We’re trying out a new Saturday time slot for Navigator, in time for weekend lounging. Let us know what you think.
And now, the good stuff: A number of you wrote back to me after I asked for your thoughts on the link between loneliness and geography. I wanted to share some excerpts:
Andrew Aldrich, Oakland:
Loneliness is not about being alone, really. It’s about feeling a mismatch between oneself and one’s environment.
The great question debated by philosophers of place is whether suburbia is, by nature, alienating. Does the “geography of nowhere”—places that are neither country nor city, and that look virtually identical to other such places, not just around the country but around the modern world, create souls that feel like ciphers in a technologically reproduced environment where they cannot feel fully alive? Reading or watching novels or movies that celebrate suburbia, one gets the feeling that that can’t be the whole story. There is life in the suburbs. And yet, the ghost of Columbine must plague our thoughts about this. Has the culture of suburban modernity helped foster the alienation of young people?
Angela Conte, Santa Rosa:
Ali Amani, Kabul:
City life is always pretty fast-paced. There is a non stop cycle of competition, pressure, and mental stimulation directed towards the individual. Our physical, social, and mental capacities are limited and we cannot cope up with all the pressures in the long run; therefore, as a defense mechanism, we attempt to protect our individualities and isolate ourselves in the process.
@dr_zmo photographed an Orthodox church in Jerusalem, @halfco captured the mouth of a Paris metro stop, @mallory_wanders took in a rainy Rome scene, and @enkrall shot a van by the sea in Santo Domingo.
Wyatt Cenac, the comedian-actor perhaps best known for his sketches on “The Daily Show,” sits on a couch with the police chief of Elgin, Illinois, a small city just outside of Chicago. There’s about a cushion’s worth of space between them. They’re discussing the Neighborhood Officer Program of Elgin, aka “N.O.P.E.,” and the Residential Officer Program of Elgin, aka “R.O.P.E.,” the latter of which allows a police officer to live rent-free in a neighborhood that’s considered troubled. Both programs were create to improve relations between communities and the police. Cenac kinda eggs the chief, Jeff Swoboda, about the names, and then suggests a more innocuous acronym: Housing for Elgin Law Officers, or “H.E.L.O.” Swoboda gets a red-faced chuckle out of it, and for a moment the distance between them seems to disappear.
This is merely a snapshot of what Cenac is offering in his new HBO series, “Problem Areas,” where over ten episodes he’ll be examining how various cities are tackling complications around policing. He also ponders other issues like how to convert coal workers into solar workers, and poop into fuel, but policing is the primary thread that ties the chapters together. In someepisodes,he offers up small solutions, and sometimes he realizes there is little to no solution to be had at all.
Such was the case in Elgin, where he was dispatched to discuss its community policing program only to later have to deal with the tragedy of a black woman named Decynthia Clements who was killed by a police officer while the episode was already in production. Cenac included a clip of the killing, which in the beginning shows the police officers discussing how to deal with Clements, who they suspect has a knife. She has locked herself in a minivan and isrefusing to come out. The police consider using a rubber pellet gun or a Taser on her if she attacks them. But ultimately, an officer ends up just using a regular gun to shoot her as she exits the vehicle, which ison fire and filling with smoke.
Cenac employs comedy totalk about news throughout this series, similar to his approach at “The Daily Show,” but for this segment on Clements, he makes clear that this is no laughing matter. Pacing through his studio, which is set up like a local public broadcasting news show, he asks, “Why even discuss any of that other shit, if the response is just going to be the same, that you’re just going to pull out a gun and shoot somebody?” He situates Clements’ murder in the long-running narrative of police killings of African Americans, and later questions whether programs like N.O.P.E. and R.O.P.E., or videos of cops doing the Nae-Nae with kids and pulling people over to give them ice cream aren’t all just publicity stunts to obscure deeper problems that go unchecked within these departments.
Later in the Elgin episode, another video clip is shown of Swoboda yelling at black people who showed up at his department to protest his handling of Clements’ death: “You come at a police officer with a knife, you’re probably getting shot,” he shouts at them. And with that, the moment of closeness and jokery that Cenac shared with him earlier in the episode is erased, and the distance between them seems like a gulf. This is the range of emotions that Cenac’s “Problem Areas” captures and watching it is well worth the experience. CityLab spoke with Cenac about other things he picked up along the journey.
Welcome back to journalism! You’re like a real journalist now.
I feel like there are a lot of journalism schools that would argue with you and probably send me some really huge bill for student debt if I claimed it. No, there is a real desire to dig into stories and by going to various cities and spending time with people, it really is set up for us to paint as full of a picture as we can. With that in mind, we have real journalists working with me on this show who are making sure that we are not glossing over anything.
I haven’t seen all 10 episodes, but I assume by the end of this season you will have solved racist policing.
That is what we promised HBO and I’m hoping that they don’t hold us to it, and I’m hoping nobody else holds us to that. It really is about trying to look at this subject from a bunch of different perspectives knowing that even dedicating 10 episodes to this is a drop in the bucket. But hopefully by spending that much time on it, we’ve talked about it in a different way that is entertaining and also in a way that the audience may say, “Oh, wow that’s fascinating,” or, “Oh, that feels like something we should have in our city.”
You have this way of creating a climate where white people end up saying very racist things really casually, without you necessarily provoking them. Is that an intentional function of the kinda non-threatening approach you take in your interviews?
I don’t know, I would like to think that I’m threatening in my own way. Don’t we all want to feel a little threatening? I mean, not so threatening that you have to worry when you’re behind the wheel of a car, but I feel my approach with everything has been to just be curious, and to talk to people. That’s not to say that people haven’t said things that I don’t agree with, or haven’t said things that aren’t offensive. I’m going to approach a person and have a real conversation with them, and if they want to get bombastic and fiery or they want to get insensitive or racist, what value do I get in punching somebody in the face or shouting back at them? I often find myself thinking of that Bruce Lee quote: “Be like the water.”
