There’s Nothing Magical About Vermont (Episode 46)

In this episode, Vermont gets some love from our various policy experts! Stacy Mitchell, Christopher Mitchell, and John Farrell sit down to talk about the ways in which local self-reliance is thriving in The Green Mountain State, check out the details on how Vermont enables small businesses, renewable energy, and local Internet connectivity.… Read More

The post There’s Nothing Magical About Vermont (Episode 46) appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Working to Keep the Waste Stream Local & Ending Incineration in Baltimore

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is assisting its working partners in an important campaign to stop Baltimore from sending its garbage to a privately-owned garbage incinerator, Wheelabrator Baltimore. ILSR joins United Workers, Energy Justice Network, and the Baltimore City Council in a strategy that includes passing more stringent air pollution regulations needed on the aging incinerator – more stringent than what is allowed by the state. Maryland is one of the few states in the US that allows local jurisdictions this right.… Read More

The post Working to Keep the Waste Stream Local & Ending Incineration in Baltimore appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Working Partner Update: Zero Waste San Diego

Zero Waste San Diego calls our attention to the effort in San Diego, CA to adjust the City Ordinance that prohibits the city from charging for residential waste collection services.The law thus “precludes the creation of the industry standard ‘pay as you throw’ financial incentives for recycling and waste reduction’. A waste-based fee “would free up millions of dollars of general fund revenues.” … Read More

The post Working Partner Update: Zero Waste San Diego appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Estonia Will Roll Out Free Public Transit Nationwide

It feels like the free public transit plans are coming like buses: You wait ages for one, then several come at once.

Yesterday, I wrote about how Paris is looking into the possibility of abolishing fares on its metros and buses, an effort that, if it went forward, would make the city and its environs the world’s largest free transit zone. But, as an alert reader pointed out, there’s an arguably bigger cost-free travel scheme in the works, and it’s far more concrete: On July 1, the entire country of Estonia will create the largest 24/7 free public transit zone in the world, one that will stretch across its entire territory. That will make it feasibly possible (if complicated) to travel by bus from one end of this 1.3 million-strong Baltic nation to the other without paying a cent.

Estonia is already a world leader in free public transit: In 2013, all public transit in its capital, Tallinn, became free to local residents (but not tourists or other visitors, even those from other parts of the country). The new national free-ride scheme with extend this model even further, making all state-run bus travel in rural municipalities free and extending cost-free transit out from the capital into other regions.  

The plan will not, however, extend Tallinn’s existing free public transit policies to other Estonian cities, and it also won’t make riding Tallinn transit free to visitors (at least, not initially). So while most of the country’s land area and population—which is overwhelmingly concentrated around Tallinn—should get fare-free daily lives, it’s not precisely the case that no Estonian will ever buy a bus ticket in their own country again.

Still, it’s a remarkable plan. While Wales in the U.K. (a larger, more populous place than Estonia) already offers free bus travel on weekends, no country has yet tried to abolish fares all day, every day, across such a large area. And the implications of such a model are vast. Free buses for all could lead to a massive democratization of mobility for Estonians, meaning that travel costs paid at point of use need no longer be factored into many people’s monthly budgeting. And while outsiders might assume the government’s costs to be prohibitive, it won’t actually be that expensive to implement.

That’s because Estonia’s public transit already gets extremely generous subsidies. The state-owned railway operator Elron, for example, will get a €31 million boost from taxpayers next year. The rural bus routes due to go free, meanwhile, are already subsidized to up to 80 percent of cost as it is. Making them entirely fare-less should only cost around €12.9 million ($15.2 million) more—not a vast amount for even a small country such as Estonia.

Getting rid of ticket sales and inspections, meanwhile, will eliminate some overhead—and also cut down on delays. I couldn’t turn up any figures on the actual cost of charging for Estonian bus travel, but on larger, more complex networks such as New York’s MTA, it can reach 6 percent of all budget. When only 20 percent of the bus network’s costs are being recouped from fares, it’s easy to see how maintaining a ticket sale and inspection system can come to seem like a burden worth shedding.

