That celebrated separation of cars and people created an inefficient zigzag labyrinth of walkways whose design seemed almost intended to reduce the number of “eyes on the street,” promoting a feeling of insecurity among users. By attempting to draw a line between Thamesmead and the grubby, smoky world of older London, its planners did little to join it to its surrounding districts. A railway ran between the new quarter and its southern neighbor, while the project itself remained something of a backwater, ill-provided with shops.
That striking modernist aesthetic gave Thamesmead both fame and notoriety. Chosen as a key setting for Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange—a film withdrawn in Britain after fears of copycat violence—the area came to be identified with the perceived callousness of modern life, less a place of escape from London’s grime than a place of exile.
An example of state planning gone wrong, then? Not exclusively. Much of the area was further developed in the early 2000s by private developers hoping to attract wealthier professionals. The attempts failed, leaving the speculatively built housing under-occupied and associated with home loan fraud—and often in worse condition than its state-built counterparts. If the area’s immediate post-millennial history showed anything, it’s that contemporary planning culture was better at critiquing Modernism than providing a successful alternative.
That sense of optimism present in the 1970 film isn’t entirely gone. Now a diverse area in which Afro-Caribbean residents narrowly form the largest group, if not an overall majority, within its current 50,000 residents, Thamesmead matches still poor transit links with a peaceful end-of-the-line feel. That could soon change.
London’s Crossrail—a new east-west heavy rail link—arrives on its southern edge next year, and plans by current social housing provider Peabody Trust are seeing the place revamped to make wayfinding easier and public spaces more usable. Go for a walk along the tree-lined river banks here—at their widest breadth in all London—and it’s not hard to see why the area and setting so caught planners’ imagination, and why it could indeed be a good place to live.
Market rules and regulations must be clear, simple, and visible to all market participants. They should allow for fair competition and for reasonable returns on investment. This way, sellers and buyers are encouraged to make investments.
In December of 2016, the Genoese newspaper Il Seculo XIXsounded a familiar alarm about Italy’s infrastructure spending: Authorities were too focused on building new things, rather than paying for years of deferred maintenance on aging structures built in previous decades. The story focused in particular on the estimated 5,000 bridges in the region of Liguria. Many had been built in the 1950s and ‘60s. And some of them were falling down.
Antonio Brencich, an engineering professor at the University of Genoa, told reporter Roberto Sculli that until the 1950s, the best bridges in Italy were built to support at least the weight of a U.S. Army Sherman tank; after that, the 60-ton M1 Abrams tank became the benchmark, or at least 2.5 times the weight of expected traffic. But after 10 to 20 years, structural deficiencies were likely to emerge; unless the ongoing maintenance on these bridges was properly funded and kept up, cracks would start to show.
Brencich singled out one bridge in particular—one critical to the local economy—that had grown immensely expensive to keep up. “We risk ending up like the Morandi Bridge, whose maintenance costs are so exorbitant that it’s cheaper to build a new one,” he said.
On late Tuesday morning, a 260-foot section of that suspension bridge collapsed onto the highway below during a severe storm. Rescue work continues, but 26 are believed dead, according to the New York Times, and dozens of others injured.
The national news agency ANSA said that a dozen or so vehicles may have been on that section of the bridge when it collapsed. An eerie video posted on Twitter by the Polizia di Stato, the national police force in charge of highway patrol, shows the bridge’s central beams tumbling through the dense fog. In it, an eyewitness can be heard repeatedly yelling “Oh God!” as the structure falls.
The country’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, quickly visited the scene of the collapse, one of the worst infrastructure-related disasters in Italy in recent years. The incident has sparked an urgent debate over the country’s ability to maintain its postwar infrastructure.
On Twitter, the national transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, called the accident an “enormous tragedy.” Afterwards, he told the state news agency RAI that every relevant state agency would be immediately instructed to examine the country’s infrastructure and assess its safety. “This is what Italy needs to do, now,” he reportedly said.
The disaster comes at an unpredictable time for the European nation, which, since 2010, has seen six different prime ministers and many years of economic stagnation. The current ruling coalition is made up of two populist parties that lack significant experience in governing—the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement and the far-right Lega Nord. The rise of this coalition has sent shockwaves through Italy and across the EU.
The country’s clogged rule of law has been cited as a main deterrent to growth and public investment. Critics say that the constantly shifting power-baton in Parliament has made systematic planning all but impossible, and that trickles down to how infrastructure is funded and maintained. According to the European Commission, Italy ranks slightly lower than the EU average for its road infrastructure, placing 17th out of 28 countries.
Since taking office in June, the coalition government has called for a Trump-like palette of policies, including blanket tax cuts for corporations, a revisiting of regulations within the EU, demands to reduce migration, and Make-Italy-Great-Again-esque calls to boost infrastructure spending. Such messages resonate here in the nation that invented the superhighway. Ignited by Marshall Plan recovery funds, the postwar period known as the “Italian economic miracle” saw nearly two decades of strong growth and a vast transit- and highway-building boom that helped create the autostrade-ribboned modern Italy.
The bridge collapse on Tuesday will bring intense scrutiny to that infrastructure legacy. In the interview with RAI, Toninelli said that older structures would be prioritized.
The Morandi Bridge, or the Polcevera viaduct, opened to the public in 1967 after four years of construction. It carries travelers from the northern parts of Lombardy to the beaches of Liguria, cutting through the middle of of the industrial port city of Genoa to connect two major highways in the area, the A10 and the A7. The bridge’s size and height is visibly daunting. Stretching 3,615 feet, it towers some 148 feet over roads, railroad tracks, and the Torrente Polcevera, a slim stream.
The bridge’s construction used a mix of both reinforced and prestressed concrete, a technique that the bridge’s namesake, the engineer Riccardo Morandi, was known for; he built similar projects in Venezuela and Libya. But its striking design, while celebrated, proved increasingly expensive to keep up since the 1980s—a point that Brencich had alluded to years before, saying that the combination of the two different types made the structure uneven.
