How Uber used the media; Egyptian transport; Oslo's car restrictions; Madrid's reversal; & more!

Issue 88

Hey urbanists,

This week, some thoughts on Hubert Horan’s new piece on Uber, Lyft, and how the media covers them, as well as a brief look at what’s going on with transport in Egypt, including Uber’s troubles there. Plus, some really interesting reads in the “Cars and roads” section and a head’s up that Jacobin’s new issue is all about the housing crisis.

Happy Pride Month! 🏳️‍🌈

Paris


Will Uber’s IPO make the media wake up?

Uber isn’t Uber if it isn’t burning a ton of money. In its first quarterly statement as a public company, it reported a $1 billion loss, seemingly setting itself up to repeat its 2017 record loss of $4.5 billion. That’s a lot of money to lose just to give some tech workers a more convenient taxi while destroying our cities.

Meanwhile, Hubert Horan published the latest instalment in his long-running series on Uber for Naked Capitalism — and I can’t recommend it enough. Horan digs into the framing of Uber and Lyft’s IPOs, how the companies have successfully used the media to push their narratives, and how their futures look grim.

Uber is the breakthrough case where the propaganda-type narratives that dominate partisan political coverage successfully developed a multi-billion dollar private company from scratch. Uber not only manufactured powerful narratives, but deftly manipulated the mainstream business and tech industry press into endorsing and promulgating them, and ignoring all of the economic evidence contradicting them.

Few, if any of Uber’s narrative claims were objectively true. Hype about powerful, cutting edge technological innovations that could overwhelm incumbents in any market worldwide helped hide the fact that Uber was actually higher cost and less efficient than the operators it had driven out of business. Stories about customers freely choosing its superior products in competitive markets helped hide Uber’s use of massive subsidies to subvert market price signals and mislead investors about its growth economics. Misleading accounts about driver pay and working conditions helped hide the fact that most margin improvement was due to driving driver take-home pay down to minimum wage levels.

Uber was never going to dominate driverless cars and displace private car ownership, but these tales created false impressions about robust long-term growth. But all of these claims were uncritically repeated in the mainstream media, and over time they shaped the powerful general perception that Uber was “successful, efficient and highly valuable.”

Horan’s criticism of the media’s uncritical reporting on Uber and Lyft has been made by others, but his piece expresses it more effectively than I’ve seen before. However, this isn’t just a problem with ride-hailing services.

The media is also guilty of doing the very same with autonomous vehicles, and even after last year’s wake-up call when the Uber vehicle killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, they seem to be flirting with embracing them again. The same is starting to happen with flying cars, and there’s a degree of it with dockless bikes and scooters now that the initial anger over sidewalk space and injuries is fading.

I take a critical view of these services in my newsletter and writing, but there are other places you can go to hear constant and sometimes blind praise of them, in a repetition of how some people have chosen to approach Uber, Tesla, and other tech-transport companies. I don’t understand the impulse to our worship tech overlords, and I wish we could figure out a way to at least get the media to stop boosting those perspectives.

What’s happening with Egyptian transport?

Egypt is a country I find fascinating, and I try to keep up with what’s going on there. I previously wrote about the UberBus launch in Cairo and the service it would actually provide, and more recently I wrote about the hurdles Uber might face in getting its Careem merger approved in Egypt. I was recently looking into recent developments, and thought you might also find it interesting.

As far as I can tell, there’s been no progress on the Careem merger — it seems to still be with the Egyptian Competition Authority — even though Western media seems to report it as fait accompli. Egypt is also now expecting Uber to comply with new security standards which would require it to report some personal information to authorities, and that’s raising the prospect of Uber’s withdrawal from the country.

Uber was previously banned for a short period of time in 2018, after Egypt had been one of its fastest-growing markets in 2017. The article cited in the previous paragraph says that ride-hailing services have caused an uptick in car sales as drivers join the platforms, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll make enough to pay them back. Uber also partnered with peer-to-peer car-share service Dryve in April to get drivers access to vehicles.

The Egyptian story isn’t all about Uber though. Slyd launched an e-scooter service that’s currently operating on some university campuses, business complexes, estates, and in some coastal towns, but it plans to expand to Cairo and Alexandria in the short term then across the Middle East. They’ve built a cash payment system since credit cards are rare in Egypt — but there’s little detail on how that works.

