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CHICAGO—Eleazar Delgado watched the transformation of the Pilsen neighborhood from the storefront windows of Cafe Jumping Bean, the bustling coffee shop he opened on 18th Street in 1994. Back in the 1990s, he said, there were a handful of bakeries and taco bars. Gangs ran the neighborhood; gunshots rang through the night.
Delgado, a former bike messenger, opened the cafe as a gathering place for the artists then gravitating to Pilsen, home to the largest community of Mexican-Americans in the Midwest. “I wanted to make a place like those we had in Mexico,” he said.
Drawn by the vibe and low rents, a wave of newcomers began to arrive here around in the early 2000s; art galleries and music venues opened, and upscale restaurants followed. In 2018, Forbes called Pilsen “One of the 12 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World.” The change has been good for Delgado’s business—he opened a second cafe a few blocks away—but it has come at a price. “Now the neighborhood is lively from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said. “People are out jogging and walking their dogs. But at the same time, the rents are insane. I’m losing customers I’ve had for years because they can’t afford living here.”
Since 2000, an estimated 10,300 Hispanic residents have left this neighborhood just southwest of Chicago’s Loop, according to a 2016 study by University of Illinois at Chicago urban planning professor John Betancur. Meanwhile, the number of whites grew by 22 percent, from 3,587 in 2000 to 4,385 in 2013.
“We all understand change and development, but these are staggering numbers,” said new 25th Ward alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who was previously the executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots organization that has fought displacement. “Property taxes, for example, that were once $1,500 a year are now $4,000.”
Stories circulate about elderly residents forced to put out for ads for roommates and developers cold-calling longtime homeowners with $800,000 offers for houses worth $20,000 two decades ago. Perhaps the most vivid sign of the neighborhood’s transformation happened in 2017, when Casa Aztlan, a Hispanic community center, was converted to market-priced condos by a developer who removed the historic murals of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata that had adorned the building.
Many fear that gentrification could pick up even more momentum if El Paseo (“The Walk”), a proposed bike and pedestrian trail, opens in a few years on a four-mile stretch of rail line. The 606, a similar trail project on the city’s Northwest side, hastened gentrification in adjacent neighborhoods, and it’s a blueprint neither the city nor Pilsen activists want to duplicate.
In an effort to put the brakes on displacement, last month the city’s Landmarks Commission advanced a proposal to designate a 1.5-mile stretch of 18th Street—Pilsen’s main retail corridor—a Historic Landmark District. The plan would not only protect more than 800 late-19th century homes and businesses on the strip from being torn down and redeveloped: It covers the dozens of murals that have become icons of the neighborhood, painted by the likes of Hector Duarte, Mario Castillo, and Jeff Maldonago. If approved, the historic district would become one of Chicago’s largest.
Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, described the proposal as “a holistic preservation plan, not a growth plan,” that would honor both the Eastern European immigrants who settled here in the 1870s and the Mexican-Americans who arrived a century later. He thinks the city’s plan could be a model both for other Chicago neighborhoods and others nationally.
Using historic preservation to preserve affordability isn’t unheard of, but landmarking has something of reputation for hastening gentrification, not halting it. In New York City, for example, researchers found that neighborhoods grew more affluent after historic designations; current efforts to establish a historic district in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood involve fierce debates over displacement fears. But the Pilsen plan aims to protect both the neighborhood’s cultural fabric and the existing residents who are living in it: Woven into the landmark district is a pilot Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) requiring developers of larger residential projects to set at least 20 percent of their units for lower-income residents. (The citywide ARO is 10 percent.)
Developers who choose to opt out of building those units are required to place $180,000 in-lieu fees, pay money for the units not built, per unit into a city-wide in-lieu building fund that will be used to refurbish or build affordable housing in the city, including Pilsen. For example, the developer of The 78, a $5 billion mixed-use complex set to add some 10,000 new housing units to a riverfront parcel adjacent to Pilsen, plans to meet their ARO obligation by building up to 1,000 affordable units in Pilsen or the neighboring Little Village neighborhood.
Still, some residents are wary of the landmarking proposal. Sigcho-Lopez is planning a community meeting with the city zoning board next month to give residents an opportunity to learn more. He’s not yet convinced that the plan would not escalate the current gentrification trends.
