View From the Protests: Dhaka Should Go Car Free

For nearly two weeks in Dhaka, movement around the city—which is always difficult because of the intense traffic congestion—has ground to a halt for other reasons. On July 29, a bus driver slammed into a group of school children, killing two and sending several others to the hospital. Immediately after the incident, students poured out of the schools and into the streets to protest.

For a while, normal activities ceased; no one could get to our building in the Rayer Bazaar neighborhood of Dhaka. In our immediate area it was quiet but at first I was told not to go out. We have had to cancel several programs because we were too close to protests for people to reach us. Students were stopping private vehicles and demanding that drivers take stranded travelers to their destinations. On the one occasion I did have to cross town, I arrived in record time as there were no buses and vastly fewer cars than usual on the streets, but there was also fear because of occasional outbreaks of violence. There have been reports of rubber bullets being fired and injured protesters being hospitalized.

However, many people seemed to feel the students were doing a good job controlling the traffic and that things were more orderly. The students have been organizing the traffic, insisting that people stay in straight lines (neither lanes nor traffic lights have yet taken off in Dhaka other than a few more organized parts of the city). They have demanded to see people’s driving licenses, turning the driver over to the police in the frequent cases when a driver had none. Buses stopped plying the streets for several days and drivers without licenses also stayed home, but the protests continue as students clamor for their nine demands to be met.

Among their demands are: the death penalty for anyone killing someone in a road crash; the construction of a bridge or safe conditions for students to cross the streets near the site of the deaths; speed bumps where accidents are common; buses must stop when students signal; reduced fare for students; remove unfit cars; no driving without a license; and an apology from the Minister who reportedly smiled when he first mentioned the crash.

Protesters fill the streets in Dhaka on August 5, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

The students are not alone in their anger: Ask a hundred Dhaka residents what they like best about their city and you may get a hundred different responses. Ask them what they like least and probably all will say the traffic. Over the last few years, in addition to disgust with the ever-worsening traffic there is anger and grief at the ever-increasing road crashes and resulting injuries and deaths.

The students are young, and anger and grief lead people to demand solutions, but the quality of the solutions can depend on the level of understanding of the root causes of the problem: There is near universal acceptance of the dominance of streets by motorized vehicles; the request is that they move through the streets without killing people.

This approach is encapsulated in the common demand for road safety, which normalizes roads (and motor vehicles) as the main form of transport, shuttling other means into the insignificant category of “alternatives.” I prefer the term “safe travels” which contains the idea that trams/rail, walking, cycling, and water transport can all be far safer than motorized vehicles on roads and highways.

Another problem with the focus on safe roads is that it ignores all the other problems associated with the use of motor vehicles in cities like Dhaka. Even if we could dramatically reduce road deaths through such means as speed bumps, it would do nothing to reduce the many other problems such as congestion, air pollution (which contributes to approximately 122,000 deaths a year in Dhaka according to some estimates), noise pollution, and the waste of money and urban space.

Solutions need to take into account existing evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Take the idea of bridges for pedestrians to cross the street. There are multiple problems with that approach. Bridges can’t be built everywhere; a few scattered around will give drivers the impression that the roads belong to them and that they needn’t look out for pedestrians. It is important to look at the reason pedestrians die on the streets (on average one pedestrian dies each day in Dhaka and according to some estimates approximately 4000 pedestrians are killed per year in the country). A significant percentage are not crossing the streets, but rather walking along them due to damaged footpaths or blockage on them by parked cars, moving motorbikes, or construction waste. Others die while waiting, as were the students, for a bus.

A way to make it safer for pedestrians to cross is to make it clear through design and policy that pedestrians belong in the street and that it is vehicles which are invading our space, by having level crossings that cars must drive up and over. But a more radical solution does exist, and given the severity of the problems caused by cars and other motorized vehicles, it seems warranted—in fact, it seems the only possibility for a healthy future life and environment. This system of relying on motorized vehicles isn’t working: It can take two hours to travel fewer than ten kilometers in Dhaka. Epic traffic jams regularly occur, with people reportedly spending 45-90 minutes at a single intersection.

We could end our obsession with motorized vehicles and instead promote non-motorized (what I prefer to call fuel-free) transport in cities with exceptions for trams, inter-city rail, and a few electric vehicles for emergency services such as ambulances and fire. More people walking and cycling would mean fewer crashes, less congestion, better health (fewer non-communicable diseases and less obesity), cleaner air, quieter cities, and more convivial, functional communities.

Big solutions are not easy. Neither is losing a loved one. Although I have a few quibbles with the students’ nine-point demand, I empathize with their anger and desperate need to see a solution enacted. Many of those in Dhaka have lost a loved one through a road crash; I lost one of my interns, a university student in our car-free cities group. Virtually anyone who leaves their home suffers from the intense congestion that is a direct result of a car-based system. The millions of dollars the government spends on transport only aggravates the situation by prioritizing private motor vehicles which worsen the situation for efficient modes. If the government spent more on improving and facilitating public transit, walking, and cycling, all the space that is devoted to cars could give way to parks and other urban amenities; many existing playing fields are frequently taken over by car parking or temporary car sales.

The first step towards a city free of most motorized vehicles is to understand that such a solution is feasible and necessary. The goal should be to eliminate, not just reduce, road deaths. It is time to agree that, in a city in which it is quicker to walk than to travel by car, and that does not have a functional transport system, it’s not only safer, but practical to get rid of (or dramatically reduce) the use of motorized vehicles.

Difficult? Yes. But surely not as difficult as continuing to mourn the senseless loss of young lives while getting stuck in endless traffic on our way to discuss solutions to the problem.