Sometimes if you let people talk, they’ll say some crazy stuff. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with them, but I feel like there are ways to do that—once it devolves into a shouting match, nobody’s listening and there’s no space for that person to even then try to understand how what they are saying could be seen as offensive or misguided.
What were your assumptions about policing going into this show, and how might they have changed throughout this experience?
The biggest take away that I got from doing this was just recognizing how much change requires buy-in on all sides. You have a police officer in your city and you as a taxpayer pay money for that law enforcement agency, so you should have a say in how that law enforcement treats you. The challenge of that is you have to stay on your local politicians and legislators to make sure that this agency that you are paying for to protect your neighborhood is doing so in a way that you see fit, and you’re not getting paid to do that. You have to make sure that you are aware of what that law enforcement agency is doing, how it is training its officers, and make sure it’s happening in a way that you feel is a good allocation of your resources. In that way, it felt like, oh this is such a massive and challenging thing that’s built with a power dynamic where there are people who have state-sanctioned power to do things that regular citizens do not. So, how do we make sure that money is being spent in ways we want it to be spent? The amount of work and effort that goes into that speaks so much to changing some of the conversation around what policing can look like from city to city and state to state.
You filmed that episode in Elgin, Illinois, on community policing and then months later, an Elgin police officer shot and killed Clements. How did that change the tone or the conclusion of the show you intended to do?
Decynthia Clements was shot and killed after we had already gone to Elgin and sat with community members and law enforcement. We were already working on the story but this definitely changed certain aspects of it because we felt like we needed to include it. One of the things about Elgin that was interesting was its community policing program, which was held up as a national model. It seemed like the community had a positive interaction with it and there had not been an officer-involved shooting for like 20 years or so. But then ultimately Decynthia Clements was shot and we felt we had to address that and not just simply tell the story like, “Hey here’s this cool program,” and then just walk away.
However, there was always an aspect that was about what community policing looks like but also examining if that’s really an answer or is it just a different form of PR. Also, if a program like this is a good way to address community relations with law enforcement, then why is this not a thing that exists in every neighborhood? Why are certain neighborhoods being singled out as being in need of this? I think Johnetta Elzie speaks to it very well when she asks why safety means police having to move into her neighborhood—why is that the only version of safety being presented to her?
What did you learn throughout this series that most disappointed you?
Aside from you telling me I’m a non-threatening person? Just kidding. All of these have been challenging stories, and more challenging than the ones I did at “The Daily Show.” There are so many stories you wind up hearing and so many things that come across our desks that I feel like for everyone in the office there is definitely a heaviness. Whether it’s hearing stories of children being arrested and criminalized, or going to Skid Row and spending time with people there. But even if it weighed on me, for those individuals, they live with the realities of what exists in those cities.
By focusing on their stories I found that the one unifying thing from city to city—from community members to legislators to law enforcement—there’s a hope that exists and a desire for things to get better. Even talking to people who lost family members to police violence, or who were themselves victims of police violence, or incarcerated, or who are social workers having to work with people in mental distress on a daily basis, what I found was all of those people have a hope and a sense that things can be better.
Can they, though? I mean after spending so much time with police in various cities, and hearing all of these horrible stories of police brutality and cover-ups and false promises, did you struggle at all with a pessimism that police-race problems will just never get better?
Yeah, but at the same time—look, I’m black, I’ve grown up black and one thing I’ve always known from being black is that change isn’t overnight. It’s never been. I think any minority group understands that change is slow. It’s not just African Americans getting killed by police. Native Americans are killed at a higher percentage than any other minority group. So, justice for Native Americans who have faced and seen police brutality, and immigrant communities who have faced stop-and-frisk after 9/11—there are so many groups and individuals in this country who have a stake in making that dynamic that exists between law enforcement and communities better and one that works for everybody that it feels like I can’t not be hopeful on some level. But I also have to be pragmatic enough to know that it’s not an overnight thing.
We’re talking about over 17,000 police agencies and the issues that exist in one city are not the same issues as another city, so correcting and fixing that won’t be a one solution-for-all situation. But when I meet someone like Edwin Raymond, a black police officer who grew up in East New York and was a victim of over-policing himself, but who says, “OK, I’m going to try to make change from the inside;” and then I meet someone like Darian Agostini who also grew up in East New York, who also faced over-policing, but says, “OK, I’m going to work on this from the community side and try to empower people to make this better.” I can’t help but feel hopeful. Because the alternative is to curl up in a ball and say what’s the point?
To see people like that who are approaching it from totally different points of view but with the same goal of making things better for the kids that grew up in the exact same neighborhood they came out of, I feel you have to have some level of hope.
Below is a trailer of the next episode of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas that will air this weekend on HBO:
Minister and civil rights icon Malcolm X would have turned 93 years old this weekend. The version of him I know best is the one portrayed in the ‘hood.
Thirty years ago, the likeness of three great black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, were popular in poor, minority communities. Later, it was just King and Obama. Now, only MLK leads the black pantheon.
Earlier this month at Harlem’s Showman’s Club, I got in a conversation about Malcolm X. As I showed some of the patrons the murals I had photographed with my Nikon 800 and stored in my phone, I argued that he was portrayed as righteous and angry. A woman corrected me, saying he looked serious. She attributed his waning popularity to his Muslim faith and his militant attitude. She then explained that there aren’t many Muslims in the U.S., while King was a Baptist—America’s largest Protestant denomination. A former New York City policeman deflected the conversation to Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and his bodyguard—also a former policeman whom this man knew. My efforts to get them to speak about his present relevance failed.
In the 1980s, Malcolm X’s likeness was depicted in murals on the walls of urban drug rehabilitation centers where a strong motivational presence was needed. One of these was the now abandoned Operation Get Down in a former bank on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. During this same period, muralists working in drug corners in Chicago had to listen to the suggestions of the gangs that favored Malcolm X over MLK, lest their murals be defaced.
