It’s Electric Moped Time, America

My Google Maps route from Bushwick to Greenpoint, in North Brooklyn, was in the red—no surprise there: It was evening rush hour in New York. But that was for cars; here I was, weaving in and out of traffic on a electric moped. Google Maps said 20 minutes, maybe. I made it in 15 flat.

One of Frank Reig and Paul Suhey’s many pitches for their new rent-an-electric-moped startup, Revel, is that it’s just plain fun: Users will take that first or second ride—which is given to them for free on the app—and get hooked on the thrills. As I cruised down empty, industrial backroads, I sort of understood what they were getting at: Who would want to be crammed onto two subways in the after-work crunch (which is what my trip would’ve required) when you could be out on this?

Revel, which launched in Brooklyn last week, is the latest installment of what some consider to be the Next Big Thing in shared mobility: a vehicle faster and more capable of going toe-to-toe with traffic than dockless bikes or electric kick-scooters, but smaller than car-shares like Car2Go. Seen already in cities like Atlanta (Muving), San Francisco (Scoot), and Pittsburgh (Scoobi), Revel is New York City’s first.

The mode might seem relatively novel in America, but these kinds of almost-motorcycles have long served as affordable people- and stuff-haulers worldwide. Stylish Vespas filled mobility gaps in austere postwar Europe, and sputtering gas-powered mopeds and minibikes remain popular throughout Asian and Latin American cities. (My only prior experience riding one was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where mopeds act as taxis to carry you to the top of the sprawling hillside favelas.)

“It’s not just developing countries; it’s all throughout Europe,” said co-founder Reig. “Every country out there has their mopeds. Everyone’s riding them, male and female, young and old. And there’s a reason.”

So why does Revel think Brooklyn is ready to embrace the motorscooter’s latest electric variation?

That was the question I posed to Reig and Suhey at their headquarters on the Bushwick-Ridgewood border, just a day after they announced that 68 Torrot-brand emissions-free mopeds were available to the public at a press conference alongside local City Councilman Antonio Reynoso. When I arrived, a couple walking by was busy snapping a photo of the two blue rides out front.

Reig said electric mopeds, in particular, address two of New Yorkers’ pet peeves in this current moment: noise and parking. “Since they’re electric, the noise pollution is out of the question,” said Reig. “And these are really able to fit into that spot that’s close to a fire hydrant, but a car couldn’t fit into.”

Suhey also argues that mopeds can fix a critical weakness in the Manhattan-centric hub-and-spoke model of New York’s mass transit—an issue that arises often in debates over the city’s buses and subways. “We think there’s just a gap for transportation options that allow you to go inter-borough.”

During Revel’s pilot phase, bikes can be either rented or picked up in this coverage zone. (Revel)

During its pilot, Revel is only available in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg—a test zone of, at most, 5 miles. The zone was targeted specifically because it sat at the edge of the city’s CitiBike service area, Suhey explained. Right now, the mopeds are for one-way, point-to-point trips, a la Car2Go. Being in North Brooklyn makes them a viable option to get to alternate transit during the 15-month-long shutdown of the nearby L train, which commences in April of 2019. “It will help in its own way, to be able to get you to the J/M/Z [subway lines], to be able to get you to a ferry on the East River,” Reig said.

Reig, a New York native, said he had noticed the lack of north-south transit options from his 12 years living in Brooklyn. He met Suhey at an investment research company, where the two worked together in the energy division. There, they studied lithium ion batteries—and saw how quickly the technology was developing. “Right now, the range is 50 miles, but two years ago, it was 20 miles,” said Suhey. “The business model running an electric moped company is now viable, compared to a couple of years ago. “

Improving battery technology has created a whole new genre of electric vehicles, including the e-bikes operated by delivery workers that New Yorkers are familiar with (and often annoyed by). The Revel mopeds avoid the debate over e-bike legality that City Hall has been engaging in, because they are Class B vehicles, registered with the state DMV, and insured; they’re not allowed on highways, and don’t go any more than 29 miles an hour. Users need a driver’s license to operate them, and must pass a background check into their driving record.

A 20-minute ride costs $4, and after that, 25 cents a minute. There’s also a one-time registration fee of $25. At those rates, why wouldn’t a regular e-moped commuter find it cheaper in the long run to just buy an electric moped of their own? “Because a restaurant worker doesn’t have $7,000 in their bank account,” Reig quickly replied, when I asked him. “But they do have $4 to hop on for 20 minutes, and get to northern Greenpoint, or south Bushwick. It’s giving someone the opportunity to use a vehicle, whether it’s a moped, an electric bike, a car, that doesn’t have the upfront capital to be able to purchase it.”

Indeed, Reig and Suhey sung the praises of other shared mobility services in our conversation: They said that Revel should be a complement, not a rival, to CitiBike, the city’s new dockless bikes, Car2Go, Zipcar, and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. “The more services out there that do shared mobility, the more people are used to using shared mobility,” Reig said. “I love Car2Go, I love JUMP, I love Bird, I love CitiBike. The more, the better.”

In the 24 hours after their launch, Reig said they had received emails from people asking for the service in other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Should the pilot go well, he said, an expansion could take the mopeds down the Brooklyn waterfront, and up to Queens—a service area similar to that of Car2Go. Annual membership options, like CitiBike, might also be considered. But first, they want to ensure the demand is there, that the neighborhood wants it, and that daily maintenance and battery-swapping operations run smoothly.

“We don’t really know how people are going to use it,” said Suhey. “It’s such a unique vehicle. So it’s really interesting to us to see if people just use this to get from Point A to Point B, or do they have this to have a little fun, and explore new neighborhoods?”

After we spoke, it was time for my safety tutorial. When you download Revel, the app asks if you have experience riding a moped—if you say no, it recommends visiting the offices for a lesson, or watching this YouTube video. The lesson consists of learning how to use the kickstand, getting familiar with the weight of the nearly 200 pound bike; adjusting the helmet, which is stashed in a small back trunk (also included: disposable hairnets); and flicking the throttle on and off.