But why is Estonia going so big on free transit now? At its root, this is a form of fiscal redistribution. Rural Estonians, who comprise 32.5 percent of the country’s total population, are generally older and less affluent than their urban counterparts; younger country-born Estonians have increasingly moved to cities and to other countries. The rural parts of this former Soviet state, which joined the E.U. in 2003, thus rely heavily on decent functioning public buses. Making this system free to use for all might help slow this rural population drain.

The plan also comes at a time when it’s more needed than ever. In an effort to streamline the country’s bureaucracy, last year Estonia went through a major administrative upheaval, redrawing its own map to reduce its 220 municipalities to just 79. This bundling together of smaller districts into larger ones means that many rural Estonians now have to travel over long distances to reach their county seats. Making bus travel free is thus a way of easing this transition, especially for older residents who prefer to do business face-to-face (even in a digitally obsessed country such as Estonia).

The effect of the plan could be surprisingly wide ranging. As Allan Alaküla, head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, told me, it would probably force Estonia’s capital to make its public transit not just free for locals, but for anyone, including visitors. That’s because the rural bus routes are planning no ticket inspections at all. “Tallinn residents can use country buses without paying, he said. “It seems impossible to expect rural residents do the same in the capital, so I predict that situation could change quite quickly. That could also have a good effect on tourism in the city as well.”

He has a point. Public transit in Tallinn is hardly expensive for visitors, but a capital city where anyone from anywhere can jump on any bus, train, or tram without thinking twice? Now that would be groundbreaking.

The Jobs That Are Getting Priced Out of Superstar Cities

Recently, I emailed a carpenter to ask him to repair some minor damage to the roof of our Toronto home, inflicted by the harsh winter. He told me he’d had it with Toronto’s high housing prices and had moved back to the West Coast.

Then, when I asked a friend of mine if there was someone he would recommend, he told me the roofer he used had just moved to Ireland. He’d signed off his last email: “Nobody can afford to live in this city!”

My experience in Toronto is far from unique. In fact, it’s in line with an intriguing new study about the jobs that are missing from large and pricey metropolitan areas. The study is by Jed Kolko, chief economist of the employment site Indeed.

Kolko looked at all the jobs posted on Indeed in 2017 in 51 metros that each had at least 1 million people. He compared the 10 most expensive of these metros with the other 41, and found that entire categories of jobs are missing from high-cost areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington D.C., and San Jose. However, the same kinds of jobs are common in other large—but less expensive—metros, like Dallas, Atlanta, and Cleveland.

The missing job categories relate to housing, construction, and landscaping; trucking, freight, and logistics; administering and processing transactions; and over-the-phone and online work in customer service and call centers. Such jobs may not pay enough to cover the cost of living in a high-priced metro, but they are also simply less common there.

Job Titles Missing From Expensive Metros
(Prevalence in Expensive vs. Other Large Metros)

Job Title Prevalence in Expensive vs. Other Metros
Trailer mechanic -77%
Floor technician -71%
Concrete finisher -67%
Lawn technician -66%
Tower technician -61%
Groundskeeper -59%
Shop technician -59%
Cable installer -59%
Freight handler -57%
Title clerk -57%

However, other types of jobs are massively overrepresented in expensive metros. These jobs span three types, as the table below shows. One is high-paying tech, science, and managerial jobs. Data scientists, for example, are nearly four times as likely to be located in expensive metros.

The same is true for certain creative jobs, such as creative directors and artists. A third category of jobs also shows up in expensive metros: fitness managers, pastry cooks, soccer coaches, dog walkers, and similar. Basically, these are the high-end service jobs that support the knowledge economy. Take ABA (advanced behavior analysis) therapists. They are more than 1,200 times as likely to be found in pricey metros than in more affordable ones.