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Ghost Bikes, Infrastructure of Grief

Matthew Sampson didn’t know Jeffrey Hammond Long, but he made the memorial that marks his death in downtown Washington, D.C.

In July, Long, 36, was cycling through an intersection when he was struck by a turning truck. He died a day later in the hospital. After reading the news, Sampson issued a somber callout on Twitter asking for someone to donate a bike. The next weekend, he painted it completely white and chained it to a post at the site of the collision. Sampson typically makes playful pop-up street installations, publicizing his antics as the self-appointed D.C. Department of Transformation on Twitter. This project was different, though: It was his first “ghost bike.”

“It’s made me angry because I should be safe biking around here, and I’m not,” Sampson said. “This should be a safe intersection, but it’s not.”

Over the past decade, ghost bikes have become part of a global ritual of bearing witness to cycling deaths. The all-white bikes, placed at locations of fatal crashes, serve as an infrastructure of grief—part memorial, part protest symbol—marking the individual lives lost and the remaining challenges that cities face as they aim to eliminate traffic fatalities altogether through Vision Zero plans.

In Washington, Long was the second cyclist death in a span of two weeks. Nineteen-year-old Malik Habib was killed in a crash a few miles away, hit by a charter bus after his bike tires got caught in streetcar tracks. Both sites are now marked with ghost bikes.

A week after Long’s death, more than 100 bicyclists joined in a silent memorial ride during rush hour. His ghost bike marked the final destination, where cyclists gathered to lay down their bikes. They stood silently for about 20 minutes. Some cried as Long’s friends left pictures and notes by the white bike. Most had never met him.

“Ghost bikes make the invisible visible,” says Reverend Laura Everett, who has liturgy for dedicating a ghost bike in her book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels. “They force us to notice that we are passing by a place where someone has died, to acknowledge that our roads are often places of violence, and that we are vulnerable and fragile humans, and we can do something to make sure we all get home alive.”

A ghost bike memorial for Jeffrey Hammond Long in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

A global ritual

The practice of putting up white bikes to commemorate car-bike collisions began in St. Louis in 2003. Originally, they marked the sites of both fatalities and non-fatal injuries. Patrick Van Der Turin started a project called “Broken Bikes, Broken Lives” after he witnessed a minor car crash and he began marking crashes he found on police reports, as Grist reported.

“It wasn’t a community act at first. It was kind of underground,” says Everett. At first, it was even a defiant or subversive act, a kind of guerilla street art that city officials removed quickly, sometimes within days. “It wasn’t always clear who put it up or where it came from. … While that is still somewhat true, we’ve moved those gatherings to the daytime and held ceremonies.”

Even the term “ghost bike” predates the symbol’s more somber meaning. In Pittsburgh, bike advocacy director Eric Boerer decided to imitate the project after he was hit by a minivan and broke his legs. He placed bikes around the city at the sites of crashes, and his friends came up with the phrase and set up the site But the bikes took on new meaning as cycling’s share of traffic deaths has increased nationally—now they’re primarily reserved to commemorate cyclist deaths. That change means Boerer, who co-founded Free Ride Pittsburgh in 2002, had the odd experience of placing his own ghost bikes.

“We were originally doing it to create awareness of street safety. But once they became synonymous with fatalities, especially in a media-savvy place like New York, they took on that roadside memorial and people kind of respected them more,” Boerer says.

Federal statistics report that 840 bicyclists were killed in crashes in 2016, the most recent year with data. But Boerer notes that Pittsburgh has had a relatively low number of cycling crashes compared to other cities. The city hasn’t had a deadly crash since August 2016, and Boerer says the original ghost bikes played some part in that change.

Today, ghost bikes are common enough that busy people in the city can walk or drive right past them without noticing. But sit still long enough at a busy intersection and you’re bound to see someone stop to take in the sight of a white bike sometimes decorated with flowers and pictures. They may even touch the handlebars or seat as they pause to consider a life lost on two wheels.

“It’s so visually striking,” says Boerer. “In a weird way, it’s done what a lot of advocates have struggled to do: It humanizes bicyclists. It drives home the point that there’s human beings on those bikes.”

A ghost bike in Philadelphia. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

Still, the need for dedicating ghost bikes continues. Everett dedicated her first one back in 2015 in Boston. Since then, she has fielded requests for the liturgy she put together for ghost bike ceremonies from people as far away as Durham, North Carolina, and Stockton, California. Her template navigates the need to address a wide audience that may not have common prayers, songs, or sacred readings:

Many roads brought us safely here, to this small square of earth. We stand and ride on holy ground. We gather in grief to remember a life well lived, a life too short, possibilities unfulfilled. As we gather in grief, Holy One, hear our prayer…

When we chose to take a bike instead of a car,
when we chose to listen instead of shout,
when we chose advocacy instead of complacency,
when we chose to get curious instead of cranky,
when we chose to heal a broken world instead of cursing it,
when we travel past this spot, remind us of [the cyclist’s name].

“Regardless of one’s religious background or tradition, finding ways to gather, to grieve, to lament, to honor, to mourn well are universal. One of the things that happens when we gather to grieve that a life has been lost is that we learn that we do not grieve alone. There’s something communal in ghost bike ceremonies.”

Everett says that the ceremony is just as important for the people in the community to see each other, breaking the anonymity and isolation of a city. Most of the time, a majority of the audience may not even know the victim. “As a pastor, I’m used to doing funerals in churches where the people who gather know the dead, or have some relationship. I am regularly, profoundly moved by the sense that there’s a shared vulnerability with someone people don’t even know,” she says.

