As Amazon Moves to Capture Local Government Spending, Here’s What You Can Do

A recent contract opens the way for billions of dollars in local government spending to shift to Amazon. The good news is that, for concerned citizens and public officials, Amazon’s push into the public sector offers a way to take action at the local level and start a concrete conversation about Amazon’s power and what we should do about it. In this fact sheet, we outline three strategies to use to take action.… Read More

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Getting a Bird’s Eye View of the World’s Subway Systems

Subway maps are often iconic representations of their cities, even if they don’t show you what’s really happening on the ground. So what would it look like if, high above the skyline, you could actually see where trains were shuttling people around?

A group of digital artists is revealing just that, using photos taken from airplane windows to highlight the real footprint of metro systems in cities around the world. Starting with the aerial photos, like the ones your friends might post to Instagram after takeoff, the artists trace out the paths of transit lines in bold, bright colors—highlighting oft-underground networks from a vantage point where trains can be easy to ignore. The results are striking images that help us envision cities differently.

The trend first caught the internet’s attention with a 2013 view of New York’s subway by a Serbian artist going by the username “Arnorrian.”

Last month, a French student calling himself “Dadapp94” had the idea of recreating Arnorrian’s image using a picture of Paris they’d taken while flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. “What struck me was its simplicity,” Dadapp94 said in an email. “From the sky, [New York] just seems like a bunch of constructions stacked together. Highlighting the subway lines shows the reality of the city, what major routes people take.”

Making the image was pretty easy, requiring little more than a free image editor and Google Maps as a reference to identify the Paris Metro’s routes. When shared on Reddit, it got more than 6,000 upvotes:

Paris metro lines locations from aerial picture [OC] from r/MapPorn

The post also inspired a handful of others to apply the same technique to cities including Budapest, Milan, Cologne, and London. Among those inspired by the Paris map was Martin Bangratz, a resident of Cologne who works in urban development. Bangratz produced an aerial map of London, where he went to college.

“It’s something a lot of people know (London and the tube network) but have never seen in this way before,” Bangratz said.

Budapest metro lines on an aerial photo from r/MapPorn

These images are perhaps more pretty than useful. That’s in contrast to traditional subway maps, which focus on utility by reducing a complicated network to simple nodes and branches. The artists behind these aerial images were trying to capture new perspectives, not solve a practical problem. But they might be inadvertently giving a preview of a more practical future.

Milan metro lines locations from an aerial picture [3648×1880] from r/MapPorn

Bangratz said the aerial subway overlays could serve as a type of augmented reality, offering a new way to use digital tools to experience the urban environment. It could fit in alongside games like Pokémon Go, or other mobility products like Google’s walking directions overlay.

“I think we are going to see a lot of visualizations overlaid on real life in the near future,” Bangratz said. “For instance, I see a lot of potential in using augmented reality apps for wayfinding. Overlaying information in real time and space makes it more relevant and understandable. So it could really help to make sustainable transport decisions.”

Cologne, Germany metro lines locations from aerial picture [OC] from r/MapPorn

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CityLab Daily: Where Cities Help Detain Immigrants

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter

The map above shows the location of these facilities alongside Trump’s share of the vote in 2016. As it turns out, the economic value of these contracts has appealed even to places that are otherwise immigrant-friendly—some are even considered “sanctuary cities” because they limit police cooperation with ICE. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra analyzes how federal funding, local job creation, and a lack of oversight have spread immigrant detention facilities across the country: Where Cities Help Detain Immigrants

Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter included an erroneous link when discussing “little vehicles.” The correct link is here. Thanks to the readers who brought it to our attention.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Rise of ‘Urban Tech’

From food-delivery startups to mapping and co-living companies, technology focused on urban systems is drawing billions of dollars in venture capital.

Richard Florida

Shelter Design Can Help People Recover From Homelessness

Many homeless shelters are designed to house as many people as possible—not to empower them while they’re there.

Jill Pable

Cheap Sensors Are Democratizing Air-Quality Data

A new generation of inexpensive, portable air-quality sensors is making it easier for citizen groups and individuals to monitor the air around them.

Jason Plautz

Lead’s Other Toxic Toll: Fertility

New research sounds the alarm on how high levels of lead in topsoil can reduce birth rates.

Mimi Kirk

Say Hello to Full Employment

Want to know where the economy is headed? Look at Des Moines.

Annie Lowrey

A Soviet Synthpop Tribute to the Private Vehicle

A love for cars among today’s middle-aged Muscovites surely traces back to this song from their teen years.

Mark Byrnes

Eyes on the Tweets

If you’ve been binge-watching Queer Eye, maybe you’ve wondered what else deserves the fierce makeover treatment—so how about cities? That’s what Sarah Iannarone, the associate director at First Stop Portland, tweeted up this weekend when she suggested that “five fabulous women” across city-related professions should have a show where they fix cities that are making “stupid planning and policy decisions.”

Twitter chimed in with replies ranging from jubilant Queer Eye memes to “yas queens,” (and *sigh* mansplaining), but the viral enthusiasm suggests there just might be an audience for an urbanist-savvy reality television show. Here are some of our favorite comments from the thread:

@LXBeckett: Oh, Toronto. It’s adorable that you call yourself a City within a Park, but your parks could use some serious love. Let’s talk about what it takes to truly makeover your green spaces.