Job Titles Clustered in Expensive Metros
(Prevalence in Expensive vs. Other Large Metros)

Job Title Prevalence in Expensive vs. Other Metros
ABA therapist 1246%
Visual designer 663%
Machine-learning engineer 555%
Food clerk 514%
Associate scientist 488%
Ruby on Rails developer 431%
Scientist 430%
RF (radio frequency) engineer 389%
Regulatory affairs manager 382%
Data scientist 351%

Kolko identifies several factors behind these trends. Professional and creative jobs benefit from extreme clustering. These are high-productivity, high-paying jobs that tend to require considerable face-to-face contact. And of course, the more educated, affluent populations in these expensive metros increase the demand for certain kinds of amenities and personal services. Conversely, it makes little sense for employers to locate lower-paying, more routine jobs in customer service, insurance, and call centers in expensive metros.

There are also significant demographic differences between the people who live in expensive metros and those who live in more affordable places. These differences, in turn, result in demand for different types of services. Expensive metros tend to have younger adults, more residents with bachelor’s or graduate degrees, and fewer kids. This is part of the reason that there is higher demand for fitness professionals in these places.

How Expensive Metros Differ
(Expensive vs. Other Large Metros/Census)

Measure 10 Expensive Large Metros 41 Other Large Metros
% households in detached single-family homes, 2016 46% 64%
% workers commuting by car/truck/van, 2016 77% 92%
Population growth, 2016-2017 0.5% 1.1%
% bachelor’s degree, among age 25+, 2016 40% 34%

Housing and land are more costly in pricier metros, which means that there are fewer single-family homes and more condominiums and apartments—reducing the demand for lawn technicians and groundskeepers. New development is much slower in many expensive metros, a factor that contributes to their high prices. Last year, expensive metros grew about half as fast as other large metros.

This, according to Kolko, means that construction-related jobs are sparse for concrete finishers and cable installers (and perhaps for carpenters and roofers, too). And since the more affluent residents in these metros are apt to live close to work or near transit instead of commuting a long way by car, that means less demand for auto mechanics and related jobs.

Geography itself also plays a big role: The 10 expensive metros are all on the coasts. This makes them less attractive for logistics and distribution operations, which are more likely to locate in the middle of the country.

Another recent study published in Plos One provides a similar explanation for the missing jobs of expensive places. Larger, more expensive metros benefit from “thicker” occupational networks, which lead them to specialize in high-paying creative and knowledge jobs, especially ones that are rare in other places. The more traditional jobs that go missing in these places, like in construction and landscaping, are the ones that are priced out by the high cost of housing, brought on at least in part by the concentration of high-end jobs.

Ultimately, people aren’t just priced out of cities because housing and land are increasingly expensive—although that is certainly a significant part of the equation. Entire categories of jobs are being edged out of expensive cities, too. The reason that large cities have become hubs of innovation is precisely because they encompass a broad diversity of people, jobs, and skills. That expensive cities can no longer hold onto the skills they need may well be the ultimate expression of the New Urban Crisis.

CityLab Daily: The Housing Crisis Might Be America’s Next Big Political Issue

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What We’re Following

An inconvenient roof: As home prices, rents, and homelessness rise in many U.S. cities, housing affordability has barely registered as an issue in national politics. Now, with the growing consensus that the United States isn’t building enough homes anywhere, housing advocates, business leaders, and philanthropic groups are on a mission to sound the alarm about a “silent crisis.”

Their first order of business is to educate people about just how serious the problem really is. One group is producing a feature-length documentary to raise the political profile of the American housing dilemma, à la Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Another is making housing underproduction a new metric for cities. “Like the fight against climate change,” CityLab’s Benjamin Schneider writes, “the battle for better housing policy could be a frustratingly long one.” But the housing crisis may soon become America’s next big political issue.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

3 Cities, 3 Terrible Commutes

A new documentary follows the epic journeys faced by commuters in Istanbul, Mexico City, and Los Angeles.