Waiting too long, however, could be costly: At the moment, there are three pending building demolition permits for structures within the landmark district. The proposal will go before Chicago’s City Council on June 25. If the council doesn’t pass the ordinance granting landmark designation within 90 days of the Landmark Commission’s May 16 recommendation, those demolition permits will be approved, said Strazzabosco. But if the City Council sits on the idea for a year, the landmark designation will automatically take place.
“As it stands now, their plan is insufficient,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “It’s not enough to address the larger issue of displacement. We have to make sure that residents will not be suffocated by high housing costs, and we have a year to work with the city on the designation. If it takes that long to get what we want, we will wait.”
Some of this caution, Sigcho-Lopez said, comes from recent Chicago political scandals, in which zoning permits were handed out on a pay-to-play basis. In the June 12 City Council meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her intent to crack down on outside jobs and activities of the city’s aldermen, an anti-corruption campaign inspired at least in part by the recent activities of 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, who is now under federal indictment for making sure that developers seeking city zoning permits used his law firm. Burke allegedly worked closely with former 25th Ward alderman and city zoning committee chairman Danny Solis, who represented Pilsen and is now involved in his own related corruption scandal.
Because of this rich history of corruption, Sigcho-Lopez is calling for new guidelines on zoning permit distribution. “I would like to seen an investigation into all of the decisions that were made on permits by proxy in the past and that were given without community discussion,” he said. “We have local, small businesses asking for permits and licenses and they’ve been on the waiting list. They never got a chance because they couldn’t pay-to-play.”
Mark Walden owns several apartment buildings in Pilsen that will fall within the landmark district. He’s struggled to keep them affordable, and wonders whether the landmark plan would help or hinder him. “No one is yet sure what the responsibilities will be for owners in the district,” Walden said. “It’s possible that the landmark district could reduce gentrification by preventing developers from taking properties upscale by demolishing cheaper working-class buildings and replacing them with more expensive, yuppie-oriented ones.”
But there’s also the other scenario—in which the landmarking prevents small, older buildings from being replaced by newer ones with more units, further limiting housing supply and driving up prices. “This is why it’s important that the community has say.”
Chicago urban planner Pete Saunders, who often writes about the city’s gentrification landscape, thinks that the Pilsen landmark district should “lock in” local control of redevelopment, potentially halting displacement. “I don’t think Pilsen residents will be against the landmarking plan,” Saunders said. “I believe they don’t want to be told by the city what to do. They want to have that control.”
That’s a theme echoed by Mer Mansuria, a 36-year old chef who recently moved back to the neighborhood to open Cafe Indigo, a small 18th Street restaurant serving Mexican street food. The move, he said, was to fortify the presence of locally owned businesses as more upscale restaurants eye space in Pilsen. “The wrong people are coming here for the wrong reasons,” he said. “They hear that it is a hot neighborhood and want to live here. They are not coming for the values that make up Pilsen.” Like many business owners, he sees the benefits of a landmark district—but wants to make sure it is tailored to meet the needs of a less-affluent population.
So does Alexandra Curatolo, 31. She’s lived in Pilsen for more than a decade, settling there after attending the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago. She’s reaped some of the economic benefits of the changes in the neighborhood: In 2013, she opened Belli’s, a juice bar frequented both by newcomers and longtime residents. And she has worked with residents to start a farmer’s market and community gardens. “I decided to stay here because of community. I got to know my neighbors. Pilsen is a place where people look out for one another. We invite one another to front-yard fiestas and barbecues,” she said. “Change is good, and the landmark district is likely good, but it all depends on who is directing that change.”
On a recent afternoon, Lauren Angeles sat in Belli’s, one of her routine stops along 18th Street. A 29-year old nursing student, she moved to Pilsen three years ago from the West Town neighborhood because of its proximity to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and because she felt at home in the neighborhood. Now, just like many older residents, she finds herself forced to move on.
“Our rent increased $100 each year due to the landlord’s increased property taxes,” Angeles said. “I wanted to stay—I love it here. But it got too expensive and I’m moving to Humbolt Park. Goodbye, Pilsen.”