Revel’s offices are along a side street that doesn’t see much daytime traffic. I took it for a spin around the block. If your only e-scooter experience is with the little Bird variety, the speed and power of a Revel bike is a bit of shock, but once you learn how to handle the brisk acceleration, you get used to it. I sat at a red light behind a Dodge minivan, made a right, and then came back.

Later that evening, I rode another Revel, because it actually made a lot sense for my commute. I live in northern Queens, which, from Bushwick, can take up to three or four subway lines to get home. Factoring in likely delays, that meant an hour, or maybe more. (And it was rush hour.) So I charted my alternate route: Take the Revel to Greenpoint, where I could CitiBike home in 20 minutes. I downloaded the app, put in my credit card and license, and waited at a local coffee shop for an hour before a background check into my driving record was completed. Once approved, there was a Revel sitting a block away from me.

When I made it to Greenpoint (as noted, in 15 minutes), I pulled over near a CitiBike dock to park it. Across the street, an older man named Martin, who was waiting in his car, asked if he could switch parking spots; I happily obliged, and walked the Revel across the street, hitching it in a small space between a car and a driveway’s entrance. As I stored my helmet, and closed the app, Martin came over and asked if the moped was mine. I told him about Revel.

“I had a small motorcycle in the city for years,” he said, looking the moped up and down. “It was a blast.”

He asked me how much the mopeds go for—I told him the pricing scheme, and how I came from Bushwick in 15 minutes. His eyes widened. “How cool.”

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Is All American Politics Really National Now?

Every election in American politics is now about a single national concern: Donald Trump. Voters who fueled the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June’s Democratic congressional primary, for instance, were supposedly fueled by antagonism towards the Trump Administration, so the conventional wisdom goes.

What has long been reported has now been verified and explained by a fantastic new book, The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Politics Nationalized. Author Daniel J. Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has compiled and created the best empirical case yet that all politics is really national now, and the best explanations about how we got here.

Hopkins identifies several forces that led to nationalization. First, national political party organizations rather than state or local ones increasingly determine the candidates and causes that state and local party organizations then support. Second, media has increasingly reframed its coverage for a national audience, with new digital outlets centralized in major hubs like New York and Washington, while other local outlets are decimated by flailing business models.  Whether you are consuming conservative media or liberal media, you are more likely to be consuming national rather than local media.

In reality, though, the nationalization of politics is in some ways really just the selective localization of politics. The people, priorities, and perspectives of these few specific places control the politics of those places—and of all other places. The excluded in the rest of the country are not rejecting truly local candidates as much as they never get to hear from them in the first place.  

Nationalization is not a story about the declining power of place, but instead a story about the increasing power of a few places to determine politics everywhere. Our economy increasingly features place winners and place losers. For more than a century, state incomes were becoming much more similar—until the last thirty years.  Now, in New York City, there are close to 400,000 millionaires (based on net assets), while the entire state of Mississippi features one-twelfth that number.

Our politics features similar place winners and place losers. Candidates for office benefit from prior careers that qualify them to run for office and win, and those careers are easier to assemble if one is from and lives in places with greater professional opportunities. The millionaire financier has an advantage in running for office compared to the underemployed service worker.

Candidates also benefit from knowing others who will promote their campaigns for office, yet those people are geographically concentrated as well. Donors needed to fund campaigns are in just a few places but control elections in many places. One study found that 5 percent of the nation’s zip codes contributed 77 percent of federal campaign money during a recent election cycle. Journalists who provide needed exposure for campaigns are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. Particularly with campaigns now relying more on large data sets that those with higher levels of education are trained to handle, more and more highly educated individuals who could be valuable campaign staffers are in a few places.  

Being connected to the most powerful few places benefits not just federal or state politicians, but even local politicians. Local politicians benefit from using big donors, big media coverage, or big data. Consider, for instance, Pete Buttgieg, the rising star in the Democratic Party currently serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttgieg worked in Washington for former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and presidential candidate John Kerry before returning back home to Indiana, and referenced this experience and the connections it generated to launch his first mayoral campaign in 2011.

Americans themselves are concerned about not letting a few specific places dominate our politics. This is why candidates for office on the left and on the right this year have referred to their opponents as tied to other places apart from the congressional districts they want to represent. One candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the North Country in far upstate New York, for instance, noted that the incumbent Republican member “has never actually lived here, paid taxes, or survived a North Country winter with us.”

The place losers, meanwhile, often do not get to choose between the local and the national, but instead between the Democratic candidate tied to the powerful places and the Republican candidate tied to the powerful places. After all, the two candidates for president in 2016 both were centered in New York City. With no one speaking to their local identities, they do not rank them as important, nor do they get to vote for candidates that rank them as important.

The empirical evidence of this is still emerging, but consider some suggestive results. One study, for instance, found that candidates for statewide offices “virtually never emerge out of rural areas or small towns.” Another data analysis by a doctoral student at the University of Maryland found that the percentage of members of the House of Representatives born in their district has declined very rapidly in the past forty years. And a review of the  2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama found that—even in swing states—the staff was dominated by staffers from elsewhere.”

On the occasions when citizens are exposed to local political influences, they often respond favorably. Several empirical studies have found that local campaign volunteers are more effective in convincing people to vote. Candidates themselves—like Obama in 2008—believe that local helps, and so encourage their volunteers to sound local and try to make themselves sound local.

Take June’s Democratic primary election. Ocasio-Cortez not only ran as a candidate of the left, but of the local. The powerful Democratic incumbent she challenged, Joseph Crowley, was portrayed as a creature of wealthy Manhattan and Washington, not a creature of the Bronx and Queens. Ocasio-Cortez attacked Crowley for not living in their congressional district. In her campaign video from May, she noted that Crowley “doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us.”  And she won.

Trump has primed the underlying cleavages that have always divided Americans into two categories: those who see place as predominant, and those who see place as passé. In reality, though, many Americans may actually want officials to be more of and for their place. Their desire is more often silent than significant because for many important elections, their choices are between strangers rather than between neighbors. We therefore cannot be sure how much all politics is national by choice—or by command.

