To chart the forces of urban inequality, mapmakers will usually look to neighborhood tracts. ThatÃ¢â‚¬s where the best data tends to be available about things like racial clustering, housing prices, commute times, and other indicators of divisions.
But what happens when you zoom closer? Inside shops, restaurants, bars, schools, and other hubs, communities that look diverse from the outside can turn out to be pretty homogenous. A new mapping project from researchers at MITÃ¢â‚¬s Media Lab and SpainÃ¢â‚¬s Universidad Carlos III de Madrid draws on novel types of data to show how thatÃ¢â‚¬s true across greater Boston. There, as in other cities, the daily routines of individuals across the economic spectrum lead to Ã¢â‚¬Å“micro-segregationÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ at the address levelÃ¢â‚¬â€�i.e., where people actually spend time and money.
For example, two restaurants around gentrifying ChinatownÃ¢â‚¬â€�Amateras, a ramen joint, and a Chinese spot called Happy Dim SumÃ¢â‚¬â€�are only a few blocks from one another, and neither is very pricey. But in terms of the income distribution of its clientele, theyÃ¢â‚¬re distinct: Amateras draws a fairly well-heeled base of customers, with most coming from communities where median incomes are between $90,000 and $114,000 a year. Happy Dim Sum is dominated by customers who live in neighborhoods where median incomes are less than $67,000 a year, which is how they define the bottom economic quartile.
Another block away is another dim sum restaurant called Hei La Moon, which attracts a set of diners much more representative of the Boston areaÃ¢â‚¬s economic diversity.
The mapmakers profiled the patrons of these spots by coupling census income data with anonymized mobility traces of 150,000 Boston area residents, which was scraped off their phones by a location intelligence analytics firm.
But the project is imperfect. For one thing, it doesnÃ¢â‚¬t include the movement patterns of very poor individuals, such as the homeless, Ã¢â‚¬Å“who bear the brunt of segregation,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ my CityLab colleague Tanvi Misra points out in her article about the map. But it is a notable example of how location dataÃ¢â‚¬â€�the same stuff that your apps are constantly and creepily gathering about your whereaboutsÃ¢â‚¬â€�can be used to illuminate important social dynamics. For example, if you believe that diversity is a benefit of urban life, this map might move you to reconsider your daily routines.
Some readers saw the question as straightforward. Catherine Tanaka wrote that players ought to take responsibilityÃ¢â‚¬â€�Ã¢â‚¬Å“If they sneak away and refuse to reveal their fault, thatÃ¢â‚¬s the same as hit and runÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½Ã¢â‚¬â€�while Lora Tenenbaum felt Ã¢â‚¬Å“the vast weight of it should be on the developers.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
It goes back to when GPSÃ¢â‚¬s were first being used in cars and people were following the GPS into lakes and off roads Ã¢â‚¬â€œ why would anyone follow the GPS when clearly it was wrong?? Anyone who was paying attention would realize the road ended and they must seek an alternate route. This is the same situation. Be aware, look up from your device, and just be a good human being.
Tracking fracking: a customizable database of every permitted natural gas well in West Virginia that your eyeballs will appreciate. (ProPublica) Ã¢Â¦ An odyssey of the Odyssey: Charting the history of HomerÃ¢â‚¬s epic, in maps. (LaphamÃ¢â‚¬s Quarterly) Ã¢Â¦ End of a beginning: geotagged Tweets arenÃ¢â‚¬t making for great maps anymore. (Forbes) Ã¢Â¦ Speaking of opportunities to accidentally trespass, one reporter got to test out Google MapsÃ¢â‚¬ new augmented-reality navigation assistant. (Wall Street Journal)
Go ahead, scour the earth for non-MapLab newsletter subscribers. Then sign them up here. See you next time.
Alexandria Ocasio-CortezÃ¢â‚¬ transportation choices are rightly getting attention.
The freshman congresswoman from Queens was called out by the New York Post over the weekend for Ã¢â‚¬Å“tripping over her own giant carbon footprint.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ The Post detailed her use of rental cars and ride-hailing services while promoting the Green New Deal, her much-discussed package of environmental reforms. The piece also reviews her congressional campaignÃ¢â‚¬s spending on transportation and finds nearly $30,000 spent on vehicle trips, Ã¢â‚¬Å“even though her Queens HQ was a one-minute walk to the 7 train.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
The story triggered a good old-fashioned Twitter pile-on, with observers on both the left and right dinging Ocasio-Cortez for eco-hypocrisy.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“AOC’s staffers are presumably taking so many Ubers for the same reason everyone else does: unless youÃ¢â‚¬re in a very dense, very congested urban core, itÃ¢â‚¬s way more convenient than transit,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ tweeted Megan McArdle, the libertarian-leaning columnist for the Washington Post. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is, in fact, worth noting that while AOC is preaching that the world is shortly going to end, her staffers are prioritizing personal convenience over environmental benefit.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It would be better if AOC was taking the subway especially since she reps NYC,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ chimed in Streetsblog journalist Angie Schmitt.
Gawking at high-profile politicians riding public transportation is an old American spectator sport. People tend to notice it when it happensÃ¢â‚¬â€�when former Mayor Michael Nutter rides SEPTA to the Phillies game, or President Obama tours the new Minneapolis light rail line, or Beto OÃ¢â‚¬Rourke pedals around El Paso on his Surly. (OK, bicycling stretches the limits of Ã¢â‚¬Å“transit,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ but you catch the drift.) Joining the straphangers is a classic man-of-the-people move: Like eating, doing yard work, or going to the supermarket, getting around is just about the most normal-looking and thus relatable thing political figures can appear to do. In a county thatÃ¢â‚¬s long elected presidents based on the Ã¢â‚¬Å“beer test,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ such moments of down-to-earthiness are occasions to connect with voters and constituents.
But seemingly only in New York City do people yell when politicians screw up by riding transit andby not riding transit. Mayor Bill de Blasio, frequently harangued for taking his limo his favorite Park Slope gym from Gracie Mansion on the regular, seems to be stunningly oblivious about the experience of riding the subway in 2019. After riding and talking to passengers a bit last week, Ã¢â‚¬Å“what I gleaned is people really depend on their subways,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ the mayor said at a news conference afterwards, as if heÃ¢â‚¬d seen none of the countless headlines screaming about the systemÃ¢â‚¬s increasingly dire state during his term.
In New York City, where a majority of residents use the scoliotic MTA to get to work, being a leader of the people means following those commute-paths, at least some of the time. But for Ocasio-Cortez, there is a nation-sized bone of hypocrisy to pick. The Green New Deal policy resolution she has drafted alongside other Democratic lawmakers calls for a vast remake of the U.S. economy, in large part through a massive build of alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning transportation modes, including high-speed rail, electric cars, and lots of public transit. If sheÃ¢â‚¬s opting not to ride in the best-connected transit city in the U.S., critics say, how can people trust her to lead national transportation policy? Tucked into that criticism is, perhaps, a legitimate fear: What hope is there for rest of the country to move towards a greener future if even she would rather take a car?
A few things here are true. One is that many of those Twitter wags are right: AOC should take the subway as much as she can. Setting aside the hoary PR benefits, there is no better way to maintain a grasp on the needs of her Queens constituents who heavily rely on transit than to continue to take transit. Likewise, Bill de Blasio should weather the MTAÃ¢â‚¬s inconveniences and frustrations from time to time.
So should all local leaders, in every city, even if transitÃ¢â‚¬s mode share is tiny. Look at Toledo, Ohio, where only 2.5 percent of commuters ride to work. Since Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz took office in 2018 heÃ¢â‚¬s been making a once-weekly bus trip to city hall. ItÃ¢â‚¬s half a political stunt, and half a genuine attempt to grapple with his cityÃ¢â‚¬s mobility needs, he told Streetsblog: Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is a big deal for the future of our city that we get public transportation right. I am doing this to lead by exampleÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ IÃ¢â‚¬m not saying me taking the bus to work once a week is going to solve all our problems.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ It wonÃ¢â‚¬t, but if Kapszukiewicz gets a sense of which routes never show up on time, thereÃ¢â‚¬s a decent chance itÃ¢â‚¬ll make life a little easier for Toledoans who are all too familiar and, maybe, keep that many more cars off the road.
No doubt, the stakes are different for a celebrity-status politician like AOC, who has been the target of stalker-grade attention from the conservative media since arriving in D.C.: If she took the train, sheÃ¢â‚¬d draw a swarm of fans, critics, and cameras, making her and everyone elseÃ¢â‚¬s journey aboard already-crowded trains that much more cramped and arduous. The security issues are considerable. And yes, if AOC took the subway on occasion, sheÃ¢â‚¬d be guaranteed to miss a few important meetings. But that might make her all the more driven to improve transportation for the rest of New York. And her fame is less of an excuse for transit-avoidance among her staffers.
But, in any event, AOCÃ¢â‚¬s ability to keep step with Queens is a separate issue from her qualifications to fight for the environment on a national, even global stage. In that context, if her every MTA swipe (or lack thereof) is interpreted as a brick in the ethical foundation for her climate advocacy, AOC will failÃ¢â‚¬â€�because everyone who aspires to live by an environmental ethic 100% of the time fails, too.
To transform society, after all, you still have to live in it: consume food that has traveled hundreds of miles, use technology that has huge environmental footprints, and travel aboard a vast network of fossil-fuel-burning vehicles and aircraft when walking or transit isnÃ¢â‚¬t an option.Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian in 2008. But the alternative is cynicism, he explained, not moral purity, because removing oneself from industrialized society would mean disengaging from the fight for planetary survival.
As an elected official, AOC should try to stand on a higher moral ground than the people she represents. But to serve those constituentsÃ¢â‚¬â€�at home and abroadÃ¢â‚¬â€�she should ride the modes that best serve her fight.
Las Vegas is a famously watchful place. Casino cameras keep tabs on players and dealers from the walls, tables, and ceilings. Analytics software tracks and predicts credit-card swipes, game preferences, and buffet choices. Occupancy levels are closely counted; peculiar behaviors noted. ItÃ¢â‚¬s all with an eye to lock down the vast stores of cash that keep Sin City afloat. To keep the odds in its favor, the house is always watching.
Recently, the famed vigilance of the StripÃ¢â‚¬s casinos has been spilling into the city proper. A few miles away, the city of Las Vegas is testing out dozens of cameras, sensors, and internet-connected services, trained on whatÃ¢â‚¬s happening downtown.
At the intersection of Main and Clark in front of City Hall, devices hang from a traffic signal like so many koalas on a trunk. A motion-detecting camera, LiDar scanner, infrared sensor, weather probe, and sound detector variously measure pedestrian and traffic counts, air quality, odd noises, and vehicles turning in the wrong direction; theyÃ¢â‚¬re the products of the IT companies NTT, Motionloft, Hitachi, and Cisco. At Stupak Park, a half-acre patch of turf behind the Stratosphere, machine-learning software by Microsoft scans for trash, graffiti, and anything else that might demand the attention of a cleaning crew. And coming soon to downtown streetlamps are new Ã¢â‚¬Å“smartÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ photocells, care of Ubicquia, to control the cityÃ¢â‚¬s lighting and boost wifi coverage.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of pilot projects that have fallen under the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Smart VegasÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ portfolio over the past few years, according to city leaders. They also include the self-driving shuttle from French manufacturer Navya that roved up and down Fremont Street last year, a demand-based parking meter system, and the Ã¢â‚¬Å“GoVegasÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ mobile app that lets citizens to pay bills and ping 311.
None of this is groundbreaking on its face. Many American cities are rushing to jam digital doo-dads into streetlights, sidewalks, and citizen smartphones, with the utopian-sounding promises of healthier, happier, more affordable neighborhoods. WhatÃ¢â‚¬s different in Las Vegas is that, here, testing these technologies is seen as an end in itself. There isnÃ¢â‚¬t an overarching Ã¢â‚¬Å“smart citiesÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ master plan rationalizing these gadgets out yet. Las Vegas is launching as many pilot programs as it can, in order to a) get its hands dirty and b) try to raise its brand as a place that understands digital devices beyond slot machines.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬s not just about the technology,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ Michael Sherwood, the cityÃ¢â‚¬s director of IT, told me over the phone this week. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬s about letting companies know that Las Vegas is more than entertainment.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Sherwood is the guy responsible for buying desktop computers and Xerox machines for city workers. HeÃ¢â‚¬s also in charge of a wide-ranging set of short-term, small-scale product tests in the public right-of-way. Sherwood arrived in Las Vegas in 2016, the year that the city competed in the U.S. DOT Smart Cities Challenge, a $50 million federal grant competition. It lost the contest, but it kept its downtown designated as an Ã¢â‚¬Å“Innovation DistrictÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½Ã¢â‚¬â€�a come-one, come-all testing ground to lure tech vendors hoping to see how their wares fare in the real world. (Or, at least, what passes for the real world in Las Vegas.)
Nevada is among AmericaÃ¢â‚¬s more lightly regulated and tax-friendly states, which is a big reason why hyperloops are under construction in its deserts and the Gigafactory pumps out (some unspecified number of) Teslas near Reno. The emphasis is on making business easy. In keeping with that theme, if you want to run your smart streetlights in downtown Las Vegas, thereÃ¢â‚¬s no bidding involved for a test-run. A simple phone call or intake form can start the conversation: The city governmentÃ¢â‚¬s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Innovate VegasÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ website is peppered with invitations to Ã¢â‚¬Å“Bring Your Business to Las Vegas,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ soliciting vendors to complete a simple questionnaire and list of check boxes to pitch their products. Sherwood then reviews the submission to see whether it fits in one of six arenas that the city hopes to improve on, including mobility and public safety.
