Freight Partnerships are Key to Incorporating Freight into Urban Systems

In the early 2000s, long before Amazon became the home delivery behemoth that we know today, Browne started looking at freight movements in London’s 33 boroughs. About five years ago, his team became part of an international network of researchers launched by the VREF, and they found that one of the areas not well researched was freight movement to office buildings.

Oslo’s Race to Become a Major Bike Haven

Editor’s note: This article is part of CityLab’s media partnership with “Ride a Bike! Reclaim the City,” a new exhibit at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany, open through September 2.


Øyvind Aas didn’t look like one of Scandinavia’s top bike champions. But then again, neither does Oslo.

Wrapped in thick scarf and trench coat, the lanky Aas greeted me at the Norwegian capital’s train station astride a huge cargo trike, not a sleek racing machine. A former professional mountain biker, now the chief communications officer at the Norwegian Cyclists’ Association, Aas and his wife purchased the rig through a city subsidy program, he explained. I rented a ride from a nearby bike-share station that might have been nearly as heavy as his.

The plan for that grey and windy October day was to survey the recent growth of the city’s bike infrastructure. As it turned out, Aas had good reason to take it slow—Oslo is still adapting to the two-wheeled kind. But its current leaders intend on making the city one of the world’s great cycling destinations.

They’ve got to. Since the mid-2000s, Oslo has grown faster than that of nearly any other city in Europe, thanks to a rising birth rate, longer life expectancies, and record immigration—Norway has dodged Europe’s larger financial crisis. Cruising near the Oslo harbor, Aas pointed out the telltale signs of this boom: waterfront apartment towers and commercial developments that now loom where industry once stood. “The trams are totally at capacity,” Aas shouted from up ahead, and traffic congestion is worsening year over year. To accommodate the growth, and slash greenhouse gas emissions, the city is shifting ground to make space for bikes. Specifically, it hopes to double the bike’s mode share to at least 16 percent of all trips by 2025.

But there’s a closer goalpost to hit first. In 2015, Oslo made world headlines for being the first European city to declare plans for a comprehensive and permanent ban on cars in its core by 2019. To accomplish that feat, the city plans to replace hundreds of parking spaces by that year, with 60 kilometers of new and improved bike lanes and pocket parks. Entry and parking in and around Oslo’s core have also become much pricier during peak hours, and it seems to be working: commuter traffic dramatically, and the city’s greenhouse gas emissions are dropping. The changes are designed to result in a truly car-free, people-oriented center city, with bike and walking paths radiating out from a completely pedestrianized core of 1.3 square kilometers. It’s already practically built for it, with narrow cobblestone streets and cheek-by-jowl shops and restaurants.

Work on the car-free center began in earnest in summer 2017, with city officials removing parking spaces and planting flower boxes in their place. They’ve also begun to “roll out the red carpet,” Aas joked, as we rolled through some of Oslo’s new signature crimson bike lanes.

Many (though not all) of these new lanes abide by the “Oslo Standard,” a framework established in 2016 for engineering bike infrastructure so that it meets the city’s goals and citizens’ safety needs. Norway’s national engineering standards for road safety and lane design date back to the mid-20th century, and they aren’t good enough to achieve the high mode share that Oslo desires, Henrik Andersen, the deputy mayor of Oslo, told to me later. The key difference is in width: The national standard puts a bike lane no wider than 1.8 meters, which can feel frighteningly narrow on streets packed with car traffic. Oslo’s new norms allow lanes to be up to 2.5 meters wide. They’re also to be marked by proper signage, painted with a bright contrasting color, and whenever possible, fully separated from traffic. That’s a considerable divergence from the national standard, which was designed mostly with highways, not cities, in mind.

It might seem odd that Oslo lacks the cycling culture of some of its more celebrated Nordic neighbors. Before World War II, bikes had a healthy presence on the city’s streets, and postwar trade limits helped suppress the automobile’s reach in Norway at large. But those restrictions were lifted in the 1960s, around the same time that oil was discovered off Norwegian shores. The country has since grown to be one of the richest in the world, with some of the highest rates of car ownership in the EU.

With the automobile ascendant, the bike was largely forgotten. Oslo’s leaders had envisioned citywide cycle networks as far back as the 1950s, but they never came to fruition. Even after the city set up a special bike office in 2010, little came of it: From 2005 to 2015, just 1.5 kilometers of bike lanes were built per year. Now, Oslo aims to multiply that rate by ten, largely by taking cars out of the picture in the parts of town where cycling could blossom most easily. “The most important thing is to ensure good and safe cycling infrastructure,” Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, Oslo’s vice mayor for environment and transport, told the local newspaper Aftenposten last year.

