Seventy percent of Londoners no longer feel comfortable with the idea of commuting to work via public transport. So says a poll released this week, which also found that 35% of the surveyed U.K. residents said that going back to a traditional office environment would have a negative impact on their mental health.
The poll was compiled by the accountancy and consultancy firm Theta Financial Reporting, which surveyed 2,000 adults online last weekend. It’s a small sample of the city’s workforce, but it lays bare the concerns and anxieties many city-dwellers are feeling as they contemplate a return to pre-pandemic routines.
Right now, London is, with the rest of Britain, tentatively emerging from lockdown. Shops open on June 15, when schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 18 will also start receiving some part-time in-person teaching again. Zoos and safari parks, of all places, are reopening, while socially distanced outdoor gatherings will be allowed for groups of up to six people. As some familiar patterns return, so are fears about crossing paths with contagion. But are those worries underpinned by actual risks in places such as the public transit network?
It’s still too early to provide a definitive answer. Figures for May from Japan and France found no coronavirus clusters emerging on public transit in those countries — although this result could reflect less a total absence of transmissions than the difficulty of linking multiple cases to transmission taking place in a particular vehicle at a specific time. The path the virus has taken in London, however, has created some alarming death rates among the city’s public transit workers: So far, at least 37 Transport for London employees have died from Covid-19, with 28 of those fatalities occurring among bus drivers.
At this stage it’s not possible to confirm precisely when and how these workers were infected, but the government’s initial failure to provide adequate PPE was likely a factor. Bus drivers may have especially high rates of illness because they come into close proximity with passengers on London’s front-boarding buses (and work in some vehicle models that are notorious for their poor ventilation). Across all transit modes on the network, mask-wearing by passengers has been patchy — perhaps understandably so, given that it only becomes compulsory across the U.K. on public transit on June 15.
On London’s trains, ventilation quality varies considerably across the network, as the map in the tweet below clarifies. The surface-level Overground network of trains feature doors that open to above-ground stations, so there is likely a good level of air exchange. London’s four “sub-surface” lines, created by cut-and-cover methods just beneath the path of pre-existing streets, also have airier single cars, plus tunnels wide enough to accommodate full air conditioning systems. Lines on the so-called “Deep Tube”— excavated far below surface level — are another story: Their tunnels are too narrow to be air conditioned, and have generally poor air circulation on platforms too.
So with temperatures at 33C today, 34C tomorrow and 37C (!!) in London on Thursday – it’s time to roll out what i produced last year, and that’s the Air Conditioned Map of London! Please feel free to RT … pic.twitter.com/uwiLGa0qNE
This still doesn’t automatically mean London’s public transit poses a high coronavirius transmission risk for passengers. Unlike drivers, riders aren’t seated in the same vehicle for hours on end as a huge volume of potentially infected people file by. Indeed, French and Japanese public health data suggests — without explicitly confirming — that enclosed spaces such as health facilities, offices or bars, where people remain in close contact for hours at a time, often speaking, offer conditions far more conducive to contagion-spreading than vehicles in which people remain only for short periods, observe some social distancing and talk little.
But places such as London’s Tube still feel deeply unsafe for many Londoners, especially those with fresh memories of being packed tightly into rush-hour cars full of commuters every morning. In a sense, the coronavirus anxiety that lingers over public transit use is an extension of the broader disdain that many urbanites have for a mode of travel that (especially in the U.S.) is often dismissed and dirty and unpleasant. Hanging out in a bar might pose a worse risk, but it’s also fun — and drinkers know they can walk out the door at any moment if they feel things are getting too crowded. If you’re deep underground aboard a subway car, it isn’t necessarily easy or swift to remove yourself.
Those crowds are not returning anytime too soon, however. As things stand, regular commuting by public transit remains a distant prospect for many Londoners. As this hard-hit city gears up to resume its pre-pandemic habits, TfL’s action plan for restarting London rests substantially on encouraging people to walk and cycle for as many journeys as possible. As in several European cities, London has made many central streets car-free and created temporary cycle highways. The Tube, by contrast, will only be permitted to carry 10% to 15% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the recovery period.
In pre-pandemic times, half of all journeys in London were carried out by public transit — and roads are already too congested to absorb more cars, even if Londoners all owned private vehicles. In the weeks ahead, a substantial number of people will have to either cycle to work or stay working from home, even if they don’t want to. Those Londoners who remain anxious about commuting on public transit can thus take heart: There’s no room for them now anyway.
When coronavirus cases first emerged in Washington state in February, King County officials spent $4.5 million in emergency funds to buy an 85-room Econolodge in the greater Seattle area, throwing another $1.5 million on top for renovations.
As the epicenter of one of the largest outbreaks in the U.S., King County anticipated that its hospitals would likely become overwhelmed with a surge of patients. The county needed to make more space to put sick individuals who wouldneed to be isolated but wouldn’t require hospitalization, and for people whodon’thave a home to be isolated or quarantined in — like the homeless or those living in shelters.
