The latest maps of coronavirus cases in the U.S. confirm much of what we already know about the economics of location: People in poor neighborhoods have it worse. Health care isn’t as accessible, the ability to socially distance is less, and many residentsfall into the role of essential workers, unable to work from home. What new research shows is that number of poor neighborhoodsin metropolitan areashas actually doubled from 1980 — and most existing low-income areas only fell deeper into poverty.
Fikri and Benzow broke neighborhoods into four categories for their research.
The newly poor, when a community went from low poverty (fewer than 20% of individuals living below the poverty line) to high poverty (30% or more) during the time frame.
The persistently poor, when a community remained high poverty during the time frame.
Deepening poverty, when the rate was between 20% and 30% in 1980 and climbed above 30% by 2018.
Turnaround cases, when a neighborhood moved from a high poverty rate to a low one.
The gap in median income between high- and low-poverty neighborhoods increased significantly during the 38 years of the study, too: High-poverty neighborhoods went from a $25,000 to a $29,000 in median household income, and low-poverty neighborhoods from $65,000 to $79,000 in median household income (all values in 2018 dollars).
“Back in the 1980s, we had far more mixed-income neighborhoods,” Fikri saidin an interview. “What we’re seeing is that Americans segregate more by income, so the number of poor neighborhoods is growing.”
Just as the number of poor metro neighborhoods has doubled, so has the number of people living in them — 24 million people were living in these high-poverty communities in 2018, according to the research.
The data show that a rising rate of poverty is felt more in certain cities. In Detroit, 61% of low-poverty neighborhoods in 1980 crossed the high-poverty threshold by 2018. In Cleveland, the percentage was 49%.
“This is a failure of the national economy to create a lot of pathways out of poverty,” Fikri said. “National economic growth clearly is insufficient for poor people and poor places.”
Only 14% of all the metropolitan census tracts studied by the researchers had undergone an economic turnaround, going to a rate of low poverty from a high one.
And in some neighborhoods, “turning around” is a synonym for a “wholesale shift of populations” living in them, Mallach said. A few, however, have managed to strike a balance: In St. Louis, Missouri, the “balanced gentrification” of the La Salle neighborhood has been managed by a nonprofit community development corporation, which created affordable housing as part of the process.
Another dimension of the neighborhood poverty issue, the research highlights, is that most people who are poor now also tend to live in a poor neighborhood. The two were once less tightly linked: In the 1980s, people could be poor and live in low-poverty neighborhoods. This has become a rarity, making it harder to escape poverty as a whole — from deteriorated public services to the lack of educational opportunities.
Those factors also make low-income areas in the U.S. an easy target for epidemics. “People are often living in more crowded spaces, so you’re having more opportunity for transmission of infectious diseases,” said Grace Noppert, postdoctoral scholar at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “You also have more people mixing and mingling in crowded spaces in those communities.” The stress of the environment also makes residents more vulnerable to diseases. Noppert has studied the impact of tuberculosis on poor communities and Covid-19, just like TB, is not sparing these communities, either.
And this comes with demographics attached: A low-income African American is three times more likely to live in a poor neighborhood than a low-income white person, even though the demographics of poor neighborhoods has changed in the past decades, and an increasing number of Hispanics are now in these underserved communities, the study highlights. “The zip code you’re born in determines your health,” Noppert said, “but the zip code you’re born in is determined by your race and ethnicity.”
Reversing the trend isn’t easy — and Fikri and Benzow don’t spend much time on this in their report. To Mallach, instead of trying to economically “turn around” poor neighborhoods, local officials should focus on improving existing living conditions. “If you are poor, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have the opportunity to live in a decent neighborhood,” he said.
Social distancing is not new to black communities. “Social distancing” in the form of anti-black segregation and discrimination was U.S. law throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This created racial wealth disparities that have lingered, negatively impacting black people’s capacity to start and maintain businesses. The remnants of federally backed redlining practices, which financially isolated black people throughout the 20th century, throttled the amount of wealth black people could create from homeownership. Most entrepreneurs start businesses with the equity they’ve accrued in their homes. Consequently, black people, who’ve been over-burdened by American economic policies, require a different kind of stimulus in this coronavirus scourge era.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (Cares) package is an attempt to offset an impending recession caused by mandated and voluntary social distancing, which will last until at least April 30. Congress should also pass a relief package for people who’ve suffered from the de jure and de facto social distancing of racial segregation, which still sets African Americans apart from white people today on both a spatial and economic basis.
Current financial assistance bills at the federal, state, and local levels don’t account for real wealth differences created by past anti-black policies. The bounce back from the recession will be uneven and partial, as past recoveries have been, in terms of continuing to bail out white families while ignoring the financial and social hole that “colorblind” policies have created for black families.
The Coronavirus relief package includes a $25 million earmark for the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which also receives regular funding from taxpayers and private donations. While we love the Kennedy Center — we hear the recent Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance there was divine — in D.C., where we both live, indigenous black art and cultural institutions are collapsing.
Go-Go was recently branded the official music of D.C., but that honor hasn’t come with financial support for the constellation of black businesses that support Go-Go culture. Meanwhile, there is a cohort of arts nonprofits in D.C. that receive funding from the District despite the fact they already bring in more than $1 million in income annually. Black barbershops and beauty salons — institutions that allowed black communities to survive segregation and legal exclusion for decades — are struggling. Where’s their bailout?