In a metro area where 44 percent of jobs are tied to the fluctuating fortunes of the gaming and tourism industry, leaders hope their pilot recruitment efforts will eventually lead to more positions in new employment sectors. If techies touching down into McCarran Airport for the Consumer Electronics Showcase in January or the mega-gatherings by Amazon or Hewlett-Packard at other times of the year see that the city is open for their kind of business, maybe theyÃ¢â‚¬ll consider locating there more permanently. Perhaps digital doo-dads in the right-of-way can give off the aura of a headquarters-friendly destination.
Las VegasÃ¢â‚¬ let-it-ride approach contrasts with the way other cities have deliberated over their self-digitization. Customarily, companies compete in response to a cityÃ¢â‚¬s request for proposals for a particular product or service in order prove that their offerings are the best. Other tech-curious mid-sized cities have released hefty RFPs in search of smart city solutions over the past year. Last year, Atlanta listed its wish for consultants to help it map best practices for its tech-ified future, rather than continue to implement piecemeal pilots. Columbus, Ohio, beckoned for IT gurus to help it build an open data portal and operational spine to organize various software-based endeavors. In June, Kansas City, Missouri outlined in novella-length depth its dream for a single vendor capable of supplying Ã¢â‚¬Å“a fully integrated suite of sensors, networks, and data and analytics platforms.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The amount of autonomy theyÃ¢â‚¬ve got is unrivaled,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ Bob Bennett, the chief innovation officer for Kansas City, said of Las Vegas. Ã¢â‚¬Å“For us, we have to know it has worked technically someplace else before we try it. If we pilot something, from round one, it has to explicitly meets demands of a specific problem weÃ¢â‚¬re trying to solve.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
In Vegas, such an approach would be too burdensome, in SherwoodÃ¢â‚¬s view. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬t even know what to write in an RFP,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ he told me. ThatÃ¢â‚¬s why heÃ¢â‚¬s been focused on pilots, rather than fully fledged, permanent operations, he explained: Eventually, the city will learn whatÃ¢â‚¬s working and from there, establish goals and make longer-term investments from there. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You canÃ¢â‚¬t write policy if you donÃ¢â‚¬t understand the technology,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ Sherwood said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Will policy be needed? Yes. Will governance be needed? Yes. But how do you govern without understanding completely how it works?Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Letting companies launch pilot programs gives the city a chance to see how products operate, without risking too much. To illustrate this, Sherwood likes to tell the story about the smart streetlamp product that came with a plastic shade shaped like an Elizabethan ruff. Spiders quickly laid nests inside the folds, much to the alarm of city maintenance workers responsible for switching out the bulbs. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What if IÃ¢â‚¬d bought 10,000 of those lights only to find out later that thereÃ¢â‚¬s a problem?Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThatÃ¢â‚¬s why weÃ¢â‚¬re more than happy to work with any vendor to do these pilots. I think we have an advantage by testing what weÃ¢â‚¬re testing.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
So far, the city hasnÃ¢â‚¬t invested much in its array of smart-city toys, according to Sherwood, beyond $250,000 laying fiber and prepping traffic poles in the Innovation District, and an estimated $200,000 on technology itself; many companies are essentially Ã¢â‚¬Å“donatingÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ their wares at no cost. They, too, get the benefit of seeing how things work. Because there hasnÃ¢â‚¬t been much public money spent, thereÃ¢â‚¬s less of an imperative to bid out every sensor and LED lightbulb in town, Sherwood told me.
But there are clearly risks. For one, if and when Las Vegas decides to pursue a more permanent smart-city agenda, the city could run into issues around fairness. Vendors that have already piloted there would logically have an upper hand in potential longer-term contracts, shutting other companies out. WhatÃ¢â‚¬s more, its open invitation to the private sector, in the absence of a clear policy roadmap, risks letting profit opportunists call the shots in public space and with public resources.
Launching a series of pilots without a clear civic agenda can be dangerous, according to Ben Green, the author of the new book The Smart Enough City and a former fellow of Harvard UniversityÃ¢â‚¬s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When you open up to any company, you let the companies drive the show in terms of what they find interesting. YouÃ¢â‚¬re using your city as a test bed for their services or to sell them other cities,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬s an approach thatÃ¢â‚¬s not problem-driven at all. ItÃ¢â‚¬s saying to companies: Come in and do what you want.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
WhatÃ¢â‚¬s more, Ã¢â‚¬Å“pilotingÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ gadgets in the public right-of-way could be viewed as anti-democratic, since impermanent, small-scale efforts are easier to slip past public review processes, in addition to traditional procurement steps. That means they might draw less scrutiny, feedback, and attention, period.
Indeed, few Las Vegans are aware that the local government is mounting surveillance cameras and sound recorders around downtown, said Chris Stream, a professor of public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It wasnÃ¢â‚¬t designed with a lot of citizen inputs,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ he said. And the Ã¢â‚¬Å“smartÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ pilots heÃ¢â‚¬s seen so far largely ignore the major social issues that Las Vegas faces: namely, educational opportunitiesÃ¢â‚¬â€�Nevada schools are among the lowest-ranked in the U.S.Ã¢â‚¬â€�and more social services for a growing homeless population.
ItÃ¢â‚¬s also not clear how streetlight sensors translate into jobs or revenue for the city, which hasnÃ¢â‚¬t seen any such economic benefits yet. But Las Vegas is still learning, and the pay-off will come in time, Sherwood said. He said his department also plans to assist in digital literacy and training programs in local schools, as a way to respond to the cityÃ¢â‚¬s educational gaps, and that theyÃ¢â‚¬ll do more to include the community in planning processes. As for legal landmines ahead, he acknowledged the possibility with a shrug. Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬ll find out if there are legal challenges,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ Sherwood said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“For now, weÃ¢â‚¬ve got to take a little risk.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
From one angle, the Vegas approach might look like a case study in whatÃ¢â‚¬s misguided with Ã¢â‚¬Å“smart citiesÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ movement writ large. Critics say that such private-sector-led efforts can juice city coffers and ignore the workaday needs of most citizens, for whom a new app or traffic signal is of little use. Too often, Ã¢â‚¬Å“smartÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ is an empty term when virtually any technology can count, whether or not it succeeds in serving a public purpose.
But thatÃ¢â‚¬s certainly not how technology leaders in other cities see it. Las VegasÃ¢â‚¬s do-first, think-later charge down the path of urban innovation has made it the envy of its peers. In January, at a smart cities symposium hosted by Harvard University in downtown Vegas, tech administrators from other mid-sized municipalities marveled at the cityÃ¢â‚¬s seemingly limitless Ã¢â‚¬Å“smartÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ horizon. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The scale of what theyÃ¢â‚¬re doing here is incredible,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ said Shonte Eldridge, the deputy chief of operations for Baltimore, which has recently begun to test free public wifi and a new real-time crime alert app. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The question is, how do we become like Las Vegas? ThatÃ¢â‚¬s such a big hurdle.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Steve Massa, a project manager for Riverside, CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬s economic development division, praised SherwoodÃ¢â‚¬s relentless courting of businesses. Ã¢â‚¬Å“HeÃ¢â‚¬s setting the bar for us all to follow.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
And Bennett, the CTO out of Kansas City, celebrated Las VegasÃ¢â‚¬s eagerness to be a guinea pig that other cities can learn from.
Attendees also acknowledged that it might not be possible to replicate the Las Vegas model back home. ThereÃ¢â‚¬s a resounding lack of public debate here regarding what critics could easily call a giveaway of public spaceÃ¢â‚¬â€�in striking contrast to, say, the controversy that has erupted in Toronto over Sidewalk LabsÃ¢â‚¬ plans to build a sensor-studded neighborhood that would harvest citizen data. It also contrasts with the vocal protests that greeted Amazon in Queens, where the $3 billion in tax incentives that New York planned to hand the company to build a second headquarters led to the shipping giantÃ¢â‚¬s shocking pullout this month. WhatÃ¢â‚¬s happening in Vegas seems to be staying in Vegas, in that it also seems detached from big, national conversations about trust and personal privacy related to Facebook, Google, and other internet companies.
The apparent lack of discourse might be partly cultural. Las Vegans have shown somewhat more relaxed attitudes than the average American with respect to concerns about watchful technologies, surveys have shown. But if people arenÃ¢â‚¬t talking about Ã¢â‚¬Å“Smart VegasÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ much, that might also be because itÃ¢â‚¬s still on a small scale.
Vegas has a long history of frontier-style, trial-and-error city planning, Stream said. ItÃ¢â‚¬s connected to the boom-and-bust cycles that have defined the cityÃ¢â‚¬s economics: Think of all the casinos built only to be blown up a decade or so later, or all the marketing strategies the Strip has adopted and discardedÃ¢â‚¬â€�Vegas for families, Vegas for sports fans,Vegas for urbanists. The city government tinkers around the edges, too: An experimental, open-air courtyard for the homeless that launched last year is one example. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The cityÃ¢â‚¬s willingness to small-scale innovate, test, and learn sets it apart,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ Stream said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot can be learned from little failures.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ But he acknowledged that there’s a downside to this iterative approach to city making: a lack of big-picture thinking can mean big-picture problems go unaddressed.
So far, smart Las Vegas is a bunch of bets with some as-yet-unknown risk factors. But in a city that lives by an ethos of small wagers, that might not be the worst thing. ItÃ¢â‚¬s like the cityÃ¢â‚¬s playing penny slots on a whole bunch of machines, hoping to hit a jackpot. Right now, the stakes are low, and no one really knows what the payout might be. But as anyone whoÃ¢â‚¬s ever been to Vegas knows, you wonÃ¢â‚¬t win anything unless you play the game.
In a press conference on Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised New York City by cancelling the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to close the subway’s L train tunnel for 15 months of repairs, a much-dreaded infrastructure fix that promised to aggravate commuters with untold delays and stress. If all goes according to a hastily sketched plan that MTA board members must still approve, the tunnel will remain mostly open throughout the construction period, which remains set to begin in April.
First: the details. The L train tunnel connects Manhattan to Brooklyn starting in Williamsburg, and it was badly damaged by flooding from Superstorm Sandy. After extensive deliberation, in 2016 the MTA announced plans to shutter the tunnel completely for 15 months, starting in 2019. This was chosen over an alternative, partial shutdown plan which would have dragged out the repair timeline further.
The impending shutdown has since been a boogeyman for any New Yorker who commutes. The L line moves a mid-sized city’s worth of people every weekday—about 400,000 passenger trips. Even if your commute isn’t one of them, the overflow from the displaced masses was destined to effect every subway line in the vicinity, plus surface traffic, plus ferries.
City and state officials had spent years planning for this misery, arguing bitterly for new bike lanes, bus routes, and protected bus corridors to help absorb the victims of L-pocalypse. New private mobility services (including a van shuttle service dubbed “The New L”) appeared to pick up deep-pocketed subway refugees. And the anticipated gap in transportation to and from Williamsburg, a famous neighborhood with hefty economic clout, seemed to depress market rents as home-seekers looked to other parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The business community there has been trying to mitigate the effects of the neighborhood’s “perceived loss of accessibility,” according to Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a local interest group for the city’s private sector employers. “[They’ve offered] reduced rents, special offers, and deals on for-hire vehicles to compensate for what was perceived to be a huge economic threat,” she told CityLab.
Through it all, the MTA had defended, again and again, its decision to move forward with a full shutdown, arguing that this was the best of all possible options.
Now, less than four months before the shutdown was due to take effect, Governor Cuomo has stepped in with a plan that was developed by a panel of academic engineering experts, reportedly in a matter of weeks. Now, instead of 15 months of total L-train blackout, commuters can expect 15 to 20 months of construction requiring only night and weekend service outages, with regular service during peak hours on weekdays, MTA officials said. (Cuomo later told reporters that promising a concrete timeline would be “silly.”)
What’s different? Based on the details presented thus far, the game-changer in this new plan is that a concrete “bench wall” will no longer need to be torn down to replace old power cables. Now, new cables will be attached directly to the wall in a special fireproof fiberglass pipes. It sounds simple enough, but this is a process that has never been used in a tunnel rehabilitation project in the United States, according to Cuomo, who touted the plan as using “many new innovations that are new to the rail industry in this country.”
The MTA had previously argued that the structural integrity of the subway tunnel required that the wall in question be fully replaced. But on Thursday, officials made no such claim. MTA board members still need to approve the changes; Cuomo is now calling for an emergency public meeting for the board to review the new plan. But at Thursday’s press conference, MTA acting chairman Fernando Ferrer boosted the new plan alongside Cuomo.
“You might ask, ‘Well why wasn’t this approach considered earlier?’” Ferrer said at the presser. “The answer is that the integration of these approaches—there are several—and the technology had not previously been applied in the context of a rehabilitation project. It’s innovative, creative, and we deem it a sound plan.”
Certainly, throwing the L-train shutdown plans out the window should come as a relief for the city’s commuters and employers. “It’s hard to fathom how disruptive this was going to be,” Jon Orcutt, the policy and communications director of TransitCenter, a local transportation advocacy group, told CityLab. “So to not have that facing us for more than a year is great.”
But this abrupt reversal raises new and troubling questions. Having an MTA official approve a plan that appears to have been devised over the holidays by two external researchers—at the bidding of a powerful leader known for his micro-managerial tendencies on infrastructure projects and keen sense of political opportunism—doesn’t read as good governance. It could undermine what public trust in the MTA as an authority on transit still remained, after so many years of declining service and inadequate excuses from the agency. Why weren’t MTA engineers aware of a relatively straightforward-sounding idea for using different construction materials that have been implemented in Europe and other parts of the world? Or if anyone knew about them, why hadn’t they been seriously proposed?