With coronavirus cases escalating in the U.S., other cities may soon also face a shortage of space. Whereas in Wuhan, China, where the global outbreak originated, the national government was able to step in to build two large hospitals in a matter of weeks to house the sick and protect the rest of the public, the division of powerin the U.S. places that burden on the local government.(Plus, “it’s too darn expensive,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.)
America’s defense against epidemics “is divided among 2,684 state, local, and tribal public-health departments,” Emory University legal historian Polly Price recently that finding “even a small number of units can be challenging,” in part because vacant hotels are hard to come by in the city.
Then there are American citizens being repatriated. In California, officials are still evacuating more than 2,500passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship who will need to be quarantined after 21 people on board tested positive for the virus. In this case, the federal government — which is responsible for the evacuation and working with state and city government to quarantine those people — is converting military bases, the most abundant of government-owned facilities, into quarantine sites in California, Georgia, and Texas
But even those are limited, and without all levels of the government on board, Price says, such plans spark conflict. A dozen passengers who have mild symptoms but have not been tested for the coronavirus were sent to a state-owned conference center in Monterey County. That prompted concerns from local officials who say the state did not notify them beforehand and essentially gave the county no option but to accept the passengers. A district supervisor told Mercury News that her residents are anxious, and that the sudden news is already affecting the city’s tourism-driven economy.
Back in King County, Washington, the move to buy a hotel isn’t without controversy, as Kent city officials protest the county’s decision. “They are replicating and bringing a situation similar in scale to the Life Care Center of Kirkland and dropping it off in Kent,” Mayor Dana Ralph said at a news conference last Wednesday, referring to the nursing home that’s at the center of King County’s coronavirus-related deaths. The city filed a motion to put a temporary restraining order on the county, and after a county judge denied it, Ralph pledged to continue the fight in court.
“If you look back at our more distant past, it’s common for regions, if they see an outbreak spreading, to try to do everything to keep it from coming to them,” Price says. “The thought is, ‘We don’t want these facilities in our backyard.’”
In spring 2018, Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, issued a grave warning about the new generation of urban transportation companies such as Uber.
“A lot of these private actors and companies are not mobility companies,” Reynolds told an audience at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “They are data companies. And they are building new empires on top of a platform that we are absolutely not ready for.”
The power dynamics must shift, she continued. “We have to bust our ways of thinking inside government in particular.”
Later that fall, Los Angeles launched an open-source data standard and software system designed to hold sway over these new operators. Known as the “mobility data specification,” or MDS, the platform collects information from discrete vehicle trips in near real time, and lets the city communicate back to operators.
Right now, it’s only being used by “micromobility” companies: In order to keep its sidewalks clear of stray dockless scooters and bikes, L.A. requires operators to send start and stop locations of individual vehicle trips back to City Hall, within five seconds, in addition to the routes they traveled within 24 hours. Eventually, all kinds of current and future transportation forms—from ride-hailing and car-sharing to delivery drones and autonomous vehicles—could fall under the omniscient gaze of the MDS platform. By gathering these data points, as well as trip times and whether vehicles are on or off, Reynolds says she can manage the size and dispersal of licensed private fleets, and eventually where they travel, take off, and land.
L.A.’s model has been hailed as key to the future of urban mobility. In the face of disruptive technologies clogging streets and edging into the skies, at least 70 U.S. municipalities and several global cities have adopted parts of MDS since L.A. formally launched its scooter rules in late 2018. The New York Times recentlyfeatured Reynolds as a problem-solving “eyewitness to monumental shifts in transportation.”
But the project has a powerful detractor: Uber. The ride-hailing giant has refused to share the data that L.A. seeks from its Jump e-bikes, claiming it would infringe upon riders’ privacy rights, and its lawyers assert that the architects of the MDS platform have an ulterior motive. In a hearing at L.A. City Hall in January, an Uber attorney argued that consultants hired to build MDS are “trying to help LADOT build an infrastructure to collect vast quantifies of valuable, private, sensitive data so that they can find ways to monetize it and so they can ultimately control the physical movement of bikes, scooters and cars on the streets of Los Angeles,” according to a transcript. On February 25, the company will make its case to the California senate, as state lawmakers grapple with how cities ought to handle citizens’ travel data. And it has threatened to sue L.A. if the city doesn’t change its rules.
But a number of privacy experts and civic technologists agree that, this time, Uber has some valid points about how L.A. has gone about building and sharing its mobility data platform. As LADOT has shaken up how government agencies operate and spread its model to cities around the world, it has faced criticism about transparency and privacy and alarmed industry incumbents beyond Uber.
In particular, critics have pointed to the city’s alliance with a secretive venture capital-backed start-up that is building its business on helping cities gather reams of vehicle data. A CityLab probe of that start-up, Lacuna, reveals that it played a significant role in MDS, even though the city devised the project in part to be a check on the power of such technology companies.
