A Clue to the Reason for Women’s Pervasive Car-Safety Problem

Women are far more likely to suffer serious injuries in a car crash.

The danger divide was first quantified in a 2011 study out of the University of Virginia, which found that for men and women who wore seatbelts, women were nearly 50 percent more likely to be seriously or fatally injured in a crash. And now it’s been confirmed by another paper from another University of Virginia research team, published this month, which found that the odds of serious injury or death for female car-crash victims is 73 percent higher than for males.

The latest study, which analyzed crashes involving more than 31,000 individuals between 1998 and 2015, reveals some good news, too: All riders are now more than half as likely to sustain serious injuries in newer models (those manufactured in 2009 and later), than in older cars.

But controlling for the car’s model year, and the passenger or driver’s age, height, weight, BMI, and proximity to the steering wheel, females continue to be in more vulnerable positions when involved in frontal impact collisions—even when they wear a seatbelt. The worst part, says Jason Forman, a principal scientist at UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics and one of the authors of the study, is that after nearly a decade of research highlighting this safety disparity, no one has yet found the definitive answer as to why.

“We obviously know a lot of ways that men and women are different bio-mechanically,” he says, in terms of both body size and shape. Female pelvises, for example, are generally wider and more shallow than males’; and fat is distributed unevenly around each sex’s body, leaving females with more tissue concentrated around the waist and thighs and males with more concentrated around the belly.

“These differences … have the potential to change the ways that seatbelts interact with the body and with our underlying skeletal structures,” Forman said. Subtler deviations exist, too, like the fundamental mechanical properties of bones and ligaments and tissues; and hormonal variations that could affect the stiffness of tissues, and their susceptibility to injury.

But while the variables have been identified, the work to figure out which ones matter, and how, “just simply has not been done yet,” said Forman.

It’s partly because of this lack of information—and lack of dedicated research into the question—that the same safety science that’s been making cars less dangerous for all riders hasn’t been able to shrink the gap between male and female auto safety.

“Historically, we have used male-type crash test dummies,” said Becky Mueller, a senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Those dummies, despite being an average male, have done a good job at providing improvements for all different kinds of people.”

Since the early 2000s, “female” crash test dummies have been deployed, but they tend to simulate smaller women, says Forman, with heights of 5 feet and weights of 110 pounds. “There is some logic behind the use of those: it is necessary to evaluate and protect for the extreme ends of the population,” he said. It’s also a big limitation of the model.

Mueller says retooling crash-test dummies can’t happen overnight—it takes 20 to 30 years of bio-mechanical research and testing to build and fine-tune each model. Many of the dummies manufacturers are using now are built using 1970s and 1980s data sets, which skewed heavily male. “The creation of new dummies (physically) will be able to advance faster in the future but it will still take 10+ years to collect enough data to relate the dummy’s performance to real world injuries,” she said. “You never want people to get injured, but in order to gain enough info about the real world, we have to sit patiently and wait for real-world data to come in and for real-world specimens to come in.”

In the past dozen or so years, technology that allows researchers to conduct safety tests without having to build physical dummies at all has also emerged. Still, a digitally-produced 3-D safety dummy is “only as good as the information it’s built on,” says Forman. “Until we have that fundamental research, we’re not going to have the right sort of info to feed into even the most advanced human body computer mode.”

Besides being a pressing concern for women who get into cars every day, these safety issues are starting to matter a lot more as car manufacturers invest in autonomous vehicles.

Partly, this knowledge should influence the new designs rolled out with the new technologies, says Mueller, as the range of what people do in cars expands. If they nap or eat sandwiches or watch T.V. as their car drives for them, the role of seatbelts will inevitably change, too. “Currently, seatbelts are meant to fit over people’s hip bones and across their shoulders in a pretty standardized seating position,” she said. “Drivers” of autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, could be reclining, or turned backward. “We’re going to have to make sure that we’re providing protection for two very different groups of people in terms of different genders.”

It’s also a reminder not to shift focus from solving existing problems in vehicles in favor of “the other hot topics of the day,” says Forman. Maybe the car industry should be investing time and research in the seat models that will let drivers sleep—but he hopes they will also dedicate resources to figuring out how to better protect women riders.

“If we leave things on the same course, we’re going to be in the same position with autonomous vehicles as we are with regular vehicles now,” he said. “We’re going to end up building autonomous vehicles with females have a 73 percent greater risk of injury, too.”