Malcolm X was portrayed with Rosa Parks in Chicago, with Cambodian divinities and Pancho Villa in Oakland, and with longtime mayor Coleman Young in Detroit. In Los Angeles and Oakland, Latino sign painters depict his likeness with Latino features. Most of these images have disappeared as the buildings they were painted on have either collapsed or have been demolished. As the remaining portraits fade, Malcolm X’s skin color turns lighter and grayer with time.
Every once in a while, Malcolm X will still appear in a new mural. Earlier this year in Detroit, I photographed his face as seen on a recently painted mural titled “Be A Man.” In it, he’s placed next to a pyramid and a figure riding a camel. A mosque can be seen in the background. One side of the eyeglasses on his face shows the KKK, the other raised fists and black faces yelling.
For American cities trying to attract jobs and job-seekers, it pays to be near universities and far from other big metro areas. That’s one takeaway from a new study produced by Glassdoor, an employment website, that looks at where people are relocating and what’s drawing them there.
The study found that the most popular cities to move to include all the usual suspects: San Francisco, California; New York City, New York; San Jose, California; Los Angeles, California; and Washington, D.C. But San Jose was also ranked second on the list of cities where people are trying to move away.
It’s “an oddball case,” said Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor’s chief economist. There are a few different factors at play there, he explained. San Jose’s steep housing prices are certainly one, but so is its proximity to San Francisco—people are more willing to leave their metro if they can move to another one nearby.
That helps explain why the number one metro people look to leave is neither a rust-belt town nor a post-industrial one. It’s Providence, Rhode Island: home to Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and a slew of other colleges—and it’s also close to Boston. “Boston has this gravity pull that just sucks away talent,” said Chamberlain. “So that’s the main reason why Providence loses skilled workers—because it’s such an easy move for people. Compare that to Atlanta, where the next metro is maybe a four-hour drive. The metros where you have nothing else around you, a four-hour or longer drive, few people relocate out because it’s a huge life change. Other metros, like Riverside, it’s short trip to L.A., so it makes sense a lot of people would be moving.”
The study looked at nearly 670,000 Glassdoor applications from 128,221 people who applied to jobs located in any of the 40 most populous U.S. metros. It found that while money is important, salary takes a back seat to company culture when applicants consider relocating for work. According to the data, a company with a Glassdoor rating that’s one star (out of five stars) higher than a competitor’s is six times more likely to attract a candidate, even if the competitor is offering a salary $10,000 times higher.
In an age when many companies (largely high-profile tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter) make a big show of offering free food, beer on tap, dogs at work, and abundant ping pong tables, it’s easy to conflate luxurious perks with culture. But Chamberlin said that it takes more to create a good company culture. “Having good career opportunities, having a good culture and values, feeling like you’re doing some social good or having good senior leadership, those factors matter way more than money,” he said.
The jobs that lend themselves most to metro mobility are engineering and tech related. (Out of 25 job titles with the highest share of metro movers, 13 had the word “engineer” in the name.) This, according to the study, is likely because employers in these industries tend to be concentrated in a few big cities and make a point to look across the country for talent. The least mobile roles were service related: bartenders, retail workers, delivery drivers, and receptionists. Such positions, according to Glassdoor, are more likely to be filled by locals, as those jobs are scattered throughout the nation.
But how do smaller metros compete with the giants? “When you look at what jobs are the most mobile today,” Chamberlin said, “almost all are tech roles because they are unlinked to geography, and that gives some promise to the ability for cities like Pittsburgh or Kansas City to grow in the future. The way small towns can better compete is by working closely with a nearby university,” in order to provide a high-quality labor force that will keep replenishing itself.
“That’s a better pitch, in my opinion, than a five-year tax incentive,” he said. “Cities would be better off if they focused on real fundamental improvements to the labor force. You have to have cities building the infrastructure and supporting growth of some tech employment.”
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What We’re Following
Rollback: Northwest Arkansas might not be the kind of place where you’d expect a bike renaissance, but it now boasts an impressive 350-mile network of bicycle infrastructure—thanks, in part, to Walmart. In the backyard of the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, a mix of federal transportation grants and support from the Walton Family Foundation, led by the heirs of Walmart’s founders, has helped boost cycling volume 32 percent from 2015 to 2017.
Now they’re finding that some of the most-used trails have higher per capita daily cycling counts than some of the biggest bike-friendly cities, including San Francisco, and that bike amenities are bringing in economic benefits to the region of smaller communities. Erica Sweeney has the story for CityLab: How Arkansas Became Bike Country.
What a piece of work: In many U.S. cities, today is Bike To Work Day. But now that cities have learned to love the bike commute, they need to forget it and focus on making all those other common everyday trips safer. Here’s my hit-the-brakes take: Don’t Get Too Excited About Bike To Work Day.
The chart above from economist Gray Kimbrough measures the shifting age profiles of Americans who live in a home that is owned (rather than rented) over the decades. Follow the x-axis and you’ll see the dip around age 20 when kids get pushed out of the nest, no matter what era. But that climb back to homeownership came at a younger age for the 1980 and 2000 cohorts, whereas Millennials today make a smaller share of homeowners than their 1960s counterparts. CityLab context:“Peak Millennial” doesn’t mean young people are leaving cities
What We’re Reading
Wind and solar power are coming. Grid managers need to get ready (Vox)
Scooters are fine, but look out for “the invasion of the scooter bros” (Washington Post)
Elon Musk presents his tunnel vision to Los Angeles (Wired)
Bitcoin’s energy use got studied, and it’s really not pretty (Grist)
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been much quieter about the search for Apple’s second campusthan Bezos has been about Amazon’s hunger games for an HQ2, but the two parallel hunts might soon collide.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Virginia governor Ralph Northam has been courting Apple just as ardently as Amazon—and that Apple is interested. This news comes four months after Amazon announced Northern Virginia, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland, were finalists in its quest for HQ2, and as more evidence points to its preference for the region. To be clear, neither company has made any definitive announcement regarding their ultimate intent, but their whispers have inspired real panic (and hope).