L.A. maintains that the project is the city’s own brainchild, and that it is open to relationships with all businesses that play by its rules. Yet the complicated cast of characters reveals something deeper. In a way, L.A’s effort to impose order on things that move and fly in the city has turned into a low-key replay of the urban tech disruptions of the last decade. Unicorns like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb drew similar objections when they charged into cities, promising to change the world; now the city is hearing some of the same arguments, from some of the same unicorns.
How did a project that began with tidying up sidewalks turn into such a bitter struggle? This scooter saga shows what happens when the tables turn and the city plays tech disruptor.
Air traffic control, for the streets
Reynolds arrived in L.A. in 2014 after years of leading the livable streets division of San Francisco’s transportation department. Her time in the Bay Area coincided with the early years of the ride-hailing business, as Uber in particular gained a reputation for ignoring local regulations and stonewalling officials from accessing data.
Reynolds wanted L.A. to be on steadier footing in the face of further technological disruption. In March 2018, she awarded a multi-year contract for developing rules and tools in anticipation of autonomous vehicles and other futuristic modes to a firm called Ellis & Associates.
It was an unconventional choice. John Ellis, the founder, was a self-described “big data futurist” and a former technologist at Ford and Motorola. In 2017 he self-published a book called TheZero Dollar Car, which theorized about a marketplace where drivers could sell the data their vehicle generates and conceivably ride for free. Ellis & Associates had no stated experience contracting with local governments. The $1 million-a-year plan that he submitted to Reynolds envisioned something unusual: The city should own the data generated on public rights-of-way and use it to create safer, smoother streets.
“The speed of innovation that’s occurring inside of transportation requires cities to operate at a slightly different pace in order not to stifle that innovation, and in a way that lets the city discharge its stewardship functions,” said Ellis in an interview with CityLab in 2019.
Setting the foundation for L.A.’s happier transportation future would require rethinking the city’s relationship to daily traffic flows, his proposal stated. It imagined an “automatic control system,” in which the city administers movement to vehicles, based on a constant flow of real-time data from bikes, cars, and other vehicles. For example, LADOT could do more than just monitor where drivers and riders were heading: It could control their routes, by sending turn-by-turn guidance through open-source “APIs”—software programs that let other companies directly interface with L.A.’s servers.
Creating this ground-level version of air traffic control would require technology that the city government could not build on its own. Rather than procure specific pieces of proprietary software, Ellis & Associates suggested that L.A. build a software platform, similar to Google’s open-source Android program, so that future developers could easily adapt the infrastructure or create their own.
These ideas were a significant departure from how city DOTs have traditionally collected data, through traffic counts from stationary pavement sensors and pole-mounted enforcement cameras. And they were conceptualized for a future streetscape populated by autonomous vehicles. But when dockless scooters flooded L.A. in summer 2018, it seemed to Reynolds that the moment was right to test her fledgling system.
That fall, the first two scooter companies, Lime and Spin, announced that they would agree to use MDS as part of their permit to operate in L.A. “At LADOT, our job is to move people and goods as quickly and safely as possible, but we can only do that if we have a complete picture of what’s on our streets and where,” Reynolds said at the time.
Privately, the idea of sharing granular information with the city didn’t sit completely well with those scooter operators, whose leaders worried that the standard didn’t sufficiently anonymize their customers’ personal information. “There’s inevitably some tension when we try to balance our commitment to sharing data with our city partners while protecting the privacy of our users,” said Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin.
On the other hand, they were also grateful to have a standardized format for communicating with bureaucrats, and they were wary of creating bad blood, as their ride-hailing predecessors had. They hustled to comply with MDS, reworking their internal software platforms. Meanwhile, Reynolds hit the road to promote her vision, speaking at SXSW, CES, TechCrunch, and other global stages.
In response to these concerns, LADOT published its first set of privacy principles. The city would protect the data, never sell it, and resist subpoenas, it said. And Reynolds has stuck to her belief in tight monitoring. Near real-time data lets the city quickly locate scooters in the event of a street closure or wildfire, and ensure that companies are serving transit-starved neighborhoods, she says: “It’s really useful for knowing where the fleet is in relationship to the geofence.”
And it seems to help keep the sidewalks clear: In a recent op-ed in Forbes, Reynolds pointed out that 311 complaints about scooters have declined by 73 percent since the city implemented MDS, even as scooter ridership grew.
By mid-2019, more than a dozen other U.S. cities had adopted L.A.’s data-sharing standard as part of their own scooter permitting schemes, and their ranks were quickly growing. Realizing that decisions about MDS could no longer be made by L.A. alone, Reynolds and Ellis started planning a nonprofit to house and direct the program under a larger umbrella. In June, the Open Mobility Foundation launched with a mission to guide the future of MDS and other city-led rule-making efforts. The director’s board included 13 city transportation officials and its membership included several data and mobility companies, including Microsoft, Stae, Bird, and Spin. Their dues, alongside philanthropic support, provided a financial foundation. (Uber and Lyft were not approached to join.) Reynolds sat as board chair.