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What Happens to ‘Smart Cities’ When the Internet Dies?

In his debut novel, British writer Tim Maughan finds an ingenious and plausible way to bring the world as we know it to an end: Someone breaks the internet. A massive denial-of-service attack severs instantly the electronic connections we have come to rely on—local and global, logistical and personal—plunging the world into a new dark age:

Some gather in groups, some sit on the ground looking concussed, confused Others are trying to make their way around the vehicles that jam up the road, self-driving cars and cabs and buses that have ground to a halt, their passengers shouting for help or smashing windows to free themselves.

But Infinite Detail has more than mere dystopia on its mind. Cutting back and forth between New York City and the U.K. port city of Bristol—and between the hardscrabble post-internet world and the uncanny near-future version of our own society that precedes it—Maughan grapples with our sacrifice of privacy for convenience, our dependence on networked technology, and the death and possible second lives of cities. The novel emerged in part from a series of articles he wrote for the BBC and Motherboard that chronicled the head-spinning scale of the modern global supply chain. “I’d seen stuff that made me upset or angry or frustrated or confused in various ways,” says Maughan, now based in Ottawa, Canada. “I found that putting that stuff in fiction was a much more visceral way of getting those issues out and onto the page.”

Maughan spoke with CityLab about the limitations of smart city thinking, graffiti culture in Bristol, and how an email from an algorithm to a container-ship captain helped inspire the story. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why Bristol? What’s your relationship to that location?

The last 10 years I was living in the U.K. were in Bristol. And that’s when I started writing a bunch of short fiction, and I just set it there because that was where I was. It’s a weirdly science fictional city in some ways.

I was heavily into the music scene and the graffiti scene. I wrote a short story [called “Paintwork”] in about 2011 about a graffiti artist that hacks smart billboards. And it was just such a very Bristol thing. Bristol’s got this very healthy, very long tradition of graffiti and street art, and because Banksy comes from Bristol, it became kind of elevated in certain ways. The city authorities spent literally decades and millions of pounds trying to clamp down on the graffiti scene and put up weird anti-graffiti technologies all over the city. I don’t know if they still do, but when I left they were sponsoring graffiti festivals. It became so symbolic of the city that it is part of the tourist trade.

I went on to set a bunch of short stories in that same setting, and shortly after I started writing Infinite Detail, about 2012, 2013, I moved to New York, so it became this book about two cities. Basically, I’m contrasting takes on smart city technology.

I gather you’re not a fan.

One of the chief criticisms of smart city technology is that it’s very generic. These technologies are very much off-the-shelf solutions—and “solutions” in quotation marks, because a lot of the smart-city stuff views cities as a problem that needs to be solved.

My view—and Bristol is a good example of this—is that cities exist as a bunch of different conflicts between different priorities and different communities and different infrastructures, and those conflicts are unique to every city. The idea that a top-down solution can be dropped onto every city is really dangerous.

One thing that cities and the internet have in common, it seems, is that they both embody these contradictory impulses people have to be together, and also to maintain privacy.

What’s public and what’s private is increasingly blurred by technology and the internet, and the privatization of public spaces is an issue that the book was trying to tap. What were previously common spaces, or public spaces, are increasing corporatized, even if just by advertising or through surveillance technologies.

In most cities in the world, there’s very little regulation. The use of surveillance technology by the city itself might be regulated, but it’s less regulated for people that own property.

I hadn’t been to Detroit for like maybe two or three years, and I was back a couple months ago, and the city has changed completely. The downtown has been completely renovated. And it’s because of Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans guy, who has bought up most of the city. But there was a story maybe five years ago about a few kids who had put graffiti on one of his buildings, and he used his private surveillance network to track them down. This isn’t a a Detroit City or Detroit Police Department surveillance system. It’s just networked cameras on buildings that he owns, and he owns most of the buildings in downtown Detroit.

That idea that you are being watched, that you don’t have privacy in public spaces, which sounds, I guess, oxymoronic in some ways—I think we should be allowed to have an anonymity in public spaces to a certain extent. That’s a real conflict, and I hope the book makes that something that people think about.

It seems like many people, especially here in the States, aren’t very concerned about giving up their privacy for convenience.

That’s the core theme of the book, I think. It’s a common and perhaps overused phrase, but if you’re not paying for the product then you are the product.