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America today is increasingly defined by the overlapping divides of class and place. The country’s geography can be characterized as winner-take-all, with high-paying knowledge jobs disproportionately concentrated in coastal superstar cities, leading-edge tech hubs, and elite college towns, as large spans of the country lag far behind.
A new Brookings Institution study released this week adds to our understanding of this key trend in our uneven economic geography, documenting the deepening divide in job density across the nation.
The study, by researchers Chad Shearer, Jennifer S. Vey, and Joanne Kim, examines the degree to which jobs are concentrating or dispersing across 94 of America’s largest metro areas, which contain roughly two-thirds of all jobs. To get at this, the study uses unique data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Origin-Destination Employment Statistics program (or LODES), which links home and work locations for census blocks.
One caveat about the data: Because of issues with state-level reporting, it excludes six of the nation’s largest 100 metros: Boston and several other smaller Massachusetts metros; Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; the parts of Providence that lie in Massachusetts; and parts of Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul that lie in Wisconsin. The study measures “weighted” or “perceived” job density. While the standard measure of job density basically calculates the jobs per land area, this report uses a measure of perceived job density that calculates job density of the place where the average job is located.
Overall, job density increased significantly between 2004 and 2015, according to the study, rising from about 20,000 jobs per square mile in 2004 to nearly 26,000 in 2015—an increase of nearly 6,000 jobs per square mile, nearly 30 percent.
But the increase in job density was extremely unequal across the county. In fact, 90 percent of it was powered by just four superstar metros: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. Together, these metros had an average jump of 40 percent for job density.
In the other 90 or so other metros, job density increased by an average of just nine percent, from 8,917 in 2004 to just 9,735 jobs per square mile by 2015. Overall, slightly more than half of all metros (48 of 94) saw increases in job density.
Just 15 percent of metros (14 of 94) posted above average gains in job density, including places like Nashville and San Jose but also Charlotte, Albany, and Honolulu. Another fifth of metros (20 of 94)—including places like Philadelphia; Atlanta; Boise; and Richmond, Virginia, saw their job density increase by between 10 and 30 percent.
Job density actually declined in almost half of metros (46 of 94) with a fifth (20 metros) seeing declines of less than ten percent; 14 percent (13 metros) posting declines of 10 to 20 percent; and six percent (6 metros) seeing declines of 30 percent or more.
This growth in job density has been driven both by their concentration in certain cities and metros, and by the tendency of knowledge jobs in tech and advanced business services to concentrate and cluster, and to do so disproportionately in a small number of places.
The density of information-technology jobs increased by some 60 percent between 2004 and 2015—an increase that was powered by just three metros: San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. Conversely, job sprawl is much more prominent in metros with manufacturing and more routine service-based economies, where wages and incomes are much lower.
But the jobs’ divide is also fractal, occurring within individual metros as well as between them. Across the board, jobs have become denser in and around the urban core and sprawled across outlying suburban and exurban areas. As the study puts it, “jobs in metropolitan America grew both up and out from 2004 to 2015.”
Job density in core urban counties—those where at least 95 percent of people live in an urbanized area—grew from roughly 35,000 jobs per square mile in 2004 to more than 40,00 jobs per square mile in 2015, a 35 percent gain. Job density grew at less than half this rate in established suburban areas (13 percent), and barely budged in newly built suburbs (increasing by just 1 percent), while job density actually declined by 18 percent in exurban counties.
On this score, the study finds that “the pattern of job growth within different counties in the same metro area mattered just as much—if not more—to a metro area’s overall job density trends than the distribution of its job growth between core urban counties, peripheral suburban, and exurban counties.”
America is increasingly divided, and the density of jobs—as well as of people and talent—is a key fault line in its increasingly spiky and unequal economic geography. This jobs divide not only separates “winners” and “losers” across cities and metro areas, but within them. And it has grown more accentuated since the economic crisis, with the growth of knowledge jobs, decline of manufacturing, and the rise of winner-take-all urbanism.
The effects of this deepening jobs divide go beyond the economy. As the report points out, job density is associated with better heath, environmental, and civic outcomes, as well as higher rates of innovation and economic performance. It is also a key feature of America’s political divide, between denser blue places and more sprawling red ones.
