North America can have a little high-speed rail, as a treat

Issue 127

Hey urbanists,

I should be done my Master’s thesis in the next couple of days — then just a few rounds of edits and I never have to think about it again. 🎉 I’ve also been wondering what to do next (see this week’s [picture-heavy] essay for some thoughts inspired by that). Over the next month and a half, I’ll be in Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and likely Denver and Los Angeles. Feel free to reach out if you want to chat.

I recently read Joanne McNeil’s “Lurking,” which I highly recommend, and now I’ve moved on to Chris Carlsson’s “Hidden San Francisco.”

This week, I recommend the highlighted story on plastics most of all, but also really liked those about automated management (with a caveat), Ring doorbell abuse, how the rich are responding to coronavirus, why cities aren’t labs for smart tech, and the infiltrated Shell meeting.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart below the title or at the end of the issue if you liked it.

High-speed rail, pretty please?

Over the past week, I’ve been looking at flights and trains as I consider my route for the next few months, coronavirus be damned, and I’m so sad/frustrated that there’s no high-speed rail in North America (don’t come at me about Acela, it’s not fast enough and they just cut it back until May anyway). Specifically, I was looking at Portland to San Francisco — 2-hour flight vs 19-hour train — and San Francisco to Denver — 3-hour flight vs 33-hour train. Why can’t North Americans have nice things?

(Yes, I know the answer is “neoliberalism hollowed out public budgets with tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich and large corporations.” Big thanks to Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for kicking off that shitstorm.)

Alternative link if the tweet doesn’t work.

Anyway, thinking about that reminded me of a little rabbit hole I went down a few weeks ago where I discovered this beautiful map of U.S. rail lines in 1918. So many!

But that was, of course, whittled down over the following century to the sorry state of the railways that we have in North America today, most of which are for freight transportation, and where passenger rail does exist, it has few exclusive corridors. Most of the time it shares with freight, and has lower priority, leading to delays if freight trains need to use them.

But what might a North America high-speed rail network look like, if our politicians someday escape the neoliberal curse and realize — wow! — the government can actually do things once again?

The Obama White House put out the following map as part of a plan to build high-speed rail with stimulus funds in 2009, which would have some key segments throughout the country with great connections down the East coast. As you may have noticed, those segments don’t exist today — the California line is still being built — because, as usual, the Democrats didn’t actually fight very hard to get it done. Thanks Obama.

A similar plan by America 2050 for a Trans-American Passenger Network adds a few more segments, but not enough to add another image (clickthrough if you want to see it). One of my favorites, however, was designed by Alfred Twu with plenty of long-distance (but sorta messy) high-speed lines, which I feel is essential to getting people to really consider trains for longer journeys. That will become more important in the coming years to cut emissions by making flying more expensive through shifting subsidies from planes to trains, if not banning some of it altogether. Twu also, notably, includes high-speed rail from Windsor, Ontario to Quebec City (which would obviously have to be owned by the Government of Canada).

So anyway, I’m here, considering how I’m going to cross these long distances, dreaming of a high-speed rail future, but sadly accepting the reality that I’m likely going to still be spending some time in the cattle cars of modern aviation for quite a while to come. Workers of the world, unite, we have a train network (and a lot more) to win!

News roundup

🚨🥤 “When people in the global north throw something ‘away,’ much of it ends up in the global south because there is no such thing as ‘away.’” Tim Dickinson digs into the plastics industry for Rolling Stone, explaining how recycling is basically useless, the oil industry is doubling down on plastics production, and all that plastic is creating health and environmental crises that we really don’t know the extent of.

Big Plastic isn’t a single entity. It’s more like a corporate supergroup: Big Oil meets Big Soda — with a puff of Big Tobacco, responsible for trillions of plastic cigarette butts in the environment every year. And it combines the lobbying and public-relations might of all three. […]

When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. […] Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once […] Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. […]

American fracking is literally fueling the global surge in plastics. […] Since 2010, according to the [American Chemistry Council], U.S. companies have ramped up “334 chemical and plastics projects cumulatively valued at $204 billion.” Europe has built new plastics plants fed by fracked U.S. exports.

Tech dystopia

🤖👨‍💼 Josh Dzezia writes for The Verge about how despite all the fears about the automation of jobs, what’s really happening (at least in the short-term) is the automation of management, and that means more surveillance of workers that leads everything they do to be tracked and much more pressure to perform tasks in shorter and shorter periods of time. This not only makes jobs like those in warehouses, call centers, and software development more demoralizing, and potentially more dangerous, but robs workers of their autonomy. However, note how Dzezia frames the story (as pointed out by Wendy Liu and Brian Merchant): it’s all about automated management and the effect on workers; there’s little mention of the bosses implementing those technologies and profiting from the harm they’re inflicting on workers as a result. It’s a typical blind spot of tech media.

🇺🇸🗳 There a massive political divide between the bosses and the workers in Silicon Valley. Workers at most tech companies are most likely to donate to Bernie Sanders, the only exceptions being those at Twitter, who donated most to Elizabeth Warren, and Netflix, where Pete Buttigieg was the favorite. Amazon’s warehouse workers, in particular, overwhelmingly support Sanders. Yet elites and venture capitalists say they’d likely back Donald Trump over Sanders. In Tuesday’s Democratic primary in California, this trend was reflected in the votes.

