Uber must be stopped, superblocks save lives, Hyperloop is bullshit, Amazon delivery dangers, & more!

Issue 103

Hey urbanists,

Obviously we’re talking about AB5 this week. How can we not? I get a feeling a new #DeleteUber campaign is in the offing — and I hope it delivers a death blow.

Plus, Hyperloop is bullshit, superblocks are incredible, Bernie Sanders’ housing plan is much better than Justin Trudeau’s, small Canadian town taking on Airbnb rentals, Amazon delivery is a menace, how to rein in technology capitalism, and much more.

I’m in Auckland and still not sure what my plans are this week. Have a great one!


P.S. — Hit the heart if you like the issue!

Regulators need to enforce the law on Uber

After passing the California Assembly 53-11, AB5 passed the Senate 29-11. The bill would effectively force gig economy companies to reclassify their workers as employees instead of contractors. It now returns to the Assembly to approve the amendments, then requires Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature to become law and take effect on January 1, 2020. Newsom published an op-ed on Labor Day backing the bill.

However, gig economy companies are already planning to fight back. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have contributed a combined $90 million to prepare a ballot initiative aimed at killing AB5 and replacing it with a “third category” of labor between employee and contractor. Some hail this as the perfect solution, but we shouldn’t be fooled: this is an effort to roll back decades, if not over a century, of hard work to expand the rights and benefits of workers.

On Wednesday, Uber and Lyft announced that even when the bill becomes law, they’ll refuse to respect it. They argue they can pass the test and keep their drivers as contractors. That seems very unlikely, and will end up in the courts. But that’s their plan: delay as long as possible, both to delay the costs associated with making contractors employees and maximizing the time they have to try to overturn it through lobbying and the ballot initiative.

Here’s why it won’t work. For a worker to be considered an independent contractor under AB5, the business must pass what’s called an ABC test: “the worker a) is free from the company’s control, b) is doing work that isn’t central to the company’s business, and c) has an independent business in that industry.” Uber is arguing delivering rides isn’t central to its business, which is complete bullshit, but how they can argue against the others is hard to imagine. If AB5 stands, it’s a question of when the workers are reclassified, not if.

I finished reading Mike Isaac’s “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” this week, which largely covers Uber’s founding to CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s takeover from disgraced former CEO Travis Kalanick. It illustrates how deregulating transport was one of the goals Kalanick hoped to achieve with Uber, beyond offering cheap taxi trips and decimating labor rights — he literally referred to drivers as “supply.” But, while not explicitly stated, the fact Kalanick and the other top brass at Uber were able to get away with all they did is a clear indictment of how regulators and politicians failed to enforce the law after falling for the argument that these companies were different because they branded themselves as “tech” rather than transport, hospitality, etc.

Uber executives got away with a shocking amount of not just unethical, but illegal behavior, and externalized the social and economic costs onto drivers and urban residents. AB5 is a very welcome development that will hopefully lead other jurisdictions in the United States and beyond to follow suit, but it will also be a test: are regulators finally ready to stand up for everyone being made worse off by tech’s refusal to respect existing legal frameworks? They’ve engaged in a decade of social destruction in service of wealthy venture capitalists and some relatively well-off users, and it’s long past time they were brought to heel, if not abolished outright.

Around the world

🚗 As bikes and people try to claim more space in U.S. cities, influential and powerful people still applaud the dominance of the automobile. By contrast, mayor Anne Hidalgo wants Paris to become a place “where you can let go of your child’s hand.”

The car is a very specifically American symbol of freedom, but like so many instruments and symbols of American freedom, it is a tool of domination and control. A car is a missile and a castle, a self-propelled, multi-ton fortress, hermetically sealed against the intrusions of weather, environment, and, of course, other people. Drivers view the world through the lenses of speed and convenience … but also through the lens of ownership. Streets belong to cars. The rest of us are interlopers, invaders, invasive species.

