Biased algorithms, left history of tech, Uber AB-5 lies, cars expanded policing, & more!

Issue 111

Hey urbanists,

A few days ago I attended the Mobilizing Justice workshop in Toronto, and gave a presentation about how elite visions have had significant influence on our cities and why we need to stop being distracted by them (especially the tech industry) as we move forward. We need to refocus on the needs of those at the bottom. I believe there will be a video posted at some point; I’ll share it once it’s available.

Andrew Miller of Sidewalk Labs also gave a “presentation” (see: sales pitch) in which he said the Sidewalk Toronto project, which is promoted as an equitable smart city, was “akin to Hudson Yards in New York City” — a much-criticized wealthy enclave. When I asked how SL plans to ensure its big ideas are able to be implemented, when there’s a long history of ambitious urban plans getting significantly scaled back at that stage, he did not provide a convincing answer.

This week I highlighted an excerpt from Lizzie O’Shea’s “Future Histories.” Also worth reading: Ben Tarnoff on why the tech left needs to learn its history, Uber’s lies about its AB-5 replacement, Apple’s bullshit housing pledge, cars created modern policing, tons of new oil is coming to market, Disney needs to be broken up, and the streaming wars aren’t really a war.

I’m off to London in a few days, then I’ll be in Paris for a debate at the Salon des Maires the following week.

Have a great week!


An excerpt from Lizzie O’Shea’s “Future Histories” about the social consequences of biased algorithms was published in Longreads. You can read it here, and I highly recommend buying the book.

In his analysis of the automobile industry in the 1960s, Ralph Nader argued that secrecy was one of the policies most inimical to the improvement of car safety. ‘Not only does this industry secrecy impede the search for knowledge to save lives … but it shields the automobile makers from being called to account for what they are doing or not doing.’ We can see a similar force at work today when algorithms are used as a substitute for human decision-making without proper transparency or accountability. Proprietary algorithms used by the government are often kept secret for security reasons, or by the manufacturing companies for commercial reasons, so they can charge for the use of their product. This lacuna of transparency and accountability undermines equality of opportunity and conceals inequality in outcomes. We need to force ‘black box’ algorithms open.

Tech dystopia

✊ “A year later, the legacy of the [Google] walkout has been far-reaching and complex. Although most of the protesters’ demands remain unmet,their efforts have given rise to a network of worker-led movements both inside Google and in the broader tech industry, marking a new era of tech companies being challenged by their own employees.”

⚠️ Microsoft beat out Amazon, IBM, Oracle, and Google for a $10 billion Pentagon contract to provide cloud storage and artificial intelligence for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project. “The tech industry clearly has a nationalism problem. Intent on boosting their profits and global market share, tech leaders are using jingoism to justify ethically dubious decisions, while politicians use it to rationalize a closer partnership between the tech industry and the military. Worst still, the kind of techno-militaristic nationalism seen in the JEDI project could eventually set off a catastrophic AI-arms race.”

➡️ Related: In “The Code,” Margaret O’Mara explains how military funding played a key role in establishing Silicon Valley, subsidizing companies like Google that now dominate, and remain essential for newer tech companies, including arch-libertarian Peter Thiel’s Palantir.

🤦 “The rising movement in the United States to consider charging the country’s biggest tech companies with violating antitrust laws is running headlong into powerful and well-funded conservatives and libertarians committed to pushing back on those efforts. […] Both Facebook and Google have financed a slate of groups that support current antitrust law.”

🛑 7,000 leaked documents show Mark Zuckerberg “oversaw plans to consolidate the social network's power and control competitors by treating its users' data as a bargaining chip. […] Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.”

✊ “The tech left needs a usable past. We’re not the first generation that has attempted to construct a more democratic relationship to technology. On the contrary: we belong to a long tradition of movements and organizations that have done this work in the past.” — Ben Tarnoff

✊ In the aftermath of the WeWork’s implosion and Adam Neumann’s billion-dollar payday, WeWorkers are organizing to demand fair treatment in the face of mass layoffs. “We don’t want to be defined by the scandals, the corruption, and the greed exhibited by the company’s leadership. We want to leave behind a legacy that represents the true character and intentions of WeWork employees.”

🗳💰 Amazon funneled $1.5 million into Seattle’s city council race, with much of it dedicated to defeating socialist Kshama Sawant. Despite an early lead by the Amazon-backed candidate, Sawant won reelection. CEO Jeff Bezos also called up Michael Bloomberg to ask him to enter the presidential race. He announced his campaign a few days ago.

🇯🇵 “Microsoft’s Japanese division found that reducing its working week to four days throughout the month of August caused an increase in productivity and a decrease in costs. […] Electricity use declined by 23 percent and paper printing decreased by 59 percent. Employees were encouraged to use tools like Microsoft Teams to communicate rather than holding meetings and 92 percent of employees reported that they were pleased with the reduced hours.”

😡 The U.S. FCC approved the T-Mobile merger with Sprint, which many believe will increase the price of telecom services in the long-term. However, 10 state attorneys general launched a lawsuit to block it, so CEO John Legere announced a number of misleading, targeted programs, which The Verge’s Dieter Bohn described as “a no-holds-barred campaign to win support for the merger from constituencies that might put pressure on those attorneys general to settle their case.”

💬 The U.S. military is funding research into how social media posts go viral. Keith Spencer, author of “The People’s History of Silicon Valley,” points out this could be used to spread propaganda and disinformation.

🙃 “The current open government data landscape is like an area of common land that everyone has access to and works to cultivate; except that only a few have the tools and technologies needed to harvest its crops. The land has yielded resources that the few have used to improve their tools over time. But they neither share the tools nor the nourishment they reap from their use with the other ‘commoners’ – the many.”

👁 Freedom House report says free speech and privacy declined on the internet for the ninth consecutive year, citing the failure of governments and companies to curb election interference and an increase in surveillance of social media, including by the United States. I’d also like to see more focus on how tech giants like Google are attacking the open web to lock everyone in their ecosystems.

📱 Bill Gates thinks Windows Mobile would have beaten Android if Microsoft hadn’t been subject to an antitrust inquiry. Do you need any better argument for antitrust action against the tech giants?

💸 Uber and Lyft’s ballot measure to replace AB-5 in California promises drivers would “receive a guaranteed pay equal to 120% of the minimum wage,” but an analysis out of UC Berkeley finds that several loopholes would leave drivers earning much less: “the equivalent of a wage of $5.64 per hour.”

🇬🇧 The U.K. competition authority is investigating Amazon’s recent investment in delivery app Deliveroo for a potential reduction in competition

👩‍⚖️ Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit in New York City representing 96,000 drivers over a failure to repay taxes it wrongly took from their earnings. Meanwhile, Canada’s Supreme Court will be hearing Uber’s appeal to an Ontario ruling that its arbitration clause was “invalid and unconscionable.

🌯 Restaurants pushing back against high fees charged by GrubHub and Uber Eats

👩‍⚖️ Kate Cox provides a brief overview of U.S. antitrust law and the aspects that are relevant to breaking up the big tech companies

📱 Video: Capitalism Didn’t Make the iPhone: How the fundamental tech we rely on was developed with state research funding — not by private enterprise

Critical urbanism

🏘 Apple pledged $2.5 billion to combat California’s housing crisis. It was praised by neoliberal Gov. Gavin Newsom, but Bernie Sanders (rightfully) criticized the announcement: “Apple is the latest tech industry tax evader that has portrayed its entry into the housing business as an act of philanthropic altruism.” If companies like Apple paid taxes, governments wouldn’t be so starved of cash that could be used to build public housing and quality transit to connect everyone. FT Alphaville noted it “echoes many of the developments around 19th century industrialisation, such as Carnegie’s libraries,” which were aimed at stopping the breakup of their corporate monopolies.