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The Case for Rooms

If someone asked me five years ago whether or not I thought the open floor plan would still be popular, I would have said no. Domestic architecture seemed to be taking a turn toward the rustic. Today, “Farmhouse” and “Craftsman” modern designs, harkening back to the American vernacular tradition (complete with shiplap walls), are a tour-de-force.

But I would have been wrong. Although these houses bring all the exterior trappings of beloved vernacular houses of the past, they do not extend that to the interior plans. In fact, the open concepts from the oversized houses of the pre-recession era have only gotten more open.

Much has been written about the open floor plan: how it came to be, why it is bad (or good), whether it should or shouldn’t be applied to existing housing. The open floor plan as we currently understand it—an entry-kitchen-dining-living combination that avoids any kind of structural separation between uses—is only a few decades old. Prior to the last 25 years, an “open floor plan” meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls. I will refer to the latter from now on as an “open concept,” in order to differentiate it from a traditional open floor plan.

An open-concept house in Massachusetts in 2005. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The interior-wall-free open concept became popular starting in the 1970s, evolving from the cedar contemporary homes known for their tall ceilings and windows, and from styled ranches whose steeper rooflines allowed for newly in-vogue cathedral ceilings. Overall, the open concept was a reaction against years of small, low-ceilinged living, which felt restricting and stuffy to a new generation of homebuyers.

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost described a new luxury concept called the “mess kitchen”—a second kitchen out of sight from the main kitchen and the rest of the open plan. He cited it to demonstrate why the open floor plan and its rhetoric around “entertaining” have reached new levels of absurdity. However, to me, the mess kitchen offers hope for a transitional period where open spaces may become closed again.

That this would start with the kitchen is not surprising. Historically, the kitchen was the last room to be integrated into the open concept. Living and dining rooms began to converge as early as the beginning of the 1900s, when changes in architectural taste and the development of mass-industrialized housing production favored a more compact home design than the rambling, formal “hall-and-parlor” layout of Victorian times.

The conventional narrative is that, historically, houses had floor plans that were closed, and then they began opening up. But it is important to understand that this argument centers on the homes of the affluent classes.

Meeting of aristocratic families in the living room. Colored engraving by George Scott, 1892. (Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)

Wealthy families in the 18th and 19th centuries had homes with several rooms for specific purposes, such as parlors, libraries, drawing rooms, smoking rooms, and servants’ quarters. Then, new building materials and construction technologies led to shifts in architectural taste that favored more continuous interior spaces: First came the Arts & Crafts movement, then Modernism. Social changes that arose with modern industrial capitalism, such as the transition away from live-in servants to commuting wage-workers, also reduced the number of rooms in upper-class houses.

However, in the homes of the working and lower-middle classes, these same factors of social change and modernization created an opposite progression. The story of common houses is a story of walls.

The number of rooms in working-class homes increased with the number of products and amenities that became readily affordable through industrialization, modernization, and mass production. The common house, as well as working-class living environments such as dwelling houses and tenements, only had one to three rooms: a kitchen space and a living and/or sleeping space, which were multipurpose, used for working as well as living.

Beginning in the 1860s, work increasingly took place outside of the home, and the application of mass production to housing reduced building costs. During this period, the average number of rooms increased, to three to five: a kitchen, a living room, and one or two bedrooms. Common vernacular examples of this period (1860-1900) include the worker’s cottage, the shotgun house, the Temple-and-Wing house, and early examples of the four-box and Foursquare. In these early industrial-era homes, the threshold between working-class and middle-class was determined by amenities like a dining room or a front porch.

By the 1900s and 1910s, mass single-family housing shipped to the site by rail and truck had come into its own. Now sizes and types of wood, nails, and other construction materials had become widely standardized across the building industry. During the second half of the 19th century, a key development—balloon framing—allowed for more inexpensive construction, since the cheap materials (nails, studs, and 2x4s) were readily available and did not required skilled labor to assemble, unlike timber framing. Long, lightweight studs and the clever, basket-like technique of assembly enabled taller and longer homes to be built by as few as two people and with relatively little waste.

Two of the most common and recognizable types of vernacular American housing—the bungalow and the Foursquare—became massively popular during this time. The average number of rooms per house increased once again. Working-class homes now had three to five rooms; middle-class homes, six to eight. Whether or not a home was determined to be working- or middle-class depended on whether it had indoor plumbing (bathrooms!) or electricity, both of which had become increasingly available.

Duplex bungalow built c. 1905 for cigar-factory workers in Tampa’s Ybor City. (Library of Congress)

Architectural historians place a great deal of emphasis on the bungalow, often citing it as the beginning of the “open” floor plan, since many bungalows omitted the closed wall between the living and dining areas. However, these historians focus on high-style Arts & Crafts bungalows, which featured more inventive architecture, and ignore the fact that in working-and-middle class bungalows, the average number of individual (closed) rooms increased as a whole.

Only in more elaborate middle-class bungalows is the wall between the living and dining room separated by a partial wall or colonnade. This feature was more expensive to construct, because it required structural loads to be redistributed to other walls or fixtures. Structural reasons in general were why, in common houses, open spaces would not become more widespread until changes in construction made them more affordable.

Even as plans in elite houses continued to open up throughout the 1920s, the common house retained its interior walls. Why? In many respects, closed rooms existed to maintain a semblance of privacy. Homes were smaller, but families were bigger than they are now: The average number of people in an American household was five in 1880 and 4.3 in 1920; today, it’s 2.5. The reason why the first door to be omitted was frequently that between the living and dining rooms was because those rooms were considered “public” spaces, a holdover from the hall-and-parlor Victorian times.

Homes in Greenbelt, Maryland—a town built by the federal government for lower-income families in the 1930s—had separate kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms, and many had three bedrooms, a luxury at the time. (Library of Congress)

Work areas, such as the kitchen, and private spaces, like bedrooms and bathrooms, were always closed off to avoid guests seeing the mess of meal-making or, heaven forbid, the “unmentionable room” (the bathroom).

By the end of the 1920s, the large, old-growth trees that produced the long studs central to the technique of balloon framing became scarce, leading to new techniques that could be completed with smaller spans of wood. Today’s style of framing, platform framing,  enabled more flexible room shapes and sizes.