Transit and trains

🇫🇷 Paris transit workers went on strike Friday to fight President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms, which would force them to work nearly a decade longer before being able to retire. Ten of sixteen metro lines, along with some regional services were shut down. Strikes could continue until December.

🤦‍♀️ Aaron Gordon went to a Hyperloop conference and found it’s really just a small number of really dedicated techno-optimists who won’t entertain any of the limitations of the technology. “To the Hyperloopist, the past is failure, reality is a mistake, and the future is success.”

🇨🇦 A train tunnel in Montreal will close for two years in January to retrofit it for the regional REM system currently under construction. The city will offer free shuttle buses, but it will put more pressure on the already stressed metro system.

🇺🇸🇫🇷 Between 2010 and 2018, transit ridership in major U.S. cities decreased by an average of 6%, but in major French cities it increased by an average of 32%

🇨🇦 After significant delays, Ottawa finally opened its Confederation Line, a 13-station light-rail system, on Saturday. Further extensions are planned in the coming years.

Bikes and scooters

🇮🇪 Dublin is extending its bikeshare system to more suburbs. Over 40,000 people pay the €25 annual subscription — much cheaper than a private dockless service.

🇩🇪 Munich has banned scooters from the grounds of Oktoberfest to discourage intoxicated riding and the injuries that could result from it

🇬🇧 U.K. report suggests e-bikes, scooters, and bikeshare could shorten the journey times of 69% of trips currently made by car in large British cities

🇳🇿 A charity in New Zealand gives refugees free bikes and teaches them how to ride. For some, it’s made a huge difference in their lives.

Cars and roads

🇪🇸 If Barcelona fully implements its superblocks program, it could prevent 667 premature deaths a year, reduce air pollution by a quarter, cut noise pollution and the heat island effect, and switch 230,000 weekly vehicle trips to transit, foot, or bike

🇬🇧 U.K. transport committee calls for a ban on pavement (see: sidewalk) parking, saying it “puts pedestrians in danger when they are forced to move into the road to get around a vehicle or where there are trip hazards due to damage to the pavement”

🇦🇺 The number of vehicles entering Sydney’s CBD has dropped 8% since 2015. Now the government might be adding a new cycleway and pedestrian spaces.

🚚 Delivery trucks are causing havoc on city streets, especially delivering Amazon packages, but some cities and companies are trying to “rightsize” deliver vehicles. I’m bullish on electric cargo bikes!

🇺🇸 San Francisco lawmaker wants some streets in the Tenderloin to be car-free after a spike in deaths

🇩🇪 Berlin politicians are calling for an SUV ban after one hit a group of pedestrians

Environment and climate crisis

🎥 Variety asks whether Hollywood is doing enough to fight climate change. It talks a lot about making more entertainment that draws attention to the climate crisis, and noting that “many of Hollywood’s most prominent environmental activists still indulge in air and yacht travel and other luxuries of the jet set that are the source of carbon emissions.” But it doesn’t reckon with potentially larger changes to filmmaking that will be necessary to reduce its footprint — offsetting isn’t enough.

🇺🇳 U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet says the climate crisis is the greatest ever threat to human rights, serving as a catalyst for civil wars

☀️ Massive new solar power and battery storage project will supply Los Angeles with 6-7% of its annual power needs at just 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour 

😬 A trillion-dollar investment is needed to avert “climate apartheid” — and we’re not nearly doing enough

🇺🇸 “By 2035, it will be more expensive to run 90% of gas plants being proposed in the U.S. than it will be to build new wind and solar farms equipped with storage systems”

🇫🇷 Summer heatwaves killed more than 1,500 people in France according to the health minister

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Glasgow may reforest several golf courses to help meet climate targets

Housing and homelessness

🇨🇦 Canada’s election kicked off the other day, and Justin Trudeau started with a plan to further subsidize first-time homebuyers. But the dream of homeownership for all is dead and politicians won’t be able to resurrect it. In fact, Trudeau’s measure is making affordability worse. The columnist suggests a renter’s tax credit, and while that may work in the short term, what’s really needed is mass investment in public housing.

