What Abu Dhabi’s City of the Future Looks Like Now

MASDAR CITY, United Arab Emirates—The driverless electric vehicle that travels the streets of this pilot eco-city is royal blue and vaguely resembles a vintage VW microbus. It glides along at a cautionary speed for three blocks, then reverses direction to do it again, beeping like a microwave oven all the while. One of the many cats roaming the complex watches indifferently.

It’s a lonely exercise, as the streets of Masdar City seem to be occupied mostly by tour groups coming to check out the master-planned clean-tech hub near Abu Dhabi’s international airport. A little more than 10 years old, Masdar City was billed as a showpiece of compact, energy-efficient urban development, strategically located right in the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry.

Beacon of hope, feeble experiment, or fig leaf of green for one of the world’s leading polluters? The question was on the minds of the thousands of urban planners, housing advocates, environmentalists, and national delegates who came to Abu Dhabi in February for the United Nations 10th World Urban Forum, a global summit promoting sustainable and inclusive cities. The biennial meeting, organized by UN-Habitat, concluded on February 13 with a redoubled commitment to a green and equitable future, as mapped out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

A driverless bus on the streets of Masdar City. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Organizers might have anticipated questions about holding a sustainability conference in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE pumps out nearly 25 tons of carbon annually per capita, one of the highest rates in the world, thanks to the staggering energy consumption required for desalinating ocean water, pumping air-conditioning into hermetically sealed buildings, slaking the thirst of golf courses and water fountains, and powering motor vehicles along 10-lane highways.

But the nation has vowed to do better. “Developing the renewable energy sector is a core priority in our efforts to diversify our energy mix and the economy while protecting the environment,” H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, said in an interview last year. And Masdar City, along with other interventions like a gleaming metro line in nearby Dubai, is being held up as evidence of this green conversion.

To build Masdar City, the provincial capital put in seed money for the estimated $20 billion cost. The project team, Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, brought in the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which boasts impeccable eco-credentials. The vision was for a 2.5-square-mile neighborhood that would be close to carbon neutral, thanks to clean-energy wizardry, LEED-certified building design, and a giant adjacent solar panel farm.

At the entrance of Masdar City, a map of the entire planned development stands. Only a small portion of the complex has been completed. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Unlike virtually every other part of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is made for walking, with narrow streets in a traditional grid of short blocks and low-rise buildings packed in close together—a pocket of Greenwich Village-style urbanism amid low-slung gated mansions, superblocks, and tall buildings on podiums. Withering desert heat is countered via natural ventilation and misting; a cooling wind tower, a feature of the early Bedouin encampments in the area, rises up from the central public square, which is festooned with the work of local artists.

The problem is, there aren’t many pedestrians to enjoy all the friendliness. The 4,000 office workers in the renewable energy startups arrayed around the property pop out for an espresso now and again, but the 1,300 residents seem invisible. (The original plan called for a population of 50,000.) It reminded me of the prototype Chinese eco-city of Tianjin, which is similarly lightly occupied.

To be fair, only phase one of Masdar City has been completed, so the entire utopia is little more than one full city block in Midtown Manhattan. There’s no shame in starting small to demonstrate feasibility: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 showed millions the wonders of electricity, and a way of life changed.

But current reality keeps imposing in jarring ways. The only way to get to Masdar City is by car; across from the front entrance, every space is taken in several football fields’ worth of surface parking (I was assured that was temporary). The big-box store Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—occupies a prime parcel.

One of Masdar City’s many resident cats stretches in the sun. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

There is talk of scaling back the ambitious “personal rapid transit” system—a small fleet of driverless pods that ferry people around underground, leaving the streets car-free. (That’s the reason the whole fledgling city is elevated on a podium.) Meanwhile, the light rail line, part of the promised Abu Dhabi metro connecting the area, the airport, and locations in the city center, appears to be years away.

For a Masdar City tourist, an Uber ride in an air-conditioned white Lexus it was. Visiting is like having a kale salad for lunch but reverting to a Big Mac and fries for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the World Urban Forum, there was a lot of talk about a “just transition” to a post-carbon future, incorporating fair treatment and access to opportunity for all residents of any city. So another question is whether this region can label itself as sustainable without addressing the fortunes of the millions of foreign-born workers in Gulf states who have few rights.