Juan Pablo Garnham

Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out When the Bus Is Coming?

Meet the young map nerds on a quest to build a better bus app.

Laura Bliss

The Zany, Playful Brilliance of Will Alsop

You knew a building was his the second you set eyes on it. But the late British architect still managed to surprise.

Darran Anderson

How to Mark an American Atrocity

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the pain and horror of racial violence assume physical form.

Bryan Lee Jr.

Few Will Be Spared From Michigan’s Medicaid Work Requirements

A potential new state law has been criticized for placing burdens to retain Medicaid coverage primarily on blacks. But the bill’s onerous rules are likely to affect almost every recipient.

Kriston Capps

City Checkup

Where you live determines a lot about your health—and, as the new City Health Dashboard shows, there’s a lot of vital information to check up on. The dashboard, created by the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine, reports on 36 key measures and drivers of health, such as opioid overdose deaths, obesity, housing affordability, and income inequality.

The tool drills down to the ZIP code or census tract level in the 500 largest cities in the United States, allowing you to compare health outcomes to the country’s average. You can generate maps of health measures, compare cities on different indexes, and even generate scatter plots to draw out correlations between variables. Consider the example above with Columbus, Ohio, where lead exposure risk is higher than the national average. CityLab context: Who wins when a city gets smart?

What We’re Reading

Now taking suggestions for “smart city” synonyms. (Statescoop)

People in small towns and rural areas are happier—at least, in Canada. (Washington Post)

There are better ways to get around town. (New York Times)

Is Chicago experiencing a historic preservation crisis? (Chicago Magazine)

ICE claimed a Dreamer was “gang-affiliated” and tried to deport him. A federal judge ruled ICE was lying. (Slate)

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

The Deal That Might Just Break Georgia Into Pieces

Last week, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed two bills that invite a future where the state’s cities can be shattered into pieces, along hyper-segregated lines. The bills allow the state of Georgia to take land away from the city of Stockbridge to form a new adjacent city called Eagle’s Landing. But Stockbridge, which sits in the Henry County suburbs just south of Atlanta, does not want to give up any of its land for Eagle’s Landing and for good reason—the neighborhoods slated for secession are some of Stockbridge’s wealthiest communities and include one of its major commercial corridors.

There has never been a situation in Georgia where land and property have been swiped—de-annexed is the term of art here—from one city to produce a new city. But these are the new normals of metro Atlanta as its controversial cityhood movement continues to bend and cross all kinds of municipal, racial, and financial lines.

This is why Moody’s Investors Service is flagging the Eagle’s Landing play, saying that this would cause “a potential blow” to cities across the state. A credit forecast analysis released by Moody’s this week said the Eagle’s Landing legislation that Gov. Deal signed would likely negatively impact all local governments across Georgia, “because they establish a precedent that the state can act to divide local tax bases, potentially lowering the credit quality of one city for the benefit of another.”

One of the major problems with this deal is that Stockbridge currently holds millions of dollars in bond debt. Eagle’s Landing stands to take more than half of the city’s industrial and commercial properties, including all of its hotels. Much of Stockbridge’s economic output comes from a stream of retail outlets, restaurants, and grocery stores along Eagle’s Landing Parkway—all of which the city would lose to Eagle’s Landing, along with a third of its population.

“What it amounts to is that this particular de-annexation is looking to take that primary economic corridor out of our city limits and put it in this other city, and that would be revenue we no longer have to pay off our debts that we owe,” said Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford. “If it goes through, we would have to impose a property tax on the remaining folks, and we don’t have a property tax right now. Our budget is roughly just over $9 million and $5 million of that comes out of this primary economic corridor.”

Stockbridge does not look like your average city. It has no contiguous border or anything that even resembles a shape. It looks more like a paint splattering, particularly something out of the Jackson Pollock mold. Eagle’s Landing basically wants to absorb a bunch of the splats from what’s considered the southern portion of Stockbridge, along with some unincorporated areas lying amidst the blotches.