The small minimal traditional houses of the 1930s through early ‘50s employed this new framing technique on a mass, federally-subsidized scale. These small homes relied on interior walls to ensure spatial privacy (not to mention aural, olfactory, and visual privacy) in cramped situations. The closed floor plan also represented security, isolation, and control, concepts that were important in a moment that emerged from the Depression and then World War II, and deepened through a period of intense racial tension and Cold War paranoia.

The ranch and the split-level, both of which originated in the mid-1940s, drastically changed patterns of dwelling in the American home. This is often cited as the spark that lit the fire of the open concept. The reorientation of the ideal American home, from vertical, two-story Cape Cod to horizontal, one-story ranch, certainly did open up floor plans. By this point, a continuous living and dining space was commonplace.

The innovative 1948 Revere Quality House in Sarasota, Florida, designed by Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, had an L-shaped combination living/dining space; the kitchen was separated from the dining area by a partition. (Library of Congress)

However, one room remained stubbornly closed for at least another decade: the kitchen.

Kitchens have been closed for most of the history of common housing. In elite houses, kitchens were places of work, where servants were kept out of sight of residents and guests, often relegated to the cellar or guesthouse. This functional separation was continued in middle-class houses, even as live-in servants became a feature of the past. Most kitchens are placed in the rear of the house. Access to a rear kitchen door allowed for faster disposal of waste and easy ventilation; also, deliveries could be made directly to the kitchen to save labor.

Kitchens began to open up and become public spaces in the home because of cultural shifts regarding consumption. Domestic theorist Christine Frederick’s term “creative waste” sums up this new mentality: It was the moral obligation of the 1920s housewife to buy and discard products, one that elevated the concept of waste as being positive, indulgent, and stimulating to the economy.

This attitude merged with new technological advances. When inventions such as central air conditioning and improved fire suppression became commonplace, the kitchen, no longer a place of shame and no longer reliant upon the ventilation provided by the kitchen door, began to shift to different parts of the home. The attached garage often replaced the backyard as the common point of entry into the kitchen.

Room layout, which more often than not had its roots in social and practical constraints, became liberated due to these new cultures of consumption and technologies of comfort. Without these developments, the open concept would have never been possible in the first place.

If closed floor plans are considered such a nuisance these days, why did they prevail for almost 100 years in single-family working- and middle-class suburban housing? The answer: closed floor plans make a lot of sense, from both an environmental and a living perspective.

A 1950s model kitchen, with sink and stove a few steps apart. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

We are going to need to consume a lot less energy if we want to stem the tide of global climate change. The good news is, humans survived for thousands of years without air conditioning and cars, and thus can learn some lessons from the past. The closed floor plan, especially the closed kitchen, can help save energy by the simple principle of not heating and cooling rooms that are not currently in use, as well as by isolating rooms we want to keep warm or cool.

As cultures of consumption change and people become more environmentally conscious, homes must change to reflect this. Designing homes around “entertaining” that happens only a handful of times a year is a wasteful, yet still mindbogglingly popular practice. When people come to visit, they are there to see you, not your open concept.

It may not be as glamorous, but the closed kitchen is actually more efficient for cooking than the sprawling, open “chef’s kitchens” that are so popular. It enables whoever does the cooking to take fewer steps to perform tasks. The chef’s kitchen follows the wasteful logic of the 1920s: Instead of moving the sink closer to the stove, builders install a pot filler or a second sink in a center island. Instead of closing in the main kitchen to isolate the disorder of food preparation, developers are building “mess kitchens” for this purpose.

The “labor-saving” elements of open floor plans are in some ways labor-creating. A large, single, continuous space is harder to get and keep clean. Messes and smells are no longer isolated, but can be easily tracked throughout the entire first floor of a large home. Less house in general means less house to clean.

Not separating cooking, living, and dining is also an acoustical nightmare, especially in today’s style of interior design, which avoids carpet, curtains, and other soft goods that absorb sound. This is especially true of homes that do not have separate formal living and dining spaces but one single continuous space. Nothing is more maddening than trying to read or watch television in the tall-ceilinged living room with someone banging pots and pans or using the food processor 10 feet away in the open kitchen.

The best thing about the closed floor plan? It offers what it has always offered: aural, olfactory, and spatial privacy. Humans have always needed the sense of comfort and refuge that defined rooms provide. That may explain the rise of “man caves” and “she sheds”—closed spaces that rebel against the open concept.

Instead of these—space-wasting, specialized rooms that are used relatively sparingly—why not just build common rooms with walls and doors? If you want to escape something unpleasant, you can do so without feeling banished or isolating yourself from everyone else. Sometimes, true freedom means putting up a few barriers.

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Animals Feel The Strain of Europe’s Heatwave

Parts of Europe are now so hot that their dogs need to wear shoes to go outside. So says the Zurich police force, at least.

In a summer where much of Europe has seen unusually high temperatures for an unusually long length of time, the police in Switzerland’s largest city have taken to fitting their squad’s German Shepherds with booties—and have urged others to do the same. They have a point: Asphalt in many places has reached egg-frying temperatures that can hurt paw pads, possibly causing damage to dogs that are already hot and bothered as it is. The warning serves as a reminder that, as the blazing summer continues across much of the continent, humans are far from the only ones to struggle.

A Zurich police dog wearing protective footwear. (Stadtpolizei Zürich)

In the far north of Norway, for example, temperatures have in recent weeks reached as far as 31 Celsius (88 Fahrenheit), a remarkably high level for a largely coastal region straddling the Arctic Circle. Unused to the heat, reindeer and sheep grazing the area have taken to cooling down in dangerous locations: the region’s road tunnels. Herd animals looking for shade not uncommonly wander into Norwegian tunnels in high summer, but this year an occasional phenomenon seems close to being an epidemic. Between the 10th and 31st of July, 44 animals were spotted entering tunnels—places where they run a high risk of being hit by unsuspecting drivers, who don’t stand to do well out of the clash either.