@grenadine: Wait you tore THAT down? Oh girl

@slashklc: We’re going with a blend of classic pieces, like building efficiency, and some trendier, flashier items, like community solar, so you can really mix-and-match the climate solution that’s right for you.

And then of course, the show needs a name. Suggestions included Urbanista Eye for the Street Guy, She-ty Council, and even Broad City. Got any bright ideas? Drop us a line at

What We’re Reading

Texas cities are exploring ways to protect residents from deportation (Next City)

How tariffs on China could slow the e-bike revolution (Mobility Lab)

Who owns the space under cities? (The Guardian)

Can a new kind of payday lender help the poor? (The Nation)

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

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The Rise of ‘Urban Tech’

The terms high-tech and venture capital conjure images of industries such as artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency. But the fact of the matter is that cities and urbanism represent the biggest new tech sector of all, what I like to call “urban tech.”

Some of the most important tech companies of the past decade essentially work on and in cities. Uber and Airbnb are probably the best-known. They are two of the select companies that tech industry analyst Scott Galloway believes may be able to join or compete with the “Big Four” at the upper reaches of the tech stratosphere: Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook.

But they are far from the whole ball game. Uber, along with Lyft, has defined the huge space of urban mobility, which now includes a raft of other companies, including numerous bike- and scooter-sharing startups, such as Lime and Bird. Airbnb, of course, helped to define the room-sharing market. Then there is WeWork, which dominates co-working and has emerged as one of the most powerful real estate companies in the world.

Waze and other mapping startups provide information about how a city is organized, and real-time updates on its functioning. There is a multitude of companies operating in fields like real estate analytics, construction tech, and “smart” infrastructure (the latter group includes Spot Hero, a parking-tech company, and Enevo, a Finnish company that creates monitoring systems for urban waste). There is also a huge market in delivery startups, such as Instacart, Deliveroo (based in the U.K.), and Delivery Hero (based in Germany).

Urban-tech startups are some of the very largest venture-capital investments. Uber has attracted some $16 billion in venture capital, and Lyft, Airbnb, and WeWork have drawn between $4 and $5 billion each. Compare this to Twitter, the fantastically popular social media company, which secured $1.5 billion in VC funding.

Large urban-tech startups by overall investment


VC investment (billions)

Type of company

Didi Chuxing


Chinese ride-hailing platform



U.S. ride-hailing platform



Southeast Asian ride-hailing platform



U.S. ride-hailing platform



Co-working space provider



Indian cab-hailing and car rental


Chinese food-ordering platform



Chinese bike-sharing platform



Chinese bike-sharing platform

Delivery Hero


Global food-ordering platform



Chinese real estate platform



Chinese bike-sharing platform

UCAR Group


Chinese ride-hailing mobile app



Construction software and analytics


Car financing application



U.S. grocery-delivery platform

A number of companies are explicitly addressing city-building and the urban tech space broadly. Perhaps the best known of these is Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet (or Google) spinoff, which aims to build a new tech-enabled neighborhood on Toronto’s waterfront. Y Combinator, the very successful Silicon Valley accelerator created by venture capitalist Paul Graham, has also developed an interest in cities and urbanism with its New Cities program. UrbanUS is a fund that supports urban-tech startups and is a partner of the accelerator URBAN-X. And the private-equity investor Jeff Vinik has created an urban-tech vertical at his venture-capital investment arm, Dreamit Ventures.

To get a handle on the scale and scope of the urban-tech space, Patrick Adler, my colleague at the Martin Prosperity Institute, and I used data from CB Insights on ventures that had both received investment during the period 2016-2018 and disclosed the amount. We defined urban tech as encompassing six broad industry sectors: co-living and co-working; mobility; delivery; smart cities; construction tech; and real estate tech. This is the first phase of a much larger project. Although our analysis remains provisional, we believe it generates some illustrative findings and trends.

Urban-tech investment totaled more than $75 billion over this three-year period, representing roughly 17 percent of all global venture-capital investment. Between 2016 and 2017, urban-tech investment more than doubled—from less than $20 billion to $44 billion—as its share of global venture investment surged from 13 percent to 22 percent. Urban tech may well be the largest sector for venture capital investment, attracting considerably more funding than pharma and biotech ($16 billion in 2017) or artificial intelligence ($12 billion in 2017).

Urban-tech investment 2016-2018


Urban-tech investment

Total global venture-capital investment

2018 (to date)

$13.9 billion (11.3%)

$123.1 billion


$44.1 billion (22.8%)

$192.7 billion


$18.8 billion (13.2%)

$140.6 billion


$76.8 billion (16.8%)

$456.4 billion

The largest sector of urban tech is mobile tech, which includes behemoths like Uber, Lyft, and Didi Chuxing, and has generated more than $40 billion in venture investment between 2016 and 2018—more than 60 percent of all urban-tech investment.  

