Uber drivers may become employees; Jump hikes e-bike prices; spotlight on Tokyo; mining for EVs; & more!

Issue 90

Hey urbanists,

Uber drivers could become employees in California, Jump is hiking e-bike rental prices, and the Guardian Cities went to Tokyo. Plus, create pieces on NYC construction costs, minerals required for electric vehicles, the lifestyle penalty for many renters, and how hedge funds are buying up entry-level homes.

Have a great week!


Ride-hailing drivers are making progress

Since New York City set a wage floor for ride-hailing drivers, average pay per trip has increased from $14.22 to $16.63. But even with that boost, drivers are still struggling because rides aren’t constant; there are too many other drivers on the road so there can be long gaps between trips.

The glut of vehicles is convenient for passengers, but it’s not so great for drivers and contributes to congestion as they circulate waiting for a fare. NYC is looking into regulations on ride-hailing vehicle numbers, but in the meantime it’s extending the existing cap another year and may restrict how long empty ride-hailing vehicles can cruise in Manhattan.

On the other side of the country, Uber and Lyft took the unprecedented move of publishing a joint op-ed to argue against legislation currently before the California state senate that would effectively make ride-hailing drivers employees. Last April, the California Supreme Court ruled in the Dynamex decision that an independent contractor must be “free from the control and the direction of the hirer,” a more restrictive definition than is currently used.

The new legislation would codify the decision into law, requiring Uber and Lyft to treat drivers as employees unless they lobby for an exemption — which they’re trying very hard to do. Providing benefits to driver-employees and paying related taxes (social security, unemployment, etc.), would cost Uber an estimated $500 million.

That may seem like a lot, but Hubert Horan’s piece from last week explained Uber has much higher costs than a taxi company because individual vehicles are more expensive than a fleet and it spends on big-ticket items that taxi companies do not — self-driving cars, flying cars, private jets, fancy headquarters, major lobbying efforts, etc.

To put it in perspective, Uber spent $457 million last year on its autonomous vehicle and flying car projects. That money would be much better in the pockets of workers and contributing to public services than being spent on wasteful projects to keep investors believing the myth that Uber will someday find some way to turn a profit.

Mild micromobility troubles

Lyft rebranded San Francisco’s docked bikeshare as “Bay Wheels.” This refreshed service will have more e-bikes and will become a hybrid service that primarily uses docks, but the e-bikes will have locks for users whose ride ends far from a docking station — an inevitable evolution of docked bikeshare.

However, Lyft is also taking SF to court, claiming its exclusive bikeshare agreement doesn’t just apply to docked service, but dockless as well in a move to eliminate competition. I don’t like how this is playing out — it demonstrates the problem with having one of these ride-hailing firms running bikeshare — but I’m not against exclusivity. I do, however, worry what happens if Lyft goes bankrupt since SF uses a private contractor instead running its own public service.

As I argued previously, bikes and scooters will inevitably become part of a single bikeshare system, with ownership being more attractive for regular users. Uber subsidiary Jump doubled its prices in Los Angeles on June 14, from $0.15/min to $0.30/min, compared to $1.75 per 30 mins or $17 per month for all 30-min trips on LA Metro’s bikeshare system (which has e-bikes and allows dockless in some areas).

As Aaron Gordon argued, that makes a Jump ride very expensive if you’re going any distance, and makes ownership look even more attractive.

The Guardian goes to Tokyo

It’s Tokyo week at Guardian Cities. Here are the highlights:

Around the world

🇭🇰 Mass protests occurred in Hong Kong to oppose a bill that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for certain crimes. Over a million people took to the streets, and people bought cash fares to avoid having their metro cards tracked. The bill seems to have been suspended, but activists aren’t taking chances.

Transit and trains

🚌 “When you get into a bus or a train, or even a car, you acknowledge that the person at the wheel is in charge. This power relationship is what allows shared transportation to flourish, and this social contract is what helps many of us in marginalized groups feel safer while riding transportation. It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle.”

🚧 New York City’s transit construction costs a fortune because of bad coordination, unnecessarily fancy stations, and expensive utility relocation. But if it could get them down, it could build a regional express system like London’s Crossrail or Paris’ RER.

🚄 “While critics focus on delays and cost, they fail to see the big picture. Just like the State Water Project, high-speed rail is about California’s future.”

🇮🇳 Delhi is considering making transit free for women, but will it make women safer?

Bikes and scooters

🇨🇦 E-bikes and scooters are coming to Montreal. Operators will need to pay a licence fee between $15,000-$27,500. E-bikes must be locked to a bike rack and scooters must be parked in designated zones next to sidewalks.