Wild animals are of course quite adaptable to changes of temperature. As this German article notes, for example, German boars regulate their temperatures by moving onto a meatless diet during hot spells, while deer get much of their liquid from their food. Some German animals are still feeling the punch, notably livestock, whose normal sources of fodder have turned dry and stopped growing. Right now, water levels in the country have gone so low that some nuclear power plants have reduced their output, because the rivers they use for cooling just aren’t cool enough.

That’s when the rivers are still there, mind you. Some parts of the River Elbe have shrunk so much that grenades and mines left over from World War Two have become visible for the first time on the now-dry river beds. In the eastern province of Sachsen-Anhalt, there have been 21 recorded instances on unused ordnance being discovered on the newly exposed river bottom in the last five weeks alone. The lack of feed that this extended dry spell has caused means that some farmers are increasingly slaughtering stock rather than buy feed for them. The E.U. has waived rules that require a proportion of pastureland to be left fallow for a time to increase biodiversity, and cow slaughtering in Germany has gone up by 21 percent compared to the same period last year.

Is an end in sight? Luckily for the arctic reindeer, temperatures in Northern Norway have fallen a bit, although only to still-above-average highs of 20 C (68 F). In Iberia, on the other hand, things are heating up, with fears that temperatures could reach a record-breaking 48 C (118.5F) over the weekend.

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Who’s Laughing at Jamestown’s National Comedy Center?

Every year in Jamestown, New York, the beginning of August brings an invasion of Lucys.

For the past three decades, thousands of people in red wigs and polka-dot dresses have converged here each summer for the five-day Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. These superfans don’t just love Lucy—they’re head-over-heels for her. They compete in a fashion show, buy I Love Lucy memorabilia, and participate in an intense chocolate-wrapping contest, inspired by perhaps Ball’s most memorable scene. Lucy-centric events occur all over town alongside a series of stand-up performances in nearby theaters.

For this Rust Belt city of about 30,000 people, it’s a defining event in honor of its most famous native. But it also served as inspiration to be something more—not just a destination for Lucy aficionados, but a hotspot for comedy culture in general. That effort culminates this month with with the opening of the National Comedy Center, a 37,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the history of the comedic arts.

The museum, backed by a nonprofit of the same name, represents an investment in the future of Jamestown. The city has ambitions to draw in comedy fans from around the world, in the same way that the Baseball Hall of Fame turned Cooperstown, New York, into a must-see for enthusiasts of America’s pastime.

Visitors try out an exhibit simulating the experience of operating a control booth for a late-night TV show. (Courtesy of the National Comedy Center)

The museum itself comes with a $50 million price tag, some of which was curried from state and federal government coffers, and it boasts a state-of-the-art mix of nostalgia and technology. On entering, visitors get an electronic wristband that they swipe at a kiosk that asks about favorite comedians, movies, sitcoms, and more. The exhibits then respond to the personal comedic sensibilities of each museumgoer. In the Stand-Up Lounge, for example, after touring groups settle into chairs at cocktail tables and swipe their wristbands across electronic readers, interactive multimedia presentations begin—performances, documentary shorts, trivia—all algorithmically curated specifically for the group in the room. A hologram theater, meanwhile, offers stand-up excerpts from comedian Jim Gaffigan.

If there’s a city in Western New York whose economic development could use a punch-up, it’s Jamestown. Located 75 miles south of Buffalo, the town’s population peaked around 45,000 in 1930. As the U.S. steel industry went into decline, more than a quarter of the residents left between 1950 and 2000. The number of vacant housing units has doubled the past 25 years, and since 1970 the number of families earning $50,000 a year has fallen nearly 50 percent.

“You have a lot of young people facing either leaving the area or trying desperately to find a way to make a living here,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center, a nonprofit group that runs the museum of the same name.

The entrance to the National Comedy Center. (Courtesy of the National Comedy Center)

Jamestown may seem an improbable destination for it, but plans for the museum go back to the 1980s, when city officials and the local arts council approached Ball with the idea of building a museum dedicated to her. She thought it would be better to celebrate all of comedy in the city, turning Jamestown into a national destination.

“Lucille Ball always felt very strongly about the power of the art of comedy, and she was a very savvy businesswoman,” Gunderson says. “She was wise to suggest that.”

After her death in 1989, the city erected the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, focusing on the achievements of both her and her husband, and their TV show, I Love Lucy. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, founded in 1991, became more of a Lucy convention, too, Gunderson says.

But the National Comedy Center has been rebranding in recent years, and today, the organization, its events, and museum are closer to Ball’s broader vision. Joan Rivers headlined the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in 2011, for Ball’s 100th birthday, and it’s been drawing big names since, including Lewis Black, Kevin James, Jerry Seinfeld, and, this year, Amy Schumer.

The National Comedy Center isn’t a “Comedy Hall of Fame,” per se. (There’s already one of those in New York City, though it’s more of an oral history and educational initiative than a museum.) But Gunderson says that many in Jamestown have been thinking about the parallels with Cooperstown and its signature attraction, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Since its opening in 1939, that facility has drawn 17 million visitors; at least 60,000 people are expected for even modestly attended induction ceremonies, says Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Ostego County. In the past decade, the Hall has brought an estimated $1.5 billion into the local economy. In Cooperstown—which has just 1,800 residents and is (sort of) the birthplace of the sport—baseball culture utterly dominates the village. “If you walk down Main Street, almost all the shops are in some way related to baseball,” Harrington says. “Everyone has their own take on it.”

Such a feat could prove harder to pull off in Jamestown, which, despite its Lucy connection, can hardly claim to be a hotbed of comedy. And comedy itself is a somewhat less family-friendly draw than baseball, especially in the stand-up realm. (The museum reserves one floor for more adult-oriented content.) Plus, the Baseball Hall of Fame enjoys the institutional support of a multi-billion-dollar organization; most of the National Comedy Center’s funding arrived via private donors, and the financially strapped city of Jamestown was unable to put up any money for it.

Still, there’s hope that the center’s opening will lure a larger cohort of comedy fans to New York State’s Southern Tier throughout the year. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival now attracts about 15,000 out-of-towners each year, and there’s talk of adding performances year-round at the handful of venues already in Jamestown, with hopes that new clubs will open, and open-mic nights at bars and cafes will pop up. According to an economic impact analysis from consultants at AECOM, the National Comedy Center stands to pump $22 million a year into Western New York, and generate 32 equivalent full-time jobs.