I saw a D.C. lobbyist on Twitter just in the last week looking at data that said 70-something percent of people in the U.S. weren’t worried about that tradeoff and were quite happy about that convenience. He then went on to label surveillance capitalism as an “elite moral panic” that only a few people worried about. But it’s hard for people to be upset or concerned about stuff they don’t understand, or don’t even know exists, especially in the surveillance context.

We buy into that saying that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide. I think that’s an incredibly dangerous expression, because it simplifies the surveillance argument down to one about law and order. I come from the perspective that that kind of law and order is probably incredibly dangerous in itself. But it’s more to the fact that we are being surveyed for our behavior and our data rather than for moralistic or legal reasons.

A good example is the awful revelations that came out about Alexa, where they interviewed people that were listening in on Alexa stuff and monitoring it on the basis of trying to make the system more effective. Some of them claimed that they had overheard sexual assaults, and there was nothing they could do about it. So they’re not listening to you to see if you’ve done something wrong. They don’t care. They’re mining data and your behavior in order to make decisions, whether they are decisions on what products you’re sold or decisions on how to run a city. They’re decisions that you are contributing to without really having any say in it.

You’ve worked as a journalist to report on lots of these issues. Why use fiction to write about it?

There are a lot of fantastic journalists doing really, really great work around cities or surveillance or algorithmic control or complexity issues. But I don’t see enough of it in entertainment or in literature. Cory Doctorow’s done some interesting work on this. Shows like Black Mirror do some interesting poking at this stuff. But if you talk about surveillance in mainstream entertainment, it comes down to Big Brother scenarios, and I feel like there’s a whole area of this that people don’t understand, people who maybe wouldn’t read the journalistic stuff. It’s hard to explain how, say, surveillance capitalism works to somebody, even in a nonfiction way, without having specific examples. Making up an example is a really good way of exploring these things.

One of the paradoxes of Infinite Detail is that this anarchic and contrarian neighborhood in Bristol becomes of one of the few islands of stability in the post-crash world, and therefore attractive to all sorts of folks.

A big thing that’s happening in cities in the U.K. at the moment, especially in London, is nightclubs are being shut down. They’re in neighborhoods that were opened up in the ‘90s, because those neighborhoods were very run down, for want of a better phrase. Property was cheap. Nightclubs like Fabric became very popular, became brands in themselves, attracted people from all over the city, from outside the city, and from all over the world, eventually.

They revitalized the neighborhood around them. They become attractive places for people to live or set up businesses. Next thing happens is property developers move in, start building condos, and complain about the noise. So these clubs are being forced to shut down because property developers are building apartment blocks right next to them or on top of them.

Who loses in that dynamic?

It’s quite often the most marginalized communities or those people that have the most to lose.

Frank, the can-collecting guy [in the book], was an incredibly familiar figure to me when I was living in Brooklyn. These guys were constantly orbiting our neighborhood collecting recycling before the city came to recycle it so they could get a small amount of money for each can. That was their living. It’s an organic symbiotic relationship they have with the city. It struck me as the sort of thing that smart cities want to “solve,” in quotation marks. How do we solve the problem of recycling? How do we incentivize people to recycle themselves? How do we gamify recycling? It just kind of clicked into place as this really obvious way of exploring this idea.

We’ve talked about digital divides for a long time. What the internet of things does, and what smart cities do, is they take those digital divides—those divisions between who understands and has access and control of technology and who doesn’t—and they turn them into even more physical divides.

This technology is very much aimed at the model citizen, in some ways. It’s aimed at a bourgeois middle-class tech-savvy kind of person rather than those in marginalized communities. And I’m not just talking about early adopters versus late adopters. As we steamroll this technology in, we don’t talk to the community that it’s been dropped on top of.

Right. It’s pretty unusual these days that someone spends a lot of money building something for poor people.

I don’t think there’s a conspiracy theory here. I don’t think it’s a planned thing. I think that’s also, in some ways, the problem—that it isn’t being planned enough. It’s got the illusion of being planned.

Like I said earlier, there are all these conflicts that make up cities. And this kind of dropped-down top-down approach to solving them doesn’t really think about them in any way. It just gives attractive shiny solutions to people who have power and the money to invest in them. That’s what’s really dangerous.

One of the interesting things about the post-crash part of your story is that, gradually, a new system arises to run things in the place of the old system—even if the person who runs things, the character Grids, is somewhat grudging about doing so.