We support arts funding, especially in challenging times. But in an emergency, we need to make public dollars stretch as much as possible. If well-endowed institutions such as the Kennedy Center can get a bailout, then we believe that it is more than appropriate to create set-aside programs specifically for black institutions and businesses that have survived a legacy of legal discrimination.
Privilege may blind some to the reality that we are all indeed connected, but government leaders should no longer bury their heads in the sand to the unique vulnerability of black-owned businesses and neighborhoods created by past economic crisis responses.
Through the Cares Act, Congress allocated $350 billion to the Small Business Administration to issue loans of up to $10 million per business. In addition, the Cares Act provides $10 billion for emergency grants of up to $10,000 for small businesses to cover operating expenses. These loans become grants if the businesses keep employees on the payroll through June.
But we need to consider the structural issues that often prevent black businesses from participating in these stimulus efforts. Black people represented 12.7% of the U.S. population, but only 4.3% of the nation’s 22.2 million business owners in 2012, according to analysis derived from the latest Census Survey of Business Owners. Asian Americans accounted for 6.9% of business owners and 4.8% of the population, while Latino or Hispanic Americans accounted for 12% of business owners and 16.4% of the population. Meanwhile, only 1% of black business owners were able to obtain loans in their founding year, compared with 7% of white entrepreneurs, according to Brookings and Gallup research.
Despite the need, Congress allocated just $10 million to the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) out of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The MBDA connects “minority-owned businesses with the capital, contracts, and markets they need to grow, but yet it received not even 1% of coronavirus relief assistance.
Our research on business devaluation found that minority-owned businesses (i.e. black people, Asian Americans, Latinos or Hispanics, and American Indians) in majority-black neighborhoods earn significantly higher ratings on the consumer rating app Yelp than white-owned peers in white neighborhoods yet they receive less revenue because of the negative perception of the black neighborhoods they are in.
That research is consistent with other findings around housing prices in majority-black neighborhoods. In 2017, houses in black neighborhoods were priced 23% lower than the same kind of houses in white neighborhoods, amounting to $156 billion in accumulative lost equity in black neighborhoods throughout the United States. These losses are heirlooms of past recovery policies, including much of the New Deal, that didn’t consider race or discrimination in their stimulus packages. “Colorblind” approaches have proven to hurt black people and restrict national growth.
The “black tax” – the financial penalty that people pay for living and running businesses in majority-black neighborhoods — must be accounted for in any future spending packages for the novel coronavirus recovery. We need to inject emergency funds into the people and institutions that policymakers have historically excluded from financial assistance the most, but yet are essential to the survival of black communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we have a moral imperative to distribute resources based on racial equity. When the most vulnerable communities are healthy, then all communities are better off. The novel coronavirus is showing how interconnected we all are, as the contagion is infecting people across race, class, sex, gender, and age. Privilege may blind some to the reality that we are all indeed connected, but government leaders should no longer bury their heads in the sand to the unique vulnerability of black-owned businesses and neighborhoods created by past economic crisis responses.
Any legislator that really wants to see the country recover from this current pandemic, must approach recovery using a racial equity framework. Political leaders must address the failures of the past that still extract wealth from black people and their assets, making them more vulnerable to inevitable shocks to the market, such as hurricanes, housing bubbles, and pandemics like the one we’re in now. If we really want a solid recovery in the short and long term, spending bills must address the needs that still exist. If we are all in this together, then we must all address the anti-black legislation that kept black people in a state of emergency before the emergence of Covid-19.
In normal times, jails and prisons are uniquely well-suited for spreading communicable diseases. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of cities and counties have worked to reduce the number of inmates cycling in and out. Many plan to release inmates and suspend prosecution for mostly nonviolent crimes.
And yet, in places including New Orleans, one of the most heavily incarcerated cities in the world, local prosecutors have refused calls to take the steps that could avert a catastrophe outbreak. The New Orleans district attorney, backed by the city’s mayor and police superintendent, is opposing any blanket policy that would release inmates — even if it would mean mitigating a coronavirus outbreak — arguing in court filings that such a measure could spread the disease to the general public.
That view is not shared across many other major cities. In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has halted prosecutions for all drug, prostitution, and even public urination offenses.
“Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one by one for the release of at-risk individuals,” wrote Mosby to her staff, The Baltimore Sunreported.
Mosby also joined 30 other state’s attorneys, district attorneys, and attorneys general from jurisdictions across every U.S. region, including Hawaii, in calling for prosecutors to cease indictments and release inmates deemed nonthreatening to society.These include people charged with low-level crimes such as drug offenses, shoplifting, and driving without a license; and many who haven’t yet been convicted of anything.
The law enforcement officials signed on to a joint statement laying out rights and responsibilities for people who are in custody. The statement asks that jails stop admitting and detaining people, including immigrants and those who are undocumented, if they don’t pose a “serious risk to the physical safety” of communities. They also are asking that each inmate has access to quality health care and free phone calls to family and counsel, especially for sick and solitary confined.
This is an agenda that most prosecutors can’t adopt on their own. “Every jurisdiction is different in terms of what the prosecutor controls or what the sheriffs or judges control,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, which organized the statement. But, Krinsky says, “they are all working with their police chiefs, other criminal justice and public health leaders to navigate through the various categories of crimes and penalties to implement the recommendations that the joint statement raised.”