However, Italian authorities said on Tuesday that the bridge was inspected regularly, and its foundation was being restored at the time of the collapse. A restructuring project had also been funded in 2016.
With an official investigation into the cause of the collapse just beginning, both local and federal officials mentioned that a criminal inquiry would be opened into whether negligence was a factor. Witnesses at the scene described serious storm conditions, and told reporters that lightning was seen in the area at the time of collapse. High winds could be a factor: According to AccuWeather, the wind was gusting up to 30 to 40 miles per hour.
That may or may not have been one factor in the collapse. Wesley Cook, a structural engineer at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, told CityLab that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the situation in Genoa. “In a historical context, before 1950, wind was the number-one reason bridges collapsed,” he said. “That has shifted, though, through research and reporting.”
With decades-old structures, Cook said that regular maintenance is more critical than age itself: The condition of bridges built decades ago can swing between “good” and “poor.” Public agencies, he said, will try to keep it at that threshold, and not let it get any worse. (With the Minneapolis I-35W collapse in 2007, which killed 13 people, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled age out as a key factor. Investigators traced the failure of that 40-year-old bridge to a design flaw.) “Usually there’s a triggering event that causes the collapse,” Cook said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 40 years old or 140 years old, once you get out past 25 years.”
Cook, who authored a 2014 study on bridge failures nationwide, said that “many but not all” suspension bridges were more vulnerable than other bridge types. What really matters, he added, is whether or not the bridge is deemed “fracture critical”—these are defined as structures in which, among other things, the failure of a single element will bring on a catastrophic cascade. As in the recent pedestrian bridge failure in Miami and the I-35W disaster in Minneapolis, deadly collapses, Cook said, are often the culmination of many different factors.
Two years ago, Genoese engineer Brencich made a similar point: “The collapse of a bridge,” he said, “is the result of a long series of errors.”
At the Hong Kong Science Museum, a large display of 3-D scale models, information panels, and photos near its entrance shows off one of the city’s latest projects: the 34-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which is set to become the world’s longest sea bridge when it opens later this year.
Despite this architectural achievement, the display area is mostly empty. The occasional adult can be seen reading information panels about how the bridge was built and new construction techniques. Kids, meanwhile, flit through the display, pressing some of the buttons and light switches before they get distracted by something else.
The actual bridge is also failing to generate much excitement.
While the project has been an enormous and in many ways impressive undertaking, it has also been miredinseveralscandals. Most notably, it’s $1.5 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. Part of this may be due to the complexity of the project, which includes a main 18-mile sea bridge and a 4-mile underwater sea tunnel with artificial island entrances.
Together, the bridge will connect three very different places: Hong Kong, a former British colony and international finance hub of 7.3 million; Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is minuscule in size but dwarfs Las Vegas in gambling revenue; and Zhuhai, a mainland city with a population of 1.6 million. While already well-connected by land, air, and sea, the bridge creates a more direct road link intended to shorten travel times.
China hopes to unite these cities and the other metropolises of the Pearl River Delta like Shenzhen and Guangzhou into a megacity cluster under the “Greater Bay Area” scheme with transit links like the bridge playing an important role—although it has yet to release many details.
However, for many Hong Kongers, the bridge is just the city’s latest white elephant in a lengthy list of unnecessary projects designed to show that the Hong Kong government—a quasi-democratic, executive-led bureaucracy—is accomplishing something. Excitement has dimmed even further ahead of the bridge’s opening as traffic predictions are down by as much as 26 percent, according to the South China Morning Post, as another rival bridge on the Pearl River Delta also nears completion.
But the bridge’s true purpose is not to connect three already very connected places. Instead, its true purpose seems to be to serve as a piece of infrastructural propaganda to announce the unity of China and her former colonies, despite their very different historic, legal, and even transportation backgrounds. Somewhat tellingly, the bridge comes with a lengthy set of rules for use, with the average Hong Konger unable to simply get on the bridge and drive from end to end.
Some weeks earlier, from her office in Hong Kong’s legislative complex overlooking Tamar Park and Victoria Harbor, Civic Party legislator Claudia Mo describes a convincing meta narrative for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
“It was introduced as something—it’s almost sentimental. It’s about blood politics. We’re all Chinese. We’re all great descendants of the dragon,” says Mo, a former journalist member of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
“Essentially it boils down to… Hong Kong-China integration. Hong Kong has done its job basically in history. Hong Kong used to be China’s gangplank [to the world]. Now if Hong Kong wants to survive on, develop on, it needs to integrate with the mother country, or else.”
Mo’s take on the bridge may have a flair of the dramatic, but her feelings echo that of many Hong Kongers in the years after the city’s handover to China in 1997 and increasingly since 2014’s 79-day pro-democracy protest, known as the “Umbrella Movement.”
While China pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 under the “one country, two systems,” agreement with the United Kingdom, it has been slowly chipping away at Hong Kong’s legal and political system according to external assessment by the European Union and the U.S. State Department. Confidence in the “one country, two systems” model hit an all time low in May, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Survey Program, with just 40.5 percent of respondents expressing positive views.
It is one reason why in the four years since the Umbrella Movement, offshoot localist and pro-independence groups have gained traction with many younger Hong Kongers, who take issue with encroachment by Beijing on Hong Kong political space. Many of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement went on to form the political party Demosisto, which frequently criticizes the Beijing’s interference in the legal and political system.
In this context, a bridge tying Hong Kong to China has been met with either indifference or distrust, especially by younger and more political residents, according to Hong Kong Legislative Councillor Kwok Ka Ki, another member of the Civic Party.
