Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Chicago DoBi Numbers Show Lock-To Wins, Equity Concerns

(Photo by Mike Licht)

Chicago’s dockless bike-share pilot, launched in May, seeks to correct some of the problems baked in to the controversial model. It features guidelines for geographic equity, for example, and favors companies with lock-to technology (a.k.a., bikes that can be easily secured to racks or poles) over companies with so-called “wheel-lock-only” bikes.

Ofo cited Chicago’s lock-to formula as one motivation for its withdrawal from the city (ultimately, though, the company was just fed up with the U.S. market). But according to the Chicago Reader, even without Ofo the pilot, centered on the city’s far south side, continues to roll along — and a look at its numbers contains some helpful hints for other cities looking to regulate private “DoBi” operators.

For one thing, they need to actually enforce their equity requirements. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago Reader found out that LimeBike was leading its competitors in ridership numbers. The company may have had an edge because it offers electric bikes. But it also may be leading by disregarding certain requirements.

From the paper:

To promote geographic equity, the pilot’s rules require vendors to keep at least 15 percent of their fleets in each of the four service-area quadrants. When I checked out the apps last week, the Pace and Jump bikes were spread fairly evenly across the pilot zone, but almost all of the LimeBikes cycles were clustered within or near Beverly. This majority-white neighborhood is the most affluent community in the pilot zone, as well as the most bike friendly. As such, Beverly is low-hanging fruit for bike share, whose users tend to skew white and wealthier.

The city’s lock-to rules, however, appear to be effective. Maintenance reports obtained by the Reader suggested that vandalism had been rare. But many people the paper spoke with were also unfamiliar about how to use the bikes.

“They just put them out and don’t inform us about how they work,” one person said.

Beyond Chicago, dockless bike-share programs have seen mixed success in U.S. cities, as Next City has covered at length. While some regions have welcomed the start-ups for their upfront affordability, others have set up stringent regulations to limit their operation. Without such regulations, the start-ups “pose a threat to the public health, safety, and welfare,” one particularly wary Sacramento ordinance stated, adding that “derelict self-locking bicycles can become a major cause of blight in both residential and nonresidential neighborhoods.”

But the model has great potential for suburban regions, where cities and towns bleed together and biking between municipal boundaries makes sense. It’s also cheap enough to entice cities that have been slow to adopt any bike-share program.

“Bike-share will be a really powerful addition to the public transportation landscape in New Orleans,” Bike Easy Executive Director Dan Favre told Next City in 2016. “We’ve struggled to get bus service back to where it was before Katrina.”

 

Inflation Is Cancelling out Wage Growth

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The 2018 U.S. economy is “booming,” “strong,” and “firing on all cylinders,” if headlines are to be believed. But overall, inflation is erasing wage gains, according to numbers released by the Labor Department last week.

The cost of living was up 2.9 percent from July 2017 to July 2018 — and that inflation rate outpaced a 2.7 percent increase in wages over the same period, the Washington Post reports. The average U.S. “real wage,” i.e. a federal measure of pay that factors in inflation, is slightly lower than it was a year ago.

The Post reports:

Inflation hit a six-year high this summer, in part because of a jump in energy costs. The price of a gallon of gas has increased 50 cents in the past year, up to a national average of $2.87, according to AAA….

Consumers are also paying more for housing, health care and automobile insurance, the federal government reported Friday. Additional price increases could be coming as President Trump’s new tariffs boost the prices of cheap imported products on which U.S. consumers rely. And many economists warn that growth might have peaked for this expansion.

Those high costs — particularly for housing — have a ripple effect on city economies. From 2000 to the end of 2017, median rents had increased by 9 percent, but median renter household incomes had decreased by 11 percent, Angel Ross wrote in an op-ed for Next City last year. In 2017, nearly 50 million people nationwide lived in rent-burdened households, and those dollars often flowed away from local economies.