“From a policy and institutional point of view, there are a lot of questions and strangenesses that this raises,” Orcutt said. It’s a bad look for the MTA, and disconcerting for riders, that Cuomo has jumped in and called an audible on the MTA’s hard-fought plan, he added. But it’s not out of line with what’s known about the agency’s culture of decision-making, where the status quo tends to be prioritized. In that way, Orcutt said, “it is a good outcome to blow the lid off that.”
Adam Rahbee, a researcher and consultant who’s gone deep into the weeds of institutional culture and decision-making at transit agencies around the world, including at the MTA, agreed that this twist in the L-train story comes as little surprise. In mid-level management at large bureaucracies, workers can be disincentivized to present ideas that go against accepted wisdom and inherited processes, he said. The proposed changes to the L train’s construction plan “don’t sound like rocket science,” Rahbee said. “But someone just had to say it.” Within the MTA, that might have been the hard part.
More details about Cuomo’s new engineering plan still need to surface to vet its reliability, and to determine whether it will in fact produce a better commuting experience. But the L-train shutdown-shutdown will surely be remembered as a watershed moment in the recent decline of New York’s subway system. It may be difficult to expect New Yorkers, or their elected representatives, to accept at face value construction plans devised by the MTA in the near future.
Whether that’s good or bad for the agency’s progress on billions of dollars in needed upgrades remains to be seen. But if bolting fireproof pipes to tunnel walls were all that stood between millions of commuters and 15-plus months of hellacious inconvenience, the city deserved to know. But it also deserves to know why this savior-train of an idea has arrived so late.
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Earlier this month, council members in Columbus, Ohio, approved $1 million for an unusual purpose: Starting in June 2019, the city will pilot a ride-hailing service to get expectant moms to their doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, and other daily essentials.
The “prenatal trip assistance” program will be small—lasting six months and serving 500 women—but it’s incredibly important. Franklin County has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the U.S., with 150 infant deaths per year. Transportation is one strand in a web of reasons for this: Pregnant women who can’t find a ride to prenatal care visits are that much more likely to give birth preterm, the leading cause of infant death. Stress also plays a role, and unreliable transportation, among other conditions of poverty and race, can wear a person down.
So there were high hopes in 2016, when Columbus won a $50 million USDOT grant to use cutting-edge technology to improve the transportation system. The city committed as a focal point of its proposal to lift up low-income, pregnant women of color at highest risk for unhealthy pregnancies. But when I visited in late 2017, those promises had faded; there were no plans for a prenatal trip pilot, even as the city moved ahead on autonomous vehicle testing and other futuristic ideas.
Next year, Columbus, Ohio, will use 21st century transportation technology to address a health crisis that should belong in the Victorian era: rising rates of infant mortality.
Running from June to November 2019, a pilot program will aim to connect pregnant women with on-demand rides to doctor’s appointments and other daily errands, such as grocery shopping and pharmacy trips. The pilot will include 500 women in the early months of pregnancy who are enrolled in Medicaid, and who live in one of the eight Columbus neighborhoods where the most babies are dying within the first year of life.
In an email to CityLab, Courtney Lynch, a professor of obstetrics at the Ohio State University who is co-leading the evaluation of the pilot, called the program “a completely novel intervention,” designed to research whether lowering barriers to prenatal care and reducing gaps in transportation for low-income women can eventually treat the city’s darkest public health issue. “The long‐term goal is to use the information gathered to reduce infant mortality,” she said.
Access to prenatal medical care is considered essential for preventing preterm births and congenital anomalies, two of the main drivers of infant mortality. Another critical force behind preterm births is stress, which is abundant in the lives in many poor women who may lack stable jobs, housing, and transportation, medical research shows. Black women can also face the added stress of racism in daily life.
Currently, Medicaid subscribers in Ohio can schedules rides on paratransit shuttles to travel to medical appointments, but these services are unreliable and difficult to coordinate, according to users who rely on them.
Under the pilot, participants will be able to book free rides on the Uber-like service via app, text, or call center; the app will also notify healthcare providers when patients are on the way. The service will remain available to mothers in the first two months after they give birth.
The prenatal trip assistance pilot will be funded with part of Columbus’s $50 million Smart City Challenge grant. The 2016 grant competition by the U.S. Department of Transportation was designed to spur local governments to solve big urban problems with cutting-edge transportation technology. Columbus’s winning proposal included a suite of projects, such as a multimodal transportation app, expanded car-sharing, and autonomous vehicles roving around key destination points. (Low-speed, self-driving shuttles debuted at four Columbus tourist attractions earlier this month.) But addressing the plight of Columbus’s vulnerable new mothers through mobility was a focal point of its proposal, and was cited by officials as a primary reason for the city’s victory over competitors like Denver and San Francisco.
As of late last year, however, that key social promise seemed to have slipped off the list of the city’s prioritized projects. A CityLab investigation found that, as plans were moving ahead for other components of the grant, the needs of vulnerable moms were at risk of being left behind. After the investigation was published, the city altered its portfolio of DOT-approved grant projects to include a service for low-income, expectant mothers. Earlier this month, the Columbus city council approved the use of $1 million from the Smart City grant fund to pay for the 2019 pilot.
The United States has higher rates of infant mortality than any other wealthy nation in the world, with 5.8 deaths per every 1,000 live births. The public health crisis disproportionately affects black families, with black babies dying at 2.4 times the rate of white babies nationwide. Ohio has long landed towards the bottom of national rankings, and Franklin County is one of the state’s hotspots, with about 150 infant deaths per year. Although the state’s rate fell slightly in 2017 overall, the disparity between white and black infant mortality rates grew.
Once hidden away by taboo and shame, the conversation around infant mortality is changing in Columbus, said Jessica Roach, the executive director of R.O.O.T.T., a local reproductive and racial justice organization. With more voices like hers calling for radical action, more medical literature identifying stress as a physiological health risk, and a wave of national reporting around the twin issues of maternal and infant mortality, “the needle is moving here,” Roach said.
To her, the fact that the transportation pilot includes trips to grocery shopping and other daily errands signals a greater recognition by city officials that infant mortality is about more than getting moms to doctor’s offices. “You can’t have an impact by just addressing prenatal care,” she said. “You have to look at the overall holistic picture of women’s lives.”
In 2018, a hailstorm of data privacy revelations at Facebook shook down the tech giant’s self-branding as a do-gooder enterprise. When the stakes were high, the company repeatedly prioritized growth over the security of its 2.2 billion users, news reports revealed. Facebook’s reckoning rightly grabbed the world’s attention in 2018, but the perils of private tech promising public good were also playing out in the burgeoning arena of “smart cities.”
The smart-city concept was born of the last recession, when the IT behemoths that dominated generations past, like IBM and Cisco, rushed into budget-crunched city halls, software in hand, pitching harried administrators ways to run electricity, water, and transportation systems faster, cheaper, and with data-driven “insights.” Now, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, many of the smart-city solutions proffered on the expo circuit are more familiar to regular consumers than you might realize.
Look no further than Uber and Lyft, which have promised to un-clog congested roads and bring down carbon emissions through shared, on-demand rides. In reality, they appear to have grown demand for vehicle travel, and as such, a wealth of new research—a wave of it this year—implicates them in the thickening traffic and rising emissions that cities are lately experiencing. Ride-hailing vehicles aren’t the primary source of those problems; private passenger vehicles are. But Uber and Lyft’s model is built on their artificially low prices, subsidized by gobs of venture capital. So far, despite all those shared rides on Uber Pool and Lyft Line and many pilot “partnerships” with public transit agencies, that model has proven incompatible with the cleaner, faster transportation networks everybody wants. (By the way, there is an incredible transportation technology that would probably get us closer. It has four wheels, three letters, and it rhymes with fuss.)
To take another transportation example, look at self-driving cars, which come with twin promises from the auto and tech industries to save lives by eliminating imperfect and inattentive human drivers. Sorry to hammer on Uber, but this year, one of their self-driving Volvos struck and killed a pedestrian on a brightly lit road in Tempe, Arizona. In addition to relying on problematic software, Uber had ditched safer testing practices for its robotic cars by having their human backup drivers work solo. In essence, that made their workers all the more likely to fall victim to the same fatal distractions that cause regular crashes every year, a contributing factor in the Tempe killing. That’s not to say self-driving vehicles won’t get better and safer—they will, and they are—but the Uber crash showed just how far off most industry players are from meaningfully replacing most vehicle trips. The timetable to self-driving proliferation “will be longer than you think,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik told a gathering of state governors over the summer.
That episode also raised the potential for bias in the algorithms operating the vehicle. If the car couldn’t see a woman and her bicycle on a well-lit, wide roadway, what was it supposed to see? In the “smarter” urban future run by self-driving cars, will pedestrians and cyclists have to abide by machine rules to move safely? An engineer might say that sounds like more rationalized streetscape, perhaps. And transitioning to an AV-centric transportation world might be good for the companies building the cars and the brains that steer them—something akin to the urban highway boom of the 1960s. For society, though, it sounds more restrictive.
The death in Tempe harkened to the idea of “techno-chauvinism,” or that technology is the silver-bullet fix for incredibly complex social issues that may in fact be better addressed via lower-tech alternatives. Self-driving cars may be marketed as a way to eliminate road fatalities, but there are other ways of doing this that don’t include automation. The fatal incident highlighted a few opportunities for Tempe, including a need for safer street design with more crosswalks, bike lanes, and sidewalks, and better safeguards to prevent digital distractions.
Finally, there’s the biggest smart city story of the year: the Sidewalk Labs neighborhood-building project in Toronto. Here was the first full year of action on Alphabet’s long-envisioned urban cluster of the future, a community “built from the internet up,” with a full detail of smart-city features: prefab buildings with hyper-efficient energy systems, sensor-enabled pavement and sidewalks that sense traffic loads and melt snow, and autonomous shuttles and freight networks. Beneath all of this is to be a “digital layer” that harvests data in public and private spaces and feeds it back to a centralized map.
Partnering with a government-appointed, nonprofit development agency, Sidewalk Labs promised a transparent process of community engagement throughout this first year of project planning. But what unfolded in Toronto—against the backdrop of major data privacy revelations at Facebook and Google, not to mention data breaches at Marriott, Panera, Lord and Taylor, and countless other firms—included a foundational contract that went undisclosed, a cagey stance by the company on its plans for data use, strings of resignations by project advisors, and most recently, a government audit of Waterfront Toronto (the government proxy) that resulted in the firing of three key leaders and raised grave concerns about how much control had been ceded to the Google sister company. By now, the project seems to be raising more conversation about how not to go about building a smarter city than the reverse.
The blame doesn’t lie solely at the feet of the companies, though. In Toronto, as in Arizona, as in many cities where ride-hailing is now the norm, public leaders have mightily struggled under the task of working with or regulating private actors with safety, environmental efficiency, and transparency in mind.
Put simply, despite the grand social promises, and even with good intentions, tech companies entering into public space don’t always act with the presumed interests of the public in mind. They’re not really supposed to; at the end of the day, their missions are driven by shareholders, not altruism. There’s nothing wrong with that basic fact. But it’s one that seems to get lost in the fog of whatever a “smart city” is. In 2019, when dealing with software, cities should upgrade with care.
In October 2017, Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, and Will Fleissig, then the CEO of Waterfront Toronto, took to the Toronto Star to talk about a big plan for the Canadian metropolis. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, would build a digitally wired neighborhood of the future on the edge of Lake Ontario. At “Quayside,” data-gathering sensors knitted together with cutting-edge urban design could make congestion, unaffordable housing, and excess emissions things of the past.
The short op-ed stated repeatedly how important the public’s input would be over the coming year of initial project planning, bolstered by a $50 million investment from Sidewalk. “Sidewalk Toronto is about improving people’s lives, not developing technology for technology’s sake,” the CEOs wrote. It was a sweet-sounding introduction. But it set off alarm bells for Bianca Wylie. Its authors seemed to lean on a confusing presumption.
“Neither of these people are the government,” she remembers thinking. “So why are they using all the words that a government would use to plan for the city?”
One year later, Wylie is among the most prominent voices of opposition to Sidewalk Labs’ vision for Toronto. And because this project is poised to be North America’s most ambitious test of how data-gathering technology might be fused into urban developments, she has also gained a following as a critic of “smart cities” writ large. The 39-year-old Torontonian and mother of two has authored dozens of newspaper articles and blog posts, spoken with the Toronto city council and the Canada House of Commons, and piped up at nearly every open event Sidewalk Labs has hosted over the past year. She is often described as a privacy advocate, since she talks a lot about how companies and governments use citizen data. But “civic tech reformer” might be a more appropriate label, for the drum she is beating is bigger than privacy. It’s about the risks of governments ceding power to private companies.
It’s also bigger than Toronto. What happens in this city is a test case that any tech company curious about building a neighborhood will be watching. And observers are seeing that Wiley’s camp is having an impact.
“It’s about our neighborhoods, our cities, how we want them to work, what problems should be solved, and which options should be looked at,” Wylie told me. “I reject the technocratic vision of problem solving,” she said.
As the Quayside project has unfolded over the past year, Wiley’s concerns have been affirmed by flurries of controversy. This month, following a rare audit of the organization’s use of public funds, three board members at Waterfront Toronto were fired by provincial leaders in part for their handling of the Sidewalk Labs development, particularly whether they had relinquished too much control to the Google sister company. Earlier this fall, another three individuals withdrew as project advisors, including Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of Tech Girls Canada, who cited “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” in her resignation letter, and Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario who worried that, under Sidewalk Labs’ proposed guidelines for data use, other companies could access identifiable information gathered at the site.
For Wylie, the redevelopment of Quayside—as the project site has been dubbed—seems to be wrong in its very conception. Waterfront Toronto is responsible for 800 acres of prime urban real estate on the lake, and by Wylie’s account, has allowed a private company instead to take the lead on shaping its future. Sidewalk Labs will determine questions of policy that, she told me, should be the province of governments and people, not of a startup.