City of Stockbridge

However, when looking at the economic landscape, there are some clear differences between the areas Eagle’s Landing is claiming  compared to the areas it wants to leave behind. Here’s Moody’s tally of that:

With the de-annexation, Stockbridge’s median family income (MFI) would likely decline and be well below that of Eagle’s Landing. The de-annexation process would divide up 431 census blocks with an MFI of $50,000 — $90,000 in 2016. Eagle’s Landing would include 69 of the 70 census blocks with an MFI of $74,000 or more. In contrast, 85 percent of the 253 census blocks with an MFI below $56,000 would fall within Stockbridge’s boundaries.

The Eagle’s Landing legislation doesn’t contain any language that would obligate the new city to help pay off Stockbridge’s debts. Nor do Eagle’s Landing’s architects feel it necessary to have the new city help pay the old city’s debts. Vicki Consiglio, chairman of the Eagles Landing Educational Research Committee, said the concerns around her new city project are “public hysteria,” and that financial institutions like Moody’s are “perpetuating this illusion.”

According to a letter written by Allison Halron, who sits on the committee with Consiglio, the de-annexation of Eagle’s Landing won’t affect Stockbridge’s bond repayments because those debts are paid from a revenue stream that does not include the residents and businesses included in the blueprint for the new city. Repayment of those bonds and loans are not dependent upon the assessed property values of the areas leaving Stockbridge, said Halron, because Stockbridge doesn’t collect a property tax.

Stockbridge’s revenues are collected mostly from sales taxes and fees imposed on residents for things like utilities and insurance. A feasibility study conducted by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, backs up Halron’s claim that repayment of Stockbridge bonds won’t be affected by the Eagle’s Landing de-annexation. However, it does state that the city would lose a considerable amount of revenue it uses for paying general operational costs based off the volume of property and people taken away from it. Reads the Vinson Institute study, released last November:

We estimated that if the study area is de-annexed, Stockbridge will lose $4,199,033 in gross revenues. … The city receives local option sales taxes (LOST) and operates under a current agreement with Henry County, which runs through 2022. LOST revenue is a significant revenue source and a new agreement will need to be re-negotiated if de-annexation occurs. The loss from this revenue stream could be as high as $3,785,414, which would drive the total revenue loss up to $6,149,557.

Moody’s analysis reflects the overall financial health of the city, which is based on the economic profile of the city of Stockbridge in its current state. If Stockbridge suddenly could not pay its bills and debts, then it would need, as the mayor said, to impose a new property tax on its residents to fulfill its contractual obligations to bondholders and beyond. That would be a tremendous financial burden on the residents left behind by Eagle’s Landing. This would be the de-gentrification of Stockbridge, with residents effectively taxed for not being fortunate enough to live within the boundaries of the new city.

“It is not clear how Stockbridge and, in turn, Henry County, would be affected if de-annexation proceeds and there is a shortfall,” reads the Moody’s report. “De-annexation would leave Stockbridge with a smaller and less wealthy tax base and may force it to renegotiate its contractual obligations.”

This is exactly what other financial analysts told Gov. Deal before he signed the bills, as did Mayor Ford and his staff. But Deal signed them anyway, now putting the credit rating of all cities across Georgia at risk. Consiglio was unperturbed by this, telling CityLab that such financial forecasts were “spun” out of misinformation.

“Obviously the governor didn’t see a problem with this, and neither did the legislature, and they knew about it,” said Consiglio. “Everybody is crying wolf, when there’s not a problem.”

Ford announced today that Stockbridge is filing a lawsuit to stop the formation of Eagle’s Landing from happening. The outcome of that case will determine the future of cityhood in Georgia. There’s long been speculation that the wealthy residents of the neighborhood of Buckhead have wanted to secede from the city of Atlanta. A ruling in favor of Eagle’s Landing would allow that to happen.