The state’s economic development arm hopes the museum can deliver on those promises. “The National Comedy Center is a key component of Western New York’s strategy for economic growth through investments in our tourism industry,” says Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development, which provided $9 million in funding for the museum’s construction. “It’s already receiving the support of comedy greats and national recognition as a cultural showplace that visitors will flock to for generations to come.”

The National Comedy Center’s five-day grand opening, from August 1 to 5, coincides with this year’s Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and the event lineup features a slate of famous names in addition to Schumer, including Lily Tomlin, Fran Drescher, and original Saturday Night Live cast members Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman—who says she was “blown away” by a recent tour of the exhibits. “I don’t know who the average person is who would go there,” Newman says, “but if they want to be enlightened [about comedy], they certainly will be.”

Among the museum’s collection ephemera are Charlie Chaplin’s cane and handwritten one-liners by Rodney Dangerfield, as well as artifacts from more modern comedic artists.

A collection of George Carlin’s belongings on display at the National Comedy Center. (Courtesy of the National Comedy Center)

Self-described “comedy nerd” and stand-up Tony Deyo, who’s been hosting monthly National Comedy Center-branded shows at New York Comedy Club in Manhattan as part of the museum’s promotion, is particularly eager to scour the George Carlin Archives. Donated to the Center in 2016 by Carlin’s daughter, the collection of 25,000 artifacts includes some Ziploc bags with topics scrawled on them, filled with notes outlining how the funnyman made his material. “I get super into what someone’s process was and how they worked,” Deyo says. “To think that I could ever just peek at what George Carlin did [and] study how he did it is amazing to me.”

Deyo proselytizes about the importance of the National Comedy Center. “Stand-up was an art form invented in the United States,” he says, “and we had no place that honored it in any way, other than your local comedy club. I have very, very grand visions in my mind for it.”

If he’s right, the future of Jamestown—economically, culturally, and perhaps spiritually—might start to seem a little less rusty.

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Drake’s Video is a Throwback to a New Orleans That No Longer Exists

Welcome to the latest installation of “

But none of these housing projects are still standing. All of them have been replaced by mixed-income townhouses that were built after federal and city government official used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to dismantle public housing in the city. This is perhaps why Drake shot most of the “In My Feelings” video in the French Quarter—it’s probably the only thing most viewers would recognize from New Orleans. So, you don’t really get a video that makes you nostalgic for the “Ice Cream Man” and “Still Fly” days of Hip Hop cinema. Instead, you just feel nostalgic for a Hand Grenade daiquiri.

There are other scenes in Drake’s video that remind you that this is not the New Orleans that Hip Hop grew up with. Instead of the Louisiana Superdome built in the 1970s and damaged by Katrina in 2005, Drake features shots of the restored and corporate logo-hogged “Mercedes-Benz SuperDome.” Props to Drake for giving props to public transportation though, having some of the city shot through its streetcars. But these cars—probably the least-reliant form of public transit for actual New Orleanians— are used more by tourists.

This is not just to nitpick at Drake but it’s worth recognizing that there is a whole music video genre out of New Orleans that uplifted its most downtrodden and written-off people and neighborhoods. Drake’s new video barely registers a spark with that genre.

The No Limit and Ca$H Money videos defied conventions by casting women who who not only rejected MTV-model beauty standards, but women who were often otherwise rendered invisible in everyday society (the song lyrics, not so much). Just before that era, most rappers and artists filmed videos in mansions, on beaches, or in some environment that typified wealth. No Limit and Ca$h Money chose to film videos in the places that they simply considered home, regardless of their income, and not as places of poverty. Their videos surfaced a dignity that already existed among the marginalized people and places of New Orleans, that otherwise would not be seen by the newcomer, developer, and voyeur. There are several New Orleans artists today carrying on the No Limit/Ca$H Money music video legacy, however. 3DNa’tee’s videos—like the one for her song for Big Dawg—come to mind for its fresh portrait of the city.

Drake’s new video surfaces the places where you can find a good po’ boy. That’s great for the tourist, but doesn’t mean so much for the people and cultures that define the soul of the city. The No Limit/Ca$h Money videos left you with the fuzzy feeling that there are valued communities in New Orleans. Drake’s would-be throwback just leaves you in your feelings.

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A 1959 Sneak Peek at Lisbon’s Metro System

Welcome to the latest installation of “

Just before it opened, a short film starring a nationally beloved voice explained the residents how the new transit system would work. O Metropolitano—made by the prestigious Tobis Portuguesa film production company and directed by Arthur Duarte—was released in 1959, appearing on televisions and movie screens across Lisbon. In it, radio and TV journalist Artur Agostinho gives a young local couple a thorough tour of the system down to every last detail a rider could possibly need in time for its December 29 opening that year.

The system didn’t fully blossom until well after the Carnation Revolution in 1974 in which the country’s authoritarian regime was overthrown. By the time the city hosted Expo ‘98, Metro had expanded to 36 stations and four lines and has since expanded to 56 stations.

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Which Celebrity Should Voice Your City’s Transit Announcements?

In Hollywood, his grizzly chuckle is unmistakable from miles away. Now in Vancouver and, most recently, Toronto, Seth Rogen’s signature laugh is gracing the ears of morning commuters as he becomes the temporary voice of two of his country’s public transit systems.

His laughter accompanies public service announcements calling out people on bad rider etiquette. And judging from the promotion video from Vancouver’s TransLink, Rogen does not hold back.

To that lady whose bag has taken up a highly-coveted seat? “I know your bag is probably very nice, and you care deeply for it, but that doesn’t mean it needs its own seat,” he quips in his raspy voice. And that guy with his feet up? “Very nice sneakers, but kind of a horror show on the sole, so get those feet off the seat. My mom might be sitting there one day, c’mon!”