Leading urban-tech sectors 2016-2018


VC investment

Share of

Number of startups

Share of startups






Food delivery





Co-living & co-working





Bikes and scooters





Smart cities





Real estate tech





Construction technology








The United States is the dominant player in urban tech, with more than 45 percent of all venture-capital investment in this sector.  China comes next with roughly a third (although China has far fewer urban-tech startups than the U.S., 200 versus nearly 800). Singapore is third, with almost 6 percent of investment, followed by India (4 percent), and the UK and Germany (roughly 2 percent each). South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, France, the Netherlands, and Canada round out the top 10 with about half a percent each.

Leading nations for urban tech 2016-2018


VC investment

Share of

No. of startups

Share of startups

United States

























United Kingdom





But startups and venture capital are incredibly spiky—geographically clustered in a relatively small number of global cities. The San Francisco Bay Area leads with roughly 30 percent of all global venture-capital investment in urban tech. Beijing follows close behind with 26 percent of funding. New York City is third, with 10 percent, followed by Shanghai, with nearly 7 percent. (That said, San Francisco and New York have produced far more urban-tech startups than Shanghai and Beijing.)

Singapore has 6 percent of all investment, trailed by Bangalore, Los Angeles, Berlin, and London, the only other global cities to attract more than 2 percent of global urban-tech investment. Other cities that are generating reasonable numbers of urban-tech startups include Seoul, Chicago, Dubai, Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris, Boston, and Toronto, although none of them accounts for more than 1 percent of total investment. This global group of cities that are key players in urban tech suggests that the “rise of the rest” is not occurring inside the United States but outside it, especially in China’s two largest cities.

Leading global cities for urban tech 2016-2018


VC investment (billions)

Share of investment

No. of startups

Share of startups

San Francisco










New York




















Los Angeles










The rise of urban tech reflects the growing role of cities and urbanism in the global economy. Cities have become the basic platforms for global innovation and economic growth, supplanting the corporation as the fundamental organizing unit of the contemporary economy.

But in this regard, cities remain terribly inefficient. They are indeed the last great frontier of inefficiency in capitalism.

A century or so ago, agriculture underwent a transformation. In 1900, more than half of U.S. workers worked in agriculture. Today, after huge leaps in agricultural technology and management, less than 1 percent of the workforce does. Farms have become incredibly efficient enterprises, with advanced technology and self-driving tractors.

Likewise, in 1950, more than half of the American workforce labored in manufacturing. Now only about 5 or 6 percent of the workforce is engaged in a direct production occupation. Factories are highly automated, managed on the principles of lean production, and can run 24-7 with little waste.

Contrast that to cities, where offices and homes sit vacant much of the time, where cars sit idle, and where congestion is rampant. The third great economic transformation, which we are going through today, is a shift to a knowledge economy that is concentrated and based on cities. Just as farms and factories of previous epochs were optimized for efficiency, the offices, apartments, cars, and other elements of cities that sit unused much of the time will be adapted for greater productivity.

This is the nexus for the rise of urban tech, which is unleashing a new round of creative destruction on cities. Like previous economic transformations, the rise of urban tech and the emergence of the city as the primary platform for economic organization will not be without growing pains. It will be up to urban leaders and the struggles of workers and citizens to channel this transformation in a democratic way, so that it respects the needs of all city dwellers and creates prosperity for all.

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Where Cities Help Detain Immigrants, Mapped

Taylor, Texas, is a suburb around 30 miles northeast of Austin that boasts its history as a railroad hub and small-town authenticity. In 2016, more than half of Williamson County—where Taylor is seated—voted for Donald Trump. But recently, county officials decided not to help the president in his push to expand the detention of unauthorized migrants, including those seeking asylum.

On June 26, in a regularly planned county court meeting, the future of Taylor’s T. Don Hutto detention center was first on the agenda. A county contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires it to oversee the 500-bed facility exclusively for migrant women—in return for $8,000 per month and $1 daily for each detainee housed. Before the item was put to vote, Commissioner Terry Cook, the only Democrat on the Williamson County Court, made a passionate statement.

“If the court does vote to terminate the contract, and I hope they do, no one should be celebrate or take credit for this termination. This does not solve that larger issue,” she said to the audience, some of whom were holding up anti-Hutto signs. “But it does allow us to go back and perform core county functions of health, roads, safety, and all those other items that we are tasked with doing in Williamson County, and every other county in the nation.”

When she finished, the council voted 4-1 to terminate the agreement, a decision that was greeted with a sharp eruption of claps and “woo-hoos.”

It’s not just Williamson County, though. In the last few weeks, a handful of localities have taken action to end contracts with federal immigration authorities to jail immigrants, as anti-detention activists have long been pushing them to do: Springfield, Oregon, and Sacramento, California. Even Atlanta, Georgia, is considering it. The Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant families at the border, now suspended, has left localities scrambling to understand what role they play. And in some places, the crisis appears to have triggered a moral reckoning about the ways local governments participate in immigrant detention.

