Will air travel ever go back to ‘normal’?

Issue 135

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re all holding up well. I submitted my Master’s thesis this week! 🎉 Now I just have to wait for it to get graded (and obviously crossing my fingers that I pass).

I think you’ll like this week’s issue. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I discussed in the climate section: what’s the future of air travel, and how can be shift as much as possible to rail? Hoping to write something more in-depth on it soon.

Just a reminder that Radical Urbanist is on Twitter now if you want to follow.

Have a great week!

Paris Marx

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Critical urbanism

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo says “it is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution” after the lockdown ends. To ensure a switch to great transit and bike use, Hidalgo is asking anyone who can work from home to continue doing so for the time being so as not to crowd transit. All metro fare barriers will be equipped with hand sanitizer, all passengers will have to wear masks, and bus services will be greatly expanded. Rue de Rivoli will be closed to cars — potentially permanently — and new protected bike lanes are being built that reach right into the suburbs.

With fewer people using transit because of social distancing measures, the solution isn’t just to put everyone in cars. Not only would that make traffic unbearable, but it would still kill a lot of people. It’s estimated 11,000 fewer people have died of air pollution in Europe because it’s dropped so much as car use plummeted, and with COVID-19 deaths also linked to polluted urban air because of the damage it causes to people’s lungs, there’s even more reason to keep cars off the roads. It’s thus no surprise that not only are cities rapidly adding bike lanes, but Australia is reporting that bikes have become the new toilet paper: they’re sold out everywhere!

One of the ideas I really love is Henry Grabar’s suggestion to simply start taking over streets and parking lots to let people dine outside. Vilnius, Lithuania is doing this in a big way by opening 18 of its public spaces for outdoor dining and cafés, with more to be added later, and 160 restaurants have already applied. More cities should follow their lead.

In other news: The density debate needs more nuance, as it often ignores the “forgotten densities.” Airbnb’s collapse is causing rent prices to drop in Australia. US authorities know vehicles are killing more pedestrians, but they’re not doing much about it. Tenants not just in New York, but across the United States, withheld rent on May 1.

Tech dystopia

Elon Musk is quickly becoming the villain of COVID-19, calling stay-at-home orders “fascist” and backing calls to reopen the economy, despite being very wrong about the science of the virus. His unhinged rants have not only included lies about the EPA and cratering Tesla’s share price, but have allowed a bunch of other rich tech executives to admit they too want to force workers back into harm’s way.

It’s part of a larger war being waged on workers during the pandemic, which workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target, FedEx, and other companies protested with walkouts and sickouts on May 1 as they asked consumers to boycott the companies. Amazon has been leading the charge, and is even curtailing its corporate employees’ ability to communicate with one another to try to tamp down on organizing. Earlier this week, a walkout in Shakopee, Minnesota even forced the company to reinstate a worker who was fired because she stayed home to protect her children from COVID-19. Brian Merchant forcefully makes the case that there’s no debate anymore: shopping at Amazon and using its services is unethical, and you should stop.

In other news: Veena Dubal explains the longer history of gig work and the attack on the rights and wages of taxi workers. Grace Blakeley argues the pandemic is accelerating tech monopolization. Lyft laid off 17% of its workforce, and Uber’s CTO resigned as 20% of its workforce may suffer the same fate. Airbnb hosts are getting hit hard by the tourism collapse, and it’s exactly what they deserve. To avoid classifying drivers as employees, Uber is now trying to argue riders are actually the employers. We don’t have to trade privacy for health in response to COVID-19.

Climate crisis

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of air travel; particularly, how I’m not as convinced as some people that things will be back to normal in a year or two. With airlines not booking middle seats, bringing in better cleaning practices, and taking other measures, I can easily see lower passenger volumes being paired with higher prices (further reducing the incentive to fly).

As a condition of its bailout, France will require Air France to stop competing with high-speed rail on routes where train journeys take 2.5 hours or less. I think such plans should be expanded to other countries, and be paired with major investments in rail infrastructure to try to shift more trips from plane to train. Alon Levy has a good piece thinking through what a tourism regime focused on high-speed trains might look like.

In other news: Forget the oil glut; there’s also an auto glut, with ships carrying SUVs waiting at sea because lots are full. “Most trees alive today won't be able to survive in the climate expected in 40 years.” Emissions haven’t fallen more during COVID-19 because individual actions aren’t enough; we still need structural change. Rock-bottom natural gas prices are bad news for Canada’s ambitions

Tech Won’t Save Us

This past week, I spoke to Ziya Tong and Bianca Wylie on the podcast. I think you’ll like both conversations, but the latter might be of particular interest to the urbanist crowd. Bianca is one of the leading figures opposing Sidewalk Labs’ smart neighborhood in Toronto, and has a lot of thoughts on how focusing on tech solutions leads governments, media, and the rest of us to ignore bigger social problems.

Remember, if you like the podcast (or just want to support it), please leave a ★★★★★ on Apple Podcasts. I can’t announce next week’s guests yet (was a bit late putting it all together because I was finishing up my thesis), but the episodes should be out on Tuesday and Thursday.

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