The world has taken note. When it comes to bike planning, “no city in the world is as exciting as Oslo right now,” Mikael Colville-Andersen, the founder of the urban consultancy Copenhagenize, has said.

In addition to population pressures, environmental concerns are also driving the city’s newfound commitment to bikes. Norway may be famous for its pristine fjords and forests—it doesn’t take long for Aas and I ride to hit Oslo’s thick pine-tree edge as we ride along the water—but air quality in its cities can be remarkably poor, thanks to winter temperature inversions. According to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, air pollution causes 185 premature deaths in Oslo alone each year. Transport accounts for more than 60 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing more car trips with bikes would help clean that up, and in other cities too. This is why Norway is endeavoring nationally to reduce car use and fossil fuel consumption, with huge incentives for electric vehicles and a nearly $1 billion investment in bike highways around the country.

But on the local level, old habits die hard. Drivers do still rule the road in Oslo, and they’re not nearly as attentive to cyclists as in more established European biking cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. That may because there’s not a critical mass of cyclists to establish better norms yet, Aas said.

And Oslo’s bike schemes aren’t without their critics and resisters. The backlash against the city’s car-free plans (and to ban diesel vehicles) has been predictably fierce. Some merchants feared that a downtown with less parking would be a “dead zone,” devoid of business, and drivers have protested parking fees and tickets en masse. Officials have also been criticized for the much-publicized bicycle subsidy programs, one of which Aas himself took advantage of—in 2016 and 2017, Oslo dished out €500 and €1,000 rebates to citizens purchasing e-bikes and cargo bikes, in a bid to discourage families from buying new cars. But some critics charged that the subsidies were geared to wealthy families who could already afford the bikes if they wanted them. Besides, not as many Oslonians have coughed up for cargo bikes, even at a discount, as the city hoped.

So city officials have been forced to make accommodations. The car-free zone is now considerably smaller than it was in the original plan, and it will allow delivery trucks and buses. (A proposed 2024 ban on diesel and petrol-powered cars was also recently forced into reverse.) But the higher tolls, eliminated parking spaces, and boosted bike lanes are all still moving forward. Andersen, the deputy mayor, told me he believes that these components will make a huge difference. “It’s been under-communicated how much space cars take up,” he says. “It will be so much more comfortable walking and biking around the area when people get priority rather than cars.”

That vision hasn’t quite been realized yet, though. Many of the city’s 180 kilometers of bike lanes here are not well maintained; Norway’s long winters mean lots of potholes and frequent snow-removal challenges (the city is taking strides to plow them better). As a result, cyclists often ride on the sidewalk when they feel like it, and pretty much wherever else. This can lead to some confusion, Aas explains as we cruise Oslo’s city center. For example, bikes are allowed in two directions down one-way streets, but who gets priority in the intersections isn’t always clear.

So doubling cycling’s mode share in less than ten years could be a pretty high bar. And besides spreading the red-painted paths and fixing the hairy intersections, there’s also a sense of safety to build. During our ride, Aas and I spotted a few comrades on wheels: a rush of Spandex-clad bankers commuting home from work, a handful of tourists tottering on bikeshare bikes, and a friend of Aas’s (pictured at top) chugging around on another city-subsidized cargo bike. I asked her what she makes of the city’s cycling infrastructure. “Things are getting better, slowly,” she replied. “But not enough people feel safe.”

That was what a 2013 survey revealed, too, about why more Oslonians aren’t riding. Viking-hearted commuters might feel secure cycling in traffic under fierce conditions, but studies have found that women and older cyclists need designated space, calm traffic, and a certain volume of fellow cyclists in order to feel safe on a bike. In Oslo, the relative risk of getting hurt on a bicycle is declining, officials note, as the absolute number of cyclists has grown with the city’s population. But the optics aren’t inviting, since the count of serious injuries is still rising, and protected lanes are still scant.

But it’s still very early days. As many other cities have shown, physically making space for bikes is the way to build up cycling’s numbers. There are few cities as ambitious as Olso on that front. And its commitment is beginning to pay off. After Aas helped me dock my bikeshare bike at the end of our trip, he gave me a lift back to the train station in the carrier seat of his cargo bike. “Bikes bring people together, don’t they?” Aas said as I stumbled out. So does a city that wants them—or at least that’s what Oslo’s banking on.