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Those are the latest statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual “Out of Reach” report, which finds that the housing affordability crisis plunged to new depths in 2019. While many states and cities have higher minimum wages, none are enough to meet the housing wage without taking on a second job. This challenge isn’t restricted to the nation’s poorest: The money needed to rent a two-bedroom exceeds the average renter’s wages everywhere. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the story: Minimum Wage Still Can’t Pay for a Two-Bedroom Apartment Anywhere With more storms and rising seas, which cities should be saved first? (New York Times) What it’s like to be on House Hunters—twice (Slate) 72 Philadelphia police officers just got put on desk duty over offensive social media posts (NPR) Barbershops can be fraught for people who aren’t straight cis men. These women want to change that. (DCist) New York expanded rent control. Will others follow suit? (Next City)
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Those are the latest statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual “Out of Reach” report, which finds that the housing affordability crisis plunged to new depths in 2019. While many states and cities have higher minimum wages, none are enough to meet the housing wage without taking on a second job. This challenge isn’t restricted to the nation’s poorest: The money needed to rent a two-bedroom exceeds the average renter’s wages everywhere. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the story: Minimum Wage Still Can’t Pay for a Two-Bedroom Apartment Anywhere
With more storms and rising seas, which cities should be saved first? (New York Times)
What it’s like to be on House Hunters—twice (Slate)
72 Philadelphia police officers just got put on desk duty over offensive social media posts (NPR)
Barbershops can be fraught for people who aren’t straight cis men. These women want to change that. (DCist)
New York expanded rent control. Will others follow suit? (Next City)
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Across the U.S., LGBTQ people are connecting with one another through a love of the outdoors. Local groups like the Stonewall Golfers in Palm Springs, California, and G.L.A.M Climb in Austin, Texas—which caters to rock climbers who identify as “gay, lesbian, and more”—help by bringing people together. But not everyone may be aware of what groups exist in their cities.
That’s why two organizations in Washington, D.C.—Pride Outside and The Wilderness Society—are mapping as many LGBTQ-friendly outdoor groups as they can. The woman behind the initiative is Hannah Malvin, who founded Pride Outside in 2016 and who leads The Wilderness Society’s partnership initiatives.
“Working with the LGBTQ community, people would ask me, ‘Are there any groups in Pennsylvania, or in Long Island?’ and sometimes I’d just say, ‘I don’t know.’” Malvin tells CityLab.
To find a better answer, Malvin enlisted her employer’s mapping team to build an interactive map, which went live last week. So far, it lists 46 outdoor groups across the U.S., plus two in Vancouver and one in Winnipeg, Canada. Users can search by address or city, and adjust the result by distance.
Malvin says she hopes the map will be useful for connecting people to each other and to activities in their own neighborhood, and also to groups that provide resources for outdoor enthusiasts in the LGBTQ community. Local groups can, for example, provide transportation to climbing gyms and national parks, or help individuals with the costs of travel and gear. They can also teach amateurs the “know-how” of particular sports.
Malvin’s own group hosts hiking classes, LGBTQ-history walking tours, and a space for the conservation community and outdoor industries to post job opportunities. The group has also partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a social media campaign this month to both boost the visibility of LGBTQ people outdoors and to “take pride” in the world’s oceans. (June is both Pride Month and Ocean Month.) Later this fall, the group is co-hosting the third annual LGBTQ outdoor summit, bringing hundreds of industry professionals and community leaders together to talk about inclusivity.
The groups also give people a safe space to enjoy the outdoors and find a sense of belonging. “Uniquely to the community, if you don’t have role models that you identify with, sometimes you can wonder if you belong somewhere,” Malvin says. Some of the organizations listed cater to a wide range of identities: Frontrunners Atlanta, for example, is open to runners who are either part of the LGBTQ community or an ally. Others are more specific, like Lez Go in D.C., an adventure club geared specifically toward queer women.
There is value in both kinds of groups, she says. Single-identity groups can be “meaningful and powerful” for those who want to connect with those like them, while clubs that are broader can provide support to those who, say, are still on their journey of self-exploration.