Amazon’s new campus is projected to employ 50,000 workers paid an average of six figures, and, eventually, occupy up to 8.1 million square feet of office space. Just as Apple’s selection process has been more opaque, its future footprint is harder to measure: The company says the new headquarters will employ 20,000 people in a 4 million-square-foot space, but the nature of the jobs and the timeline of construction hasn’t been announced.
If nothing else, it’s a hypothetical that at some point soon is likely to apply to the real world: What might happen to the region if two tech giants were to wind up in the Washington area, at around the same time? It’s likely that their arrival would send out seismic shocks for transportation, housing, and community demographics. But according to experts from Brookings and Zillow, the Washington area’s infrastructure can handle it better than most.
“The really critical question for predicting impacts of both of them independently and then together is where in the metro area they would pick,” said Jenny Schuetz, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow with the Brookings Institute.
The locations of the companies’ first headquarters offer a hint at those geographical preferences. Amazon’s HQ in Seattle is a sprawling urban campus, well-integrated into the city’s downtown. Apple’s Cupertino HQ is flung far into the suburbs, 175 acres filled with flat-lying office buildings. Construction on a shiny new “Spaceship” at the heart of their $5 billion campus expansion, Apple Park, is nearing completion.
This supports one hypothesis: That Apple might settle in Northern Virginia, and Amazon could lean towards D.C. Or, as CityLab’s Amanda Hurley hopes, HQ2 could swing suburban, too, helping “build a model of an inclusive urban suburb” just outside D.C.
Northam’s team has suggested office buildings in Crystal City, Loudoun County, and Alexandria for both Amazon and Apple, writes the Post. Northam also pitched Apple a Tysons Corner mixed-use development, Scotts Run—the same site developers had proposed to Amazon early in the bidding process. In D.C. proper, Amazon is considering at least four sites proposed by Mayor Bowser, in Capitol Hill East, along the Anacostia Riverfront, near Shaw-Howard University, and adjacent to NoMa-Union Station.
That’s partly because the analysis focused on the historical relationship between worker inflows, which are smaller in Washington, and rents. “D.C. already has a rich pool of workers across the skill spectrum,” said Aaron Terrazas, who ran the Zillow rent forecast analysis. “It also has a deep set of universities within the area, so fewer people will have to move to the D.C. area for these jobs and there’s not as much of an impact.” (That’s also true of places like L.A. and Boston, but their non-Amazoned rents are already projected to jump by more than $1,000). If workers come from within, they may get pay raises and upgrade their housing, thereby swelling the housing market, but fewer will move.
Critics of Washington’s bid for Amazon argue that a large subset of the jobs the company will create won’t be locally sourced at all, and certainly won’t provide opportunity for low-income or less-educated city residents. “The city administration and Amazon leadership are trying to play it off like wherever Amazon HQ2 ends up, that will generate new jobs for the citizens of the city,” Margaret McLaughlin, the chair of Metro DC DSA and an organizer of ObviouslyNotDC, told CityLab in March. “Those jobs will be coming from the Bay Area, from Seattle, mostly white, and very well educated.”
Adding the effects of Apple to the mix is more complicated, because it’s less clear where its workforce will originate: Cook hasn’t described the nature or wages of the 20,000 pool (the promise of six-figure salaries hasn’t been made), nor how quickly they will be created.
One thing’s for sure, though: The region will need more housing to hold them. Projections by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs indicate that by 2032, 491,000 new housing units would be needed to match regional job growth even without Amazon, which has been estimated to bring in 390,000 residents from direct employment and associated economic growth. “We’re already seeing high rents and high home prices, and we don’t have enough housing for the number of people we expect in the next five to 10 years, even without Amazon,” Yolanda Cole, the chair of Urban Land Institute Washington, told the Washington Post.
Those projections would likely only further increase if Apple comes, too, with its 20,000 jobs. (Other estimates have suggested that Amazon would add between 300,000 to 1 million new residents to the region over 10 to 15 years, accounting for the “contagion effect” of new massive tech projects attracted. Apple is one of the companies thatmight catch the bug.)
Still, “some markets have a historical record of being better able to respond to those demands than others,” said Terrazas. “The D.C. area was among the better able markets that has the capacity and the historical record of adding new units in response to demand.”
Loudoun County (attractive for its wealth of data server farms, including a potential 600,000 square-foot Amazon Web Services Center), has a track record of upgrading infrastructure and building housing in response to business development and the extra demand it compels, says Schuetz—even more so than the District itself. “The question is, how much can they absorb and how much support are they going to have from the state to do infrastructure updates,” she said. “Will they be willing to change the zoning around the campus?”
And, while localized effects on rent will vary depending on the physical setting of each campus, they are also likely to be gradated throughout the region. “If you look at Seattle, the neighborhoods directly adjacent to the Amazon campus have seen more of a jump in rent than neighborhoods further out,” said Terrazas. “If Apple picks Northern Virginia it will have less of an impact the further away you go out.”
Schuetz agrees. “If Apple picks a suburban model—somewhere in Fairfax or Loudoun County—it probably will have a smaller impact [on housing markets],” she said, “because people are not going to live immediately within walking distance, they’ll be likely to live in more suburban locations and drive.”
That’s Hurley’s argument, too. “Many suburbs also have lower housing costs than the cities they border, and they’re resistant to the sudden spikes in ‘hotness’ that lead to gentrification,” she writes. “HQ2 would push up rents in Fairfax County, no doubt. But I’d bet that Herndon, Virginia, is not going to become the next Williamsburg (Brooklyn), RiNo (Denver), or Shaw (D.C.) anytime soon.” The same goes for Apple—or the combination.
If more workers choose to locate in the D.C. metro, however, the brunt of the spike will be felt there. “I think a lot of this is going to depend on the age profile of the workers,” Schuetz said. The distribution could skew towards 20-something software engineers, who are more likely to choose to live in urban D.C., rent, and take public transit, she says. Or it could skew towards older, upper management types, who would locate in the suburbs and drive to the office, wherever it might be.