For those who are troubled by these relationships, take note: Around 858 such contracts between local and federal authorities exist in 669 counties, according to ICE data from November 2017.* Some of these facilities are primarily for immigrants. Many are local jails or county prisons that rent out beds to federal authorities for immigrant detention. The majority of places where these contracts have sprung up voted for Trump in 2016, but there are several diverse, Democrat-leaning counties that have signed up to jail large numbers of immigrants, too. Some are even considered “sanctuary cities” because they limit police cooperation with ICE.

Here’s what those relationships look like.

Where have local governments contracted with the feds?

CityLab and location intelligence company ESRI have mapped all the contracts local governments have with ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service (called intergovernmental service agreements) that can be used to detain immigrants, based on the most comprehensive dataset available. Immigrants’ rights groups obtained this data, which goes up to November 2017, through Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. The blue dots in the map above are facilities like local jails, operated by the city or county; the green dots are facilities that might be owned or overseen by local governments, but are operated by private prison companies. The size of the dot corresponds with the average daily population in November 2017 at that facility, wherever that information was available.

Clicking on a facility on the map above reveals details of its usage, contract terms (like the money it’s earning per day to take in immigrants), and results of its last government inspection, which determines whether or not it is “authorized” for use. Not all of the facilities on the map are “online”—meaning, either they’re not authorized, or not readily being used to detain immigrants right now. But as long as they have live contracts, the federal government can hypothetically utilize them within a short time frame.

There were around 111 publicly operated facilities actively taking in immigrants in November 2017, per this data. The ones with the highest average daily populations: York County Prison in Pennsylvania, Essex County Correctional Facility and Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, Theo Lacy Facility in California, Glades County Detention Center in Florida, and Etowah County Jail in Alabama.

What is the oversight of these facilities?

To be “authorized,” a facility needs to have passed the requisite number of inspections. But when the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) analyzed this dataset, it found that even facilities where “multiple people have died, some later reported to be as a result of medical neglect” had been passing inspections since 2012. A report released in June 2018 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found other reasons to question the rigor of government oversight. It concluded that the inspections of ICE detention facilities were too infrequent and too broad. The particular type of inspection the government conducts at the local facilities with which it has contracts were “useless,” according to ICE employees interviewed by the OIG. They were “very, very, very difficult to fail,” the ICE employees said in the report.

“This report confirms what the people behind bars in immigration jails already know: Migrants in detention suffer abuses, rights deprivations, and neglect, and ICE has no interest in investigating or remedying these harms,” said Heidi Altman, NIJC’s director of policy in a statement about the OIG report. NIJC’s analysis of ICE’s dataset also revealed that in November 2017, the agency was detaining roughly 98 people a day in jails listed as “not inspected.”

ICE responded by saying in an email to CityLab that its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division “has already initiated several steps to bolster” the quality of inspections at contract facilities and “will re-evaluate the existing inspection scope and methodology” for annual and biennial inspections.

What kinds of places sign up for these contracts?

The second map below allows a more detailed look. Toggling the first check box allows a “cluster” view, where the bigger circles signal a larger concentration of contracts. Toggling the second check box for “point locations” and one of the last four options on the right of the map pulls up the locations of these contracts against base maps showing the political, economic, and demographic characteristics of the counties.

Around 71 percent of these counties voted for Trump; in 73 percent, the white population was overrepresented (greater than the 60.3 percent national share per ESRI’s 2018 data); and in 66.5 percent, the median household income was below the national threshold based on ESRI’s data.

Detention contracts are not, however, a partisan practice: Some immigrant-rich, Democrat-leaning counties help detain very large numbers of immigrants. Among the top ten Democratic jurisdictions within immigrant-friendly states with the highest numbers of detained immigrants: Orange and San Bernardino counties in California and Prince Edward County in Virginia. This list also includes Essex, Hudson, and Bergen counties in New Jersey, where the new governor campaigned on the promise of following California’s lead and enacting “sanctuary” legislation—limiting the cooperation of localities with federal immigration authorities.

“What the map does is highlight the entrepreneurial nature of detention,” writes Daniel Stageman, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York via email. “These facilities thrive on the borders where immigrant populations meet the political and economic conditions that make detention ‘markets’ profitable: voter support, a willing or eager (primarily white) labor force, the right infrastructure, etc.”

Does the cost-benefit tally add up for local jails?

With its push to round up undocumented immigrants in the interior of the country, the Trump administration appears to have increased its reliance on its existing agreements with local governments. The federal government has been securing thousands of new beds, including in locally-run facilities, according to the Washington Post, and the demand for more is only expected to increase as the government doubles down on the waves of asylum seekers at the border.

“We’re seeing these contracts come online in some places that you really don’t think of as having large immigrant populations, like you have the Kenosha Jail in Wisconsin,” says Sharita Gruberg, an immigration law and policy expert at the Center for American Progress.

Why? It typically costs the federal government less to house immigrants in these types of facilities than in private detention centers, and unlike private detention centers that have to be built from scratch, this infrastructure already exist. Plus, these contracts can be coupled with other types of collaborations to strengthen the local crackdown on undocumented immigrants. In various counties in Texas, for example, 287(g) agreements through which jail officers can be deputized as ICE agents are being sought in conjunction with jail contracts—incentivizing local governments to create their own pipelines for deportation, critics say. According to The New York Times, the administration has also been planning to lower standards required for local jail facilities to detain immigrants, so they can be available more quickly. That would mean even less stringent medical and language requirements, among other changes.

