This is what a car ad should look like

Issue 144

Paris Marx

This past week, e-bike maker VanMoof got the best gift it could possibly get. Its new ad was banned from French television for discrediting the auto industry and linking cars to climate change — I’m not seeing anything wrong with that! — and naturally that attracted a ton of media attention and viewers.

The ad itself is really nice, showing reflections of smokestacks, traffic congestion, emergency vehicles, and more on the body of the vehicle before it melts and the camera shifts to a backlit e-bike.

It seems particularly ironic that the ad was banned for reflecting the reality of automobility when so much car advertising is premised on presenting vehicles in conditions most drivers will never experience them in, emphasizing speed, empty urban streets, and more.

Last year, Angie Schmitt wrote an article in which she outlined how cars ads often display dangerous driving behaviors and how those kinds of ads should be banned. It should come as no surprise that we’re so wedded to driving and replacing it is so hard when Schmitt notes the auto industry was the largest advertiser in 2018, which also presents serious questions about editorial independence because of how dependent so many news outlets are on auto ad dollars. Did you think the Auto and Drive sections were just a coincidence? (It’s the same with the real estate sections.)

The VanMoof ad actually displays cars in the way they should be shown to people, illustrating all the problems that arise from a transport system so dependent on vehicles that fuel climate change and kill over a million people around the world every year. Car makers shouldn’t be able to hide all those issues with ads that are misleading and promote dangerous driving. There’s been talk of following the lead of tobacco regulations and putting warning labels on gas pumps, but things clearly need to go much further than that.

Hopefully the rise of the e-bike will bring more ads that are critical of automobiles and show them for what they really are. But one piece of ending the reign of the automobile will be reining in its advertising power, and thus providing better sources of revenue for media so journalists can be more critical of cars in the first place.

Critical urbanism

For Jacobin, I reviewed James Wilt’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?” and echoed his call for better transit. Lauren Kirchner has a great report on the importance of libraries during the pandemic. Alon Levy did a deep dive on French rapid transit. Los Angelesfreeway system is “one of the most noxious monuments to racism and segregation in the country.” Addressing those inequities requires reinvesting in transit, which a new federal bill is trying to push forward. In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo was reelected as part of a green wave. Germany will be connecting some major cities with trains every 30 minutes. Tenants on a rent strike in the Bronx explain what their lives are like during the pandemic. 540,000 bikes have been sold in Italy since early May. Canada needs a public housing revolution, not a basic income. US could be on the verge of an unprecedented eviction crisis. Shared streets also present questions about rights to public space. Intercity bus companies are struggling after COVID-19 and haven’t received US federal aid like airlines and transit. If Uber buys Postmates, restaurants will feel the pinch with even higher fees. UK considering post-pandemic future of public transport. New Zealand’s trains are idle as the government pours millions into Air New Zealand.

Tech dystopia

On April 10, Google and Apple imposed a global health policy decision that presents serious questions about the unaccountable power of Silicon Valley firms. Shirin Ghaffary and Jason Del Rey did a deep dive on Amazon’s inadequate response to the pandemic and how it’s cracked down on dissenting workers. Silicon Valley elite think journalists have too much power. New Zealand rejected Palantir’s COVID-19 tracking system. BMW is adding microtransactions to its new vehicles. Whatsapp is a hotbed of conspiracy theories. Canada’s privacy commissioner investigating the mobile ordering app for Tim Horton’s coffee chain.

On this week’s Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Motherboard senior staff writer Aaron W. Gordon about how VC-backed tech companies upended the bike-share industry and why the dockless bike and scooter model is failing. In Horizons, I wrote about the need for a public alternative to the tech industry.

Climate crisis

The far-right in Germany is invading green groups to spread ecofascism. Inquiry finds koalas could be extinct by 2050 without action by governments in Australia. Hundreds of elephants mysteriously died in northern Botswana. New report says coal is no longer competitive in many countries. Shell wrote down $22 billion in assets. The pandemic is generating a ton of plastic waste. Salt marshes could help with sea level rise in British Columbia. US CARES Act subsidizing fossil fuel companies.

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Time for Uber drivers to be employees?

Issue 143

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope all is well! I’m so excited watching the developments with employment status for gig workers, and it seems like workers may be on the cusp of finally winning in California, so I wrote a bit about it today.