As I was about two-thirds of the way through the book and trying to work out exactly how to end stuff, I came across a great essay by Astra Taylor about the term “activism” versus the term “organizer.” The argument she’s making is there’s a lot of talk about activism these days, but …  activism is seen as something that’s kind of sexy and short-term, something you can say you did by liking a post on Facebook. Actual political change is done through organizing, and that’s a much longer process, and often a much smaller process. It starts at a community level and involves a lot of planning and dedicating, if not all your life maybe a certain chunk of your life, towards a political cause.

Grids has inherited running a part of the city. And he might not be very good at it, but at least he’s doing it. His argument he has towards the end of the book with Anika is that you started this revolution but you didn’t know where it went. You didn’t have any plans for what happened afterwards. That’s an incredibly legit and incredibly important thing to consider when we’re talking about radical politics or activism or revolutions. It’s not just about protest. It’s about longer-term solutions and working with communities to try and work out what happens next. After you’ve broken something, how do you fix it? Or what you replace it with?

A big influence on the book was the Occupy movement. It was sad to me how it kind of petered out towards the end. It created this huge groundswell of support and this really exciting moment, but it didn’t necessarily deliver on what it wanted and didn’t even really necessarily make demands of anybody. It just occupied this mind space where people felt that things were wrong, it filled that vacuum.

And that’s how politics works now. I mean that’s what Trump does. That’s what Brexit did. They occupy a political vacuum where people don’t understand stuff; they’re unhappy with how the economy works, how society works, or how they perceive politics as working. If you’re going to combat that, we need to also occupy that space as political movements, but with a plan as what happens next.

One of the most compelling things about the book is its vision of the world post-internet. It has become so taken for granted that the notion of how transformed the world would be if it suddenly ceased to exist just doesn’t compute.

The core of the book for me is me trying to work through what how I feel about complexity as a kind of governing and controlling and dominating issue for the 21st century.

I spent some time in 2014 traveling in China. I was with a group of architects and researchers on a trip to observe the supply chain backwards—the route that consumer goods take from China to Europe and America, but we were doing in reverse.

We were on this huge Maersk container ship. It’s got like 10,000 containers on it, crew of about 20, and we were out in the middle of the South China Sea. I was talking to the captain, and as he talked, he was interrupted by this beeping sound, and he walks over to a computer and types something and then calls the engine room and tells them to slow the ship down. He comes back and starts to talk to me again. And I said, what happened there? He said, “I got an email from Maersk in Copenhagen telling me to slow the ship down.” And I asked, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know.”

He said it probably means that there are delays at Ningbo port, so there’s no point using up fuel to get there on time. The supply chain algorithms decided it would be a waste of money.

That really shaped the book. We’re stuck in this huge network that we don’t understand. Even the people who seem to have responsibility over it don’t understand how it works. The senior captain of a container ship doesn’t understand why he’s slowing the ship down. He doesn’t know what’s in any of those containers. And this whole system that is telling him where to go, telling him how fast to go, is the same system telling the crane drivers which containers to load onto the ship and telling the truck drivers in the container ports we have to move the containers within the port.

There’s this huge planet-spanning networked system that’s controlling all this—controlling how our cities run, making sure that food and consumer goods and medicines and all these things that we want and more importantly need get to us. It’s a vast, largely now automated system that no individual understands, and more to the point, no individual can understand. We’ve handed so much control over this over to algorithmic systems—and over to the internet, in effect. I started thinking, so if this system disappeared, what happens? We don’t know how to replace it.

I think that us not understanding how the world works and not being able to fix something if it breaks down is related to this unprecedented complexity that we’re dealing with now. That’s the same for whether it’s your car or your iPhone not working, to a city not working, to the supply chain not working, to democratic electoral processes.

Have you visited New York’s new city-of-the-future, Hudson Yards?

The thing that struck me about it is how depressingly generic it is, how not unusual it is. The architecture is very generic; the brands are the same brands you see everywhere. It might be on a bigger scale, but it’s the same approach I’ve seen everywhere. The place reminded me instantly of Dubai.

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The To-Do List for Cities 20 Years From Now

As Meeting of the Minds well knows, the integration of technology in all aspects of city life will manifest in many ways over the next two decades. Artificial intelligence, crowdsourcing, and data collection and analysis have gotten the most attention, but many of the most striking changes are set to occur in the physical realm – the layout of streets and sidewalks. Planners are hard at work right now trying to anticipate what’s going to be needed to accommodate delivery drones, trackless trams, and of course driverless cars and trucks, which will present their own congestion problems potentially, but also will free up all kinds of urban land no longer needed for traffic flow or parking. The transformation of the urban landscape will be more complicated than the transition from horses to cars, but no less doable.