“A city is not a business,” she said. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto also took the unusual step of forming a joint entity called Sidewalk Toronto; it is this organization that has largely led public consultation on the development, rather than Waterfront Toronto or government itself. Wylie believes the result is a planning process that has had more to do with generating PR than garnering opinion, and argues that there has been little opportunity for citizens to learn about alternatives. It didn’t help that the terms of the agreement signed by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto were not made public until after months of agitation by her and others. “I was skeptical a year ago that we could pull off a really democratically informed process,” Wylie said. “I have found the process to be thoroughly anti-democratic.”
And for much of the past year, it has been unclear what Sidewalk Labs wants to do with the information it will gather, Wylie claims. Until recently, project documents have been short on details about what types of data will be collected, who will own it, and whether it might be somehow monetized. In media interviews, Doctoroff has been reported as saying that the intention is not to make money, but Wylie said that explicit written commitments have been vague.
Wylie’s professional background gives her a powerful vantage point. She got her start in another era of techno-optimism, the dot-com boom. Though she later finished a degree in political science, she dropped out of her first undergraduate program while in her 20s to start a business that developed educational software. Wylie quickly learned there that private interests do not always align with social objectives; the product was a flop. Then Wylie got a job working for an early webcasting platform. Towards the end of her time there, she became interested in the politics of urban planning, and how unversed most civilians are in the language of zoning requirements, eminent domain, environmental reviews. She started to make short videos of public planning forums she attended, with the idea of producing am educational series. That didn’t pan out, but this is where Wylie met her next boss, a respected public consultation expert named Nicole Swerhun. Hired on at Swerhun’s firm, Wylie worked for five years on public planning processes in cities around North America. At some point, she attended her first meeting on open data in government.
“I remember listening to everyone saying that this is going to resolve problems with democracy, that there was going to be transparency and accountability now,” she said. But she quickly realized that the intersection of technology and urban planning would be “horrific” for public discourse. “They’re both full of jargon and elitism and privilege,” she said. What’s a data trust? What is a platform? Why are certain types of data more valued than others?
Regular citizens and, frequently, elected officials lack clear language to talk about what it means to integrate technology into normal democratic governance, Wylie believes. Self-driving vehicles, pavement tiles that can sense traffic and absorb rainwater, micro-dwellings, and common spaces monitored by “smart” energy systems—the sort of elements that Sidewalk Labs has mapped out for the land—sound great, but the problem as Wylie sees it is that they’ve been framed as the only option for developing public land. Sensors and software may well belong in the public realm, but Wylie thinks citizens should direct how to use them, not the private sector. “I really think there’s opportunity for governments to use technology well,” she said. “It’s a question of how do you get the confidence built up in government—how to make them realize, ‘you’re in charge! You’re the ones driving!’ ”
Wylie’s criticism of the Quayside project has focused primarily on Sidewalk Labs, but she has not spared the government proxies in Waterfront Toronto who invited the company to begin with, nor the public officials who could intervene. And she has done as good a job as anyone of articulating what is at stake if cities allow themselves to become the tools of companies, according to Kevin Webb, who has worked both for the World Bank and Sidewalk Labs, and is a leading commentator on data and open government. The promise of integrating technology into the public realm has huge potential, he said, but if it’s going to happen democratically, for the benefit of city dwellers, conversations need to happen in words everyone can use.
“Cities have always involved the public and the private and we’ve been able to manage that in physical space: that’s what planning is about,” he said. “But we don’t have an equivalent for digital, and it turns out it matters just as much.” Anthony Townsend, the urban futurist and technology consultant, who has also worked with Sidewalk Labs, told me he thinks of Wylie as “the Jane Jacobs of the smart city.”
Recently, there was light shed on the question of Sidewalk Labs’ data governance plans. In October, Sidewalk Labs released a proposal for how data would be governed, which outlined the idea of a civic data trust, or a neutral third party that would “approve and control the collection of, and manage access to, urban data originating in Quayside.” It is lengthy and detailed, and states emphatically that the data gathered in public spaces on the site would be stored and available for public use—not for the sole ownership or purposes of any one company. It also states that Sidewalk Labs would strip personally identifiable information from any data it plucked from this repository, and that it would not turn it into any kind of product.
But Sidewalk Labs wouldn’t necessarily be the only company with access to that data, and what other companies that set up shop within Quayside might do with residents’ information is another story. Micah Lasher, Sidewalk Labs’ head of communications, explained that it is outside their authority to establish guidelines for other players—probably, that’s for the government to decide. “We are not going to be the central collector of data that I think some people fear,” he said. “But that puts us at some distance from what rules would exist in this place.”
The detailed proposal on data governance, plus a clear acknowledgement of the government’s role in regulating it, seems to be a major turning point in the narrative surrounding the Quayside project, and perhaps a victory for Wylie’s advocacy. But she argues that the timing speaks to a deeper problem. “Why does it take a year for them to talk to the public about this stuff?” she said. “They’re trying to figure out, ‘what will you let us do?’ ”
Another way of interpreting the saga, though, could be that Sidewalk Labs is trying to figure out what to do, period. It is possible that company leaders are earnestly convinced that an Alphabet-owned startup can successfully come into a foreign city and build a happier neighborhood—a genuine belief that when technology, design, and lots of capital come together, top-down planning can achieve the public policy goals everybody seems to want. It’s also possible that Quayside’s team of self-proclaimed urbanists, many of them alumni of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, simply weren’t focused on the seemingly arcane topic of data governance at the start. “We’re not a technology company. We view ourselves as a place-making company,” Doctoroff recently told a convening of city officials, civic tech workers, and foundation leaders at CityLab Detroit. Maybe there was no nefarious data plot. In all the time that passed without detail, maybe they just didn’t have a coherent plan. “We’re dealing with an enormous amount of really complicated questions that have taken time to sort out,” said Lasher. “There is no question that in the vacuum that that has created, there have been a range of voices that include very legitimate concerns.”
Undoubtedly, the Quayside project is mired in complicated questions. A reason for that could be that they’re not questions designed for a company to solve. That’s the thrust of Wylie’s crusade: that cities are places people live, not in themselves grounds for product-making. “The question is, how do we think about how we want cities to work?” she said. “That’s what should be driving opportunities for business. Not the other way around.”
A version of this story also appears in London ideas, a journal on urban innovation by Centre for London.
Let’s get one thing straight: The Tesla-in-a-tunnel that Elon Musk unveiled to reporters on Tuesday night in Los Angeles was not a “train,” although that’s what he called it on Twitter.
The Boring Company’s 12-foot wide, 1.14 mile-long tunnel beneath a Hawthorne industrial park couldn’t have fit anything bigger than a passenger vehicle, in this case a Model X that seats seven. There were no rails. There were rough-hewn gutters that theoretically allow said vehicle to roll through on a set of tracking wheels, but Tuesday’s short ride was literally bumpy. This was not a frictionless high-speed trip aboard a sleek electric-powered “skates,” as shown in earlier digital renderings. “We kind of ran out of time,” Musk explained.
Rail fans may be laughing or hanging their heads at Musk’s display, given the entrepreneur/inventor/CEO’s tendency to make big promises, as well as his commitment to displacing more proven, efficient modes of transit from conversation. But it’s hard to dismiss one key achievement of this project. Musk put a Tesla in a tunnel, and he did it for a potentially game-changing price: The demonstration tube cost $10 million a mile to dig.
That excludes costs of research, development, or equipment, the L.A. Timesreported. Whether it factors in property acquisition or labor—which generally represents at least 30 to 40 percent of a project’s cost—isn’t clear. But even at $50 million per mile, it would still be a fraction of what comparable projects cost. If Musk’s company has built what many tunneling pros have long thought unachievable—a boring machine that does the job cheaper and faster than the stalwarts of civil engineering thought possible—that could be a boon for underground transit systems in the U.S., which often struggle to justify their enormous construction costs.
“If his tunneling costs are real, that would provide a staggering benefit for subway transit. And we need more transit tunnels in our cities badly as an alternative to street traffic and to expand overall capacity,” Ethan Elkind, a UC Berkeley lawyer and scholar specializing in transportation and the environment, told Curbed. “If it works, transit agencies may want a piece in some way.”
It wasn’t long ago that Musk was airing his contempt for public transit in various fora. But he seems to have changed his tune, or at least his company has. For example, the “Dugout Loop” concept promised for L.A.’s Dodger Stadium will have pods to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Steve Davis, the project lead for the Boring Company, talked up the adaptability of the tunnel/car combination to either private or shared modes of mobility. “The same vehicle can be used for public and private transportation,” he said on Tuesday. “I don’t know of any trains that can be used for private transportation, or any cars that can be used as public transportation.”
As transit experts have long insisted, the car-in-tube configuration seems unlikely to achieve Musk’s dream of defeating traffic any time soon—even if you doubled the occupancy of each vehicle, it just doesn’t come close to matching what a train or bus can carry. And Musk’s wild vision of a subterranean tube network for all of L.A.’s private and public vehicles, if built, would still be subject to the same principle of induced demand that has clogged the freeways above it.
Uber’s IPO is expected to be the largest ever for a tech company—currently valued at $70 billion, the firm’s market cap is projected to swell to $120 billion upon going public. But while its revenues have ticked up on an annual basis, the company continues to shed money. In the third quarter of 2018, Uber lost $1.07 billion. It lost $4.5 billion in 2017, the year Travis Kalanick departed as CEO after months of negative press on a range of company practices. The smaller, U.S.-focus Lyft is also reportedly burning through cash. And with growth slowing at both companies, some market analysts warn that an early stock bonanza could fizzle in short order.
But the future of ride-hailing could be also bolstered by local policies and partnerships that reflect broader shifts on the transportation landscape, experts say. In particular, congestion pricing—attaching a user fee to roads in high-traffic urban centers, fluctuating at different times of the day—could be a boon for the companies, because surcharges on single-occupancy driving could encourage the use of less-expensive carpool offerings.
“I think it’s relevant to think about that strategy as a substantial game changer,” said Susan Shaheen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
London, Stockholm, Singapore, and other cities around the world successfully implemented congestion pricing plans to positive effect, but no U.S. city has followed suit yet.
But a broader-based fee on all types of vehicles has gained the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who recently called it the “only realistic option” to generate revenue that needed to fix the subway. Uber and Lyft both openly support the policy of congestion pricing as a means of getting the upper hand on their greatest competition: the private car. After all, if more people had an economic incentive to ditch their vehicles and split the cost of transportation, that would be good business for shared mobility offerings of all kinds.
“What if New York were to start to do this?” said Shaheen. ”What kind of signal could that send?”
Congestion pricing has recently gained traction in other cities with less of a history of engagement. Transportation leaders in Los Angeles support a plan to toll highly congested roads as a way to mitigate delays, reduce transportation-related emissions, and pay for transit ahead of the 2028 Olympic Games.
To that end, while growth may be slowing for Uber and Lyft’s traditional on-demand rides, both companies have invested in a range of other mobility offerings that go beyond that baseline service over the past year. Lyft purchased Motivate, the largest bike share operator in the United States. Uber has invested in (and is rumored to be considering acquiring) Lime, a dockless scooter and e-bike purveyor, after acquiring Jump bikes. It also has a partnership with Getaround, a car-sharing firm.
An expanded range of service offerings could not only boost commuter dependency on these two companies, but it could also improve their pitches to public transit agencies. Already, both Uber and Lyft have partnered with local transportation providers in cities around the U.S. to offer “last mile” connections in areas where bus service is scant or where routes have historically underperformed. They’re also seen as a cheaper substitute for paratransit services.
If these pilots could be scaled up in certain markets, tax dollars from public transit agencies looking to rethink their offerings could be a boon for the cash-bleeding companies. “That suddenly opens up a different way of getting funding,” said Sandra Phillips, a shared mobility industry strategist.
Thus far, ride-hailing companies have scored billions in round after round of venture capital funding. And they are leaving their marks on cities around the world—not all positive: A growing body of research implies that the rise of ride-hailing has contributed to increases in congestion and emissions on American roads, while their inexpensive fares and carpool services in particular are drawing riders off of public transit. Much as urban policy could influence the future of these companies, so will these companies continue influence the shape of the cities in which they operate.
Now, in the event of successful IPOs, at least one observer is anticipating an effect on real estate in the city where Uber and Lyft (in addition to Airbnb, which is also anticipated to make its stock market debut next year) are headquartered. “Think SF is expensive now?” Jeremiah Owyang, a tech industry analyst with a focus on the sharing economy, tweeted this week. “Both Lyft, Uber, and maybe Airbnb to IPO in 2019.”
For people who bike on city streets, moving cars are pretty scary: They stop short, swerve suddenly, and make right-hook turns at intersections. But parked cars pose a serious threat, too, because that’s how cyclists get doored.
There’s an extremely easy way for a driver to mitigate these dreaded encounters between car doors and passing bicyclists: Open the door with the right hand, rather than the left, which forces the driver to swivel around and give a quick rearwards glance into the traffic lane.
Some traffic safety advocates refer to the maneuver as the “Right Hand Reach.” Michael Charney, a retired doctor in Massachusetts who has perhaps become the technique’s top evangelist, popularized the term “Dutch Reach,” since it’s a common practice in the Netherlands. Americans are slowly getting the hang of it, too, as more cyclists take the streets in major cities. Starting in January, a number of organizations, including AAA, AARP and the National Safety Council, will teach the reach to both driver-side and passenger-side vehicle users in a range of traffic safety courses, the New York Times recently reported.