📉 Uber lost $1.2 billion in Q3 2019, and made a big deal of its 29% revenue growth, but Hubert Horan notes its total costs and expenses rose 33% to achieve it: “to obtain a $969 million increase in revenues, the company spent an additional $1.2 billion.” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is promising “adjusted EBITDA profitability” in 2021, but that still excludes a lot of losses. Even if it hits that goal, “it will still be losing a ton of money, and it will be a long way from actual profitability, and it will be even further away from significant actual profitability that would create some kind of reasonable earnings multiple as appropriate for a taxi and delivery company.”

☠️ In March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bike across the road. A new report by the NTSB says it happened because “the system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.” Herzberg died because Uber engineers didn’t consider people might cross the street. The people who designed the software and made the decision to test it on public roads should be charged.

🚔 In episode 30 of The War on Cars, Sarah Seo explains how the rise of automobility was paired with a massive expansion of policing

🚗 “Uber and Lyft barged into the public’s consciousness on a promise to end personal car ownership and improve urban transportation, while marketing themselves to drivers as a fun and easy side hustle. A decade later, these companies are being blamed for rising traffic congestion, increased tailpipe emissions, and a growing wealth gap between the rich and poor.”

🛬🚌 Transportation at Los Angeles International Airport isn’t going to get better until the airport puts more energy into transit and shuttles, not Uber and Lyft

🇬🇧 U.K. Labour’s Warm Homes for All scheme would “install loft insulation, double glazing and renewable technologies in almost all of the UK’s 27m homes,” creating 450,000 jobs over the next decade. Low-income households would be able to apply for a grant so they pay no upfront cost.

🙄 Elon Musk has again revised his position on self-driving cars: “he is promising that his ‘Full Self-Driving’ will be feature-complete by the end of this year but that this level of completeness doesn’t have the same level of autonomy that Tesla was claiming for itself three years ago!”

🌍 Motorbike taxi apps are getting more popular across Africa, and venutre capitalists want in

🚇 FT investigation finds “the air in [London] Tube carriages was up to 18 times worse than the city’s roadside air […] The problem is hardly limited to the London Underground. Studies of subway systems from Toronto to New York to Seoul have consistently shown higher air pollution under ground than above ground.”

🇺🇸 Los Angeles suspended Uber’s permit to rent electric bikes and scooters in the city because it won’t abide by data-sharing requirements

🇱🇺 “Late on Oct. 7, the mayor of Luxembourg City received an email from U.S. startup Bird Rides Inc. saying it would roll out its service overnight. The next morning, dozens of electric scooters lined the pavements. Just over a week later, on Thursday, Bird was forced to pause its service.”

🙄 Uber may have to seek a licensing agreement with Waymo or make costly changes to its autonomous vehicle tech after an expert found it’s still using Waymo’s tech

🇨🇦 A minimum wage worker in Canada doesn’t make enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in 91% of the 795 neighborhoods with publicly available rental information, or a two-bedroom apartment in 97% of neighborhoods.

🇺🇸 San Francisco’s “Prop. D will add a 1.5% surcharge on shared rides and 3.25% on solo rides with ride-hailing apps in the city.” It needed 66.6% to pass, and got 66.66%. Prop C. also passed, banning the sale of e-cigarettes in 2020.

🇸🇬 Singapore banned scooters from sidewalks. Anyone who breaks the rule could go to jail for three months.

🛑 After a major report on Airbnb scammers and a shooting that killed five people, the company now says it will verify all listings and either refund or find a new place for people whose listing isn’t what was promised. Do we believe them?

🙄 Uber will test scooter surge pricing in Dallas

Climate crisis

🛢 Canada, Norway, Brazil, and Guyana “stand to add nearly a million barrels a day to the market in 2020 and nearly a million more in 2021, on top of the current world crude output of 80 million barrels a day. That boost in production, along with global efforts to lower emissions, will almost certainly push oil prices down. […] cheaper oil may complicate efforts to combat global warming and wean consumers and industries off their dependence on fossil fuels, because lower gasoline prices could, for example, slow the adoption of electric vehicles.”

🔋 Lithium batteries in electric vehicles “weigh hundreds of kilograms and contain a substantial amount of raw materials […] however, an organized recycling industry is only just now developing, and it faces significant technical hurdles before recycling becomes both widespread and economical.”

🤦 Twitter got a lot of credit for banning political ads, but the policy will let Exxon keep running ads that greenwash its business, while banning those that call out its actions that fuel the climate crisis

🇳🇴 Oslo is aiming to cut emissions at its port 85% by 2030, with the ultimate goal of reaching zero-emissions. Part of the plan includes electrifying ferries.

👩‍⚕️ “We cannot continue to accept the casual devaluation of the incalculable contribution of a large group of people in our society, underpinned as is by an indefensible and deeply patriarchal hierarchy of value. And to move in this direction, we must abandon the high-tech patriarchy which passes today for innovation policy. […] In a time of climate crisis, developing a non-extractive relationship with nature will also require developing a non-extractive relationship with each other.”

🚨 11,000 scientists declared a climate emergency that could cause “untold suffering” for people around the world. “We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

🇬🇧 U.K. Labour could ban private jets by 2025 if it wins the December 12 general election. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said, “A phase-out date for the use of fossil fuel private jets is a sensible proposal.”

🇮🇳 Air quality is so bad in Delhi that schools were canceled, construction was halted, flights were delayed, and cars were taken off the road

✊ More than 1,000 Google workers called on the company to cancel all fossil fuel contracts and commit to zero emissions by 2030. Google says it’s carbon neutral through the purchase of offsets, but that’s not good enough.

📚 Verso is releasing two new books on the Green New Deal, from the U.S. and U.K. Both are accessible and worth a read.


🎬 Martin Scorsese on how the movie business has changed and why Marvel films are not ‘cinema’: “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. […] They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit. […] If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. […] For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”

🐙 Matt Stoller has a great breakdown of Disney’s new monopolization strategy, and I agree with all of it until he gets to the capitalism/markets section. “The new Disney is more a private equity group than studio, collecting brands and using them to bargain aggressively with partners, suppliers and consumers. […] [CEO Bob] Iger’s strategy is to do what Netflix is trying to do, except with more raw power. Netflix’s strategy is to produce so much content and sell it at a loss through subscriptions, in the hopes it can drive its competitors out of business. Once it has a large base of subscribers and no competitors, it can then raise prices on its subscribers (as it is doing in the U.S.) and pay its talent less money. […] Analysts are betting Iger is setting up a new studio system. Disney will lose money in order to generate market power that the corporation can later use, often against consumers. […] The real target of Iger’s monopolization strategy is suppliers of entertainment product. Put another way, the target is labor.” Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said this week that, “Disney’s the one that we really have the most to learn from in terms of entertainment.”

🎮 “‘Death Stranding’ could be described as the best ‘video game movie’ ever made, but that doesn’t quite capture what makes it feel special. Is it a film that you play? A game that you watch? Does it invite all of the same criticisms that have been leveled at [Hideo] Kojima’s work since last century? Yes, yes, and yes. At a time when video games can finally look like movies as much as movies have started to look like video games — when people like Kojima and James Cameron are working towards similar ends with many of the same techniques — Kojima has created a bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t just blur the line between these mediums, but also illustrates the power of knotting them together.”