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MapLab: Rise of the Digital Twin

In 2014, researchers from the University of Washington announced that pairing Google StreetView with a cluster of “smart” surveillance cameras allowed them to create “a self-organized and scalable multiple-camera tracking system that tracks humans across the cameras.”

In so many words, they showed that it was possible to build a dynamic, near real-time visualization of pedestrians and traffic flows, projected onto a 360-degree map of the world. A bit of machine-learning software helped erase any seams. This was an early proof of concept in an urban setting of a technological model now known as a “digital twin.”

Digital twins do real work, according to Stambol, a Canadian virtual-reality imaging company. (Stambol)

“Digital twin” is a creepy-sounding phrase, conjuring visions of pixelated doppelgangers haunting your every step. It doesn’t necessarily describe an all-out surveillance state, though: In some ways, this is an extension of the 3-D computer models that architects and engineers use to help plan a building, or maneuver the inner workings of a car engine before they hit the factory.

But the big difference with what the UW researchers were doing is that they were feeding real-time, real-world data into the digital platform, enabling an exact virtual simulacrum of physical streets. What’s more, AI enabled the virtual world to respond to the projected movements in a way that made it seem more real. This technology has taken off in the years since: IBM, Microsoft, HERE Maps, and Descartes Labs are all working toward building “digital twin” technologies for different uses, including for city planning.

Your buildings are watching you! (IBM)

For local governments, the benefits could be big. Already, a number Indian cities have adopted “digital twin” software to help manage water and energy infrastructure. In the U.K., researchers at Newcastle University built a digital twin of their city to help it better respond to flooding.

And the bylaws of the Open Mobility Foundation, a global nonprofit recently established to help cities govern the future of mobility data, state that a “digital twin” is the “only way” for cities to get control over the scooters, ride-hailing cars, and other conveyances clogging their streets. It describes how a digital replica of city streets could quickly model how, say, switching traffic signals to prioritize a speeding ambulance would affect other vehicle flows and what transportation officials would need to adjust in order to manage them.

On the other hand, the privacy implications of such a paradigm are pretty big. Who says a city should have that much oversight into the individual movements of every vehicle on the road? How much personally identifiable information would that require a city to absorb and own, and for how long? Players in the world of transportation technology are asking these questions now, as the public officials who head up the Open Mobility Foundation convene for their first board meeting next week. We’ll see what they have to say. (And watch for my story with more about digital twins, later this week in CityLab.)

What do you think? For local governments, will a “digital twin” usher in a surveillance state, or help officials make decisions for the public good? Write a note to share your thoughts.


The “creative class,” mapped

Richard Florida, the widely cited urbanist, academic, and CityLab editor-at-large, has a new piece examining the changing geography of the “creative class.”  That’s the term Florida has long used as a demographic shorthand for college-educated people who work in education, healthcare, law, arts, tech, science, and business. This represents about 6 in 10 Americans.

As of 2005, Florida writes, these folks were more distributed around the country:

Back then, the top ten list read like a veritable who’s who of the nation’s leading knowledge and tech hubs, led by Washington, D.C.; San Jose; and San Francisco. But Baltimore (with a large cluster of medical and scientific research centers around Johns Hopkins University) and Minneapolis-St. Paul also make the top-10 list, besting bigger metros like New York and Los Angeles.

But by 2017, the creative class had become much more concentrated in leading employment centers, he continues:

San Jose tops the list, followed by D.C. and San Francisco, and now Denver and Philadelphia have joined the top ten.

Read the rest of the story here, which includes Florida’s theories on why the shift has happened, and where the creative class may be heading next.


Mappy links

Drilling down: The geographer Garrett Dash Nelson puts urban density under the microscope. (CityLab) ♦ Likes by bikes: Google Maps is now showing city bike-share stations. (The Verge) ♦ Luna-tics: How scientists mapped the moon for the Apollo missions.  (The Conversation) ♦ Hot town: Scientists are mapping urban heat spots to prepare for a warming planet. (National Geographic) ♦ Feminist cartography: Open-source mappers in Latin America are making their lives more visible. (Undark)


MapLab wouldn’t be the same without its devoted readers. Help expand the ranks. Folks can sign up for this newsletter here.

