The sharing economy is taking over every aspect of our economy, whether it’s Uber, Airbnb, or Amazon — each one of these companies is impacting workers and the vitality of our local economies in increasingly alarming ways. In this Weekly Picks issue, we detail this trend (and even more) on these topics.… Read More
On a rainy March evening in Pasadena, California, about 350 people packed the auditorium of Pasadena City College for a standing-room-only public meeting. The issue of the hour: Reducing the number of travel lanes of Orange Grove Boulevard. Authorities wanted to put the lightly used four-lane thoroughfare on a “road diet.” Two of its lanes would be repurposed; one would be used for a center-left turn lane, the other would become a bike lane.
When staff flipped to a slide that showed how the redesign would only increase travel time along the 2.9-mile stretch of Orange Grove from 45 to 100 seconds, a woman screamed out: “You’re manipulating the data! NOBODY WANTS THIS.”
Moments later, another interruption: “What about the surrounding streets? Where are all the cars going to go? Cut-through traffic will make them into freeways!”
For several hours, opponents voiced their objections into the auditorium’s sound system. Shedding lanes, one said, would be an “unmitigated traffic disaster.” Not only would residents who live along the road never again be able to back out of their driveways, bicycle accidents would increase (because the new lanes would attract more riders). At one point, a city councilmember decided to hold a “voice vote” on the issue. Though several dozen shouted their support for the reconfiguration, their cries were drowned out by hundreds who bellowed their opposition.
The next day, the City of Pasadena announced that a second scheduled meeting on the issue was cancelled. And so ended the road diet of Orange Grove Boulevard.
Pasadena is hardly the only American city having a hard time sticking to its road diets. Nationwide, proposals to shed car lanes in the name of improving traffic safety or adding bike and pedestrian access are often met by fierce resistance.
Such redesigns may be popular with traffic safety advocates—lane reductions have been shown to reduce the total number of crashes by up to 47 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But even though traffic experts and city planners are well aware of the benefits, the process to remake America’s streets from car-dominated to more multimodal “complete” streets is getting backed-up.
“It’s somewhat frustrating,” says Mark Doctor, a safety and design Engineer for the Federal Highway Administration who specializes in road reconfiguration. “Getting community support is a critical piece of the puzzle. I think what’s becoming evident is the goals and objectives of the agencies on the front end aren’t in line with what the community wants, and it makes for a very difficult and uphill push.”
Take fiercely auto-minded and famously traffic-clogged Los Angeles, for example. Though city leaders say they are committed to a Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025, and have given their blessings to the “aspirational” Mobility Plan 2035—which envisions a more pedestrian Los Angeles with dedicated bus and bike lanes—the past year has found city leaders, more often than not, balking at opportunities to actually remake the city’s car-choked roads.
Last year, a pilot lane reduction along a coastal commuter route on L.A.’s far Westside attracted a ferocious, talk-radio fueled backlash, led by an advocacy organization called Keep LA Moving, which argued that the road diet amounted to a municipal attack on drivers. Their efforts culminated in multiple lawsuits against the city that said the road reconfiguration violated the California Environmental Quality Act and even spawned an attempt to recall Mike Bonin, the city councilmember who authorized the redesign. That specific road diet was reversed. Since then, city councilmembers have chosen multiple times to veto lane reductions previously proposed by the city’s Department of Transportation (LADOT).
Instead of lane reductions, they’re opting for less-aggressive street treatments, like adding signalized crosswalks, dedicated left-turn pockets, and intersection tightening. (Thanks to the peculiarities of L.A.’s city government, it is the local councilmembers, not the mayor, who has the final say-so over whether or not a project advances.)
The recall campaign against Bonin ultimately failed to gain any traction, but it did succeed in spooking other councilmembers. And court documents indicate L.A. held settlement discussions with petitioners of multiple lawsuits filed against the Westside lane reductions, the results of which are still pending public knowledge.
Learning from the success of Keep LA Moving, groups with similar aims have formed in San Francisco and Seattle. Similar tales of motorist-led public backlash have greeted road diets from California to Oregon to Florida, leading many cities to abandon the projects altogether.
In Naples, Florida, for example, the local city council recently vetoed a proposal to redesign six-lane US-41 after residents voiced concern over increased travel time and traffic diverted to residential streets.
Gregg Strakaluse, who heads the Naples Streets and Stormwater Department, says that the city has wrestled for decades over what to do about the six-lane highway that, as he says, “divides” the city in two. The state plans to tear up the street and overhaul the storm-drain system beneath it over the next few years, giving the city an opportunity to redesign it. The city’s transportation department presented an updated “road toning” plan, shrinking the six lanes to four but leaving intersections configured to move lots of vehicles, minimally affecting travel-time.
“We went through the whole presentation about how that could work out even better, but city council’s final call was to tell DOT that they didn’t want to reduce the number of lanes,” said Strakaluse. “But they did want to see improvements made to pedestrian connectivity, multi-modal activity, and bicycle activity.”
In other words, adding bike lanes or sidewalks is fine, as long as no car lanes get touched. Unfortunately, the laws of physics usually require such trade-offs.
Other recent Florida bike-lane battles follow a similar script. Last month, city officials killed a plan to add a pair of bike lanes to Bay-to-Bay Boulevard in Tampa, which would have removed one automotive traffic lane from the heavily trafficked thoroughfare. In defiance of an engineering study that determined the lane reduction would have made the roadway safer without adversely impacting overall traffic volume, the city—which boasts one of the worst pedestrian safety records in the country—elected to eliminate bike lanes from the $1 million resurfacing after a fierce outcry.