👏 “Allowing people who share responsibility for our tech dystopia to keep control of the narrative means we never get to the bottom of how and why we got here, and we artificially narrow the possibilities for where we go next. And centering people who were insiders before and claim to be leading the outsiders now doesn’t help the overall case for tech accountability. It just reinforces the industry’s toxic dynamic that some people are worth more than others, that power is its own justification.”

👁 “Customers who bought the cameras in hopes of not becoming victims joke that instead they’ve become voyeurs.” Drew Harwell writes in the Washington Post about how Nest and Ring cameras are causing homeowners to surveil people in and around their homes without telling them, perceive normal things as threats, and rob children of what little autonomy they have left. One woman put it well: “We’re all getting too paranoid. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the next victim. And it’s set into us this mentality that we have to watch everything and everybody. They think, ‘If I put all these cameras up, I’ll be safe.’ Safe from what? … It’s only making them more afraid.”

🇺🇸📦 “Amazon warehouses have uniquely high rates of turnover for the warehouse industry.[…] Between 2011—the year the first fulfillment center opened in California— and 2017, the turnover rate in five counties with Amazon warehouses leaped from 38 percent to 100 percent, according to the report. In other words, more warehouse workers departed from their jobs each year in counties with an Amazon presence than the total number of warehouse jobs.”

🦠 “The rich are sparing no expense when it comes to minimizing their experience with the coronavirus.” Private flights, yacht vacations, exclusive hospital rooms, luxury bunkers — the rich are making sure they separate themselves from regular people.

Critical urbanism

😷🚇 Don’t let the coronavirus make you scared of public transit. “Not only is public transportation probably not where people are actually getting sick, but avoiding it—or, in extreme cases, limiting service—has serious consequences in the health care community’s ability to respond to such pandemics. Health care workers often rely on public transportation to get to work, and have cited unreliable transportation as a major source of absenteeism during pandemics, which strains hospital resources when they need workers the most.”

🌇👁 “The city is not a lab; it is not the public’s interest to subsidize private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. (To say nothing of constructing a surveillance state.) Even major consultancies such as Deloitte have found that most smart cities have failed to improve people’s lives, despite costing governments tens of billions of dollars.”

🇺🇸🚄 Clare Coffey makes the case for trains: fast ones, slow ones, all of them. “Tough luck, budget hawks: civilization costs money. The aim should be to increase use, not cut costs. And since competitive speed is out of the question, the focus should be on reliability and comfort.”

🇸🇪🛴 Stockholm considered making a combined fare for public transit and e-scooters, but found the price would have to double and the number of e-scooter rides would still be limited to three or four per day. It’s way too expensive.

🏙🤝 Joshua Freeman explains how Bernie Sanders’ experience growing up in New York City helped inspire his support for democratic socialism. “Mid-20th-century New York had serious flaws, including poverty, economic inequality (though not as bad as today), and racial and gender discrimination. But it stands as an example of what can be done when the power of government is combined with a capacious vision of human rights, equality, and democracy. It is this that Bernie Sanders refers to when he calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’. We could do a lot worse.”

🇺🇸🏘 Alissa Walker compares the housing plans released by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Climate crisis

🛢🤔 Malcolm Harris was invited to a private Shell planning meeting and didn’t have to sign an NDA, so he wrote an article about it. “These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.”

🇺🇸🏚 “Funded by the federal government, local governments in coastal states are buying out thousands of homes in vulnerable areas every year, reshaping and breaking up communities as they go. In their wake, the departed residents of these communities have left what may be the country’s first climate ghost towns, abandoned places made uninhabitable by the warming of the planet.” [Elizabeth Rush wrote an excellent book called “Rising” that touches on this.]

🌊😬 New study finds “the coral species that are bleaching and dying are hauntingly similar to the ones that vanished in the last mass extinction 66 million years ago” and that “the modern corals that are still thriving—those that form small colonies, favor deep water and thrive in a variety of locales—are the same ones that ‘hopped over’ the extinction boundary millions of years ago and survived.”

🚫🛢💰 “In the 2018 study, emissions reductions from subsidy removal were calculated by the researchers to be five hundred million to two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. This figure is by no means ‘small’. It amounts to roughly one quarter of the energy-related emission reductions pledged by all of the countries participating in the Paris Agreement.”

🌳 “Tropical forests are taking up less carbon dioxide from the air, reducing their ability to act as ‘carbon sinks’ and bringing closer the prospect of accelerating climate breakdown.” Simon Lewis, professor in the school of geography at Leeds University, says, “We’ve found that one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun. This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models.”

🇨🇦🛢 “After years of fossil fuels subsidies, government intervention is now necessary to quickly build a clean energy production and distribution infrastructure sufficiently large enough to get all of Canada off fossil fuels.”

🇦🇺🔥 Thought the recent fires in Australia were bad? A new analysis suggests conditions like those in 2019-2020 could become up to eight times more likely in 2ºC warmer world.

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