🇺🇸 Bernie Sanders previewed his $2.5-trillion housing plan on Saturday. It would cap rent increases at 1.5x inflation or 3%, end homelessness, put $50 billion in community land trusts, expand the National Housing Trust Fund, fully fund Section 8 rental assistance, and make a $70-billion investment to repair and expand public housing.

🇨🇦 Bonavista, NL, a small Canadian town, taxes Airbnb properties at the business property tax rate. It has a town employee search the website for new listings, then make house calls. If the owner doesn’t pay the bill, the town cuts them off from municipal services. “We have literally dug up driveways and turned off water sewer service until the bill is paid.”

🇭🇰 Hong Kong leader pledges to increase housing supply in response to pro-democracy activists’ demands

🇺🇸 California passed statewide rent control, but the new protections still seem pretty favorable to landlords. The measures, which have plenty of exceptions, would cap increases at 5% plus inflation — who’s getting wage increases of that much?

🇵🇹 Cultural capitals across Europe are being decimated by “touristification” and an influx of speculative real estate capital to provide Airbnb rentals. In Lisbon, the availability of long-term rentals has declined 70% in 5 years.

🇦🇺 Inequality getting worse in Australia as the poorest fifth spend 29% of their income on housing — more than ever before — compared to 9.4% for the richest fifth

🇬🇧 Women fleeing abuse are re-traumatized when they seek housing assistance

Tech dystopia

📦 Caroline O’Donovan reveals the dark side of Amazon’s delivery operations. Hundreds of companies use contracted drivers who have to deliver “upwards of 250 packages a day,” or one every two minutes of their 8-hour shift, while Amazon dictates everything “down to what drivers wear, what vans they use, what routes they follow, and how many packages they must deliver each day.” The lack of safety training, regulations, and the pressure placed on delivery drivers has “exposed communities across the country to chaos, exploitative working conditions, and, in many cases, peril.” Days after the story broke, Uber announced it’s doubling down on freight.

🛑 Lizzie O’Shea describes several methods of reining in technology capitalism, from changing laws to reviving antitrust’s focus on the corporate power of monopolies. But we can’t forget the power of workers to fight for change, especially as those in tech have become more active.

✊ Technology denies gig workers traditional working rights, but they’re also using their own tech tools to fight back

🖥 “Software was able to eat the world because we put a lot of the world through the meat grinder to create little standardized patties that software could handle.” AVs will be no exception, with developers already calling for caged sidewalks and limits of public space.

🇺🇸 50 attorneys general representing 48 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C. have announced they’re launching an antitrust investigation of Google. The big tech companies now face a combined 16 investigations across all levels of U.S. government.

📉 SoftBank, which plowed billions of dollars into ‘tech’ companies like Uber and WeWork, is having a really bad year. It’s not trying to get WeWork not to IPO because its valuation has fallen so much.

😬 Uber announced it was cutting another 435 jobs, or 8% of its entire workforce, in the middle of Apple’s iPhone event. Talk about trying to bury a story.

Other great reads

🇺🇸 After the failure of the Amazon HQ2 deal, New York state is joining others in cracking down on corporate welfare. (The unnamed “solar plant” in Buffalo is Elon Musk’s SolarCity.)

🚽 In the 1970s, U.S. high schoolers campaigned to get rid of pay toilets — and they won. Free toilets are just one example of how decommodifying services makes life easier for people, and it needs to be done to even more of the things we rely on.

📽 “When a city becomes this synonymous with its film festival — and the kind of visitor that the global arthouse circuit draws — the effects can be mixed. The economic boosts delivered by a festival, such as large visitor numbers, can also drive up prices and put undue strain on the local environment.”

By Paris: Apple Event 2019 unveils the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro — but a strategy pivot is underway (NBC News THINK)

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