“Our goal isn’t to bring start-ups to heel, or shelter MDS from efforts to legislate it out of existence, or to game the public realm for the benefit of private companies,” Reynolds wrote in Forbes in July. “[The Open Mobility Foundation is] about a much larger vision for a new platform to manage urban mobility in all shapes and sizes.”
The missing piece emerges
But one prominent member of the OMF was kept under wraps. That was Lacuna Technologies, a venture-backed start-up that launched in a rented office space at Playground Global, the incubator founded by ex-Googler Andy Rubin (who was later bought out and has no involvement with Lacuna). From Playground’s converted warehouse in Palo Alto (complete with swing set and slide), Lacuna acquired Ellis & Associates, the consultants working with L.A., in November 2018.
Over the next ten months, Lacuna worked in “stealth” mode, in Silicon Valley parlance: It offered no press releases or comments to the media; its website provided a few broad platitudes about bridging the gap between cities and the private sector to anticipate autonomous vehicles.
But Lacuna was busy ingraining itself into LADOT’s work. Lacuna product managers dialed into MDS developer phone calls and began to edit MDS specs on Github, an open-source code repository. Lacuna staff helped LADOT recruit companies to join the Open Mobility Foundation, and put up a $100,000 letter of credit to help finance the burgeoning public-private partnership.
Although Lacuna is registered as a separate entity as Ellis & Associates, and the latter is described as a “wholly owned subsidiary,” Github edits, LinkedIn pages, and emails viewed by CityLab shows that employees have presented themselves as representatives of both companies. Making matters more confusing, Ellis sometimes introduced himself at industry events as LADOT’s “chief technologist.”
Why was this tight-lipped company so close to L.A., editing and promoting the standards that L.A. and other cities were using? What were they building? Whispers wended through the intimate world of mobility start-ups and civic technologists.
Hugh Martin, Lacuna’s CEO, says he wishes he could go back and announce Lacuna to the public earlier than it did—it was nothing nefarious, just an oversight. In September 2019, Lacuna revealed itself, pitching itself as an operator of open-source tools for channeling the river of mobility data that cities collect through MDS and other standards, akin to the open-source software builder Red Hat. Martin believes that open source is the key to helping cities to manage their streets, since it lets local governments iterate on one another’s work and avoid getting locked into expensive proprietary systems.
He also thinks DOTs need to stand up the monolithic powers of Uber, which now offers ride-hailing, car-sharing, scooters, helicopters, and even public transit tickets through a single platform. If cities want to be able to capture any of those trips or nudge travelers towards more sustainable modes, they’ll have to compete with the “Amazon of transportation” and build their own digital transportation platforms.
“Any city in the world where you can get off the plane and open the Uber app … that city has a problem,” Martin told CityLab in an interview last fall. “They’re already starting to need tools to manage this stuff.”
But most cities face a technical skill gap. “We own Ellis & Associates, so I know what a heavy lift it is to get L.A., which is sophisticated,” he said. Less advanced municipalities will need more hand-holding to achieve their own digital mobility revolutions, and Lacuna is there to fill the void, as its name implies.
Yet competing start-ups, such as Remix, Populus, and RideReport, also help scooter companies and cities sort through shared pools of information using MDS. Their leaders worry that the relationship between Lacuna and LADOT raises ethical questions, because the same private entity that helped architect L.A.’s open-source digital mobility rules and spread them to dozens of cities now seeks to profit by helping new cities run those regulations. In effect, through Ellis & Associate’s close work with LADOT, they say that Lacuna helped build its own market, without being upfront about its intentions early on.
“Any company that is working with a city and has a powerful role in defining standards that most cities are using should say, ‘Here is what our plan is,’” said William Henderson, the CEO of RideReport. “It makes people really uncomfortable when one company is playing by a different set of rules or appears to be.”
Such a two-sided position between cities and mobility companies is ripe for what’s known as “vendor capture,” according to Molly Turner, a start-up adviser, urban innovation lecturer at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, and CityLab contributor. When that dynamic is paired with the hockey-stick growth expectations of venture capital investors, the pressure to win can encourage start-ups to behave aggressively. “Venture capital has the potential to make a ton of money off of solving these urban problems,” said Turner. “But when an idea comes out of City Hall, venture funding can also create a ton of perverse incentives and ethical challenges for all parties involved.”
In this case, the more difficulty cities have implementing MDS, the better third-party intermediaries such as Lacuna, Remix, Populus, and RideReport do, since their job is to help cities make sense of technical matters. Lacuna—which is now advised by Bradley Tusk, the political strategist who famously helped Uber conquer New York City regulators and has since said the company has “lost their mojo” under its new CEO—could be particularly well-positioned, Turner said: It has had access to the behind-the-scenes challenges that at least one city faces and shaped MDS code when L.A. still owned it.