The coalition warns that the chronic overcrowding that regularly takes place in jails, state prisons, and ICE detention centers could lead to a coronavirus outbreak that “would potentially be catastrophic,” given many of these custodial facilities have already failed to contain the spread of lessfataldiseaseoutbreaks.
If these facilities become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, it will not only impact those incarcerated, but our entire community. Jails and prisons cycle large numbers of people in and out of close, unsanitary quarters on a daily basis. … People leave immigration detention and return to communities in the US or to vulnerable refugee shelters and encampments along the border. All of these facilities rely on services and support from vendors and medical professionals, employ staff who come and go, and appropriately provide access for legal counsel and family members to visit.
Medical experts have been raising flags about the potential for a prison-based coronavirus catastrophe since the outbreak started.
“The way jails and prisons are designed and administered promotes the spread of communicable disease,” former NYC Correctional Health Services chief medical officer Dr. Homer Venters told the Brennan Center for Justice. “Generally speaking, these are unsanitary settings, and there is not ample access to handwashing. Most of the terms that we have learned in the last few days, like social distancing and self-quarantine, are completely not applicable in these settings.”
Among the signers of the letter are San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, Durham County (North Carolina) District Attorney Satana Deberry, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. These are mostly prosecutors who’ve made names for themselves by pushing for policies that would reduce arrests and incarceration.
However, they don’t represent the only cities adopting decarceration and prosecution-suspending practices. In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that his office will stop prosecuting low-level offenses. Seattle District Attorney Dan Satterberg said on Twitter that he’ll file “only priority in-custody violent crimes” for the next two weeks, after which he would file motions to continue arraignment for other felonies for 30 days.
@emilybazelon For the next two weeks we will file only priority in-custody violent crimes. After that we will file felonies with a motion to continue arraignment for 30 days. This is six weeks of reduced mandatory activity in court. Then we assess…
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced this week that she would begin “to develop a process to release misdemeanor & nonviolent felons,” but only after her primary rival and a slew of criminal justice reform activists pushed her to do so. In Pittsburgh, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is acquiescing to demands from the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration and the Abolition Law Center to release certain inmates from the county jail.
Meanwhile, local jails in Chicago, Louisville, Austin, Virginia Beach, and Omaha have all begun releasing nonviolent offenders and pre-trial detainees. An even longer list of local and federal court systems have postponed pending trials until further notice.
One placethat’s not seeing a ton of action is in Mississippi, the site of several uprisings and deaths in recent months for reasons associated with the deplorable conditions of the state’s prison. On March 16, advocates from the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice sent a letter to Governor Reeves imploring him to scale back incarceration and detention activities.
“If you have not already, we ask that you immediately reach out to the Mississippi State Department of Health (“MSDH”) to develop plans to address the virus in all Mississippi facilities that house prisoners or detainees, including Mississippi Department of Corrections facilities, county jails, and juvenile detention centers,” reads the letter. “This is an urgent matter. Having an appropriate, evidence-based plan in place can help prevent an outbreak and minimize its impact if one does occur. Not having one may cost lives.”
In New Orleans, some inmates have been released on a piecemeal basis, thanks to a campaign led in part by New Orleans’ public defenders. They have been raising money tobail out as many people as possible from jail, which is as much about reducing risks of spreading coronavirus as it is about implementing reforms that they have been working towards for years. They have also been arguing on a case-by-case basis in court that particular defendants should be released due to the coronavirus.But none of these efforts have been sufficient to release as many people as could be released by adopting policy changes like the ones called for in the joint statement — a step Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizaro has been unwilling to take.
“It is disheartening that the Orleans Public Defenders would seek to exploit this public health emergency by asking our police and courts to turn a blind eye toward criminal conduct,” New Orleans district attorney spokesman Ken Daley told Nola.com. “We review bond-reduction motions on a case-by-case basis, and oppose them when appropriate in the interest of public safety. This is hardly a time to encourage lawlessness.”
Cannizaro’s office has argued in court filings that coronavirus is a reason not to release inmates, because it could perpetuate the disease’s spread to the general public, according to The Lens NOLA.
As is the case with all local jails, many of the people sitting in the Orleans Parish Prison haven’t been convicted for any crimes; they are only awaiting a hearing or arraignment. During Hurricane Katrina, inmates were also held in the jail too long, as the disaster worsened, which led to preventable deaths — or rather, mysteriously disappeared prisoners.
Speaking with inmates who were trapped there during the floods, the ACLU wrote in a report on the aftermath: “The picture that emerged from all of these accounts was one of widespread chaos, caused in large part by inadequate emergency planning and training by local officials, and of racially motivated hostility on the part of prison officials and blatant disregard for the individuals trapped in the jail.”
The criminal justice systems in New Orleans and Mississippi now have an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina. And, they now have political cover from a wider prosecutor community to change their jailing policies.
On a recent Saturday morning, two young girls stood in front of a large case with glass walls in the produce section of a QFC (Quality Food Centers) grocery store in Bellevue, Washington. They stared up at plants arranged under bright lights, then turned to fill a bag with sugar snap peas.
Their curiosity was shared by many other customers as they took in the newest addition to the grocery store: a vertical farm.