The participation in these dedications speaks to how much road violence affects a whole community, and reminds people that our roads are shared even if we don’t always behave like they are. “It’s not just cyclists that show up. It’s the neighbors, it’s the construction workers who always knew that was a dangerous corner, it’s the cops who are also on their bikes who know how dangerous it can be, it’s the pedestrians who walk past that spot every day. Sometimes we’re just passing through, sometimes we live right at that spot, but when we gather, we see who our neighbors are that we might have passed by without noticing.”

Ultimately, though, Everett isn’t resigned to addressing cycling deaths through thoughts and prayers alone. “I truly believe that a vision of zero traffic fatalities is possible. That we can make better decisions about our infrastructure, our roads, what we fund, what we prioritize. We can do better than sacrificing people to the road.”

Boerer says he has no doubt that ghost bike memorials have added some moral heft to bike advocacy. ”Ghost bikes offer an important way to both respect the person as well as help push for change,” he says.

A ghost bike at the site where Malik Habib was killed. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

A local impact

Back in D.C., the recent fatalities have galvanized bike advocates who say the city hasn’t done enough to address road safety for cyclists and pedestrians, culminating in a protest outside the mayor and city council’s offices that included speeches from Laura Montiel, Malik Habib’s mother, and Cyrus Habib, his brother who witnessed the crash.

Members of the District’s Department of Transportation attended the memorial rides for Long and Habib. “We’re here as members of the community mourning this tragedy,” District DOT director Jeff Marootian told CityLab at Long’s memorial. “It’s our responsibility to constantly be thinking about our Vision Zero strategy and what we can possibly be doing to make our city as safe as possible.”

In direct response to the fatal crashes, the city has since implemented some safety fixes to the intersection where Long was struck. Mayor Muriel Bowser also directed DDOT to research what’s called a “flange filler,” a plastic material that would make streetcar tracks safer for bike tires. That fix was one of the main requests from Laura Montiel as she spoke to the group of cyclists who gathered for her son’s memorial ride.

Montiel says she first learned of her son’s ghost bike when Cyrus biked past it on his way home the day it went up. He took a photo and sent it to her. “On my way here, I stopped by it and I saw two people look and stare at the bike, and look around and be more aware of … what was going on around them.” She hopes the bike spreads awareness of how deaths like her son’s can be prevented.

“I want them to realize what happened there,” Montiel says. “I didn’t know about Vision Zero but now I’ve started researching it …  so now I’m learning new things. When they see the bike, I want them to do the same, so they’re aware and they’re safe and everyone makes it home.”

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Building Climate Resilience in America’s Smaller Cities and Towns

The work of transitioning to a carbon neutral global civilization requires that our next generation of leaders looks to, and invests in, the future. By working right now to build climate resilience across the U.S. in small and mid-sized cities, we will not only protect our families and communities in the near-term, we will protect our capacity to do the work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the long-term.

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One Thing Millennials Aren’t Killing: The Postal Service

One reason snail mail feels so good to receive is because it wasn’t easy to send. When a letter lands in your mailbox, you know the mailer put thought into it—writing a note, scrounging up stamps and an envelope, and seeking out a blue box to drop it in. Paradoxically, it’s that same effort that makes the U.S. Postal Service less and less appealing to use.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the rise of the internet hasn’t been great for the Postal Service. Americans are sending less mail than they used to, with overall volume falling 43 percent since 2001. That decline is especially pronounced among Millennials. In 2001, Gen X-ers between the ages of 18 and 34 received 17 pieces of mail per week. By 2017, that number fell to 10 pieces of mail for Millennials in the same age range.

The financial toll has been significant, too—to the tune of $2.7 billion in losses in 2017. While e-commerce has been a boon, with package deliveries expected to raise USPS’s total revenue by half a billion dollars this year, that growth comes alongside a steep decline in first-class mail, which includes letters and postcards. That part of the business is projected to fall $800 million this year.

As the Postal Service scrambles to stay afloat, it’s hoping those two weak links—young people and personal mail—hold the answer to success in the future. And a new report from the USPS Office of the Inspector General suggests it might not be so hard to pull off.

Getting personal

The key, it seems, is to focus on feelings. While pen pals and fan mail aren’t the cool traditions they once were, the OIG report bets that the emotional sentiment behind them can be bottled up and repackaged. In fact, 75 percent of survey respondents said receiving personal mail “made them feel special”—and we all know how much Millennials are supposed to like that.

Moreover, USPS market research shows that even though younger Americans send and receive less mail, they feel pretty good about the Postal Service overall: 80 percent of Millennial respondents said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with USPS. Still, only 44 percent pick up mail at least six days a week, compared to 60 percent among Gen X and 73 percent among Baby Boomers.

How to bridge the generation gap? To really understand how to reverse the decline of mail use among young people, postal historians say you must first understand how it came to be popular in the first place.

At the birth of the Postal Service in 1775—when Ben Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general—few people used it except for merchants, who were wealthy and important enough to send things long distance. It became a more common way of staying in touch by the second half of the 19th century, when rates went down.

But it wasn’t until the invention of Valentine’s Day in the 1840s (yes, it’s always been a Hallmark Holiday) that young people got interested in sending notes to their beaus. “It was a young person’s appropriation of the medium,” said Richard R. John, a Columbia Journalism School professor who wrote Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse.

Then there was the postcard, introduced in the early 1870s. “It was promoted as a way to send really quick messages, sometimes in code, if you care about such things,” said Dianne DeBlois, an ephemera dealer and collector. With the advent of Rural Free Delivery in the 1910s and 1920s, people who lived along the same rural delivery routes would use postcards to invite friends over for tea later that day, or to dances later that night. But anything that went through the mail in postcard form was restricted in size and automatically made public. Even gossiping via postcard was a libelous offense, because anyone could see it.

What attracted young people to all these mediums was that they were tactile, they were fun, they were reasonably quick, and they were personal. But one day, an invention disrupted them all: not email, but the telephone.