✌️ Leading scholars on streaming media, Amanda Lotz and Ramon Lobato, explain there isn’t exactly a “streaming war” because every service has very different goals they want to achieve with their streaming video services

🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia demanded Netflix take down an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act which criticized the country over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Netflix complied, and CEO Reed Hastings responded, “We’re not in the truth to power business, we’re in the entertainment business.”

🎮 Sony beat other companies to game streaming with its Playstation Now service, but as competitors launch their own services, Sony hasn’t been able to keep up

💷 Rockstar North, the studio behind Grand Theft Auto V, one of the most profitable entertainment products of all time, hasn’t paid U.K. corporation tax in ten years

🎦 Disney+ was promoted as being ad-free, but will now run ads for Starz in order to secure rights to some Star Wars and Marvel films that it holds the rights for. The company is essentially going all-in on Disney+, and announced many its Fox properties — including FX and Fox Searchlight — will be key to the future of Hulu.

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WeWork exposes gig economy, Airbnb scam, LAX Uber whining, NYC delivery mess, Deadspin solidarity, & more!

Issue 110

Hey urbanists,

Jet lag hit me hard these past few days, but I still have a great issue for you.

I wrote a piece for NBC News (before taking the aforementioned flight) on how the gig economy has failed workers and why they deserve more power. I think you’ll find this issue has a lot of examples of workers pushing back and fighting for their rights.

I want to highlight the pieces on how Facebook bought into right-wing bullshit, Airbnb scammers, Saadia Muzaffar’s Sidewalk Labs’ lessons, the whining over LAX Uber changes, how Amazon packages are crippling NYC, Helsinki’s new library, implicit bias in protest coverage, the courage of Deadspin workers, and Call of Duty’s propaganda.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Hit the heart below the title or at the end if you like the issue.

📉💥 By Paris: WeWork and Uber's struggles show how venture capital-backed-tech giants fail workers (NBC News THINK): “For a decade, tech founders promised they were transforming the economy, but the troubles of WeWork and Uber suggest, rather, that they were burning cash to benefit people like them while making life more difficult for a lot of urban residents.”

Tech dystopia

😈 “Facebook is a right-wing company, hostage to conservative ideas about speech and economics, its fortunes tied to its allies in Republican politics, including the president, whose campaign spends millions on Facebook ads. Offering support to some of the worst figures in American political life, Facebook is as nihilistic as an oil company and just as willing to dump its pollution on all of us. That it has come to so thoroughly dominate our public sphere is a tragic indictment of American civic life and American techno-capitalism, which has confused the pitiless surveillance of today’s internet with utopian empowerment.”

⛓ Investigation finds Facebook-owned Instagram is facilitating slave markets

✊ Hundreds of WeWork employees sent a letter to the new CEO requesting information on whether support workers will be laid off and for them to be provided with severance if they will be out of work. It’s a sign WeWorkers are organizing.

🙂 Though I frequently criticize the monopolistic behaviors of major tech companies, I don’t think all monopolies are inherently bad. Public monopolies can provide significant benefits by decommodifying key services and infrastructure.

💳 Uber, desperate to show it will turn a profit someday, is making a renewed push into financial services with new debit and credit cards. Because in a financialized economy, every firm has to become a bank.

📱⛈ 3,000+ delegates met in Egypt this week to resolve a conflict over radio frequency bands that has pitted meteorologists against telecom companies. “To keep 5G from interfering with forecasting, English and other scientists have pushed for strict limits on the noise that 5G devices are allowed to generate outside of the 24GHz channel. But the US [FCC] has proposed much less stringent limits, even though concerns over the potential threats to science and public safety have been mounting ever since the FCC decided in March to auction off that part of the radio spectrum. […] the outlook in Egypt so far is grim for those hoping for stronger protections from the potential interference 5G could pose to weather forecasting.”

🗳 Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash found some drivers and couriers to found a group opposed to AB-5; now they’re throwing $90 million at it to support a ballot initiative. The companies are offering concessions they never would have without the regulation, but that doesn’t mean AB-5 should be overturned in favor of the rules they’ll accept. Executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation said it’s a “brazen attempt by some of the richest corporations in California to avoid playing by the same rules as all other law-abiding companies in our state.” Uber is also taking Los Angeles to court over its data-reporting requirements for dockless scooters and bikes.

🧙‍♂️ “By emphasizing the technical innovations (and obsessive dedication to them) as more important than the political and economic contexts in which they were germinated, the graybeards of internet history and PR machines of the tech industry perpetuate the illusion that technology magically exists outside of politics, rather than existing in a constant dialogue with it.”

😡 Allie Conti was scammed on Airbnb. Then she tracked down other people scammed by the same person, and eventually identified who he was — but “Airbnb, which plans to go public next year, seemed to have little interest in rooting out the rot from within its own platform.” However, she ends by says she and the others would keep using Airbnb because they feel there’s no alternative, and I hear similar from people who use Uber. Why do people act as though hotels and taxis don’t exist when we got along just find without these companies a decade ago? (She later added that the FBI had contacted her, but Airbnb had not; then Airbnb issued her month-old refund.)

🛑 Excerpt from Matt Stoller’s “Goliath” (on my reading list) about the Microsoft antitrust case: “In 2000, the court ruled for the government, and put forward a plan to split up Microsoft into two companies, one that held the operating systems and the other that controlled the Microsoft software businesses that ran on top of the operating system […] Microsoft would still retain its monopolies, even if they were now in separate companies. But [Bill] Gates appealed the decision anyway, and the most conservative circuit court in America overturned the breakup order. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration essentially dropped the remainder of the case.”

💰 Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are plowing record amounts of money into lobbying as the government investigates their market power and anticompetitive practices

Instacart Shoppers will be walking off the job Sunday through Tuesday to protest the actions of CEO Apoorva Mehta; specifically how their pay has been systematically decimated. “Every year we push back as our pay spirals further down the drain, and Instacart’s valuation swells by the billions, and your net worth skyrockets. When will enough be enough? Because of your greed or inaction, or lack of concern, Shoppers now struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads.”

👩‍⚖️ New documents released from Tesla investors’ case against Elon Musk strongly suggest he misled shareholders over the viability of SolarCity to convince them to back the acquisition so his empire wouldn’t collapse

🤖📚 By Paris: Aaron Bastani’s ‘luxury communism’ is a false future (Canadian Dimension): “A true communist future requires a break with billionaire futurism, and that means not being blinded by the sleek, bankrupt visions of Silicon Valley that present technology as the solution to all our problems on vastly overoptimistic timelines.”

Critical urbanism

☠️ Dalerjon Shahobiddinov picked out his own bike for his 8th birthday. Earlier this month, he took it out for a ride and was killed by a driver in an SUV. As biking deaths in NYC are surging, his blood is on the hands of officials who’ve chosen to prioritize parking over safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

🇺🇸 Uber’s lawsuit against New York City’s ride-hail vehicle cap has been dismissed

🇪🇸 Superblocks are taking Spain, and slowly going international: “In parts of downtown Vitoria-Gasteiz, he and his team have reduced the number of cars on the road by 27%, leading to a 42% reduction in the city’s carbon dioxide emissions. A full 50% of residents walk as their primary mode of transportation, and 15% bike.”

🇨🇦 After a major report detailing Sidewalk Labs’ leaked 2016 vision for an authoritarian smart city with everyone given a social credit score reminiscent of China, Waterfront Toronto agreed to continue examining its project on Toronto’s waterfront, but confined it to the 12 acres at Quayside instead of the 190-acre Port Lands it was trying to grab and made it agree that “Waterfront Toronto, not an independent ‘civic data trust’, will lead all digital governance and privacy matters.”