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Partnerships between city officials and contractors result in new and visionary downtown destinations. Along with large vertical construction projects, there are opportunities for countless other projects, including parking structures, enhanced Wi-Fi, landscaping, pedestrian and biking paths, and traffic improvements.
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In the future, an algorithm will spit out your optimal workout plan. It will be implemented by a private trainer, in a space that looks less like a gym than a sleek hotel lobby. After showering, you may walk out of the locker room to find other members milling around a pop-up art gallery.
They’ll be your friends. Or at least they’ll be part of your network.
This is the dream of Ghost, a “luxury fitness lounge” projected to open in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this summer. Its founder and CEO, Aqib Rashid, believes Ghost constitutes an entirely new market vertical, distinct from big-box gyms and group-fitness chains such as SoulCycle. Whether that’s true or not, Ghost is one of several businesses trying to redefine the modern gym for the always-on digital workforce and in light of the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry.
On top of its slick, event-space aesthetics, Ghost claims to offer the “first-ever machine-learning platform for health and fitness.” From a litany of biometric and musculoskeletal tests, designed to capture thousands of data points each quarter, proprietary software will be able to generate “physiologically-optimized” fitness programming tailored to each member. The club will also offer a slew of high-end amenities, from an infrared sauna to futuristic-sounding “meditation pods.”
Most importantly, it’s invite-only: to purchase a membership ($300 per month or $3,000 a year), you have to fill out an online application and pass an in-person interview. “We [will] have a lot less people,” Rashid said, comparing Ghost to other gyms, “and we can function not just as a training facility but a social club.”
Rashid plans to build a community of high-powered individuals from a range of backgrounds and industries, who will hang around for a variety of “after-hours” events—small concerts and wellness forums. His hope for Ghost is that it becomes “a living version of a lifestyle magazine.”
Ghost is not the first New York City gym to reflect that aspiration. Performix House in Manhattan is also invite-only and has amenities including cryotherapy and an in-house masseuse. Membership can cost up to $900 a month.
To get to Performix House, its approximately 400 members—among them, model Naomi Campbell and actress Frieda Pinto—enter through a nondescript black door on 14th Street. It looks more like the entrance to a clandestine nightclub than a health club. A virtual aquarium lives on a flatscreen in the lobby; a “concierge” stands alert behind a podium. Before every workout, members are offered free Voss water and the gym’s own pre-workout powder.
“Fitness is now a social symbol,” Matt Hesse, founder and CEO of Performix House, told me. He cited the prevalence of brunch-time athleisure: “People want you to know that fitness is part of their brand.”
The professional trainers who work for Hesse double as fitness influencers on social media. In this way, the gym functions as a branded content studio—trainers can produce videos for their Instagram pages, and Performix can create content for its partners, such as Muscle & Fitness. Essentially, it’s a kind of experiential brand activation, with no plans to deactivate.
When I asked Hesse to give me an idea of the typical Performix member, he offered, “a young entrepreneur who works really hard and wants to live a fitness lifestyle.” They might be 30 years old and work out four to five times a week. This person requires “efficiency, and everything in one place,” he noted.
At Performix, this efficiency is not just temporal, but chemical. Although the details are not yet finalized, Hesse hopes to launch a group-fitness “experience” in which members take supplements before, during, and after working out, and the efficacy of the products inside their bodies is measured.
“So, it’s like a lab?” I asked, with a little trepidation.
“It’s like a lab where the consumer gets to look inside and see in real time,” Hesse replied. “It’s like a daily clinical study that’s going on eight times a day.” (Or maybe it’s an iteration of Brave New World, set inside a GNC.)
The same push for optimization, for peak efficiency, assumes a slightly more rugged guise at BKBX, an “adventure training center” that opened in March near Harvard Business School in Boston. BKBX is an offshoot of Brooklyn Boulders, a franchise of urban climbing gyms founded in 2009. (There are plans to open a second BKBX in Brooklyn this fall.)
Years in the making, the BKBX facility was designed to help people train indoors for strenuous outdoor pursuits. The regimen revolves around group fitness classes, during which members wear technology that monitors up to 20 biometric factors in real time. The data is then reviewed by experts at the Adventure Bar, who track members’ progress toward specific “adventures” and make workout and recovery recommendations. (BKBX even developed its own performance metric, called the Adventure Quotient.)
