Electric cars require dirty mining; Elon Musk back on his bullshit; tunnels under Paris; & more!

Issue 87

Hey urbanists,

This week I chose to focus on the dirty mining that will be required for our electrified future and why we need to start paying it much greater consideration. There are also some great reads about how the frequencies the U.S. is selling for 5G will affect weather forecasts, Elon Musk’s latest tunnel stunt, a great piece by Kim Kelly on labor and the environment, an exploration of the tunnels below Paris, and some critic pieces on smart cities.

Have a great week!


Mining for the electric future

Visions of the eco-friendly future often feature fleets of electric cars and cities where everything is connected as part of a ‘smart’ city, but rarely do conversations about these futures consider the minerals that will be necessary to make the batteries and other technologies that would be required to turn vision into reality — but they must.

A new report from the University of Technology, Sydney for Earthworks estimated the demand for these minerals and found that demand for lithium and cobalt would far outstrip our reserves, while others would increase significantly.

There are several aspects of mining that need to be considered. First, the environmental angle: resource extraction is responsible for 50% of global emissions, of which the mining of minerals and metals accounts for 20%, and 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress results from resource extraction and processing.

Resource extraction destroys natural landscapes. Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz recently wrote about how copper mining has negatively affected communities in Latin America, including how tailings dams have been breached and killed hundreds of people. This isn’t just something that happens in developing countries — Californians are trying to stop a lithium mine in Death Valley — but they will be bear the brunt of the expansion of resource mining.

That brings us to the second angle: the human impacts. Resource extraction, often driven by companies headquartered in Western countries, has an absolutely terrible reputation when it comes to worker and human rights. The UTS/Earthworks report details the extensive use of child labor, contamination of soil and water, and the instances of tuberculosis, respiratory illnesses, cancer, and more among workers and surrounding communities. It also details the pollution and destruction of ecosystems.

Some boosters of the smart, sustainable future brush off these concerns with promises that better ways of producing batteries will be discovered, or mining practices will be improved — but there’s little proof of that actually occurring. If we really want a better future for everyone, not just the global middle and upper classes, we need to think through these difficult issues before we move forward with futures that will cause incredible pain and suffering just so we can try to bring our sci-fi fantasies to life.

That doesn’t mean we can’t decarbonize our cities and societies or that we can’t maintain a high standard of living; it will just mean different choices. It will mean public transit and electric buses that serve everyone and restrictions on the environmentally, spatially, and financially costly personal automobile. It will mean choices about what objects get “connected” and a serious conversation about whether connecting everything to the internet is even desirable.

Inevitably, it will require a serious consideration of whether the priorities of capitalism still fit within a post-carbon world. It will mean prioritizing the common good before the individual desire. And all that will mean a commitment to democracy — in the political sphere and in the economic sphere — that goes far beyond our flawed representative democracies of the present.

Around the world

🌦 The United States is rolling out 5G networks, but the frequencies being auctioned off would interfere with weather forecasting. NOAA’s acting chief says it could reduce forecast accuracy by 30%, giving costal areas 2-3 fewer days to prepare for hurricanes.

while the FCC can switch which regions of the spectrum it allocates to phone companies, forecasters are stuck. That’s because water vapor emits a faint signal in the atmosphere at a frequency (23.8 GHz) that is extremely close to the one sold for next-generation 5G wireless communications (24 GHz). […] The FCC plans future 5G auctions for the radio frequency bands near ones used to detect rain and snow (36–37 GHz), atmospheric temperature (50.2–50.4 GHz), and clouds and ice (80–90 GHz).


🚌 Electric buses “are quieter and cleaner than traditional alternatives, require less maintenance (which saves money over the long run), and help cut down on urban air pollution.”

🇺🇸 How Seattle significantly grew its population without increasing daily traffic by investing in transit

🇵🇪🇧🇴 Peru recently joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, Peru and Bolivia may undertake a new railway project with Chinese support.