💡 Saadia Muzaffar, who resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Advisory Panel, wrote about the lessons she’s learned from the past year of Sidewalk Toronto debates

🛬 Los Angeles International Airport moved Uber and Lyft pick-ups to a garage and users lost it because there were problems on day one. Josh Barro wrote about how to improve the experience, but notably didn’t suggest people take a shuttle or transit. Meanwhile, a Flyaway shuttle driver said it was the quickest she’d ever driven through the terminal, while the Rideshare Guy implied Uber users would be hostile to transit initiatives because people called them crybabies (thus proving their point).

☠️ “Pedestrians under age 18 are twice as likely to be struck and killed by a car on October 31 than on any other day of the year.” The larger trend shows “nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90% of the total increase in pedestrian deaths between 2007 and 2017.”

📦 “About 15% of New York City households receive a package every day.” With Amazon moving toward same-day delivery, cities are already struggling to cope with the increase in shipments. In Paris and Hamburg, many packages are delivered on bikes and tricycles, but that’s not the case in NYC. Some are proposing a tax on same-day deliveries because of the difficulties such short timelines cause for the city.

🇦🇺🏫 In Australia, a shocking 30% of primary and 40% of secondary school students go to private school. Those students are more likely arrive by car and “their car trips are almost twice as long as for government school students. As these trips are in peak hour, private schooling has a disproportionate impact on traffic congestion.”

🇬🇧🏠 In the United Kingdom, “around 13,000 homes were built by councils last year. Sure, it’s not the 300,000 we need, but it indicates the beginning of a slow and gentle revolution.” But councils say they need more subsidy from the national government and for an end to right to buy.

🏘 Nicole Aschoff dissects the FT’s future housing trends. “In a system where wealth and power are inextricable, and wealth for ordinary people is primarily stored in housing stock, replacing landlords with individual homeowners, public housing, and cooperatively owned co-living spaces is essential to democratizing the economy.”

🇫🇮📚 Helsinki’s new central library has a public square, café, theatre, flexible rooms, 3D printers, music rooms, sewing machines, language classes, and patrons can “borrow season tickets for … popular professional basketball games.” Oh, and 100,000 books.

🇬🇧 The first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry which killed 72 people was very critical of the London Fire Brigade and found it was fitting with flammable cladding in violation of safety regulations

✊ “Feminist City: A Field Guide” explains how cities were build by and for men — and how they can be redesigned to work for everyone else too

🇺🇸🚗 The Trump administration is trying to roll back vehicle emissions standards in California, and it has the support of GM, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, and Subaru. If you must buy a car, make sure to avoid these brands.

🇦🇺🌳 “The year was 1985, the car was king, and Melbourne was a doughnut city – dead in the centre. Melbourne City Council urban designer Rob Adams was tasked with making the city more liveable. He quietly began planting trees and widening footpaths. The idea was that if you can design a good street you can design a good city.”

📺 What would an honest car ad look like?

Climate crisis

🌇 620 cities responded to the “Cities at Risk” survey. “The top reported climate hazards were floods, heat waves and droughts. […] Despite these hazards, CDP found only 46% of cities are carrying out vulnerability assessments to see how they can adapt to climate change. Those that have done the assessments, the report says, are taking six times as many adaptation measures as those cities that haven’t.”

🇺🇸 As fires rage in California, “social media is swimming with promotions for solar power, back-up generators, and air purifiers,” including from a company which makes “the worst air purifier”

🌊 New projections of sea level rise find it could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought. “The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.”

🏙 Cities around the world are hoping that reclaiming land on their waterfronts, which they could sell for a profit, will allow them to fund defences for rising seas. But the mayor of Rotterdam isn’t so sure: “Safety and security is not a business model.”

💧 “Strawberry Creek is emblematic of the intense, complex water fights playing out around the nation between Nestlé, grassroots opposition, and government officials. At stake is control of the nation’s freshwater supply and billions in profits as Nestlé bottles America’s water then sells it back in plastic bottles.”

Media mess

🗞 Popular demonstrations are happening around the world, including Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, and Hong Kong. But an analysis of media coverage of those events supports the theory of worthy vs. unworthy victims developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky thirty years ago in “Manufacturing Consent”: reports pay disproportionate attention to Hong Kong and ignore actions of the U.S. government in Hong Kong that get emphasized when done by Venezuela in Ecuador.

💥 The interim editor-in-chief of Deadspin, Barry Petchesky, has been fired after management told journalists only to write about sports, and they rebelled by filling the home page with non-sports stories. Management also removed a blog post on the site which solicited reader feedback about autoplay video ads, which was in violation of the collective agreement. One of the posts getting the most attention is “The Adults in the Room” by former EIC Megan Greenwell, who writes, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”

✊ In the following days, every writer at Deadspin quit, showing how workers have power and are using it. “Yes, part of the mass exodus stems from unhappiness with G/O’s culture and a desire to speak out against corporate overlords. But it also reflects how powerful union organizing in digital media has created an opening for workers to rethink what they are settling for and how to take matters in their own hands.”

🎥 Matthew Ball wrote a four-part series arguing cinematic universes are the modern incarnation of epic myths of gods, heroes, and villains. They’ve emerged in this moment because of cost reductions in VFX, new markets (especially China), the internet enabling online fan communities, and corporate consolidation providing the financial capacity to commit such large sums of money. He also agrees that directors are right to be concerned about the degree to which ‘universe’ films are dominating the box office because they provide only the “illusion of change” — which I argue makes them perfect for the post-recession, neoliberal period. Ball also argues the Marvel Cinematic Universe will eventually fall to a different universe, but that assumes a highly consolidated media environment in perpetuity.

🛑 Facebook employees wrote a letter to management to oppose the decision to allow lies in political ads on the platform. They say the policy “doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”

😬 Apple TV+ launched this week, and the reviews aren’t stellar. Variety’s Daniel D’Addario writes, “None of the shows, to my eye, are truly successful because each feels in its own way curated to death, overworked with an eye on transmitting quality rather than actually allowing it to spontaneously happen.” Caroline Framke says it “doesn’t seem to have much of a brand at all, unless it’s ‘expensive’.”

🎮 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s “Highway of Death” mission casts Russians as brutal killers who murdered people trying to escape after an invasion of the fictional country of Urzikstan — but it’s eerily similar to a real-war slaughter known by the same name that was committed by Western forces in the Gulf War. A lot of media reports say that Russians are angry about the portrayal, but kudos to Polygon’s Charlie Hall for noting that Western consumers are also turned off by the blatant propaganda.

David Palumbo-Liu interviews Teen Vogue executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay about what it’s like bringing radical views to a new audience while under the umbrella of Condé Nast

🎬 Manu Saadia on Blade Runner’s impact on science fiction and the need for more utopian thinking: “Despite science fiction’s failure at imagining a future worth living for, the city remains the starting point and the contested terrain of today’s utopia.”

📰 A great spot for old Communist newspapers? The Toronto Reference Library, apparently.

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Libraries for bikes, pedestrian deaths up, Lime losing $300M, critical look at media, & more!

Issue 109

Hey urbanists,

I turned 28 yesterday! Happy birthday to me 😂🎉

This week’s issue marks the start of a new section of the newsletter. For a while, we’ve been looking broadly at tech, its impact on cities, and the climate crisis, but you may have noticed if you follow me on Twitter or read my recent piece on breaking up the media giants that I’ve been doing more research on tech’s effect on media industries, so I’m bringing that into the newsletter.