Laura Bliss

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CityLab Daily: The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

What We’re Following

Change of place: The changes that gentrification often brings can be plain to see: New businesses replace local standbys; wine bars and coffeeshops bloom in vacant storefronts. But the visible signs of economic shifts in neighborhoods don’t reveal what’s happening inside people’s homes and lives. The conventional wisdom is that the drawbacks of this change, especially the displacement of existing lower-income residents, greatly outweigh the benefits.

But a new paper says that original residents gain more from neighborhood change than the usual narrative lets on. Longtime renters and homeowners who stick around see some benefits from neighborhood economic changes—and so do those who move away. CityLab’s Kriston Capps assesses the study’s claims: The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

What Zoo Design Reveals About Human Attitudes to Nature

Author Natascha Meuser describes zoo architecture as a “masquerade” that borrows from museums, prisons, and theaters.

Taylor Moore

Are These the Last Vape Shops in San Francisco?

The city wants to stop the rise of teen vaping by banning the sale of Juul and other e-cigarettes. It could also mean the end of a particular kind of store.

Sarah Holder

Albuquerque Takes Steps to Meet the Needs of Native American Residents

Albuquerque expands a commission to create better services for Native Americans who count 4 percent of the population but 44 percent of those who are homeless.

Sydney Worth

When an Earthquake Followed a Flood, This Ancient City Disappeared Forever

Two millennia ago, an earthquake liquified the ground beneath an Egyptian port—a fate that could await other cities as sea levels rise.

Parker Richards

Despite Everything, America Remains a Nation of Hot Dogs

July 17 is National Hot Dog Day. Time to celebrate one thing that millions of Americans have in common.

David Dudley


Put on the Map

Raj Chetty at age 9. (Courtesy of Raj Chetty)

In next month’s issue, The Atlantic profiles economist Raj Chetty—a name many CityLab readers know from his work on social mobility in the United States. Last October, Chetty’s team at Harvard published the Opportunity Atlas, which demonstrated the vastly different economic prospects for children born in different neighborhoods.

Now, Chetty’s team is turning that data toward making equality of opportunity a reality, building partnerships with Charlotte, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, and other cities to apply the findings that social scientists articulate in journals out in the real world. “The question with Raj is not if he will win a Nobel Prize, but when,” urban economist Edward Glaeser says in the piece. Read more at The Atlantic: The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream


What We’re Reading

Tesla floats fully self-driving cars as soon as next year. Many are worried about what that will unleash. (Washington Post)

Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved. (New York Times)

The racist history of tipping (Politico Magazine)

These maps show where urban sprawl is making big storms more deadly (BuzzFeed News)

I’m an engineer, and I’m not buying into “smart” cities (New York Times)


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

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In Denmark’s Train Dream, the Next Big City Is Only an Hour Away

If Denmark’s transportation minister gets his way, future train rides between the country’s five major cities will take no longer than an hour.

Transportation minister Benny Engelbrecht announced plans earlier this month to revive a 2014 plan to slash travel times between the country’s major population centers. If it goes through, travel times across the country could be halved, making it easier for the modestly-sized country to function as if it were a single unified (if wide-ranging) metro area.

The plan also reveals something that might surprise outsiders who recognize Denmark as a non-drivers paradise: By the (extremely high) standards of western Europe, Denmark’s rail network is slow.

It’s not that Danish rail is bad, exactly. Services are dependable and frequent, but they aren’t especially fast. Currently, the fastest train from Copenhagen to Odense—Denmark’s third city—travels the 100-mile span in 76 minutes. That’s respectable, but it’s far behind, say, France, where trains between Paris and Lille travel 140 miles in just 59 minutes.

Go farther away from Copenhagen and things get worse: It takes four hours and 21 minutes by train from Copenhagen to the northern city of Aalborg, a distance of 258 miles. This is longer than it takes trains to go from London to Edinburgh (400 miles apart), made slower by the almost total absence of electrified lines on the Jutland Peninsula. This means it’s frequently quicker to cross Denmark by car than by rail—an unusual situation by European standards.

Some reasons for this relative slowness are geographical. Denmark is a watery country of islands and peninsulas, threaded together with long bridges and ferries. To go from the island of Zealand (where Copenhagen and almost half the country’s population are located) to the far north of the Danish mainland, you need to take a fairly slow ferry or do a detour south over bridges via the island of Funen. This slows things down considerably, a fact Danes tolerate because the distances and journey times are still never all that long.