An Amazon-D.C., Apple-Nova pairing could spell the most doom for Arlington, Virginia, however, just across the Potomac from the city and just east of Tysons Corner. The city was rated “most walkable” in 2016, transformed from a car commuters’ nightmare after the improvement of the Metrorail and an investment in more sidewalks and urban parks. Being caught in the crosshairs of two tech campuses could turn it into a locus of congestion; or saddle it with the burden of meeting much of the housing demand.
“Arlington is certainly likely to get some spill-over from a D.C. or Fairfax site,” said Schuetz. “If either of them [Apple or Amazon] moves to downtown I’d imagine there would be more demand for locations along the Orange Line, which are neighborhoods already in high demand.”
In recent years, Arlington has already aggressively up-zoned and developed their metro corridor, so finding more room to grow could prove challenging. They’d have to look at expanding housing along the Columbia Pike, says Schuetz, something they planned to do anyway—“but then you’re talking about a more car-oriented development than transit, necessarily,” she said.
Tens of thousands more workers, wherever they’re living, could spell tens of thousands more commuters clogging the Washington area’s transportation network.
“The Metro system absolutely has the capacity to move this many workers, especially if along the Silver Line or the VRE commuter rail lines,” wrote Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, in an email to CityLab. “The existence of Metro plus suburban transit systems could also ensure ample express buses serve the campus during rush hours.” The one exception he noted was the “notoriously crowded” Orange line, which connects Northern Virginia to the heart of D.C. and could experience the greatest capacity issues.
With an HQ or two in the suburbs—or, indeed, one in the city—cars would congest during rush hour in the already traffic-heavy Fairfax, Tyson’s Corner and Loudoun County areas. But “[t]he major curveball here, as it is everywhere, is pricing,” said Tomer. “If it ever became more expensive to drive alone via congestion pricing or some other approach, transit would instantly become more attractive to many suburban commuters.”
So from a transit and housing perspective, Washington can technically handle an Amazon, and it can handle an Apple, too, far better than some of the other cities on Amazon’s list. But it’s also true that the city’s personality would change dramatically (however “cool” D.C. is or isn’t now, a two-headed tech bubble would certainly up the Philz quotient), and that local businesses and residents would be replaced and displaced, in potentially dramatic ways that exacerbate inequality.
And,if the pair were both to locate in the vicinity, growth is unlikely to stop there. In the years after Amazon arrived in Seattle, other tech giants followed, along with 12,000 homeless residents and a rising median home value of $800,000. The city is still working to mitigate those effects, and looping in a reluctant Amazon for support: On Monday, the city unanimously passed a head tax on the biggest businesses to fund more affordable housing and homeless initiatives.
Critics and city activists have watched Seattle’s struggles, and are wary. “Rents are going to rise for everyone and continue to push out poor and majority minority residents,” said ObviouslyNotDC’s McLaughlin.The city could become “a millennials’ oasis, a little Amazon island of these folks making $100,000 a year, surrounded by people making less than half of that, or even a third of that,” Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, a founder of the Washington Interfaith Network, told the Washington Post. Add Apple to the mix, and these fears are only exacerbated.
The region itself has mixed feelings. But the last question is whether Apple and Amazon would actually want to locate so closely at all, competing for labor, talent, and cultural and political influence. Bezos has already begun a slow Amazonification of D.C. with his purchase of the textile museum and the city’s paper of record; Amazon’s political office is bringing lobbyists there by the dozens. And Amazon has coexisted peacefully enough with Microsoft, its suburban mirror in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle.The two might well decide that the region is too good to sacrifice for breathing room—or they might both choose North Carolina instead.
Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have, like, a marijuana leaf as the logo of your city? The small town of Kanepi, Estonia, has decided that, yes, it totally would.
A modest settlement not far from the Russian border, Kanepi released new official logos this week that featuring a proud green Cannabis Sativa leaf. A symbol normally adorning head shops and the walls of dorm rooms will now grace the town’s official signage and municipal stationery.
What makes Kanepi’s choice odder is that it is not in fact some ultra-liberal enlave, or a town populated entirely by teenagers. It’s a trim, far-flung community out in the Estonian boondocks, in a country where cannabis remains illegal.
Kanepi’s choice of the stoner stamp stems from its unusual name, which is actually a hair’s breadth from the Estonian word for cannabis, kanepit. This is no coincidence. The town is so named because its fields once produced a lot of hemp destined to make oil, rope, and canvas (a fabric whose name has the same root as cannabis). “Today the cannabis leaf is seen primarily as a recreational drug” Kanepi council member Andrus Seeme pointed out to AFP, “but in fact, hemp-type cannabis has been used in practical ways for years and it has hundreds of uses.” Kanepi may be thinking of promoting itself as a hemp hub—the plant is still a cash crop in Estonia, and the town already has hemp-based businesses, including a bakery which uses the (non-intoxicating) seeds and a concrete factory that uses the fibers.
But, as with so many of the world’s odd and delightful things, the real explanation for the Estonian embrace of the leafy logo is “the internet told them to do it.” When Kanepi incorporated with several villages last year to become a municipality, it also launched an online poll (advisory rather than binding) to choose a flag and associated heraldry. This process was open to non-residents, so the pot logo racked up 12,000 votes (in a town of just 5,000), blowing away all other contenders.
Still, the vote to formally approve the logo was close, Reuters reports: Nine town council members voted for it; eight just said no.
When Latter-day Saint migrants arrived in Utah in 1847, a verse in Isaiah served as consolation to them in the dessicated landscape: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”
Lately, the desert has blossomed nowhere more than the St. George area, in the state’s southern reaches. The city is a picturesque outpost, with red-rock desert framing bright green lawns and golf courses, all built around the stark white Mormon temple in the center of town.
Brigham Young’s adherents came here to grow crops, primarily cotton—hence its reputation as Utah’s Dixie. Today, that ceaseless sunshine is luring so many tourists, retirees, and students that St. George has become the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. According to Census Bureau data released in March, the metro, home to 165,000 people, grew 4 percent between 2016 and 2017.