I’m still planning to start a podcast in the new year, but don’t be surprised if I rename the newsletter at the same time. Critical perspectives on urbanism will always be an integral part of the newsletter and podcast, but I want to keep digging into more ways tech is impacting society. I haven’t decided what to call it yet though… 🤔

This week I’m highlighting Asher’s great piece on bike lending libraries. I also recommend the pieces on the Soviet internet, Brian Merchant’s critical future fiction in NYT, the terrible news on increased pedestrian deaths (thanks SUVs), how the Dutch are growing a ton of food, why libraries hate Amazon, and why there needs to be antitrust action against Disney.

I’m in Honolulu and I fly to Montreal in a few days.

Have a great week!


🚲 @AsherDeMontreal demonstrates how dockless scooter and e-bike services aren’t working, there isn’t much demand for more docked bike services, and instead argues in favor of a public bike lending library that has a low subscription cost, multiple kinds of bikes, and works with local bike shops. I love it!

Where bikeshare costs $100–200 USD for an unlimited annual subscription, scooters are $3–4+ for a mile ride, more than a cab or a first class plane ticket on a per mile basis. Average rides per user was reported at under 2 per month in various cities — before prices were hiked; Lime had reported 3.4 rides per lifetime user, in February 2019 (it has since stopped reporting user counts).

Tech dystopia

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Mark Zuckerberg at the October 19 “Bernie’s Back” rally in Brooklyn where she endorsed Bernie Sanders. “The future, and our future, is in public systems, and it's in publicly owned systems, because we need to take power over our lives again. I don't know about you, but I don't want Mark Zuckerberg making decisions over my life.” Meanwhile, attorneys general from 46 U.S. states and territories have joined New York’s antitrust probe of Facebook.

🇯🇵 Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki slashed more than half of its 243-robot workforce to bring back human workers after a series of complaints

🇨🇭 Dozens of Google workers in Switzerland held a meeting about unionizing — but not before the company tried to have it canceled. Google is also accused of developing a tool to spy on workers to see if they were holding union organizing meetings.

🇬🇧 Uber is facing three big problems in London: a mere two-month extension to its operating license, an unresolved employment status for drivers, and a massive tax bill

😡 New update to the Lyft app for drivers hides how much the rider paid, so drivers can no longer see how much of the fare was taken by the company

☭ “The Soviet Union was unable to build its own internet—not because it lacked technologies or the institution of private property, but because it was impossible to get a project of this scale approved by all of the necessary agencies, whose interests it sometimes contradicted. “

👏 Brian Merchant wrote an ‘op-ed from the future’ (see: fiction) for NYTimes about Amazon’s first fully automated factory — and the contract workers keeping it running

Critical urbanism

🇺🇸☠️ Uber and Lyft promised they’d end car ownership. Instead, it’s increased in the United States as the companies contributed to worse congestion and delayed transit, pushing some people to buy cars as gas prices fell. New research finds Uber and Lyft increased U.S. traffic deaths by 2-3% since 2011, and air quality has started getting worse again — it may have killed an additional 10,000 people over two years.

☠️ Total U.S. traffic deaths were down 2.4% in 2017, but deaths of pedestrians increased by 3.4% to 6,238 people — the highest number since 1990. Cyclist deaths were also up 6.3% to 857, but women were most at risk with a jump of 29.2%. There’s a strong connection between increase SUV sales and more pedestrian deaths, leading some countries to consider banning them.

🚊 David Levinson argues ‘trackless trams’ are “vaporware” that’s no better than regular buses and discussions around them have a strong anti-labor bias

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Glasgow and Edinburgh could soon put a price on workplace parking spaces, following a similar scheme in Nottingham which improved air quality, reduced car use, and provided more money to invest in transit

🇨🇱 Transit fare hikes kicked off a series of demonstrations across Santiago. It escalated into a general strike against austerity throughout Chile with the army deployed to end the disruption, but on Saturday the state of emergency was lifted and President Sebastian Piñera dissolved his cabinet.

😓 Decimating transit was key to the success of Uber and Lyft, but now “as the costs of rideshare rides are about to increase — and fewer people are taking public transportation, thus impacting funding — people in densely populated cities without cars might find themselves with limited options, hit with higher rideshare costs at the same time public transit options are declining.”

🛴 Lime is on track to lose $300 million on $420 million in revenue in 2019. “Some investors have concluded the company loses virtually every penny it puts into scooter purchasing to scooter losses, repair, and charging.”

🇨🇦 80% of Vancouver’s buses are running slower than five years ago because they lack priority on streets and are stuck in traffic

🙄 Now that we agree autonomous vehicles are several decades away, more people are starting to talk about autonomous scooters — and I’m already so annoyed. Have people learned nothing? Those pushing the idea are underestimating the technical requirements once again, and completely ignoring the human factors, particularly how other road users will react to scooters without riders.

🇺🇸 Data for Progress polled a “Green Homes Guarantee” and found a majority of Americans support a national tenant’s bill of rights, $50 billion annually to retrofit public housing, $100 billion per year for new public housing, and a housing guarantee

😡 U.S. HUD wants to make it easier for businesses using automated tools to discriminate against tenants. Landlords and lenders are thrilled.

🇫🇷 Using Google Street View to show how Paris gentrified [FR; Google Translate]

🚶‍♀️ New research finds walkable neighborhoods promote social mobility

🛬 Flygskam is catching on: domestic air traffic has fallen by 8% and 7% in Sweden and Denmark since last year

🇿🇦 When apartheid ended in 1994, the government promised spatial apartheid would also end with a new approach to urban planning. That hasn’t quite happened.

Climate crisis

👩‍⚖️ New York’s case against Exxon went to trial this week. The state is arguing Exxon misled its shareholders and the public over the risks climate change posed to its fossil fuel assets — the best argument it could make under the existing legal framework.

🐟 Fossil evidence shows ocean acidification can cause a mass extinction of marine life. What we’re doing is worse than the effect that caused the die off they studied.

🚫 The Engineers Declare movement in Australia, made up of about 1,000 engineers and 90 organizations, says they will judge any project on its climate impact. That could mean trouble for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

🔥 California could face more power outages as PG&E’s dated infrastructure risks starting fires. Instead of doing something productive, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’d like billionaire Warren Buffet to buy the utility when even Teen Vogue knows he should nationalize it.

❄️ Melting permafrost is our latest climate problem: “Arctic soil has warmed to the point where it releases more carbon in winter than northern plants can absorb during the summer.”

🇦🇺 Australia’s top research body and energy market operator released a new study showing solar and wind, even with storage, is cheaper than new coal projects

🇳🇱 The Netherlands is “the globe’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass.” Its use of sustainable greenhouses and great soil allows it to use much less water and few pesticides while having greater yields than an average farm.

Media monopolization

📚 The American Library Association’s submission to the U.S. House antitrust committee explains how “unfair behavior by digital market actors” is “doing concrete harm to libraries.” It calls out Macmillan’s recent policy change on ebook licensing, but also how Amazon Publishing, the fifth largest ebook publisher by dollar sales, refuses to license ebooks to libraries.

The worst obstacle for libraries are marketplace bans: refusal to sell services at any price. […] The e-book titles from Amazon Publishing are not available to libraries for lending at any price or any terms. By contrast, consumers may purchase all of these titles directly from Amazon. This is a particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide; Amazon Publishing books are available only to people who can afford to buy them, without the library alternative previously available to generations of Americans.