“A lot of people, particularly the younger generation, regard [the bridge] as a means of trying to blur Hong Kong with the Mainland,” he added. “All this infrastructure, the rapid railway, this bridge, expanding or increasing number of border crossings, give the impression and general effect to regard we are just next to the mainland, we are just part of this big country. For the young people they are indifferent or they aren’t happy to see that bridge.”
In addition to completing the bridge, Hong Kong will also soon see the opening of an express rail line to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the mainland. Controversially, immigration officials from mainland China will be have jurisdiction over part of the train station.
The decision has made many Hong Kongers nervous, particularly following the high profile kidnapping of five booksellers in 2015 by Chinese security agents and that of billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who vanished from a Hong Kong hotel room in 2017 and reemerged in Chinese detention.
Other Hong Kongers, he said, are simply indifferent or only see the “scandals” including faked concrete tests, the death of seven construction workers, as well as the death of a number of dolphins living around the construction site and possible design flaws which have been extensively reported in the local media. The massive budget overruns are also unpopular given that Hong Kong, one of the most unequal societies in the world, could use its extensive wealth to improve social welfare, healthcare, and education programs. (The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge Authority, heading the project from China, initially replied to an emailed inquiry on behalf of CityLab but did not reply to questions about concerns with the bridge expressed in the Hong Kong media. The Hong Kong Transport and Housing Department said that budget overruns are due to the “the complicated conditions” of building on the open sea as well as increased construction costs.)
Despite these many public relations setbacks, the Hong Kong government has been fairly consistent in its talking points on the bridge and what it will accomplish since the first feasibility study was published in 2003. First and most importantly, it says, the bridge will dramatically reduce travel times between Hong Kong and Zhuhai. For example, driving from Zhuhai to the Hong Kong airport will drop from four hours to 45 minutes, according to the Highways Department.
Hong Kong has also touted the bridge as an important way for Hong Kong to reinforce its status as an “international shipping and aviation center”; unite with and help to develop the western Pearl River Delta; and promote regional tourism.
Whether it will fulfill its promises, though, is less certain. Like many large cities, Hong Kong has a mixed track record of success when it comes to transit projects. A survey of three major Hong Kong transit projects by the OMEGA Centre for Mega Projects in Transport and Development in London showed that while the airport express rail, opened in 1998, has been extremely popular, the undersea Western Tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island and Kowloon has been used less than its older, rival tunnel further east due to the high fee associated with it.
The West Kowloon Rail Link to improve transit to the New Territories, a more sparsely population mass of Hong Kong territory, has also been used less than expected, according to OMEGA. The study found that “no data on actual or forecast revenue are available, although actual ridership numbers have been significantly below forecasts.”
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, however, is in many ways in a category of its own compared to other transit projects as it is led by an authority based in China, not Hong Kong, and it is being run jointly with China and Macau. And in a city known for red tape, there are a lot of rules—likely another reason why the project has had difficulty drumming up excitement.
For one thing, one cannot simply drive down the bridge from end to end. A Hong Kong driver hoping to use the bridge on a regular basis will be required to first get a special permit depending on their starting point and ending point. They will also be required to change their driving direction before getting on the bridge, as Hong Kong and Macau drive on the right but the flow of traffic on the bridge is on the left and Chinese side.
The rules for getting a permanent permit vary dramatically depending on the direction of traffic. To get one of 300 long-term permits to drive to Macau depends on residency status or the location of a registered businessi—although a certain number of cars each day can drive without a permit.
To get one long-term permit to drive to Zhuhai, however, depends on economic ties, and in a possible first for a piece of Hong Kong infrastructure, political ties to mainland China. The applicant must have paid over 100,000 RMB (around $15,000) in taxes in China, work for a “recognized high tech enterprise,” have donated over 5 million RMB (around $748,225) to a provincial charity, be a member of the National People’s Congress (China’s “rubber stamp” legislature) or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing (a group of around 236 people in Hong Kong), according to a report by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
The vast majority of Hong Kong residents, however, will likely end up taking a private hire car or a special bus from the port of Hong Kong to cross the bridge. It’s hard to say if their lives will be intensely impacted as regular ferry service already exists to Zhuhai and Macau.
While details of the scheme are few and far between, it will have to contend with any number of clashes, whether it’s a difference in the direction of traffic to the standards of media scrutiny. Integration will likely be met with even greater skepticism than the bridge by Hong Kong’s younger and more politically engaged generation as city residents may also find themselves increasingly questioned on their loyalty to mainland China in order to access certain public goods. But much like the bridge, practical complications will likely be outweighed by the deep propaganda value—and whatever the outcome, Hong Kong will still be handed the bill.
Another fair housing rule could be heading back to the drawing board, the latest in the Trump administration’s efforts to rewrite and potentially revoke federal policies around race and discrimination in housing. But this time, there’s a twist.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it aims to “streamline and enhance” an Obama-era rule on desegregation—the same rule that HUD Secretary Ben Carson once described as “social engineering.” If this sounds familiar, you’re right: It’s the third time this year that the department has taken aim at the rule.
This time, though, HUD is adopting a novel framework for rolling back its rule on desegregation: Carson is pitching this rule change as a way to fend off NIMBYism. The secretary wants to use the power of the purse to ease exclusionary zoning and build up to address housing affordability. But many critics—including those who might otherwise applaud any efforts to undercut the restrictive zoning rules that make multi-family housing so difficult to build in many areas—are questioning HUD’s motives. Even some Republican members of Congress may take exception to Carson’s plans to change how the rule works (instead of just getting rid of it).
At issue is a doctrine known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, a plank of the Federal Housing Act of 1968 that requires jurisdictions that receive funding from HUD to do more than just not discriminate. Under the law, any city, county, or state that receives federal housing funds must work to actively undo patterns of racial segregation—to affirmatively further this goal. The law has been on the books for 50 years, but HUD didn’t formally spell out what compliance would look like until 2015.