“Six million people visit the area every year. As people visit here, some of them decide to stay,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said. The area remains a retirement community, “but we also have 33,000 students K through 12, and we have a fast-growing university [Dixie State University].” Healthcare is a booming industry, and, like many growing cities, St. George has a section of town earmarked for tech companies. Mixed-use developments are popping up downtown. The growth likely won’t slow any time soon: State demographers believe the area will surpass 500,000 residents by 2065.
As is the case with other growing desert burgs, St. George grapples with water-supply issues. But the challenge here is unique. Remarkably cheap rates mean that residents of an area with only eight inches of annual rainfall are using tremendous amounts of water. An average St. George resident uses more than twice as much water as the average citizen of Los Angeles.
Political leaders at the state and local level view this primarily as a supply issue. Their preferred solution is a gargantuan $1.4 billion pipeline that would connect the region with Lake Powell, a reservoir along the Colorado River. With the aid of pumping stations, the pipeline would shuttle water over 140 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The goal is to store 86,000 acre-feet a year in nearby reservoirs and aquifers—more than enough, officials say, to meet the demand of the growing population and decrease reliance on the dwindling Virgin River, currently Washington County’s primary water source.
“We certainly are committed to conservation, but we don’t think that gets you there alone, especially with the organic growth and the tremendous in-migration that’s occurring in the Southwest,” said Ronald Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the wholesaler that supplies water to St. George and other cities in the county.
In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill to fund the Lake Powell project, but construction has been delayed since then by stop-and-go planning (at this point, pipeline approval is on hold due to uncertainty about which federal agency has jurisdiction over the project).
Multiple state and regional environmental groups say the pipeline is far too aggressive, and that basic conservation measures can meet the region’s water demand. Amelia Nuding, senior water analyst for Western Resource Advocates, believes regional leaders should focus on three strategies to achieve quick conservation success: better data collection, higher water rates, and building codes that require water-smart construction and landscaping. Not only would that meet St. George’s water needs, according to Nuding’s group, but it would avoid further depleting an already burdened Colorado River.
Utah typically uses less than its allotted share of Colorado River water, which is divvied up among Western states, but climate change and growing populations are taxing relations among the river’s interstate constituents. “Yes, [Utah residents] are legally entitled to that water from the Colorado River,” Nuding said. “But … I think that we should meet certain metrics of water stewardship before further depleting the Colorado River.”
Leaders have, for the most part, ignored environmentalists’ suggestions. Water-use data in Utah is scant; until recently, statewide water surveys took place only every five years. In 2010—the latest state data available—the St. George region’s per-capita consumption was 325 gallons per day. More current numbers from the city suggest conservation; St. George proper uses 250 gallons per person per day. Nonetheless, it’s still consuming more water than other Southwest cities. Las Vegas takes about 220 gallons per person each day; Tucson, considered a regional leader, uses 120.
Water rates here don’t punish heavy use. A St. George household that goes through 16,000 gallons a month would see a $47 water bill; equivalent usage would cost a Tucson household $184. Washington County Water Conservancy District is in the process of raising rates 5 to 10 percent each year until baseline rates are tripled, but even then, they would be a bargain compared to some cities.
Utah’s water-delivery systems are largely gravity-fed, thus keeping costs down, and most homeowners have access to unmetered non-potable water for landscaping and irrigation. This, plus state oversight of water rates, keeps the rates low—and consumption high.
Any major reduction in consumption here will require a cultural shift. St. George is marketed as a desert oasis. Nine golf courses are located in the region, and it remains an agricultural stronghold. Local municipalities offer basic water-conservation rebates—St. George, for instance, helps cover the cost of replacing high-flow toilets—but nothing at the level of cities that, for instance, pay residents to replace sod with desert-appropriate landscaping.
Mayor Pike heralded developers who are voluntarily choosing water-smart appliances and landscaping, and cited the planned Desert Color community as an example. But that project’s water-wise cred has been questioned: Its centerpiece is an 18-acre artificial pond.
That said, St. George’s growth could inherently promote efficiencies. Apartment and townhouse construction is finally catching up with demand, which will keep some new residents from the sprawling single-family homes and yards that guzzle so much water. A good deal of new construction will take place on agricultural land where water is already allocated.
But per-person efficiency doesn’t mean less water use overall. Every St. George resident could cut her water use in half, but if the population more than doubles, the city is still using more water. Such is the conundrum of desert growth. “We’d be wise to diversify our sources,” Pike said. “If the Powell pipeline isn’t built, that would change things. … It would slow growth.”
Constructing the pipeline, oddly enough, might trigger cost increases that could curtail water use. While the state would cover the pipeline’s initial costs, locals are on the hook in the long run. In a letter to Utah’s governor, economists at state universities said that water rates would have to jump sixfold for the region to meet its repayment obligations. “Of course, increasing water rates this much would significantly decrease Washington County residents’ demand for water,” the economists wrote. “In our analysis, demand decreased so much that the [Lake Powell pipeline] water would go unused.”
If rates are going up anyway, conservation advocates think the pipeline talk is occurring too soon. “Why don’t they just try [raising rates] now, and see how much demand changes?” Nuding said. “From a water-management perspective, that makes all the sense in the world.”
In this blossoming desert city, leaders have a choice: Do they let the roses go brown, or pay exorbitantly to keep them?
In most cities across the United States, today is Bike To Work Day—where bike advocacy organizations hold ride meetups, hand out swag, and generally elevate the gaunt and sweaty profile of the humble bike commuter. These characters have been proliferating in U.S. workplaces recently: Since 2000, the number of Americans who pedal to their jobs has grown 51 percent across the country. The trend is even more pronounced in the nation’s 70 largest cities, where their two-wheeled ranks have swelled 82 percent.
But there’s a hidden peril in Bike To Work Day. Now that the bike has come into its own as a useful player in urban transportation, city planners would do well to remember the other reasons that normal people bike: It’s fun, and a convenient way to get to places other than your job.