The conditions at these facilities are by no means up to scratch right now. Margo Schlanger, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, testified to the Homeland Security Advisory Council on immigrant detention in 2016 that chaotic local jails are even less equipped to deal with immigration populations than even the “prison-like” dedicated private detention centers. Many of the ones housing immigrants are in remote areas—far from legal counsel and medical amenities.

Medical negligence, abuse, and maltreatment of immigrant detainees is already well-documented in county jails. An OIG report from 2017 found that detainees in some jails were strip-searched, inappropriately segregated, and kept in unhealthy conditions. Another from the same year found that detainees were fed soiled food. A Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report from 2016 found cases of brutal assaults, denial of due process, and gross medical negligence. Freedom For Immigrants recently released a study documenting complaints about immigrants being called “dogs” and “baboons,” and told to “go fetch” their food. In extreme cases, detention at these types of facilities has been fatal: Most recently, a Honduran man who was separated from his wife and 3-year-old at the border killed himself in the Starr County Sheriff’s office.

“When a bona fide asylum seeker who’s fleeing violence and recent trauma arrives at the United States, expresses the fear of return and then is transferred to a county jail, it’s very disorienting,” Altman told CityLab. “It’s traumatizing.”

From the perspective of the local government, renting out empty jail beds to federal authorities can still be appealing. Politically, it can feed into the tough-on-crime stance, if that is what the voters are looking for. But often the biggest sell is the economic value: These contracts are presented as revenue generators, even in places that are immigrant-friendly.  

“The [immigrant] jail becomes a job-creation program that’s not being funded by taxpayers in the county or even in your state, but rather by the federal government,” says César Garcia Hernandez, an expert in immigration and criminal law at the University of Denver. “It becomes free money.”

But hidden economic costs can arise. When abuses are discovered, the county may face lawsuits, or the federal authorities may be pressured to dissolve the contract altogether. The fear of that economic risk and the moral case against these contracts seems to have convinced the officials in Williamson County.

“With commissioners, we used a lot of messaging around liability, the fact that they weren’t receiving proper information about incidents from ICE and CoreCivic, economic messaging around being perceived as a prison town, as well as speaking to family and Christian values,” said Bethany Carson, from Grassroots Leadership, an anti-detention advocacy group. “Some combination of those did it.”

Other local governments, however, have proven much more resistant to anti-detention messages. Willacy County, Texas, for example, had contracted with private company MT&C and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house non-citizen inmates in the past. This prison had such a bad reputation that it came to be known as “Ritmo,” Raymondville city’s very own “Gitmo.” In 2015, riots broke out and the prison shut down. The county was riddled with debt as a result and sued MT&C. Now, the Texas Observer reports that the county is re-entering into an agreement with ICE and the same private company to rent out bed space for immigrants in civil detention. The mayor of Raymondville, Gilbert Gonzalez, is hopeful that this new deal will bring the “best-paid jobs in [the] area,” he told The Observer’s . And while he opposes family separation, he is not against immigrant detention overall.

“People were getting put in facilities like this one under Bush and Obama, too,” he told The Observer. “It’s not really my place to take sides on that.”

The Democratic sheriff of Albany, New York, which considers itself a “sanctuary city,” also recently signed up to let ICE house immigrants in his half-empty county jail for $119 per person per day. His argument: the facility will provide free legal counsel, international calls—and therefore will be more humane than elsewhere in the country. But some immigration experts question whether even this argument can be morally justified.

“The idea that immigrant detention can be a ‘just business’ overlooks the fact that it is a fundamentally unjust business,” Stageman says, “one that, by its very nature, profits off of human suffering.”

*Note: The maps are based on ICE’s record-keeping, which may not be comprehensive. They also do not include facilities listed in the dataset for which the ownership and operations information was missing—so some local governments, like Lubbock County, Texas, that have these contracts are not shown.

If you have information about your local government’s detention contract with ICE, drop us a line at

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CityLab Daily: Little Vehicles, Big Money

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Rolling in the green: We told you little vehicles were going to be big business, and now Uber is buying in even more. Bloomberg reports the company is joining Google Ventures in a $335 million funding round for the scooter- and bike-sharing company Lime. The move comes just a week after Lyft bought Motivate, which operates docked bikeshare systems in some of the largest cities in the United States. Uber already lets users find Jump’s dockless e-bikes in the app, and plans to do the same for Lime’s rental scooters, accelerating the venture-capital-boosted race to the curb.

As ride-hailing companies embrace multimodal mobility, “dockless” vehicles are not without their detractors. Last week, Milwaukee announced a lawsuit against the scooter company Bird, which is run by a one-time Uber executive (Milwaukee Biz Times). Still, there are promising signs that tech companies now see value in a variety of transportation options, and we might yet see people get out of their cars and reconnect with city streets (New York Times).