Such secessions are as much about race as they are about wealth. The Eagle’s Landing de-annexation is happening just as Stockbridge is being led by its first black mayor and its first all-black city council in its near-100 years of existence. Many of the other cities formed around metro Atlanta came when county governments became led by African Americans in recent years as well.

“I don’t think it’s racially neutral at all,” says Dan Immergluck, a professor in Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute who’s been following issues of race and property around metro Atlanta. “This is an issue of the power shifting in Henry County in general and there is this broader context of a county that has gone from majority white to—I don’t know if it’s majority African-American yet but it’s going that way. So, I think there is a political fear of who’s rising into power.”

The vote to officialize the municipalization of Eagle’s Landing will take place this coming November, but the only people who get to vote are those who live within the proposed Eagle’s Landing boundaries. Meaning, the residents of Stockbridge have no say in the plans to take huge chunks of Stockbridge away from them—de facto disenfranchisement. No matter how much power is shifting to new black mayors and city council members, white and wealthy residents are finding ways to maintain their own sovereignty regardless. Mayor Ford remains optimistic, though.

“When it’s all said and done we will remain unified,” says Ford. “So many things have been done wrong in this unprecedented ordeal here, but we will overcome this and then have the opportunity to mend the community back together and move the city forward. We have several more months to go.”

Editor’s note: Eagle’s Landing is written with and without an apostrophe in official documents, names of streets and local organizations. CityLab uses the apostrophe unless referring to an organization or entity that does not.

3 Cities, 3 Terrible Commutes

In the vast valley of the Mexico City metro area, home to more than 21 million people, short commutes are a rare luxury. According to the latest government survey, the average trip to work takes 57 minutes, and one out of three morning commutes takes more than an hour. But the truth is that many low-income workers suffer more than that. “I started to think about this problem when my daughter was younger and I hired a woman to help me take care of her,” says the Argentinian documentary filmmaker Luciana Kaplan, who is based in Mexico. “She would tell me that it took her three hours to come to work and then three hours going back. And something always happened to her on the way.”

The woman’s stories kept coming. She fell and injured her collarbone. She got robbed. The subway would break down. It was a constant source of stress. “I started asking more people in the city about this and I noticed that most live this life,” Kaplan says. The filmmaker was so fascinated by the city’s hypercommuters that she ended up devoting more than two years to researching and shooting the film Rush Hour, which was recently screened at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

In the film, Kaplan follows three people in three cities to experience their commutes and show how these journeys affect the rest of their lives. There’s Estela, a Mexican beauty parlor worker living in the suburb of Ecatepec. Then there’s Melten, a Turkish mother of two who crosses the Bosporus every day to get to her job in a clothing store in Istanbul. And there’s Mike, an engineer who drives more than four hours each day across Los Angeles to get to his workplace.

“I didn’t want to talk just about Mexico; this happens everywhere. We are all trapped in the same traffic, in the wear and tear of it, in the emotional sacrifices that we need to do to survive,” Kaplan says.

Rush Hour will also be screened at the Hola Mexico Film Festival in Los Angeles, in the Seattle International Film Festival, and in Washington, D.C., at the Woodrow Wilson Center. CityLab caught up with Kaplan recently; our conversation has been edited and condensed (and translated from Spanish).

These are three different people, in very different social contexts. You have someone that has a college degree and a well-paid job, a retail worker, and someone from a low-income suburb, but they suffer similar anxieties because of these long commutes.

Yes. It doesn’t matter that you might have a possibility to choose another option. The man in Los Angeles can choose a different life. But he picks this long commute [from his home in Huntington Beach]. His aspirations lead him to a life similar to the Mexican woman. He is tired all day, he never sees his wife, but he keeps going. It’s a paradox: We search for something, but we get something else. And most of us have a similar approach.

What kind of insight did you gain after following these three commuters?