“The key shift there… was the Bye Bye Birdie culture of the 1950s and 1960s,” John said. Friends were now calling each other up on landlines to share gossip, not sending postcards along rural mail routes. “Phones are very fundamentally different than letters because the telephone is synchronous”—meaning you’re talking to each other in tandem, not waiting for a response—“but there was a desire to be in touch via the phone probably from post-WWII and through the ’90s and on.”

Something to hold on to

Still, the desire to hold notes close has never gone away. Even the telegram, developed in the late 19th century, didn’t become the new social outlet some expected. “When you get the telegram, you don’t have the evidence of the physical presence of the sender,” said John. “People did not conduct love affairs or intimate long-term correspondences via telegram.” (The large-type STOPs probably helped kill the vibe.)

Email hasn’t killed romance, obviously. You’ve Got Mail showed just how titillating the swoosh of a new digital message could be, even between two bookstore owners who ostensibly loved the feeling of paper.

But servicemen and -women abroad crave mail just as they did during World War II. Now, loved ones can send emails to the military through the post office, and the service will promise to print the messages out. “It’s so they can have something to fold up and put in their pockets,” said DeBlois.

It’s that desire for the physical that the post office needs to capitalize on, says Amanda Stafford, who co-wrote the OIG report. While Millennials like paying bills online, they prefer giving and receiving birthday cards the old-fashioned way.

“If you want to send something to your girlfriend that no one else can read—something she can hold on to—even, good heavens, a print photograph she can put under her pillow, you should mail it,” DeBlois said.

Snail mail, but tech-savvy

But survey respondents also want the post office to adapt to a more technological world. They like convenience, self-service options, and advanced notice of mail delivery. They want a rewards program, like the one at their local coffee shop. If the post office wants to engage the next generation of mail users, they’re going to have to reconcile the tension inherent in these findings, says John Althen, the other co-author. “The effort is intrinsically valuable, but that doesn’t mean that the process can’t be frictionless.”

An extreme version of the post office digitizing the personal is its experimentation with augmented reality. Grandma could send a recording of her singing “Happy Birthday” along with a card; or colleges could accept you with a letter and an admissions video. “If there was a way to make postcards or actual cards have an augmented reality like that I would consider using the USPS much more often,” one respondent said. “I would look forward to receiving advertisements in the mail from companies that would use that.”

And while things sometimes get lost in the mail, at least they aren’t as susceptible to NSA surveillance. As data breaches and Russian hacks get more common online, DeBlois says the Postal Service could encourage young people to use mail as a more secure alternative: “Your snail mail isn’t going to be hacked.”

Mail time!  (USPS OIG)

A new generation

A less promising finding showed that Millennials’ level of engagement with the mail service correlated closely with their living arrangements. Those who co-habitated with a partner were 44 percent more likely to send personal correspondence than those who lived alone, with parents, or with roommates. Bonus points for Millennials with kids, who were 57 percent more likely. That demographic is shrinking, though: In 1975, 57 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived with a married spouse; in 2016, it was only 27 percent.

The solution for USPS might be “getting engaged with them at several points of their life,” Althen said. If Millennials are renting more, they’re moving more. What many of them don’t know is that the Postal Service will send you online coupons for things like home decor when you file for a change of address.

I am the worst kind of Millennial—one who loves to get mail, but is loathe to send it. I don’t own a single stamp, nor one envelope. My dad, a Gen X-er, has several of both on hand, and takes pride in this fact. He volunteers at a fire department, where everyone has to take an annual physical. When he asks young officers to self-address an envelope so they can receive a copy of their blood test results, they stare at him blankly. “They don’t even know how to address an envelope,” he tells me—not in a crotchety way, but with a sort of awe. “How did this happen?”

Because of my own mail phobia, I was a bit skeptical of the OIG’s findings, so I conducted an informal Twitter poll asking my followers (many of them Millennials) if they keep stamps around. I expected most of the answers to mirror my own, which is “no, and I am a disappointment to my family.” But almost everyone said they did: In their offices, wallets, and drawers; Forever stamps, Peanuts-themed, and scratch-and-sniff; for rent checks and for fun. My neighbor offered to lend me some if I was ever so inclined.

Maybe some of this was confirmation bias—only the ones that could prove they were stamp-carrying adults wanted to chime in. But it also speaks to the hopes of the Postal Service: Millennials haven’t totally forsaken it, and some even take pride in it.

“You can blame Millennials for a lot of things,” said John, who is 59 years old and has a teenaged daughter. “But you can’t blame them for killing mail.”

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Voices of 100%: Mayor Dale Ross on Georgetown’s Successful Switch to Renewable Power — Episode 58 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

As a growing number of U.S. cities make commitments to reach 100 percent renewable electricity, how can cities actually achieve these goals? In this first episode of Voices of 100%, a multi-part series of Local Energy Rules, John Farrell interviews Mayor Dale Ross from Georgetown, Texas, one of the few communities in the country that has already reached its ambitious goal for renewable power. The two discuss how Georgetown reached its goal, what benefits it has seen from prioritizing local power, and what the city plans to do next.
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New York City Just Changed the Uber Game

New York City muscled up against ride-hailing. Now it’s time to see what ride-hailing has up its sleeve.

In a much-anticipated vote Wednesday afternoon, the New York City Council moved to impose a slate of new regulations on ride-hailing services. If Mayor Bill de Blasio signs off on the new legislation, which he is likely to do, New York would be the first city in the U.S. to cap the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles, as well as establish a minimum wage for drivers. It would also impose a new license requirement with more robust data-sharing requirements for the fiercely proprietary companies.

