How Urban Industry Can Contribute Green Solutions for COVID-Related Health Disparities

The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.

Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.

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Al Fresco Dining Is the Restaurant Industry’s Best Hope

Even before its opening, Hold Out Brewing lived up to its name.

The Austin brewpub is the latest project of Matthew Bolick and Matt and Grady Wright, who own a handful of popular bars and cafes in the Texas capital. Their portfolio includes a coffeeshop-slash-drafthouse called Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and the all-day casual-fare Better Half Coffee and Cocktails, whose cauliflower tots helped it earn the restaurant-of-the-year nod from Eater Austin in 2019. Next door to Better Half, in an unmissable quonset dome, is where the owners parked Hold Out Brewing.

The Austin team first announced the brewery back in 2017, but delays with the city dragged out the opening for 17 months. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends with co-owners Matt and Grady Wright for several years.) Then the pandemic arrived, forcing the owners to confront a bunch of dilemmas all at once. Can a brewpub open during a pandemic? How would they reopen any of their spots?

As of May 7, Hold Out Brewing is open-ish for business. The brewery is slinging burgers, dogs, and curly fries — even deep-fried chocolate pecan pie. A craft six-pack of Thumb Puncher Pale Ale will set you back $15. It’s still takeout-only, though. Unlike many Texas restaurants, which were allowed to reopen with limited capacity on May 1, the brewery is holding out on opening up its patio, much less any interior dine-in spaces. Not quite yet. That’s still a dilemma for this and other Austin eateries.

“We’ve been able to do this current to-go business model really well. We know it, we can keep staff safe, we can keep our guests safe,” says Brent Sapstead, head brewer at Hold Out. “We decided to go with what we know. As we look to expand and look at more and more of that, I think we’ll be having this conversation weekly.”

As restaurants and shops in Texas and other states start to reopen, owners are adjusting to a new normal that is anything but. One key to economic recovery this summer — if both owners and customers can muster the confidence  — may be the outside party. Heading outdoors is an old prescription for pandemic relief: In 1918, San Francisco mandated that church services be held outdoors and that streetcar windows remain open in good weather; many cities held court hearings en plein air. Today, it’s eateries that are leading the march outside, since these are among the first storefront establishments to reopen widely around the United States. This summer may shape up to be the season of al fresco everything.

The patio at Hold Out Brewing could be open soon.  (Mumford Photos)

In Tampa’s popular Ybor City district, for example, restaurants have overtaken several streets that have been closed to traffic in order to build outdoor dining rooms. A famously free-ranging flock of Ybor chickens, which typically shuns busy Seventh Avenue, has rediscovered the main drag. (Nature is healing.) Berkeley in the Bay Area is looking to authorize big outdoor dining spots; Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas are following suit. Earlier this month, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced an “Al Fresco San Jose” initiative that would allow restaurants to claim sidewalk, alley, and street space, while Cincinnati is waiving permitting fees and encouraging food vendors to colonize the sidewalk. In New Hampshire, only outdoor dining spaces will be allowed to reopen for the time being.

Other U.S. cities are signaling their eagerness to get in on the al fresco action. Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has allowed restaurants to open with limited capacity, a cap that will be raised to 50% as of May 22. Bars across Texas may reopen on Friday, too, at 25% capacity. Patios and courtyards enjoy a special exemption: So long as outdoor tables are spaced six feet apart, restaurants are allowed to seat more people outside. The state’s priority on outdoor spaces may line up with popular sentiment. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor (!) for Texas Monthly, told readers and restaurants in a tweet that he won’t be gracing any indoor dining rooms for the foreseeable future.

“If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it outside than  inside,” says Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who has been critical of the governor’s rush to reopen. “If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it six feet away [from other tables]. It’s better to do it in a restaurant with 10 people than a restaurant with 100 people.”

There may be science to back up the caution that business owners, staffers, and customers feel about crowding back inside their favorite haunts. One much-discussed study by scientists in China named indoor spread as the prime culprit in coronavirus transmission. Across 320 cities in China, 80% of outbreaks with three or more cases this winter happened in homes, while 34% involved transportation; only one outbreak could be blamed on an outdoor event (a conversation). In another study, 10 people from three different families all came down with coronavirus after eating at the same air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou. Other research points to the same conclusion: The risk of transmission is highest in enclosed environments. (The prospects for basement dive bars aren’t great.)

New York City looks to be at least a month away from reopening any indoor dining spaces. Right now, the city is gearing up for a campaign to push diners outdoors: New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie took to the op-ed page to spell out a plan for restaurant owners, business districts, and neighborhood groups to help the city identify places to test al fresco dining expansions. David Rockwell, an architect whose firm specializes in hospitality design, has even sketched out some potential templates for restaurants on the Rockwell Group’s website.