In Los Angeles, where traffic congestion continues to grow, road diet efforts have become battles royale throughout the metro area, as residents rise to voice their fears of cut-through traffic diverted to neighboring side streets and commuters panic over the prospect of increased travel time. High-volume streets that serve communities with more affluent homeowners tend to be particularly resistant to change. “A lot of the projects that have been done could be described as low-hanging fruit. They were more obvious projects, and I think there were fewer of them in more privileged communities,” said Madeline Brozen, an associate director at the UCLA Lewis Center and Institute for Transportation Studies. “Now we’re getting to ones that are more contentious, where there is more traffic and speeds are higher. But the severity of crashes and need for change is higher as well.”
John Russo, one of Keep LA Moving’s organizers, bristles at this safety argument. “It makes me laugh when people say we’re anti-safety. You’d have to be a psychopath to be anti-safety,” he said. “We’re here to remind the city how most Angelenos use the road. Overall, we don’t think it’s a bad idea to take a step back and think long and hard about how Vision Zero is being implemented in Los Angeles.”
Sometimes, however, the anxieties of road-diet foes ease after the new lanes are striped. A 2013 redesign of Rowena Street in the increasingly trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake initially attracted ire, but residents have grown to appreciate the changes. Assisting that transition is a local advocacy organization, “Keep Rowena Safe,” which says crash data from before and after the road diet emphasizes improved traffic safety on Rowena Street.
In addition to these kinds of grassroots efforts, UCLA’s Brozen is looking for more assertive leadership from the city’s political class. And so far, she’s not seeing it. “There’s a little bit of a void in the pro-transportation change space in L.A., and it seems like this anti-change backlash is filling that void,” she said. “There’s a lack of understanding as to why these projects are needed. Without that understanding, it gets really personal and very nasty very quickly.”
Brozen cited a road diet in the West L.A. neighborhood of Mar Vista, which shrunk a short stretch of Venice Boulevard from six lanes to four lanes and added a parking buffer to the street’s existing bike lane. Though she says she used to frequently ride along Venice when she was a graduate student at UCLA—one of her favorite coffee shops is in the neighborhood—she found herself increasingly hesitant to negotiate the road on a bike. “It wasn’t until they put the protected lane in that I felt safe again,” said Brozen, who shared this story at a community meeting. “After I made that comment, this woman told me, ‘Go to a coffee shop in your own neighborhood.’”
Speaking to a local radio station earlier this year, the general manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, Seleta Reynolds, said the fundamental questions for L.A. are the ones one that many cities are grappling with: Are city streets for the residents who live in the immediate neighborhood, or the commuters who use them to get somewhere else? And which users should get priority—the ones behind a steering wheel, or a handlebar? “Is it acceptable,” asked Reynolds, for the commuters who “use the streets to cut through to endure some additional delay [if that returns] safety, livability, economic, and public health benefits to the neighborhood?”
Doctor, the federal road diet expert, echoes this sentiment, and says that the job of transportation agencies is to determine the appropriate balance. “Sometimes a road diet is an agency’s attempt to rebalance the quality of service that a roadway provides for its users,” he said. “The community engagement and education component is crucial in order to find that proper balance.”
There’s a twisted sort of good news for Parisian cyclists this week. This month, monthly and annual subscribers to Velib, the city’s pioneering bikeshare program, will be able to use its bikes completely free of charge. In fact, anyone who has paid upfront to subscribe to the service since January can apply to get their money back.
This deal may sound pretty sweet, but the background to its introduction is more than a little bitter. The reason for the free bike policy is to manage the fallout from an almighty urban screw up, one that for much of the past 12 months has left Velib’s day-to-day functioning and its overall reputation in tatters.
The Velib meltdown has made bikeshare an unusually hot political issue—and may even be putting the wider car-control efforts of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on shakier ground. It’s quite a climb-down for a program that, when introduced in 2007, became a model that swept other cities. So what went wrong?
The problems started last May, when management for the Velib system was taken over by a new contractor that, in a classic burst of nonsensical Franglais, goes by the name Smovengo. As part of an ambitious new upgrade, Smovengo promised that a third of the 14,000-plus fleet of bikes would be battery assisted e-bikes, forming part of a new more online-and-app-friendly fleet that would make managing and using the system more streamlined. This move required a complete overhaul of the network’s 1,200-plus docking stations. That’s where things went pear shaped. By the end of last summer, only half the replacement docks had been created, with those left unfinished creating ramshackle mini-eyesores across the French capital.
Those that have actually come into service, meanwhile, have been glitchy in the extreme. Some have electricity supply problems that have required contractors to temporarily wire up the stations to batteries. These not uncommonly run out of juice, meaning that many bikes are blocked for use by afternoon. To cap it all, Velib employees went on strike last month, frustrated by a decline in working conditions and benefits since Smovengo took over the Velib concession from previous operator JCDecaux.
With functioning docks scarce, the number of Velib subscribers plummeted from 290,000 to 190,000. The number of daily shares dropped by April to just 10,000 daily—from an all-time high of 100,000 daily. For the world’s first large-scale bikeshare service, this was quite a tumble. The free bike plan is thus less a bold move to fully liberate the system than an effort to mollify frustrated customers. If the problems continue into June, the free bike offer will continue into the summer.
It’s Smovengo that has to foot the bill for this, having paid €700 ($835 million) for the right to all revenues for the next ten years. So far, the company has also had to pay €3 million ($3.6 million) in penalties for its failures. The affair also doesn’t look good for Mayor Hidalgo. Encouraging sustainable, green transit and pollution reduction has been a central part of her administration, but it’s also drawn criticism; Hidalgo is already reeling from an as-yet-unenforced court decision to overturn the city’s pedestrianization of the banks of the Seine, and Paris’ spirited push to banish cars and clear the air is looking increasingly embattled. As of March, the mayor had a disapproval rate of 58 percent.
Hidalgo has two more years to restore her standing with Parisians before another municipal election is due. That should hopefully be more than enough time to fix Velib’s wobbly wheels. Whether she can keep up the city’s car-free momentum until then is another question. In the meantime, Parisians can console themselves with free rides—if they can find a usable bike.