In way, this is a movie about a lost happiness, because people are making these sacrifices looking for something that is never really delivered. These long commutes are an example of the promise of an achievable dream, but that is never achieved.

Some have asked me “Well, what is the solution to this?” I don’t have it, but I never shot the film looking for a solution. I think this has to do with something bigger than improving mobility, although I did see how issues like gentrification are pushing people to the periphery of the cities.

One of the other issues portrayed is how gender impacts your mobility.

You can see this in most commuting experiences. In many of them, being a woman is a factor. Like the Turkish woman—she works all day and, when she arrives home, she has to take care of the kids. But this happens everywhere, no matter if you are in Turkey, Mexico, or the United States. Of course, many women in Mexico, especially in the State of Mexico [the region that borders with Mexico City to the north, west and east], leave their homes and don’t know if they are coming back. This is not an exaggeration. They feel it in their commutes. But in each city portrayed in the movie you see a different message. I didn’t want to make a movie only about women.

A still from the documentary Rush Hour. (Taskovski Films)

You’ve already shown this film in many different cities and countries, like Toronto, where most residents have a pretty comfortable commute compared to the one in Mexico City, for example. What happens when people that don’t endure long commutes watch your movie?

On one side, people realize this privilege and they appreciate their lifestyle. But there are some that also realize that, although they don’t have these commutes, they are, in a way, living a similar life. A big-city lifestyle, a capitalistic lifestyle where human relationships are on a second level of importance.

What was the reaction of your main characters when they saw themselves and the other stories on screen?

The Turkish woman told me that she cried all night, because she could see what it means to leave her kids alone. It generated strong feelings in them, of understanding their lives and the need to change. In the case of the Mexican woman it is very funny, because she saw the other stories and told me “Oh, god, their life is much worse… poor guy, this American, what a terrible life.”

But I think none of them felt like they were watching someone that didn’t have anything to do with them. All of us who live in cities, deep down, we are very similar. We have this feeling that there is something that’s wrong, that we are losing something, there is a kind of pain that we share, this thing that we chase and can’t get. This is something that, in a way, makes us part of a brotherhood.

Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out When the Bus Is Coming?

On a a glorious 75-degree afternoon in early May, students at the University of Maryland, College Park sprawled in tank-tops and bathing suits on the quad, hatching post-finals plans. But not all students: In a windowless computer lab in the geography building, a handful of industrious undergrads were glued to banks of monitors, mapping buses.

Stop by stop, pick up by drop off, they traced the trajectories and timetables of a Loudon County, Virginia commuter bus service into the backend of Moovit, a partially crowdsourced transit navigation app. Or at least they were trying to. “I was in the wrong Virginia!” shouted Kurt Willson, a freshman GIS major, as he clicked through OpenStreetMap for the location of a stop on the online platform.

Soon enough, he found it: a church on the corner of 33rd and Main St. in Purcellville. He hovered his cursor over the spot on the map and clicked to add the bus stop icon. Later he’d enter in all of the headways for the Washington, D.C.-headed route he’d been assigned. “One down”—Willson cocked his head to scan the Loudon County website for the timetable he’d pulled up—“29 to go.” He groaned goodheartedly.

Moovit relies on these kinds of mapathons—often student-led—to help power their transit app, which company representatives say is available in 2,000 global cities. (I also recently wrote about this effort in the MapLab newsletter.) Like competitors such as Transit and CityMapper (which cover 125 and 39 cities, respectively), Moovit uses transit schedule data to display information and suggest the best routes across several non-driving modes: buses, trains, bikeshare, walking, and ride-hailing. It also tries to predict bus arrival times more accurately, thanks to algorithms that pull in from information from GPS trackers onboard buses, as well as variables like the historic performance of a route, the weather that day, ridership patterns, and crowdsourced incident updates.

