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Make Little Plans
Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
—Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
At CityLab, the idea that people can create cities for everybody guides how we do our journalism, too. What makes cities lively, exciting, and innovative is the capacity for change. As research and history show, the budgets, buildings, and blocks that citizens fight to build today define the paths that others will walk tomorrow.
This week, we featured reflections on the last decade from some of the people responsible for planting CityLab’s roots, our alumni. It is a fitting moment to be revisiting the decade: It was almost ten years ago that CityLab launched in 2011 as The Atlantic Cities. And in the coming week, as we enter 2020, CityLab is leaving its home at the Atlantic to head over to Bloomberg.
As part of that transition, a few members of the CityLab team are saying goodbye, yours truly included. Today is my last day as the daily guide on your CityLab journey. But I walk away from this experience knowing that what we’ve built together already will provide a great foundation for what is yet to come.
Over and out, and on your left,
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It is well-established that the lower a family’s income, the more that family will pay for lighting and heating the house, running appliances, and keeping the wi-fi on. Such outcomes would suggest that this is a class problem or a function of rational markets. But according to a new study, all low-income households are not equally yoked: Residents of poorer, predominately white neighborhoods are less energy-cost burdened than people in predominately minority neighborhoods of similar economic status. Race matters.
Residents of minority neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of area median income (AMI) are 27 percent more energy-cost burdened than residents from the same wage bracket who live in white neighborhoods. This is one of the findings from the study, “Energy Cost Burdens for Low-Income and Minority Households,” recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association and conducted by New York University urban planning researchers Constantine E. Kontokosta and Bartosz Bonczak, and University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Vincent J. Reina.
The research team analyzed energy consumption data from an estimated 13,000 apartment buildings across five cities—Boston, Cambridge, New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—taking advantage of energy disclosure ordinances in those cities, across census blocks and even at the individual building level.
At the census block level, they found energy cost burden disparities between white and minority neighborhoods not only for the lowest-income families, but also for households whose incomes fall within 51 to 80 percent of AMI and 81 to 120 percent of AMI. In these brackets, families in minority neighborhoods are more energy cost burdened by an average of 24 percent. In New York City and D.C., researchers found that residents of minority neighborhoods were more cost-burdened even at middle-class incomes, or 121-to-150 percent of AMI.
“Regardless of income, if that disparity exists, then if nothing else, it’s just a consistent statement of the fact that it’s race,” says Reina. “We care from an environmental perspective about all of our consumption levels, but from an energy justice perspective, we particularly care about the lowest-income households because those have the least agency in making decisions that can actually affect their consumption levels.”
The findings confirm other studies that energy burden inequities are driven in part by racial segregation, such as work from the Urban Energy Justice Lab, which drew similar conclusions when looking at Kansas City and Detroit. They also confirm studies, such as those done by the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy, that show that the poorest families are paying a larger share of their income than wealthy families: Reina’s research shows that lower-income households are spending between 10 and 20 percent of their wages on energy bills in these cities compared to wealthy families who pay on average between 1.5 and 3 percent of their income on energy.
The metric to understand here is energy use intensity, or EUI, which is the amount of energy a household uses per square foot. While white households consume more energy overall, black and Latino households have higher EUI, usually as a result of segregation where minority families dwell in neighborhoods with older housing stocks and smaller units.
Reina’s team found that households from both the lowest and highest income brackets had the highest EUIs in the cities they studied, but the reasons differed. For wealthier households, high EUI was a function of their own behavior—having more appliances and electronic devices with heavier usage of each, or even just leaving lights and the heat on because they can afford to. Energy efficiency programs and technology could bring down their EUI, but these households could also just modify their behavior or their consumption habits for reductions, as well.
On the other hand, poorer households could modify their habits all they want and would still have high EUI, because for these households, EUI is often a function of having larger families or more people living within a relatively small unit, like an apartment, with inefficient heating and lighting infrastructure. Although this demographic is often told to change their behavior, much about their EUI is out of their control. Reina’s study shows how using data from energy audits and energy disclosure laws can help city officials better craft energy efficiency policies that target the buildings and families who most need them.
Yet higher EUIs among lower-income households are also an outcome of how government regulates their living situations. It’s housing policies that are the problem, particularly when it comes to subsidized and public housing. The financing structures for government-subsidized affordable housing are set up so that they don’t incentivize the developers and owners of affordable housing to make energy efficiency investments, according to earlier research from Reina and the New York University Furman Center.
In a previous study, Reina and Kontokosta compared data from 4,000 subsidized housing and market-rate units throughout New York City, finding that the low-income units had “statistically significant” higher EUI levels than similar market-rate units. They compiled energy data from several kinds of subsidized housing: public, Section 8 or rental voucher, and low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) financed. Of the three, public housing, which is generally owned and operated by federal and local government housing authorities, had the highest EUI—15 percent higher than market-rate homes. Section 8 voucher housing’s EUI was 9 percent higher, and LIHTC-funded housing’s was 7.6 percent higher than market-rate units.