New rules on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing could change the policy in ways large and small—and possibly unrelated to the core issue of racial segregation. HUD’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking calls for comments on changes to minimize regulatory burden, advance local control over the process, and “encourage actions that increase housing choice, including through greater housing supply.”
This notice is the third whack that HUD has taken at the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule this year alone. First, in January, the department postponed the deadline for local governments to comply with the rule, bringing fair-housing assessments to a halt. Four months later, HUD scrapped one of the tools that municipalities were supposed to use to complete these assessments. This latest rules change is a continuation of these efforts to divert the fair-housing standard.
HUD’s ongoing pushback against the Obama-era rule has drawn a blistering response from housing advocates. More than 75 different national affordable housing and civil rights organizations condemned HUD’s delay in a joint statement back in January. In May, several of them came together to file a lawsuit against Carson and HUD to require the administration to enforce the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, even while the department is mulling potentially significant changes. (The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., which sided with fair housing advocates in a different challenge against HUD last December, heard arguments on Thursday.)
Changes to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule may not be entirely unpopular with public housing agencies, however. The rule “creates a huge planning and reporting requirement,” says Amy Glassman, a partner at Ballard Spahr who represents public housing agencies and other recipients of HUD funds. She says that some housing agencies criticize the rule because it forces them to generate onerous assessments, a draw on limited resources. “They believe in fair housing, and they believe in Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, but they think there’s gotta be a more efficient way to do it,” Glassman says.
On the other hand, adjusting the desegregation rule may not sit well with Republicans who simply want it off the books. In July 2017, Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Arizona Representative Paul Goas, along with 18 other GOP members of Congress, issued a letter to HUD complaining about the regulatory burden of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The letter called on Carson to “rescind the AFFH rule in its entirety.”
“Rather than undermining the autonomy of local housing authorities, we believe the federal government must empower local communities to tackle their own unique challenges, in compliance with the Fair Housing Act, without the threat of a new arbitrary federal mandate,” the letter reads. Carson may instead choose to preserve the rule, but bend it toward a different purpose, one that could definitely conflict with local zoning authorities.
Previously, Carson’s HUD has also cast the rule as a burden on local communities. A spokesperson for HUD told CityLab back in January that 17 of the 49 initial Assessment of Fair Housing reports submitted by communities since the rule was promulgated in 2015 were rejected. Housing advocates pushing back against HUD have said that this is an acceptable failure rate for first-time submissions, given that the process is brand new (not to mention the fact that the country is deeply segregated).
And in the past, Carson has criticized Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing in starker terms: Back in 2015, for example, he compared it to school busing in a Washington Timescolumn. (The recent GOP letter praised those statements.) With this proposed rules change, though, Carson appears to be taking a different tack by pivoting on the policy rationale.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the secretary discussed the changes to the desegregation rule primarily in terms of housing supply and demand. Exclusive zoning for single-family homes in Los Angeles, for example, represents an obstacle to affordable housing, or so Carson’s thinking goes. “Mr. Carson said the new rule would tie HUD grants, which many communities use to build roads, sewers, bridges and other infrastructure projects, to less restrictive zoning,” according to reporter Laura Kusisto.
“I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” Carson told the Journal, citing YIMBY scripture, chapter and verse.
The Journal report prompted an outcry among baffled housing advocates. Softening the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule would not lead to less exclusionary zoning, they say. Using the affordable-housing crisis as a pretext for gutting fair housing protections misunderstands the fraught relationship between zoning and segregation.
“We’re all for ideas to remove obstacles to inclusive communities, including regulatory burdens that stand in the way of desegregation,” said Jesse Van Tol, CEO for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in a statement. “But we’re concerned that HUD is taking action to remove regulations, while not meaningfully addressing America’s deep problems of segregation and inequality.”
Sasha Samberg-Champion, an attorney who is suing HUD on behalf of the National Fair Housing Alliance and several Texas housing organizations, says that Carson’s framing amounted to ”an act of misdirection.” Using HUD funds to incentivize local communities to change restrictive zoning codes isn’t a terrible idea at all, he says. But relaxing zoning codes can’t substitute for robust enforcement of fair housing law. Without a federal mandate, communities can’t be counted on to pursue fair housing, even given an incentive to build more.
“You could certainly accomplish fair housing ends through changes to the zoning code,” Samberg-Champion says. In fact, under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, communities must examine the extent to which exclusionary zoning serves as an impediment to fair housing. (Republicans objected to this obligation specifically in their letter.) “I take it that what Secretary Carson is talking about is something a little different, which is creating new housing regardless of whether it impacts on segregation.”
Instead of pushing communities to use zoning to encourage fair housing, Carson may instead be seeking new ways to undermine regulations in one stroke, in this case federal desegregation rules and local zoning authority—potentially displeasing everybody.
Local hostility to multi-family housing, especially affordable housing, continues to negatively further racial segregation patterns today. New tools and principles give the government an opportunity to overturn and uproot these patterns. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that housing policies that disproportionately negatively affect minorities are prohibited under federal law, even when those policies are not explicitly discriminatory. Exclusionary zoning was at the heart of the case that settled this “disparate impact” standard.
Despite longstanding precedent and Supreme Court affirmation, HUD reopened its rule on disparate impact in June. The National Fair Housing Alliance plans to submit a letter recommending that HUD make no changes whatsoever to the rule, per a draft obtained by CityLab. “HUD must vigorously enforce, rather than reconsider, the strong laws that level the playing field and give everyone a fair shot,” it reads.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, would like to see the disparate impact standard tossed overboard with the desegregation rule. Their July 2017 letter to HUD describes the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule as “a continuation of the previous administration’s radical pursuit of using disparate impact theory to punish communities that are not as demographically diverse as they would have wished.”
Carson flicked at the Republican view in his interview with the Journal:
In the Obama era, officials prioritized making it easier for lower-income people to move to wealthier communities, citing research that showed it improved outcomes for children. HUD’s latest move is another sign that the Trump administration has a different philosophy.
