How much will change after COVID-19?

Issue 134

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re safe and holding up well. Thank you to everyone who’s contributed to the Patreon so far, and if you appreciate my work on the newsletter, your support would be appreciated. You won’t be charged until May 1.

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Onto this week’s issue! I’m playing with this new format, and I hope you like it. I particularly loved the German study on car ownership costs, Matthew Fleischer’s op-ed on cars, the growing worker opposition to Amazon management, the article on Bird’s business model being a sham, and some of the great pieces on the implications of the oil crash. I also announce next week’s podcast guests at the end, and if you’re a listener (or just want to support the show), a ★★★★★ review on Apple Podcasts would be most appreciated.

You can also now follow Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

All the best in these strange times,

Paris Marx

Critical urbanism

COVID-19 seems likely to tank global car sales by at least 22%, obliterate the used car market in the United States, and is saving California $40 million/day because car crashes have dropped by more than 50%. Plus, a new study out of Germany found that “people underestimate the total cost of owning a car by about 50%” and giving them personalized information to understand the real cost could “reduce car ownership by up to 37% and cut associated transport emissions by 23%.” I keep going back and forth between feeling optimistic and pessimistic about what future might follow the pandemic, so I’ve been following different post-pandemic proposals this week and here are some of the ones I’m excited about.

Everyone on Twitter’s been talking about Milan this week because “motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it” due to the lockdown, and now the government wants to preserve some of the gains with a new plan that includes “low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 30kph (20mph) speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets.” Paris is also creating 650 km (400 mi) of cycle lanes for the lifting of lockdown measures, and many cities around France are following suit.

New Zealand’s Greens (whose votes Jacinda Ardern’s government depends on) have proposed a NZ$9 billion regional rail plan to create hubs around the three biggest cities. Meanwhile, Australia’s right-wing government is taking all the wrong lessons in its plan that would go hard on privatization, tax cuts, and attacks on labor rights, while Labor is pushing a high-speed rail system as a key part of the post-pandemic recovery. In Canada, there are calls for an Urban Marshall Plan to invest in transit, housing, and other city infrastructure.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of SFMTA, said, “if San Francisco retreats in a fear-based way to private cars, the city dies with that, including the economy. Why? Because we can’t move more cars. That’s a fundamental geometrical limit. We can’t move more cars in the space we have.” This opportunity must be seized to move toward transit, and that’s exactly what I talked to James Wilt about on the second episode of my podcast, Tech Won’t Save Us (subscription links at the end of the newsletter, or listen on Soundcloud).

I thought Matthew Fleischer put it well in the LA Times this week:

Frankly, the idea that we can transport ourselves sustainably en masse in toxic 4,000-pound battering rams is just as delusional, entitled and self-destructive as the “liberate” protestors who are demanding a premature end to coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders. 

When the world emerges from its lockdown, the temptation will be to jump right back into our hermetically sealed transport bubbles. So, while you still can, step outside. Take a breath of fresh air. Take a quiet walk in the street. Or a bike ride with your kids. And think about how nice it would be to have clean air and safe streets as our new normal.

There is no herd immunity from the damage caused by millions of personal automobiles roaming the streets at all hours.

In other news: South Korea is reopening thanks to its mass testing regime and universal healthcare system, and Vietnam is considering the same after successfully containing the spread of the virus. New York City may see the largest rent strike in a century starting on May 1. Richard Branson wants a bailout for his UK trains, but it’s further evidence that privatization was a failure. Transportation spending is way down in the United States — with scooter services decimated.

Tech dystopia

The pressure on Amazon by workers continues to escalate, as do the measures taken by management to stop it. Workers at 50 warehouses planned a sick out this week to protest the company’s actions, as one warehouse reports at least 30 cases of COVID-19 and Whole Foods tracks unionization risk across the United States. When corporate employees started organizing their own sick out to support the demands of their frontline colleagues, Amazon deleted the event from their calendars, but many still took part on Friday. The scrutiny is not just in the United States, but going global as Amazon lost its appeal in France and faces mounting criticism in Canada over a deal with the federal government to deliver emergency supplies. Is it time for out-of-work socialists to get jobs at Amazon and fight for unionization from the inside?

It will take dedicated “salts” inside the Bezos behemoth to crack this bastion of twenty-first-century capitalism. Salts — workers hired with the deliberate intention of organizing a union — are key to the internal organization of the vast Amazon workforce, particularly at its most strategic nodes.

Beyond Amazon, things aren’t much better. Uber is seizing on the crisis to become a gig platform for work, potentially extending the precarity experienced by Uber drivers to even more sectors of the economy. This is absolutely the wrong response to the crisis, especially as low-paid, frontline workers are pushing back against the broader attempt to label them ‘heroes’ the pay, rights, and benefits they deserve for doing essential work. As one worker put it, hero is “pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something—money, goods, a clean conscience—from my jeopardization.” Not fucking good enough, especially as billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are making off like bandits in the middle of a pandemic.

In other news: WHO is warning against ‘immunity passports’. Rich Americans fled to New Zealand to escape the pandemic (but PM Jacinda Ardern doesn’t want them). Australia appears poised to force platforms like Facebook and Google to share ad revenue with news outlets, and Ireland is considering something similar. Palantir will track people for the US and UK governments. Uber criticized for cutting off delivery services to low-income San Francisco neighborhood. Interviews with fired workers reveal Bird’s business model was probably never going to work. What is independent music in the age of coronavirus?

Climate crisis

This week, the benchmark oil price went negative, sending shockwaves through… “the market.” It happened because the May futures contract was expiring on Tuesday, and with the combination of oversupply, cratering demand, and all the storage essentially being full, no one wanted to take delivery of oil. Some people think demand will simply rebound once the pandemic ends; others think we’ve already seen peak oil. Either way, this is a game changer.

Kate Aronoff writes that this period will decimate US shale-oil producers, who were already going bankrupt even before the pandemic hit, and that the focus needs to be on creating a just transition for workers. This is a perfect time to consider calls to nationalize the fossil-fuel industry in order to wind it down in a controlled fashion to avoid the economic and social pain of a rapid collapse.

However, beyond the industry itself, the collapse of oil shows the larger problems of a world-system built around the commodity. Aronoff writes that the oil collapse will be devastating for many Global South countries and shows the need to rewrite the rules that govern the global economy, while Nicholas Mulder and Adam Tooze specifically address what this means for “truly vulnerable producers in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.” The effects will be devastating if those countries don’t receive significant support to remove their debts and diversify their economies.

In other news: Alberta premier Jason Kenney lost it at a reporter when asked about a Green New Deal. Global insect numbers are down 25% since 1990. Research shows 80% of COVID-19 deaths across four countries were in the most polluted regions, suggesting air pollution may be a factor. Air quality is significantly better in many major cities with cars off the road.

Tech Won’t Save Us

My new podcast, Tech Won’t Save Us, kicked off last week with two fantastic guests: Wendy Liu, author of “Abolish Silicon Valley,” and James Wilt, author of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?” Even if you’re more into urbanism than tech, I think there’s still a lot you’ll find interesting in our conversations.

This coming week, I’ll be talking to Ziya Tong, author of “The Reality Bubble,” on Monday and Bianca Wylie, a leading advocate against Sidewalk Toronto and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, on Thursday.

You can subscribe on AppleSpotifyOvercast, StitcherSoundcloud, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a ★★★★★ on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow the podcast on Twitter.

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