In a Labor Day speech, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said, “Why did public transportation fail while Uber succeeded? Why did the railways fail? Because we are not serious and we run the public transportation system badly.” el-Sisi has made some very questionable investment decisions, but there is an ongoing expansion to Cairo’s metro system, a new monorail in Cairo, and investment going into the national railway system. However, he’s brutally suppressed any dissent, which Western government are largely ignoring.

I snapped this photo of Ramses Train Station in Cairo as I was catching the train to Aswan on an evening in 2014. It really doesn’t do it justice.

Around the world

😷 San Bernardino is a hub for distribution centers in California’s Inland Empire, but all the trucks, planes, and diesel trains have made it the worst U.S. county for ozone pollution and among the worst for particulate pollution. Air pollution has created a lot of health problems, and a group of women have been fighting for change.

Transit

🚎 Electric trolley buses may be a better option for cities with cold winters than battery-electric buses

🇺🇦 Uber’s minibus service, Uber Shuttle, launched in Kyiv, Ukraine with two pilot routes and another four to be added in future

🚇 Campaigners are trying to get ads for Airbnb banned on London’s Underground

Bikes and scooters

🇬🇧 Cargo bikes are replacing delivery vans in London. They can be twice as fast and reduce particulates by 97.5% when compared to electric vans.

🇳🇴 Oslo’s docked bikeshare gets 8 trips/bike/day — four times the global average

🚲 Protected bike lanes result in 44% fewer deaths than average in major cities

Cars and roads

🇳🇴 Oslo closed streets and removed 700 on-street parking spots. Hanna Marcussen, vice-mayor for urban development, “likens her government’s traffic reforms to Norway’s public-smoking ban, which was enacted in 2004. Many grumbled before the law was passed, but few today would clamour to let people smoke in pubs again.”

🇪🇸 Madrid’s left-wing mayor restricted vehicle traffic in the city center, reducing traffic by 24%, nitrous oxide by 38%, and nitrous dioxide by up to 50%. However, the right-wing mayor expected to succeed her calls traffic jams “a sign [of the] identity of our city” and plans to form a coalition with far-right Vox to dismantle the restrictions.

🇫🇷 Paris’ Boulevard Périphérique accounts for 37% of nitrous oxide emissions in the metropolitan area. A new plan would reduce speed limits to 50 km/h (31 mph) and cut the number of lanes from eight to six, reserving one for emergency and zero-emissions vehicles and another for trees. It would reduce noise pollution and could improve travel times and congestion by improving fluidity and reducing the accordion effect.

Housing

🇯🇵 In Tokyo, housing is more affordable than many other Western capitals because zoning works differently and housing is frequently demolished and rebuilt

🏘 New York state may be on the verge of passing universal rent control and stronger tenant protections

Jacobin’s forthcoming issue is focused on the housing crisis, with pieces on:

The rezonings many mayors are pushing, though vast in scale, cannot be mistaken for comprehensive plans; they are, in fact, more often abdications of planning to the market. […] Zoning itself is a rather weak means for low-cost housing production and retention, especially when compared to classic methods: public housing, particularly, but also rent control and community land trusts. We need plans in place to preserve housing for the poor and working class, and ensure that new construction meets our needs as we define them.

Climate change and environment

🌪 The United States is dealing with above average numbers of tornadoes, with roughly 600 having been reported in May. Scientists caution against linking them to climate change, but climatic shifts have made a contribution.

🇯🇵 New report by the Meteorological Society of Japan concludes that its July 2018 heatwave that killed 1,032 people could not have happened without climate change

🔥 Alberta’s new right-wing premier repealed the provincial carbon tax, but had to cancel his celebratory press conference at a gas station in Edmonton because the city was choking on wildfire smoke. The federal government will implement a federal carbon tax to replace it.

Other great reads

✊ How New York City residents activated a network of organizations decades in the making to stop Amazon’s proposed HQ2 in Long Island City

🇬🇧 Councils across the United Kingdom are bringing services back in-house as a 40-year experiment with privatization is being reevaluated

💸 “58% of full-time gig workers said they would have a hard time coming up with $400 to cover an emergency bill—compared to 38% of people who don’t work in the gig economy”

🇳🇱 The Netherlands Tourist Board has decided to stop promoting its country as a destination, but no matter how much Amsterdam tries to stop the flood of tourists, some people are losing hope

🏳️‍🌈 Vienna’s changing queer spaces, with accompanying drawings

Travel expert Rick Steves takes a deeper look at a sculpture of a middle finger in front of Milan’s stock market. He also tweeted about it.

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