Late last month, Kroger, which owns QFC, teamed up with Infarm, a six-year-old startup based in Germany, to install modular vertical farms in two of its Seattle-area grocery stores, in Bellevue and Kirkland, Washington. In these mini-farms, which use a hydroponic farming method, nine varieties of lettuce and herbs are stacked in rows and grown in nutrient-rich water until they are mature enough to be sold in bunches to customers, roots and all.
Unusually, these are small vertical farms inside grocery stores, rather than the larger-scale vertical farms that are more often found in warehouses. They’re reportedly the first examples of hydroponic farming within grocery stores in North America. Although Infarm has more than 500 such installations in stores and distribution centers in other parts of the world, this is its first partnership with a U.S. grocery store.
Kroger hopes to satisfy the American consumer’s increasing hunger for fresh, locally sourced, and nutrient-rich food. “Customers today want transparency; they want to know exactly where their product is from, the provenance where it was grown,” said Suzy Monford, Kroger Group’s group vice president of fresh foods.
Unveiled days before Thanksgiving, the program has already been deemed a success by Kroger. Monford said the stores have been selling everything from kale to cilantro as fast as the plants have been able to mature. In fact, on a couple of recent days, some varieties weren’t available because the crops needed time to replenish. The company has announced plans to expand vertical farming to 13 more QFCs in Washington and Oregon by April 2020.
The growing process at the two pilot stores involves LEDs and an irrigation system with recycled water, according to Kroger. Infarm uses a cloud-based technology system to remotely control the temperature and lighting for each of its farms.
Vertical farming uses much less water than soil-based agriculture and has significantly higher yields per acre. Because Infarm’s produce isn’t being shipped anywhere, that reduces carbon emissions from transportation. But given that transportation is a small part of farming’s environmental footprint and LEDs use electricity, the overall impact is hard to gauge.
It’s no surprise that the venture debuted in the Pacific Northwest, a region with an affinity for health and wellness and a strong interest in environmental issues. Kroger often looks to QFC for ecological innovation, Monford said, noting that it was the company’s first division to eliminate single-use plastic bags.
For Infarm, the ultimate goal is to make local food production mainstream. “For the bulk of the last century, food has been produced far from where it is consumed, generating a supply chain that is environmentally unsustainable,” said Osnat Michaeli, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Our modular farms offer the potential of turning the supply chain on its head by building the world’s first global farming network.”
Inside the Kirkland and Bellevue QFCs, customers can find farm produce ready for purchase in front of the cases. Each lettuce or herb has been harvested from the unit and costs about the same as Kroger’s private-label organic produce. Freshness was a big motivator for Kroger deciding to incorporate the farms into its stores, said Monford: “There’s nothing that’s more fresh than something that’s still alive.”
Earlier this month, residents in in Toms River, New Jersey, were calling for help. The state is home to some 20,000 wild turkeys, and about 40 to 50 of them, residents say, are terrorizing their Holiday City neighborhood. The birds have become so bold that they’re knocking on doors looking for food, according to a recent New York Times report, and so menacing that they’re trapping residents in their homes, local news outlets reported. The birds also block streets and peck at cars, one of which belongs to baseball player Todd Frazier, whose tweet sent reporters flocking for the scoop.
Ruthless rule breakers that the birds are, “they cause traffic problems,” Holiday City resident Don Kliem told CBS. “People blow their horns at them, and they don’t pay attention to them. It means nothing to them.”
The “invasion,” as some residents have described it, came weeks before Thanksgiving, but similar stories of humans clashing with wild turkeys pop up year-round and across the country. There are between 6 million and 7 million of the gobblers across the U.S. today, and while they generally live in parks and forests, they are increasingly finding their way into the built environment.
“The suburbs have been marching out into the countryside and into the turkey’s natural habitat,” says David Curson, the director of bird conservation at National Audubon Society’s Maryland-D.C. office, where he also serves as the interim executive director. “Especially where there are green corridors alongside rivers and streams projecting into the cities and suburbs, turkeys will follow those, and come into built areas.”
The encounters have played out more dramatically in some areas than in others, and residents are finding it hard to coexist with their 20-pound feathered neighbors. Sometimes the birds get aggressive, as in the case of the Holiday City birds. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, one bird has been stalking a local postal worker “for months.” Other times, they’re just in the way. Wild turkeys have come crashing through the windshield of a big-wheeler in Sarasota, Florida, and through the windows of a two-story home in Elk Grove, California. In Moro, Oregon, and Oxford Township, Michigan, earlier this year, the birds were responsible for two fatal collisions on the highway.
It wasn’t so long ago that these kinds of human-turkey interaction were uncommon—even rare. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss from logging and urban development rendered wild turkeys almost extinct in the U.S. Before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas in 1482, there were an estimated 10 million wild turkeys, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, a citizen-led group that advocates for sound hunting policies. By the early 1900s, numbers dwindled significantly—varying estimates put the population lows at 30,000 or up to 200,000.
The conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century proved beneficial to the birds. “The big successes were the public conservation laws that brought in hunting regulations and a system in which you buy a permit to hunt,” Curson says. In the 1940s and 1950s, state governments and the turkey federation worked to enact hunting restrictions and require licenses. The fees were put toward hiring staff to manage wildlife population, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Local conservations, meanwhile, worked to reestablish the turkey population by trapping birds from forests where they were in abundance and reintroducing to other suitable habitats, like abandoned farmlands reclaimed by nature. (They learned the hard way that farming turkeys and placing them in the wild didn’t work, as the barnyard birds proved to be far less efficient at foraging and escaping predators.) The strategy took decades, but eventually the population started bounce back.
