World War 2 as inspiration for climate action; new cities criticism; Uber and transit; Musk troubles; & more!

Issue 94

Hey urbanists,

Thanks for your responses to last week’s two-minute survey. It’s still open if you forgot; just see issue 93. You provided some great feedback that I can use to make the newsletter better. In particular, I want to make it less U.S.-centric, so if there are any great non-U.S. news websites focused on urbanism, tech, climate, or socialism I should be watching, send them along. Further, if you read an intriguing international piece you think I might not see, feel free to email it or send it in a Twitter DM.

As I put together podcast plans, I’ll also be on the move for the next three months and hoping to talk to people in the places I’m headed: Montreal, Toronto, Hong Kong, Seoul, some other parts of Asia, then to Australia and New Zealand. If you have any suggestions of things I should look into or people I might want to talk to, let me know.

This week, I have a recap of a climate conference I attended in Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, with some great detail on how the mobilization for World War 2 could be an inspiration for climate action. There’s also a series of articles on new cities, plus some great pieces on Bird’s financials, Autopilot’s troubles, how U.S. law prioritizes automobiles, deep-sea mining, banning billionaires, and much more!

Have a great week!


Debrief from Decarbonize NL

On Thursday and Friday, I attended Decarbonize NL in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, a province on Canada’s east coast that’s home to about 520,000 people, generates ~95% of its power from hydro dams (not without controversy), and whose economy is heavily reliant on natural resources, especially the oil industry. Oh, and it’s where I’m originally from. You might recognize its tourism ads.

The conference was full, and people came armed not just to discuss problems, but to collectively discuss solutions. It was successful in kickstarting conversations about a green future for the province that isn’t so reliant on resource extraction and employs a just transition for workers and communities. It was structured so each session had an expert panel to set the tone, then people were broken into groups to discuss solutions and use stickers to indicate which were most attractive.

Image from Newfoundland & Labrador’s The Way Forward. More in issue 75.

If I was to present a critique of the conference, it would be that in some of the sessions I attended the solutions failed to grapple with the challenge of system change and veered more toward small-scale or individual actions that would not go far enough to achieve the emissions reductions the IPCC says are necessary, and certainly not on the short time scale we have.

For those who aren’t familiar with the province, St. John’s (the capital city) and its larger metro region is very auto-oriented and sprawling, despite its low population. There was discussion of cycling and transit in the urban transportation session, but it struggled to consider how to seriously reorient the city away from cars and toward transit. On the other hand, there was a lot of excitement about electric vehicles, without enough serious talk about how automobility, as a system, is inherently unsustainable and how much mining would be required for their batteries. When I brought up the latter concern to attendees, they were receptive, but an organizer brushed it off with the suggestion that technology would solve the problem.

Graph from Earthworks. More in issue 87.

On the other hand, the session on just transitions was very productive. The tone was set very well by Delia Warren of Iron & Earth East, Kerry Murray of NL Federation of Labour, and Seth Klein, founding director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC. Klein compared mobilization necessary for the climate crisis to that which was undertaken for the World War II effort, making some great points:

  • We assume that the public was behind WW2, but when war was declared there were still a lot of Canadians opposed. For nine months, not much happened (which may be our current stage of the climate mobilization). Key to getting people on board was political leadership and ensuring the sacrifice was shared.

  • Canada created 28 Crown corporations during WW2 to manage the war effort, and while the private sector had a role, it did not get to direct the allocation of scarce resources. Further, we talk about wage and price controls during WW2, but Canada also had profit controls. The government used the average of a company’s profits for the previous four years as their profit cap for the war. Corporate tax was raised from 18% to 40% — but 100% for profits over the cap.

  • The economy was also swiftly transformed. Sale of private automobiles was banned in North America; production ended two months after the United States entered the war. Canada produced 300 planes every week and British Columbia alone built 300 ships during the course of the war, yet today it can’t build a ferry. Skilled workers were initially recruited the U.S. and U.K., then domestic workers were trained, one-third of whom were women.

  • During the war, unions grew, as did their militancy, and the government provided child care and instituted unemployment insurance paid for with higher taxes and bonds, but also by throwing off the austerity mindset. There was income support, housing assistance, and free university for returning soldiers.

All of these things should inspire us when considering how to approach a just transition to a green economy — we’ve done it all before. The financial constraints are largely an ideological construction that can be overcome. However, we must always consider the broader impacts of solutions and how they impact people in the places we don’t often see or think about — in the developing world, but also in our own back yards. I was happy to see indigenous perspectives at the conference and a critical perspective on the Muskrat Falls megadam being built by the province.

Decarbonize NL provoked a much-needed conversation about the future of Newfoundland and Labrador. My criticisms are minor and organizers have committed to consulting attendees about future actions. I’m not sure the solutions discussed would be enough to meet the IPCC targets, but the conference proved a great start to a larger discussion. I look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

‘New cities’ put profit before people

Guardian Cities did a feature on “Cities from scratch” this week, looking at the raft of new cities being built across the world, but who benefits remains dubious. I had the pleasure of getting to know Sarah Moser, a leading scholar on new cities, these past few months while working on my Master’s at McGill University.