🤝 Sony is one of the few media giants not trying to create its own streaming service — it’s even trying to sell Playstation Vue, its over-the-top cable-replacement service — but its “One Sony” strategy of having its film, TV, music, and video game divisions work together in a complementary way may finally be coming to fruition

📰 After getting grilled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for having a white nationalist website as a fact checker, Mark Zuckerberg is struggling to explain why alt-right news site Breitbart is included as a “high quality” publication on Facebook News

📽 This report screams for antitrust action: imperial Disney, quasi-block booking, refusing to show old titles, and discriminating against independent cinemas. “Fox classics are going into the vault as well, for reasons the company won’t publicly explain or justify. […] The decision to broaden Disney’s artificial scarcity tactic to include thousands of movies released by a onetime rival is a wounding blow to a swath of theatrical venues that used to be able to show them, and where film buffs were able to see them with an audience.”

🎬 On the discussion over Marvel movies: “Comic books and cartoons provide children with simple tales to help them make sense of what looks to them like a complicated world. And as our world has become increasingly more complicated and unsettling — or, perhaps more accurately, as we’ve become increasingly aware of how complicated and unsettling our world has always been — the films we consume have become ever more infantilizing. […] [T]he last 15 or so years have seen rapid monopolization across many industries, and these types of releases have become dominant in what is increasingly looking like a zero-sum game. While lots of other films get made — more, in fact, than have ever been produced before — all the oxygen in the room gets sucked out by the big ones, leaving the smaller ones to choke.”

🦸‍♂️ “The superhero regime has wasted far too much talent on stories that are fundamentally unworthy of the actors and directors making them. It has empowered and interacted with corporate consolidation, including the devouring power of a Disney empire that is now literally disappearing classic movies from the theater circuit into its corporate vault. And it has habituated adult audiences to stories that belong — with, yes, exceptions — to the state of arrested development in which far more of Western culture than just Hollywood is trapped.”

📺 Apple TV+ launches on November 1. Lucas Shaw and Mark Gurman describe how it came to be, but this is the key sentence: “[Tim] Cook’s goal is to strengthen customers’ loyalty to the company’s hardware while generating additional revenue through a monthly subscription.” It’s another perk to being in the Apple ecosystem.

FairTube is trying to unionize YouTube creators, and even though Wired calls their demands “sweeping,” they’re actually pretty basic: they want to know the rules. “Creators want greater transparency, a more stable and equitable approach to monetization, and a seat at the table when the platform makes decisions that impact their livelihoods.” The German government is on their side.

🎮🇫🇷 Workers at Ankama Games voted to be represented by French game union STJV

🖋 Hollywood writers’ assistants and script coordinators unionized with Local 871, and got higher pay and much better health insurance as a result. However, studios such as Disney and Sony retaliated by reducing working hours.

By Paris:Want lower cell phone bills? Make wireless networks a public utility” (Ricochet): my criticism of the telecom policies of Canadian political parties.

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Silicon Valley is no ‘free market‘, take control of the future, SUVs increasing emissions, automating poverty, & more!

Issue 108

Hey urbanists,

How should we imagine the future? I highlighted a speech by Murray Bookchin where he emphasized the need to change the present to change the future, instead of simply projecting the present a hundred years down the line as is common.

Plus, how Silicon Valley is a state project, tech is being used to automate poverty, Star Wars’ white male future, SUVs are causing a huge increase in emissions, flying cars are bullshit, and my argument to break up the media giants.

I’m in Sydney for another few days, then I fly to Honolulu en route to Canada.

Have a great week!


P.S.— Hit the heart button below the title of the newsletter or at the very end of it if you liked the issue. Thanks!

🔮 In 1978, Murray Bookchin spoke on the need to embrace utopianism instead of futurism, and it still feels relevant with techno-optimism and rising ecofascism.

Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. […] The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. […] Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ That is the real question that has to be asked. […]

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create.

Tech dystopia

🤖 Tech companies “say they have our best interests in mind. We can’t go back, they say. We can’t stop the ‘natural evolution of technology’. But the ‘natural evolution of technology’ was never a thing to begin with, and it’s time to question what ‘progress’ actually means.”

📉 Neil Irwin writes that it’s increasingly clear the gig economy will not be the future of work, but Joshua Clover argues it’s not for the reasons Irwin thinks. The failure of the gig economy demonstrates it was not a break from capitalism, but the companies were simply too focused on increasing relative surplus value through cutting costs, increasing productivity, etc. without first having absolute surplus value from which they could take a greater share.

📚 “The growing concern about the role that technology plays in our lives and society is fueled in no small part by a growing realization that we have been duped.” In Margaret O’Mara’s “The Code,” she demonstrates that “American leaders deliberately pushed public funds to private industry rather than government programs because they thought the market was the best way to spur technological progress while avoiding the specter of centralized planning.” In the 1980s, “Silicon Valley was championed by the rising stars of supply-side economics, who hitched their drive for tax cuts and deregulation to tech’s venture-capital-fueled rocket ship,” and that relationship “helped ensure that the market would guide the Internet’s development in the 1990s.” In short, Silicon Valley is very much a creation of the state and its early ties to neoliberalism are essential to understanding how its developed over time.

😔 “Vast sums are being spent by governments across the industrialized and developing worlds on automating poverty and in the process, turning the needs of vulnerable citizens into numbers, replacing the judgment of human caseworkers with the cold, bloodless decision-making of machines.”

🍅 Uber is planning to get into grocery delivery after buying Chile’s online grocery provider Cornershop. Meanwhile, the company fired another 350 workers across its Eats and self-driving teams.

☠️ The recent death of a worker at an Amazon warehouse has drawn further attention to the company’s terrible working conditions. The man laid on the floor for twenty minutes before anyone found him. Amazon is on the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety’s Dirty Dozen list of most dangerous employers in the United States. Six workers died from November 2018 to April 2019.

💰 Derek Thompson argues the millennial lifestyle is about to get more expensive because companies like WeWork and Uber are finally being expected to show profits or go bust. But his piece acts as though the losses of VC-backed “tech” companies were some egalitarian transfer from capital to labor, when in fact they primarily benefited knowledge workers in the upper-middle class and above, while creating externalities that made life worse for the working class.

☠️ With companies like Uber and Juul, Silicon Valley “has subtly rewritten our conception of the public. The industry has undoubtedly improved people’s individual, private lives—that’s the business model. But it has not necessarily benefited their communal ones. […] Solving one’s own problems can de-escalate interest in solving communal ones. This libertarian individualism also grips the big-tech companies themselves, which pursue their private aspirations no matter the public cost.”

✊ Denying drivers their rights as workers is key to Uber’s future. Greg Bensinger explains how Uber tries to maintain the fiction that drivers are not key to its business, and that it’s a tech company, not a transportation provider. Meanwhile, workers at Foodora in Norway and Uber Eats in Japan have become the first unionized delivery app workers. Foodora workers in Canada could be next.

🇨🇦 “Sidewalk Labs proposes multiple rules for itself as public planner, real-estate developer, builder and manager of critical physical and digital infrastructure and a creator of the rules and standards that will affect all businesses and residents within the smart city.”

🚀 In a 1977 review, science fiction author Samuel Delaney criticized Star Wars’ white male future: “In Lucas’s future, the black race and yellow race have apparently died out and a sort of mid-Western American (with a few South Westerners who seem to specialize in being war ship pilots) has taken over the universe. By and large, women have also been bred out of the human race, and, save for the odd gutsy princess or the isolated and cowed aunt, humanity seems to be breeding quite nicely without them.”

💸 WeWork could be out of cash by next month, and its financing options aren’t great. Airbnb first-quarter loss more than doubled to $306 million.

🖋 Highly recommend Kyle Minor’s essay “The Uber Diaries” in the New Ohio Review

🍿 By Paris: Break Up the Media Giants (OneZero): “Deregulation should serve as a warning for streaming’s effect on the media industry: It’s not ushering in a new era of competition, but swapping one oligopoly for another as consolidation and higher production costs further raise the barrier to entry and increase the market power of dominant players.”