Outdoor seating may be tactically vital for preserving commercial corridors in New York, since many restaurants can’t survive for long on the reedy margins to be had from hosting only a few scattered four-tops. And takeout orders represent only a fraction of the industry’s usual take: Restaurant revenues in New York are down 89% from where they stood in April 2019. “It is critically important that restaurants have outdoor space to offset reductions inside,” Rigie told the New York Daily News.

Simply reopening dining rooms isn’t necessarily an option, even if local regulations permit it. The new pandemic status quo demands adequate social distancing, which can also mean a mostly empty restaurant. (Virginia’s Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington plans to lean all the way in to the creepy pandemic vibes by filling out its dining room with “mannequins wearing vintage, 1940s-style outfits” sitting at the unused tables.) Places that have pivoted to takeout — Austin’s Better Half is one of them — have now partitioned their indoor space to better allow workers to spread out, for food-prep and safety reasons. Opening up a dining room to a fraction of the usual customers still requires a full-time share of planning, resources, staff and uncertainty.

“Most of the clientele is used to how curbside [pickup] works,” Sapstead says. “They are used to understanding what strips of tape on the ground mean and what they signify. They were ready to go and followed the rules.”

There’s something else at play, though, in the decision by restaurants to reopen (or not), to turn parking lots into courtyards (or not), or to invite customers back onto patios (or not). It has to do with margins but also scale. Independent restaurateurs have a sense of what their customers want and what their like-minded peers are doing, Matt Wright says; for now, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. At the other end of the spectrum, fast-food chains are also expressing caution about reopening dining rooms. An almost 60-page McDonald’s corporate guide to disinfecting and social distancing for franchisees is a sign for how difficult reopening might be.

Still, the pressure to reopen quickly is intense. According to a survey of San Francisco restaurants that decided to operate through the pandemic, 60% are losing money on takeout and delivery. Eateries that rely on volume need dining space to reopen safely and profitably.

Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.  

In Austin, meanwhile, Hold Out Brewing is preparing for the season with a raft of lower-alcohol hoppy beers, ideal for glugging on a Texas summer scorcher. Just not on the patio — for now.

“When we opened Better Half, we threw open the doors and essentially had a party,” Sapstead says. “By contrast, opening a to-go-only business for opening day, it was very exciting and we were super stoked, but it was so weird. We have all this room that we’d love to share with folks. Having to be masked and distanced from all these people we know and love — it’s strange.”

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4 Predictions for the Electric Scooter Industry

For the electric scooter business, the going is going is getting tough. After two years of furious growth, the micromobility industry has entered a phase of survival, with major players shedding staff, pulling out of cities, and sharpening their competitive instincts.

With so many companies still vying for street and market space—and virtually all of them losing money fast—industry insiders expect 2020 to be full of shakeouts. What might those be, and why? Here are four predictions for the year ahead in scooters, bikes, trikes, and all things small, dockless, and electric.

1. Companies will be culled

If Johnny Appleseed had attended Burning Man, perhaps he’d have gone into the scooter business. But he would have quickly learned that scattering thousands of motorized two-wheeled conveyances into city streets is a highly capital-intensive process. Investment into electric bikes, scooter, and mopeds has exceeded $6 billion since 2018, and startups are very quickly burning through it; the business model is built on renting relatively expensive machines that live brief, hard lives on the streets. Bird, an industry leader valued at $2.5 billion, spent nearly $100 million in in the first quarter of 2019, while its revenue dwindled to about $15 million, The Information reported last year. Lime’s losses for 2019 topped $300 million.

These and other ventures continued to raise new rounds of funding last year, and Uber and Lyft—ride-hailing bigwigs with substantial scooter sidelines—both went public. But investors and shareholders are eager to see margins improve. Look at the spate of industry layoffs in recent months: Over the course of 2019, Bird snipped about 60 staff from its payroll. In November, Lyft withdrew scooter operations from six U.S. cities and laid off 20 employees. Earlier this month, Lime eliminated 100 jobs and pulled its services out of 12 cities globally, while a reorganization at Uber led to service cuts and job losses at Jump, the electric bike/scooter company it acquired in 2018.

As companies trim their operations, many observers believe that further contractions are ahead, especially since this is an industry where companies have little to set themselves apart. More mergers, such as Bird’s acquisition of the scooter and moped startup Scoot last June, seem inevitable. “In Los Angeles this past weekend, I saw over a half dozen stand-up scooter options—many right next to each other on the same corner,” Jim McPherson, a Benicia lawyer and expert on micromobility, told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. “The only difference between them was the color of their paint—and the apps used to hail them.”