In Maryland, “they expanded enormously in the last 30 to 40 years,” says Curson. Once restricted to the western, more rural areas, they’re now found all over the state. “Wild turkeys have been translocated to new areas if they’ve adapted very well,” he adds.
Indeed, turkeys are a generalist species that adapts well to new environments because they don’t need specialized food or a particular vegetation to survive. A 2017 study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found that wild turkeys don’t require vast forested landscape, which means they are more flexible with where they’re able to live. The researchers studied female turkey habitat selection between forested areas and open agriculture fields, and found that they preferred the edges in between the two landscapes.
So as suburban and urban development threaten the turkey’s more vulnerable predators—bobcats, coyotes, and such—the birds have been better at living among humans. They’ve thrived on food put out by humans, like those found in bird feeders or unsecured trash. That’s allowed them to flourish in the New England region, where the wild turkey population is at a record high, the National Geographic reports. Sometimes environmental disasters push them into residential areas. In Northern California, for example, last year’s wildfires pushed the birds into the nearby cities. Even as the some returned to the burn areas, many are staying put in their new habitat where there is food readily available and fewer predators, according to the Record Searchlight.
That combination can help embolden their lack of fear toward humans. Curson says wild turkeys aren’t naturally aggressive creatures. “Naturally, wild turkeys are a very wary bird; they tend to hide, they don’t like to be near people,” he tells CityLab. “But if they are in an environment they are free of predators, it’s possible that they could become quite more confident.”
Curson expects that turkeys will become an increasingly familiar sight in backyards, and, to a lesser degree, in cities. Many states continue to impose hunting regulations to keep the local population in check, though in recent years the national number has slowly fallen, likely due climate change and continued development that disrupt habitats. (Turkeys may have been good at adapting to developments, but they are not immune.)
When the birds become aggressive, officials tend to remove them as a quick, though temporary, response. After multiple complaints from Holiday City residents, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife finally set up bait stations and installed net traps around the neighborhood last week to relocate the gang of disruptive turkeys. Meanwhile, officials are warning residents to assert dominance over the turkeys if they do seem aggressive and scare them away with tools like brooms or garden hoses.
To some people, though, wild turkeys remain a curious sight. Earlier this year, an “extremely regal-looking wild turkey” was spotted in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, likely having wandered away from the nearby Rock Creek Park. And in this case, the turkey was the one who was followed by residents delighted with its rare and almost majestic presence in the city.
If you see one near your house, and it isn’t bothering you, “enjoy watching it,” Curson says. ”Usually, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Fewer concepts are trendier in urban mobility circles right now than the idea of “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS). Boosters of the concept hail it as a means of weaning commuters off privately owned automobiles via technology platforms that allow them to easily book and plan trips across an array of urban transportation services—including transit, bikeshare, ride hail, e-scooters, and more. If you can make MaaS platforms painless to use, the story goes, people will happily ditch private cars, leaving our cities cleaner and safer.
That’s a laudable goal. But is technology alone capable of achieving it? Without the support of a mix of policy carrots and sticks, it’s hard to see how.
To understand why, please join me in a quick thought experiment. Think of a friend who drives herself to and from work every day (this shouldn’t be difficult; more than three of every four Americans do) but who could feasibly switch to another mode if she chose to.
Got someone in mind? Good.
Now, which of these four options would be most likely to compel your friend to stop driving to work? 1) Doubling the frequency of public transit in her city; 2) creating new protected bike lanes for the length of her commute; 3) doubling the cost of parking permits at home and work; or 4) launching a new app that lets her plan and pay for trips across all available transportation services (other than driving).
I’ve asked this question to many of my own friends. Their choices vary, but I have yet to meet anyone who picks the fourth option.
It’s not that MaaS apps like Transit App, Whim, or Berlin’s Jelbi aren’t helpful in nudging people away from driving—they are. It’s annoying to have to flip between apps to find the cheapest or most convenient way to get between two places; by removing that hassle, MaaS platforms lower one barrier to living a car-free lifestyle.
The problem is that this particular barrier isn’t the highest one. After all, seamlessly choosing across transit, e-scooter, and bikeshare isn’t that helpful if the bus only runs once an hour, or you have to ride that scooter or bike on a street shared with cars and trucks zooming by at 45 miles per hour.
“You can’t create the mode shift cities are looking for without repurposing infrastructure,” says Jeff Marootian, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, which has been adding dedicated bike lanes and micromobiltiy corrals in the nation’s capital. He supports the MaaS goal of reduced car dependence—but “technology alone won’t get us to [the vision of] MaaS.”
Still, most MaaS discussions to date revolve around the technology, not the asphalt and rails that these mobility services rest upon. One framework attempts to define levels of MaaS sophistication, culminating in Level 6, where “inputs and outputs of any journey will help feed and derive other dynamic interfaces.” The model makes no mention of transit service levels or street infrastructure. Neither does the description of MaaS offered by the MaaS Alliance, an industry-supported advocacy group, though it does note the “new business models” MaaS could launch. Indeed, it’s understandable why software and logistics companies might see more market potential in integrated mobility platforms than in new bike lanes or expanded transit service. Such incentives may explain some of MaaS’s technocentrism.
