✊🏙 Future of micromobility; automobility's human cost; Vancouver & Melbourne livability; Green New Deal; scooters; smart cities; & more!

Issue 84

Hey urbanists,

New week, new look, and this is one hell of an issue.

The newsletter’s been moved to Substack. If this issue went to your inbox as usual, you have nothing to worry about, but if it goes to your spam folder you’ll need to mark the email address safe. I hope you like it!

There’s a lot this week. I started off by considering the future of micromobility, then recommended a great podcast before discussing some new climate and transport plans in Vancouver and Melbourne that I’m really excited about.

Plus, a ton of other great reads at the end, including reactions to the CDC’s scooter injury report, a provocative take on all the mining that will be necessary for electric cars, details on LA’s Green New Deal, and thoughts on smart-city ethics.

Feel free to reach out via email or Twitter, and please share with anyone you think would be interested. Your support keeps me going!

— Paris


What’s the future of micromobility?

Horace Dediu, former Apple analyst and host of the Micromobility podcast, has a new blog post outlining the “three eras” of micromobility:

  1. The original docked bike-share systems in Europe,

  2. Dockless pedal bikes originating in China, and

  3. Motorized dockless e-bikes and e-scooters which took off in the United States.

It seems he’s planning a post on the forthcoming fourth and fifth “eras,” but I’m impatient, so I want to give you my view on where these bike- and scooter-share services are going next—and I’m not sure it will be welcome from the tech crowd.

If we escape the VC-fuelled haze created by the proliferation of dockless bikes and scooters over the past few years, there are a few things that are clear:

  1. These private services don’t have a sustainable business model,¹

  2. They’re more expensive than public bikeshare for frequent use, and making them cheaper would only make them lose even more money, and

  3. While convenient for occasional use, it’s hard to rely on dockless micromobility outside the dense urban core (unless there are so many they’re literally everywhere, which has business-model and angry resident problems).

Recognizing those realities, where does “micromobility” go from here?

I’ll be completely honest: I don’t see how “competition” provides any benefit in bike- and scooter-sharing; I don’t see a role for a bunch of private operators. Once the hype dies down, what’s left on the sharing side will become part of a monopolized public system, subsidized to remain affordable. The bikes and scooters should be hybrid: returning them to docks will be encouraged, but they’ll also be able to be left elsewhere (maybe for a small additional fee?). Metro LA Bike Share already has “smart bikes” that can be left at any public bike rack and Switzerland’s Smide has Bonus Zones where users get bonus minutes for leaving them there. Carrot or stick?

But it’s also not all about rental, or “sharing.” Tech firms want us to subscribe to and rent everything these days because it creates ongoing revenue—just look at how Apple is transforming itself into a “services” company now that iPhone revenues are dropping—but if people are going to use bikes and scooters for daily commuting, there will be a sizeable percentage who will simply want their own (especially scooters since they’re quite affordable).

Micromobility services are great in that they introduced a lot more people to e-bikes and e-scooters, and forced those options to be seriously considered by more people, but all the money being poured into bikes and scooters with lifespans of mere weeks would be much better spent on subsidies for people to purchase e-bikes and e-scooters—the former was really popular in Sweden—and investing in public bikeshare, which tends to have higher utilization and longer-lasting vehicles.

tl;dr: The future isn’t more VC-backed private services, but a monopolized, hybrid public system paired with subsidies to promote ownership of e-bikes and e-scooters.

That’s my take.

¹ The company to watch in terms of business model is Bird. They’re trialing a new platform model in Canada, Latin America, and New Zealand where other people run the scooter services and they take a 20% cut off the top, offloading the losses to someone else, but eventually those franchisees or whatever you want to call them will go broke too.

Podcast recommendation

The War on Cars is a fantastic podcast out of New York City. Their latest episode made the high cost of automobility very personal by talking to Theresa Sareo about how she lost her leg after being hit by an SUV while waiting to cross the street.