One week last spring, I met the matchmaker Jessica Fass in her temporary Tel Aviv office, a WeWork location with hardwood floors, exposed mechanicals, wheat beer on tap, and Millennials talking about deliverables while eating $20 salads at a communal lunch table.
Fass, a Jewish matchmaker from Los Angeles, had descended on Israel—where she spent five years and which she considers to be a second home—to find suitable mates for her clients in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Melbourne. She has a confessional nature, an efficient, straight-A-student upbeat vibe, and plans to build her business—called Fass Pass to Love—into a matchmaking empire.
Fass started her matchmaking business as a hobby, but has been working at it full-time since 2013. She has a certificate from the Matchmaking Institute in New York City, a facility licensed by the New York State Department of Education that promises a science-based approach to helping others find love. Fass’s services can be expensive, ranging from $2,500 to $20,500 depending on the scope of the assignment and the client’s “matching criteria.” The more expensive the package, the more extras she throws in—including personal stylists, home organizers, dating/relationship/flirting coaches, therapists, headshot photographers, personal fitness trainers and “anything else the client might need to become the ‘best version’ of himself/herself and be ready for love.”
But finding Jewish community isn’t a given across the country—especially in smaller cities or towns. “I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and there are not really many Jewish people here,” says Laurie Berzack, a matchmaker since 2006 with Chai Expectations. Shortly after starting her business, Berzack realized that she would have to expand her network, cobbling together a series of small Jewish populations in places like Atlanta and Raleigh. “I always say that love doesn’t have to be in your backyard,” she says. “If you really want it, you need to expand your parameters in terms of a lot of things—especially geographic.”
Making a match between two Jews is considered a “mitzvah”—technically, a Biblical commandment, but colloquially expressed as a general good deed. “After three mitzvahs, you’re guaranteed a place in heaven,” Fass said. She has made six marriages to date. “Most Jews want to marry other Jews,” she added. “Even if you’re secular, you want to celebrate Passover. And a lot of the Jews I meet have been to all of the singles events in their city, and their mother has set them up. They run out of Jews to date, and that’s when they come to me.”
Even in cities with relatively large Jewish populations, the dating pool can feel small. The global Jewish population is just 15 million, with about 6 million in each Israel and the United States, and another 3 million spread out across the rest of the world. Montreal, London, and Melbourne each have fewer than 200,000 Jewish people, and Rome has fewer than 20,000. In the U.S., two trends are further winnowing the dating pool: More than half of American Jews now marry non-Jewish partners, and there are questions about the decline of Jewish identity among both Americans and Millennials. A Pew survey from 2013 found that fewer American Jews are raising their children Jewish, and also found declining religiosity among Jewish Millennials, 32 percent of whom describe themselves as culturally or ethnically Jewish, but not religious.
So, in many cities around the world, a hometown search might not last long. That’s where global matchmakers like Fass enter the picture, not to mention plenty of alternatives without the premium price tag. In addition to online services like JDate.com, there’s an extensive network of Jewish matchmaking connections across the spectrum of observance that span major cities around the world, from Buenos Aires to Rome. Several services in Israel explicitly facilitate introductions between Israelis and Jews in the diaspora.
Matchmaking is particularly popular among Orthodox Jews, some of whom seek a partner within a very insular community. Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, noted that one website of Chabad (an Orthodox movement) lists 27 matchmakers in Brooklyn alone, and dozens more worldwide, from Cincinnati to Melbourne.
These services aren’t just for the devout. Many secular Jews also turn to matchmakers, and the majority of Tel Aviv—where Fass was trying to drum up clients—is not particularly religious. Concerns about Jewish continuity, about raising Jewish children and going through the essential motions of tradition can become important enough to overpower other reservations—even about a geographic relocation. One of Fass’s clients, a 43-year-old nurse who lives in Sydney, said he was receptive to meeting someone locally, but pragmatic about the odds: “A large proportion of our people live in Israel or America, and the idea is not to limit the prospective match.”
Margaux Chetrit-Cassuto, a matchmaker with Three Matches in Montreal, said 90 percent of her clients are willing to consider relocation for the right partner. She has established networks in New York City, Miami, and Tel Aviv. “Everyone has his or her own reasons,” she said. “There are children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who feel a strong sense of responsibility. There are others who identify as cultural Jews and they want to make Jewish jokes and have someone who gets it. Some people just feel more comfortable with someone Jewish because they grew up with Jews.”
That comfort can also help ease integration in a new city that also has an established Jewish community, says Berzack. She recently attended a party for a local man she coached to celebrate his marriage to a woman from New York. “What I saw was people from a small Jewish community opening their arms to his new bride, giving phone numbers and embracing her in the community,” she says. It helps, too, that even small and secular communities have what Berzack refers to as “infrastructure”: established institutions and weekly rituals like Shabbat lunch. “That helps create a real community feeling and camaraderie, and people just need to tap into it.”
Of course, Jewish culture and practice is far from homogeneous, and low population numbers and a diaspora that spans out across the globe can make it harder to find someone compatible, Fass said. Jews from Los Angeles might have little in common with Jews from Yemen, she points out. “This is what makes Jewish matchmaking so hard,” she said. “You can be attracted on every level, but if practice is off, it can be a deal breaker.” But she is seeing more openness to intercultural relationships. In addition to some of the usual questions one might expect from any matchmaker—career ambitions, willingness to relocate, family expectations, physical type—Fass also asks questions specific to Jewish tradition, such as the keeping of kosher dietary laws and holiday observance.