“Bike To Work Day makes many trips other than bike commuting visible,” says Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists, which started the holiday in 1956 (in tandem with Bike Month and Bike Safety Week campaigns) just as the post-war auto boom was making roads more dangerous for cyclists. “It’s a great way for cities to point to the other people who normally make more casual trips. It raises awareness, even if maybe not everyone is going to become a full-fledged bike commuter.”
Over the past few years, the League of American Bicyclists has leaned on bike commute numbers gathered by the American Community Survey as a way to rank cities based on who bikes to work (the Census Bureau’s Journey to Work measure reaches as far back as the 1960s in some iteration or another.) The League also ranks bicycle facilities and amenities to award bicycle-friendly status to cities and businesses. Here’s what their current top ten looks like.
“The American Community Survey’s bike commuting data is the only data we have at the national level to compare biking’s prevalence across cities,” says McLeod, who compiles the annual census data. “It’d be really difficult to talk about biking in America if we didn’t have it. But at the end of the day, it’s also super limited. It’s only about the journey to work, and it doesn’t capture multi-modal trips that are bike-to-transit trips. It doesn’t capture the full story.”
Now another metric of urban biking has emerged, one that does try to capture that larger narrative by factoring in the casual trips that could only really be inferred from ACS bike commuting numbers. The bike advocacy organization PeopleForBikes released a new city ranking system called PlacesForBikes, which combines a measurement of casual trips with some adjustments for city size and modal options to get a better sense of how prevalent biking is in any given city. While the PlacesForBikes study does consider events like Bike To Work Day as a key measure of outreach for its rankings, it doesn’t emphasize commuting in general.
“What we know is that transportation riding is a pretty small part of the bicycling that goes on in the U.S.,” says Jennifer Boldry, director of research at PeopleForBikes. “And of the transportation riding, biking to work is a small part of that. For our analysis, we exclude those who walk, use public transit, and those who work from home so that we’re not penalizing cities with high levels of alternative transportation.”
It also resets the idea that bike commuting numbers alone are an accurate measure of biking’s benefit in a city. “The bike-to-work trip is one that is fraught with barriers,” Boldry says. “The gateways to biking may really be about getting people to bike to the movies, to meet friends. To go places where they don’t necessarily have to be at a certain time and place, like a work meeting where you have to look presentable.”
Here’s what PeopleForBikes’ top cities look like.
The report is based on what the organization calls bicycle network analysis (or BNA), which scores a city’s bike infrastructure using factors like speed limits, intersection connections, and proximity to key destinations such as parks, schools, shopping, and doctors’ offices, rather than just tracking how many miles of bike lanes get put down on the street. “Our BNA score measures how easy it is for people to get where they want to go on a complete, comfortable, and connected network. So when you go to the grocery store, you never wonder whether you can get there,” Boldry says. Building on a formula by transportation scholar Peter Furth, the tool can estimate the stress level for cyclists negotiating city streets; low-stress routes appear in blue, while more harrowing thoroughfares are shaded in red.
Here’s what the placid blue streets of high-rated Boulder, Colorado, which boasts a BNA score of 66, look like.
And here’s Buffalo, New York, with its basement-scraping BNA of 8. It’s among the very lowest-rated American cities.
The thinking behind the PlacesForBikes study dovetails with a growing consensus in bicycling advocacy—one which now looks at biking not simply as a transportation mode, but as a tool for addressing broader issues of accessibility, equity, and safety. Now that many U.S. cities have assembled at least a modest foundation of biking infrastructure, the next step is expanding the notion of where biking is possible through connected networks, street calming, and emphasizing Vision Zero safety goals as a key metric of success.
This more holistic approach, rather than focusing on how many miles of lanes have been striped, has become prominent in recent bicycle urbanism literature. The goal goes beyond the “if you build it, they will come” ethos that often drives bike infrastructure projects.
In his new book Copenhagenize, urban designer Mikael Colville-Andersen argues that the humble bicycle doesn’t require cities to undertake dramatic physical changes—they just need to reclaim how streets used to work before they were completely colonized by the “invasive species” of motor vehicles. He compares Copenhagen’s streets to an “urban firepit”—a cozy gathering place for people of all ages to meet and share stories. Urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo’s forthcoming book, Bicycle/Race, also looks skeptically at bike infrastructure projects that emphasize development—arguing it takes “human infrastructure” to build a street culture that overcomes the historic barriers embedded in race and mobility.
Both books argue for a cultural shift that has to accompany people, rather than vehicles, to bring cities around to the idea that there are better ways to get around town. Which brings us back to Bike To Work Day, and all it represents.
“Our society is really focused on commuting to work,” says Bill Schultheiss, a sustainable transportation engineer at Toole Design Group in Silver Spring, Maryland. “That’s where transportation departments spend all their energy, money, and time, because it’s when the peak load is on the [road] system and then that’s where all the data is being collected. I think it’s unfortunate when it comes to biking, since biking to work is only two trips a day. There’s a lot of other trips that happen, and we can get distracted by that.”
From a design standpoint, bike planning is playing catch-up after car-focused traffic engineering has dominated for so many decades. “When you go to any project, the question is always: Who’s going to use it, and where and how is it going to affect capacity on the road during rush hour?” says Schultheiss. “That can be a distraction. I think people’s safety should matter, and it doesn’t matter when they’re there and why. It doesn’t matter that they’re trying to get to work or go to a friend’s house. If you came into a community and said, ‘Let’s talk about creating safe streets where you can bike to your neighbor’s house, or to the store,’ I think it would resonate a lot more.”
Bike To Work Day may be an impressive display of numbers. For one day, at least, it gives American urbanites a vague glimpse of what life would be like in some Copenhagenized metro, where cyclists flood the streets each morning and riding around the city is perceived as a vaguely normal thing to do. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that people bike at all hours of the day, for all sorts of reasons.
“It helps tell the bigger story,” says Schultheiss. “These are just fellow citizens that want to get around safely, and here’s where they are. They don’t all travel at rush hour and you may not always see them, but we need to start helping to make the streets safer for them.”
Kelsey Miller likes to play a game with herself to see how many days she can go without driving her car. On most days, she bikes to work and to run errands.