The podcast deals with a lot of important issues and levels well-deserved criticism at multiple levels of government in the United States, but this episode is a break from that and the most powerful they’ve released thus far. I was on the verge of tears listening to Theresa tell her story, and experienced how communicating the human impact of automobility will be key to convincing more people of the mistake we’ve made and the desperate need to reorient cities away from cars.

What’s happening in Vancouver?

Vancouver and Melbourne are often top the rankings of most livable cities in the world, and new plans laid out by their municipal governments will likely further contribute to those designations.

Vancouver

Last month, Vancouver’s transit agency reported ridership growth of 7.1% in 2018, including increases of 8% on the bus network and 5.7% for SkyTrain. The city is also considering new recommendations from a “climate emergency” report which would accelerate emissions reduction by:

  • Having two-thirds of all trips made by walking, biking, and transit by 2030; it’s already above 50%. SkyTrain expansions, including the one to UBC, more buses, adding e-bikes to public bike share, and closing more of the city to cars will help. The transit agency also recently started consultations for its 2050 plan.

  • Ensuring 50% of all kilometres driven by 2030 will be in zero-emission vehicles, but they’re hoping to reduce total driving by ensuring 90% of people living within walking or cycling distance to their needs. Council is also considering cutting local speed limits to 30 km/h (19 mph) and adopting congestion pricing.

  • Getting all new heating and water systems to be zero emission instead of relying on natural gas, reducing emissions in new buildings and construction by 40% by 2030.

They’re ambitious goals, but achievable if council will take the necessary steps. However, the city has been a notable holdout from the ride-hailing craze, but recently put together regulations that could see Uber hit the streets in the coming months, which could reverse some of its progress on reducing vehicle trips.

Finally, before moving on to Melbourne, any discussion of Vancouver wouldn’t be complete without talking about housing. It’s one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, but it may finally be slowing down as sales have dipped and prices are down year-over-year. As non-resident owners try to avoid the new vacant property tax, university students are even getting rooms in multi-million-dollar mansion for as little as $1,000/month.

Melbourne

Things are looking good in Vancouver, but that doesn’t mean Melbourne is standing still. In the central city, 56% of people use transit to get to work, 32% go by car, 4% cycle, and 6% walk (as I did when I lived there); but when the larger metropolitan area is considered, the numbers are much different: 74.4% by car, 13.4% by transit, and 5.4% by walking or bike. But the city has a plan.

It’s already in the process of building the Metro Tunnel—due in 2025—and if Labor is elected federally on May 18, it will pitch in A$2 billion toward the project, freeing up the state government to spend on other priorities. The state Labor government is also planning a massive Surburban Rail Loop that isn’t expected to be done until 2050.

However, the city released its 10-year transport plan this past week, and there’s a lot to like. Recognizing that walking accounts for 90% of all travel within the central business district, the city plans to give much more space to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

  • On-street parking will be removed around the city, and “Little” streets will become shared spaces with much lower speed limits or some could even be closed to traffic extent the laneway culture. Footpaths will also be extended.

  • The city wants to become the best city for cyclists in Australia by expanding protected bike lanes from six to 50 km (31 mi) by 2030, changing rules to allow cyclists to turn left at lights, and giving them at head start when lights change.

  • Trams and buses could get dedicated lanes and upgraded stops. It will also push for the tram network to be extended—it’s already the largest in the world—and for Metro 2 to be approved. Congestion pricing will also be examined.

Another fantastic plan to reorient the city away from cars and toward, and, like in Vancouver, Melbourne’s expensive housing market has similarly been dropping recently. I can’t wait to go back for a visit.

Around the world

🌴 “Shade is often understood as a luxury amenity, lending calm to courtyards and tree-lined boulevards, cooling and obscuring jewel boxes and glass cubes. But as deadly, hundred-degree heatwaves become commonplace, we have to learn to see shade as a civic resource that is shared by all.”

Transit

🚌 NYC’s 14th Street busway is taking lessons from Toronto’s King Street project

🛣 Could dedicated highway lanes make transit more competitive in suburbs?

😬 A Toronto exurb started subsidizing Uber instead of providing transit in 2017. Now it’s cutting the subsidy and capping monthly rides.