Dollar signs:

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

I Hate-Watch ‘House Hunters’ to Understand Segregation

The HGTV show highlights more than just open kitchens and bickering couples

Natalie Y. Moore

The Global Compact for Migration Needs to Hear From Cities

In the U.S., more than 90 percent of immigrants live in urban areas; around the world, that proportion is even higher. City leaders should have more of a say in this week’s UN negotiations.

Jessica Brandt and Aarthi Gunasekaran

What If the Teen City Council Is Better Than the Grownup One?

These high schoolers take their local government very seriously.

Kriston Capps

To Better Predict Traffic, Look to the Electric Grid

The way we consume power after midnight can reveal how we bad the morning rush hour will be.

Linda Poon

Down With Fun!

“Fun House,” an installation by Snarkitecture at the National Building Museum, shows that the craze for crowd-friendly museum spectacles is still going strong.

Kriston Capps

A Plan for Even Cheaper Train Travel Between Paris and London

A proposed discount service could cut prices by 25 percent.

Feargus O’Sullivan

One Nation, Undercount

(Ariel Aberg-Riger/CityLab)

With a highly contested citizenship question planned for the next Census, vulnerable communities are bracing to be undercounted in 2020. But the history of manipulating the Census goes as far back as the Articles of Confederation.

The Census as a tool for representative democracy seems simple enough: count the people and apportion power to represent them. But making the count an inherently political machine has made it possible to exploit, especially as the ever-shifting concept of race began to evolve, and as people moved from rural to urban America. On CityLab, visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger draws the throughline on this all-too-familiar story with A Visual History of the U.S. Census.

What We’re Reading

No, “drunk walking” is not causing the rise in pedestrian deaths (Streetsblog)

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu may or may not run for President (Politico)

Starbucks will say goodbye to plastic straws in 2020 (NPR)

Our cities are getting hotter—and it’s killing people (Curbed)

Please LeBron, don’t try to ride your bike to work in Los Angeles (Los Angeles 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

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A Plan for Even Cheaper Train Travel Between Paris and London

The trains that roll through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris have proved a roaring success since they launched in 1994, and a new proposal could make them accessible to even more people.

Getlink, the company that manages the tunnel, is exploring a way to run lower-cost routes through the tunnel that could result in ticket prices between 25 and 30 percent lower than current rates. The idea is to follow an existing French model for cheaper intercity travel that cuts costs by using older tracks and suburban terminuses. So far, research into a cheaper service has focused on if and how it might be feasible, rather than exactly when—but has found that such a service is eminently implementable and viable along the lines of companies already in existence. Before that happens, however, the company will have to iron out a few kinks in the international train system—and find its place in an already busy and fairly affordable market.

To North Americans, travel between London and Paris at existing prices might already seem like a steal. Last-minute buys can be pricey, but book far enough in advance and you can expect to pay less than $100 for a round-trip ticket, whether by plane or train. In advance, some existing train services can already be cheaper than flying. Looking at tickets for this coming October, the lowest round-trip prices for both train and plane are around £58 ($77), making the plane more expensive when you factor in the cost of traveling to the airport. It’s only in the month prior to departure that train tickets move markedly ahead of planes.

So how could a new train service find a niche in this market? By treading a middle path: being slightly cheaper than the current Eurostar train service, and slightly more convenient than going out to a far-flung airport. That’s how France’s current low-cost train services, Izy and Ouigo, work. They cut costs by using cheaper suburban railway stations and using older tracks, where fees per mile are lower. The trick to their survival is that these stations aren’t that far out of the way, while their speed still leaves even the fastest Amtrak services in the dust.

Ouigo’s service between Paris and Marseille, for example, may require passengers to board the train way out in suburban Marne La Vallée, but with a journey time of three hours and nineteen minutes, it only takes four minutes longer than the fastest service available through TGV, France’s intercity high-speed rail service. Izy’s service from Brussels to Paris, meanwhile, takes an hour longer than the superfast one-hour-and-twenty-two minute service provided by Thalys, but it still serves the exact same city-center stations.

This seems to be the model for the new Getlink service, which would take an estimated three hours to travel between Paris and London. That’s admittedly longer than the fastest train service currently available (two hours and seventeen minutes)—but bearably so. The thornier question is which stations to use. Opt for a terminus that’s too far out of town and lengthy onward transit could make the service far less attractive.

Just as significant is the issue of passport controls. As with Eurostar’s new London-to-Amsterdam service, British border requirements mean that each station within the Schengen common border area that is served by an international service needs its own border checkpoints on site. British customs refuse to check passports on the train itself, meaning the Paris and London stations would need to create fully secured platforms with booths for border guards in order to accommodate these cheaper rail services.

London already has a suitable candidate for such a facility, suggests French newspaper Journal du Dimanche: Stratford International Station. It was set up next to the 2012 Olympic Park to cater to international arrivals, but was never actually used for that purpose. Stratford is almost ready to go as an international station; it’s also well connected to London’s public transit network and not that far out of town.

In Paris, French media speculation suggests that the most likely candidate would be the station at Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport, which is already used by some Ouigo services. There, it’s possible some border staff could be shared by the airport. The airport’s location is, as you’d expect, decidedly suburban, but it is on the RER suburban rail network, with trains to the heart of the city taking a little over half an hour.