In one Facebook post, Fass outlined the international Jewish clients to match with eligible Israelis. It included a 41-year-old venture capitalist in New York City who is attentive, easygoing, loyal, kind, and willing to relocate for a good match. There was the 55-year-old doctor who attended three Ivy League institutions, enjoys ice cream, and was seeking a woman willing to relocate to Los Angeles to start a family. A 38-year-old female social worker who loves salsa dancing and kayaking was willing to relocate to Israel or anywhere in the United States for “a man who can appreciate an optimistic and ambitious partner.” All clients are identified as Ashkenazi or Sephardic (a reference to geographic familial origins), and their respective preferences for levels of religious observance are made clear.
Despite matchmaking’s typically starry language about commitment and eternal soul mates, all matchmakers essentially work in a more vulgar trade: sales. I sat in on Fass’s meeting with Osher, a 33-year-old architect with a passion for swing dancing and a recently broken heart. He and Fass almost immediately started to discuss the public relations value of my presence, as I quietly took notes and tried not to get involved. There was a protracted debate over whether Osher should tell me about his former involvement in Live Action Role Playing, or LARPing, lest it be perceived by any prospective matches as overly nerdy. (The debate was inconclusive.)
Later that night in Tel Aviv, Fass sat down with a group of budding matchmakers that she was hoping to draw into her business (starting at 35 shekels an hour), mostly to help scout for potential matches for clients. As the aspiring matchmakers snacked on crackers and cookies, Fass showed them a promotional ad she had just shot. The room was typically diverse, with American, Israeli, Russian, Swiss-German, and French women. All were interested in making some cash, but they were also drawn to the romantic ideals of matchmaking. One young woman from Philadelphia said she was keen to make her family proud: “I hope I can match up some Jews soon because my mom says it’s a mitzvah.”
What We’re Following
Texas hold’em: Fair housing advocates in Texas are suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in an effort to make the Trump administration enforce a fair housing rule 50 years in the making. The policy itself goes back to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which requires communities that accept federal dollars to “affirmatively further fair housing.” That hasn’t happened, of course. But the Obama-era rule at the center of this lawsuit requires jurisdictions to draw up a fair-housing action plan, a first step toward desegregation.
Or at least, that’s what the rule did, before Secretary Ben Carson suspended it in January. The lawsuit filed this morning by Texas housing advocates would force the department to resume implementing the rule—which would have a big impact on how Texas spends $5 billion in federal hurricane recovery funds. As CityLab’s Kriston Capps reports, the future of fair housing may be settled in the Lone Star State.
Election watch: Voters in the Charlotte area will select their sheriff in today’s primary elections—and for many residents, it’s effectively a referendum on immigration policy. Activists launched an aggressive campaign to oust the current sheriff for allowing Trump-style local immigration enforcement, a practice the two challengers have vowed to end. CityLab’s Alastair Boone has the story.
More on CityLab
Nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in 2016, reaching the highest level of fatal crashes since 1990, the Washington Post reports. After hitting a low in 2009, pedestrian deaths have jumped up 46 percent, outpacing the overall increase in traffic fatalities, which are up just 11 percent.
The chart above, from the study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by auto insurers, pinpoints where these fatal crashes increased the most—in urban-suburban areas, on arterial roads, as well as at night and away from intersections. Another key factor not shown: vehicle type. The report says that crashes were increasingly likely to involve SUVs and high-horsepower vehicles, which tend to be driven faster and above the speed limit. CityLab context: Pedestrian deaths climb, while safety laws lag.
What We’re Reading
The best possible use for the hyperloop is a cargo train (Curbed)
Why Egypt is building a new capital city (The Guardian)
Uber’s self-driving software detected pedestrian Elaine Herzberg before the fatal crash, but it didn’t react in time (Recode)
The water will come, but not to this Miami home (New York Times)
Airbnb reinvents the hostel (Washington Post)
It’s abundantly clear that in today’s economy, the ability to attract and mobilize highly educated people—so-called human capital—is the key factor in the the wealth of nations as well of that of cities. But the driving force of talent in economic growth also contributes to our worsening divides. While metropolitan areas with more educated people have higher levels of income, they also have higher housing costs. And the burden of those costs falls hardest on the less educated.
A working paper by urban economist Richard Green, of the University of Southern California, and Jung Choi, of the Urban Institute takes, a deep dive into this conundrum, using detailed data from the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey, and the longitudinal Panel Study of Income Dynamics to track the impact of college graduates on wages and rents across U.S. metros. The data spans the more-than-three-decade period from 1980 to 2013.
First, the good news: Having more college graduates in a metro means higher wages for everyone. A 1 percent increase in the share of college graduates brings a 1.4 percent increase in wages across the board, even after controlling for sorting—that is, an individual’s choice to move to an area with lower rents or higher paying jobs, or because of other factors.
But these wages gains accrue disproportionately to college grads. A 1 percent increase in the share of college graduates leads to a 1.7 percent increase in hourly earnings for the same group. Meanwhile, those with a high school degree or less see an increase of less than 0.7 percent.
Now the bad news: The increase in wages associated with college grads tends to translate into higher housing costs. Although college grads tend to earn more than enough to cover these costs, less advantaged, less educated groups end up spending a far greater share of their income on housing.
Overall, a 1 percent increase in college grads leads to a roughly 2.5 percent increase in the cost of rent. (To study this, the researchers used a smaller sample of only renters.) This rent increase is highest for college grads—a 1 percent uptick in their share of population leads to a 3 percent increase in the rent they pay. Meanwhile, there was only a 1.9 percent increase in the rents paid by those who did not graduate from college. For the less educated, higher housing costs negate the wage increase brought about by having more college grads in the metro area.
The differential impact of college grads and highly educated economies can be seen even more clearly in rent burdens borne by different groups. Here the study finds that more educated groups have more residual income—i.e., the amount of money left over after paying for housing. Even though college graduates experience the highest rent increases, their wages are more than enough to cover the difference.
The opposite is true for less educated groups. After the study controls for sorting effects, it finds that the groups hardest hit by rent increases are those who did not graduate from high school, followed by those who graduated from high school only.