Mr. Carson said he is unconcerned about what “theoreticians” will say.
“The last administration, when they put this together they really went down an ideological pathway,” he said. “We are going to look at the people who are actually affected, what are they saying, what will be helpful to them.”
In that interview, Carson also waded into the battle that promises to shape cities for the next generation, the contest over building more housing that pits NIMBYism against YIMBYism. But the tools that HUD wants to bring to this struggle—such as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule—still have a critical role to play in the fight against segregation.
“Building an adequate supply of housing is itself a good thing,” Samberg-Champion says, “but it’s really outside the scope of this rule, which should be to ensure that the benefits of such housing inure to the benefit of truly integrated neighborhoods.”
Last week, the New York City Council took a big step toward stemming the traffic-clogging proliferation of Uber and Lyft vehicles, temporarily halting issuance of new vehicle licenses as well as authorizing a wage floor for ride-hailing service drivers. The historic bills, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law on Tuesday, signal that these companies can no longer run roughshod over legislative bodies in pursuit of growth and eventual profits.
But there has been pushback to the idea, contained in both the legislation and in my recent report, “The New Automobility,” that Uber and Lyft’s impact on big-city traffic needs to be contained. Some of this resistance comes, not unexpectedly, from the companies themselves, which strongly object to the moratorium while also accepting the wage-related provisions.
Perhaps more notable was criticism from other quarters. In a recent CityLab post, for example, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase wrote that focusing on ride service growth “sets us up for failure” because Uber, Lyft, taxis and the like “account for just 1.7 percent of miles traveled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars accounts for 86 percent.” She calls for making “all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone.”
I agree with Chase and many others that cities should make transit the most attractive way to get around town, reallocate street space to support higher-capacity modes, and charge all vehicles for their contribution to emissions, congestion, and use of curbs.
But hard as it may be, I also think that we must recognize that sometimes shared modes are not part of the answer to urban congestion, emissions, and livability. My report showed that in large, dense cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, private ride services like UberX and Lyft add 2.8 new miles to city traffic for every mile in a personal auto taken off the road. Shared services such as UberPOOL and Lyft Shared Rides do not rectify this problem: These options only reduce new miles from 2.8 to 2.6 for every mile of personal auto taken off the road. Even if Lyft meets its 2022 target to deliver 50 percent shared rides, they would still add 2.2 new miles for every mile foregone in personal autos.
These findings are tremendously important in a place like Midtown Manhattan, where vehicle speeds average 5 mph during the business day. Yellow cabs, Ubers, Lyfts, and other for-hire vehicles are 50 to 80 percent of traffic flow today, and rapidly adding to congestion. Mileage of ride services and taxis is up by 33 percent since 2013 within the Manhattan business district, even as overall traffic entering the business district has fallen significantly.
Given these facts, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion of pressing the pause button on the spiraling growth of ride service vehicles. This is particularly important because they waste miles of precious street space, spending 40 percent of their time vacant between trips. New York City is right to stop and figure out how to prevent them from further overwhelming crowded Manhattan streets.
Other cities face similar challenges and might do well to follow New York’s lead in limiting the number of Ubers and Lyfts. The most notable is San Francisco, which has also seen intensification of downtown congestion amid a surge in ride-hailing vehicles. Other big cities should be watching too. Their streets could be similarly flooded when fares drop with the arrival of self-driving cars—or even sooner, if jitney operations like Uber Express POOL accelerate the shift of riders from buses and trains.
Today, however, circumstances are different in cities like Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.; there, ride services are most concentrated in nightlife districts, such as Chicago’s Near North Side and D.C.’s Dupont Circle. It makes sense to manage rather than limit ride services with steps like directing drivers to pick-up and drop-off zones and cordoning off lanes for buses to speed down busy corridors. The point is to solve for the particular causes of saturated demand for street space, not decide in advance that single-occupant personal vehicles should receive front-and-center attention.
Sometimes, of course, they should. You cannot solve the rush hour traffic problem on East River crossings without addressing single-occupant vehicles. The same is true during commute times in many other cities.
But I am concerned when a focus on single-occupant personal vehicles is accompanied with the notion that congestion pricing is the only way to reduce traffic. We should recognize the practical limits to pricing. Even with $12.50 rush hour tolls on Hudson River tunnels, traffic backs up every morning and afternoon. Congestion pricing for Manhattan was expected to increase traffic speeds by 9 percent, only a fraction of the 22 percent decline in traffic speeds since 2012.
We all know about the political limits too. Congestion pricing has proven to be the steepest among all the hills we might choose to climb. It has not been adopted in any U.S. cities, and in only three large cities globally.
We should continue to push for pricing solutions. But equally valuable is pushing for everything else—and above all: better transit. Unless the bus and train—together with walking and biking—are the best way to get around town, there is little chance that pricing will be either adopted or effective. As Seattle has shown, making bus service work, combined with rail expansion and working closely with employers, can dramatically shift growth from auto to public transit.
European cities also show what is possible. Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen have achieved greater reduction in traffic than London, which is famous for adopting congestion pricing in 2003.
Pursuing a full palette of traffic-reduction strategies will pay off in the push for congestion pricing, too. Imagine if Uber and Lyft passengers have to pay, and freight and commercial vehicles are also required to make more efficient use of city streets, like not double-parking, blocking the box, and hogging delivery zones all day? It will become increasingly clear to all that personal vehicles need to be limited too, whether by pricing or other means.
Anyone who wants to make our great cities function as social and economic engines of national growth and well-being can recognize that more traffic, slower buses, and the loss of transit riders to Ubers and Lyfts works against the goals of mobility, safety, equity, and sustainability.