🇮🇱 French firm Alstom is fifth to withdraw its bid for Israel’s settler railway. The remaining Spanish bid will likely also be withdrawn due to labor action, leaving a bid by China that Israel could face US pressure not to accept.

Bikes and scooters

🛴 Swedish micromobility company Voi unveiled new e-scooter, e-bike, and electric cargo bike models as it plans rollout to 150 European cities. It says its new scooter is designed for durability and future recycling.

🇩🇪 Germany legalized scooters, now Tier and Voi are preparing for a June rollout

🚴‍♀️ Is cycling still worth it if you’re breathing air pollution?

Cars and roads

📱 New ruling will force Uber to share its data with San Francisco’s city attorney so he can investigate hours worked, wages, passenger discrimination, and whether Uber incentivizes people to drive from far away

🚗 Consumer Reports estimates 1 in 6 Uber and Lyft vehicles in New York City and Seattle have unaddressed safety recalls

🙄 Aaron Gordon on Elon Musk’s bullshit tunnel: “In a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.”

🚇 Las Vegas is giving Elon Musk $48.6 million to connect two convention centers. The mayor was the only vote against, preferring a bid from an Austrian firm.


⛏☀️ “The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them. That is why it’s so important to dismantle the structures that force these impossible decisions and offer instead real, equitable alternatives to those whose livelihoods depend on industries that harm the earth.” — Kim Kelly

🤝 Uber and Lyft drivers at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C. are working together to increase surge pricing because they get paid so little

👷‍♂️👷‍♀️ Australia’s Victorian state government has a huge pipeline of transport infrastructure projects, but a new study finds it’s pushing white-collar workers to the brink with extreme working hours causing high levels of stress and anxiety. No word on what it’s doing to blue-collar workers…

👩‍⚖️ The National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer recently suggested Uber drivers are freelancers, not employees. That’s what Uber wants, but it could also open it up to a lawsuit for price fixing, which is illegal under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Climate change

🛢 Major U.S. corporations are pushing for a carbon tax to stop the Green New Deal’s more aggressive climate action. The tax wouldn’t cap their emissions, it would just make them pay, whereas a GND calls for the end of oil and gas.

🇨🇦 A Canadian Green New Deal needs to overhaul the transportation system with electric trains, electric buses, and streets for people

🐦 “The situation is catastrophic.” Bird populations in France have declined by a third in 15 years, but some have plummeted up to 70%.

Urban planning

🇦🇹 For three decades, Vienna has been using gender-sensitive planning with great results. “If you want to do something for women, do something for pedestrians.”

🏘 “Upzoning is a strategy that relies on the market to produce housing. The market is ultimately going to build units that are profitable to a select class of individuals.” Yonah Freemark reflects on how his research on upzoning in Chicago has been used in California’s debate over SB-50.

🛣 “It's clear that cities will have to rethink curb and street space allocation; the question is whether local leaders will stand up to the political sway of people who drive private vehicles, and to the private capital behind companies like Uber and Bird.”

🇨🇦 Burnaby, BC is considering a rental-only zoning measure to preserve existing rental properties and build a lot more

🇫🇷 The area around the Eiffel Tower is getting a pedestrian-friendly makeover

🇸🇪 Stockholm prioritizes work-life balance by offering long parental leave, flexible hours so parents can pick up their kids, and less after-work socializing

Other great reads

🔦 “The result of more than six hundred years of quarrying is that beneath the southern portion of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than two hundred miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, extending beneath several arrondissements.” Robert Macfarlane on the tunnels below Paris.

🖥 “People generally interact with tech in a capitalist way and that is not a reason to make it the default way. […] government needs to find the confidence to prioritize technology investments that most people will never see.” — Bianca Wylie

✊ “As tech companies quantify and commodify new spheres of life, transforming them into private property, the city has emerged as a key site in the digital frontier.” — Nicole Aschoff

By Paris: Tesla on Autopilot Slammed Into (Another) Truck (Medium)

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