Furthermore, “movers”—those who move from a less educated metro to a more educated metro—gain a smaller increase in residual income than “stayers,” who remain in a metro as its overall level of education rises. College graduates who do not move actually experience a positive increase in residual income in the places that see the largest increases in college grads. The less educated who move to metros with higher shares of college graduates, on the other hand, see a decrease in their residual income. This is the direct result of increased housing costs, which negate any wage gains that accrue to them.
But what about homeowners, who experience greater appreciation of their home values in more educated places? This too is likely to confer disproportionate benefits on the highly educated, who are also more affluent and more likely to own their homes.
The homeownership rate for college graduates is 68 percent, compared to 47 percent for those who completed some college, and 38 percent for high-school dropouts. Here, the paper says that college grads benefit from greater increases in housing values and housing wealth as the share of college grads in a metro rises. The less educated see small increases in their home equity, as well as being less likely to own their homes in the first place.
Simply put, the growth in college grads strongly favors highly educated, high-skill workers over lower-skilled, less advantaged groups. While both high- and low-skill workers see their wages rise in highly educated places, only the more educated are able to bear the burden of higher housing costs, and they gain from considerable appreciation in the value of their homes.
For the less educated and less skilled, rising housing costs eat up any gains in wages that come from living in a metro with more college grads. Or, as the study puts it, the “rent spillovers” from the increase in the share of college grads exceed the “wage spillovers.” For highly educated people, spillovers raise wages and rents by roughly equal amounts. For those without college degrees, a higher proportion of college graduates generates rent hikes that overtake wage increases.
This class divide in wages and housing costs is a key factor in rising economic inequality. It’s a disturbing tale of two trickle-downs, where the trickle-down effect on rent outpaces the trickle-down effect on wages for those least able to shoulder the cost.
Between the gleaming towers of the Chinese city of Shenzhen, some 16,000 buses shuttle commuters to and from their destinations. But they’re not like the diesel-guzzling behemoths that run the streets of most cities. They’re quieter, and they run entirely on electricity.
Back in 1980, Shenzhen was just a modest fishing village of 30,000. Now a megalopolis of some 12 million, the city has undergone a remarkably rapid transformation—and so has its transit fleet. In an effort to control air pollution in this vast industrial region, the city began introducing electric buses in 2009. It has now become the first city to electrify 100 percent of its public buses. That’s a staggering 16,359 battery-powered vehicles, the world’s largest eco-friendly bus fleet.
Globally, there are an estimated 385,000 fully electric buses, and according to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, 99 percent of them are in China. As Shenzhen moves on to making it all its taxis go electric as well, other Chinese cities are beginning to follow suit, replacing their gas-powered bus fleets by the hundreds.
As I reported in 2016, electrification leads the list of ambitious ideas out there to upgrade the humble bus. The Bloomberg report calculates that China adds about 9,500 EV buses every five weeks—the size of London’s entire fleet—and collectively, they’re making a dent in the oil industry. For every 1,000 EV buses, according to the report, the global demand for fuel drops by about 500 barrels a day. (Global oil consumption is still going up, though, just not as quickly.)
China is leading a green transit revolution mostly because it has to: The country’s colossal cities and industrial zones are some of the most polluted places in the world. It’s worth noting that despite the massive numbers of electric and hybrid buses, they still account for only 17 percent of the country’s total fleet.
Shenzhen is one of only a few cities in China to dramatically reduce its air pollution, and the government attributes much of this progress to bus electrification. It’s a strategy cities elsewhere are hoping to emulate, albeit at a much slower pace: London plans to go all-electric by 2030, while New York City is currently piloting five electric buses, with the aim to transition by 2040. Washington, D.C., just added 14 electric buses from the California-based company Proterra to the city’s circulator fleet.
Of course, unlike these cities, Shenzhen isn’t electrifying on its own—it has the assistance of a one-party national government that’s vowed to go all-in on mass transit. Along with the electrification of its transport system, China is pouring billions of yuans into a national high-speed railway network, subways, and bus rapid transit. The upfront cost of electric buses can be more than double that of traditional ones, and just as the country subsidized subways, China also helped fund Shenzhen’s pursuit of better buses. According to the World Resource Institute, the city received $150,000 in subsidy per bus prior to 2016—more than half the cost of each one.
“It’s those sorts of grants that make [the cost of] those buses on par with diesel buses,” said Caroline Watson, the network manager for low-emission vehicles at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which brings governments together to tackle climate change. Factoring in lower operation and maintenance costs, the tab for an electric bus is only about $33,000 more than a traditional one over an eight-year period, according to calculations by the World Bank. “That means it’s easier for the regional government to invest in this technology because it won’t cost them more, but they’re going to have fuel savings, cleaner air, and reduced CO2 emissions.”
To further reduce upfront costs, some operators in Shenzhen also choose to lease buses from the manufacturers, said Watson. She was speaking from Quito, Ecuador, where finance and transit officials from the likes of Vancouver, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Chennai in India were gathered for C40’s Clean Bus Finance Academy—part of the group’s Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative—to work out the fiscal and logistical challenges involved in transitioning to electric buses.
This process of global de-dieselfication involves more than just buying a bunch of new buses: Going electric requires operators to make routing and infrastructure changes, too. Battery-powered buses often have a more limited range than their diesel siblings, and they have to be charged without disrupting service. Shenzhen devoted part of its $490 million investment into building out a robust charging infrastructure—more than 500 charging stations, Clean Technica reports, with some 8,000 outlets. That’s enough to charge half the fleet at a time.
Sheer volume, though, won’t cut it. Consider China’s proposal to sell only electric cars “sometime in the near future.” As I’ve reported, the nation has some 150,000 public charging points—the most in the world (the U.S. only has about 16,000). But there’s a lack of standards—the stations themselves are often built by private firms—and the stations are distributed somewhat haphazardly, much to the frustration of drivers.