There are some pretty straightforward ways to speed up travel times. One would be renovating and replacing a slow signaling system. Another would be full electrification of all lines across the country. Some new connections, such as a time-saving bridge or tunnel across the mainland’s Vejle Fjord, could also speed things up without obliging the country to install high-speed lines.

Connecting Copenhagen with Odense, Odense with Aarhus and Esbjerg, and Aarhus with Aalborg, the one-hour services would also break a major psychological boundary. They would make regional cities more accessible and thus less likely to play second fiddle to Copenhagen when it comes to companies choosing their headquarters. Shaving almost 90 minutes off a train journey from one end of the country to the other also means connecting those cities better to neighboring Sweden and Germany.

The proposal still isn’t guaranteed. A plan along these lines has been in the works since 2014, only to be stymied earlier this year by the extreme-right People’s Party, which had a part in Denmark’s last coalition government. With a new center-left coalition elected last month, and a politician from the country’s Red-Green Alliance given the transit portfolio, the plan is back in the running. The parties who support it now possess enough representation in parliament to see it through.

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Could Public Banks Help California Fund Affordable Housing?

“We planted a seed,” tweeted Public Banks L.A., the day the organization’s ballot measure—which would have created the country’s first city-led public banking institution—failed last year in Los Angeles. “This is just the beginning.”

Turns out, they were right. After voters in L.A. rejected the measure that would have allowed the city to divest funds from Wall Street banks and create their own public banking institution at the local level, Public Bank L.A. converged with Public Bank San Francisco and coalitions in six other California cities and regions to form a united public banking front. And now, a state assembly bill, AB 857, that would make it legal for each of these cities to open local banks, cosponsored by San Francisco Assembly member David Chiu and Los Angeles Assembly member Miguel Santiago, has advanced through the California Assembly and into Senate committees.

Consider the way cities bank now: They collect thousands in tax revenue each year, then park that money in commercial banks that choose the projects and industries in which to invest the city’s money in hopes of growing it. By opening local public banks, advocates say cities could decide where to invest those funds, instead—and take out loans to finance other public projects for lower interests, from the banks they control. The banks’ priorities would be set by voters, and they’d be run by civil servants and financial experts.

“When you’re backed by a city, you have a democratic constituency to hold the bank accountable,” said Sushil Jacob, the director of Economic Justice for Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights SF, and one of the architects of the state and local legislation. “The city is identifying the needs for the community, and they’re turning to the bank to finance those needs.”

L.A.’s 2018 push for public banking zeroed in on its potential to serve cannabis companies, as many traditional banks won’t while the sale of marijuana is illegal at the federal level. This time around, activists and legislators in California cities are focusing on what public banking could do to help cities finance affordable housing, shrink inequality, and bolster climate change resilience efforts.

“Every politician is talking about affordable housing, but it would be so much more powerful if they had a bank that was financing affordable housing,” said Jacob. Right now, “half of the total cost of some current infrastructure projects … goes simply to cover bank interest and fees on loans,” the California Public Banking Alliance, a group sponsoring the bill, estimates. Using publicly-run banks, advocates believe cities could get that infrastructure financing at cheaper rates than in the private market.

“We have a lot of nonprofits that are trying to find access to [capital] so they can build affordable housing for people, but they’re trying to fight for crumbs,” said Julian LaRosa, an organizer with California Public Banking Alliance and San Francisco’s Public Bank Coalition. “In San Francisco, the main argument is how much can we get developers to invest in affordable housing—instead of having a city that has the kinds of capital they need to invest in people who can build affordable housing.”

Several California cities have also made commitments to powering themselves with 100 percent affordable energy, but need to build out the green infrastructure to deliver it. “We can’t really rely on PG&E to help us in that process when they’re primarily fossil fuels,” said LaRosa. Rather than pay PG&E to use their grid, he says, why not let San Francisco invest funds in organizations like Clean Power SF instead?

The banking industry is skeptical of using public banks to further these seemingly progressive goals. “There’s been some suggestion that these types of banks would lend to entities that might not otherwise be credit-worthy,” Beth Mills, a spokesperson for the California Banking Association, told CityLab. “In the event that there’s loans that fall delinquent or issues with the bank, then you’re essentially putting taxpayer dollars at risk.”

Other opponents added that the resilience of the entire state depends on keeping those public funds safe. “Over the years Californians have seen all manners of disasters—natural and economic—that require immediate and unwavering responses,” wrote Shari Freidenrich, the Orange County Treasurer, and Keith M. Williams, the president of the California Association of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors, in an op-ed in the Orange County Register. “As such it is critical that the funds of the responding communities be available immediately to fight the disaster and as well as being held in diversified products that don’t expose constituents to a concentration and leverage affect that occurs when holding all of one’s fiscal eggs in one’s own basket.”