Washington, D.C. Home Composting Bill Unanimously Passes City Council

On May 1, 2018, Bill B22-0501 – Home Composting Incentives Amendment Act of 2018 unanimously passed the D.C. City Council. ILSR has supported and worked on this bill since it was first introduced by City Councilmember Mary Cheh. Home composting is an important part of any community’s strategy to recycle food scraps and yard trimmings. By cutting waste set out at the curb for municipal collection, home composting will save the City avoided costs in hauling and disposal site tipping fees. At the same, residents will enrich the soil in their own yards.… Read More

The post Washington, D.C. Home Composting Bill Unanimously Passes City Council appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

America, Land of the Young and Lonely

Even surrounded by fellow commuters, scanning a phone that connects you to thousands of peers, you sometimes can’t help but feel lonely. If that describes you, rest assured: You’re not alone.

In fact, in a new survey from the health insurance provider Cigna, nearly 50 percent of American respondents reported feeling socially isolated. More surprisingly, the most afflicted group in the survey wasn’t the retired or elderly, as is traditionally believed. Instead, it was young adults: Gen Z-ers—those currently between 18 and 22 years old—are the loneliest generation.

Cigna surveyed more than 20,000 American adults, ages 18 and up. The online survey included 20 questions and statements about relationships, feelings of isolation, and interactions with other people, and researchers scored responses based on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale (commonly used to measure subjective feelings of loneliness). A score between 20 and 80 indicates possible loneliness, with higher numbers signifying greater levels.

The national average loneliness score is 44, according to the survey, with just under 50 percent reporting that they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. Two in five adults feel as though they lack companionship or a meaningful relationship, and almost 60 percent say their ideas aren’t shared by those around them. When the researchers broke those numbers down by different groups, they found that the average loneliness score drops with age: Gen Z-ers and Millennials on average score 48.3 and 45.3, respectively—higher than the national average and well beyond the scores of Baby Boomers and the so-called Greatest Generation (those ages 72 and up).

Cigna

But don’t rush to blame this all on social media. There isn’t really a consensus about the impact of social media on mental health of young adults, and this report finds little correlation as well. (Some studies suggest that screen time enhances in-person relationships, while others find it harmful.) “It seems like the context of each situation, and for each young person, really matters,” said Michelle Munson, a mental health expert who studies young adults at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, and who wasn’t involved in Cigna’s study.

As CityLab has reported before, the “state of solitude” affects millions across the U.S., and can make us more vulnerable to physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. This survey doesn’t delve into why Gen Z reports feeling more isolated, but the results suggest that for all groups, isolation is linked with factors like overall health, amount of sleep, and time spent with friends and family.

Munson thinks it may also be associated with the transition into adulthood. “For a really high number of young adults, they may be getting going through their first period without the structure of institutions like universities,” she said. “During these years they’re out on their own for the first time so this can create new challenges, in particular ones in finding new connections.”

NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the book Going Solo, cautions against using any single study to sound the alarms or set off a moral panic about a loneliness “epidemic” among a specific group or among Americans in general. “Findings in previous studies on loneliness are all over the map, and they vary dramatically according to nature of research question and the metrics used,” he said.  Klinenberg, who also isn’t involved in the study, pointed out that just a few years ago, an AARP survey found a dramatic increase in feelings of loneliness among people 45 and up.

“One of the things thats the most troublesome for people who track this issue is that different studies show that different parts of the population are experiencing these spikes,” he said. It’s unlikely that different groups would be spiking like that without some sort of specific trigger event—and there isn’t evidence that that’s happening. He also noted that loneliness isn’t always negative; sometimes it’s a productive emotion that spurs a person to seek social connection.

Munson pointed to studies that do show that it’s at least on the rise for young adults. The research field itself may be relatively new, mostly spurred by the integration of social media in our daily lives, but she said reports like the one from Cigna at least raise awareness that conversations about mental health need to go “above and beyond mental disorder” and focus on mental well-being. “There is a whole community in need of some kind of approaches for outreach and helplines, and things that are distinct and different from mental health treatment,” she said.

Cigna’s survey results don’t reveal the location of its participants, but people can feel especially isolated amongst the crowd and chaos of a bustling city. That’s why efforts like Sidewalk Talk, which provides free listening sessions, have been working with cities to address that and other mental health issues. Cities are embracing technology, reaching out to vulnerable groups via mobile texts, and leveraging the influence of peer groups.

What may be a game changer is just better mental health education in schools, said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline program at the nonprofit Mental Health Association of New York City, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Certain pressures leading to loneliness haven’t changed among young adults, he said, though the frequency of experiencing them may have. “Bullying has always occurred; prank calls used to happen but now you can do all sorts of things online that are humiliating,” he told CityLab. “Peer pressure has always occurred; being exposed to drugs, alcohol, relationship problems for the first time has always happened for young adults.” Yet not all schools adequately teach students how to manage conflict and how to deal with relationship problems, which make them more prone to withdraw from social interactions as they age.