On a well-designed mass transit system, the more people using it, the ‘cheaper’ it gets. But the opposite is happening in Innisfil. … With per-capita costs essentially fixed, the town is forced to hike rates and cap trips as adoption grows.

Bikes and scooters

🛴 CDC’s scooter study found injury rate of 20 per 100,000 trips. Half of injuries were deemed “severe,” 15% were traumatic brain injuries, but most were preventable. What are the takeaways? They may be too fast and street design has to change.

🚲 Paris changed operators of its Vélib bike-share service as part of a major expansion. It was supposed to be a smooth transition, but became a mess as subscribers dropped from 300,000 to 163,000. Here’s what went wrong.

Cars and roads

🛑 Lyft lost its attempt to block NYC’s new minimum wage for drivers; now it’s fighting to not be subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is really disgusting. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft stopped accepting new drivers in NYC in April. Could NYC’s regulations be a model for other cities?

🚧 Trump and the Democrats are working on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but it will be terrible for the environment if the money goes to roads and highways

🤑 Will autonomous taxi fleets be as cheap as tech claims? A new MIT study says they’ll be more expensive than personal vehicle use

🇧🇪🇳🇱 Brussels, one of Europe’s most congested cities, is undergoing a massive pro-pedestrian makeover and Amsterdam will ban gas and diesel vehicles by 2030

Climate and environment

🇨🇳 China’s campaign to improve air quality in Beijing made it worse in the rest of the country and increased water scarcity in rural areas to supply coal plants

🇮🇩 Jakarta is sinking and has terrible traffic congestion. Now its government wants to move the capital elsewhere, and other countries are doing the same.

🛢 Linda Garcia stopped North America’s largest oil-by-rail terminal from being built in her community—then won the Goldman Environmental Prize

🏭 ~91% of U.S. coal power plants pollute surrounding groundwater with toxic metals

Green New Deal

💰 NYC’s Green New Deal aims to cut buildings’ energy use and “build a durable industry in energy retrofitting, … establishing a model for other cities.” Non-compliant building owners will face a penalty of $268 per ton of carbon over the cap.

☀️ LA Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut transport and building emissions with 80% renewable energy and 80% zero-emission vehicles by mid-2030s. Personal daily driving will drop from 15 miles to 9 miles by 2035, but even with major transit investments, altered land use, and a pilot of congestion pricing, will it be enough?

🚨 Provocative take: the Green New Deal and similar plans don’t consider the minerals that will need to be mined for renewables, electric cars, etc. and how it will affect the Global South. Related: Tesla expects a global shortage of minerals for batteries.

[N]early every renewable energy source depends upon non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals: solar panels use indium, turbines use neodymium, batteries use lithium, and all require kilotons of steel, tin, silver, and copper. The renewable-energy supply chain is a complicated hopscotch around the periodic table and around the world.

Housing

📈 Housing costs are going up for the bottom half of Americans, while high-income people are paying less as their incomes grow at a faster rate

👩‍⚖️ After significant cuts, local councils in the UK don’t have the resources to hold landlords to account. Could a housing court provide better justice for tenants?

📸 Roberto Conte and Stefano Perego photograph how Eastern design influenced Soviet-era residential towers in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan

Other great reads

🍦 Parts of London are banning ice cream vans because of air pollution

🛍 Berlin’s hyper-specialist shops are thriving. Are they the future of retail?

🌅 What’s the future for Miami? Alejandro Portes, author of The Global Edge, reflects on inequality, climate change, and Miami’s global city status.

📱 Smart cities engage in ethics-washing to preserve the existing capitalist political economy. Cities need to play a more active to ensure they’re inclusive and just.

✊ Workers of the world took to the streets on May Day. Here are some photos.

By Paris:

Endnote

Thanks for making it all the way to the bottom, and for being a subscriber!

A final note about the switch to Substack: I transferred over part of the archive, all the way back to issue 60 (this is issue 84). If you want me to transfer more of the archive to Substack, just let me know.

Otherwise, if you want more from me, you can find me on Twitter, Medium, and Instagram. Have a great week!