These master-planned cities “are being conceived by private multinational corporations as gilt-edged gated communities and tax-exempt free-trade hubs, each branded as the ultimate techno-eco-utopia” even though, so often, the “physical urban model is no different to any other car-riddled business district.” As Moser explains, new cities “are scrambling to attract these global elites” as the “developer’s goal is to maximise profits and this is done in large part by creating luxury condos and villas. There is not much money to be made in affordable family housing, so developers are not interested.”

In Egypt, which has a decades-long history of embarking on new cities projects, it seems quite clear that the new cities planned under President Abdel el-Sisi will be more likely to be driven by profit-maximization like Sheikh Zayd City, which “feels most like a collection of inaccessible islands of gated compounds and luxury plazas rather than a coherent whole,” instead of the blue-collar 10th of Ramadan City where “[h]ousing is unapologetically bare, apart from the graffiti that covers many ground floor facades. Most public squares and playgrounds are dusty brown.”

The series also chronicles Lusail, Qatar, an extension of Doha that will be showcased during the 2022 World Cup; Bahria Town, Pakistan, an incredibly auto-oriented city mired in controversy for displacing locals as it claims it will also accommodate the middle class; and several other developments across Asia and Africa that have emerged in the past couple decades.

Around the world

☠️ “The power of large corporations to go where they want, extract what they want and brutalise who or whatever they want in pursuit of profit for the global north is neo‑colonialism and ecocide.”

Transit and trains

🇹🇭 Thailand has begun work on a high-speed rail network that will connect to the larger Pan-Asia Railway Network as part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The Thai section will be 3,193 km (1,984 mi) at a cost of 2.07 trillion baht (US$67 billion).

🇩🇪 Berlin could reduce that price of an annual transit pass to €365 ($409) from €761 after Vienna’s successful experiment with euro-a-day transit

🚌 U.S. transit agencies are rolling out loyalty programs. Why not just reduce fares across the board or at specific times to encourage off-peak ridership?

📱 Denver’s transit agency made a deal with Uber to put transit in the app. Its general manager argues transit benefits from the awareness, but Uber’s hope is that when “users see how time-consuming, cumbersome and costly it is to ride RTD, many will click Uber instead.”

Bikes and scooters

🛴 Bird data shows the company lost $100 million in the first quarter as revenue shrank to $15 million, and it’s now seeking $200-300 million by the end of the summer. It does, however, claim that new scooters are lasting longer and making money. [If you don’t have a sub to The Information, there’s a link to the full article on Hacker News.]

👋 The best time to ride a bike in New York City? When the rich people take their cars on vacation, freeing up plenty of curb space.

🇨🇦 After Jump’s launch in Montreal, parking bylaws are not being respected

🚲 U.S. libraries are making bikes available for borrow — just return it by day’s end

👨‍⚖️ In a preliminary ruling, a judge sided with Lyft’s argument that its agreement with San Francisco gives it exclusive bikeshare rights, whether docked or dockless

🇬🇧 Op-ed opposes the legalization of dockless scooter services in Britain. I feel like I’m increasingly coming to the view that the dockless scooter model doesn’t work, and they either need to start using docks or switch to personal ownership.

The scooters, which are surprisingly large and heavy, litter public places by design, blocking pavements and making life particularly difficult for people with reduced mobility. […] There’s also no reason in principle why individuals couldn’t simply buy and own an electric scooter like they own a bike or car. Most of the problems come from the dockless rental system which encourages user to leave them strewn around the place.

Cars and roads

🤔 Elon Musk makes bold AV claims, but he told the Autopilot team he was unhappy with their progress and “upset that some team members have told him they can’t meet [his] timelines.” In recent months, more than 10% of the Autopilot team quit, including longtime staff, and Musk says Tesla prices will rise in the future because self-driving will increase demand for Tesla vehicles. Truth, or just excuse to raise them?

🔋 The expansion of mining required to shift from ICEV to EV is huge and rarely considered in Western discussions on electric transport. Battery production is not green, recycling facilities are basically non-existent, and there’s a lot of magical thinking. Recycling can be scaled up (it’s not happening yet), but a ton of new mines will be required regardless, mostly in the Global South. [See issue 87 for more.]

😬 Auto companies and tech companies in the space increasingly admit that not only did they overestimate the shift to autonomous driving, but also electric powertrains

🚨 “In a sense, America is car-dependent by choice—but it is also car-dependent by law.” Gregory Shill outlines how U.S. laws entrench automobile supremacy.

🇪🇸 Madrid’s low-emission zone was reinstated after mass protests and a major air pollution spike in the five days after the car ban was lifted. The judged ruled that “the health of Madrid” was more important than “the right to travel by car.”