And the lessons don’t all have to be done in class. “To the degree to which younger and older people can be brought together for specific activities, I think this can be another promising approach,” Draper said. “There is nothing that makes an older person feel more valued than being around younger people, and younger people are often amazed when they hear first-hand accounts of what the world was like.” It would serve as a reminder that loneliness affects both young and old.

“When we say mental health awareness is for all of us,” said Munson, “we are also reducing the stigma this is only for certain groups of people.”

CityLab Daily: Nashville’s Transit Plan Just Got Trounced

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***

What We’re Following

No streetcar, no desire: Nashville’s $5.2 billion transit referendum went down in flames Tuesday night. The “Let’s Move Nashville” plan showed promise at first, when former Mayor Megan Barry secured rare support from the state legislature to hold the vote. But her resignation in disgrace this March left little time to make the case to a car-dependent city in a conservative Southern state. (And as we wrote last week, the campaign got weird.)

With a special mayoral election coming in three weeks, supporters, opponents, and would-be mayors are sure to perform a full autopsy on the transit plan. But as CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes: “In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.” Read the full story: What Went Wrong With Nashville’s Transit Plan?

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Rise of the Rural Creative Class

A growing body of research shows that innovative businesses are common in rural areas, and rural innovation gets a boost from the arts.

Richard Florida

Kanye West Wants to Develop Cities. Don’t Let Him.

“I’m going to be one of the biggest real estate developers of all time,” he said.

Brentin Mock

France Plans an Extreme Makeover for Struggling Small Cities

Action Coeur de Ville aims to undo the damage of urban sprawl in more than 200 city centers across the country.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Is America Ready to Rethink Incarceration?

A new poll suggests that most people in the United States think we need to turn away from building prisons, and toward community development.

Teresa Mathew

Venice Erects Gates Against a Flood of Tourists

Don’t have a local transit pass? Then you’re not coming through.

Feargus O’Sullivan


Map of the Day

Fatal hit-and-run crashes per 100,000 people from 2010 to 2016. (AAA)

Fatalities from hit-and-run crashes have reached an all-time high, according to a new report from AAA. In 2016, 2,049 deaths resulted from hit-and-run crashes. On a per-capita basis, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Florida top the list, while New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota have the lowest rates, as the map above shows. Pedestrians account for the majority of people killed in these types of crashes, and over the past 30 years, about 1 in 5 pedestrian deaths involve a hit-and-run crash. CityLab context: U.S. road fatalities climb while road safety laws lag


What We’re Reading

Amazon’s phone calls to rejected HQ2 cities: “It’s not me. It’s you.” (Wall Street Journal)

“The Daily” podcast tackles the plight of the NYC taxi driver (New York Times)

Why are New York’s schools segregated? It’s not as simple as housing (New York Times)

The new magnetism of mid-sized cities (Curbed)

You’re no “climate mayor” if you’re not doing these four things (Streetsblog)

Correcting a link from yesterday: Kalamazoo’s bet on philanthropy raises hopes—and suspicions (The Chronicle of Philanthropy)


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

France Plans an Extreme Makeover for Struggling Small Cities

France’s city centers are about to get one of the biggest makeovers in their history. Following an announcement last month, the country is launching a vast €5 billion ($6.1 billion) plan called Action Coeur de Ville (Action: Heart of the City) intended to revamp 222 city cores over the next five years with new stores, offices, co-working spaces, and renovated housing.

The amount of money and the sheer number of cities involved in the plan are impressive, and they reveal something little discussed outside France. Despite the country’s justified reputation for urban charm, many French city cores are in a bad state. They got that way through a string of mistakes that will seem eerily familiar to North Americans.

The idea that many French cities are struggling might seem jarring to many people. Walk around the heart of Paris—or major cities such as Nantes or Strasbourg—and you’ll be struck by their apparent success. The streets bustle and are well peppered with small businesses and markets, while housing stock is attractive and in largely good condition.

Go further down the population scale to what the French call Villes Moyennes—“average cities” with populations between 15,000 and 100,000—and that’s where you’ll find failure in the French urban core. These cities are demographically significant and economically vital. They contain 23 percent of France’s population and 26 percent of its jobs. Right now, however, they’re not doing well. Taken together, they report poverty and vacancy rates higher than the national average, lower rates of young graduates, and an unemployment rate that’s a worrying 82 percent higher than France’s as a whole.

Map of the cities participating in Action Coeur de Villes, viewable in larger format here. (Ministère de la Cohésion des territoires)

Some of these problems can be explained by deindustrialization. Many of these medium-sized cities are in France’s now-beleaguered former industrial heartland in the Northeast. Much blame must still be laid at the door of France’s longstanding attitudes to planning. Smaller cities have been laid low partly by an extremely relaxed attitude to urban sprawl, one that has sucked life out of city cores and left many key activities out on the periphery, only really accessible by car. This might not seem a classically French phenomenon, but France isn’t just reflecting a trend to sprawl that’s common across the West. In smaller cities, it has arguably exceeded its neighbors.