Some players also say that the data standard’s fundamental design fails to meet the needs of some cities that have adopted it, pointing to a recent report from Chicago that found limitations with MDS in its scooter permitting pilot. (That city also said that having data standards in general was “an absolute necessity.”) “Because the data standards seem to be designed for an alternative purpose, real-time control and management of autonomous vehicles (using scooters as an experiment), we find that the standards cities have adopted fail to adequately answer some of the key questions cities have around safety and equity,” said Rodney Stiles, the head of policy at Populus.
Whether or not Lacuna has an unfair advantage, competitors say Lacuna and LADOT ought to have been more transparent about the start-up’s role inside MDS.
LADOT holds that Lacuna’s business interests have been kept duly separate from Ellis & Associates’ work on MDS, and that it has been transparent about its nature and purpose. The city says MDS began as a “bootstrapped” project by its own staff and predates the start-up’s existence. “Private mobility companies, they are responsible to their shareholders,” said Connie Llanos, LADOT’s assistant general manager of external affairs. “We’re responsible to everyone.”
LADOT also says that building MDS in open-source code shields against the adverse effects of privileged vendor relationships. “This has allowed others, even Uber, to make edits to the specs,” said Llanos. “It also allows all companies to develop tools and programs to complement the system, since its available in the open market. This process is in complete opposition to the vendor capture model.”
Lacuna’s Martin says his company has no special benefits inside OMF, and dismisses questions about its access to LADOT as axe-grinding from competitors. The start-up is simply working to help cities contend with much larger threats to the public good. “I think it’ll be very interesting to look back in five years to see what cities accomplish and cause industry to do things in their service, and say, ‘Was someone saying something about Lacuna?’” he said.
Still, Reynolds, LADOT’s general manager, recognizes the potential for profit interests to interfere when cities depend on consultants and private sector expertise for technological needs, even as they’re standing up to other companies like Uber. She says she is putting protections in place within LADOT to make sure the social-good objectives of MDS are kept intact, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“There are no models for what we are trying to do, and the stakes are very high for cities to have an equal footing with the private sector so we can have a collaborative approach to the challenges we face,” she said. “The credibility of the work matters deeply.”
An unlikely fighter for privacy rights
That credibility is something Uber appears to be set on destroying. Its staff has seized on the murky relationship between L.A. and its consultants, as well as the “automatic control” system they envision, to fight the city.
To serve as legal representation in a civil appeals hearing in January, Uber secured civil rights attorney Roberta Kaplan, co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (who’s also currently representing the journalist E. Jean Carroll in her defamation suit against President Donald Trump). After Uber refused to share near real-time data with L.A., the city revoked its permit to operate e-bikes. In two days of arguments and witness testimony at City Hall to fight that decision, Kaplan and her colleagues made the case that Uber’s refusal to abide by MDS was fundamentally about rejecting the future the city hopes to achieve.
“It is surely no exaggeration to say that what LADOT is proposing here resembles the world of a dystopian novel, like 1984 or Brave New World… where the government tracks its citizens in real-time about where people were, where they are, and where they are going,” Kaplan said, according to a transcript. Her colleagues pointed repeatedly to the potential for L.A.’s consultants to profit.
In Uber’s appeals hearing, LADOT’s lawyers countered that the factual heart of the dispute—that Uber shirked the regulations that L.A. is legally entitled to establish—was cut and dried. They also questioned whether Uber planned to follow the rules at all. The city won.
Meanwhile, changes are coming to MDS. The Open Mobility Foundation is now in charge of the open-source code, and many members do not share LADOT’s vision for using the data-sharing standard as the basis for a vehicle control system. Speaking for her city, Robin Hutcheson, the director of public works in Minneapolis and a director of the OMF board, said that “we think it’s essential that data is aggregated and anonymized.” Having a standard has helped immensely with managing her city’s mobility networks, she said. The organization is establishing practices for anonymizing MDS data, and discussing a range of appropriate uses for it. Reynolds has also developed more nuanced ideas about the “digital twin” of L.A. streets she hopes to build. Perhaps the granularity of data required will depend on the mode, she says; Ellis’ “air traffic control” metaphor no longer really fits.
Whether Uber’s legal and lobbying challenges will put a chill on the MDS project—and the emerging business interests that have quietly aligned themselves with it—remains to be seen. Reynolds has been astonished by the level of pushback that has greeted her efforts. After all, people yield far more intimate information to private companies all the time—three times as much as what MDS gathers, according to Llanos—despite the constant drumbeat of consumer data breaches and corporate misdeeds. Across California cities, congestion and vehicle-miles are on the rise, as are traffic fatalities; the ride-hailing industry has likely contributed to these trends. Yet here, a well-intended effort to manage L.A.’s streets and get ahead of sea-changes in transportation has been met with resistance, intense scrutiny, and charges of assembling an Orwellian surveillance regime.