This is where the collaboration between Shenzhen’s bus operators and its utility companies comes into play. “The electrification of transport really brings together the energy sector and the transport operators in a way that that historically has never really had to happen,” Watson said. “What we’re hearing [at the academy in Quito] is that it’s really important to have an engaged utility provider, because without electricity provided to the charge point, you haven’t got fuel.”
In Shenzhen, the partnership has resulted in charging stations built along bus routes, according to WRI, and coordinated charging times during which buses fully charge overnight, when electricity demand (and prices) are lower. Watson cautioned, though, that what works for Shenzhen may not necessarily work for other cities. “Every city needs to do their own analysis making sure they choose the right charging infrastructure,” she said.
So when will the rest of the world catch up to China in the electric bus race? The equipment itself is available: The Chinese firm Build Your Dreams (BYD), which manufactures Shenzhen’s fleet, has entered the U.S. market; its buses are in service in cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando. Domestic rival Proterra, meanwhile, has been improving both its vehicles (one recently set a distance record by going 1,100 miles on a single charge) and its charging technology. But the kind of sweeping change that Shenzhen pulled off in the last decade won’t come to U.S. cities without aggressive national support and full buy-in from local transit agencies. Neither will be easily acquired.
Bus ridership is falling in most U.S. cities, and local transit agencies are limited in their abilities to make big investments. Many don’t think the technology is there yet, with cities worried about how battery buses will fare in extreme terrain (like San Francisco’s steep hills) or weather (think Phoenix in the summer and Boston in the winter). “People worry about being an early adopter,” Chris Stoddart, senior vice president of engineering and customer service for Canadian bus maker New Flyer, told Reuters. “People just don’t want a science project.”
But Watson is optimistic. “What Shenzhen has done is on an incredible scale, and I think it’s an inspiration for the rest of the world,” she said. “It’s definitely achievable. But it would take more time for other cities to do it.”
During the week of February 9, 2017, fear bled through the Latino community in East Charlotte, North Carolina, after social media reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was conducting roundup-style immigration raids, and had taken dozens of undocumented immigrants into custody. At the time, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox disputed the reports, telling the Charlotte Observer that they had likely surfaced because “everyone’s attention is focused on this issue recently.”
It turned out that Charlotte’s Latino community had good reason to focus on immigration raids that week. The following Monday, ICE released a fact sheet that said immigration agents had arrested 84 people in North Carolina as a part of nationwide targeted enforcement operations. This is not necessarily new in North Carolina: Since 2015, deportations in the state have been increasing steadily. A big reason for this is the 287(g) program, which gives local police officers immigration enforcement powers in jails, out in the field, or both. Six North Carolina counties are currently using 287(g), including Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte.
Sheriff Irwin Carmichael re-signed the county’s agreement in 2016. Now, he is up for re-election on Tuesday, and a number of grassroots groups in Charlotte are rising up to oust him from office, in a race that has become a referendum on immigration policy.
Over the past few years, several other counties have used the sheriff’s election as a lever for local immigration change. In 2014, Karl Bickel challenged Frederick County, Maryland Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, on a platform of auditing the 287(g) program. Jenkins, known for supporting the program, won the 2014 election, but Bickel will challenge him again this year in the upcoming Frederick County sheriff race on a similar platform. In November 2016, Ed Gonzalez was elected sheriff of Harris County, Texas, on a platform that included opting out of the 287(g) program, and a little over a year later, he did. And just last year, Sally Hernandez was elected the sheriff of Travis County, Texas—where Austin sits—on a platform of ending voluntary compliance with ICE. Since her election, Texas governor Greg Abbott has fought back against Austin’s sanctuary policies with legal challenges and anti-immigrant legislation.
In Charlotte, the sheriff’s race has generated significant outside interest as well: According to the Charlotte Observer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has spent $175,000 on the race, targeting Sheriff Carmichael as working with “Trump’s deportation force”.
“I think part of the wake-up call around local activism has been the realization that a lot of policy-making that is important to people’s day to day lives happens at the local level,” said Daniel Stageman, Director of Research Operations at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Though many condemn the program for being costly and ineffective, 287(g) has proliferated under Trump: Today, ICE has agreements with 76 law enforcement agencies across 20 states. (That’s more than double the number of agreements there were in 2016, and 16 more than there were when CityLab’s Tanvi Misra reported on the program last August.)
For the opponents of 287(g) in Charlotte, electing a new sheriff seems like the only way to rid the county of the program: While the current sheriff, Carmichael, has embraced it, both of his challengers—Gary McFadden and Antoine Ensley—have vowed to end it. And although the election on the 8th is technically the Democratic primary, there is no Republican challenger, so the winner will become the new sheriff.
“It’s important for the immigrant communities in Mecklenburg County, who ends up being sheriff,” Stageman said. “It may not be quite as important as who’s in the White House, but it’s not unimportant.”
A week after the terror in East Charlotte, an immigrants’ rights organization called Comunidad Colectiva organized a Charlotte-area “Day Without Immigrants” as a part of the national movement. Some 8,000 Charlotte immigrants and their supporters marched uptown in peaceful protest, flooding the streets and halting vehicular traffic. An estimated 250 Latino businesses also closed that day in solidarity. Community organizers asked city leaders to do more for the immigrant community.
To Comunidad Colectiva organizer Stefania Arteaga, these events were a turning point for the Charlotte community. When an 18-year-old beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Gus Zamudio, was picked up by ICE shortly after the march, the community mobilized. “There were a lot of things that brought 287(g) into the public light,” Artega said. “This isn’t the first time [287(g)] has been on the news, but it was different because we really took advantage of the fact that people were mobilized, and we were coming up on an election.” (Zamudio, who was arrested for stealing from Harris Teeter, has since been deported.)