🇫🇷 A man riding a scooter was killed in Paris by a truck driver who could now be charged with involuntary manslaughter

🛴 Scoot, operator of scooter- and moped-sharing services, was bought by Bird

👍 Malaysian tech entrepreneur has taken thousands of bikes trashed by dockless bikeshare companies, modified them, and donated them to poor students

Cars and roads

😂 New Chicago mayor confirms Elon Musk’s O’Hare Airport tunnel won’t be moving ahead. “The notion that he could do this without any city money is a total fantasy.”

🇮🇷 Iranians are boycotting ride-hailing app Snapp after a driver asked a woman to put her headscarf back on

🇦🇺 More reason not to outsource construction: $2.75-billion road near Melbourne would’ve cost $651 million had it been built by the state instead of a private contractor

☠️ GM’s autonomous Cruise division “will, by the end of 2019, have a vehicle that performs at between 5% and 11% of the safety level of average human driving, when it comes to frequency of crashes.”

🔋 Lithium mining to supply electric vehicles is booming in Chile’s Atacama desert, but with severe consequences for the local environment and water supply. “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining.”

Climate crisis

📈 In 2018, carbon emissions grew at their fastest rate in almost a decade and gas consumption jumped quicker than it has in 30 years. For the first time, temperature fluctuations were cited as a cause of the increase; extreme weather was also a factor.

🇪🇺 European neoliberals are trying to co-opt the “Green New Deal” after elections where the far-right used environmentalism to push their ethno-nationalist project

💰 Billionaires are pouring money into environmental causes, but they’re part of the problem, not the solution

🏭 Major cities are underestimating their carbon emissions because they measure consumption instead of production — 85% of which occurs outside their borders

🇳🇿 Auckland declared a climate emergency. This is what it needs to do if it wants to meet the challenge.

🇮🇳 Recent heatwave in Northern India, home to 200 million people, exceeded 50ºC (122ºF). “There is no drinking water available for days on end and we get one tanker every three days for the entire village. We are scared for our lives and livelihood.”

🇬🇱 Greenland is experiencing a massive ice melt with temperatures 10-20ºC (18-36ºF) above normal


🐋 Commercial whaling was banned in 1982, but Japan will reopen its whaling industry next month for the first time in 30 years. Should there be a boycott?

🇨🇦 Canada will ban single-use plastics in 2021 and make companies manufacturing or selling plastic products responsible for recycling. The list of items could include bags, straws, cutlery, drink stirrers, balloon sticks, and fast-food containers & cups.

🇧🇷 Brazil’s mangroves, which cover 13,989 km² (5,401 mi²), are under threat from rising sea levels and warming temperatures

🐟 For every 1ºC increase in the ocean’s temperature, the mass of sea animals will drop by 5%. On our current path, that’s a 17% decline by 2100, not including fishing.


😞 In countries like Canada with high rates of homeownership, there’s a lifestyle penalty for renting. “It’s always seen as a step down,” says German architecture grad.

New York City’s new package of rent regulations gives activists much of what they wanted and the landlords are furious

🏘 Hedge funds are using data analytics tools to buy up entry-level homes in Houston, making bids within three minutes of the property having been listed and keeping young people off the housing ladder

😐 The median size of a new U.S. home was 1,500 ft² in 1973, but had reached nearly 2,500 ft² by 2015. Despite the growth, “house satisfaction has remained steady.”

🇨🇦 Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, maintained affordable rents as Toronto and Vancouver soared. Despite record rental housing starts, that’s quickly changing.

🇬🇧 The Grenfell Tower tragedy was two years ago and repairs still haven’t been made to the U.K.’s public housing stock

Other great reads

🙄 WeWork profile dishes on its alcohol-fueled culture and narcissist CEO

🇮🇷 Police shut down 547 Tehran restaurants & cafés for breach of “Islamic principles”

🇧🇼🏳️‍🌈 Botswana struck down laws criminalizing same-sex relations just two weeks after similar laws in Kenya were upheld

🇪🇸 Ada Colau will return as mayor of Barcelona with support from the Socialists and Manuel Valls, while Madrid has a conservative mayor backed by the far-right Vox and center-right Ciudadanos

💳 Uber is making a push into financial services, likely because it sees transport will never be profitable

🇮🇱🇵🇸 Israel may excise Palestinian areas of occupied East Jerusalem to ensure its Jewish majority is maintained. That could also put the Israeli residency status of those Palestinians at risk, requiring them to get permits to enter East Jerusalem and Israel.

By Paris: The Electric Vehicle Revolution Will Be Dirty and Unequal: Electric vehicles aren’t enough to meet our emissions targets, subsidies to purchase them benefit high-income people, and a mass rollout would require a lot of dirty mining with negative consequences for workers, communities, and the environment in the global South

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