“We’ve increased our content regarding sharing the roads with cyclists and other vulnerable road users quite a bit,” William Van Tassel, AAA’s manager of driver training operations, told Mobility Lab this week. “[Cycling] could easily be something that grows as a mode of transportation as we move forward, so we’d like to stay ahead of that if we can.”
The Netherlands is known to take bike safety very seriously, and has one of the lowest rates of bike fatalities in the world. To watch out for the 30 percent of commuters who pedal to work, generations of Dutch drivers have been taught to open car doors with a mindful pivot. “It’s just what Dutch people do,” Fred Wegman, a professor emeritus of traffic safety at Delft University of Technology, told the Times. “All Dutch are taught it. It’s part of regular driver education.”
Doorings seem to be one of the most common types of cyclist collisions in a host of North American cities. A study in Vancouver found that cars flung open into traffic represented 15 percent of total bike crashes between 2007 and 2012; in San Francisco they made up 16 percent of bike injuries and collisions between 2012 and 2015. Doorings have been on the rise in Chicago, jumping 50 percent from 2015 to 2016, even after a 2013 push by the city’s department of transportation to remind cab drivers to look before they open. After all, these collisions can be deadly.
Bike crash data is not an exact science; many collisions go reported, and not all incidents are accurately described in police reports. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t include specific circumstances in their annual bike crash count. But as cycling becomes more popular in the U.S., and vehicle-miles keep ramping up, more people are getting dinged and dying: 783 cyclists were killed in collisions with passenger vehicles in 2017, according to NHTSA data. That’s just slightly below the record high of 2016, when 852 people died.
Virtually every major U.S. city has pledged to eliminate road fatalities with some version of a“Vision Zero” campaign. Similarly, Van Tassel told Mobility Lab that including the door-opening technique in AAA’s curriculum is part of a broader shift in drivereducationto emphasize road safety for all road users, not just people behind wheels.
So far, the goal of zero traffic deaths has proved quixotic: More vehicles on the roads, cheap gas, the proliferation of driver distraction, and the advent of ride-hailing have all combined to make American roads yet more lethal, despite vast improvements in automotive safety. A simple twist before swinging the door could help—not only to prevent accidents, but also to remind drivers that sharing the road doesn’t stop after they’ve turned off the engine.
Now, a new report by the Volpe Center at the U.S. DOT on behalf of the National Association of City Transportation Officials suggests that there’s a more peaceful solution for Baltimore, and indeed any American city trying to balance emergency access and safe bicycle infrastructure: Just make the fire trucks smaller.
And not just firefighting equipment, but lots of heavy-duty vehicles, including garbage trucks and commercial freight trucks. These machines make up just 4 percent of all vehicles of American roads, but are disproportionately involved in deadly collisions: specifically, 7 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 11 percent of bike fatalities. Last year, even as traffic deaths dipped slightly overall, the number of fatal incidents involving big trucks rose by 9 percent.
There’s a connection between those numbers and vehicle size, the report explains. Gigantic cabs reduce driver visibility, blotting out people and objects right along the vehicle and delaying reaction times to coming collisions. Larger vehicles are also heavier, have longer braking distances, and hit people and other vehicles with more destructive force. Designing urban streets with the biggest vehicles in mind—with wide lanes, high speed limits, and few protections for pedestrians or cyclists—reinforces a transportation paradigm that’s unsafe for the least-armored users.
Passenger vehicles are no exception. A recent Detroit Free Press investigation showed how the expanding footprint of SUVs and pickup trucks is driving up traffic fatality rates.
Smaller, nimbler trucks with a few key design tweaks could make a dent in those numbers, the report states. Focusing on heavy-duty emergency response vehicles, it highlights the example of San Francisco’s fire department, which recently purchased a set of new fire engines that are eight feet shorter than the standard 33-foot length, have a 25 percent smaller turn radius, and boast an equally robust fire-fighting capacity as any standard shiny red pumper.
Up front in the cab, teardrop-shaped windows or extra “peep” holes in the passenger door could dramatically reduce driver blind spots on heavy-duty vehicles. Milwaukee’s new snow plow fleet shows the potential, with county officials reporting: “With the peep window on the passenger side door, they can see what’s happening…without leaning toward the window.”
Such vehicles are in wide use in Europe and Asia, where narrower city streets have encouraged more compact designs for heavy-duty trucks. “Aerial ladder fire trucks used in major European and Asian cities can reach just as high, despite being only two-thirds as long and having only half of the turn radius as common American models,” the report states. “Some models of pumper fire trucks are up to 30 percent smaller, and have a turn radius up to 50 percent less than more typically procured models.”
Another potential safety improvement: Don’t send a truck unless you have to. In the U.S., only 3 to 5 percent of fire department calls nationally are related to building fires, according to the report. Dispatching a 80-ton fire-fighting vehicle to respond to a possible heart attack doesn’t necessarily make sense. American cities could take a page from international peers that use smaller vehicles—even motorcycles and bikes—to respond to less-urgent medical calls. (And perhaps to those poor kittens caught in trees.)
Part of the challenge is that, in the U.S., there aren’t that many small vehicles on the market that serve heavy-duty and emergency needs. But local governments could collectively agree to demand more options from manufacturers, much as a band of cities did last year to expand electric trucks and buses in their fleets.”A critical mass of coordinating city fire departments… could likely influence the design of future fire apparatus offered in the U.S.,” the report states.
Back in Baltimore, the city council quietly approved the proposed changes to the fire code in October. But the larger political conflagration over shared streets won’t be contained anytime soon. If nothing else, this report serves as a reminder to fire departments and transportation planners alike that, despite appearances, they have a common purpose: saving lives. Smaller trucks that do the job just as well would seem to accomplish everyone’s goals.
In the heart of downtown Nashville, Church Street Park fits like a coin pocket. At just a quarter of an acre, it’s dwarfed by the central library building that looms across the street. Nearby stand soaring new condo towers, home to the white-collar workers who are fueling the city’s massive recent growth.
The park has never been a great public space. First built as part of a 1996 master plan to revitalize Church Street, downtown’s by-then nearly abandoned historic shopping corridor, the little park has narrow sidewalks and curious landscaping that, locals say, leaves little breathing room and too much cover. It’s known as a place where drug deals go down. Homeless individuals sometimes park their shopping carts there before entering the library. Before a hepatitis breakout earlier this year, some used its small central fountain to bathe. (It was drained due to health concerns.)
“There’s been this sense that the park has not succeeded,” said Freddie O’Connell, the metro council member representing much of downtown. The space is also perceived as unsafe, he added, pointing to a handful of recent assaults that allegedly took place nearby. Residents and tourists—of which there are many in downtown Music City—are afraid to enter, O’Connell and others told me. In a city effort to improve it, Church Street Park was bulldozed and rearranged in 2007, but the changes didn’t seem to help; now, two police cruisers are stationed there every day.
But Church Street Park appears to be in line for the ultimate “fix”: The city wants to let a new owner build over it. Developer Tony Giarratana has proposed to take over the land in order to build the tallest condo tower Nashville has seen yet. In exchange, he’s offering the city a different parcel downtown of equal size—currently a parking lot—that could be converted into public parkland. To sweeten the deal, he’s throwing in $7 million in green space investments, and an offer to build the city a homeless service center at cost.
The mayor praises the deal as an equal swap that would be also an investment in public space and housing. The city’s parks board voted 4-3 to back the proposal last month. Now it’s awaiting approval by zoning officials and the metro council. O’Connell, for his part, is ready to bid good riddance to a failed park.
But other elected leaders, architects, homeless advocates, and neighbors have objected to plan. “This is a calculating and persuasive land deal,” Kem Hinton, a prominent local architect, told a packed room at a public meeting in late October, where members of the city’s board of parks and recreation considered the park’s future. “I think you should think about public space for everyone. Not just the rich.”
In a way, this unloved patch of grass has become a tiny front in a wider conflict—a struggle over the soul of a city that’s undergoing a supercharged economic boom. As affluent newcomers surge into town, who gets to decide who the city is for?
Giarratana has reportedly long coveted Church Street Park. It more than doubled in value between 2013 and 2017, according to county records, and that’s partly thanks to the work of his group. A block away is 505 Nashville, a glass-clad tower that became the city’s second-tallest building when Giarratana Nashville LLC opened it last year. Three of the other residential towers that have popped up along narrow Church Street in recent years bear his fingerprints, totaling more than 1,200 units, the Nashville Business Journal reported in August. On the park site, Giarratana would like to add another 200 condos in a $240 million tower called the Paramount that would soar 50 to 60 stories. “Church Street is our sandbox,” he told the parks board in October.
Giarratana, who did not respond to requests for an interview, showed renderings of his vision for a few of the many properties involved in his proposed swap. Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard, which runs alongside the current Church Street Park, looked vibrant with planters and cafe seating; part of the deal by now is that the city would let Giarratana beautify this corridor, where he would spend $5 million to spruce it up in the style of Houston’s Klyde Warren Park. On top of that, he said, he’d give a parking lot on James Robertson Parkway to the city to redevelop and program as green space, with an additional $2 million that he would pay.
Finally, Giarratana talked up his drawings of a new, $24 million homeless service center, to be located on a separate piece of city-owned property which would include 100 or so units of permanent housing downtown. He’d waive the usual developer’s fee if the city goes through with the deal, which he called “innovative.”
“It’s important for a city like Nashville that’s growing entrepreneurially to encourage people to bring forward new creative ideas and say, we’re going to proceed,” Giarratana said.
The last piece of the proposal—the new shelter—seems to be central to Mayor David Briley’s enthusiasm about it. “We felt like this was an opportunity both to address the quality-of-life issues associated with the park and, at the same time, address some of the underlying concerns that have created the issue with the park,” Briley told the Tennessean in July.
But that’s part of what’s troubling about this situation, if you hear it from opponents. The city was already planning to build that service center in some shape or form. The previous mayor, Megan Barry, who resigned in March amid controversy, got $25 million in general obligation bonds approved by metro council to build affordable housing and other facilities for the city’s growing homeless population. (The deal with Giarratana also began under her tenure.) Now that those dollars have been mixed into this condo deal, the discussion about the land swap has been muddied, critics say. “There are a lot of people who believe we have to give away this park so that we can get a homeless service center,” said Angie Henderson, a metro council member representing southwestern Davison County. “But that’s just not true.”
When those factors are separated, the stakes of the park-swap decision become clearer. First, the parking lot Giarratana would offer as a replacement park may be about the same size as the patch on Church Street, but the location is much less desirable, critics said—it’s squeezed up alongside a major four-lane arterial. It’s also not far from the existing Public Square Park. So, while the total amount of parkland under city ownership would stay the same (or even grow, given Giarratana’s plans for Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard), it would appear to condense access for downtown park users. “It’s a redundancy,” said Henderson. “You’re not serving other people by swapping for this.”
Second, opponents charge, razing a park that’s known as a congregation space for the homeless would neither solve the design flaws that have long repelled other users, nor serve those who do rely on it. “Are we just going to ship the problem from Church Street to James Robertson Parkway?” wondered one parks board member in October.
Homeless advocates say that this wouldn’t be the first time the city has tried to push out vulnerable people rather than help them. Public benches have been removed around downtown over the last few years. A large homeless encampment in another metro park was bulldozed in 2016. This summer, the district attorney’s office took the unusual step of funneling all cases that occur in the downtown area to a single attorney, which advocates say would essentially create a separate criminal docket for those living on the streets.
It’s also hard not to notice that, if the new homeless service center is built according to the Church Street Park proposal, it would be across from the new county jail.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of rising homelessness in Nashville, which was highlighted by a major report in the Washington Post earlier this year. The city’s annual street census—an imperfect and likely conservative estimate—found that the number of unsheltered individuals jumped 10 percent to 2,300 between 2015 and 2016, and it has hovered around that number since. One big factor in this surge is the city’s economic boom: The Post reported that average Nashville rents rose from $882 in 2013 to $1,148 in 2018. In the city’s core, according to the Greater Nashville Apartment Association, that figure jumps to $1,700.
O’Connell, who sits on the city’s Homelessness Commission, says that the city is working to address the issue. He points to administrative changes that the city has made over the past year to streamline and coordinate action in response to the crisis. And of course, there’s that $25 million for affordable housing the council approved last year. Now the lion’s share of that money has been wrapped, confusingly, into Giarratana’s bundle.
In this light, maybe it’s not so surprising that the city would go for a proposal that looks like a win on homelessness. But that’s not how many individuals living on the street or their supporters view the Church Street Park deal.
A group of local homeless advocates wrote a stern open letter in the Tennessean earlier this year, decrying the deal. “[W]e are deeply troubled by the trend we’ve seen in Metro’s willingness to hand over public land and parks to luxury developers who do not invest a percentage of the profits they gain into projects that benefit those struggling most in our city,” they wrote.
Howard Allen, Jr., a native Nashvillian and social activist who is homeless, told me that few of the unsheltered people who use the park space during the day were asked for their opinion by city officials about the swap, which he opposes. “They’re always talking for us, but never talking to us,” he said. “And while they’re talking, we’re dying.”
Even some supporters seem concerned about how some of the city’s thorniest issues are coming to a head in one small space. “I think the fundamental questions is: Is this board OK with giving up green space for a high-rise building?’” said Sharon Gentry, a parks board member, before casting her vote to back the deal in November. “I hope we’re not voting on this as a solution for homelessness.”
The parks board was initially split, but ultimately, the majority of members swayed to approve the swap. George Anderson, the board’s chair, told me that was because it added more public green space on balance, between the possible improvements to Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard and the renovations to Giarratana’s parking lot.
But members of the city’s architecture and design community think there’s a better approach, one that doesn’t threaten Nashville’s larger sense of public life. “Rather than admit defeat and say that the only option for this public space is a 60-story building with 200 luxury units, we could show people that there are other ways to make this place successful,” said Gary Gaston, the executive director of the Nashville Civic Design Center, a local nonprofit focused on urbanism. Even when everyone agrees that the park’s current form is unsuccessful—maybe especially then—public space should stay public, he said.