“We’ve been working so hard to level the playing field for the taxi industry in the city of New York,” Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, representing parts of northern Manhattan, told the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles as they conducted a preliminary vote on Wednesday morning. “Today we’re making history by voting on a package of legislation that will continue to do that.”

These requirements would only touch “high-volume for-hire services”—i.e., services that provide 10,000 or more trips per day. During the year-long cap on vehicle growth, the city would also conduct an impact study of the services. The legislation represents the most vigorous effort yet by a U.S. city to get transportation network services (TNCs) under a semblance of municipal control. But foes say it could lead to higher fares and more limited services.

Ride-hailing has devastated the yellow cab industry, which is highly regulated in New York City compared to Uber and Lyft. Taxi medallions, once highly sought, have plummeted in value since TNCs came onto the scene, casting many drivers into financial ruin. These grim prospects have driven a spate of cab-driver suicides in the past few months.

App-based drivers are not all thriving, either: A 2017 survey by the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents ride-hailing drivers, found that 57 percent of respondents bring in less than $50,000 annually, and 22 percent less than $30,000.

“Thousands of working families across the city right now are desperate,” Ryan Price, the executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild, said in a rally on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday morning. “City Council must send a clear message to these companies: If you want to operate in our city, you must pay workers fairly.”

A lack of regulation on ride-hailing services has also produced an astonishing volume of for-hire vehicles on New York City streets, generating congestion that would not likely have otherwise existed. As of fall 2017, Uber, Lyft, Via, Gett, and Juno had more than 63,000 black cars on the road, with about 61,000 of them affiliated with Uber. These services provided 159 million trips that year, according to a recent report by Bruce Schaller, a former New York City DOT commissioner and transportation consultant, and have added nearly 1 billion vehicle miles to the road between 2013 and 2017.

Less than half of TNC trips would have been made in taxis or in private cars, according to a 2018 commuter survey by the New York City DOT. Fully 50 percent of them would have been made on public transportation—strong evidence that ride-hailing has worsened congestion alongside population and economic growth. An expanding body of research points to similar effects in several major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago.

While the new regulations would be a clear win for existing drivers, it’s less certain that capping vehicles would rein in the congestion and transit ridership draw-down effects of ride-hailing. Uber argues that, because the regulations would only affect new vehicles licensed for high-volume ride services, drivers with multiple existing licenses will rush to capitalize on their new value by using their cars more frequently. Uber plans to contact such drivers to encourage this, a company spokesperson said.

Lyft and Uber also argue that the cap would diminish their ability to serve areas outside Manhattan. Studies have shown that app-based ride-hailing reaches neighborhoods underserved by traditional taxis and transit in New York and other cities. More than one councilmember raised the concern that these communities could suffer as a result of the new regulations at the vote on Wednesday.

“The City’s 12-month pause on new vehicle licenses will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion,” said Alix Anfang, an Uber spokesperson, said in a statement.

“City Council’s proposals would bring us back to an era of struggling to get a ride, particularly for those in communities of color and outer boroughs,” said Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokesperson.

Politically, it will not bode well for city officials if the response to these regulations by Lyft and Uber is to pull service away from those areas. “I don’t think they’ll do it, but you could imagine a sort of Machiavellian dynamic there,” Schaller said in an interview on Wednesday. The Taxi and Limousine Commission’s task will be to balance these considerations as it establishes the new license scheme, he said.

Instead of the council’s proposed regulations, both Uber and Lyft support universal congestion pricing—that is, a fee on both personally owned cars and for-hire vehicles that enter busy streets at peak hours. That would disincentivize single-occupancy vehicle trips and encourage carpooling—the key to reducing congestion long-term, both companies say. It would also be in line with their business strategies.

Uber, which is valued at $48 billion, has staked its place as the world’s largest ride-hailing service through years of relentless flouting of local regulators and in some cases dodging legal enforcement. It and Lyft have lobbied successfully in dozens of state legislatures to preempt various forms of local regulation. While many cities have succeeded in taxing ride-hailing trips, no city has set a vehicle cap. De Blasio begged off on his last attempt to do so in 2015, after Uber and Lyft waged an extended in-app campaign urging riders to reject the cap.

But things have changed. Three years ago, the effects of the new and largely unregulated industry had been minimally studied. Since then, researchers in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and the Bay Area have devoted themselves—often deploying a range of clever workarounds to proprietary data barriers—to understanding the impacts and have found consistent results: While ride-hailing has been a boon for some urban transportation gaps (for example, as an alternative to paratransit and emergency response service and a transportation resource for far-flung neighborhoods), it also appears to be strangling traffic, pulling riders off of transit, and adding to carbon emissions.

Historic regulations in New York City could send a signal to cities big and small struggling to rein in TNCs. While a vehicle cap may not be appropriate everywhere, closer attention to what is and isn’t working might be. Cities are sitting up. The biggest change that he’s noticed since 2015, Schaller said, is how visible these services and the baggage they carry has become. “People are seeing with their own eyes what’s happening on the streets,” he said.

What happens next? Watch and wait.  

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CityLab Daily: Look to the Suburbs

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What We’re Following

What’s next, special elex: You’ve certainly heard about the nail-biter special election in Ohio’s reliably red 12th congressional district. At first glance, it looks like the shift in voting patterns there comes down to the same demographic factors we’ve been talking about all election season: suburbs and Millennials.

Turnout surged in the suburbs outside Columbus and lagged in rural areas, giving Democrats a chance in this too-close-to-call election (New York Times). “Suburban women, in particular here, are the ones that are really turned off,” Ohio Governor John Kasich said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “And you add to that the Millennials, and you have it very close. It’s really kind of shocking because this should be just a slam dunk (for Republicans) and it’s not.”