All of these options make the cheap train plan feasible, and the study gives the green light to move to the next stage: building border facilities and negotiating fees. It may still take some time to begin those preparations, however. In the long-run, a successful version of the plan might seriously challenge the wisdom of operating flights between the British and French capitals. It’s not just that flying is a more polluting form of transit. When it’s not faster, cheaper, or more convenient, one has to wonder exactly who would continue to fly.

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The Global Compact for Migration Needs to Hear From Cities

This week, national governments are convening in New York for the final round of negotiations toward a Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The gathering has an ambitious goal: to develop a comprehensive approach to the subject at a time when record numbers of people are on the move and attendant politics are extraordinarily fraught. Yet an essential voice will be missing from the conversation: the voice of local governments.

That is regrettable, since cities like New York are home to many millions of migrants. In the United States, more than 90 percent of immigrants live in urban areas. Elsewhere around the world, that percentage is even higher.  In New York City, nearly 40 percent of residents are foreign-born.

Cities like New York are responsible for providing access to essential public services, including health and education, for all of their residents. They have enormous experience implementing policies that address the needs of both newcomers and longtime residents. New York City’s government offers programs like IDNYC, a municipal ID card, and ActionNYC, which provides high-quality immigration legal services. These are powerful examples of good practice.

New York City is not alone in its efforts. Recognizing the essential role civic participation plays in full integration, the Brazilian city of São Paulo established a Municipal Council of Immigrants that provides a mechanism for immigrant residents to participate in the formulation, implementation, and monitoring of the city’s policies. In Barcelona, Spain, the city’s Service Center for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees offers information and free advice on immigration, asylum, emigration, and voluntary return to all residents, regardless of status.

Yet despite the enormous contribution cities make to migration governance, they are not able to participate in the formal negotiations unless invited to do so by their national government. For American cities, that prospect is a nonstarter—the Trump administration has withdrawn from the process entirely.

But these institutional barriers are not stopping cities from raising their voices. Late last year, a dozen U.S. cities and more than 130 international ones sent a letter to the co-facilitators of the Global Compact process, committing to contributing to the process. Since then, they have taken it upon themselves to provide feedback on the evolving draft. Last month, New York City, which has a unique role as host to the United Nations, submitted detailed comments on behalf of an informal coalition of more than 40 global cities, and the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs addressed the co-facilitators in an informal session.

The cities’ submission to the GCM outlines several things cities want to see in the final agreement:

First, cities want to be recognized as partners in developing policies, not just implementing them. Urban leaders have specialized knowledge on issues of social cohesion. It would be a missed opportunity for national governments, humanitarian actors, and UN agencies not to draw from their expertise.

Second, cities want a clearly defined role in implementation and follow-up of the GCM. Cities will have very real operational responsibilities as attention shifts from designing the GCM to implementing it. They will need outlets to express concerns and provide updates on developments unfolding within their jurisdictions.

Third, cities want to separate references to local authorities from references to other local actors. Municipalities (governments) are distinct from local actors (NGOs). They have very different legal responsibilities and mandates. The most recent draft of the GCM clarifies this point by denoting that the “whole-of-government” approach should include all levels of government. It should reinforce the distinction in the sections on implementation and follow up.  

National governments may resist efforts to codify a clear role for municipalities in international migration governance. That is partly out of concern for protecting their sovereign right to set policy on issues surrounding visas and borders. Yet none of the changes cities are requesting constitute a challenge to that authority. The reluctance of national governments may also reflect discomfort with the rise of city diplomacy across a range of global issues, of which migration is only one. This is unfortunate, since there is little reason to think that the space for international engagement is finite and influence is zero-sum.

Cities want more of a voice in migration governance for a very practical reason: They are doing the work of providing safety and dignity to both newcomers and longtime residents, and they need support to do it. Ultimately, the success of these efforts is in the interest of member states, which benefit when their constituent communities are cohesive and well-functioning. New York City’s diversity is a strength: Immigrants own 52 percent of New York City’s businesses. Last year, they contributed an estimated $195 billion to the national GDP.

The compact will be finalized at the end of this week, and formally adopted in December. During these next six months, New York City will seek opportunities to meet with member states to discuss how it can contribute to implementing the policies under consideration and to achieving the compact’s goals. We encourage other cities to engage their national governments and share relevant practical lessons from their experiences.

If GCM implementation successfully engages city stakeholders, it could serve as model for globally negotiated agreements on a range of issues including sustainable development and climate change. Achieving progress in these domains depends significantly on the commitment of local governments to reaching agreed benchmarks.

Today, the international community would not launch a major, multi-year global governance process on migration, or nearly any other topic, without engaging a broad range of civil society actors. Three decades ago, that might not have been the case. Likewise, few discussions on such challenges would take place without thought to private sector engagement. Just one decade ago, that wasn’t so. Our hope is that a decade from now, local authorities will similarly be viewed as essential partners in global problem solving, in particular when it comes to migration. Cities are at the center of some of our era’s greatest challenges and will be indispensable to solving them. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “The future of humanity lies in cities.”