🇯🇵 In Japan, Uber partners with local taxi companies and elderly people deliver for Uber Eats on foot. Sony, Japan Taxi, and Didi all have their own taxi-hailing solutions, so it’s hard to see what Uber brings to the table.

💅 Drag queens against cars? Host of Drag Race, RuPaul, has been tweeting about traffic and bikes all week.

Environment and climate crisis

Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright argue that the future won’t simply be an update form of liberal capitalism. They present grassroots climate movements that reject capitalism and the logic of sovereignty as key, but Thea Riofrancos put together a thread questioning their criticisms of the state and representations of movements.

🌊 California has benefited from an unusual cycle scientists have called “sea level rise suppression,” but now it’s coming to an end. In the last 100 years, California’s sea level has risen 9 inches (23 cm), but it could rise 9 feet (2.7 m) by 2100. Managed retreat is the only real option for many coastal areas, but residents are firmly opposed.

🇮🇱🇵🇸 New report finds that Israel’s reprehensible treatment of Gaza is creating an environmental crisis for Israelis. The 12-year blockade and repeated military assaults that have caused water, sewage, and electricity infrastructure to collapse to the point where Gaza is expected to be uninhabitable by 2020 presents “a material danger to Israel's groundwater, seawater, beaches and desalination plants,” but the authors blame Palestinians and largely ignore Israel’s culpability.

⛏ 29 exploration licenses for deep-sea mining have been issued, “covering vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, totalling 1.3m sq km (500,000 sq miles). […] as well as destroying little understood regions of the ocean floor, the operations would deepen the climate emergency by disrupting carbon stores in seafloor sediments.”

🏚 U.N. special representative on disaster risk reduction Mami Mizutori warns that one climate crisis disaster happens every week, but most don’t get international attention. There’s a great need to invest in adaptation, but it’s so far lagging.

🌳 Reforestation isn’t a silver bullet, but it will still be important. However, the method is also important: plantations aren’t as effective as natural forests, but they’re the most likely outcome of involving private equity; and land acquisition by global finance functions like an enclosure, pushing local people off land.

🇨🇱 Central Chile is suffering its worst drought in 60 years. Santiago, the capital, could be without drinking water by 2030.

Inequality and automation

🚫 Dan Riffle, policy advisor to AOC, argues there shouldn’t be billionaires: “If you have $5 million, you can live off the interest of that and be a one percenter. There’s nothing in this world that anybody wants or needs to do that you can’t do with, let’s say, $10-15 million. And so at some point there has to be a line. To me, $1 billion is way, way, way, way past the line.”

😰 Economist Jim Stanford, previously of Unifor and now at the Centre for Future Work in Australia, says precarious work isn’t inevitable: “I don’t think it’s driven by market forces, or by technology. I think it’s driven by our choices as a society about how to organize the labour market. We absolutely could make different choices.”

🚗 Interesting interview with “The Rideshare Guy” Harry Campbell about California’s proposed AB5, which would effectively make ride-hail drivers employees. Campbell explains that drivers currently do not have the flexibility that Uber and Lyft pretend they offer and that driver organizing is a welcome development. However, I think he’s a bit too forgiving of the companies and too critical of labor unions.

🤖 New report explains that automation is a top-down process driven by CEOs and CTOs who say they need to automate to ‘become more competitive’ (which translates to reducing payroll) even “if it’s unclear in many cases that automation is actually yielding any gains for the company.”

Automation is a buzzword, a corporate imperative, an opportunity to cut labor costs—even when the technology isn’t there to fill the gaps yet—and it is being consciously, approvingly, and eagerly adopted by our corporate overlords. Those who fear that automation is fueling inequality and delivering gains to those at the top are 100 percent right—but don’t take it from me, listen to the folks at the top.


🇵🇹 Portugal’s new Basic Housing Law puts housing’s social function above its investment potential (use value > exchange value) “with the explicit goals of eradicating homelessness, prioritizing the use of public real estate for affordable housing, and prohibiting tenant evictions across Lisbon—a pressing issue in recent years—unless the state is able to provide similar accommodation nearby”

🏠 Google is using its power to gain control over urban space and housing, but history suggests the “intertwining of monopoly-driven corporate profit, governance and everyday life may undermine both democracy and individual autonomy”

🇺🇸 New report shows that Americans are falling out of love with sprawling, suburban communities and want denser, more walkable spaces

🗳 Shaun Scott, a DSA organizer, is running for Seattle city council on a platform to tax the rich and build public housing. “[W]e know that it’s going to take a contest, a contest for space, a contest for resources, a contest for revenue, to actually have that right to the city manifest.”

Other great reads

🇮🇹 “Politics and money are killing Venice.” The city seems powerless to stop its reorientation toward tourism, as local residents continue to drop below 54,000.

🖥 As part of its ‘Amazon for transportation’ plan, Uber says it may open parts of its platform to third parties in future in an AWS model to bring in additional revenue.

🇹🇭 Ride-hailing apps and illegal drivers have “further destabilised an already fragile equilibrium in the street economies of Bangkok,” causing deadly clashes over territory

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