✊🏙 Humans killing nature; Uber IPO flops; seniors on e-bikes; fossil-fuel subsidies; & more!

Issue 85

Hey urbanists,

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This week, we’re digging into the UN’s biodiversity report and its implications for cities, then looking at Uber’s IPO and the driver’s strike that messed up its narrative. Among the great reads in the second half: how e-bikes are keeping seniors active, ride-hail created much of San Francisco’s congestion since 2010, ending fossil-fuel subsidies would significantly reduce emissions, and much more!

Have a great week!


We need to share the planet

Earlier this week, the United Nations released a damning report on the state of the planet’s biodiversity and how human actions are alerting the habitats of animal species on land and in the sea all across the planet. The world’s leading scientists found that the “biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction” due to the actions of humans. This should be setting off alarm bells, and it gets worse.

The report shows a planet in which the human footprint is so large it leaves little space for anything else. Three-quarters of all land has been turned into farm fields, covered by concrete, swallowed up by dam reservoirs or otherwise significantly altered. Two-thirds of the marine environment has also been changed by fish farms, shipping routes, subsea mines and other projects. Three-quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation. […] Future forecasts indicate negative trends will continue in all scenarios except those that embrace radical change across society, politics, economics and technology.

Why do we care so little about our impact on the other species with which we share this planet? Nathan J. Robinson has a provocative take in Current Affairs: wild animals don’t make sense to capitalism because they don’t make an economic contribution.

Wild animals are therefore a kind of massive global proletariat, being exploited and destroyed by the merciless human bourgeoisie. The lucky ones are the ones that have a marketable skill, such as “being a pet,” and can exchange their labor (companionship and amusement) for room and board. Dogs do pretty well because we happen to like them. Pigs, unfortunately, have discovered that even though they are just as emotionally sophisticated as dogs, we enjoy their company less, and their most marketable commodity is their flesh.* Pigs might be comparatively fortunate, though. At least we have a financial interest in preserving their lives, even if it is for the purpose of violently ending those lives and then devouring the carcasses. Some species are simply “in the way” of global development. They will be be exterminated, because they do not matter. 

Human civilization is, for the millions of other creatures with whom we share this big blue planet, a death machine. We build roads through their homes, and then any of them who try to cross will be smushed to death. We torture and kill billions of them in our food system. We are boiling their whole planet, and if we keep it up for another 50, 100, or 1000 years, how many of them will make it?

As part of the need to address climate change, we also need to reset our relationship with the natural world. It can’t simply be seen as empty land on which to expand and free resources to extract without consideration of the larger ecological impacts for species other than humans—and, let’s be honest, there are a lot of marginalized humans whose lives we disregard in that process.

I’m not sure if this will be a controversial statement, but I think it’s inevitable that humanity will have to shrink our global footprint to give more of the planet back to other species. That means densifying cities, halting suburban expansion, and even giving back some existing suburban developments. We’ll also need to examine our food system, in particular all the space allocated to “livestock” (I really hate that word) and the amount of food we waste, to more efficiently feed ourselves.

I certainly don’t have all the answers on this, though I’d love to learn more. Whenever I try to look up anything about shrinking the urban footprint, all I get is writing about declining populations, which is not what I’m looking for. It just seems obvious that we need to learn to share this world, not see ourselves as some superior species that can do whatever we want without regard for how that affects our neighbors.

Uber flops as a public company

Uber went public at $45 on Friday morning, but by the time New York Stock Exchange closed, it had fallen 7.62% to $41.57. That drop makes its losses “bigger than first day dollar losses of any prior IPO in the U.S.”—quite the achievement! Lyft, which went public last month, hasn’t been doing very good either. It started at $72 a share, and has already dropped to $51.25.

I’m not going to repeat all the problems with Uber—I think we go over that quite regularly in this newsletter—and why it’s unclear the company will ever be profitable without significantly raising prices. However, on Wednesday, drivers around the world went on strike to demand better wages and working conditions, and successfully disrupted the narrative around the IPO.

Andrew Wolf has a great piece on Jacobin about the strike and its significance. He points out how taxis have long been seen as “public utilities that fill important gaps in a city’s public transportation system” and how New York City’s medallion system “was actually instituted during the Great Depression to address an illegal mob run taxi industry—causing the same worker, traffic, pollution, and safety issues that Uber has thrust back upon the city.”

Uber’s success represents the failure of municipal governments to address the human, environmental, and legal costs of pursuing an innovation agenda, all of which impinge on residents’ right to the city. But the strike finally drew lawmakers attention, and could lead more cities to follow NYC’s example by setting minimum wages, capping vehicle numbers, and hopefully addressing drivers’ contractor status. Wolf has particularly good things to say about the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Unlike most US unions, which operate based on the [National Labor Relations Act] principle of exclusive representation, the NYTWA operates more like French unions on a principle of “minority unionism.” This model requires far more constant member engagement, organizing, and direct action to fuel the organizations success.