That’s the price of being an innovator in local government, Reynolds said: “The criticisms that you open yourself up to are even more than if you stick with the status quo.”
That may be a familiar feeling for the people inside the venture-backed start-ups that got cities into this mess to begin with. As L.A. has sought to rein in such disruptors, it has, in a way, become one of them. “The move to collect data, then think about the implications later—that’s totally the tech company playbook,” Henderson said.
Indeed, although L.A.’s mission has been all about the public sector standing up to private companies, it turns out the battle lines are not so clear.
“The stakes were not equal, and we weren’t on equal footing,” Reynolds said at an industry event in December. “In order to get companies to speak to us, we had to speak in their language.” Nearly two years later, it seems L.A. has become a lot more fluent.
This is a second version of today’s newsletter that corrects two nonworking links in the original. Thanks to those who sent feedback.
What We’re Following
Buffalo chills: As many cities begin to see what a warming world looks like and gear up to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, Buffalo, New York, is unusually well-insulated from the problem. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York and the city had only one 90-degree day in 2019. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up.
What’s more, the city has plenty of space to take in more people after seeing its population decline since the 1950s. The city’s mayor even called it a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address. As one SUNY Buffalo State climate scientist put it, “With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.” On CityLab, Jeremy Deaton explores whether the city will be prepared for a potential migrant influx: Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?
Wild turkeys have made a remarkable comeback in the U.S. since the early 20th century, leading to more reports of them causing trouble in the neighborhood.
Loyal CityLab readers, we want hear from you! The last ten years have seen cities and metropolitan areas transformed in fundamental ways, while other predictions and promises about urban life haven’t come to pass.
As we reflect on the legacy of the decade, Team CityLab wants your input on what we should be covering and what you saw change in the places where you live. Send a few lines our way in this quick survey: What Defined the Decade From 2010-2020 in Cities?
What We’re Reading
Uber says 3,045 sexual assaults were reported in U.S. rides last year (New York Times)
How America’s second-tier cities can catch the superstars (Bloomberg)
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Maria Robles saw rainfall so severe that it punched a hole through her roof and flooded her home in San Juan. “We lost everything inside the house,” she said. “Everything, everything, everything.”
The storm marked the beginning of a long journey that took her from the convention center in San Juan to a hotel in Florida to an airport in Philadelphia, concluding with an 11-hour bus ride to Buffalo, New York — her husband had once visited the city as a teenager and remembered liking it. She arrived with two of her four children in tow. It didn’t take long for Robles and her family to settle into their new home. She landed a job in a factory that makes face cream, lip balm, and other personal care products, while her husband found a job in a plastics factory. Robles said she still struggles with the frigid weather, but she would gladly take a snowstorm over a hurricane any day.
Robles may not have known it when she moved in, but Buffalo is unusually well-insulated against climate change. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up. And Buffalo has room to grow — the city’s population has dropped by half over the last 70 years of industrial decline.
These facts have not gone unnoticed. In his 2019 State of the City address, the mayor dubbed Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City.” Civic leaders are hopeful that the coming wave of climate refugees will revive Buffalo, filling its vacant lots and abandoned storefronts.
“Buffalo is stepping up and preparing to welcome this new type of refugee,” said the city’s mayor, Byron Brown. “We believe that we can accommodate people who have experienced displacement due to harsh weather and natural disaster.”
As Buffalo becomes a more appealing place to migrate, can it remain a haven for refugees like Robles, who come in search of affordable housing and a decent job? Or will Buffalo become a cold-weather haven for the professional class? With ample space for newcomers, Buffalo doesn’t look like cities typically at risk for gentrifying. But what happens if high earners from vulnerable cities like Miami and New York flock to the shores of Lake Erie? Will Buffalo be prepared?
“With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.”
In 2016, SUNY Buffalo climate scientist Stephen Vermette set out to show how climate change had made life harder in western New York with the hope of galvanizing locals to take up arms against the carbon crisis. He scoured weather records going back to 1965 and found that temperatures have risen a little more than 2 degrees Farenheit over that time, roughly consistent with the rest of the Lower 48.
But that’s where the similarities ended. While warmer weather has fueled fires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, and flooding in the Midwest, climate change has left western New York mostly untouched. Vermette found no evidence that rainfall has grown more severe, or that heat waves have grown more frequent — Buffalo had only one 90-degree day in 2019. He said the breeze off of Lake Erie acts like a natural air conditioner, helping to keep the city cool.
“When I would present this data, I was somewhat apologetic, because I couldn’t find some of the trends that we would expect to be seeing in western New York,” said Vermette, author of The Face of WNY’s Weather. “It’s bad news if you’re trying to demonstrate that the climate is changing.”