BKBX, Performix House, and Ghost share an ethos that fitness is not a way to let off steam from work, but its own serious work of physical self-improvement. But the next-gen gym is not a place you go to sweat and leave; it’s a place to stay and interact.
“Cultish is the wrong word, but you feel like you’re part of a tribe,” said Brooklyn Boulders CEO and co-founder Jeremy Balboni, of the brand’s climbing gyms.
At Brooklyn Boulders, rather than knocking out a workout and taking off, members were hanging around for hours. Naturally, some began to pull out their laptops. The founders took notice.
In the original Gowanus location, they converted a back room into a makeshift coworking space, and they’ve built dedicated coworking spaces into each outpost since. It’s the inverse of Ping-Pong tables and beer taps in the offices of tech companies: Work is infiltrating sites ostensibly designed for play, not the other way around. But both trends are emblematic of the digital economy, in which the tether of smartphones has blurred or erased traditional boundaries.
No company negotiates these boundaries more fluidly than WeWork. It opened Rise by We, a wellness club, in the fall of 2017 underneath its mammoth location in New York’s Financial District. As of this spring, Rise had about 1,000 members, approximately 25 percent of whom are also WeWork members (they receive a discounted membership fee).
Rise is thoughtfully designed, with wood-paneled walls and whimsical artwork and hanging plants. Every area, from the hallway to the yoga studio, seems to exude a different scent. The centerpiece is the Superspa, a unisex facility with a steam room, a cold plunge pool, a mineral pool, a café, and a sauna (where a “sauna-meister” occasionally hosts “therma-therapeutic” sessions). When I visited, patio chairs were set up in a circle in the middle of the space, as if in preparation for a bonfire.
“We all look for belonging, and there are many ways of doing that,” said Balboni, of Brooklyn Boulders. “But you go into a city like New York or Boston or Chicago or D.C.; it’s not easy to find. Like, where do you find it? Do you go to a bar?” The ascent of self-care and wellness, as some young people become “sober-curious,” makes that less likely than it used to be.
Akin to social clubs like Soho House and The Wing, the recent crop of luxury gyms arguably makes the social stratification of old country clubs palatable to millennials. Rather than draw people based on their religious affiliation or ethnic heritage (which, on the flip side, excludes others on that basis), they appeal to people who share a strong drive for efficiency, who have the financial means to pay high fees, and who can, to some extent, dictate where and when they work.
As much as these new gyms trade in the late-capitalist argot of self-optimization, they bespeak a desire among digital natives to be around likeminded people offline. In that respect, it’s not so different from an old-fashioned club, or even the 20th-century office. The vision for the “luxury fitness lounge” is, in some ways, an afterimage from the past.
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Last year, Madrid made history with one of the most comprehensive bans on private vehicles in any European city. The new regulations barred cars not just from the Spanish capital’s historic core, but also from what had been major car routes, including the city’s main avenue, Gran Via. But following knife-edge elections at the end of May, however, that progressive policy looks to be “condemned to death,” as one newspaper headline on Tuesday put it dramatically.
The reasons are, as you would expect, political. A new three-party coalition will now govern the city, involving a right-wing, a centrist and an extreme-right party. All have previously declared themselves in some form against the car ban introduced by Madrid’s outgoing left-wing mayor, Manuela Carmena.
Indeed, this new coalition so far appears to be vociferously in favor of both automobiles and their attendant impacts. The likely new president of the Madrid region (not the city’s mayor), Isabel Díaz Ayuso, even suggested that late-night traffic congestion is “a sign of the city’s identity.” Is Madrid’s role as a city with one of Europe’s most progressive transportation and pollution policies drawing to an unexpected close?
An alliance on the right shifts the balance of power
The political reversal is real enough: The mayor who pushed these policies didn’t secure enough votes. But the election doesn’t really represent a massive repudiation of Madrid’s progressive agenda. Look closely at the results and you see that the city’s political realignment is more like a subtle shift in the balance of power. When outgoing Mayor Carmena came into office in 2015, she did so at the head of a broad left coalition with a narrow majority of 29 seats out of 57. Following last month’s elections, Carmena’s party emerged again as the Madrid assembly’s largest party, losing just one seat.