While that contest got all the headlines, other primary results from Tuesday show progressive shifts for Democrats ahead of the fall election season.

  • In St. Louis County, Wesley Bell took down incumbent county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who faced his first election since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson back in 2014. (Riverfront Times)
  • Via ballot measure, Missouri voters overrode a legislative move to curb union power. (NYT)
  • In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib is poised to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress after beating out much of Detroit’s Democratic establishment in the deep-blue 13th congressional district, formerly held by Representative John Conyers. (CNN)

Correction: Yesterday, we mistakenly referred to Nikuya Walker as Charlottesville’s first black mayor. Walker is the city’s first black female mayor.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

More Cities Want to Embrace ‘Democracy Vouchers’

Following Seattle’s example, other cities want to give voters cash vouchers to donate to local candidates.

Tanvi Misra

Climate Report: Not Good

In a week full of climate-related terrors, don’t expect to find much good news in the American Meteorological Society’s annual report card on the state of the planet.

Nicole Javorsky

Who Rents Their Home in America? Here’s What the Data Says.

Many homeownership trends have remained largely the same since 1960—with a few noteworthy shifts.

David Montgomery

How a Political Crisis Fueled an Urban Planner’s Mayoral Campaign

After conservative Doug Ford, the newly elected Premier of Ontario, announced that Toronto will lose 18 city council seats, Jennifer Keesmaat decided to run for office.

Chris Bateman

Where Did All Those Goats Come From?

The mystery behind a boisterous scene in Boise

Marina Koren

Blowing Bubbles

Housing prices are cooking. In cities nationwide, they’re back at or above pre-recession levels. The prices of homes are rising faster than the rate of inflation, in some places by a factor of three, as in Seattle or San Francisco. But the latest surge in housing prices isn’t necessarily evidence for a bubble: Homebuyers now face fierce competition, rather a speculative craze drumming up new construction. CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes there just isn’t the make-a-buck building boom to merit a housing bubble.

What We’re Reading

Ben Carson declared mission accomplished in East St. Louis, where public housing is still a disaster (ProPublica)

School segregation is on the rise in Boston (Next City)

Chasing the startup economy, universities reshape urban real estate (Curbed)

In Baltimore, the gap between white and black homeownership persists (NPR)

The injustice of highway pollution (Streetsblog)

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More Cities Want to Embrace ‘Democracy Vouchers’

In 2017, Seattle rolled out “democracy vouchers”—a program through which it would give eligible residents vouchers totaling $100 to donate to the local candidate of their choice. Candidates who opted in to the program had to agree to strict guidelines on how to spend the money they received. The idea behind the pilot was that giving the equivalent of money to constituents who don’t usually have the resources to support their candidates—pensioners and the homeless, for example—would spur greater political participation. And, ideally, it would also help mitigate the vast influence wealthy campaign donors have on local elections.

Now, the idea is picking up speed in other cities, with Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Austin, Texas, planning to put it to vote in ballot initiatives come November.

Why? Well, for one, they see Seattle’s program, approved in 2015 and funded through a 10-year property tax, as a success. At least by some measures, it has been: A recent analysis of the outcomes by two liberal policy organizations concluded that the initiative boosted participation among younger and lower-income voters, and also created a more ethnically diverse group of voters in the local elections last year. Although a previous Seattle Times examination found that it was not successful in keeping big money out of the election. A Brennan Center for Justice analysis also found that while it was true that the voucher users were significantly more economically diverse, they also reflected the overall political participation in the city: voucher use was greater for older, white, and middle- and high-income voters.

Yet low-income voters who did participate said they appreciated the opportunity: “It feels like I’m more a part of the system,” one voucher user told the Seattle Times in 2017. “People like me can contribute in ways that we never have before. We can participate in ways that Big Money always has.”

Albuquerque presents a particularly interesting site to replicate Seattle’s experiment. In 2005, this city was the second after Tucson to approve a mechanism to publicly finance local candidates, with 70 percent of voters in favor. Through this program, eligible candidates get $1 per voter in their constituency, out of a fund carved out of the city budget every year. (To qualify, among other criteria, the candidates had to eschew private donations). They were also entitled to additional funds to compete with privately financed opponents, but that part of the program was struck down by the Supreme Court, in a lawsuit against a similar campaign finance law in Arizona in 2011.

Over time, it became increasingly unfeasible for publicly financed candidates in Albuquerque to compete with those who accepted money from big spenders. In 2017’s election, private money played a huge role. Tim Keller—who is now mayor—was the only candidate who used the city’s public financing mechanism, although, he, too, got outside help from an independent political financing group (the city’s version of a PAC). That’s one of the main reasons the coalition of local activists have been pushing for Albuquerque’s version of “democracy vouchers,” or “’Burque Bucks” as they’re being called: It will enable a candidate to be competitive relying solely on public money next time around, said , New Mexico state director of the Working Families Party, who has been advocating for campaign finance reform.

The other problem Griego sees in Albuquerque is that political participation does not reflect the demographics of the electorate. The city is 60 percent people of color and 40 percent white, but its city council is two-thirds white. And according to estimates by Common Cause, Working Families Party, and other members of the coalition advocating for reform, “fewer than 350 donors gave three quarters of all cash contributions, with the average from each individual amounting to about $3,000.”

“Every voter, every Albuquerque resident, should have an equal voice and that 350 people shouldn’t be able to determine who the next mayor is,” says Griego, who was a city councilor in 2005. “It should be the larger electorate—whether or not they can write a thousand dollar check.”

“Burque Bucks,” is a part of the fix, he adds. “We considered other proposals but this one seemed to be the right balance between making public finance candidates more viable and broadening the electorate,” he said.