It’s a slow turning, to be sure. Different societies are on different tracks; people still smoke indoors here. Still, one wonders how powerful it would be if the kingdom went all-in on sustainability—things tend to happen fast once the emirs set a goal, in a way that Robert Moses could appreciate. Witness the trillions of cubic feet of sand that have been pumped to create new land in the ocean across the UAE.

Masdar City isn’t expected to be built out until as late as 2030. Finishing it would send a big signal. Then again, other nations that have recently put the brakes on their transition to a post-carbon future, aren’t in much of a position to tell anyone else to hurry up.

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The Future of City Mobility

An interview with Matt Cole, conducted before his departure as the President of Cubic Transportation Systems. Interviewed by Gordon Feller, Founder: Meeting of the Minds.

There are multiple definitions out there of “mobility-as-a-service.” These range from some of the early-stage approaches, which focused on subscription plans and pricing, and not necessarily the outcomes. But, in my own view, that approach to “MaaS” was trying to promote all sorts of things that needed to exist in order to enable mobility. My own view is this: we’re working to enable mobility networks in cities and regions that promote journey choices. The emphasis is on journey choices that can range from the most affordable to the most efficient, or the most environmentally sustainable. But the aim is to enable all of the possible journey choices for all of the possible travelers. That means addressing the needs of every customer segment that needs to travel within a given city or region. We’re trying to enable those choices for everyone.

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What’s the Future of the ‘Sleep Economy’?

When I first talked to Phil Krim, CEO of the mattress-in-a-box company Casper, he told me that though his start-up was born online, physical retail locations were central to its future. He recalled being caught off guard on Casper’s 2014 opening day, when a woman walked into his original headquarters and asked to try out one of the mattresses they were selling through their website in a bid to disrupt the bedding business. After converting a conference space into a testing bedroom, Krim said people kept coming in to lie down.

In 2015, the testing room turned into a pop-up location in Los Angeles; in 2017, the Bay Area got a “concept” store in San Francisco and in 2018, New York City’s Noho Sleep Shop opened, where prospective customers could find a chamber of napping pods along with sample beds. In August 2018, when Krim and I spoke, the company had expanded to 20 retail stores across North America. And by September 2019, Casper had more than doubled that number, with 60 retail stores and 18 partnerships with traditional retailers like Target and Costco, which sell Casper products in-house.

In its filing to go public, released this month, Casper laid out its aspirations to venture further into brick-and-mortar outlets and open 200 stores across North America. Notably, that plan was first articulated in 2018, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Casper wanted to open those 200 stores in the next three years. In Casper’s 2020 S-1, that goal had changed to “over time.” (Casper didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Casper used the S-1 to proclaim itself the commander of what is estimated to be a $432 billion global Sleep Economy. It laid out grand plans to dominate the nation’s every non-waking moment, along with the processes of falling asleep and returning to consciousness, an arc they project takes up to 11 hours of the average person’s day.

It also revealed that the current business of sleep is not very profitable. Casper reported more than $92 million in net losses in 2018, some of it driven by expensive marketing buys, and the fact that many people buying mattresses also take advantage of Casper’s generous return and refund policy. In the first three months of 2019, Casper lost $67 million. Despite this, and its reputation as an online-first marketplace, Casper has reason to be more optimistic about real-life stores.

“As of September 30, 2019, our existing stores that have been operating for one year or longer are all four-wall profitable,” the S-1 states, excluding a few one-time operating costs. This means that every year-old Casper store has been turning a gross profit, averaging “approximately $1,600 in annual net sales per sellable square foot.” According to CoStar, the average net sales per square foot is around $325; Apple’s is highest, at $5,546 per square foot, and Lululemon, which Krim has named as a comparable brand, does $1,560 per square foot.

Having four-wall profits doesn’t mean retail as a whole is a worthy endeavor. The company’s operating costs amounted to $29.7 million in the first three quarters of 2019, though they’re shrinking overall. Still, says Michael Magnuson, founder of the online mattress-shopping guide Goodbed.com, these numbers show investors that Casper doesn’t just lose more money the more it spends. “The net impact of adding each incremental store makes them more profitable, not less profitable, which is obviously pretty important to anybody looking at their business,” he said.

