Micromobility services are dying. We don't need them anyway.

Issue 136

Hey urbanists,

Some big developments this week with the further collapse of micromobility, the withdrawal of Sidewalk Labs from Toronto, and the California lawsuit against Uber and Lyft — sadly, all as the global impact of COVID-19 continues to grow.

I left out the section on climate this week — I simply didn’t see enough news to include — but I’m sure you’ll like what’s in the other two. I also used the attention on Elon Musk’s new baby’s name to point out some disturbing views he has on parenthood and population in Jacobin, if you’re interested.

As always, I hope you’re well and staying safe as we all learn what the new normal looks like moving forward.


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Critical urbanism

Last year, I wrote that the private, dockless ‘micromobility’ services that had become ubiquitous on city streets didn’t have a viable future. Either they would have to become a public service integrated into public bikeshare systems, or the shared model would have to be abandoned in favor of promoting ownership. It’s becoming even more clear that’s true.

Micromobility companies were already hiking prices and pulling out of cities before COVID-19 hit, but now things are even more dire with Bird having laid off 30% of its staff via Zoom and Lime’s valuation collapsing by 79%. Uber, which laid off 3,700 workers this week, offloaded its Jump micromobility division onto the husk of Lime to get the losses off its balance sheet. It will have to option of buying Lime in a few years, but who really thinks that’s going to happen?

That doesn’t mean it’s the end of scooters and e-bikes; rather that treating them as disposable commodities isn’t very efficient. Instead, we need public rental options and subsidized ownership. Sweden has already had success with e-bike subsidies, and now Italy is offering €500 toward the purchase of bicycles, e-bikes, scooters, and a few other options. Paris already has a €40/month e-bike rental scheme and subsidies for e-bike purchases, and now France is even offering €50 toward bike repairs.

These are the kinds of measures that will encourage people to switch to active mobility, paired with more protected bike lanes, car-free streets, and complete communities — not littering sidewalks with disposable scooters.

In other news: Bruce Schaller makes an argument for density. Transit workers are fighting for safer conditions for drivers and riders. The pandemic exposes the flaws of auto-centric planning and gives us an opportunity to reexamine our ideas on who should have access to roads. Greyhound suspended all routes in Canada. Cities in Europe plan to take advantage of the collapse in Airbnb bookings to permanently reduce short-term lets. UK Labour has turned its back on renters.

Tech dystopia

Great news this week that Sidewalk Labs, the urban-tech sister company of Google, finally withdrew from its agreement with Waterfront Toronto to build a neighborhood “from the internet up” on Toronto’s waterfront. This project has been opposed from the very beginning, and despite the company’s sleek marketing and attempts to make it look like it was a democratic process, it was anything but.

But where does the city go from here? The municipal government must refocus on the actual needs of the city and its residents, instead of simply bringing in a tech company with name recognition promising to hit all the keywords for the government to appear innovative and forward-thinking. For insight into how governments should be approaching public services and the development of public tech, I highly recommend my chat with Bianca Wylie, one of the leading opponents of the Sidewalk Toronto project, on my podcast Tech Won’t Save Us. We didn’t know the project was being canceled at the time, but the principles she outlines are broadly applicable.

Many people expect Sidewalk Labs will now refocus on New York City, and sadly for its residents they may well be right. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is already asking tech billionaires like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt to “reimagine” (see: privatize) the delivery of healthcare, education, and other services. Naomi Klein writes,

something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the “Screen New Deal.” Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.

The fight continues.

In other news: Amazon VP Tim Bray quit over firing of whistleblowers, calling it “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” It prompted other executives to publicly push back. A worker at an Amazon warehouse in New York died of COVID-19. Nine US senators are demanding answers on the firing of whistleblowers. California, along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, are suing Uber and Lyft for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors, in violation of AB5. A new report shows Uber and Lyft owe $413 million in state unemployment insurance taxes in California. Uber lost $2.9 billion in Q1 2020. Elon Musk is suing Alameda County over its stay-at-home order, demanding to be able to force workers back to work against the wishes of public health officials.

Tech Won’t Save Us

I had some great chats this past week with Ilari Kaila about the cult of Elon Musk and Grace Blakeley about taking on the tech monopolies. The podcast is now entering its fourth week, and while I said I’d make it twice weekly for the first four weeks, I think I’m going to be continuing that a little longer since many of us are still basically confined to our homes, other than walks and trips to the grocery store.

This coming week, I’ll be talking to Rob Larson, author of “Bit Tyrants,” on Tuesday about billionaire philanthropy, tech billionaires’ links to colonial resource wealth, and online socialism. I’m in the middle of organizing guests for Thursday and the following week.

As always, make sure to subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts, and please leave a five-star review if you like what you hear. Thanks!

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