To do that accurately, Moovit requires meticulously accurate maps for its estimated 4.7 million bus stops. That’s where the UMD kids come in. Many of them are members of the UMD chapter of Gamma Theta Upsilon, a geography honors society. In 2017, as one mapathon among many throughout the school year, the club had entered the university’s own extensive bus network onto Moovit; this year, the students targeted Loudon County coaches after Moovit conveyed requests it received from commuters there.

Although none of them had ever used these particular buses, many understood the importance of a decent transit app.“The D.C. Metro app is really, really bad,” Joseph Cunningham, a senior studying GIS, told me. “They never update it, and it’s always crashing on my phone.” Cunningham was painstakingly plotting each stop along the route he’d been assigned. “Just looking at this already, I feel like it makes things more user-friendly,” he said.

In that sense, these students were one block in a long chain of human and computer labor marshaled in the pursuit of a still-elusive goal: a transit app that really works for bus riders, everywhere. Anyone who has ever stood at a bus stop knows how interminable the anticipation can feel when there’s no indication of when the vehicle is coming. Even systems that have “real-time” bus information, thanks to onboard GPS trackers, can still be highly unreliable. Server crashes, traffic incidents, slow passenger boardings, and the weather regularly mess up arrival estimates. Research shows that bus waits actually feel longer when riders lack reliable information at hand.

The reverse is also true. Kari Watkins, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who has researched transit rider behavior, led a Seattle-based study that found that simply adding real-time information decreased riders’ perceived wait time by 0.7 minutes. That information came in the form of OneBusAway, an open-source software that Watkins helped develop, which combines location data from the buses and a predictive algorithm. A number of cities have adopted OneBusAway as the basis for their own apps, and have seen positive results: For example, New York City saw an increase in weekday ridership of nearly 2 percent, attributable to real-time mobile updates, in 2011 to 2013. “When you’re gaining a sense of control over your trip, it helps you feel more willing to take it,” Watkins told me.

That might count for a lot right now. Public transportation systems, especially buses, are in trouble. Ridership has dropped to its lowest point in 30 years on the nation’s rubber-tired workhorses. Several factors seem to be pushing people off, including cheap gas prices, the popularity of ride-hailing, and service cuts along important routes that haven’t been restored. And in cities where traffic is getting worse, buses are getting slower and less reliable, which is feeding a vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, an expanding universe of multimodal navigation apps and predictive software is trying to address that uncertainty, both for consumers and transit agencies themselves. Optibus, for example, is a firm that works with cities to plan bus systems using artificial intelligence that can catch inefficiencies and redundancies. Part of the benefit, they say, is that the oft-unreliable “real-time” data that is given to the public becomes more accurate. Moovit also has several products that it sells to transit agencies, one of which is a similar “real-time data” solution.

A screenshot of a multimodal trip on Moovit from Washington, D.C. to UMD College Park.

It’s hard to say which transit apps and prediction services are the most reliable. “To my knowledge, no one has done a scientific comparison of times shown within apps,” said Sean Barbeau, the principal mobile software architect at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. What’s more, with the exception of OneBusAway, which uses open-source software, they’re all “black boxes”—their algorithms are proprietary and haven’t been assessed by researchers. Moovit likes to call itself the “Wikipedia of transit maps” because, according to representatives, it crowdsources about 60 percent of its data from millions of volunteer transit mappers around the world. (Its competitors do not.) But unlike Wikipedia or, for that matter, OpenStreetMap (which Moovit uses as one of the layers for its editing platform), it’s not actually open-source.

At UMD, however, none of the students seemed fazed that they were donating their time to build the underpinnings of what is ultimately a private service. For many of them, the motivation was simply to help transit users, or “to give back,” as Willson put it.

That, and a sheer love of maps. “Everything has a place and a reason why it’s there,” said Andrew Lazara, a junior majoring in geography who helped coordinate the event, as he quickly mapped his route. “Connecting each of these points, you’re sort of making history. And you’re creating the ability for other people to form future connections, too.”