Politics also nudges MaaS conversations toward technical solutions. After all, no one “loses” when it becomes easier to travel across urban transport services; drivers’ commutes are unaffected. That wouldn’t be the case if public officials took a step like the third choice above: removing subsidies for workplace parking. Such a move would be a powerful MaaS enabler—making car trips more expensive implicitly makes other modes relatively cheaper—but it would likely be a tough sell for an elected official.
The first option, increasing transit frequency, has a different but comparable problem: It requires new taxpayer funding. But the experience of Seattle suggests how powerful an effect transit expansion can have on vehicle ownership, a key MaaS goal.
Few metro areas can marshal the billions of dollars Seattle invested over the past decade. But there are plenty of cheaper policy options that can nudge people away from cars. Cities can construct the kinds of protected bike lanes and dedicated micromobility parking that D.C.’s Marootian referenced, and they can follow the lead of New York and San Francisco by closing central thoroughfares to personal vehicles while leaving them open to other modes. Transit agencies can remove policies that prevent riders from bringing bikes on board trains and subways, and they can build micromobility parking at their stations. Cities could even raise revenue through their MaaS strategy: Suddenly doubling parking costs may be politically infeasible, but a gentle upward drift in the price of resident parking permits might not be.
And, of course, cities can support the MaaS technology platforms that bring together all the various modes and services. Indeed, these services could entice people on the margins to leave their car parked in the driveway, and one day they might accommodate fleets of autonomous shuttles and taxis that futurists anticipate. But we should be realistic: Without supportive policies and investment decisions, the smartest MaaS technology in the world won’t be able to liberate cities from our reliance on automobility.
Last year in Washington, D.C., a pair of city council members grilled the head of the city’s department of transportation on the status of bike and pedestrian projects in the District. It had been three years since the city had committed to following the traffic-calming principles outlined in Vision Zero, the international movement to reduce the injury toll associated with cars and trucks in cities. But the results, so far, had been disappointing: By that point in the year, 34 people overall had died on the city’s roads—D.C.’s worst year for traffic deaths in a decade.
The council members, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen, wanted an update from Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, on what the city had been doing in its efforts to make the streets safer. But as the hearing wore on, his answers started to sound like a refrain: Almost every new bike- or pedestrian-infrastructure project, from a road diet on Maryland Avenue to an Eastern Downtown protected bike lane, seemed to be about six to nine months away. In fact, the city task force that was supposed to coordinate Vision Zero policy across city agencies had only just met for the first time the month before.
“Do you get why that’s frustrating to hear?”Allen said to Marootian. “I think we can do more, and I want to impress on you that I think we need to treat this with a higher level of urgency. Why aren’t we experimenting with all kinds of different ways to pilot different ideas? If we mess it up, it’s a can of paint.”
Last month, the city council reconvened with Marootian for a seven-hour redux of that hearing, and there were signs that this advice had been heeded. In 2019, DDOT established a Vision Zero Office, fast-tracked quick-build safety projects like adding plastic pylons at crosswalks to slow drivers turns, and piloted some new ideas, such as dedicated bus lanes or painted curb extensions, that could be executed with little more than a can of paint. So far, 21 people have died from road crashes this year in the District, putting the city on track for the lowest number of traffic fatalities since the city committed to Vision Zero in 2015.
It’s a modest sign of progress, to be sure, especially considering the campaign’s ambitious benchmark. But it’s progress all the same.
When D.C. joined 13 other U.S. cities in making the Vision Zero commitment, its goal—eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024—seemed ambitious but also somehow achievable. Transformative safety improvements and a new era of technocratic, data-driven mobility were said to be a few short years away; self-driving vehicle technology appeared to be poised to eliminate the error-prone humans who were racking up 40,000 fatalities a year in the United States. Instead, technology has arguably made drivers worse, by dazzling them with digital distractions that have made cars even more lethal to other road users. While driving deaths have declined, this year United States is having its deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990.
What’s more, Vision Zero has run up against decades of institutional inertia. Departments of transportation have long focused on optimizing urban streets grids for automobiles; retooling these bodies to focus more attention on walkers and bike riders has proved daunting. D.C.’s bumpy Vision Zero journey offers an instructive illustration of how difficult this process can be. In the case of this city, it took something else—a tragic pair of fatalities and a fired-up advocacy community—to speed up the District’s push for safer streets.
That process is ongoing. At the October hearing, the room learned that a 15-year-old girl had been killed earlier that day on East Capitol Street. Minutes after learning that news, three younger residents spoke to the council about the importance of Vision Zero in the clearest way possibly. “There are too many cars,” Siddharth Kravitz, 9, told the council. “It’s hard to cross the street. Every day someone driving a car comes close to killing us. It makes me scared. They go way too fast.”
Two victims, and a powerful pushback
Rachel Maisler did not want the summer of 2019 to be like the one before it. In 2018, Maisler, a health and aging policy consultant who now chairs the D.C.’s Bicycle Advisory Council, spent a lot of time organizing rides for the dedication of ghost bikes for three cyclists killed in the District that year. She also organized the dedication of a ghost scooter in Dupont Circle.