In the links this week, I’m loving the Red Vienna piece, but worried about the restaurant spending piece. Aaron Gordon’s piece on Uber and Jump is great, but I’m not happy Facebook won’t fact-check climate denial. And have you been paying attention to what’s going on in Siberia? Yikes!

If you like this issue of the newsletter, or have liked a few, feel free to buy me a coffee.

Have a great week!

Paris Marx

Follow Paris and Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

It feels like the developments on whether Uber drivers and gig workers more generally in North America will finally be treated as employees are coming hard and fast these days.

The big focus is on California, where Assembly Bill 5 took effect on January 1, 2020 and was supposed to reclassify gig workers as employees, but the gig companies simply didn’t observe it and have kept arguing that drivers, delivery workers, and others are still independent contractors. That’s been particularly harmful during the pandemic, as it’s made it much more difficult for drivers to get unemployment and other benefits to stay afloat.

In response, the California Attorney General and attorneys for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego sued Uber and Lyft last month for misclassifying workers. But since that might take some time to work out in the courts, the Attorney General is now filing “a preliminary injunction that would compel the ride-hailing companies to reclassify drivers as employees within weeks.” It will be exciting to see what comes of it.

Meanwhile, up north in Canada, things also seem to be progressing. In February, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that Foodora delivery couriers were dependent contractors and could form a union, but then the company left Canada on May 11. When their ballots were counted, the Board found 88% of couriers voted in favor of unionization.

But it’s not over yet. Canadian Uber drivers were also trying to sue over employment status, but ran into a clause in their employment contract that forced them to “arbitrate workplace complaints in the Netherlands.” However, this week the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the clause invalid, paving the way for a C$400-million class-action lawsuit by drivers. Amazon Canada is also facing a C$200 million class-action lawsuit from subcontracted delivery drivers who failed to “receive adequate compensation and job protections.” They argue that “despite the use of intermediaries, Amazon retains ‘effective control’ over those drivers and is their true employer.”

Ride-hailing and other gig services have had a huge impact on cities and workers over the past decade. They thrived by evading laws and regulations that applied to traditional companies in their sectors by claiming they were “tech” companies despite providing the same kind of services. Some governments and regulators are finally seeing the flaws in letting them get away with it. This is only the beginning.

Critical urbanism

Right-wing extremists, including a KKK leader, are using vehicles as weapons against Black Lives Matter protesters. 1.3 million people in the UK bought bikes during the lockdown, while US sales of bikes and accessories were up 75% in April to $1 billion. The pandemic did damage to Spanish municipalism, while reinforcing its central tenet of togetherness. Red Vienna put children at the center of its welfare state. US renters facing an “avalanche” of evictions. Light rail might be dead in Auckland, unless the upcoming election delivers a favorable government. Melbourne is putting speculators before the public interest with a new development. Venice wants to use the pandemic to rethink mass tourism. A JPMorgan study linked higher spending at restaurants to a faster spread of COVID-19. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness, but the erosion of welfare-state support programs is producing more of the latter.

Tech dystopia

Aaron Gordon explains how Uber destroyed JUMP Bikes. Edward Ongweso Jr. argues abolishing the police also means abolishing Big Tech. Kevin Rogan critiques digital contact tracing. Julia Carrie Wong found Facebook didn’t just fail to contain QAnon; its algorithms actively spread it. New study finds ride-hailing services charge more for trips to poor and non-white neighborhoods. 90% of US gig drivers reported a decrease in income and less than half got support through the CARES Act, in large part because the companies classify them as contractors. Facebook is exempting climate denial from fact-checking. Apple is putting new privacy features in iOS and macOS. A tech company tracked the phones of US Black Lives Matter protesters. Microsoft is closing all retail stores. Google employees are demanding it stop selling software to police.

On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to academics Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya about how India’s government is implementing a technofascist agenda and using COVID-19 to surveil poor and Muslim people. In Horizons, I wrote about why Canada needs to place its telecom network under public ownership.

Climate crisis

Amazon’s carbon footprint rose 15% y/y. US is paying to clean up 100-year-old abandoned oil wells, and the cost will soar as more companies go under and don’t pay their own cleanup. Siberia is seeing a record heat wave with temperatures hitting 38ºC (100ºF). US demand for renewable energy hurting Indigenous people in Canada.