These results are not surprising given how the housing subsidy arrangements work. For public housing and Section 8, the federal government mostly funds the owners of the buildings—local housing authorities and landlords, respectively—through rent subsidies, which includes utility allowances to help cover electric bill costs. There is no real incentive for these building owners to invest in energy efficiency upgrades because the federal subsidies will at some point adjust to cover whatever increases occur in tenants’ electricity costs. Meanwhile, both are limited in how much they can increase rents: They can’t simply increase rent to cover whatever expenses come from installing new energy efficient equipment.
As for the tenants, when their electric bills go up, their rent goes down, so there’s little motivation there for them to conserve. Building owners could sub-meter their units, so that tenants had meter readings for their own unit and were responsible for paying for their own individual electricity use, as opposed to one meter covering the entire building. That way tenants would be motivated to conserve energy. But again, the federal subsidy project doesn’t give building owners a lot of reason to go that route. Reads the report:
HUD does not provide a benchmark for determining what a reasonable utility allowance is, and there is no feedback mechanism for what one’s utility consumption “should” be. In aggregate, this utility allowance adjustment system shields households from the repercussions of overconsumption, and in doing so reduces their desire to reduce energy consumption or shop for a more efficient unit (if they could). The owner receives the same overall amount for rent plus utilities, regardless of the utility allowance amount, which also makes them indifferent about making energy efficient investments. Combined, these factors mean that in the Public Housing and Project- based Section 8 programs there is no pricing incentive for the landlord to increase the efficiency of the unit, or for tenants to reduce consumption levels.
This is why federal affordable laws should be changed to require subsidized housing to have sub-metering, a 2015 working paper from the NYU Furman Center argues: so that tenants are responsible for their own unit’s energy consumption. HUD could still provide utility allowances for tenants, but it would need to be right-sized to ensure that its covers the costs of the individual tenant, as opposed to the average energy costs of a whole building, as is currently practiced. The Furman Center also recommends that HUD do more to incentivize building owners to make energy efficiency investments in the properties.
Last week, New York U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled the “Green New Deal for Public Housing Act,” which would splurge on energy retrofits for mostly federal public housing developments, to the tune of $180 billion. The goal is to address the energy justice issue that Reina’s research identifies, while also making the greenhouse gas reductions needed in buildings to curb climate change.
Several other presidential candidates have released multi-billion dollar plans for affordable housing—including most recently, a bill from U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar to invest a $1 trillion in new top-grade public housing.
Many of these plans take into account that the poorest and non-white households are carrying the heaviest energy burdens. However, more cities and states need to adopt energy disclosure laws like the ones passed in Boston, Seattle, and New York City, so that housing authorities can better understand how energy is consumed at the building and housing unit level, and so those investments can be best allocated.
“We wanted to provide a more nuanced kind of estimate of energy cost burdens and to highlight the importance of disclosure data laws,” says Reina, “and how you can use that data to identify these phenomenon.”
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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.
In 2008, Seattle voters approved $17.8 billion in transit funding, followed by an additional $53 billion in 2016. That allowed the city to make huge upgrades in transit service. The share of households living within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute transit service rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2018. Transit ridership has swelled since, and the newest census data shows that Seattle posted the single biggest drop in the share of households owning a car among the 50 largest American cities this decade, from 84.3 percent in 2010 to 81.2 percent in 2018. While acknowledging that causation is hard to prove, Benjamin de la Pena, chief of strategy and innovation at the Seattle Department of Transportation, says he “certainly believe[s] there’s a strong correlation between the increased provision of transit and the decline in car ownership.”
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.
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Last October, a few weeks before thousands of white-collar urban transit professionals descended for a convention of their own, Pittsburgh hosted a different type of transportation summit. Dubbed MobiliT, it convened city officials, transit technologists, and civil society-types with everyday Pittsburgh residents.
Each person in the last group brought some type of mobility challenge unmet by Pittsburgh’s current bus, light rail, and bikeshare offerings. Some were single mothers traveling with multiple kids. Others were service workers with shifts in the wee hours of the morning. A few were ex-offenders who’d lost their driver’s licenses, working construction jobs in different parts of town. (All received a living wage in compensation for attending.)
At the time, Pittsburgh was on the cusp of launching its first dockless electric bikes, recalls Karina Ricks, the city’s director of transportation, as well as thinking about how to bring dockless electric scooters to its hilly and narrow streets. But hearing from those residents was an affirmation for Ricks that the introduction of a few hundred so-called micromobility devices was not going to make the answer for everyone. “We know that Razors on steroids are not a safe way for a mom to take her kids to school,“ she said. “So while we still wanted them, we also wanted to be able to provide something else to improve that situation.”