In 2006, just before the city renovated Church Street Park the last time, the Design Center conducted a survey of park users about what could be improved. Based on their feedback, the organization made a number of design recommendations, including installing movable seats and pulling out the central fountain. (Notably, a nearly equal share of respondents said they felt the area was “unsafe” as those who said it felt “safe.”) But the ideas weren’t adopted when the city re-landscaped the following year, Gaston said.
In January, the Design Center plans to present city leaders with a new alternative vision for renovating and programming Church Street Park, based on the organization’s earlier work and other downtown parks around the world. At the hearing in October, parks board members said it would require an “infusion of resources” to reactivate the space. But for Gaston and other skeptics of the Giarratana deal, a downtown park is too valuable to lose, especially considering the trajectory of Nashville’s future. The mega-retailer Amazon recently announced its intentions to plant another 5,000 workers in a new operations hub half a mile from where Church Street Park sits today. “You’re adding a lot of people who can afford the most expensive apartments that exist in Nashville,” a real estate analyst told the Nashville Business Journallast week. That concentration of jobs and wealth is likely to drive rents up further, and tighten the city’s housing crunch.
Nashville is not alone in this dilemma. West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco have struggled, with very mixed results, to balance economic booms with preserving housing and public resources for longtime residents and maintaining the essential character of the city. New York City is the the poster child for the privatization of public space, for better or worse. Conflicting interests often butt heads on sidewalks, which are some of the last shreds of safe, free-to-use space in sought-after cities all over the world.
In Nashville, the needs of the homeless are colliding with development pressure in an unusually visible setting. What comes next at Church Street Park may be a watershed for the city’s future.
Locals like Allen lament what’s happening. “My city—Music City, U.S.A.—has turned from something that was known as a good place to live to a police city. A Millennial city. A tourist city,” he said. “And they don’t give a damn about people living in poverty.”
Of the handful of writers who treatmaps as subjects, it’s not hard to name favorites. Rebecca Solnit’s imaginative series of city atlases is packed with precise observations on what cartography can reveal. The story of the map that stemmed London’s 1854 cholera outbreak and birthed the science of epidemiology reads like a thriller in Steven Johnson’s telling. Hali Felt breathes life and love into her tender biography of Marie Tharp, the under-recognized scientist who mapped the ocean floor.
Now Mason and Miller are bonafide authors. Their new book, All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey (National Geographic, $50), binds hundreds of evocative maps into one volume, stitched with approachable, illuminating prose. Loyal readers may recognize some of what’s here—Tharp’s oceanic map, for example, and that cholera study—but the majority should be unknown territory. Behold a 19th century graphic that color-codes the history of lava flows on Mount Vesuvius, a birds-eye view of Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, and a rare look inside Hong Kong’s super dense Kowloon Walled City.
Organized into thematic chapters, this book casts a wide net in how it defines “map.” It’s not entirely historical, nor nonfictional—here there be early schematics of the brain, a praiseworthy ski map from a Colorado resort, and the floor plan of the Death Star, which apparently took some work to track down from Lucasfilm. What links them all? “There just has to be a good story behind it,” Miller said over the phone.
As Mason and Miller have built their oeuvre, they’ve thought about what distinguishes high-quality writing about cartography. In particular, they’ve learned how to ask the right questions about visual objects that read as “true” but in fact are full of subjectivities. A cartographer’s bias is sometimes plain in historical maps, but with contemporary material, Mason said, it’s best to talk with mapmakers to understand how they chose their data, colors, and projection. That allows the reader to be more critical, too.
“There is a tendency to assume that if you see something on a map, then it must be true,” Mason said. “That means we need to be especially careful with them, especially in this era when people are intentionally using information in less-than-virtuous ways.”
It helps that Mason and Miller have found a receptive audience in the mapmakers, geographers, and GIS practitioners that consume and comment on their blog. “People have been really generous with their time and helping educate us about what they do,” Miller said. Now, they hope, this book can offer something new and sharp to even the most seasoned map readers.
Write me: What are your favorite books or articles about maps? Who are your favorite map writers? I’ll round them up in an upcoming edition.
A “dark” corner of the retail apocalypse
On the heels of Amazon’s HQ2 announcement last month, CityLab published my investigation into “dark store theory,” a bizarre legal argument employed by America’s largest brick-and-mortar retailers to slash their property taxes.
In communities across the Midwest, chains like Walmart, Target, and others are effectively weaponizing the over-abundance of vacant and repurposed big box stores to reduce the value of their open, successful locations. The tactic poses a significant threat to local tax bases, and it’s spreading around the country.
To visualize the story, CityLab’s David Montgomery and Madison McVeigh mapped data I gathered from local assessors, legal filings, and interviews with tax experts. Madison’s national map of known cases is shown above, with icons depicting where legal battles between cities and retailers have gone to high courts, and which states have tried to address the issue through legislation.
Below is David’s map of stores in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, that are currently disputing their assessed value, and how much the city stands to lose. Read the full story here.
City maps for the minimalist. (Curbed) How the new NASA mission will remap the earth’s forests. (Gizmodo) The blockchain is coming for GPS. (The Atlantic) The most fragile map: American masculinity. (Washington Post) Porsche is guessing its drivers have time to “explore.” (Wired) The ACLU is making Ohio Republicans turn over redistricting data. (Courthouse News) The diverse geography of France’s gilets jaunes protests. (CityLab) America’s best and worst transit systems. (CityLab)
Sidewalk Toronto shared more details on Thursday about plans for the 12 acres of publicly owned land in downtown Toronto where a controversial neighborhood of the future is set to be built “from the internet up.”
For better or worse, though, the model of urban development put forth by Sidewalk Toronto—a public-private entity formed between Sidewalk Labs (the city-building subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and the government-appointed nonprofit development corporation Waterfront Toronto—may more in keeping with contemporary principles of good urban planning than it is visionary.
Released in advance of the company’s fourth public roundtable in Toronto on December 8, the draft site plan is a piece of the larger “Master Innovation and Development Plan” that Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have been working on for the past year; that plan will be released for public review sometime in 2019. This latest document is based in images that depict how buildings, streets, and environmental amenities could be situated at “Quayside,” as the development is called. It also outlines a few key proposals in writing.
With regards to housing, Sidewalk Toronto envisions a mix of 50 percent retail and 40 percent below-market rate housing, which would include “a minimum of 20 percent affordable housing, making sure that this community reflects the full diversity of Toronto,” the director of public realm, Jesse Shapins, wrote in a Medium post about the new release.
This would yield an estimated 2,500 units for an imagined 5,000 residents—a meaningful addition to Toronto’s crunched housing stock, which one Toronto ward councillor applauded as an “important step.” The mix of housing would also be more favorable to those in search of “missing middle” accommodations—i.e., space that’s affordable for those in between the income brackets for luxury and subsidized housing—than typical. However, the total number of units is in fact not as much as zoning in the area would permit. “It will have ~19% less housing than zoning allows[,] thus 120 fewer affordable units than typical, but 500 more middle-income units,” the urban researcher Yonah Freemark noted on Twitter.
The plan envisions the neighborhood being built entirely of mass timber, a material that the company anticipates would cut the costs of construction by 15 percent. Although this form of construction is becoming more common around the world, the company claims that Quayside would represent the largest-scale use of mass timber yet. At least some buildings would be factory-constructed—another approach to reduced-cost building that has become a rallying point among affordable housing advocates around North America.
Sidewalk Toronto also proposes a novel-sounding if still vague approach to the use of building ground floors, or the “stoa” in the company’s lingo. (That is “an ancient Greek word for a covered public walkway,” according to a Sidewalk Toronto tweet from August.) These spaces would be designed to adapt to different uses by “businesses, entrepreneurs and community groups” through “innovations in physical space, financing, digital services, and management of program,” according to the plan.
On the environmental front, the company envisions moving towards a “climate positive” footprint by reducing emissions in the neighborhood by 75 to 80 percent. This would be achieved through a combination of green building standards, solar power generation and geothermal heating, energy monitoring systems, and streamlined waste and water management. On Twitter, former Toronto mayor David Miller called these elements of the proposal “very positive” upon initial review.
Quayside’s streets would be designed for walking, not vehicles, with “woonerf”-esque sidewalks that flow curb-free into bike-friendly streets and a connection to Toronto’s light-rail system. Traffic data would be gathered along the streets to manage flows across modes of transportation and prepare the space for the future arrival of autonomous vehicles. The proposed transportation network would appear to align with the best practices of pedestrian-centric street design, with one unusual twist: a below-grade tunnel system to facilitate freight delivery and waste removal on the backs of robots.
Barring a few details, Quayside’s pieces don’t appear to break much new ground in urban design. But virtually all of them would be linked by a common thread that is more unusual: a digital infrastructure that collects data for the apparent purpose of streamlined urban life. This new site plan comes six weeks on the heels of an expanded proposal by Sidewalk Labs about the types of information it plans to gather and how would collect, store, and manage it. Most notably, the company has proposed that the data would be stored in a common “data trust” accessible to any user, and that it would not be proprietary to any one company—including Sidewalk Labs. The company has been criticized repeatedly for its lack of clarity about its data governance strategy and its business model (which has undergone significant change since 2016, a new report by The Information found.)
Some longtime critics of the Quayside have not been mollified by these recent rounds of detail. “My patience level for Sidewalk Labs dropping information about its plans like crisis communications weaponry is very very very short,” tweeted Bianca Wylie, a civic technology reformer who has been a leading voice of opposition to the project in Toronto. Wylie has objected to the fact that the company is spearheading a public engagement process that would normally fall under the leadership of local government.
But some leaders in that government seem to be coming around. “I’m glad to see Sidewalk Labs has released its initial proposal for Quayside—this will help shape the ongoing conversation about the future of this important site on our waterfront,” tweeted current Toronto mayor John Tory, who has previously expressed concern about the transparency of the project planning.
What sort of future will ultimately unfold in this waterfront district remains be seen. But at the most superficial level, at least, Sidewalk Toronto’s vision of the future doesn’t look that much different from the present.
When a new rail or bus line gets built in the United States, its mere opening is often cause for celebration among transit advocates. That’s understandable, given the funding gaps and political opposition that often stymie projects.
But not all trains are bound for glory, and it’s often not hard to see why. In the new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit (Island Press, $40), Christof Spieler, a Houston-based transit planner, advocate, and former METRO board member, takes stock of the state of American transit with a tough-love approach. In nearly 250 pages of full-color maps, charts, and encyclopedia-style entries, Spieler profiles the 47 American metropolitan regions that have rail or bus rapid transit to show what works, what doesn’t, and why.
”There are a lot of people out there who tell every story as a positive story,” Spieler told me in an interview. “But I think it’s important to question whether we’re doing the right thing. Otherwise, we’re going to keep making bad decisions.”
For example, Dallas has been cheered for its significant investments in light rail over the past 20 years. When the sprawling metropolis set out to build, it prioritized maximizing the number of rail miles and reaching every community. Now, DART is the longest light-rail network in the country. But that hasn’t translated into particularly effective service. “It skips a dense concentration of jobs in Uptown, barely serves the city’s biggest medical district… and misses Love Field’s airport terminal by half a mile,” Spieler writes in a section that calls out the best and worst transit cities, including “Most Useless Rail-Transit Lines.” Dallas gets slapped with the kinder “Missed Opportunity” label, as “it carries half as many people per mile as San Diego, Phoenix, or Houston.”
Like any city keen on connecting its travelers, Dallas could have instead focused on building trains that arrived at regular intervals, and that bring commuters to key destinations. It might have also have devoted its transit resources to modes other than rail that better meet the city’s needs.
Spieler’s atlas illustrates how high-performing public transportation boils down to a handful of key tenets: the density and walkability of an area, and the connectivity, frequency, and reliability of the service. Finding the proper capacity to meet demand matters, too, as do speed and legible tools for navigating the system, he writes. And where cities have failed, Spieler doesn’t shy from editorializing with transit-nerd snark. “The Silver Line is ungainly creation, a mix of major infrastructure and odd compromises,” he writes of Boston’s tangled BRT airport connection. Poor Detroit: its “rail-transit history reads like a comedy,” Spieler opines.
But a dunk-fest this is not. Spieler highlights several examples of cities that are often commonly described as transit failures, but where the data tells another story. “Though Los Angeles’ first rail system was gone by 1963, it left a city that is still friendly to transit,” he writes of the iconically car-oriented city. And who knew that Buffalo, New York, and Fort Collins, Colorado, have transit systems to admire? The former may have the shortest and most oddly configured light-rail system in the country, but as it turns out, “Metro Rail outperforms most of the light-rail lines in the United States,” Spieler writes. (It’s also laden with glorious public art, as CityLab’s Mark Byrnes recently noted.) And Fort Collins has top-quality BRT for its size.
In addition to boarding statistics, each city’s entry is accompanied by two maps—one of the transit system, the other of the frequency of service against population density—that visualize the simple formula for high ridership: People follow good service. For emotional and political reasons, officials often fixate on building a particular mode (usually rail), rather than providing the best possible service. But the atlas makes plain that the mechanics of success and failure have more to do with transit’s placement and service quality. And among other lessons, it shows why cities needn’t fear the bus.
Spieler draws from years of experience on urban planning projects with the architectural engineering firm Huitt-Zollars, where he is the director of planning and a vice president, in addition to his lecturing about transportation at Rice University. In eight years on the board of directors at Houston METRO, Spieler helped shepherd a bus network redesign that led to a rare uptick in transit ridership. (He stepped down this year.)