Now that Uber is public, it will be interesting to see whether anything changes about the way it conducts itself and whether the growing mobilization by drivers will finally get governments to pay attention to their plight.

Around the world

📉 Lyft lost $911 million in 2018, but in its first quarter as a public company it reported a quarterly loss of $1.1 billion. Profitability is much farther away than Lyft made it seem. Did it it push losses forward to make its public filing look better?

Transit and trains

🇦🇺 Australian Labor, set to win the May 18 election, committed A$1 billion to begin buying the land corridor for high-speed rail between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. It also pledged A$10 billion for Melbourne’s suburban rail loop.

🇶🇦 Doha, Qatar began partial operation of its Metro Red Line. It plans to open 37 stations and two more lines—Green and Gold—by 2020, and a Blue line by 2026.

🚧 “Across all levels of public transportation investment, from high-speed rail down to routine track upgrades, we see inexpensive, efficient projects in the Nordic countries.”

🇰🇵 Pyongyang recently upgraded its subway cars and trollybuses. Its trams cost a mere 5 won (one-sixteenth of a cent) but its system is among the most crowded in the world.

🇯🇵 Japan’s new bullet train is the fastest yet, going up to 400 km/h (249 mph)

Bikes and scooters

🛴 Bird is rolling out new scooters, but an analysis by LA Times finds their lifespan is even shorter than the ones they’re replacing

🧓🏻 E-bikes are growing in popularity among seniors in the United States, allowing them to keep active and healthier longer. They could even alleviate symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

🚴‍♀️ Great Twitter thread explains how bicycles gave women in the late 1800s more freedom, but also led men to call them “bicycle face,” similar to today’s slut-shaming

🇫🇷 France will ban e-scooters from sidewalks starting in September

Cars and roads

🚗 From 2010 to 2016, San Francisco traffic congestion increased by 60%. Uber and Lyft were responsible for more than half.

💵 The Economist argues cities are reducing subsidies for cars and more will adopt congestion pricing (I agree), but that this will allow Uber to raise prices and capture a greater share of vehicle trips (I don’t buy it).

🛣 LA’s 405 freeway was widened to add a northbound carpool lane that cost $1 billion. Five years later, northbound drive times have increased at all hours of the day. Widening freeways to reduce congestion doesn’t work.

🏫 Students with longer commutes get less sleep and less exercise

Climate and environment

🛢 IMF pegs global fossil-fuel subsidies at $4.7 trillion (6.3% of global GDP) in 2015 and $5.2 trillion (6.5% of GDP) in 2017. Without subsidies, emissions would’ve fallen by 28%, deaths from air pollution by 46%, and government revenue would’ve increased by 3.8% of GDP, meaning more money for climate mitigation and social programs.

🔋 An Australian company wants to mine lithium in Death Valley National Park to supply batteries for electric vehicles. Opposition is growing, along with recognition that simply electrifying vehicles isn’t the silver bullet.

🇮🇳 Air pollution killed 1.24 million people in India in 2017 and is so bad in New Delhi that “pollution refugees” are fleeing to less polluted cities. Political parties are starting to pay attention, but their plans don’t go far enough.

Tech’s urban impact

🚶‍♀️ Seventy Toronto residents took a walking tour about Sidewalk Labs’ proposed development as part of a series called Jane’s Walks, named after Jane Jacobs. Shawn Micallef wrote about Jacobs’ life and legacy in Toronto as a year-long celebration kicks off in her honor.

🏠 The New Yorker dug into Airbnb’s impact on Barcelona and an attempt to make home sharing more ethical in Europe

🛑 Apple opened its store in Washington, D.C.’s Carnegie Library, but it was a terrible decision: “The arguments in favor … don’t justify what should always be an option of last resort—the privatization of public space.”

Other great reads

💰 In 2018, C$5.3 billion in real-estate purchases in British Columbia were the result of money laundering, increasing home prices by 5%

🕌 New analysis finds 31 mosques and two major shrines in Xinjiang, China have been fully or partly destroyed as part of crackdown on Uighur Muslims

🇧🇬 Plovdiv, Bulgaria is luring young Bulgarian expats home with relaxed lifestyles, an affordable cost of living, and a growing IT sector

🇨🇺 Trump has tightened sanctions on Cuba, causing an economic crisis and forcing the government to ration key staples

🇨🇦 Socialist movements are ascendant in the United Kingdom and the United States, but not in Canada. Why has Canada failed to replicate this left resurgence?

By Paris:Bird Will Try Anything to Turn a Profit” (Medium)

Why the United States has struggled on high-speed rail and what it would take to get the necessary investment. My only caveat is that this should be a public investment; not for private companies to only serve areas where they can turn a profit.

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