Ricks also wanted to do far more to shrink her city’s carbon footprint. Vehicles have overtaken other sectors of the economy as the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists say that the timeline for averting catastrophic global warming is short.
That knowledge, and the stories at MobiliT, helped seed Ricks’ idea for what is now the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective, a self-organized, private consortium that aims to bring a range of “new mobility” services across the city. Led by the dockless bike and scooter startup Spin, the group also includes Zipcar, Ford Mobility, Waze, the scooter parking solution Swiftmile, and the Transit app. Earlier this year, the companies collaborated in response to a request for proposals from Ricks’ department, which called for a complement of car-free transportation options that customers can access and book through a single platform.
Their winning plan, which was one of five submissions, envisions “mobility hubs” clustered near transit stops throughout Pittsburgh. There, travelers would find some combination of bike-share stations, Zipcar vehicles, Waze carpool pickup spots, and parked and charged e-bikes and scooters from Spin to rent. The Transit app would handle route planning and ticketing services to customers, and Ford Mobility would feed data analytics back to the city.
In other cities and other contexts, these companies might be competitors—Zipcar vying for the same trips as Spin; Ford vying for the same trip data as Waze. But each player also recognizes that not all customers are a fit for every mode, said Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin. And in this case, they’re aligned around at least one common goal: reducing the 56 percent of commuters in Pittsburgh who drive alone. “This is definitely an experiment to see how we all coalesce, and we don’t know all the answers yet,” Bear said. “But we’re all trying to get people out of single-occupancy cars and personal vehicles.” (In Ford’s case, the company sees an urban market opportunity.)
In return for their cooperation toward this goal, Pittsburgh also is creating certain incentives to encourage these companies to join forces. For one, the city is keeping other mobility competitors out of play for the time being, according to Ricks. And two, her department will work closely with the collective to remove obstacles to their success on the street. “It’s often not a money issue,” she said. “More often, it’s access to parking spaces or operating rights issue that’s the barrier.” That’s the sort of stuff that the city can help negotiate or arrange in order to bring more options to a wider cut of the population.
In late September, the Mobility Collective held its first meeting with the city, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the mass transit operator in Pittsburgh), and other stakeholder groups to discuss which neighborhoods would make choice destinations for early pilot projects, which could roll out as soon as 2020.
Outside of downtown and university campuses—coveted markets for mobility companies—Ricks pointed to a few communities of potential interest, including Larimer, a historically African American area that is unique in Pittsburgh for its relatively flat topography, and Hazelwood, which is close to employment centers but has poor pedestrian connections to public transit. Each neighborhood has its unique profile and set of challenges; the collective-based approach is supposed to allow the city to experiment.
“It lets us see what people are choosing once they’re given these different offerings,” Ricks said. “They might commute to their day jobs using a micromobility option or Waze carpool, but for weekend grocery shopping, they might use car share.” In neighborhoods where single parents proliferate, the city may also consider bringing a jitney-like service into the fold, she added.
The idea behind the bundled service model is known in industry jargon as “mobility as a service.” Born in Helsinki and gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe, the MaaS concept is that a single, digital platform that offered seamless, universal access to car-free transportation could become a viable substitute to personal vehicles. In separate bids to become that one-stop mobility shop, ride-hailing bigwigs Uber and Lyft have both recently acquired or experimented with bike, scooter, and car rental services, and redesigned their apps to supply such multi-modal trips. (Some observers worry that they’re becoming “walled gardens” in the process, a concern that came to the fore in a recent dispute between Lyft and the Transit app.) Los Angeles is busy developing an open-source software platform designed to host an ecosystem of mobility companies.
But Pittsburgh’s invitation for multiple companies to develop an integrated system seems to be unique in the landscape. “It’s a first-of-its-kind consortium—the first big group to service the micromobility needs of a big city together,” said Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile. On the plus side for the city, it may avoid getting stuck with a single provider. On the down side, there may be risk of competitive interests preventing the players from cooperating down the road.
In Ricks’ mind, the moment has arrived for a bold move on the city’s part. Pittsburgh has learned the hard way that being the first city to welcome emerging mobility companies isn’t always best for residents. A few years ago, it made national headlines for a clash with Uber over whether the company was living up to certain civic promises as it tested autonomous vehicles in town. With dockless scooters and bikes, the city waited a little longer than others to fold them in. This way, Pittsburgh has a clearer idea of what it wants to accomplish, said Ricks.
New and untested as her collective approach may be, Ricks believes that when it comes to shrinking carbon footprints, big ideas will win the day. The time has passed for incrementalism, even if there are bumps in the road. “We’re all a little scared,” she said. “But we’re in it together.”
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