So far, Griego and other activists have collected the petition signatures required to qualify “Burque Bucks” as a ballot initiative. If they pass the rest of the procedural hurdles, it will be on the ballot come November. If it passes, the program will aim to give voters a $25 voucher to donate to their publicly financed candidate—a quarter of what Seattle voters get.

“We’re not anywhere near as wealthy as Seattle, we’re not as big, and we’re probably not as progressive,” Griego said. “We’ve modified [the program] to fit the economics and demographics of Albuquerque.”

Campaign finance reform became a key issue during the 2016 presidential election. It was elevated in large part by Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, who was himself propelled by small, individual donations from across the country. That same year, South Dakota and Washington state passed versions of “democracy vouchers,” as part of larger anti-corruption packages favored by voters. Both immediately received pushback, explains Vox’s Lee Drutman. In the case of South Dakota, a judge blocked the ethics overhaul of which the vouchers were a part, and then the Republican state legislature ended up repealing it altogether.

Seattle’s measure also faced legal obstacles after a libertarian law firm sued on behalf of property owners. Citing Supreme Court precedent, it argued that the program was “grossly inefficient, wasted taxpayer money,”and violated the First Amendment because residents’ taxes were going to fund candidates they didn’t support. These arguments are along the lines of what Albuquerque activists are hearing from opponents, and what proponents of “democracy vouchers” have always come up against.

In a 2011 op-ed in The New York Times, for example, Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard, vouched for democracy voucher programs saying, “It’s also my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others.” In response, a Cato Institute blog post called his argument “old wine in new bottles, barely masking the fact that it puts the government in the business of promoting political speech.”

In the case of Seattle, lawyers and political experts predicted that the libertarian argument wasn’t likely to stand in court, and so far they’ve turned out to be right. In November 2017, a Superior Court judge upheld Seattle’s program, ruling that it was a “viewpoint neutral method” for achieving political participation. In other words, it did not violate free speech rights, but corrected for an existing imbalance.

“I happen to not believe money is speech, but if you believe money is speech then he who has more money has more speech,” Griego said.

Add to that the recent surge of progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York—whose campaign has also relied largely on small, individual campaign donations of less than $200—and the stage is set for local efforts to reform campaign finance: People know it’s possible to beat the political machine.

The attempts to get “democracy vouchers” on the books in Albuquerque and Austin follow efforts by local governments including those in Maryland, Oregon, and California to tweak campaign finance at the local level. Even Missouri, a state that typically votes conservative, hopped on the bandwagon. In New York, there are calls to use the city’s ongoing charter revision to strengthen public financing mechanisms further. Given that campaign finance laws at the national level are already leaky, and may be further weakened in the future, activists are hopeful that change fans out from the city-level.

“A lot of the real reform on a lot of issues—but certainly in campaign finance—is happening at the local level,” Griego said.

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Climate Report: Not Good

For the past 28 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) has published a “State of the Climate” report, an exhaustive accounting of the planet’s vital signs and weather-related trends for every region worldwide. But this year’s installment of the 310-page report, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society with contributions from 524 scientists in 65 countries, feels a little different, according to NOAA’s Derek Arndt, one of the report’s three lead editors.

“When I started as the lead of this report, we were documenting global temperature and ocean heat content and all of the numbers like you would get in an annual physical,” said Arndt, who’s worked on the last nine years worth of reports. “Now we’re documenting things like loss of coral reef, coastal erosion, and inland flooding—things that are actually tangible and visible and affect the quality of our collective lives.”

What’s changed in a decade, he added, is that what were once worrisome warning signs have blossomed into full-blown manifestations of a warming world. “The symptoms—the direct interruptions of our lives—are just much more observable than they were 10 years ago,” he said.

That conclusion should not exactly come as a shock—not when the biggest wildfire in the history of California fails to rank as “the week’s worst climate news.” (That would be the “Hothouse Earth” scenario you may have been hearing about.) But the portrait of the planet that the BAMS report draws as the Anthropocene epoch picks up speed is still plenty disturbing: The year saw record-high sea levels and upper ocean temperatures and new lows in sea ice at the top and bottom of the world. Coral reefs had “unprecedented” damage from June 2014 to May 2017, leaving more than 95 percent of coral dead in some reef areas. Greenhouse gas concentrations reached record levels in 2017: The average global level of carbon dioxide last year was the highest ever measured in the modern global record (the past 38 years) and in other records going back as long as 800,000 years.

A graph shows the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

Depending on the dataset used, 2017 was either the second- or third-warmest year in history, but the hottest non-El Niño year on record. Land and sea surface temperatures surpassed the 1981–2010 average throughout much of the globe.

The map and graph show 2017’s patterns of extreme heat. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

Overall, the report shows global temperatures ticking up 0.68–0.86 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981–2010 average, part of a longer warming trend that has seen temperatures rise since 1975 at a rate of 2.7–3.2 degrees Fahrenheit per century. From 1901 to 1975, the planet’s surface warmed at a rate of 1.3–1.6 degrees Fahrenheit per century—meaning the rate of global temperature rise has almost doubled since 1975.

A map shows the 2017 global temperature’s difference from the 1981-2010 average. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

For the planet’s urban dwellers, the most alarming findings involve both rising global temperatures and sea levels, as well as the increase in inland flooding.

“The overall trend of a few degrees over a century may not seem like much,” said Arndt. “But the reality is that doesn’t happen evenly over every day or every place in the world. The ways it affects us, and particularly those of us who live in cities, are the extreme events get more extreme. They last longer, they are more intense, they are more frequent.” Indeed, this summer’s heat has claimed lives in cities unaccustomed to high temperatures in Canada, Northern Europe and Asia: “Just the last few weeks are a good example of the kind of heat waves that are becoming more common in a warming world.”