As long as policies are practical and effective, we should not be doctrinaire in choosing which steps come first in pursuing these goals. The art of change is the art of the possible. We might take inspiration from another big-city denizen, Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt, who said a century ago (toward quite different goals), “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
The San Francisco Bay Area has long been America’s, and the world’s, premier startup hub. The very idea of a high-tech startup was born there in the late 1950s, when a group of young techies launched the seminal firm Fairchild Semiconductor (which spun off a host of companies, including Intel).
Anywhere from a third to half of the founders of Silicon Valley’s high-tech startups are immigrants from outside the United States, according to recent studies.It’s not just that startups and entrepreneurs move to the Bay Area of their own volition. The stories of Silicon Valley venture capitalists insisting that entrepreneurs and companies relocate to the Bay Area as a condition of investment are legion.
But how often do startups and entrepreneurs actually move to Silicon Valley? And what does moving mean for those companies, and for the U.S. economy more generally? That’s the subject of a new paper by Jorge Guzman of Columbia University.
To answer these questions, Guzman studied data on nearly 500,000 startups founded between 1988 and 2014. In order to identify high-growth startups, he focused on Delaware corporations—that is, corporations that are registered in the state of Delaware because of various advantages of being listed (though not necessarily located) in that state. (Although Delaware companies represent just 4 percent of all U.S. firms, they make up half of the companies financed by venture capital, and are 50 times more likely to be taken to market via an IPO than other firms.)
The study examines the rate at which these high-tech, high-growth startups move, zeroing in especially on startups that move to the San Francisco Bay Area, and the effects of those moves on different dimensions of the startups’ success, including their ability to patent their innovations, attract venture capital, and generate a successful exit through an IPO, merger, or acquisition.
The study generates a host of interesting findings, not only about the effects of startups moving to the Bay Area, but also concerning the types of startups that move in general.
For one, startup migration is not as common as you might think, especially given the fact that so many leading-edge startups are founded by immigrants who came to the United States from foreign countries. Only about 10 percent of startups actually move.
Startups that move perform better than those that don’t. Whereas movers make up 4.2 percent of all firms, they account for 8 percent of startups that patent, 6.5 percent of those that raise significant venture capital, and 10 percent of those that achieve significant growth in their equity.
Startups that migrate are not only better performers to begin with, but the act of moving brings considerable added benefits, as well. Startups that move to Silicon Valley are about 3.5 times more likely to attract significant venture-capital investment; 4.5 times more likely to generate significant equity growth; and nearly five times more likely to generate innovations (in the form of patents) than non-movers.
The study finds that increasing returns from moving accrue to startups that rank in the top 60 percent on firm quality, with the bottom 40 percent realizing no appreciable gains from moving. In other words, it is higher-quality firms that seek to move from lower-quality to higher-quality startup ecosystems, and in turn accrue the lion’s share of the economic benefits from moving.
It may be the case that venture capitalists encourage startups to move to be close by, but Guzman’s results also show that there are substantial productivity benefits that come when startups move to the Bay Area. And these productivity advantages are not just for these startups, but for the economy more broadly.
If the benefits of moving are so significant, Guzman asks, why do so many startups choose not to move?
To some extent, the reason has to do with founders’ personal costs of moving their firms. Using machine-learning techniques and data from sources including LinkedIn, Crunchbase, AngelList, Wayback Machine, and Whois, Guzman modeled the characteristics of 100 startup founders who moved to the Valley, compared to 100 startup founders who stayed put. Considering a wide range of characteristics and counterfactuals, Guzman’s models suggest that those who don’t move their firms tend to be older entrepreneurs who have accumulated more local wealth in the form of housing and, in some cases, the income of their spouses. The high personal costs of relocating lead older founders, in particular, to keep their firms where they are, even though the firms and the broader economy would likely benefit from them moving to a more productive ecosystem.
Ultimately, there are very real benefits for startups that move to the Bay Area. But—and this is a very big “but”—the positive effects of moving to Silicon Valley have declined significantly in recent years, according to the study, particularly in the wake of the tech and dotcom crash of 2001. “The patterns before and after the dot-com bust are striking,” Guzman writes. “While there was a large benefit of moving to Silicon Valley during the boom years, this benefit becomes negligible in the bust years.”
Still, as of yet, this has apparently had little effect on companies’ decisions, since the Bay Area’s overall share of U.S. startups has continued to increase in recent years. And it remains the case even as real estate costs have skyrocketed and the region has been plagued by an escalating new urban crisis.
There is, indeed, growing evidence of leading-edge startup ecosystems rising outside the United States (something I’m currently researching with my colleague Ian Hathaway and will be writing about here next month). One possibility, heightened by the Trump administration’s inhospitable posture toward immigrants, is that more and more of the immigrant entrepreneurs who fuel startup growth may simply be staying home.
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What We’re Following
Scooters on strike: The latest battle in the micromobility war is playing out today in Santa Monica, where it’s suddenly a lot harder to find a scooter to ride to the beach. Lime and Bird have both cut off access to their e-scooters in the area, hoping it will elicit rider outcry about how much they rely on the service. The move comes ahead of a city council decision about who will get a permit under a new pilot program for shared scooters and bikes, and fear that Lyft and Jump will be favored. (The Santa Monica Daily Press)
Spurning Bird might seem surprising, given that the company is headquartered in Santa Monica and kicked off the scooter craze there. But there’s a rocky history between the city and the company, and that shows in the city planning department’s recommendations, where Bird got low scores on three key criteria: operations, compliance, and public education. For more context, read Laura Bliss’s April report: The Electric Scooter War Is No Joke.
Attention Philly: CityLab and PlanPhilly are co-hosting a free #HappyHourLab on August 28 to discuss how parks are changing the face of Philadelphia. Come for a walk-and-talk event at the new Reading Viaduct Rail Park and Roy-Pitz Barrel House. Tickets and details here.
These Bronx natives have been here for years. In the midst of rapid gentrification, they say they are taking control and offering the borough cultural experiences that as youngsters, they had to venture downtown to find.