Micromobility is a business; active mobility doesn’t have to be

Issue 142

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re well. It’s been six weeks since my last rant about micromobility, so I figured it was time for another. Don’t worry, there’s good reason, as you’ll see.

I don’t have much of an update this week, so enjoy the issue!

Paris Marx

Follow Paris and Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, it might not come as a surprise to hear that I don’t have a very high opinion of micromobility — which I define as the dockless rental services, not as almost every possible type of vehicle smaller than a car (as some of its boosters propose). This week gave me yet another reason to see it as the antithesis of the world (and the cities) we’re trying to create.

Horace Dediu, an Apple analyst who became one of the biggest boosters of “micromobility,” tweeted earlier this week that micromobility “is a service, not a product” because “there’s no vehicle business I know of which doesn’t have services as a large part if not majority of its profit.”

Let me translate that: bikes, scooters, and other small modes of transportation need to be a service of some kind, that you have to pay for on an ongoing basis, not because that will be what works best for you as the rider, but because that’s what works best for the tech companies trying to monopolize and make big profits off this new industry they’ve just “discovered.”

But how’s that actually working out? The dockless bike and scooter companies haven’t been doing so well financially lately. They’ve also been trashing thousands of perfectly good bikes and scooters — an extension of how disposable the companies see them, as research and reporting has consistently shown that the vehicles don’t last long at all in the rental fleets. The micromobility service model has also led to a higher environmental footprint for scooters than many other non-auto transport modes. Oh, and don’t forget how these privately run services are often more expensive than public bike-share or personal ownership in the long-run.

We’re coming off a century of auto-oriented planning — a system that not only privileged elite transport desires, but which prioritized profit-making and capitalist expansion over what actually improved quality-of-life for the majority of urban residents. (James Wilt has a great free course about this through Passage.) Automobility costs us more in many ways: more of our tax dollars are spent on infrastructure for low-density, sprawling communities; we’re forced to pay high sums for cars (and maintenance, insurance, gas, etc.) when we could just be collectively contributing to a great transit system and using bikes for shorter trips; and then there’s the road deaths and environmental destruction.

It’s clear we need to get away from a system that puts profit before our lives, and that means a transport system that revolves around transit and bikes can’t be obsessed with how to generate profits for blood-sucking venture capitalists at our expense. Owning a bike, replacing it every decade, and maybe getting some maintenance every now and then is not nearly as profitable as automobility was, which is why the micromobility folks are desperate to find a way to wring more money out of us.

But maybe the transport system shouldn’t be designed to generate huge profits and corporate power. Maybe it should instead be designed for social connections and to enhance human well-being. What a concept!

Critical urbanism

For Jacobin, I wrote about why we need to plan the post-pandemic transportation system to serve the public good, not private profit. As more evidence comes in, it’s clear transit isn’t putting people at high risk of COVID-19. “What kind of society values property over black life?” New poll shows Europeans don’t want to let cars take over their cities and bring back air pollution. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo promises lower speed limits, fewer parking spaces, childcare subsidies, and a radically redesigned beltway if she’s reelected. ‘Netflix for bikes’ service seems good for short-term use, but not if you’re planning to use it for a long time. Airbnb listings down ~20% in major cities in Canada, while rents in Toronto are down ~10%. In the absence of public spaces, BLM protesters are creating areas of their own. Australian competition watchdog ruled Lime didn’t disclose flaw with scooters that injured riders. Over the past two months, US bike sales saw their biggest spike since the 1970s oil crisis. With COVID-19 under control, people in New Zealand are flocking back to transit. Politicians in Southern California are yet again trying to kill high-speed rail. Bike sales in Bangladesh have hit historic highs. Transit workers an activists are fighting for free transit in Edmonton.

Tech dystopia

Worker surveillance tools track racial diversity to break worker solidarity. Jeff Bezos says he’ll testify in front of Congress — with conditions attached. Tim Cook will also face Congress after the EU announced two antitrust investigations into Apple. Facebook is still deleting the accounts of Palestinian, Syrian, and Tunisian journalists and activists despite using “free expression” as its defence for not removing Donald Trump’s posts. In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin “illuminates how cutting-edge tech so often reproduces old inequalities.” The FBI is tracking protesters through social media posts. Amazon has a new patent to collect an unprecedented amount of data from sellers, including their entire supply chains. Jathan Sadowski argues it’s time to dismantle surveillance tech.