Casper’s relative success here may seem counter-intuitive, as other traditional mattress-market dominators with large footprints in the meatspace appear to be struggling. The industry’s largest retail chain, Mattress Firm, was acquired by Steinhoff International in 2016; it closed 700 stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and lost its CEO in 2019. Big Mattress is nevertheless beating the online upstarts in quarterly sales, according to a Second Measure analysis: “[E]ven with its sales declining, Mattress Firm and its brands brought in six times more than Casper’s website and branded stores did in the first quarter of [2019].”

That advantage may be short-lived, says David Perry, executive editor of Furniture Today. Based on years of industry analysis, he says “the online gains are coming at the expense of bedding specialty stores and furniture stores.” From 2016 to 2018, online bedding sales grew from 12 percent of the market share to 21 percent. That number is predicted to double in the next four to five years, meaning e-commerce sites could eclipse bedding specialty stores as the biggest sellers. Soon, though, those distinctions could matter less. “What’s happening is the world is getting more interconnected,” said Perry. “There’s going to be a merging of the online and the brick-and-mortar worlds”

Casper is hardly the only mattress-in-a-box startup pivoting to stores—Magnuson says that “almost all of the big online brands are at this point leaning into physical distribution.” Competitors like Purple, Sava, Leesa, Nectar, and Tuft & Needle either have their own flagships or partnerships with third-party retailers, or both.

When Tuft & Needle announced it would be expanding into 20 new cities as part of a Crate and Barrel partnership in 2018, it released an almost sheepish press release. “Initially, opening stores felt like a step backwards, we’d fought against the old model for so long,” the statement read. But, the company insisted, “[r]etail stores are both the past and future of the mattress industry.” Now, the company is in 90 Crate and Barrel locations, and a thousand Lowe’s stores. Starting with a temporary pop-up in San Francisco that has since closed, Tuft & Needle also has eight retail stores of its own, in places like Seattle, Dallas, Raleigh, Kansas City, and Beaverton, Oregon, among other sites. A location in Glendale, California opened last Friday, and an Austin location is planned for March.

Stores remain central to selling mattresses because the products beg to be tested, experts say. Even if a customer doesn’t leave with one, they may later order one online once they know how it feels. The opposite is true, too: “Somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of customers still purchase in-store, even if they are going online to find it,” said Brooke Figlo, Tuft & Needle’s head of public relations.

Having a physical location can also build brand credibility. Casper’s storefronts—often adjacent to brands like Peleton and Tesla, Krim told me—double as a marketing strategy, especially for non-Millennials in cities and suburbs outside the company’s usual spheres of influence. For most of last year, markets with a retail store have seen 100 percent faster growth in sales than ones without, Casper’s S-1 revealed. All of Tuft & Needle’s stores are also independently profitable, Figlo says, but she wouldn’t share exact numbers.

Still, there might be a mattress-store saturation point, as Mattress Firm demonstrated with its omnipresent outlets, which numbered 3,300 before its 2018 bankruptcy. (That represented just a fraction of America’s 9,000-strong mattress-selling infrastructure.) Magnuson doesn’t think Casper will be able to scale up to 200 stores as quickly as they once claimed. “Where I think they’ll run into trouble is that once you get closer to 200 stores you’re no longer taking about having one store in L.A. or two in L.A., you’re talking about five or six stores … in that same metro area,” Magnuson said. “Those economics are going to get harder and harder to prove. You’re competing with yourself.”

Dependence on other retailers to sell their mattresses introduces other risks, if Target or Costco go the way of Sears. “We’re definitely rolling out slower and more methodically than [Casper],” says Tuft & Needle’s Figlo.