Centrumeiland will soon hold hundreds of affordable homes with the lightest of possible carbon footprints.
Violent crime statistics are notoriously easy to mischaracterize, and it can be difficult to disentangle raw numbers, rates, and trends. But a new project called AmericanViolence.org aims to convey the reality of this complicated subject to a mass audience.
The project’s new interactive map compiles the murder rates of 82 of the 100 largest U.S. cities and makes it possible to compare crime rates over time stretching back to 1990. It’s especially useful for distinguishing short-term and long-term trends. For example, the screenshot above shows where the murder rate actually went down (in green) and up (red) from 2016 to 2017. There’s plenty of data to dig into, but it could also be a quick, handy reference to consult whenever politicians make dubious claims about out-of-control crime across the country. (h/t The Trace)
What We’re Reading
Trump’s FTA is sitting on $1.4 billion in transit funding that Congress already authorized (Streetsblog)
Natural beard oils, turmeric oat milk lattes, fashion pop-up shops, and an indie bookstore meets wine bar. This might sound like a game of hipster bingo, but it’s just the latest in a string of new offerings to greet the South Bronx. And while your first thought might be, wow, the Bronx is really gentrifying—and you wouldn’t be wrong—it’s not quite what it looks like. At least, not yet.
The Bronx is changing. No neighborhood is stagnant; it’s the nature and substance of the shifts that can cause friction. The South Bronx is seeing a boom of development and new enterprise and it is gentrifying in that it is a low-income neighborhood where rental and home sales prices have been rising rapidly. Median rent in the borough has increased by 45 percent since 2005, reaching $1,130 in 2016. In gentrifying neighborhoods a common grievance from long-time residents is that, in addition to causing prices to rise, newcomers have a different sensibility and don’t respect the neighborhood’s history and the locals’ longevity. But many new initiatives in the borough are from Bronx natives who are demonstrating a generational shift in mentality. They want the people who come after them to dream not of getting out of their hood, but enhancing it.
There is a common theme among those who grew up in the Bronx, says Amaurys Grullon, the 24-year-old co-owner of Bronx Native, a clothing store: the infliction of shame. “It’s a mindset, it’s a mentality,” Grullon said. “Because when you hear constantly that the Bronx is dirty, the Bronx is ugly, oh you’re from the Bronx? It mentally can cause some damage.”
According to Frederick Wherry, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and author of The Philadelphia Barrio, in places like the Bronx, with higher poverty rates and a high percentage of blacks or Latinos, people perceive neighborhood disorder with bias. “They tend to remember more trash and physical signs of disorder on the sidewalk than there actually is,” he said.
Grullon said that seeing regular people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Desus Nice, and Cardi B make it while repping the Bronx helps to change the narrative. He and his co-owners, his sister Roselyn, and best friend Josue Caceres, staunchly support change in their hood. “We’ve been underrated for far too long,” said Grullon. “This Bronx history is just so beautiful to me. We have a diverse group of people, our buildings were on fire, our people were struggling, they built highways so you could drive through without even looking at the BX. And from nothing we created culture.”
Their shop on Lincoln Avenue looks at one of the first upscale apartment buildings to open in Mott Haven this century, the Clock Tower. But Bronx Native is tiny and true—covered wall-to-wall in tags and Bronx memorabilia, and it has become a cultural hub in the neighborhood. They’ve hosted poetry readings, open mic nights, youth-group workshops, and panel discussions with Tarana Burke, who named and birthed the #MeToo movement. Grullon says Ocasio-Cortez even held an informal campaigning event there last year.
Wherry says he has seen this before in transforming neighborhoods: “People inside the neighborhood and their community organizations, their leadership and their artists, are willing to push back and say that this is not just a material struggle, but also a symbolic struggle. They’re willing to counter negative symbols that have been thrust upon them. That’s where you start seeing a real difference and transformation.”
To Set Free Richardson, his way of mixing art with entrepreneurship is helping keep the soul of the Bronx alive. An experienced marketer, Richardson launched Compound 1.0 in Mott Haven in 2010. It’s an under the radar place where rappers and artists, athletes and marketers, some extremely rich, some not, come together to create anything from music for video games to limited edition toys.
Last week, he hosted a soft launch of his latest venture, Compound 2.0, a hip-hop inspired art gallery, the brainchild of Richardson and former rapper Mos Def, AKA Yasiin Bey. Located just under the Third Avenue Bridge in Mott Haven, in an area that was once a rough, undeveloped, used-condom-strewn part of town, the Compound 2.0’s mission is to showcase works from underrepresented artists. The new gallery is housed in a plain building that at first appears to be just another vacant Mott Haven space, but at the opening last week, a rainbow of people dressed in hip-hop haute couture style lined the street outside. Once the double black garage doors opened, inside looked like a SoHo launch as local Bronx icons mingled with outer borough folks.
“It’s a Manhattan-style art gallery in the Bronx,” said Richardson, who is relying on his marketing prowess and ability to connect different aspects of pop culture to make it a success. But some Bronx folks don’t want Manhattan ways infiltrating the Bronx.
Richardson was born in the South Bronx, and many would say he has as much right to say what he wants to see in the Bronx as anyone else. But no venture is an island: There is a tension that exists both between and because of these homegrown businesses and the development that follows them once the Bronx seems more like Manhattan, and therefore less “scary.” Richardson recognizes that: Walking from the Mott Haven Bar and Grill to Compound 2.0, he looked around and said, “This is about to be some shit.” He wasn’t just referring to his new venture. We were near the Mott Haven waterfront where there is a sense of trepidation as developers begin to claim this long-neglected space. Home to warehouses and industrial traffic for many years, the area has been dubbed asthma alley for its exhaust— and asthma rates in the Bronx are some of the highest in New York City and the country.