That’s because when France moved toward classic 20th century car-friendly infrastructure planning, it moved early and it moved hard. With a large domestic car industry, post-war France was a European trailblazer in creating a nationwide network of out of town malls and retail parks, all well connected to what was then considered an exemplary new highway network.

The country (along with Belgium) was a pioneer of the big-box store, rolling out huge shopping complexes called Hypermarchés that sold everything from clothes to croissants since the 1960s—a phenomenon that didn’t emerge in Britain or Germany until the 1980s or later. It wasn’t just retail that left town centers. Amenities like sports centers and employment agencies—and in cases such as Besançon, even railway stations—also moved out by municipal decree toward the new beltways, creating a situation where the first announcement of arrival in any French city today is not a city wall or fringe of villas but a rampart of parking lots and home improvement stores.

The southwestern city of Bayonne, pictured here, will receive funds from Action Coeur de Ville. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

So why did France’s smaller cities develop such an appetite for sprawl? According to Oliver Razemon, author of Comment La France a Tué Ses Villes (“How France Killed Its Towns”), the driving forces are a combination of France’s late urbanization and cultural assumptions pushed through the education system.

“100 years ago, most French people were still living in the countryside,” Razemon told CityLab. “This creates a very different attitude in France to, say, Germany or Italy, where the cities are often far older than the recently founded nation state. In France, by contrast, there is not much attachment to towns as elsewhere.” France’s political system may also have contributed to this attitude. When the country was divided into new units called départements after the revolution, it was partly a process of rationalization and partly an attempt to break down historic regional ties between districts and replace them with a structure governed by appointees from central government. This wasn’t a process designed to create closer affiliation to smaller cities.

The French, Razemon says, have also been taught that their country has an overflowing bounty of spare room. “French people have long had the feeling that theirs is a big country, and that therefore there is a lot of space to do whatever you want. Certainly that’s what was being taught 40 years ago, that France was a very big, extremely geographically diverse place.”

There’s some justification to this attitude. Compared to the non-coastal U.S., France may seem heavily populated, but by Western European standards it has a remarkable spaciousness. The comparison of Metropolitan France (that is, subtracting the country’s overseas territories) with the U.K. is instructive. Both countries have a similar population—65.6 million in the U.K. versus 65 million in Metro France—but France’s land area is more than two-and-a-half times greater. As France’s direct self-comparisons are mainly with the neighboring, densely populated Low Countries, Southern England, and Western Germany, it’s understandable that the French have felt that they had a bit of developmental wriggle room. France’s now egregious-seeming tendency to sprawl also had an optimistic bent to it 50 years ago. The country was moving away from a rather grim, poverty-stricken early 20th century and wanted to acquire the best trappings of modernity, which in the 1960s and ‘70s was commonly felt to mean more cars and more car-tailored conveniences.

The effects of unchecked development have still been clearly detrimental in smaller cities. The smaller businesses that France is famous for—and often still thrive in major cities—have closed wholesale, as jobs move to the urban periphery away from the restaurants and cafés they would have sustained if they worked in city centers. As a result, Razemon notes, butchers and bakers have been shuttered in many city centers, replaced by tattoo parlors or pawn shops, or simply left empty. In places such as the far-northern city of Arras (included in the new action plan) vacancy rates have hit 20 percent of all real estate. And while historic buildings are still kept in largely good condition, public squares have been taken over by parking lots. Meanwhile 19th and early 20th century structures are often rundown, leaving parts of even rather beautiful old quarters (such as Perpignan’s) with a reputation as undesirable, low-quality places to live.

The city of Auxerre, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, also stands to receive money from the scheme. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

What makes this process more striking is that France has made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse—its urban treasure chest is still rich in beauty. Away from the world war battlefields, traveling from one town to another feels like running down a thread of jewels in which each stone is distinctive and delightful. When it comes to sheer consistency of charm, only Portugal’s smaller cities can really match France’s trove within Europe, and only Italy’s can surpass it.

A look at the cities included in the action plan bears this out. Look at this improbably grand square plonked in the middle of humdrum Angoulême (population 42,000), the Germanic half-timbered houses along the riverside in the Alsatian city of Colmar (68,000), the dramatic hillside setting of Laon (25,000) or the grid-planned orderliness of late-medieval Villefranche de Rouergue (12,000). Even cities in regions less commonly thought to be picturesque, such as far northern Bethune (26,000) turn out to be rich in character and variety.