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Cheap Sensors Are Democratizing Air-Quality Data

Until she moved to Fresno, California in 2003, Janet DietzKamei had never experienced asthma. But after just a few years in a city notorious for its filthy air—the

DietzKamei’s monitor, made by PurpleAir, is part of a network across California’s San Joaquin Valley, run in part by the Central California Environmental Justice Network. By putting monitors in backyards and around schools, the group is hoping to see what the area’s biomass plants and the dozens of trucks that rumble through are pumping into the lungs of disadvantaged residents.

Measuring air quality has been the purview of state environmental regulators, who rely on monitors approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That data is used to send out bad-air alerts (the green, orange, and red warning days) and for regulatory purposes.

But these readings show only a narrow slice of the air, based on a handful of monitors that may not be placed where the worst pollution is. Advances in technology have produced smaller sensors as cheap as $250, meaning that environmental activists, community groups, and curious citizens can map out air pollution around their schools, parks, or backyards.

An analysis of 2017 data from more than 100 PurpleAir sensors across the country shows a spike in pollution caused by July 4 fireworks.

This could eventually reshape air-pollution regulation, with previously unmeasured areas gathering data on air they say could violate federal health standards. In western Colorado, the environmental group Citizens for Clean Air has put up two dozen low-cost monitors around Grand Junction to supplement the two state-run monitors in the Grand Valley. In a region grappling with wildfire smoke, increased truck traffic, and natural-gas pollution, activists say a stronger web of monitors is necessary to prove to the state that more attention needs to be paid to them.

“The state does what they can with what they have to work with,” said Karen Sjoberg, the group’s leader. “They’ve got monitors in the best locations they can and they’ll do studies on that, but we need low-cost versions where we live.”

Even in large cities, which tend to get more attention because of their higher populations, low-cost sensors are being used to glean localized air-quality data. In addition to Fresno, take Salt Lake City, where pollution is a fact of life: The city sits in a basin, and wintertime inversions trap a thick coat of visible smog over the city for days at a time. Shea Wickelson, a high-school chemistry teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, said students begin thinking about pollution when recess is canceled on bad smog days.

“If you’re having that experience from elementary school, you’re very aware of air quality,” Wickelson said. “Students are coming up with questions like, ‘How is the air quality inside versus outside?,’ or ‘How does premium fuel compare to regular fuel?,’ or ‘How is the air around a school bus?’”

A poor air-quality sign posted over a highway in Salt Lake City (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Answering those questions hasn’t been easy, but a partnership with the University of Utah has helped. The AirU program has students building their own particulate-matter sensors, starting with toy blocks, a cheap Arduino computer board, and a photo resistor that scatters light to detect particles of pollution. Students can use the tissue-box-sized monitors for science-fair projects, but they’ve also created a data-rich map of pollution around the city.

“Our lower-income areas have not always been very well represented, because people have other concerns than thinking of how to monitor air quality,” said Kerry Kelly, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Utah who oversees the program. “We’re getting real-time maps of the city’s microclimates. As this valley develops, this can help you manage where you’re putting things like schools.” Similarly, in Denver, Google has worked with Aclima to put the company’s low-cost sensors on street view cars to map pollution around the city.

The new generation of monitors is made possible by advances in laser technology. Monitors can capture air through a fan, then use a laser to count the number and size of particles in the air. Adrian Dybwad, the founder of PurpleAir, said he first started tinkering with air sensors to see what his family was breathing from a nearby gravel pit in Salt Lake City. An infrared sensor from the internet was too dependent on temperature, but he tested a modified laser sensor he got online against official regulatory monitors and found a 95 percent correlation.

After initially giving the monitors away, Dybwad’s company has now sold hundreds around the country, resulting in a real-time nationwide map on the company’s website.

“We call it high-resolution air sensing,” Dybwad said. “Having the ability to know what’s in your air, it gives people peace of mind.”

The technology works well for particulates, the pollution that can come from dust, smoke, and diesel exhaust and can lodge in the lungs and bloodstream. Ozone pollution, or ground-level smog, requires more complex readings on temperature, humidity, and gas makeup, which is a barrier to higher-quality and low-cost monitors for all pollutants.

As would be expected, accuracy is a challenge—the monitors require calibration, can be affected by temperatures, and may be susceptible to, say, a backyard barbecue or a bug that flies into the sensor. They’re not precise enough for regulatory purposes, and some states have warned citizens against calling in with outrageously high readings that are most likely a glitch.

That said, some state agencies have embraced the low-cost brands. Colorado recently deployed some PurpleAir monitors to communities threatened by wildfires in the southwest of the state, a way to see where smoke was traveling so they could warn residents.

The EPA has been running trials for wearable sensors and an air monitor that could be installed in a park bench, to put it closer to roads and parks. As hardware continues to get smaller and battery life advances, some are even looking toward a future where monitors are stitched into clothing or clipped onto a jacket for a minute-by-minute reading.

Kelly, the University of Utah professor, said the possibilities for wearable sensors could be endless.

“Think of a crossing guard, or someone in a woodworking shop—we can understand their exposure and maybe find ways to minimize it,” she said. “If you’re an asthmatic, this can change your behavior. There’s so much information we can find.”

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