Vermette thought there must be a gap in the data or a flaw in his analysis, so he crunched the numbers again and again, every time arriving at the same result — a flat line. It was only after repeated attempts to find evidence of worsening weather that Vermette started to think that western New York might be responding to rising temperatures differently than the rest of the country. This was a revelation, and one he would see corroborated by other experts.
“The way I described it at a meeting once was, ‘With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less,’” he said. “We may not only be able to adapt. We may actually thrive as a region in a world where the climate is changing.”
In a city now said to have only two seasons — winter and the Fourth of July — climate change will mean longer summers and shorter, milder winters. And where other cities like Los Angeles and San Diego will be plagued by drought, Buffalo will have a steady supply of water. The Great Lakes region is home to around 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, much of it flowing past Buffalo’s doorstep along the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.
Experts expect these facts will drive people to move to Buffalo, and they say the city will have room to accommodate them. Since the population of Buffalo peaked in the 1950s at around 580,000 people, residents have steadily left the city, bringing the current population to around 260,000. As a result, Buffalo has enough land, housing, sewer infrastructure, and water infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands of additional people.
Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University, is currently undertaking a wide-ranging analysis of factors like temperature, sea-level rise, historical migration patterns, and other variables to predict how the populations of 82 U.S. counties will shift as the planet warms. He said that Erie County, home of Buffalo, is among the counties projected to see the biggest increase.
“By the end of the century, we’re going to see a massive relocation and redistribution of urban populations,” he said. “Buffalo is really well situated in many ways.”
“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know.”
In September of 2018, Harvard climate adaptation expert Jesse Keenan told The Guardian that, as the planet warmed, Americans might find refuge in northern cities, naming Duluth and Buffalo. The article caught the eye of Mayor Brown, who named Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address.
Notably that speech included no mention of what the city was doing to prepare for the expected influx of climate refugees — no new blue-ribbon committees, no new policy announcements.
“I heard that line, and I was waiting for something else to come out of his comment, and there was nothing,” Vermette said. “There is no initiative by the city. There is no embracing what we’ve done here. It was just a thing to say.”
In April, the New York Times picked up the thread, scribing a story on how Duluth and Buffalo had positioned themselves as climate havens. While Vermette and his collaborator, sustainability expert George Besch, spoke to the Times for the story, the mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment because, according to a spokesperson, the mayor had no progress to report.
“I did everything I could to get a meeting with the mayor just to prepare him,” Besch said. “He never even bothered.”
When interviewed for this story in October, Mayor Brown had several achievements to list. He touted Buffalo’s recent designation as a Climate Smart Community, which is conferred on cities that take steps to cut carbon pollution and prepare for extreme weather. He said that Buffalo is installing LED street lights, placing solar panels on city buildings, planting trees, and upgrading the sewer system to better guard against flooding — laudable goals, to be sure, but not the kind of initiatives experts say are needed to make Buffalo a bona fide climate refuge.
Vermette, for instance, is seeking funding to run a high-resolution climate model, one that accounts for the effects of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, to better understand what rising temperatures will mean for western New York. While Buffalo may be protected from the worst ravages of climate change, it is not invulnerable, he said, and the city needs to know what to expect.
Besch wants to ensure that Buffalo continues to be a refuge for people of modest means and not just a haven for high earners. He and other experts interviewed for this story recommended planning for more high-density affordable housing in areas with access to public transportation. They also said the city should plan to preserve green spaces, including many currently empty lots, to help keep Buffalo cool.
“If they’re rhetorically saying, ‘Yes, come here, come here,’ I would like to see what’s actually happening on the ground,” Shandas said. “I think it might be pretty premature for us to be saying that it’s an ideal place, in part because we haven’t really seen the preparation necessary for larger numbers of people.”
Besch was more emphatic.
“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it,” he said. “I could declare myself a millionaire, but the bank would not cash my checks accordingly. I would need to earn it.”
“Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’?”
In the weeks after the Robles family arrived in Buffalo, their new neighbors welcomed them with gifts. They received coats from a local dry cleaner and food from a nearby pantry. WIVB, the local CBS affiliate, ran a news story about Robles and her children spending their first Thanksgiving in Buffalo. After that, she said, people started calling into the station to ask how they could help. Some donated food, clothes, or presents for the children. One woman even bought them a brand new washer and dryer. “New, new, new, I tell you. New,” she said. “I was the first one who used it.”
This is the spirit that pervades Buffalo. “Buffalo is a very giving city, a very compassionate city,” said Casimiro Rodriguez, head of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. After Hurricane Maria, he traveled to Puerto Rico to help with the relief effort. While there, he went on radio and TV programs to encourage people to move to Buffalo. He helped many newcomers, including Robles, find housing and enroll in schools once they arrived.
For Buffalo to remain affordable and accessible for people like Robles, the city may have to enact smart housing policies to help support climate refugees.
Besch draws a distinction between climate refugees and climate migrants. The former would include those like Maria Robles, who came to Buffalo with what she could pack in a suitcase after a natural disaster. The latter would include those like software developer Lindsay Tropf.