Not all of these cities are struggling, of course. Towns that have a large flow of tourists do well, as do very remote cities (where people have stayed downtown) and places where mountains or lakes hem in the potential for sprawl. But many still need a reboot.

Action Coeur de Ville should do much to help. The funds will provide new infrastructure, restore older housing, and bring it up to contemporary energy standards. Planning priorities will be shifted and financial incentives provided to encourage stores and businesses to reopen in the city core. Cities will be equipped with new co-working spaces, while an international competition for architects and designers will be launched, to provide new templates for how a revitalized medium-sized city might look.

This sounds promising, but will it be enough? Olivier Razemon is cautiously optimistic. “When it comes to smaller cities,” he says, “the last government thought it was just about shops. This current government at least realizes it is about amenities and housing, too. But there are still many steps to be taken. Cities will have to make more of an effort to ensure new businesses don’t locate their headquarters out of town, for example.”

Even with a project the size of Action Coeur de Ville, France still has a ways to go. But if it can take just half the optimistic energy it pumped into car-friendly policies in the late 20th century and channel it into breathing life back into the hearts of its smaller cities, it should be on to a good thing.

Nashville’s Transit Plan Just Got Trounced

Voters in Nashville rejected a sweeping transit plan on Tuesday night by an overwhelming margin. The plan’s supporters got trounced. In the end, residents voted it down by a 2-to-1 margin.

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it.

Maybe the writing was on the wall back in March, when Megan Barry, Nashville’s promising mayor, resigned in disgrace. She introduced the plan in October of last year and was out of office just four months later. That didn’t make for a lot of time to convince transit-skeptical voters. While Barry’s star power was critical in securing the support from the state legislature that made the proposal possible, her collapse came just weeks before the ballot proposal.

Building mass transit for a car-dependent city in a conservative Southern state is always a stretch, but this plan arrived like a bullet, sped by the urgency of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Public debate over the proposal was fierce. And it’s not really finished: Barry’s interim successor, David Briley, faces a special mayoral election in three weeks.

But when the votes came in last night, they told an awfully familiar story. Note the stark geography in this map of the results.

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

“Ironically, all of the reasons for the lopsided vote total and the enormous turnout were created entirely by the cynical view of a few political insiders that they and only they knew what was best for Nashville,” Evans writes.

Nashville is not the only city to go bust on a big transit vote in recent years. Back when Austin faced a rail-or-fail vote in 2014 to build a (much more limited) transit system, the ballot measure fell to the same long odds. The light-rail plan had only tepid support from progressives, and it even garnered the opposition of Austin’s grassroots urbanist transit association. Now the city is thinking about a gondola.

Similarly, some Nashville progressives also fretted that the plan might lead to displacement or argued that the money could be better spent on housing. But the larger battle was drawn along ideological left-right lines—with the Koch Brothers even making a special appearance in a Tennessean op-ed on election day—and also more traditional urbanite-suburbanite lines, which an administration mired in scandal could not overcome.

“Nashville isn’t opposed to a transit plan,” Evans writes. “They were just opposed to this transit plan which, to me anyway, looked more like a bond deal and a real estate development strategy. For that reason, I expect Mayor [David] Briley to be very effective in developing more cost effective alternatives that involve a more diverse and innovative points of view.”

Briley stands alone in a crowded field for the next mayoral election: Among the 11 candidates running in the special election on May 24, he is the transit plan’s only vocal supporter. Early voting starts in just two days.

In the days and weeks to come, transit supporters and opponents (and would-be mayors) will perform the full autopsy for Let’s Move Nashville. The chamber is already coming under fire for pushing too aggressively to put the system up for a vote before transit planners could convince skeptical voters. (The timing of the vote lined up with the city’s efforts to woo Amazon to Nashville, which is one of the 20 finalists for the company’s HQ2 sweepstakes. That dark-horse possibility is almost certainly dashed by the transit failure.) If Music City is like everywhere else, residents will be debating a gondola by summer.

Another transit initiative may not be in the offing soon. While the Let’s Move Nashville fight got weird by the end, it also featured some factors that may be hard to repeat, such as convincing the conservative state legislature to let large metro areas pass their own tax increases, or building a proposal around the same mixture of tax increases on locals (sales and business) and tourists (hotel and car rental).

But the ramifications of the plan’s failure—which followed the failure of a big bus rapid transit scheme called AMP in 2015—could be larger, culturally and politically. Nashville has been undertaking a series of large-scale development projects, including a $623 million convention center, which is now undergoing a $20 million expansion. The city’s $91 million minor-league baseball stadium came in well over budget. Next up: a $275 million professional soccer stadium. All of these projects in some sense belong to Rich Riebeling, who serves as Nashville’s chief operating officer and worked as finance director under the mayor before Barry.