The game changer is that the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the centrist Ciudadanos brokered a deal with recently emerged extreme-right party Vox, whose four seats gave them just enough to tip the coalition over the finishing line, with 29 seats collectively. Vox doesn’t even bother to dog-whistle its racist views, peddling a rhetoric that suggests Spain’s cathedrals are in danger of being torn down to build mosques; it’s also avowedly anti-feminist and anti-marriage equality. The full political consequences of this pact remain to be seen, but it’s worth pointing out that this extreme-right party has been granted political power and a seat at the table in Madrid’s affairs despite holding only a tiny amount of support in the city itself. It’s unfortunately possible that the city’s progressive road policy will not be the most serious casualty of this pact.
A casualty it would nonetheless be, along with the substantial pollution drops associated with its first five months of operation. Outside Madrid’s City Hall, carbon dioxide levels dropped 44 percent year-on-year while nitrogen dioxide fell by 42 percent, according to monitoring by local ecologists. Property values within the car-ban-zone rose at a rate notably higher than surrounding neighborhoods, while footfall in commercial streets remained reportedly stable. However, these figures have been disputed by some local retail associations, who insist that their turnover has fallen since their businesses became less accessible by car.
Accordingly, the car ban was already set to be a battleground for succeeding city leaders: Madrid’s likely next mayor, PP candidate José Luis Martínez-Almeida, has promised to address the issue as the new administration’s first action. Right now, however, the form that action will take is unclear.
What about a (very) big dig?
The extreme-right party, Vox, supports another option: Keep the cars off the Gran Via and channel that traffic into a cross-downtown tunnel. This would appease the pro-car lobby without alienating locals who have grown fond of the pedestrianized main street. Such an ambitious tunnel plan has kicked around Madrid for many years, and most local experts agree that it’s not feasible. In El Pais, they explain why: Four subway lines cross the avenue along its length, along with various other tunnels and underpasses. Threading a motorway through this subterranean Swiss cheese would be very complex, and any tunnel would either have to disgorge its rumbling cargo of cars in Plaza de Cibeles—one of Madrid’s most iconic architectural ensembles—or be extended out to one of the tunnels that feeds the city’s beltway, which would be incredibly expensive.
The plan is thus likely to end up back in the trash pretty quickly. More feasible is the idea of the city continuing to keep cars out of most of the city center, but allowing them back onto other main streets. That could still be a tough sell that would only get through if every pro-administration assembly member voted obediently with the coalition. And it could prove expensive in other ways: Madrid has in the past incurred millions of euros of fines from the E.U. for exposing its citizens to unacceptably high levels of pollution—levels that have since dropped, thanks to the car ban. A traffic spike that pushed pollution back above safe levels would be both costly and embarrassing. The new administration has thus declared itself committed to revising a policy on which it doesn’t have much room for maneuver.
The fate of Europe’s other anti-car policies
Madrid is hardly alone in its efforts to mitigate the impacts of private vehicles in Europe’s urban areas. Paris has banned cars from some major axial routes across town, a plan currently being followed by Brussels. London has severely tightened penalties for higher-emission vehicles, while Oslo is fighting (and winning) a long battle for a car-free center. On a national level, some tougher rules concerning cars have faced backlash. Most strikingly, France’s Gilets Jaunes movement has been at least partly inspired by the frustration and expense many motorists attribute to privileged urbanites unaware of how badly rural residents need their cars; they’ve been successful in rolling back proposed gas tax rises.
Would a Madrilenian reversal bode ill for Europe’s other car bans? One might be tempted to see the city’s change of heart as the preliminary warning shot of a wider pro-car backlash. But it seems to better reflect the intricacies of Spain’s political alliance system, not a wave of public opinion against green transit policies. After all, car use in Spain has been falling for decades prior to the car ban; Spanish car sales fell 8.8 percent last year. In Madrid, the volume of private vehicles on the road has fallen by 23 percent since 2005.
There are wider social changes pulling vehicles off the roads in Spain, and this particular political shuffle in Madrid is unlikely to be powerful enough to stop that—even if the city’s boldest pro-pedestrian policies could become a thing of the past.
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