This car-lite lifestyle may be unremarkable for many coastal urbanites, but Miller lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, population 47,000 and home to Walmart’s headquarters.
Northwest Arkansas might not be the kind of place one expects to find a bike renaissance, but it’s having one anyway. Municipalities across the region, which encompasses the main cities of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Springdale, as well as several smaller towns, have been steadily building up their biking infrastructure over the past several years. A mix of federal transportation grants and the Walton Family Foundation, the nonprofit led by the children and grandchildren of Walmart’s founders, helped fuel the bike boom: The organization has invested $74 million in the region’s trails, which now comprise a network of more than 160 miles of shared-use natural-surface and paved trials and more than 350 miles of mountain biking trails.
That’s a pretty big change for her small town, says Miller, who grew up cycling in Bentonville. Back then, there were few trails or bike lanes; she often had to ride on the sidewalk. Now, she really only gets her car out to drive to bike trails further away. “It’s been really cool to be someone who likes to ride my bike and the infrastructure be set in place for me,” she says. “The way Bentonville is set up, the bike infrastructure has been reaching further out from downtown, so it’s really conducive to ride your bike to and from places.”
A new trail usage report prepared by the Walton Foundation claims a striking statistic to back up the region’s bike bona fides: The area’s most-used bike trails have a higher daily cyclist volume than the cycling infrastructure of densely populated big cities. The study determined that the daily per capita cyclist count for the top three trails stood at 5.45 per 1,000 in population—higher than San Francisco’s at 3.2. Weekday cycling volume in Northwest Arkansas increased 32 percent from 2015 to 2017 to about 187 daily cyclists.
“The usage of those amenities and the continued investment in them is something I think that people just have come to associate with certain coastal cities, like Portland or San Francisco,” says Karen Minkel, home region program director for the Walton Family Foundation. “There’s kind of that surprise when it’s a region in the heartland not necessarily known for having those types of recreational amenities. Hopefully it’s making people take a second look at what rural America really has to offer in terms of quality of life.”
Another study commissioned by the Walton Foundation showed that in 2017, cycling brought an estimated $137 million in economic benefits to the area, which is also home to corporate giants Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport.
“I think, when those numbers came out, it was hard for us to believe we’ve come so far,” says Paxton Roberts, executive director of BikeNWA, a local cycling advocacy group. “At those busiest spots, when we are on par with big cities, that really validates our investment as a region in cycling.”
The bike culture of the state got a boost in the late 1990s, Roberts says, when the area’s first shared-use paved trails appeared in Fayetteville. In 2006, the Walton Foundation developed Slaughter Pen, a mountain biking trail in Bentonville. That same year, the Big Dam Bridge—the largest span in the U.S. built for bikes and pedestrians—opened in Little Rock, in the central part of the state. Then came the Razorback Regional Greenway, which opened in 2015 with close to 40 miles of off-road, shared-use trails. That $38 million project was funded through a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, a Walton Foundation gift, and support from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and the cities along the trail: Fayetteville, Johnson, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, and Lowell.
Use of the greenway has mostly been recreational so far, but Roberts says things are evolving: More residents are beginning to ride it for transportation, and more businesses have opened along the trail, which connects several cities and towns. Several local attractions, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, lie along the path, and development continues to appear along the trails, luring more riders.
“People want a destination to go to,” says Miller. “It’s not uncommon for us to ride our bikes about 15 miles to Springdale on the greenway just to get tacos, and then ride back. Just seeing the development and economic growth that it’s brought to the area has been huge. Bentonville is kind of a weird and awesome proof of what cycling development can do for an area.”
Smaller communities can be fertile territory for bike infrastructure. Not only are they less likely to suffer from the traffic congestion that can trigger “bikelash” battles with motorists over street redesigns, they’re, well, small: The dense business districts and modest scale of older towns in particular make bicycle travel a more viable mobility option—if riders feel safe. The economic benefits associated with building biking infrastructure can help the case, as a study by the League and the Alliance for Biking & Walking emphasizes. Businesses in Memphis’s Broad Avenue Arts District reported a 30 percent increase in revenues after bike lanes were added to the area revitalization. In Iowa, recreational and commuter cycling generates more than $400 million in economic activity for the state and a health savings of $87 million.
But there are special challenges in small-town bike advocacy, too. In Northwest Arkansas, building the region’s trail network required a partnership of seven municipalities, two counties, and a couple dozen small towns, all coming together to adopt the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission’s long-range plan. And there was pushback from privacy-loving rural residents who didn’t want the trails near their homes. But Roberts says the shared vision of the region eventually brought everyone together, with the local mayors signing agreements.
Northwest Arkansas now has two officially recognized Bicycle Friendly Communities, Fayetteville and the region of Benton and Washington counties. Amelia Neptune, director of the Bicycle Friendly America Program at the League of American Bicyclists, says she’s been seeing more smaller communities participate in the program, which gives communities resources to improve bicycling and national recognition. Communities can use the designation to attract new business, residents and tourists; some have leveraged the brand to gain political support or grant funding for new cycling initiatives.
“Biking provides a lot of solutions to problems that can be common in those areas,” Neptune says. “There’s a lot of access issues, safety disparities, health disparities and wealth disparities in rural areas compared to highly urban areas, and bicycling usually yields improvements for everyone on the road.”
BikeNWA’s Roberts, who’s native to the region, lives in Fayetteville, about 26 miles away from his Bentonville office. This area still has a ways to go in building on-street bike lanes—having a more robust network would make his commute easier. The greenway’s usefulness for many commuters is limited, since few communities have added connective bike lanes so far. Many users have to drive to the different trail heads, he says.
But overall, biking has come a long way in Arkansas. A decade ago, seeing someone walking or on a bike in downtown Bentonville was a rare sight. “Now, you can’t drive through the town without seeing both of those happen,” Roberts says. “I don’t think anyone ever thought life would be this good in terms of being a cyclist in Northwest Arkansas. We keep painting a vision that sets the bar even higher.”