Another hot brand whose recent IPO revealed a profitability challenge is WeWork. The coworking company’s financial problems are much graver, but stemmed in part from the fact that what they are actually selling—office space—is highly replicable. Vending mattresses is not that different: There are between 100 and 175 online stores that essentially do what Casper does; some newer players, like Amazon and Walmart and the online furniture company Wayfair, provide a much wider set of offerings. But just as WeWork wooed investors with a holistic mentality of enthusiastic productivity, bolstered by office aesthetics, Casper insists that it doesn’t just peddle a slab of memory foam that you replace every few years. It’s selling an intangible promise: that a collection of scents and sounds and glow lights and wearable tracking technologies and specialists (and, of course, a nice bed) can combine to make you more Well.

“I don’t know how well they can dominate the entire world around sleep, but it’s catchy for them—I think it’s a brilliant piece of salesmanship,” said Perry. Where better to sell that world than in a mattress store?

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CityLab Daily: Some News About CityLab’s Future

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

Dear CityLab readers,

I am writing you with an unusual message, because the news today is about us. This afternoon, The Atlantic announced that it will sell CityLab to Bloomberg Media. CityLab is expected become a part of Bloomberg on January 1.

What does this mean for you? Bloomberg plans to share more details on the integration in early 2020. But for now, you can expect to receive our content through the usual channels.

In a press release, Atlantic Media President Michael Finnegan explained the deal: “Bloomberg Media deeply understands and appreciates CityLab’s mission and reporting, and is positioned to support the continuation of this important work and brand that we’re proud to have built over the last nine years.”

For more on the acquisition, I’d refer you to the joint press release from The Atlantic and Bloomberg Media.

You’ll find our usual links below.

Sincerely,

Nicole Flatow
CityLab Editor


More on CityLab

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Jed Kolko

The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

Laura Bliss

How Media Coverage of Car Crashes Downplays the Role of Drivers

Safety advocates have long complained that media outlets tend to blame pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars. Research suggests they’re right.

Richard Florida


What We’re Reading

Is tenants’ right to counsel on its way to becoming a standard practice? (Next City)

The architect who uses performance to open up public space (Curbed)

Vouchers can help the poor find homes. But landlords often won’t accept them. (Vox)

Trump said local officials could block refugees. So far, they haven’t. (New York Times)

Seattle to lower speed limits amid rising number of traffic deaths (Seattle Times)


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

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The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

There are 220,000 streetlights spread across sprawling Los Angeles. With more than 400 different designs on thousands of miles of sidewalks, L.A. boasts more sheer streetlight variety than any other American city. In older pockets of downtown, they come in a wild assortment of ornate historic styles—with candelabra arms, fruit-shaped luminaires, and rounded bases.

But the vast majority are more utilitarian: Since the 1960s, the city’s no-frills standard model has been the kind with galvanized steel masts and rounded arms. They tower over traffic, little noticed as they buzz on at dusk and play coat-rack to traffic signs and police cameras.

An official design competition from the mayor’s office is aimed at changing that. On Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Los Angeles is on the hunt for a new standard streetlight, calling on teams of architects, designers, lighting experts, and engineers from around the world to submit their ideas.

The hope is to elevate the look, as well as the utility of the lamps, especially for Angelenos who aren’t driving cars, as the metropolis invests billions of dollars into public transit, walking, and cycling options ahead of hosting the 2028 Olympics. With a fresh design, the city’s streetlights might also become visual touchstones for stronger civic identity.

“Our city is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to reinvest in and reanimate its public realm,” Garcetti wrote in a competition brief that went live online today. “We need a streetlight that safely illuminates all of that activity while at the same time expresses a design sensibility that is unmistakably contemporary—and proudly of, and for, Los Angeles.”

This is an initiative spearheaded by Christopher Hawthorne, the former architecture critic for the L.A. Times who took on the new post of chief design officer for the city in 2018. The humble and omnipresent streetlight attracted him as a subject for a civic design project in part because of their unusual potential for citywide impact: The winning streetlight designers can expect to see 10,000 to 20,000 copies of their creation erected across L.A. over the coming decade, Hawthorne estimates. “That is just a huge opportunity,” he said.

Both professionals and students attending local high schools and universities have opportunities to compete, with a deadline for preliminary proposals in March 2020. Once a panel of jurors selects a design, the fresh model will be phased in over time, as old streetlights needs to be swapped out or as public works projects overhaul boulevards. The city’s most historic styles will be maintained.