It started out as a joke, with Twitter users nominating Rogen to replace Morgan Freeman (who is facing allegations of sexual harassment) as the voice of Vancouver’s Skytrain. Now it’s a reality, and Rogen, an unabashedly proud Vancouverite, seems beyond excited for the gig. “Any opportunity to enrich the lives of the Canadian people is an opportunity I will take,” the actor, known for movies like Neighbors and Pineapple Express, said in a video—right before bursting into laughter.

It turns out that Rogen, a genuine public transit fan, is perfect for the job (though some in Toronto disagree). He famously posed for what was supposed to be a candid photo of him taking the airport shuttle in Los Angeles. And he proudly claims in the video that he grew up using public transit and still rides the Canada Line every time he’s in Vancouver.

Public transit announcers have gained local celebrity status in cities around the world. In 2016, Londoners mourned the death of Phil Sayer, who was best known for reminding riders to “mind the gap”on the London Underground. In other instances, musicians and actors have lent their voices to the greater good—like Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the British band Pulp, who re-recorded streetcar announcements in Sheffield, England, with his seductive voice.

Rogen’s announcements got CityLab writers thinking: What other celebrities would we like to see follow his lead, and where should they do it? Here’s who we’re nominating:

Judi Dench for the London Tube

Judging by the history of public announcements on its Tube, Londoners like being shouted at.

Since 1968, the authoritative voice of Oswald Lawrence has been scaring the bejesus out of people getting on and off trains at Embankment Station, even though his hectoring tones have been phased out elsewhere. Couple this with London Tube drivers’ habit of hectoring people who block doors over the in-train intercom and you have a city that’s used to—indeed, has a tradition of—receiving instructions in no uncertain terms.

This would make Judi Dench the perfect candidate. She’s so long established that she’s been shoehorned into the role of British “national treasure” for several decades already, and has a voice that would be recognized even by many tourists. Now that she’s known internationally for playing M in the James Bond movies, having her order Londoners to mind the gap would also tickle that part of the British soul that dearly loves being chastised by a contemptuous-sounding, well-spoken woman. It’s no less than we deserve.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Roots for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

There’s no dearth of hip hop talent in the City of Brotherly Love—from Will Smith to Meek Mill—who could lend their voice to the SEPTA. But the Roots crew seems like the ultimate match to the versatility of SEPTA, which is one of only two U.S. public transit systems that boasts all five major forms of terrestrial transportation. The agency already has the honor of getting spelled out in the opening verse of “Push Up Ya Lighter,” where lead emcee Black Thought narrates a trip on the El to City Hall. Just imagine Questlove’s soft-spoken announcement on a trolley pilgrimage or Roots beatboxing-alum Rahzel remixing stop callouts on the city’s forthcoming redesigned bus network. It might take a lot to get the very busy Tonight Show band back in the studio to record directions, but if Jay-Z can save Made in America’s claim to the Parkway, maybe we can hope.

Andrew Small

Lily Tomlin for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority

New Yorkers are known for their fast-paced lives and no-nonsense attitudes, which doesn’t jive well with city’s troubled subways and buses (the slowest in all of America). That’s why those who tolerate the delays and shutdowns could use a good laugh, especially given that they live in the capital of America’s comedy scene. And who better to deliver snappy one-lined service announcements than Broadway’s treasure and “comedic chameleon” Lily Tomlin—who just so happens to also be the original voice of Ms. Frizzle in the beloved Magic School Bus series. There’s no guarantee that she will transform MTA buses into rocketships, but if she enthusiastically says, “OK, bus, do your stuff!” maybe—just maybe—the bus will inch forward and get straphangers where the need to be in a more reasonable time.

–Linda Poon

Jeffrey Wright for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Washington, D.C., has plenty of homegrown musical heroes who could narrate bus and Metrorail journeys around town, from Ian MacKaye of the seminal hardcore band Fugazi, to Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag, to hip-hop stars Wale and Logic. But the voice that would lower Washingtonians’ blood pressure during all-too-frequent Metro delays belongs to actor Jeffrey Wright. Wright, who was born and raised in D.C., portrayed the electronics savant Beetee in The Hunger Games movies and now plays the sincere, befuddled Bernard on Westworld. He has a rich baritone voice that viewers of the animated series BoJack Horseman will recognize as that of Mr. Cuddlywhiskers. The soothing quality of Wright’s voice, in and of itself, would reassure harried commuters that an offloaded train is not the end of the world.

Amanda Hurley

Or… HAL 9000 for WMATA

But then again, D.C. has already decided that the job belongs to robots. When Metro’s gleaming new 7000 series trains arrive at a station, they make their presence known. “This is a 7000 series train,” a robo-voice self-declares at every stop—an announcement that had puzzled riders until this week.

Who is this robot talking? On older trains, operators make on-board announcements themselves. And when doors open and close on any Metrorail train, the prerecorded voice of Randi Miller, a certified human, tells passengers to step back. The cold, halting, feminine computer voice on the new trains doesn’t feel like an upgrade. Does she even have a name, like Siri or Alexa? (Metro doesn’t know the answer; the manufacturer, Kawasaki, supplied the voice.)

As long as robots are conducting the trains of the future, Metro might as well spring for a more familiar voice. Someone—okay, something—comforting. Something state of the art. A known quantity. A friend. HAL 9000 doing Metro 7000 would be a step up over the status quo. And who better to convey WMATA’s #Back2Good message than a robot that knows its own limitations? HAL 9000 is already saying what we expect to hear from Metro: “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.”

Kriston Capps

Greta Gerwig for Sacramento Regional Transit

California’s capital city is humble, and its transit is no different. Sacramento’s light rail remains under-appreciated due to California’s car culture, but it pulls its weight carrying 40,000 passengers during the workweek. Recently, writer and director Greta Gerwig made “SacTo” a household name with her 2017 blockbuster Lady Bird, her “love letter to Sacramento.” Which is why no one is more deserving of the glory of narrating Sacramento Rapid Transit’s announcements. She could take all SacRT riders on a scenic tour around the State Capitol, around the Sacramento Kings’ stadium (the most high-tech in America), and past the iconic Tower Bridge. As the gold and blue train zooms through midtown, she’ll remind passengers to keep their flip-flopped feet off the seats and to stop spilling their Chando’s tacos de lengua on the floor.