There’s a lot of organizational labor behind these memorials: You need to find a bike to paint white, write to elected officials, contact the slain cyclist’s family, pick a route, and invite DDOT and the press to attend. For Maisler and her fellow riders, it had become all too routine.
At each memorial ride, Maisler called for the city council to hold a public hearing on D.C.’s lack of progress on its Vision Zero commitments. “It felt like we were getting to the tipping point, where the city would have to act,” Maisler says. “We did this on our own time, because we thought more needed to be done in response to these fatalities.”
The new year began with some positive signs. In January 2019, DDOT installed yellow pylons and white flexposts to slow down sharp turns from drivers and installed signs to ban right-turns-on-red at 100 intersections around the city. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Linda Bailey, previously the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to head the city’s new Vision Zero Office. In March, the mayor signaled a sort of reset on the policy, as city officials participated in a Vision Zero Summit sponsored by the Washington Area Bicycling Association in March.
But on Friday, April 19, a driver in a stolen van struck and killed Dave Salovesh while he was waiting at a red light on Florida Avenue. (The van’s 25-year-old driver later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.) Salovesh, 54, was an active member of the bike advocacy community in D.C.; he routinely tweeted about riding in the city and advocated for a less incremental approach to making safe streets.
“He was a good rabble rouser, and I considered him a friend,” says Charles Allen. Salovesh was one of Allen’s constituents in Ward 6. “Dave believed strongly in accountability in government. He could call me out for something I’d done that he disagreed with, then go right back to talking about baseball, or our kids.”
After his death, the fight for safe streets became much more personal, for bike advocates, for elected officials, and for DDOT.
“We were all dealing with this profound grief,” Maisler says. “I was in a complete daze that Saturday.” After a coordination call with fellow safe streets advocates, they made a plan to write to elected officials and hold a rally at the steps of the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, that next Friday.
But the next day—Easter Sunday—a 31-year-old man named Abdul Seck who was visiting friends in Southeast D.C. from the Bronx was hit by a car while walking at 16th and V when a driver failed to stop at the intersection and collided with another vehicle. Pinned under the vehicle, he died of a cardiac arrest that Monday. The car’s 21-year-old driver was charged with second-degree murder.
Community advocate Ron Thompson Jr. organized a vigil on Wednesday, where Maisler met him and asked him to speak at the rally. “The unfortunate proximity of two tragedies at two very different places with two very different people brought me and folks of my community—in Ward 8, Southeast, predominantly black, very low-income—together with folks who are predominantly white, with college degrees, and affluent or more wealthy than us, around this common issue,” Thompson says.
The two victims shared something else: Better road design could have helped prevent their deaths. By the end of the summer, both crash sites saw fixes implemented by DDOT. On Florida Avenue, where Salovesh was killed, emergency legislation finally expedited a protected bike lane that had been planned for years on a road long known as dangerous.
Thompson also knew the intersection where Seck died: His mother had been in a minor car crash there just months before. The pattern of reactive problem-solving fit what Thompson, now working as an equity organizer with the urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, had seen advocating for basic fixes in his neighborhood.
“The best way to get DDOT to do things was to tweet it out to them and shame them into what they should already do,” Thompson says. “There’s deep inequity there, when you have to do this performative petition in order to get basic infrastructure in your neighborhood so that a child can walk to school safely.”
At the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People that Friday, a crowd of several hundred community members showed up before an installation of ghost bikes at the doorstep of the Wilson Building. They held a mass “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue and shared anguished stories about friends and family members they’d lost to traffic violence. “It was all these different pieces of the advocacy community coming together,” Maisler says. “Everyone has a different point of view, but every single voice melded together to elevate the message and drive it home that safe streets matter for every one in the city.”
Visible signs of progress
D.C.’s bike advocates have never been shy about telling DDOT what it could or should be doing to make the city’s streets safer—and showing it how to do it. Salovesh was known to place red Solo cups on painted bike lanes to show the dangers to cyclists, or deploy pool noodles on a bike lane that had become a favorite U-turn spot for drivers. (The latter led DDOT to add wheel-stop barriers to the lane.)
Salovesh’s friend Rudi Riet, a local mobility advocate in D.C., calls these interventions “pushing the city beyond the hypotheticals.” They’re also about making the streets more playful as well as safer. “People will gravitate toward things that are fun, that are enjoyable, that make you smile, that lower your blood pressure,” Riet says. “We equate sweetness with pleasure. Dave wanted to equate riding a bike and walking with pleasure and make it a game.”
Over the summer, DDOT seemed to embrace that that experimental approach. The agency repurposed timber for bike lane barriers, and placed speed stars to calm alley traffic near a local school. They piloted rush-hour bus-only lanes downtown and then made it permanent. “Our real effort this year has been to shape the way that we’re delivering projects,” Marootian says. “The mayor challenged us with identifying our highest impact projects and accelerating the delivery of them in every way that we possibly can.”
For example: On a Saturday in early October, the city closed three miles of one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous roads, Georgia Avenue, for an Open Streets event, turning the four-lane thoroughfare into a space for steel drum bands, skateboard ramps, yoga classes, and a bouncy house.
“Georgia Avenue is a vibrant corridor with lots of businesses and residents,” Marootian said. “It really has a dynamic energy that we thought could be harnessed for an Open Streets event. One of our goals is really to capture people’s imagination about what our streets could look like in the future.”