Where the new poles will go “will probably depend on whether the location is one block or one pole at a time,” said Norma Isahakian,  the executive director of the L.A.’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “Concrete poles in residential areas will remain, but on major streets they’re dated. It’s time we get a unique and modernistic pole.”

To write the competition brief, Hawthorne dug into the city’s extensive streetlight design catalogue—which featured illustrious names like Wilshire Double, Hollywood Special, and Benedict Canyon Pendant—and dove into their colorful past, which turns out to be a lens for the broader cultural history of the city itself.

Gas lamps had been around since the 1860s, and electrification arrived in L.A. in 1882, months after the young Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article touting the arrival of a 200-foot-tall light tower in rival San Jose. “Electric Light,” the headline declared. “Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.”

Towering electric masts like this one lit downtown L.A. in the late 19th century. (Historic photo courtesy of India Mandelkern)

L.A. did indeed erect several of these gigantic early masts, but by the early 1900s they gave way to the smaller incandescent lamps with a more familiar shape. Dozens of elegant designs bloomed across the growing city, often ordered and paid for by neighborhood residents.

In a dusty cow town that hadn’t yet made its mark, the beauty of these public objects mattered, and the world did take notice: In 1909, Charles Mulford Robinson, the journalist-turned-pioneering “City Beautiful” urban theorist, praised L.A.’s street lighting in a report for city leaders: “The lights are so fine, the effects on the city so beautiful and so rare in this country, that they deserve all the protection and development you can give them.”

Streetlights also became a chance for L.A. boosters to brand the city as equally modern as New York, Chicago, and other heavyweights lighting up in the east, according to India Mandelkern, a historian writing a book about the history of L.A.’s street lighting with whom the city consulted on the brief. “They were attempting to show the world that they’re a city of the future, with electric light ennobling and beautifying its streets as a progressive place,” she said. Illumination was linked to a sense of safety, with some newspapers referring to them as “stationary policemen.”

But by the second half of the 20th century, streetlights stopped being civic centerpieces and become spotlights for the city’s new star: the automobile. To accommodate cars, urban lighting had to grow in scale, just like the streets and buildings they fronted. L.A.’s standard model is about 30 feet tall, making them 10 to 20 feet taller than many of the historic ones, which were designed to light the way for pedestrians rather than drivers. The city also doubled down on their use as passive law enforcement, with the Bureau of Street Lighting vastly expanding its reach after the Watts Rebellion.

An abnormally empty Santa Monica freeway shown after the January 1994 earthquake highlights the utilitarian look of L.A.’s standard streetlight. (Lois Bernstein/AP)

Today, with the arrival of police and traffic surveillance cameras, data-gathering sensors, and the coming of 5G internet, streetlights in nearly every globalized city have also become infrastructure for “smart city” projects—sometimes controversially, as Hong Kong protesters have recently highlighted to great effect.

All of this history bears on L.A.’s competition. For one, designers are encouraged to draw inspiration from the high aesthetic standards to which L.A.’s lamps once aspired, Hawthorne said: “We want to think about bringing back the design ambition that marked those early decades back to contemporary production.”

And L.A.’s modern streetlight should also be able to sleekly accommodate the glut of smart-city sensors and other devices that are likely coming down the line, said Isahakian: ”Poles are the real estate where those products are going to go.” Meanwhile, L.A. is already in the midst of transitioning from large sodium bulbs to to smaller, more efficient LEDs, which require less space and cast a different kind of glow. Competitors are encouraged to consider how new lighting technologies affect energy use and the quality of illumination in a heavily light-polluted (and air-polluted) city.

Jurors will also look for ways for L.A.’s new lamp to incorporate bits of text, such as poems by local authors or community memories inscribed in plaques near their base. And as the city tries to kick its driving habit, the new design must be considerate of pedestrians, cyclists, and people using wheelchairs, strollers, and other mobility devices.