An election coming so quick on the heels of a once-in-a-generation ballot bid will no doubt be another referendum on the referendum. Nashville residents may enjoy its current it-city status. But Nashville voters just slammed on the brakes.

The Miseducation of Kanye West

The last 15 minutes of Kanye West’s world-pausing interview with Charlemagne Tha God finds the two perambulating across the rapper/designer’s 300-acre property he recently purchased. West explained that he’ll use the land to build five properties—a “community,” rather—because development is his “new frontier,” meaning his new life challenge, having apparently conquered music and sneakers.

“Anybody who’s been to any of my cribs knows that I’m super into developing homes,” he told Charlemagne. “I’m going to be one of the biggest real estate developers of all time, like what Howard Hughes is to aircraft and what Henry Ford was to cars.”

Kanye said this is possible because of the relationships he has with architects and his understanding of design concepts like space and “sacred proportions.” And for a second, his ambitions actually sounded worth fulfilling. He said, for instance, that “McMansions and Spanish roof homes,” are wack, and that the only home designer he likes is Howard Backen.

His last statement before the interview dramatically cuts to black: “Yeah, we’re going to develop cities.”

Given the maelstrom of incoherent and controversial tweets he’s unleashed on the public over the past week or so, it’s not clear that him playing Catan with real people and real estate is in the public’s best interest. In some ways it’s counterproductive to question Kanye given that he’s propelled by rejection, and criticism seems to be his vibranium. However, since we kinda have to take him seriously because he’s adept at speaking realities into existence, he has access to wealthy people in high places, and he has 300 acres of land, we have to consider that somebody might actually give him money and the green light to realize his development goals. And unlike his beats and sneakers—but very much like his sweatsuits—this would not be a good idea.

There are some indications that he could probably pull it off. He seems to know and study all the right designers and architects, and has some command of the language. He knows how shit gets financed. He finds tremendous virtue in holding millions of dollars in debt and going over-budget—both staples of your typical prized developer. He also fundamentally believes that design can have a positive impact on society, which he told a group of graduate design students at Harvard a few years ago. He said at the time:

I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be “architected.”

I believe that utopia is actually possible—but we’re led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political.

However, there are many more reasons to believe that Kanye would be a terrible person for this job. For one, he can’t be managed, so forget your charrettes and community input processes—a person who can’t be managed doesn’t want to be held accountable. It’s clear that he would be the most technocrat-est of technocrats, if not a dictator—and one who believes that his love for all people is all the evidence that’s needed for people to trust his development vision, which is a personality trait of the worst kind of developer. He also doesn’t read.

But more appalling than all of that is that he doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of actions—or at least he doesn’t seem to respect them. The messages Kanye has been broadcasting to the world in recent weeks suggest that he’s lost some perspective on how words and actions impact others.

When Charlemagne asked Kanye how he could support a person like Donald Trump who is implementing an agenda of immigrant deportations and further marginalization of oppressed populations, Ye had no immediate answer. He fell silent for a hot minute as if trapped in his thoughts, or his feelings. The praise and admiration he has bestowed upon Trump and the MAGA life might lead one to think that an answer like, “Yeah, but I bet I can design a border wall that would be fire AF,” was not out of the question for Kanye.

Instead, he dodged the question entirely, choosing rather to focus on how awesome it was that Trump was elected because that meant “anything is possible.” He doubled down on this point, never considering for a second that just because anything is possible that doesn’t mean that everything is worth doing. Kanye is an outsider, he explained, “so whenever I see an outsider infiltrate, I connect with that.”

It’s clear that he has a passion for disruption, but the kind that far too many tech bros and Silicon wunderkinds are subscribed to, which is of the disruption-for-disruption’s-sake mold. But that kind of blanket disruption often is consequential for people’s lives. The urban highway was a disruptor that made travel smoother for car drivers and moving commerce, and for white people to escape to the suburbs, but it also led to the full ripping out of black communities, and the increased reliance on cars that contributed to climate change.  

Those are the kinds of things a developer and designer must be aware of, and there’s a whole design justice movement invested in that kind of awareness that he’s completely overlooked. That movement informed by social equity and the design history of African-Americans was launched by the same group of Harvard students that he spoke to years back. However, Kanye has since moved in the opposite direction, towards gleefully being socially unaware and misreading history. There are consequences to this.

How a developer sees a city instructs their design plans. Take Chicago. One of Kanye’s recent gripes is with President Barack Obama, under whom “nothing changed in Chicago” during his two terms in the White House, he said. Ye joins Trump in a long list of people who believe they have the answers for how to fix Chicago, when there are developers and designers like Theaster Gates and Brandon Breaux who are already in Chicago communities doing this work. He apparently can’t even see the work of his native colleagues Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, who gave a million dollars to Chicago public schools last year, and whose parents have worked with both Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama.