Transit planners, elected representatives, and transportation enthusiasts should all find something to love or learn in this honest and expansive status report. Most of all, Spieler hopes the book helps demystify the basics of sound decision-making. “We often treat transit like a highly technical and complicated set of choices,” he said. “But what makes it good is pretty straightforward. It’s about where to put a service, and what to prioritize about it.”
Those are things that anyone can understand, he said. And the more who do, the better transit cities might have.
Is post-Thanksgiving shopping mayhem a fading American holiday tradition? This year, even as overall spending increased between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores reportedly fell by as much as 9 percent compared to 2017. That’s consistent with consumer trends since 2014, thanks to retailers widening the window for holiday bargains and more shopping migrating online.
A downturn in traffic appears to be accompanied by fewer of the fistfights, stampedes, and storefront brawls for which Black Friday is justly famous. Parking lot accidents tend to spike the day after Thanksgiving, USA Today reported in 2017, as do claims of thefts from homes and vehicles—presumably, fewer shoppers butting heads and bumpers would mean less of those, too.
A less-anarchic shopping experience is probably something we can all be thankful for. But the ebbing chaos outside America’s big-box stores and shopping centers has revealed the true dimensions of another apple-pie-American sort of appetite: the physical footprint of retail itself, and specifically, the parking.
The United States has as many as two billion parking spots for about 250 million cars, a ratio that many planners and economists describe as overbuilt. “The area of parking per car in the United States is thus larger than the area of housing per human,” writes Donald Shoup, the UCLA transportation scholar and founding father of parking economics, in the introduction to his most recent tome, Parking and the City. He estimates that 14 percent of incorporated land in Los Angeles County is devoted to parking, as is nearly 5 percent of urban area in the Upper Great Lakes region, the book states. The total area of paved lots in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin is roughly equivalent to half the area of Rhode Island.
With malls and big boxes, it’s common to see more than half the store’s parcel frosted in asphalt for shoppers to station their vehicles. Urban zoning codes frequently require a higher minimum number of spots per square foot for commercial property than other kinds of properties, and many stores (though not all) fret that insufficient parking will keep shoppers away. That’s why the disproportionate ratio of parking to cars—and indeed, parking to people—is maybe most noticeable in the great lakes of black pavement surrounding retailers nationwide.
As Strong Towns noted, a lot of those lots weren’t filled on Friday, either. The urban planning blog is in its sixth year of #BlackFridayParking, a photo contest that calls attention to the surfeit of vacant spots, mostly in smaller cities and suburban communities, on the big shopping day. Caveat: Plenty of urban parking lots around the U.S. were packed. But as the hashtag makes clear, many more were half-empty.
Target near our house. I have never seen the *enormous* parking lot as full as today. And yet there are still dozens & dozens of open spots. (Which I’m sure are there b/c of some zoning mandate.) #BlackFridayParkingpic.twitter.com/zgmSsn93iV
That excess space comes at a high premium. A single spot can require tens of thousands of dollars to build. Adding five parking spaces per 1,000 feet can increase the cost of building a large shopping center by roughly 37 percent if they’re located above ground, based on Shoup’s analysis of average construction costs from 2012, and by more than 50 percent the cost if the spots are underground. Those expenses are baked into the total cost of development, which get passed onto consumers who shop there, not to mention the people who pay higher housing costs to live nearby.
Since not everybody owns a car, people who don’t or can’t drive are essentially forced to subsidize those who do. And any shopper who’s fought for primo spots at Best Buy or Target won’t ever know how their Black Friday savings (or their purchases on any day of the year) stack up against the parking fees hidden in the price tags to begin with.
Historically, Black Friday was a day that highlighted the idea of parking as hotly contested space.Disputes over spots on the busiest shopping days of the year have fueled brawls, and worse. Looking at the sheer quantity of parking data, it’s as if retail developers planned to accommodate holiday hordes, every single day of the year. But as Black Friday’s grip on shopping weakens at brick-and-mortar stores, even the annual shopping mega-event appears destined to fill them up even less. For communities, big-box-style retail has never been much of a bargain—and now, for so many reasons, it’s even less of one.
WEST BEND, WI—Kraig Sadowkinow doesn’t look like an anti-corporate crusader. The mayor of West Bend, Wisconsin, stickers his pickup with a “Don’t Tread on Me” snake on the back window, a GOP elephant on the hitch, and the stars-and-stripes logo of his construction company across the bumper.
His fiscal conservatism is equally well billboarded: In the two hours we spent at City Hall and cruising West Bend in his plush truck, Sadowkinow twice mentioned the 6 percent he has shaved off the Wisconsin city’s operating budget since becoming mayor in 2011, and stressed its efforts to bring more business to town.
So you might be surprised to learn that Sadowkinow (he instructed me to pronounce his name like sat-on-a-cow) is personally boycotting two of the biggest big-box retailers in his town, Walmart and Menards, the Midwestern home improvement chain. He’s avoiding shopping at these companies’ stores until they cease what he sees as a flagrant exploitation of West Bend’s property tax system: repeat tax appeals that, added up, could undermine the town’s hard-won fiscal health.
Sadowkinow is one of many unlikely combatants who have lined up against “dark store theory.” That’s the ominous-sounding term that administrators have given to a head-spinning legal argument taking cities across the U.S. by storm. Big-box retailers such as Walmart, Target, Meijer, Menards, and others are trimming their expenses in a forum where few residents are looking: the property tax assessment process. With one property tax appeal after another, they are compelling small-town assessors and high-court judges to accept the novel argument that their bustling big boxes should be valued like vacant “dark” stores—i.e., the near-worthless properties now peppering America’s shopping plazas.
To hear it from opponents, this emerging legal phenomenon essentially weaponizes an already grim retail landscape. But it’s not always clear who’s right and wrong—dark store theory is a battlefield muddied in the cryptic laws and upside-down logic of commercial property valuation. The potential slam to vulnerable tax bases is tangible, however. If the stores prevail in West Bend, for example, it would reduce property values by millions of dollars, force the city to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, and set back payments on the public infrastructure that the town built to lure these retailers in the first place. That could result in higher taxes for residents, fewer police officers, firefighters, and teachers, and potentially, a mess of public debt.
“They are holding the communities for ransom,” said Shannon Krause, the assessor in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where Lowe’s, Nordstrom, Best Buy, Meijer, and others have also appealed their valuations, year after year after year.
Wauwatosa and West Bend are two of the countless communities around the U.S. confronted with dark store appeals that cities worry could be ruinous. A survey conducted by CityLab of the International Association of Assessing Officers, a society for property valuation and tax policy professionals, found that these types of appeals have been filed in at least 21 U.S. states over the past 10 years. The appeals likely number in the thousands, based on CityLab’s review of legal databases and dozens of interviews with property tax experts.
In Wisconsin, at least 230 cases have been filed across 34 counties since 2015, many of them repeat appeals for the same properties, by the top three attorneys representing retailers. In Michigan, more than $75 million in tax value was lost from the rolls from related appeals between 2013 and 2015. In Indiana, an estimated $3.5 billion in property value is on the line. Texas stands to lose $2.6 billion per year if successful appeals become widespread, according to the Republican state comptroller Glenn Hegar. “No one likes paying taxes, including me,” Hegar wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in 2017. “But I have a significant problem when large corporations and their lobbyists try to manipulate the tax system to lower their property taxes … Dark store theory is corporate welfare of a particularly ugly kind.”
Born of the post-recession retail apocalypse and spread by a cottage industry of “no-win, no-fee” tax consultants, dark store theory could foreshadow an even larger threat to local finances—a weakening of the basic social contract underpinning the property-tax apparatus that keeps cities and towns afloat. And here’s the rub: The ruthless logic helping these brick-and-mortar giants dodge their taxes might make a lot of sense.
Jason Williams, the assessor for the city of West Allis, Wisconsin, pressed flat a stack of PowerPoint print-outs against the trunk of his black Impala. We were standing in the giant moat of parking surrounding a Walmart Supercenter in the neighboring community of Greenfield. It stands next to a smaller big-box store, now subdivided into a non-denominational church and a thrift shop. This second property used to be the Walmart in town, before it became one of many empty shells the discount giant has sloughed off in the past decade as it has upgraded to its preferred, more gigantic model.
Williams chose this spot because this reptilian skin-shedding of big-box chain retailers helps frame dark store theory. It’s about the second lives of these oversize retail spaces, and about how much their outer casings are worth—when they’re vacant, and when they’re occupied. In other words, it’s about what counts as market value.
In the biting Wisconsin wind, Williams showed me a photo of the Sam’s Club in West Allis that he battled last year, and which he is now fighting again. (He didn’t want to visit this store in person with me because of the legal dispute.) As of 2017, the city had valued that store at $11 million, a number based on what the property had cost the owner to buy back in 2001, plus the added value of renovations over the years, adjusted at the going rate of depreciation. These are the methods he uses for every type of property, Williams told me, following those rules in his handbooks. “I’m not saying my numbers are necessarily the best ones out there,” Williams told me. “But they’re what I get when I run the math.”
But a tax agent from Chicago filed an appeal on behalf of Sam’s Club, arguing that the store was worth just $7.2 million, based on the low sales costs of a handful of second-generation big box locations scattered around the state. The comparables that the agent provided included three former locations of the now-defunct electronics retailer American TV, an old Lowe’s, a former Target, and a former Walmart (actually, the same property in Greenfield Williams and I were standing in front of now). All of them sold for between $2 million and $4.5 million between 2012 and 2014: much lower sales prices than what their original owners had purchased them for years before. Some had second-generation occupants; some were bank-owned.
Big-box defenders argue that the “sales approach” (what someone recently paid for a similar property) is the best way to determine a building’s value. And in many states, including Wisconsin, sales are supposed to be the first variable in the valuation equation, whenever possible. Therefore, retailers’ lawyers say, a Sam’s Club valued at $11 million is overvalued, because its neighbors are selling for a third of that amount. In a real estate market that’s oversaturated with retail closures, bankruptcies, and vacancies galore, they insist, no one wants a big box store anymore. If you just look at the sales prices, they are often not wrong.
But assessors say that this misses what gives a functional property its value. Location is everything in real estate—there may be a good reasons why some of those stores went dark. Besides, the market for big boxes is too small to rely solely on sales; construction costs and property incomes also have to be taken into account. And many of these vacant and depreciated properties would need major repairs to achieve a state of “highest and best use,” which would be a more appropriate comparison for an open and fully updated store.
Besides, there’s something plainly illogical about the argument. “Do you want me to value your house as if it’s closed and boarded up?” said Krause.
So, case closed? Not quite. The vast majority of dark store appeals brought by big boxes—many of which ask for write-downs of 50 percent—are being settled for a lower valuation, probably in the ballpark of 85 percent, Thomas Hamilton, a professor of real estate at Roosevelt University, told me. Many assessors strive to be conservative in their estimates, so they usually try to find a happy medium when taxpayers protest. Plus, it’s costly to litigate.
Yet dark store theory appeals have been incessant, and small towns feel outgunned. Retailers come back, year after year, insisting on paying less, even after they’ve been granted reductions. For them, every demand brings the opportunity for a lower valuation, and there’s no real financial downside, with outside tax lawyers working for contingency fees. “They’re forcing the hands of municipalities to go to court, and then they keep bargaining it down,” said Krause, the assessor in Wauwatosa. Repeat appeals from Lowe’s, Best Buy, Meijer, and others dating back to 2013 have cost her city $2.4 million in legal fees.
Fighting dark store appeals is costly, but so is acquiescence. If six properties under dispute in Wauwatosa won their appeals, local government (including the city, school district, county, and sewage district) would owe them $22.5 million in tax refunds, according to the city’s data. If West Bend reduced its assessments for Walmart and Menards by 50 percent, as both stores have basically asked, it would cost the city about $220,000 per year in lost revenue, or about 1 percent of its annual operating budget. It would also have to refund the stores $540,000 for all the years of assessments that the stores are disputing. (The city has already lost thousands from a Shopko it settled with; the local school district also had to refund $60,000 over related cases.)
The tax-base pinch might not be so painful if just a few cases are successful. The fear is that victories could set a precedent, and that the argument spreads to industrial properties and other types of commerce. In Wisconsin, because there’s a property tax levy cap, assessors told me that existing homeowners, renters, and small businesses would eventually have to pay more in order to recoup the predicted losses from widespread big-box appeals.
Or they’d have to cut services, which has already happened in small towns across Michigan. In Sault Ste. Marie on the Upper Peninsula, a battle with Walmart forced the city to make pension cuts. In the city of Escanaba, an ongoing battle with a Menards has led to reduced library hours. (Walmart, Menards, Target, Home Depot, and Meijer, did not return CityLab’s requests for comment. Lowe’s referred me to the Retail Industry Leader’s Association, which hasn’t responded; we’ll update this story if it does.)
It might seem absurd that a corporation can insist that a bustling big box is worth little more than a worn-out husk many miles away. Yet this theory is winning over courts. Though most appeals are settled informally by assessors, a small and growing portion are getting kicked up to local tax boards, circuit courts, and in a few states, state supreme courts. In about half of these cases, justices are siding with big box proponents. Dark store theory has “largely withstood judicial scrutiny, leading to hundreds of store devaluations and to hundreds of millions of dollars in estimated lost tax revenue to local governments,” according to a January 2018 report by S&P Global Ratings, which warned investors of the risk the issue poses to municipal budgets.