This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to OneZero senior editor Brian Merchant about how Amazon’s response to COVID-19 has put its workers in danger and how big tech companies are partnering with oil and gas companies. 

Climate crisis

Emissions are surging as countries reopen, showing once again that changes must be structural, not only the level of individual consumption. The world has six months to change the course of the climate crisis. A heat wave in Siberia is linked to an oil spill, wildfires, and moth swarms. BP wrote off $17.5 billion in the value of its assets.

Could good transit change the suburbs?

Issue 141

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you doing well! I have some pretty great news this week. On Friday, I got the assessment back on my Master’s thesis and I passed with no revisions required!

I submitted the final version yesterday, so I’ll soon officially have a Master’s degree. Now I’m hoping to turn the concept behind the thesis into a book that critically examines the transport solutions of the tech industry, so if you have any advice on that process it would be much appreciated!

Enjoy this week’s essay on suburban transit and the curated links below!

Paris Marx

Follow Paris and Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

A few days ago, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?” author James Wilt shared a great thread on transit in suburbs that I think is really relevant in the thinking about the future of cities and, in particular, the suburbs that surround them.

In James’ book, he makes a strong argument for suburban (and even rural) transit. These areas might not have the same level of density as the urban core, but that does not mean that residents don’t similarly have a right to high-quality transit service. And until it’s put in place, it will be difficult to change their travel patterns and perspectives on transportation. James writes,

Transit success is a virtuous cycle: it can difficult for people to imagine the benefits of a dedicated bus lane or an all-door boarding system until it’s implemented. Every small success is a step in that direction. Projects can’t just be one-off pilots: the focus must be on building a scalable and coordinated system of transit service. Such campaigns should also emphasize the massive potential for good, unionized work resulting from transit expansion, whether it’s manufacturing electric buses and trains, driving the vehicles, or maintaining and cleaning them. Public transit is about far more than transportation: it contains the possibility of communal prosperity, unionized work, and control over our own labour.

Last weekend, I wrote about urban planning in the metro area where I currently live and have lived for much of my life — St. John’s, Canada. Its relatively small population (~100,000 urban/200,000 metro) is spread over quite a large land area and is highly dependent on automobiles. The bus service has seen improvements in recent years, but remains inadequate for many reasons.

The city is starting to change, but I feel frustrated that the slow pace of action. An increase to transit frequency on a few routes, a bit more density in a few pockets of the city, a cycling plan that prioritizes off-street trails over protected bike lanes just don’t seem adequate, given the climate crisis and quality-of-life challenges that must be addressed.

I return to what James wrote: imagining an alternative is difficult. People need to see and experience it. It can’t just pop up for a short time or exist only as a theoretical plan, and it needs to center the benefits to the public, not to a few business owners.

When I think about immediate changes that could happen locally or in other cities trying to navigate away from auto-dependency, better transit service is a step that doesn’t take a few years of construction — bus improvements can be added quite quickly, as long as there’s the will (and the funds). Plus, in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing, having better, more frequent bus services will make people feel safer about using it, and hopefully set us up for less auto-centric post-pandemic cities.

Critical urbanism

PR-chitecture won’t save us. Protesters in Seattle seized a police precinct and set up CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The pandemic will force us to rethink some aspects of urban life. US evictions are set to boom once eviction bans end. Transit users in London are anxious about using the service, but in France and Japan transit seems safe. Lisbon is cutting speed limits, removing parking spaces, adding new bike lanes, and subsidizing bike purchases. Houston’s I-45 highway expansion would demolish “158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two school,” mainly in low-income communities of color. Shutting down transit during curfews in US cities left essential workers stranded. The housing system is failing Black people, and fixing it would serve everyone else too. Fuji suspended bike sales to police departments after attacks on protesters. New book illustrates architecture’s flawed relationship with politics. A balanced report on the pros and cons of e-scooters.

If you’re still not sure about defunding the police, I highly recommend this piece by Mariame Kaba in NY Times.

