough to make it worthwhile to spend the money on tax lawyers and the inconvenience of being out of the state for half the year,” Pomp says.

Connecticut’s struggle to keep them is playing out in the courts. The state, along with New Jersey and New York, has sued the federal government over the tax law, arguing that the change to the SALT deduction violates the Equal Protection Clause and the Tenth Amendment. Meanwhile, the Connecticut state legislature is mulling changes that would allow taxpayers to set up trusts to give charitable (and deductible) contributions to the state government. For wealthy Connecticut households, that might be easier than than relocating their country club memberships to Fort Lauderdale.

For Hartford, the best way to adjust to a new tax landscape is to double down on the city’s strengths. The city has added more than 1,000 housing units over the last few years by converting former industrial buildings downtown. Luring a new campus downtown is a similar effort to “put feet on the street,” as Srivastava says.

“The campus is one part of the effort to build a critical mass of people and that supports smaller businesses like coffee shops,” he says. “Then you hopefully get the virtuous circle, where people draw more people, and small businesses draw more small businesses.”