Public banks may help cities invest in affordable housing more quickly—but if those same investments don’t help city budgets grow as fast as they used to in commercial banks, Freidenrich and Williams argue that a public model could threaten municipalities’ long-term stability.

Even advocates acknowledge that the process of building banks from scratch will be expensive, time-consuming, and logistically complicated. In San Francisco, for example, the city would be tasked with moving a $12.3 billion-plus budget out of Bank of America and U.S. Bank and into a public one; figuring out a governance model; and agreeing on how that money will be invested.

“For a sense of the scale of this work, this bank would be responsible for handling the 1.2 million checks deposited per year by the City, the 323,000 credit card transactions, and 847,000 outgoing payments per year,” reads a report by the San Francisco Treasurer’s office, assessing the feasibility of one potential municipal banking model, which would have the city divest entirely from current banking partners. Another model, which would both divest and allow the bank to issue loans to support affordable housing projects and small businesses, would need to collect $935 million in deposits before beginning lending, and even then take a projected 56 years to break even.

Statewide assessments reveal similarly stark numbers. A feasibility study conducted by the California Treasurer’s Office last year estimated that, to launch a “California cannabis bank,” it would take $35 million in start-up costs over six years; then about $1 billion in capital to operate. The bank wouldn’t start to pay out dividends for about 25 to 30 years.

“Establishing a bank is not an easy thing to do for a city or any sort of municipality,” California Banking Association’s Mills said.

But with the regulatory framework for municipal banks established through Chiu and Santiago’s bill, AB 857, public banks would be much easier to get off the ground, David Jette, co-founder and legislative director of Public Bank L.A,  told The New York Times.

And during the time it takes to launch them, Jette says cities should start investing money in local credit unions and community banks right away.

Municipal public banks do not intend to compete with smaller local banks and credit unions, and will prioritize partnering with instead of replacing them. (Indeed, Jacob says that another challenge to passing AB 857 will be convincing these smaller operations that they won’t become obsolete once cities adopt a public option.) But he also acknowledges that the millions of un- and underbanked people in the United States—who are concentrated in rural areas, not major California cities like L.A. and San Francisco—need expanded options, too.

“This is like when you think about the monarch butterflies that are disappearing; it’s happening under our eyes,” Jacob said. “The local banks are leaving us. We increasingly only have a few mega-banks that are occupying our towns and cities, and then we have credit unions.”

If AB 857 passes and state law is changed, cities would allow voters to amend their charters to dictate the scope of each municipal bank—some could allow individuals to cash deposits, for example; others could partner with local banks to give commercial loans to businesses.

But the next hurdle would be determining who runs them. The bill prohibits private entities from being shareholders in the banks; and bans elected officials from serving on boards themselves. “Some cities might institute independent boards,” said Jette. The model I prefer to see and would like to see in L.A. is one that derives from neighborhood councils, so you have a maximum level of democracy in choosing the administrators of this bank all the way up to the professional bankers that run it.

This makes California’s push for public banking different from North Dakota’s state-wide public bank, which has been heralded as a successful pioneer of the system. The Bank of North Dakota was founded in 1919, in a time of economic uncertainty, wrote Sarah Jones in the New Republic: “Farmers, concerned that large grain traders and banks based outside the state threatened their economic sovereignty, saw a public bank as a means to protect themselves from exorbitantly high interest rates that put their farms at financial risk.”

Today, the bank—which was founded with a $2 million bond sale—is profitable, earning $159 million in 2018. Boosters thank public banking for helping North Dakota weather the recession: While others struggled, it was the only state in the country that sustained a surplus in 2009.

Seattle, Washington, D.C., New York City, and New Mexico have all been exploring their own public banking options, compelled by a similar desire to make a social impact with their coffers, and address “the market failures” of the commercial banking industry: the predatory lending that precipitated the 2008 housing crisis; Bank of America’s illegal foreclosures; industry-wide wage theft; and Wells’ Fargo’s history of opening illegal accounts. With its eight-city coalition, however, California’s public banking movement is one of the most powerful.

“We’re at that moment where housing and environmental and education crises are especially acute in California,” said LaRosa. “It’s time to act now instead of waiting for another decade and hoping things will get fixed.”

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