Climate crisis

🌇 Designers will need to rethink their processes and their professions in order to respond to the challenge presented by climate change and to contribute to a Green New Deal. “[T]hey will need to think through what it means to design for the public—to think more purposefully about who is centered in the process, how people will experience the major transitions a program like the Green New Deal would entail, and how the design professions themselves need to change to meet this moment.”

🇬🇷 Greece is planning to open up oil exploration as it phases out lignite coal to reduce its imports and generate resource revenue. But there are major environmental concerns with the project, particularly vulnerable marine ecosystems.

🇪🇹 Ethiopia’s massive dam on the Omo River could become one of the world’s worst environmental disasters on the scale of the Aral Sea as it radically reduces the flow into Lake Turkana, diverting the flow for commercial projects.

🇦🇺 With 97.2% of New South Wales in drought, towns around the state are struggling to maintain a reliable water supply

🇬🇧 Extinction Rebellion targeted the Tube in London. It’s become a PR disaster.

📦 Amazon’s push for one-day shipping is bad for the environment. When does convenience go too far?

Critical mobility

🚙 “SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation. […] If consumers’ appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs would add nearly 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.”

🚫🚗 It’s official: San Francisco’s Market Street will be car-free in January 2020, with priority for buses, bikes, and pedestrians. Jump, Spin, and Lime also now have permission to operate scooters in the city.

🇺🇸 Scooter ridership in San Diego has declined from 33,000 average daily trips in July to 17,000 in the first half of September

🚁 Jarrett Walker on ‘flying cars’: “by allowing elites to opt out of the transportation problems that everybody else in the city is having, they will encourage elite disinterest in solving those problems.”

🛴 Scooter companies are hiking their prices, making it harder for some people to continue justifying the expense. “The new prices can be comparable to taking Uber Pool and much higher than taking the bus, which costs $2. A 20-minute ride on Bird runs nearly $8.80, plus tax; the same ride is $5, plus tax, on a Jump scooter, the cheapest option.”

🇨🇦 Canadians go to the polls on Monday, but James Wilt argues none of the parties’ transit plans are good enough: “Across the board, every major party has failed to propose any real alternative to the crises of austerity, privatization, and inefficiency facing transit agencies in almost every city and region.”

🇨🇱 Mass student-led protests erupted in Santiago, Chile over hikes to transit fares, including jumping fare gates and damaging equipment. The government declared a state of emergency and sent in the army.

💰 “The truth is that there is no inherent difference in efficiency between public and private sector organisations. But privatisation wastes £250 million [$318 million] a week on shareholder dividends and cost of borrowing.”

🇫🇷 Uber is adding Cityscoot’s electric mopeds to its app in Paris

🚲 Europe’s e-bike market is expected to triple within five years

Housing crisis

🇺🇸 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ new housing bill would effectively force local governments to repeal parking minimums by withholding federal transportation funding from jurisdictions requiring on-site parking

🚗 With affordable housing becoming harder to find, some cities are designating safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles

🇬🇧 Over the past several decades, the U.K. government has overseen a massive program of land privatization, but people are pushing back against an agenda that primarily benefits landlords and developers at the expense of local communities

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Glasgow is coming to terms with a series of bad planning decisions and trying to address them to improve the health of its residents

If you want to share Radical Urbanist with a friend, you can forward this issue or send them here to sign up. Send comments to @parismarx or

Amazon sponsors oil event, SUVs are not safer, AOC at C40 forum, #DeleteUber for good, & more!

Issue 107

Hey urbanists,

This week brought more evidence that leaving climate change to ‘the market’ will never work. Amazon sponsored an oil event, Google donates to climate deniers, and corporate interests have fought for decades to halt action around the world.

Plus, SoftBank isn’t doing so great, automation is more complicated than we’ve been led to believe, consumerism makes us feel that climate action is individual, two million Californians had rolling blackouts, the U.S. had anti-car protests before the Netherlands, urban helicopters failed once before, and a council housing project won a major architectural award. Oh, and check out my most recent piece about Uber!

I’m at PAX Australia this weekend, then I’m off to Sydney in a few days. I talked to some of the people working to unionize the Australian games industry and met some of the people behind one of my favorite mobile game: Mini Metro! I also read three books: Keith Spencer’s “A People’s History of Silicon Valley,” Annalee Newitz’ “The Future of Another Timeline,” and Nathalie Olah’s “Steal as Much as You Can.”

If you’d like to attend a meetup but didn’t fill out the one-minute survey last week, you can still find it here.

Have a great week!


🚫📱 By Paris: “It’s time to bring back the #DeleteUber campaign for good this time — and expand it to Lyft, DoorDash, and all the rest.” Uber has had two years to change its ways, but its response to AB-5 proves it hasn’t. Instead of reforming it or turning it into a cooperative, it must be abolished — and a democratically controlled alternative developed to replace it.

Tech dystopia

🛢 Two weeks ago, Jeff Bezos pledged to significantly reduce Amazon’s emissions after demands from workers, but refused to cancel contracts with oil companies. This week, Amazon sponsored the oil industry’s “Accelerate Production 4.0” forum. In short, Bezos still plans to assist in burning the planet for profit. Meanwhile, another report reveals that Google has made large contributions to a bunch of climate deniers.

☠️ “The dystopia that is Silicon Valley, as it annexes more and more of the Bay Area, shows that the tech overlords have little interest in a better world, as opposed to a more profitable one for themselves.” Take Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as an example: his rise was aided by YouTube’s radicalization algorithms; now he’s burning the Amazon.

🔮 When thinking about the future, we often overstate the impact of recent ‘innovations’, downplay the importance of things that have become standard, fail to account for social and behavioral change, and tend to imagine that new inventions are going to change much more about how we live than they actually will. This is definitely the case with self-driving cars, but the article also notes how in the 1960s people predicted fax machines, but not women in workplaces. (I often use a similar example of the Jetsons: flying cars, but the wife still doesn’t work.)

🇨🇳 Companies are getting in hot water for bowing down to China. ESPN published a map of China that included Taiwan, the nine-dash line covering the South China Sea, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apple removed an app that let Hong Kong citizens track the police, hid the emoji of Taiwan’s flag from keyboards in Hong Kong and Macau, removed the QZ app from the Chinese app store over its coverage of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, and told Apple TV+ creators not to portray China in a negative light in their shows. Game developer Blizzard banned a professional gamer for voicing support for Hong Kong and took away his prize money, then said they would restore the money and reduce the suspension to six months, but the link to that second statement now leads to a 404 error page on their website.

📉 SoftBank’s Vision Fund is the thread connecting underperforming tech companies. The Fund’s strategy is based on getting companies to IPO, but now it’s $600 million underwater on Uber and will likely lose a ton on WeWork. “At the height of the first tech bubble, [CEO Masayoshi Son] was the richest man in the world. He plowed money into risky investments, often coming on board late with gargantuan sums of money. When that bubble burst, Son was hit hard. He’s rumored to have lost some $70 billion, the most ever lost by an individual in human history.” Is he about to lose again?

💰 The average U.S. full-time salaried worker made $46,800 in 2018. It would take them 21,000 years to earn $1 billion, or the amount of time it’s taken humanity to go from living in caves to today. But to earn as much as Jeff Bezos, it would take 2.8 million years. That shouldn’t be possible in a fair and democratic society — and it’s why billionaires need to be taxed so that they can’t accumulate that much wealth.