Claire Tran

Jennifer Hudson for the Chicago Transit Authority

Chicago already has pretty great announcements, but if we’re looking for some fresh blood, I nominate Jennifer Hudson, who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The case for Hudson, who rose to fame as a finalist on American Idol. But she is perhaps most well-known for her performance as Effie White in Dreamgirls, which arguably even overshadowed her more famous co-star Queen Bey. The case for Hudson is clear: a native Chicagoan who chose to go back and live in the area? Check. Angelic voice? Double check.

–Tanvi Misra

Queen Latifah for Newark Light Rail

Without Whitney Houston, the only possible voice for Newark’s city rail is the buttery tone of its own queen: Latifah. Think of the rhymes she can spit! Who would dare disobey her? Newark’s subway isn’t much to speak of—just a few lines, and not even on the well-traveled route between the airport and Penn Station—but Latifah could really bring it to life. Joe Pesci, another native son, can have the buses.

K. A. Dilday

Rini Simon Khanna and Shammi Narang for the Delhi Metro

The Delhi Metro already has it just right: A female and a male voice call out stations in both English and Hindi, and they’re just about perfect. In fact, the people behind them are already voiceover legends.

Former public news anchor Rini Simon Khanna, was an anchor for the public news channel in India. Her voice reminds passengers to “mind the gap,” but when she took a ride on the metro herself with a writer for Caravan magazine, she wasn’t impressed with what she heard. “That sounds different than me,” she said. Later, she critiqued the pause between her words: “There is too much gap between the name of the station and the word ‘station.’”

The male voice belongs to Shammi Narang, also an iconic broadcaster who was born and raised in Delhi. “My milestone was basically the metro,” he told IndiaTimes, talking about how his career kicked off after being discovered by a Voice of America producer. “People may be thinking that he just does the voice for the metro, but you don’t understand, you all have made my voice immortal.”

–Tanvi Misra

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If You Don’t Do Stairs, Half of New York City Is a Transit Desert

When Monica Bartley got off the New York City subway at Union Square, she found the station didn’t have an elevator for her wheelchair. So she took the 4 train all the way uptown to Grand Central Station, 28 blocks away, where she knew there’d be an elevator.

It was broken. So Bartley was stuck underground for hours trying to head to work. Finally, she circled back to the station where she started, took the elevator up to the street, and took the bus instead.

“By the time I got to my office in the afternoon, my spirit was broken,” said Bartley, a community outreach organizer with the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

Only 24 percent of New York City’s 472 subway stations are accessible via an elevator, according to a new report by the City Comptroller’s Office, and half of the city’s subway-served neighborhoods qualify as “ADA transit deserts,” meaning that they lack a single accessible station. In these areas, nearly 640,000 residents are impacted, including those who are mobility impaired, seniors, and children under five, who often need a stroller.

Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report appears less than two months after the Metropolitan Transit Authority released its $19 billion “Fast Forward” plan. It proposes to build at least 50 accessible stations within five years, so that riders are no more than two stops away from an accessible station. The MTA also hopes to upgrade signals, replace its fare payment system, and reroute bus networks in every borough.

“A Metrocard should be a ticket to all 472 subway stations in New York City—not just to 24 percent,” Stringer said in an email. “Every time a subway station gains an accessible elevator or escalator, the subway system expands to tens of thousands of New Yorkers—and ultimately, funding for ADA upgrades will build out our subways to over 640,000.”

According to TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to urban transportation and mobility, the New York subway is the nation’s least accessible, defined as available to those who need stair-free access. Even Chicago and Boston—whose rapid-transit stations are just as old or older—rank far higher in accessibility, at 70 percent for both. The Washington, D.C,. and Los Angeles metro rail are fully accessible, either with elevators for below-ground stations, or ramps for above-ground.

The MTA is currently being sued by Bronx Independent Living Services, a community nonprofit which helps those with disabilities live autonomously, under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to build an accessible station during recent construction. In court filings, United States Attorney Geoffrey Berman cited $27 million renovations to a Bronx subway station in 2013, which added enhanced lighting, public art, and other cosmetic repairs. But the MTA did not add an elevator, due to cost and technical feasibility.

Beyond elevators, advocates are also pushing for other accessibility improvements inside stations, including increased signage for visually-impaired riders, more handrails, and smaller gaps between the train and the platform. Furthermore, although the MTA currently offers Access-A-Ride cars equipped with wheelchair lifts, the service is lacking, by many accounts. Rides must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and trips can be lengthy; a 9 to 12-mile ride can take nearly two hours, according to the MTA website. Bartley said that her rides are often extremely late, or simply never show up.

Insufficient accessibility also has an real economic impact, Stringer’s report says. In neighborhoods with at least one accessible station, median rent costs at least $100 more than in neighborhoods with no accessible stations. Mobility-impaired riders struggle with employment: Those living in transit deserts struggle to get to work, no matter the neighborhood. The 608,000 jobs located in inaccessible neighborhoods are even more difficult to reach. This contributes to the dramatic discrepancy in labor force participation rates within the city: Only 23 percent of individuals with mobility impairments are employed or actively looking for work, compared to 74 percent of those with no disabilities.

New York State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens has long been an advocate for accessibility reform, authoring a bill in 2017 to fund accessible stations by taxing high-income earners. The Fast Forward plan doesn’t have a detailed budget, timeline, or funding yet. Other state senators have also offered congestion pricing as source of funding. Gianaris isn’t concerned about which resolution passes—as long as the project gets funded.

“I want to move the conversation past whether the measures are popular. I’m fine with either of them or both of them, but the bottom line is the system needs the money and the system needs to spend that money wisely,” he said. “We’re doing neither of them right now.”

There are some hopeful signs for disability advocates. In accordance with the plan, last month the MTA hired its first senior advisor for systemwide accessibility, Alex Elegudin, who uses a wheelchair himself.

Bartley still wants to see a more detailed action plan for the renovations, but she’s optimistic about the agency’s recent direction. “They’ve been trying to improve,” she said. “Things have changed. I think they’re listening to us more.”

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