Suddenly, Charlotte voters were paying attention to 287(g), and at the same time, the program became pivotal in the sheriff’s race. As the program received more attention in Mecklenburg County, the race began to shine a spotlight on exactly how it works. Sheriff Carmichael told The Intercept that there is “misinformation” being spread about the program. And in March, he appeared on Fox and Friends to explain: “I always tell everyone, you will never ever encounter this program unless you’re arrested and charged with a crime and brought to our jail.”
Both McFadden and Ensley, who are former members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, have made eliminating the program central to their campaigns. Each of them has spoken out against the program, not only because it hurts immigrant families, but also because they believe it is detrimental to local law enforcement. “It damages the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” McFadden told the Charlotte Observer.
Mecklenburg County only employs the jail version of the 287(g) program, meaning that immigrants cannot be processed through the federal database without first being arrested. But for Latinos in Charlotte, arrest can feel unavoidable. Immigrants are frequently arrested and taken to jail for offenses that are part and parcel of being undocumented, such as driving without a license or other traffic violations. (Undocumented immigrants in North Carolina cannot get driver’s licenses.) Sheriff Carmichael has not responded to CityLab’s request for comment.
There are other reasons Charlotteans are fighting to get Sheriff Carmichael out of office, too: He allows solitary confinement for teenagers in county jails, and contracts with a for-profit company called GTL, allowing inmates solely online visitation services, a practice many have criticized.
“He’s fear mongering,” Arteaga said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
There is no clear frontrunner in the sheriff’s race, but this year’s primary seems to be drawing more interest than previous ones. Overall, some 20,300 people voted early in the county, up from 13,600 four years ago in a similar primary (where no president or governor’s seat was at stake). But Oliver Merino, an organizer for Comunidad Colectiva, says that the numbers aren’t where he wants them to be. “There are 30,000 Latino voters out there, and we’re really trying to encourage folks to go out to vote,” Merino said. This is a task that might be difficult to achieve, since voter turnout amongst Latinos tends to be lower than other racial and ethnic groups. “We’re using messaging like “vote for folks who can’t,” or “for the safety of our community,” Merino said.
If Carmichael loses the election, the number of deportations in the county could shrink considerably. But according to Mai Nguyen, an associate professor of Housing and Community Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the end of 287(g) would not necessarily mean the end of ICE’s collaboration with local law enforcement. Local law enforcement agents can and do collaborate with ICE in a number of informal ways.
“They’ve always had the power to [communicate with ICE], said Nguyen. “But getting rid of 287(g) would take the authority away from local law enforcement to actually process and deport undocumented immigrants,” she said. “The ability to deport individuals without due process or a lawyer, that all gets take away without 287(g).”
Belvidere Road is an unremarkable stretch of suburbia in Waukegan, Ill., north of Chicago, lined with highway-sign staples: gas stations, car washes, fast-food joints, and a low-rent motel.
It was only after a previous deal to move his private high school into a converted office building fell through that Preston Kendall came up with the idea to slide into the abandoned Kmart here. Kendall saw the former store as a potential new home for Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, which serves nearly 400 low-income, mostly minority students.
An abandoned big-box store was few people’s idea of fresh start. The reaction from the board was, “‘I don’t know about this, but I trust you,’” recalled Kendall, the school’s president. “It was kind of a hard sell.”
But Kendall had deep roots with the Cristo Rey community that helped him bolster his case. He was one of the founders of the first Cristo Rey school in Pilsen, a historically Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. Now Cristo Rey is a national network of 32 schools; 98 percent of the network’s students are people of color. The Waukegan school opened in 2004.
Kendall also had a secret weapon in mind to help snap his vision into place. To design the school, he hired Juan Gabriel Moreno Associations (JGMA), a Chicago firm with a talent for wringing progressive design out of rock-bottom budgets in buildings that serve low-income and minority communities.
For example, the firm’s founder Juan Moreno designed a charter high school in Chicago that’s clad in shimmering stainless steel panels woven into wafting curves and intense angles. This steel was the cheapest material available when construction began, and if it had been delayed by mere months, the entire exterior might have looked very different.
In the eyes of the architects, the empty big box was a blank canvas, easy and economical to convert. Which would be important. The entire budget for the 55,000-square-foot school was a low $10 million.
“Many would see this as a stigmatized big box,” said JGMA’s Katie LaCourt, who shepherded the project from conception to construction. “[But] we saw a lot of opportunity because of the tall volume and wide structural bays that already existed.”
The Cristo Rey network’s curriculum revolves around a unique work-study program, in which students spend one day each week working at a private company or non-profit off-campus. In lieu of a salary, these organizations pay the school for students’ tuition. Because of the money raised this way and through traditional fundraising, parents and students only have to pay about $1,000 per year. (The average family income is $37,000.) Ninety percent of network students enroll in college. The Waukegan school has 98-percent college enrollment, and nearly 60 percent of its students go on to get a bachelor’s degree.
As such, Kendall told JGMA: “Don’t build us a high school. Our kids are going to work. They’re going to college. Build us some cross between a corporate headquarters and a college campus.”
LaCourt responded by breaking up the massive store’s scale and clumsy, horizontal massing with strong colors and graphic signage (a signature JGMA element). She and her colleagues arranged floor plans that subtly and economically borrow from the previous structure of the Kmart. In the new school, natural light floods into a previously opaque box through dramatic clerestory windows, skylights, and floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls that look out to a wetland, a favorite place for students to congregate.
“The natural light lightens the mood a bit,” said Samuel Alvarez, a senior.
Less than half of the Kmart has been converted so far, and there are plans for a fine-arts center, a religious space, a gym, and more. The possibility of expansion is prized by the school leadership, considering where it came from. Its previous facility was a Catholic elementary school meant for 200 small children, not 400 high schoolers.
Alvarez remembered students being late to class because there were so many people packed in the hallways. There were modular classrooms in a parking lot, and a church building that held the gym had to be decommissioned when it became structurally unsound.