Chances are, the streetlight of the future will be called on to do even more in L.A. and beyond, as demands on public street space grow with population and as the planet warms. Hawthorne said he could see poles doubling as masts for shade-giving sails by day (something Jerusalem has tried out), for example, or as electric vehicle charging stations (something the city is already piloting). And there’s a good chance streetlights will be more contentious objects than in the past, considering the privacy concerns that have already arisen in other cities dangling digital data-collecting technologies on their poles.

Yet streetlights have always struck a delicate balance between letting residents engage in civic life and serving as eyes on the street, Mandelkern said. The competition is a recognition of their importance, even though they’re usually hardly noticed. “Usually, when we’re not talking about our streetlights, that’s when they’re doing a good job,” she said. “But even if they’re not at the foreground, they’re very valuable pieces of real estate. People are sort of catching onto that.”

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California Contemplates a Dark and Fiery Future

More than a dozen wildfires are burning throughout the Golden State this week as California’s season of high climate anxiety has officially arrived. But this year’s autumnal dystopia—the coming of the Diablo and Santa Ana winds, which often whip up conflagrations during hot, dry weather—comes with an extra twist: unprecedented planned blackouts by the state’s most despised electrical utility.

As in 2017, this season’s biggest monster is in wine country north of the Bay Area. While the Getty Fire has swelled to more than 600 acres in densely populated West L.A. as of Tuesday morning, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County had burned more than 75,000 acres and was just 15 percent contained. Nearly 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. On Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. To fight the flames, officials are deploying “every resource available,” Newsom said.

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas and Electric—the vast utility that provides power to roughly one in 20 Americans across a service area that includes San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, and Oakland—has undertaken the largest planned blackout in state history. On Sunday night, PG&E said it had shut off power to 940,000 homes and businesses, affecting as many as 2.7 million people throughout Northern California.

The blackout was a last-resort decision made to prevent the utility’s electrical equipment from sparking more wildfires as powerful winds whip the region, according to PG&E CEO William Johnson. “We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs,” he told reporters last week. “But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires.”

But this fire prevention tactic is raising serious questions about the future of California utilities under climate change. Last week, PG&E acknowledged that a live transmission line in the same area had malfunctioned immediately before the fire erupted Wednesday night, and a broken jumper wire was discovered on a transmission tower. PG&E had shut off its smaller distribution lines to customers in that area, but kept the higher-voltage transmission lines on, for reasons it has not explained.

It wouldn’t be the first time its equipment sparked disaster. PG&E’s electrical infrastructure is believed to be responsible for five of the 10 most destructive fires in California since 2015, including the Camp Fire of 2018 that obliterated the town of Paradise, killing at least 85 people and causing an estimated $9 billion in damage. In January, PG&E declared bankruptcy due to $30 billion in liabilities it faced as a result of that disaster and other fires.

While the planned power outages are meant to avert further destruction, they also take another kind of toll. Blackouts don’t just cut off basics like light, refrigeration, and cell service: They block access to critical medical equipment, threaten public safety, and hamper cities from delivering essentials like clean water. This is PG&E’s third planned blackout since the beginning of October, but some customers received only a few hours of notice before their power went out this past weekend. And the power is out in areas far from the ferocious flames.

This may be the future: Johnson told regulators last week that he expects this cycle of wind-and-darkness to be part of the wildfire season status quo in California for the next 10 years.

Newsom has openly aired a sense of deep frustration with the utility. “We should not have to be here,” the governor said over the weekend. “We will hold them to an account that they have not been held to in the past.”

But the question of how PG&E—and California utilities more broadly—should move forward is wickedly complicated. There are many safety improvements that PG&E can take, including burying its lines (albeit at a truly staggering cost of $67 billion). For lower-hanging fruit, experts point to San Diego Gas and Electric as a model. After residents sued SDG&E for causing a 2007 inferno, that utility invested $1.5 billion in a network of weather stations, cameras, and satellite technology to monitor fire risk; it has not caused a major fire since.

While PG&E has recently taken some similar steps in the last year, its long history of negligent safety practices and prioritizing shareholder returns means that the utility is now playing catch-up. For example, the New York Times found that PG&E spent millions of dollars less on operations and maintenance than it was supposed to in the years leading up to a deadly 2010 pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb, even as it collected more revenue than state regulators had authorized.