There’s a good reason why dark store theory emerged in the wake of the Great Recession, as empty “ghost boxes” pockmarked the suburbs and exurbs of the upper Midwest. After the economic shock of 2008, consumer spending tanked, sending business on Main Streets and shopping plazas alike into the red. Today, combined with the rise of Amazon and web-based shopping, once-mighty retail giants keep tumbling. In October, 125-year-old Sears filed for bankruptcy, with plans to close 46 stores by Christmas; Toys ‘R’ Us shuttered more than 700 locations around the country earlier this year. According to Bloomberg, from the beginning of 2018 through April, U.S. store closures had hit 77 million square feet.
The Detroit-based tax attorney Michael Shapiro has been credited with pioneering the technique of using “dark stores” as sales comparisons. In 2010, Shapiro helped lower the valuation of a Michigan Target by about half using dark store theory (the term itself was later coined by assessors). Since then, he’s fought dozens of such cases on behalf of retailers; in 2015, he told the Detroit Free Press he estimated that more than 90 percent of big-box stores around the state had been revalued in this manner.
Robert Hill, a Minnesota-based tax attorney, and his Madison-based counsel seem to have filed the bulk of appeals and lawsuits around Wisconsin. His argument’s strength seems to be its simplicity: “Who needs these things?” Hill told a local newspaper last year. “These things are so darn big.”
In other words, the United States is fatally oversupplied with big boxes. And that has made all of them—alive or dead, occupied or not—worth a lot less than you’d think.
Working mostly on contingency fees, Hill flies around the country to fight for Walmart, Menards, and others. When I reached him by phone, he was in Colorado, surveying a Walmart with a colleague. “The trend-line for these buildings is that they’re too big, and they sell for warehouse prices,” he told me. “It’s not great construction. The ceilings are too high. Where are the dock doors? If you want to put product in a warehouse, these are going to be the last places you want to buy.”
Why would one of these retail behemoths be worth any more or less than an identical one a few exits away, just because it was currently open and the other wasn’t? “I don’t know if these assessors give a rat’s patootie about functional obsolescence,” Hill said.
Hill made no bones about the fact that these companies are looking to trim costs where they can, as they are entitled to do. What matters here is ultimately fair taxation, he insisted. “How many taxpayers do you know that would be willing to pay based on an assessment that’s five times more than they’re able to sell their properties for?” he said.
In Hill’s formulation, corporations need to defend themselves from being “discriminated against” by assessors who intentionally overtax successful businesses. That is why he works on such a wide scale. “We eat what we kill,” he said. “We kill only because they need to be killed.”
It’s not hard to see how an aggressive defense like his could come across more forcefully in a courtroom than the jargon-heavy, procedural talk of a municipal bureaucrat. The practices cities and counties use to assess properties may be standardized in professional handbooks, but they are by no means black-and-white—not like the stark portraits of taxpayer injustice that Hill painted. Property assessment is complicated, and not all practitioners explain their methods clearly.
What’s more, when I asked city officials to explain the precise legal flaw with dark store theory, many appealed to plain common sense. “They’re literally using closed, boarded-up stores as comparables for a recently renovated, vibrant property,” Sadowkinow said.
As crazy as that sounds, Hill has been able to counter that point quite effectively, and in legal terms. Similarly, local leaders have tended to focus on the injustice of these shrewd lawyers preying on small towns to plump up corporate bottom lines. The David-and-Goliath optics aren’t flattering, but that’s not Walmart’s problem. For better or worse, every U.S. taxpayer has the right to attempt to haggle down their property taxes. And some of the biggest retailers in the country have a powerful new tool at their disposal.
When you zoom out from these byzantine quarrels, the woes of the taxman look even grimmer. Property assessments are but a small and emerging frontier for creative tax workarounds among large U.S. corporations. Thanks to offshore tax havens and other breaks and loopholes, many names in the Dow 30 have for years enjoyed a shrinking tax burden as a share of their profits. A 2013 Washington Post analysis found that the share of income Walmart paid in taxes dropped by 24.3 percentage points between 1971 and 2012. Home Depot’s fell by 12.5 points between 1971 and 2012. Today, President Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax code overhaul has boosted GDP and economic growth, at least temporarily. But one year in, corporate tax revenues have also dropped by one-third. And the new cap on state and local tax deductions threatens to further pressure city and school budgets.
Historically speaking, brick-and-mortar retailers haven’t had as much luck in lobbying for federal tax breaks compared to peers in tech and manufacturing, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Boeing. But at the state and local level, they’ve scored generous incentives. Hungry for development, many communities go to great lengths to lure mega-retailers in with public subsidies and tax benefits. For example, West Bend spent nearly $16 million to build infrastructure on once-vacant farmland solely to attract Menards and Walmart, Sadowkinow told me, with the plan to finance that with the future growth in property taxes. Now, if the stores successfully slash their payments, the city would be forced to drag out its timeline for paying off that investment. This also raises the specter of debt.
It’s like a betrayal, Krause told me. “They come in promising jobs and to add to the tax base—more development, more tourism, more people coming in,” she said. “Now look at what they’re doing.”
In so many ways, it seems the tax code no longer fits the players, and that may include property assessment. And dark store theory may be bigger than big boxes: As challenges spread geographically, city administrators fear the tactic will catch on among other property classes, with fast food outlets, banks, grocery stores, and office buildings deploying similar arguments in an effort to slash their tax obligations. Indeed, legal records show that this is happening: Two Hy-Vee supermarkets in Iowa have asked for write-downs using vacant properties. A Steak ‘n Shake in Warren County, Ohio, has made a similar argument about the value of its lease.
What if no one can agree about what any type of property is worth? That way lies serious fiscal havoc. For local government to successfully operate police departments, school districts, and other public services, “the tax depends on an agreement about what the basis for market value is,” said Joan Youngman, a senior fellow and chair of the Department of Valuation and Taxation at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, told me. “A new theory has come along that challenges the usual practice, and it needs to be answered.”
The law will have to settle the matter, but it’s not clear when that day is coming. For the last two years, Wisconsin mayors and assessors have been testifying before Madison lawmakers with charts, graphs, and reams of spreadsheets that spell out how costly this battle could get. Last year, 19 of the state’s 33 senators (10 Democrats and nine Republicans) signed onto a bill crafted in part by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, but it failed to reach a vote.
There may be more hope now that Governor Scott Walker is on his way out, advocates said. It also helps that 76 percent of voters across 24 towns voted yes on referenda this August and November, demanding that legislators close the so-called “dark store loophole.” In the lead-up to this year’s midterms, dark store theory became a talking point among candidates for local and state office.
Still, it’s going to be tough: Don Millis, a prominent tax attorney who represents retailers and a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the top advocacy group for big business in these parts, sits on the legislative committee assigned to review the issue.
If Wisconsin managed to change its laws, Hill told me, lawyers like him would just redouble their efforts. “That’s when we’ll grab the pitchforks and get the Constitution involved,” he said.
And the judicial system? Some state supreme courts are hearing about the issue, but it seems that theirs is not always the final word. In Michigan, Escanaba has yet another upcoming court date with Menards, even though the high court rejected the retailer’s last appeal in 2017. In June, Patrick Jordan, the city manager, wrote an impassioned letter to fellow municipal leaders across Michigan, pleading for donations in support of the ongoing legal campaign.
This next decision could set the stage for tax rolls across the country, Jordan argued. “National retailers have been waiting and preparing for the Menards remand hearing due to its long-term implications,” he wrote. “This fight is a fight for all local units and not Escabana’s fight alone.” Still, it’s not clear that one state can set a precedent: A few years ago, Indiana’s state supreme court sided with a Kohl’s.
In the short term, the best bet for cities and counties may be assessors who are able to effectively resist dark store arguments by clearly explaining their methods. After his predecessor allowed a substantial reduction to a Target that appealed in 2016, Williams decided to defend his methodology against Sam’s Club and Menards. He pulled construction permits on the aging properties that the companies had presented as comparable sales, and found that they’d require millions of dollars in renovations. Running the numbers, he was able to convince the city’s tax board that the Sam’s Club and Menards were really worth about as much as the city said they were. So West Allis saved some cash. Now, though, Sam’s Club is back at it again—this time with a proper lawsuit, to be hashed out in circuit court.
As I passed sign after sign for the country’s most recognizable retailers along the Wisconsin interstates, it was hard not to weigh what communities have been getting out of the corporate retail bargain. Sprawling out to accommodate their outsize stores has brought some jobs, as well as access to discounted goods. But critics have argued for decades that island-like locations on suburban fringes devour local businesses and hollow out downtowns in communities big and small.
Their competitive edge isn’t just from lower prices: Warehouse-style retailers already tend to pay vanishingly little per square foot compared to other types of shops. And this kind of commercial development consumes all manner of hidden subsidies. (Case in point: Studies have found that Walmart stores attract more police calls than other types of businesses, yet contribute little for the extra care.) Should dark store theory prevail nationwide, the true costs associated with this retail era may balloon further.
But those engaged in the dark store struggle don’t necessarily see the big-box model itself as part of the problem. Williams, whose job is to tally up the true value these stores represent, shops at Menards when he’s not battling them. His wife loves Walmart. “It’s not like Menards is an evil company; I don’t look at it like that,” he said. He can’t blame them for trying to save a few bucks.
It was getting later in the afternoon; the parking lot outside Walmarts old and new began to fill. We watched the cars stream in for a moment. Williams shrugged. “This is what people want,” he said. “It works.”
These phrases were all over headlines for the 2018 U.S. midterms. It’s hard to believe that less than twenty years ago they could have totally confused you. By now, the arbitrary color-coding of two political parties has become utterly axiomatic in American language and visual culture. There’s a reason those MAGA hats are crimson.
And guess what? A map did it. Our partisan palette—blue for Democrats, red for Republicans—originated in the election maps the media produced for the 2000 presidential race.
Previously, TV stations, newspapers, and political atlases mostly followed their own aesthetic whims when it came to coloring thematic election maps, which date back to the 19th century. Sometimes they threw yellow and green in the mix, which would now seem totally blasphemous, though red and blue, being the hues of the American flag, have always been popular picks. But their respective assignments have varied; blue just as often repped Republicans and red, Democrats, through the end of the 20th century. And, confusingly, in other countries, the fiery shade is usually associated with leftist parties. That was sometimes the case in the U.S. ”It’s beginning to look like a suburban swimming pool,” one television anchor reportedly said in November 1980, as Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Jimmy Carter became manifest in a blue-tiled map.
But the turn of the millennium was another fraught time in American politics. It took weeks for the nation to learn whether George Bush or Al Gore had won the presidency, as poll workers recounted the ballots in Florida. Because electoral maps were on screen and in print so often, producers and publishers figured consistency would help viewers follow along. So they conformed to the same colors, and from that point on, they really, really stuck. That’s how you automatically knew the “red tide” wasn’t some kind of biblical meteorological event—although the elections did sometimes feel like that.
Does our two-sided color-wheel have any effect on our political affinities? A color psychologist told the New York Times in 2004 that it’s hard to say if people are more drawn to something by its associated color. But one 2016 study published by the National Institutes of Health suggests colors can drive parties apart. Psychology researchers tested how readers reacted to news articles about Russia and NATO when each subject was represented on a map as red and blue, respectively (their old Cold War-era designations), compared to how they perceived other color combinations.
The result: Participants who already had negative beliefs about Russia read the sides as being more antagonistic, but only when Russia was depicted in red. In other words, the colors reinforced political perceptions and stereotypes. Somehow, it’s not hard to imagine the same is true of the un-united red and blue states.
Elections are always a feast for map nerds, and these midterms were no exception. On CityLab, several recent stories have used maps to highlight what was at stake on Tuesday.
Up first, I wrote about a map by the amateur cartographer Philip Kearney that put a twist on voter turnout rates for the 2016 presidential election. Kearney showed how if no-show eligible voters had cast their ballots for “nobody”—the effective result of their abstention—“nobody” would have won the election rather than either of the actual candidates. And in a new series of interactive maps, Esri dug up more election data to show how non-voters helped elect Donald Trump.
The results of the 2018 midterm elections—and of Democrats’ efforts to retake the U.S. House of Representatives and stem Republican gains in the Senate—will all depend on turnout. Historically speaking, though, voting in midterm elections isn’t something that a majority of Americans do. In 2014, just a little more than one third of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest share since 1942, according to the United States Elections Project.
Even in the last presidential election, just 56 percent of could-be voters showed up to the polls. In fact, in hundreds of counties around the U.S., the number of eligible individuals who did not vote far outweighed the number of ballots actually cast for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016. If those millions of no-shows had picked “nobody” on the ballot—the effective choice of their abstention—“nobody” would have won in a landslide.
That is the message of a striking map created by amateur cartographer Philip Kearney in April 2018, which was expanded upon by Jim Herries, an Esri cartographer, last week. Drawing on Census Bureau data and election results, “United States of Apathy” compares those no-show votes to the actual turnout for both presidential candidates in the 2016 election, and adds up the electoral votes that would have been produced. “Nobody” wins 445 electoral votes, a victory of several factors over Trump’s 21 and Clinton’s 72. (Again, that’s if they were actually running against a no-show candidate. In reality, Trump won the electoral college with 304 votes while Clinton lost it with 227, despite winning the popular vote.) In the updated version, Herries has added a series of interactive maps that detail where the pluralities of “apathetic” voters played to the advantage of both candidates, and by what margin, across the 50 states. Dive in here.
While surveys of no-show voters in 2016 indicate a lack of interest in the candidates or issues at hand, it may not be fair to pin the cause of America’s low turnout rates entirely to apathy. Some voters are disillusioned with what they see as the inefficacy of the political system; others may live far from polling places and lack transportation access; still more may prefer to prioritize their jobs or families. And voter suppression efforts—be they photo ID requirements, late registration penalties, last-minute poll closures or schedule changes, or voter roll purges—keep an untold number of Americans away from the ballots. So do problems that arise when people do show up to vote, including long lines and malfunctioning machines.
It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Timeslast month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.
“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”