Marootian also says that the city’s coming Vision Zero progress will also focus on equity issues, pointing to the horizon of capital projects over the next four years that will direct more resources on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
There are a slew of new bills designed to bolster street safety under consideration. Among them is a mandate to finish installing the network of protected bike lanes envisioned in a 2005 Bicycle Master Plan. Other bills would require all-way stops and sidewalks on both sides of the street as a default on residential roads, a citywide ban on right-on-red, dedicated bus lanes for each the city’s eight wards, and dropping speed limits to 20 mph on most city streets. “We’re taking the kitchen sink approach,” Allen says. “The time for nibbling at the edge and half measures is over. We need to have the political guts to make decisions that prioritize someone’s life. If you’re going to say Vision Zero, you’ve got to mean it.”
For traffic safety advocates in the District, the progress is welcomed, but it’s still not enough. “I like seeing the action from DDOT, and I commend them,” Riet says. “I just wish that it wasn’t reactionary.” He’s worried that the latest traffic safety bills will get watered down. But mostly, he wants the city to remember the human costs of inaction.
That’s where the death of Dave Salovesh comes into the picture. Reducing him to a symbol, in a way, is a shame; his friend was a lot more than just a bike advocate. “Dave was a father. He was a PTA guy. He was a coach,” Riet says. The same goes for all the other lives lost on D.C.’s streets. “It didn’t matter whether they were on bicycles, on foot, or even if they were in a car. These tragedies could have been prevented.”
The most disturbing thing about Halloween isn’t the fake blood, urban legends, or sexy clown costumes. It’s that the streets are full of actual child-killers: Pedestrians under age 18 are twice as likely to be struck and killed by a car on October 31 than on any other day of the year.
That statistic tends to only make the social-media rounds in the days immediately before the holiday, but it connects to a truly frightening year-round phenomenon. More U.S. pedestrians are dying in car crashes, and more of them are dying at night, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2018, 6,482 people were killed by drivers while they were on foot, a 3.4 percent jump from 2017. Cyclist fatalities also rose by 6.3 percent from 2017, with 859 killed. After a decade of uptick, both groups saw their highest death toll since 1990.
But as things have gotten more dangerous for people outsideof vehicles, the people inside have become more secure. Fatalities among occupants of cars, vans, SUVs, and even motorcyclists dropped last year. In fact, the number of people killed in vehicle crashes across all groups fell by 2.4 percent between 2017 and 2018, following a .9 percent decline between 2016 and 2017. In other words, the apportionment of fatality risk is shifting across different types of road users.
There are a few factors here, expert say. For one, more people are commuting by bike and foot. Two, while heavy, high-rise SUVs and trucks often insulate their occupants from crashes better than compact cars, they’re also more likely to kill pedestrians and cyclists in the event of a crash, and the popularity of these larger vehicles has surged. Three, most streets are still engineered to accommodate vehicles first. Sidewalks, crosswalks, ample lighting, and other pedestrian-friendly features tend to play second fiddle to car-oriented considerations such as lane width and high speed limits. In fact, a 2018 study in JAMA Pediatrics pointed to such failures in road design and traffic laws as the root cause of Halloween’s high pedestrian fatality rate—a departure from the individualistic safety warnings that are normally heard.
Road deaths are also shifting across the hours of the day. Between 2017 and 2018, NHTSA found that the number of nighttime fatalities (which the agency measures between 6 PM and 6 AM) rose 4.6 percent for pedestrians and 9.2 percent for cyclists. This is consistent with longer-term trends: Nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths between 2007 and 2017, according to a February report by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In other words, nearly all of the progress on road safety that has been erased in the past 10 years has occurred after sunset.
Lack of illumination obviously poses an added threat for people traveling by foot, bike, or wheelchair. But beyond the fact that more people are walking and biking in general, there could be other factors increasing their risk factor relative to daytime hours.
One theory relates to work. Data from the General Social Survey shows a 2 percent uptick in the number of people who say they work at night since 2010, said Lonnie Golden, an economics professor at Penn State University, Abington who studies labor scheduling. That may be because employers are assigning a few more night shifts, more people are working later into the evening, or perhaps there’s a rising share of the workforce employed in service jobs that aren’t limited to 9-to-5 schedules. “If you’re walking home late at night, you could be more prone to injuries,” said Golden.
Another possibility has to do with the shaky performance of new vehicle safety technology, said Elliot Martin a research and development engineer at the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center. The most recent generation of vehicles should be safer for everyone, equipped as they often are with collision-avoidance systems designed to help drivers spot hazards. But as Martin pointed out, a recent AAA study found that those systems aren’t nearly as effective as manufacturers claim, and are especially faulty in dark lighting conditions. Finally, there’s the possibility that night drivers are more likely to be driving recklessly (and under the influence of drugs and alcohol), said Liisa Ecola, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who studies road safety trends.
But none of these hypotheses are conclusive. Federal highway safety data shows little indication that more people are traveling more miles at night, either by car, foot, or bike. In this case, nighttime turns out to be both lethal and fairly mysterious—just in time for Halloween. Perhaps readers can take this as costume inspiration: Go as darkness itself, with all its deadly roadside trappings. But until more streets are built for people, just remember to add reflective tape.