That the utility seeks regulated profit is no controversy—that’s how investor-owned utilities work. But some critics of PG&E are calling for big changes to how Northern California’s power grid is managed. Newsom has suggested that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway should bid to take control of PG&E, keeping its investor-owned model in place but changing out its leadership. (Buffett has brushed off this idea in the past.) Another idea is to transition the utility to public ownership, a notion that Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted in support of on Monday.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed another option: Buying out PG&E and turning it into a nonprofit, customer-owned cooperative. Now he’s rallying other cities to back his plan. “We need to align the financial interest with the public interest,” Liccardo told the Wall Street Journal last week. “We hope there will be recognition that this structure better addresses the public need and we’re looking to start the drumbeat to enable all of us to march together.”

PG&E has stated that its assets are not for sale. It has submitted its own financial reorganization plan, which is subject to the approval of a bankruptcy judge who seems highly attuned to customers’ interests. Proponents of public ownership will likely make their case directly to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the state agency that regulates and advises the sector. And those regulators may well be swayed by staring down a decade of PG&E’s blackout strategy. A showdown over who or what controls PG&E appears to be in the making.

Meanwhile, who or what is protecting California’s power lines? The monumental destruction of the last few fire seasons did trigger a number of changes to state law, designed to protect ratepayers and residents. Last week, CPUC approved a controversial $21 billion wildfire liability fund that lets utilities partly off the hook for damage caused by sparking equipment, so long as they follow certain safety rules. (PG&E won’t be eligible to tap that money until it exits bankruptcy.) The state has also established a Wildfire Safety Advisory Board to advise CPUC’s regulatory efforts. Part of that board’s charge is to hire an independent company to inspect electric poles and wires in parts of California at highest risk of wildfire. In 2021, a new state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety will take over the job of setting and enforcing those safety requirements.

But many factors complicate California’s ongoing ability to balance its power needs with the risk of catastrophic fire. One is the state’s sprawling pattern of development. California developers keep adding housing in communities placed precariously close to highly flammable wildlands, which in turn require ever-more-far-flung electrical service. Newsom has defended this tendency, stating that restricting buildings in those areas—as some lawmakers have proposed and many Californians say they would support—would defy the state’s “pioneering spirit.”

In so many ways, the saga of PG&E in fire season shows how contradictory the fight against climate change’s most disastrous effects can be. A major driver of both carbon emissions and wildfires is residential sprawl, yet that dimension of California’s wildfire problem is going largely unaddressed. Stringing high-voltage wires near dry, dense forest and brush is an innately incendiary mix. Even SDG&E, that model utility in Southern California, has told regulators that it “cannot entirely eliminate that risk.” It also oversees planned outages, albeit in a fairly targeted fashion. As fire dangers grow by the year—fed in part by the state’s own habits—blackouts may be the better-of-two-evils prevention measure that Californians learn to embrace.

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A Horrifying Glimpse Into Your Dystopian Future Transit Commute

What will the transportation modes of the future feel like? Will they be utopian like Tomorrowland, with glittering, quiet, and miraculous vehicles; or gritty and dangerous, as in Blade Runner? Our lived experience in the future might be more banal: When commuters can fly over the city in an autonomous electric air taxi or hurtle across the country in a high-speed maglev train, they’ll still be worrying about whether they’re running late.

This cartoon is a vision of the reality of future-commuting across a megalopolis full of wondrous transportation technology. From the never-landing airships to the anti-spill cup holders, as many details as possible are taken from imaginative essays and promotional materials about the near-future. Most of this technology, and these headaches, already exist.

Technology won’t change everything. From ancient Rome to the present day, the transit ideas that shaped cities tended to enable a half-hour commute. Will that ideal hold for urban planning’s future as distances and speeds increase? Questions about equity are also here to stay: Who provides transit, and who gets to use it?

Recently as I was walking in my neighborhood, an autonomous car sidled up to me. It was a tricky intersection: a two-way stop that can be hazardous to cross. But the test vehicle was unfazed. As it nosed into the crosswalk and turned, I watched the steering wheel spin beneath the “driver’s” hovering, motionless fingers.

Is this what utopia looks like?

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