Granted, their new home wasn’t much to look at at first. Abandoned for years, squatters had moved into the former Kmart, LaCourt said, and the building was tagged with graffiti during construction.
That hasn’t happened again since students moved in in February. The only colors on the outside are borrowed from the school’s heraldry. A blue, gold, and yellow gradient gives the big box a new identity and makes its presence obvious, although it’s set far back from the road. The front facade is mostly painted concrete, in a curious (for a Kmart) pattern of alternating corduroy and square blocks.
Inside, the school is organized around two north-south corridors and two large gathering spaces: the cafeteria and library. These parallel bands follow the structural bays and column supports of the original Kmart.
The cafeteria is off the main entrance. Lunch tables convert into bench pews, allowing the Catholic school to set up for mass underneath wide sawtooth skylights. Exposed ductwork and simple finishes predominate. (For flooring, LaCourt just tore out the store’s tiling, stained the underlying concrete blue, and polished it.)
“We spent our money removing the [Kmart] sign and bringing in windows,” said LaCourt. “So what did we have left? Pretty much just paint.”
Classrooms here are glass-walled, so from the hall, you can see terrariums in the biology lab, equations on a white board in the math classrooms, and fume hoods in the chemistry lab. The classrooms on the library wing are arranged in pavilion-scaled pods along each side, and not connected to the ceiling. This further scales down the spaces, making the them more intimate than the school’s 20-foot ceilings would suggest.
JGMA’s Kmart conversion is changing how other Cristo Rey schools attempt to reconcile outsized ambitions with their modest means. Big boxes might be the answer. Partially inspired by the Waukegan school, Kendall said, the Philadelphia Cristo Rey school is moving into an abandoned tricycle factory. In Milwaukee, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School will convert a vacant grocery store.
It’s a likely bet that all of these will echo the tech-firm corporate campus vibe seen in Waukegan, with its small huddle rooms, glass walls, sharp graphics, and social hang-out spaces. “The kids are elevated beyond a high school level, so we wanted to make it feel like they’re on a college campus or corporate environment,” said LaCourt.
This sensibility has spread from workplace design to permeate many building types in recent years, though it’s an open question whether these kinds of spaces can grow into holistic and warm places for learning. But Cristo Rey St. Martin, at least, is not too sterile for a nickname.
Aura Ulloa, a senior and one of first three students at the school to be accepted at Northwestern University, calls it “Cristo Rey St. Kmartin.”
Via Quatro, the concession holder of São Paulo Metro’s Yellow Line, has recently installed a new set of interactive platform doors that display ads and information in three stations. They also use sensors with screens and facial recognition technology to monitor the reaction of viewers to what is being displayed—and that has privacy advocates worried.
So far, the vendor has issued a single press release on the matter, where few details were given and privacy issues were unmentioned. “The least you can do when you engage in an activity of this kind is to inform the people which are going to be affected by it,” says Jacqueline Abreu, coordinator of the Privacy and Surveillance area of InternetLab, an independent research organization.
The Yellow Line is currently the only privately-run section of the rapid transit system. According to Via Quatro’s figures, the line carries 700,000 passengers every weekday. About half of them access the line through the three stations where the new interactive platform doors have been installed: Luz, Paulista, and Pinheiros.
Harald Zwetkoff, president of Via Quatro, told CityLab over email that the doors are “part of an experimental project” with two exclusive advertisers for one year: LG, the multinational electronics company, which provided the screens, and Hypera Pharma, a large Brazilian pharmaceutical company.
According to Zwetkoff, the doors can count the number of unique viewers, estimate their age and gender, and classify their reaction into four moods: happy, unsatisfied, surprised, or neutral. However, he noted, they do not perform “personal identification of the passengers,” and “the technology does not record, store images, or cross-check data from the individual.”
This might suggest that privacy risks are somewhat limited, but Abreu still believes that the company should be more clear about how they are handling the data. “What are they doing to prevent abuses? What if, for example, the doors are hacked and start recording people or collecting other types of information?” she asks.
Rafael Zanatta, a digital rights coordinator at the Brazilian Institute of Consumer Protection (IDEC), says the “sensitive data” (a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation), has to be handled with extra care. “In the European legislation, for example, collecting sensitive information is prohibited beforehand,” he adds. “You can only do it if you fulfill a number of conditions.”
In most countries, sensitive data can be collected, following strict protocols, if there is a “legitimate interest,” such as security reasons or to improve the quality of the service. For example, last July, the German police used a facial recognition monitoring system at a railway station in Berlin to test a technology to identify criminal suspects. And last December, Shanghai announced that it would use facial and voice recognition in subway stations to sell tickets and verify the identities of commuters as a way to alleviate the long queues. However, collecting personal information to obtain an economic benefit does not fit in as legitimate interest. In this situation, the collection is still possible, but requires consent from the people being monitored.
But there is currently no legislation in Brazil that specifically addresses the collection and use of personal data. According to Zanatta, this legal vacuum is being used by Via Quatro and other companies to collect sensitive information.
This might change soon. A Personal Data Protection Bill will be voted in the lower house of the National Congress in the next weeks. If it is passed without substantial changes, the collection of sensitive data will be strictly regulated. But according to Zanatta, companies are lobbying to remove biometric information, such as facial recognition, from the definition of sensitive data.
“That is the big dispute of the private sector in this final stage of the bill,” said Zanatta. “And if they succeed, they will be able to collect that information without consent or without a privacy impact report.”
However, even if the bill is passed unchanged, it will only become effective after one year. In the meantime, Zanatta and his colleagues at the IDEC are working on the legal details of a public civil action to try to halt the data collection. Their legal reasoning is that, as consumers, the commuters of the Yellow Line are put in a disadvantaged situation where they are being coerced to give up personal information.
“It’s a completely unbalanced power relation and it can be considered an abusive practice based on the Brazilian Consumer Protection Code,” Zanatta said.