Kanye told Charlemagne that Chicago, where the rapper was born and raised, was “the murder capital of the world.” While gun violence is a serious policy problem, Chicago is not even the murder capital of Illinois. Not to mention, homicides in Chicago have dropped the past couple of years.

If Kanye is focused primarily on Chicago’s violence problems, then he at least has to have some measure of understanding of how things got this way. Which means he has to understand Chicago’s unique history of redlining, and racial housing covenants, and that time when Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his love and nonviolence movement to the windy city only to be met with a pungent force of racism more putrid than anything he had experienced in Alabama.

That’s a tall order, though, for Kanye when he thinks that slavery was a choice, or that Republicans saved black people, or who rejects the value of Harriet Tubman. To develop a community or a city, you have to know something about the forces that undeveloped it. He told Charlemagne that he’s too invested in the future to think about annoying things like racism and America’s slavery past.

Which means he’s likely unprepared for the gusts of racism and politics that he’s destined to run smack into should he ever have a chance to realize his community development goals, especially if that were to take place in Chicago. He’s not the first African American with ideas about developing a city. The stories of Soul City, North Carolina; Rosewood, Florida; or Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma would be useful for him right now.  

If he can’t see the actual people he’s developing for, then he will fall in with a long history of developers and urban renewers who designed black people right off the map. Which means he’ll be an agent for gentrification at best. That’s cool he worships Howard Backen, but Backen makes homes for wine connoisseurs in Napa Valley, not for working-class families in dense Chicago.

That he thinks he’s above dealing with politics and racism is exactly what makes him ill-suited to get in the community development game. His delusions on this front are perhaps best summarized by this tweet from one fellow artist who knows a little something about “The Chi”:

Mexico City Looks for New Ways to Tame Air Pollution

MEXICO CITY—With more than 20 million people living in its metropolitan area, a geographical bowl ringed by mountains, Mexico City has long struggled with air pollution. At times during the past two years, ozone concentration levels in the city reached such extreme levels that officials issued environmental risk alerts, urging people to stay indoors.

If the past is any indication of the future, 2018 could again be grim.

“The ozone season is just beginning,” said Luis Gerardo Ruiz, of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, in early April. The period from March to June is when pollution tends to worsen, due to hotter temperatures and lower rainfall.

Over the past two decades, ozone levels gradually fell below government limits as authorities moved factories out of the capital and tightened regulations on fuel and cars. Beginning in 1989, a system called Hoy No Circula, or “No-Drive Days,” prohibited drivers from using their vehicles one weekday per week, with a schedule based on license-plate numbers. In 2008, this system was expanded to include Saturdays. Mexico City’s government also opened bus rapid transit lines and launched a large bike-share system to promote alternatives to driving.

The megacity, once known as the dirtiest in the world, got cleaner.

But in recent years, the rhythm of improvement has slowed, Ruiz said. Despite Hoy No Circula, the enormous number of cars and trucks—and the nitrogen oxide they emit—remain problems. (A scientific study of the Saturday driving rule found that it hasn’t reduced pollution levels or increased use of public transportation.)

Other measures may help. Last year, the country’s environmental secretary implemented a national strategy for air quality to coordinate the response of various government agencies to the pollution. New emissions standards for engines used in heavy-duty vehicles were adopted by the Mexican government in what has been called the single most critical policy to reduce black carbon emissions. Soot-free buses started operating this year on Mexico City’s historic Reforma Avenue.

Kate Blumberg, a fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation, said making further progress comes down to political will. “I’d say if there were short-term things that have been done, it’s not going to keep getting better until they take some … long-term actions,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for the trucks and buses to be cleaner than the passenger cars.” If light-vehicle emission standards are adopted, she said, the step after that could be electrifying vehicle fleets.

Presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who served as Mexico City’s mayor from 2000 to 2005, has burnished his credentials as a fierce environmentalist, which could bode well for the city’s air quality. The potential impact on public health is hard to overstate: Recently, researchers identified a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and suicide in people exposed daily to high concentrations of ozone and fine particulate matter.

For now, Roberto Lopez, a city resident who leads a group of elite runners on weekly 55-to-90-mile runs, has to factor the dirty air into his plans. “When we train in the city, our throats are very irritated and breathing is hard,” he said, noting that some runners wear masks, train at far-flung parks, or keep an inhaler in their pocket if breathing becomes particularly difficult.

Lopez and his group have another coping strategy: They leave. “On the weekends, we go to the mountains so we can practice without the pollution problems,” he said.