Changes might also be coming to less-profitable markets. David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government (and CityLab contributor) who watches the space closely, believes that any number of spread-out, smaller cities might be surprised to find themselves totally scooter-less by the end of 2020.  “I think some city officials have a misconception about how limitless the wallets or bank accounts of these companies are,” Zipper said. “They might soon find themselves wondering how they can get scooters back.”

2. City regulations will create winners and losers

Several media outlets declared 2018 the “year of the scooter,” because that was then the first wave of them hit cities. That spring, Bird dropped the first batch of them in Santa Monica, unannounced; Lime, Skip, Spin, Lyft, Uber, and others quickly followed. The startups believed that battery-boosted scooters could draw city-dwellers into a car-free lifestyle, a promise that dockless bikes had failed to meet just one year earlier.

But there was an immediate (and understandable) public backlash: Scooters left dumped in public rights of way blocked pedestrians and wheelchair users. Their mostly male riders seemed to have little interest in adhering to basic safety or traffic regulations, and frequently rode helmet-free and onto sidewalks. And in some of the cities where they arrived, motorized scooters were totally illegal. Scooters were a nuisance trifecta for city regulators.

Which meant that 2019 was the year of city regulations, permitting schemes, and outright prohibitions. Cities have employed a range of strategies to rein in scooter chaos. In L.A., for example, scooter companies must comport with a complicated (and contentious) set of data-sharing requirements, as well as certain safety and fleet size standards, to secure permits to operate. Year-long pilot programs in both San Francisco and Washington, D.C. concluded with multiple companies getting cut from those markets, with Skip getting the boot in S.F. and Bird, Lime, Bolt, and Razor kicked out of the District. Nashville, Denver, and San Diego all issued temporary bans; scooters still have never been legal in New York City.

The whims of city regulators will likely have an effect on which companies succeed from market to market, and on which ones are able to raise more funding, predicts Alex Vickers, who worked on business development teams at Jump and Motivate and is now penning a newsletter focused on the industry. “We’re seeing regulators have the ability to pick winners and losers now,” he said. “It’ll be really interesting to see—can micromobility companies even attract venture capital if they aren’t one of the vendors awarded a permit in Paris or in San Francisco?”

3. New form factors will appear

At their outset, dockless scooters developed a reputation as the tech bro’s mode of choice. That reputation was basically deserved: Rider surveys and national analyses have since confirmed that men (who are mostly white or Asian) are far more interested in scooting than women and gender non-conforming folks.

For that reason and others, some observers expect to see an evolution in vehicle design in the near future, with different shapes, sizes, and wheel arrangements equipped to serve various transportation needs and comfort levels. Already, companies are deploying more robust electric mopeds, trikes, heavy-duty cargo bikes, and egg-shaped mini-cars for possible use as public rentals. Indeed, the humble little scooter may not be the default for much longer.

“You’re going to a vast explosion of form factors,” Horace Dediu, a technology analyst and founder of the Micromobility Conference, said in an interview with CityLab last year. “It took 30 or 40 years before we standardized automotive design. [With scooters,] I think we’re in the very early phases of experimentation.”

4. The battle over data-sharing will go on

Last Friday, lawyers for Jump went to Los Angeles City Hall to argue that sharing granular trip data with L.A.’s department of transportation is a kind of government surveillance. The hearing was the latest development in the year-plus series of skirmishes between Uber (Jump’s owner) and officials at LADOT, which rolled out a pioneering set of standards and software tools to facilitate real-time data-sharing with mobility companies last year. Jump has refused to comply, and is now appealing L.A.’s decision to revoke its permit last fall. The question of whether L.A.’s program—known as “MDS,” or the “mobility data specification”—is legal under California privacy law is set to be addressed by state legislators later this year.

“I believe some new decisions will impact how data is shared between mobility operators and cities,” said Regina Clewlow, the CEO of Populus, a micromobility data analytics service.

There will be more battles between companies, as well, especially scooter companies and mapping apps. Transit, a multimodal routing and ticketing app, objected last year when Citibike, New York City’s docked bikeshare system, was pulled from the platform by its owner, Lyft. So far, Lyft has allowed the other bikeshare systems that it operates to remain on Transit. But there are other reasons to believe this might be an issue. If you use Google Maps to get around, you’ll notice that Lime is the only micromobility offering that appears there. (Google X is an investor in Lime.) Lime has also recently issued a cease-and-desist to Scooter Map, a third-party app that maps vehicles from multiple companies.

“Most mobility operators are sensitive to sharing their users to other platforms which is understandable because they’re trying to build businesses,” said Clewlow. “But we’ve also seen companies start to restrict access to data feeds that perhaps used to be open.”

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