Tech dystopia

Tim Bray, former Amazon executive, calls for more union organizing and to break up the company. Facebook is promoting new tools for employers to suppress talk of unionization. California ruling will force Uber and Lyft to comply with laws classifying drivers as employees. IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft are limiting sales of facial recognition software, but the devil’s in the details. In a post-pandemic world, tech companies want to provide public goods. The European Union is set to file antitrust charges against Amazon. Big tech companies are funding shadowy groups to write letters, op-eds, and do polling to try to stop antitrust action. Elon Musk reopened Tesla’s California factory in violation of health orders, then workers got COVID-19. The police are probably watching what you post on Nextdoor.

This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Vice staff writer Edward Ongweso Jr. about tech’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests. I also wrote about why “luxury communism” is snake-oil socialism in Horizons and I critiqued space billionaires for Jacobin.

Climate crisis

Greta Thunberg is urging countries to make Canada and Norway commit to stronger climate action as they campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. Cuba set up coral nurseries to repopulate its reefs. Airborne plastic is everywhere. Changing how we design roads is also good for wildlife. Mining company BHP was going to damage forty 15,000-year-old Aboriginal sites in Australia to expand its mine. It now says it won’t destroy them at least until consulting with Aboriginal people.

How could cities benefit from reallocated police budgets?

Issue 140

Hey urbanists,

Instead of writing an essay this week, I decided to include some additional articles that specifically relate to the ongoing Black Lives Matters protests over systemic racism and police brutality that have spread around the world.

I hope you make it out to a protest and support the movement however you can.

Paris Marx

Follow Paris and Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

Critical urbanism

American cities were designed to oppress. NYC’s $6 billion police budget would be much better spend on health, housing, and social supports. Highways ripped apart communities of color; now protesters are taking them over. Vehicle attacks on protesters are becoming more common. Police budgets are already huge, but cities are also forced to pay the settlements for police brutality cases. Protests and the pandemic are showing the necessity of public space. Activists are proposing People’s Budgets which reallocate funding from police departments to services which improve quality of life and care for the community. Delivery couriers are supposed to be exempt from US curfews, but police are arresting them anyway.

The problem isn’t cities; its how unequally they’ve been built. Brooklyn bus drivers refused to choose shifts as service cuts won’t allow for adequate social distancing. In a change from the 1960s, urban protests are hitting rich areas too. Bird-owned Circ is ending service in some cities in the Middle East and scrapping up to 10,000 e-scooters. Alon Levy presents a vision for the future of Paris’ RER system. One-bedroom rents in San Francisco fell 9.2% y/y in May.

For CBC News, I wrote about how St. John’s, Canada needs to rethink how it plans communities.

Tech dystopia

“Can you really stand in solidarity if you rely on child laborers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have censored Black creators, or empower the police to abuse surveillance powers on your platform, as they do on others?” — Edward Ongweso Jr

Many of the tech companies that issued hypocritical pro-Black Lives Matter statements “generate profit either by exploiting Black labor and/or by amplifying hate and extremism that directly harms Black folks.” Facebook workers have had enough of Mark Zuckerberg. Chicago tweeted out an Uber ad as police were disappearing protesters. Amazon is providing the tech for the Keystone XL pipeline. Amazon runs a fundraising platform that raises money for police. CNBC’s Jim Cramer says the market has no conscience and tech stocks are some of the biggest beneficiaries of social unrest. The ongoing protests are a rejection of Silicon Valley’s technocracy. Amazon tweeted a commitment to racial justice, despite its actions to the contrary. Tips for reducing authorities’ ability to track your phone when you go to a protest (and any other time). A new paper argues the “premature obsession with autonomous vehicles is having a detrimental impact on one of its main selling points: road safety.”

This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Nika Lova Danilova (who performs as Zola Jesus) about how COVID-19 has affected musicians, tech’s “Silicon fascist privilege,” and the impact of AI and streaming on music. Plus, in Horizons, I wrote about how billionaires’ futures would extend their power and wealth into the future.

Climate crisis

The sixth mass extinction is speeding up with 500 species expected to go extinct within 20 years. Defunding the police is also a good climate policy. The pandemic could cause a $25 trillion collapse in the fossil-fuel industry. CO2 concentrations hit a new record in May 2020, despite the pandemic. Spain announced a new plan to limit single-use plastics by July 2021. We can’t allow air pollution to go back to normal.

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