Tropf moved to the city as part of 43North, an initiative funded by New York state that awards money to select startups that relocate to Buffalo. The program has drawn entrepreneurs in growing fields like clean energy and biotech. Tropf is the CEO of Immersed Games, which make educational software to teach students about climate change.
“We needed to leave Florida and find a new home for our startup, and I had been doing a little research to try to figure out what is going to be the safest place in the country to live in the future,” she said. “That was one of the initial things that they told us about — the research on Buffalo being recommended as a safe haven for climate change.”
After living through Hurricane Irma, Tropf said, this was significant. “I don’t have to shut down my office for two weeks every year fleeing for our lives from hurricanes,” she said.
The only thing more attractive was the cost of living. As she likes to tell recruits, someone earning $100,000 in Manhattan could enjoy the same standard of living in Buffalo for around $39,000 a year, according to NerdWallet. That fact has sent many young, white-collar workers like Tropf packing for Buffalo.
Mayor Brown said that in next year’s census, for the first time in decades, the city expects to see a small measure of population growth. Many hope that new workers and businesses will help revitalize the local economy. But a growing population could also present new challenges—the recent influx of millennials has reportedly spurred gentrification and led to an uptick in property values.
Brown believes that gentrification has not yet taken hold in Buffalo, saying that the challenge for the city isn’t high housing costs, but low incomes, which is why City Hall is focused on initiatives that create jobs and raise wages. But experts fear such policies won’t be enough to protect Buffalo’s working classin the longer term, especially as climate change draws more high earners to the city. They say civic leaders need a plan to prevent future gentrification.
“Say Buffalo becomes this magnet that’s attracting everybody that’s looking for a good place to live. It will become the East Coast version of San Francisco,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. “Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’? The White City is a city for white people and other groups who can manage to afford to live there.”
Keenan, the Harvard climate adaptation expert, said Buffalo could become another example of climate gentrification, a phenomenon already underway in Miami, for example, where property values are rising faster in high-elevation, low-income neighborhoods that are better protected against sea-level rise. Keenan said that climate gentrification exists on both the small and large scale.
“It isn’t just people moving from one neighborhood to another neighborhood. It’s a kind of trans-state and, you could even argue, transnational proposition,” he said. “You can either get ahead of this, or you can sit back and observe it.”
Taylor said that parts of downtown Buffalo with new offices and apartments have already seen an exodus of black residents. He believes that, rather than focusing on luring developers to build loft apartments and boutique office buildings, what he referred to as “the San Francisco model,” the city needs to be willing to preserve affordable housing.
“The San Francisco, the Chicago model, the Washington, D.C., model, the New York City model — that’s the model that they’re using here. And they are caught between this idea that there is either this model that they’re using, or death,” Taylor said. “They’re frustrated because they can’t figure out how to get this square peg called ‘equity, equality, justice’ into this round hole called ‘the market.’”
“They have this wide-right mentality.”
There is perhaps no better moment that captured the spirit of Buffalo than Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. The Buffalo Bills, who were favored to win by seven points, trailed the New York Giants in the final minutes. With eight seconds left, kicker Scott Norwood had the chance to clinch the win with a difficult 47-yard field goal attempt. In a heartbreaking turn, he sent the ball sailing wide right. The Bills lost that game and the next three consecutive Super Bowls, and the phrase “wide right” became synonymous with the team and, to some extent, the city.
“One of the things that I have said about Buffalo is that they have this ‘wide right’ mentality,” Taylor said. “They have this mentality where they are always kind of there, but never there.” The defining feature of the city, he said, is that it never seems to live up to its potential.
That being said, Buffalo is nothing if not resilient. After losing that first Super Bowl, the Bills’ head coach Marv Levy roused his players by appealing to their toughness, famously posting the text of the 14th century poem “Sir Andrew Barton” in the locker room.
‘Fight on, my men,’ Sir Andrew said,
‘A little I’m hurt, but not yet slain;
I’ll just lie down and bleed awhile,
And then I’ll rise and fight again.’
Levy was speaking to the character of the team, but he might as well have been talking about the city and its people.
“You can’t have a working-class town like Buffalo without a strong union tradition, without workers fighting for their rights, a place where the soil is drenched with the blood of native people fighting for their lands and their rights, where the Underground Railroad took blacks from slavery to freedom,” Taylor said. “That’s the foundation upon which the city is built.”
The challenge for Buffalo, he said, is that it must not model itself after San Francisco and New York City, attracting white-collar migrants who displace working-class natives. If it is going to be a climate refuge, he says, it needs to do better than the gilded coastal metropolises.
“Do you want to emulate them? Or do you want them to emulate us? Do you want to travel their road to greatness, or do you want to take another road to greatness?” he said. “It won’t happen naturally. We’ll have to fight to make that occur.”
This work is supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists funded by Microsoft News.