An urbanizing world is also one that’s increasingly vulnerable to rising seas: Eight of the ten largest cities in the world, including Tokyo, Mumbai, New York City, and Shanghai, are coastal, and an estimated 10 percent of the global population (and 40 percent of Americans) live in coastal areas. According to the report, global average sea levels in 2017 were the highest since satellite recording started in 1993. Global sea levels have been rising every year for the past six and in 22 of the last 24 years.

Global sea levels hit a record high in 2017. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

In 2017, the report tallied 16 “billion-dollar disasters” in the U.S.—weather and climate-related events like storms and floods that resulted in losses of over $1 billion. That added up to about $300 billion total in direct losses, the costliest year for total losses from billion-dollar disasters since tracking began in 1980. Among the extraordinary extreme weather events from 2017, the report singles out Hurricane Harvey—“the wettest known tropical cyclone to impact the United States”—for its “historic inland rainfall and flooding.” Harvey also came with a near-record price tag, with damages estimated by NOAA at $125 billion, second only to Katrina in 2005.

It’s notable that the financial toll of climate-related disasters have become part of the BAMS report’s annual accounting—a sign that monitoring a warming world means tracking direct economic costs, not just weather observations. “We’ve moved from an era in which the numbers are alarming into an era in which the symptoms are consequential,” Arndt said. “And unfortunately not unexpected.”

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Who Rents Their Home in America? Here’s What the Data Says.

Updated: 2018-08-08

America is, by and large, a nation of homeowners. Though more than 100 million Americans rent, they’re outnumbered two-to-one by Americans who own their own home, according to data from the U.S. Census.

And that’s nothing new. Americans have had high rates of homeownership for a long time, with only modest changes over the decades:

But the populations of homeowners and renters aren’t flat across the U.S. There’s one major group of Americans who are more likely to rent than own: people in their 20s.

Adults older than 30 are more likely to live in homes they own rather than rent, a likelihood that increases as they get older. Similarly, most children live in homes their parents own—though the youngest children are the most likely to live in rented housing.

Here’s that same graph again, but as percentages instead of raw numbers. Looking at it this way makes clear that, for example, the elderly aren’t drastically more likely to rent—there are just fewer of them.

This trend isn’t very surprising—it takes capital to buy a house, something many 20-somethings lack. And people in their 20s can be more mobile and less likely to be married with children.

The trend has also remained relatively stable for decades. But there has been some change in the age when people shift from renters to owners. In 1980, for example, young-adult Baby Boomers were much more likely to own a home than today’s young-adult Millennials. Even then, though, the 20s were the only ages when renters sometimes outnumbered owners:

“The generation of people who are now in their 20s and early 30s are moving into home ownership at roughly the same rates the Baby Boomers did. They’re just starting later,” said Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer. “The whole curve gets shifted to a later period in time.”

The trend of Americans renting in their 20s also holds steady when controlling for other factors that affect homeownership. For example, residents of cities are much more likely than rural Americans to rent, regardless of their age. But both areas see a rise in renting among 20-somethings:

Similarly, lower-income Americans are much more likely to rent than wealthier Americans. Households earning less than $50,000 per year have a homeownership rate of around 45 percent, while nearly 80 percent of households earning more than $50,000 own.

The effect of income is drastic—but the shape of the pattern remains largely the same. In both rich and poor households, renting peaks in one’s 20s and rises steadily afterwards. The difference is that wealthy households are more likely to own than rent at all ages (they’re just least likely to own in their 20s). Lower-income Americans, meanwhile, don’t become majority-homeowners until nearly age 50. (One difference: the highest rate of renting among low-income individuals is in their early 20s, while renting maxes out among higher-income Americans in their late 20s.)

Kids in lower-income households typically live in rented housing, while richer kids tend to live in homes their parents or guardians own.

In addition to income, the Census data shows a pretty big homeownership gap based on race. Hispanic and black Americans own homes at significantly lower rates than do white and Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. That’s in line with other studies, such as a recent Harvard study finding 43 percent of black adults own homes compared to 72 percent of white adults.

Some, but not all, of this disparity is tied up with income. The median household income for black Americans is less than $40,000 per year, compared to more than $60,000 for white Americans. The Census data shows a relationship between homeownership and both race and income. Low-income households of all races are more likely to rent. But black households are less likely to own homes than white households in similar income bands:

The racial gap in homeownership has persisted over the decades. But in 2016, blacks were less likely to own homes at nearly every stage of life than they were in 2000 or 1980:

Marriage is also statistically linked to homeownership, with married individuals overwhelmingly more likely to own homes.

But the trend here is a little different. Americans who marry in their early 20s—well below the country’s median age at first marriage of around 28 for men and 26 for women—are actually more likely to rent than their single brethren.

Meanwhile, Americans who don’t marry break the trend of becoming homeowners in their 30s. Unmarried individuals are more likely to rent than own past age 40:

Turning to the oldest population of owners, one other thing has changed since the 1960s. Then, homeownership rates peaked around age 40 and stayed constant for older Americans, neither rising nor falling. Data from 1980, 2000, and 2016, on the other hand, show a curve with a peak and then a decline—though the age of peak homeownership has gotten later and later. This reflects many Americans moving in their 70s and 80s out of homes they own, whether because they choose to rent a more manageable apartment or move to assisted living facilities. See below how homeownership rates have declined among older Americans in recent decades.

This analysis is based on random samples of responses from the 1960, 1980, and 2000 U.S. Censuses, and the Census’ 2012-2016 American Community Survey. The combined dataset includes more than 22 million responses over the four time periods. Data was downloaded from the IPUMS-USA database at the University of Minnesota.

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