The Clock Tower building on Lincoln Avenue near the waterfront is blamed, or credited, with igniting the development explosion in Mott Haven. Since it opened in 2002, real estate investment in the area went from about $1.9 million in 2003 to about $111 million in 2016, according to real estate industry paper, The Real Deal. On the waterfront, the bones of two new developments are beginning to materialize, with about 430 units that will look out on Manhattan and the Harlem River. All of the units are scheduled to be rented at market rate according to an industry report. Yet, the Bronx is the most rent-burdened borough with 60 percent of Bronx households paying at least a third of their paychecks to rent. Despite rising rents, the poverty rate in the Bronx remains the highest of New York City’s boroughs—28.4 percent in 2016.
“Give it five years, and we’re not gonna recognize this area,” said a 28-year-old local of Dominican descent, wearing merchandise from Bronx Native. Though he didn’t want to include his name, on the street outside of the Compound 2.0 launch, he spoke passionately about fears for his changing borough as stylish people streamed past. Born and reared in the Bronx, he said he loves his hood, but it was getting unaffordable; his rent has gone up to $1900 a month for a one bedroom. “Every month, I’ve managed to scrape it together, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m getting pushed out: I’m gonna have to live in New Jersey.”
Majora Carter is another Bronx native who’s bumped up against this sentiment. Carter grew up in Hunts Point and fought against environmental blight being inflicted on the Bronx, winning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2005 for her efforts. But by 2013, The New York Times was writing articles about Carter titled: “Hero of the Bronx Is Now Accused of Betraying It.”
“I don’t remember anyone who showed promise as a kid who wasn’t told early and often that you’re gonna grow up and be somebody, and what that meant, really, by association, was you’re gonna measure success by how far away you get away from here. And that sears itself into people’s minds,” Carter said at her coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind, located just a stone’s throw from where she grew up. “People in the Bronx, and the South Bronx in particular, we like nice things, too.”
Her shop is a small, quaint venue. If the prices seem offensively high to some locals, others might ask, why shouldn’t Bronx residents be able to choose between a $1 bodega coffee and a $5 latte? “Change is going to happen,” Carter says. “And we know the cost of doing nothing. This is where I think the social justice industrial complex has done a fantastic job of making poverty a cultural attribute. Like it’s something to be preserved and anything else is inauthentic.” Carter believes that gentrification happens when people in certain communities are taught to believe that their neighborhood has no real value. In 2016, the median home values in the Bronx reached $378,000, but according to Trulia, trends are showing a four percent year-over-year rise in median sales price.
“I feel like now, I’m representing my community at a very pivotal stage where developers are seeing the Bronx, they want to come build,” said Rafael Salamanca Jr., the New York city council member representing Mott Haven and other South Bronx neighborhoods. “I welcome it, but I welcome responsible development … I want to make sure that they’re being built for us. We can develop the South Bronx, bring in businesses without gentrifying the community. I’m a living example of that. I never left my community. I’m raising a family here, and I have many friends who are doing the same thing. But that’s why I also take building affordable housing very seriously.“
For Noëlle Santos, it’s about creating opportunities for her people, a mission that she sees mirrored in most of the new businesses that have cropped up around the South Bronx. She is scheduled to open a bookstore, the Lit.Bar, this fall in Mott Haven, an important addition in the borough infamous as the only one without a general-interest bookstore since Barnes & Noble departed in 2016. Santos, who has been in this part of the South Bronx since moving from another Bronx neighborhood a decade ago, said she wants to create “that pipeline from the Bronx to the publishing world. Most of us have no knowledge of how publishing works. Imagine if 12-year-old Noëlle knew that writing or opening a bookstore was an actual career. I was never exposed to it.”
Wherry said that homegrown evolutions like the one that’s happening in the Bronx are a way of saying, “We don’t need to be what you would have us be. And in some ways, what you would have us be is a staging ground for others to move in and move us out. We’re not here to dress a neighborhood up for transformation that involves our removal. Instead we’re here to better our own lives and push back against an unfair narrative that’s been debilitating.”
This new surge of pride is keeping innovative minds in the hood, and it’s shifting what culture looks like in the Bronx. By staunching the brain drain, these residents believe they are creating a community that is open to more varied forms of expression and taste. After all, not every kid in the Bronx dreams the same dreams. For some, expression might be dropping beats on a street corner, for others, attending a punk night at the Bronx Museum; and for some Bronx natives it means opening and frequenting the type of coffee shops and venues that they once had to venture out of borough to find.
These Bronx-born entrepreneurs consistently say that the borough is going through an awakening, both culturally and economically and the figures bear it out: In 2017, there were more businesses in the Bronx than at any time since 1975. But the question remains, will all of these native efforts to create new businesses and new-style spaces ease the pain of gentrification, or will these homegrown efforts make the borough appealing to deep-pocketed buyers, thus pricing low-income, long-time residents out?
Daniel Baker, AKA Desus Nice, of the Desus and Mero late night comedy show (soon to join Showtime), was among those at Compound 2.0’s soft launch last Wednesday. Nice is from the Bronx and said he loves the energy he’s seeing here from his fellow natives. “It’s like a little village,” he said, “like the early days of Williamsburg before it turned into a film set.” When asked if he thought the Bronx would turn into a film set, too, he said, “No, I don’t think so because of the people here. Everybody’s coming together.”
Nice said he just moved into one of the new luxury condos in the Bronx. “It’s sad because other people in the building are telling me, ‘Don’t go outside. The projects are out there.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, I grew up with people from the projects.’ People are not embracing the community. But if we keep working together we can push back.”
For City, County, and State agency staff and engineers, agency personnel are confronting cell phone navigational applications that choose the quickest routes based on calculated pathways (algorithms), not based on the classifications for the roadway use. The roadways are classified to balance access, speed and traffic volumes. What has occurred as a result of these navigation apps is a significant increase in cut-through traffic, speeding on side streets, and, for traffic engineers, greater use of roadways not intended for higher volumes.