🤖 Automation isn’t going to cause mass unemployment as tech determinists and basic income advocates have tried to convince us. “Instead, automation increases the likelihood that workers will be driven away from their previous jobs at the companies—whether they’re fired, or moved to less rewarding tasks, or quit—and causes … ‘a 5-year cumulative wage income loss of 11 percent of one year’s earnings’.”

🇺🇸🇬🇧 Uber is launching a new Uber Works app to connect workers with temp agencies, could face a $30 per hour minimum wage for drivers in Los Angeles, and a £1 billion ($1.2 billion) VAT bill in the United Kingdom. The San Francisco Chronicle profiled an Uber driver who works 60 hours per week in San Francisco and still can’t afford a place to live.

Climate crisis

Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn vowed to crack down on fossil fuel companies after a Guardian report on the twenty companies responsible for a third of global emissions. My problem with that kind of report is it suggests if we just take on those twenty companies, things are solved — but that misses how they’re nearly all oil companies, and we’ve built a society that depends on their product. We can’t just reduce supply; we also need to take radical measures to reorient societies away from oil dependence (which Sanders and Corbyn are proposing to do).

🛍 “The power of consumerism is that it renders us powerless. It traps us within a narrow circle of decision-making, in which we mistake insignificant choices between different varieties of destruction for effective change. It is, we must admit, a brilliant con.” George Monbiot writes that choices won’t fix the climate; that will require retiring fossil fuel infrastructure. But “the industry intends to accelerate production, spending nearly $5tn in the next 10 years on developing new reserves.”

🌇 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the C40 World Mayors summit in Copenhagen that it’s “unsustainable to continue to believe [in] our system of runaway, unaccountable, lawbreaking pursuit of profit” and got a bigger standing ovation than Al Gore and U.N. secretary general António Guterres

🇬🇧 The Institute of Economic Affairs is a very influential right-wing think tank in the United Kingdom with ties to 14 members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet. It’s also spent decades trying to undermine climate science.

🇨🇦 “The corporate agenda is not working. It’s not working for Indigenous nations and communities, it’s not going to deliver a just transition for fossil fuel workers, and it’s imperiling the very future of humanity and our planet. Leaving decarbonization to the free market and individual consumers is no longer an option.”

🇦🇺 Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says Australia’s large mining companies have used a massive lobbying operation and close ties to Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire to halt, and even reverse, climate action

🇺🇸 How will the climate crisis affect St. Louis, Houston, and San Francisco by 2100? Teen Vogue breaks down the changes every decade between now and then.

⚡️ Two million people in California were subject to rolling blackouts because high winds could have broken the private utility’s aging power lines and caused a major fire. Ahead of the shutdown, executives wined and dined on the company dime. San Francisco offered to buy the lines around the city for $2.5 billion, but the company rejected the offer. Maybe the city should simply take it over.

🇺🇸 California’s progress in reducing emissions has slowed significantly because it’s failed to addressed its largest source of emissions: driving

🚗 The New York Times published a detailed map and series of graphs of the transport emissions of every major U.S. metro area. There was a significant uptick in recent years.

Critical mobility

☠️ “SUVs are a paradox: while many people buy them to feel safer, they are statistically less safe than regular cars, both for those inside and those outside the vehicle. A person is 11% more likely to die in a crash inside an SUV than a regular [car]. Studies show they lull drivers into a false sense of security, encouraging them to take greater risks. Their height makes them twice as likely to roll in crashes and twice as likely to kill pedestrians by inflicting greater upper body and head injuries, as opposed to lower limb injuries people have a greater chance of surviving.”

🚌 “Big cities are suffering from a mobility crisis. The delusion that the wealthiest American urbanites can buy their way past that crisis helps explain why it isn’t being fixed.” Giving priority to buses and streetcars is “the exact inverse of a high-flying airport service: an affordable solution with cascading public benefits—starting with reductions in noise and pollution. It promises to make no small group rich, but confers small benefits widely.”

🇳🇱🇺🇸 The Stop de kindermoord (Stop the child killing) anti-car protests of the 1970s in the Netherlands are held out as unique, and not something that could happen in the United States. But U.S. women and minorities were protesting cars and their deadly collisions with children long before the Dutch.

But all over America in the 1950s and 1960s, residents, particularly women, organized demonstrations against car traffic—and their street protests often closely resembled the Dutch Stop de kindermoord protests that would come in the 1970s. They demanded slower driving, usually seeking stop signs, streetlights, or crossing guards. Some demanded pedestrian over- or underpasses. Most such demonstrations were in dense residential districts of large cities, but many occurred in small cities, suburbs, and towns. Though white women predominated in many or most such demonstrations, black and Hispanic people organized some and participated in many.

🇺🇸 The Crenshaw Line in Los Angeles is due to be completed in mid-2020, but councillor Herb Wesson argues it doesn’t do enough to connect low-income neighborhoods with the rest of the city. He wants the Northern Extension of the line — currently not planned to start construction until 2041 — to be moved forward.

🇬🇧 Crossrail workers have put down their tools after five workers died in their sleep. They say their employer isn’t doing enough to address air quality issues.

🇨🇦 Ontario premier Doug Ford came to power promising to take control of Toronto’s municipal transport agency against council’s wishes, but he may now be ready to abandon that plan in exchange for the city’s support for his proposed Ontario Line subway extension

🚺 L.A. Metro report finds that women are more likely to use transit than men, but they’re concerned about safety and reliability of transit services. Women’s safety on transit is a concern in many cities around the world, with reports of sexual harassment on the London Underground jumping 42% in four years.

🚁 Laura Bliss explains the latest crop of urban helicopter services aren’t unique. Similar services existing in the 1970s, but most “were out of business by the 1980s, for the reasons you might expect: Helicopters are noisy, dangerous, and inefficient; after government subsidies ran out, they became prohibitively costly to operate. And finding adequate landing space in growing cities was a constant battle.” When Uber Copter and transit were put head-to-head in a race to JFK airport, transit won.

🇳🇱 One of Amsterdam’s primary tools to reduce car traffic is called a knip, or “cut,” which is where they place barriers on a small section of a long road so it can still be used for deliveries and local traffic, but is no longer a good route across town

🇩🇪 Hundreds of people in Munich for Oktoberfest lost their driver’s licenses for driving drunk on an e-scooter

🚲 The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins wrote a guide on buying an e-bike. It contains some factors to consider, but he ultimately recommends going to your local bike shop — they’ll know best.

✊ A nationalized General Motors could be democratized, its workers given a 32-hour workweek, and its manufacturing capabilities redirected to building electric buses and trains in line with the Green New Deal

Housing crisis

🇬🇧 Council homes in Norwich won the RIBA Stirling architectural prize for the first time in its 23-year history. It “sends a clear message that, despite government cuts, it is eminently possible for brave councils to take the initiative and build proper social housing.”

The 105 creamy-brick homes are designed to stringent Passivhaus environmental standards, meaning energy costs are around 70% cheaper than average. The walls are highly insulated and the roofs are cleverly angled at 15 degrees, to ensure each terrace doesn’t block sunlight from the homes behind, while letterboxes are built into external porches, rather than the front doors, to reduce any possibility of draughts.

🇺🇸 Much of the writing and thinking about a Green New Deal has focused on cities, but it must also consider the future of rural areas. The original New Deal provides a path toward a renewed land reform movement “oriented toward environmental justice could provide the foundation for left populism in the era of climate change.”

🇫🇷 “Paris now has over a dozen former squats which have been turned into legal cultural centres, with the city capitalising on their cultural capital and accelerating gentrification.” Art squats were responsible with radical music, art, and fashion, but now many of those artists are being forced out.

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