“The housing affordability crisis is not only taking a toll on renters, it’s also impacting municipal pocketbooks,” Ross wrote. “Research from the Urban Institute shows how renters’ economic and housing insecurity drains city budgets: In a typical year, one in four households experiences an income disruption due to job loss, health or a pay cut of 50 percent or more. And this has major cost implications for cities when it comes to homeless services, unpaid utilities and uncollected property taxes.”

According to the Post, most of the benefits of Trump’s strong economy have flowed to the top — to already high-paid workers, stock market investors and corporations. Relying on data from the Economic Policy Institute, the paper also reports that the bottom 10 percent of the workforce has seen modest gains in recent years, likely due to a number of minimum-wage increases passed by cities and states. But for workers in the middle, wages measured from 2009 to 2017 stayed flat or were slightly down.

Some good news: Key housing programs received several funding boosts under Congress’ last-minute budget bill passed in March. While the dollars still fall short of what’s needed, in many cases, increases to the Community Development Block Grant and Section 8 will at least help cities in assisting some of their rent-burdened residents.

 

EPA Opens Door for Asbestos Comeback

Photo of asbestos warning at Bauer Elementary School in Miamisburg, Ohio. (Credit: Ktorbeck)

Asbestos — that known carcinogen that manufacturing companies can’t seem to quit — has been linked with lung cancer and a host of other serious diseases according to the EPA.

That same EPA, however, may be on the verge of encouraging an asbestos comeback.

Fast Company reports:

On June 1, the EPA enacted a “SNUR” (short for Significant New Use Rule) allowing the manufacture of new asbestos-containing products to be petitioned and approved by the federal government on a case-by-case basis. Under an amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that passed in 2016, during the Obama administration, asbestos also remains one of ten prioritized substances currently being evaluated by the EPA.

And the agency has taken the teeth out of its evaluation process. According to the news site, it will no longer consider “the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments—effectively turning a blind eye to improper disposal, contamination, emissions, and other long-term environmental and health risks associated with chemical products, including those derived from asbestos.”

“The Trump administration rewrote the rules to be dramatically less protective of human health,” Bill Walsh, board president of the Healthy Building Network, recently told Fast Company. The new rules, he added, give the EPA “discretion to do whatever it wants.”

The U.S. is one of the only developed nations that hasn’t completely banned asbestos, and legislators have a long history of prioritizing business interests associated with the material over public health. But as the Washington Post points out, President Donald Trump’s EPA is poised to tighten that allegiance. The president has voiced skepticism of the well-established link between asbestos and a host of illnesses, according to the Post. In his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback,” he wrote that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob.”

It’s hardly surprising, given his administration’s track record of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, rolling back vehicle emissions standards and blaming California’s record-breaking 2018 wildfires on California’s environmental laws. As the Architect’s Newspaper points out, it’s now up to local and state governments to counter the federal move.

 

NYC Puts The Brakes on Unbridled Ride-Sharing Expansion

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

New York City Council Wednesday pressed pause on new ride-hailing vehicle licenses — a move that will allow the city to study the booming industry.

The legislation makes New York the first major U.S. city to cap services like Uber and Lyft, the New York Times reports. The new regulations could easily set a precedent for other cities wanting to rein in hide-hailing operators, according to the Times.

“We are pausing the issuance of new licenses in an industry that has been allowed to proliferate without any appropriate check or regulation,” Corey Johnson, the City Council Speaker, said, according to the paper.

Uber, predictably, was none-too-pleased. The company said in a statement (as reported by the Times) that the move would “threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion.”

But while it may not be beloved by the operators’ higher-ups, drivers stand to benefit. For one thing, officials on Wednesday also passed legislation that will allow them to set a minimum pay rate for drivers. Beyond that, fewer cars on city streets could mean less congestion and, thus, competition, as Uber driver Tidiane Samassa recently wrote in an op-ed for NY Daily News.

“There are too many Uber cars on the road, plain and simple,” he wrote. “Sometimes it now takes me over an hour driving around before I get a passenger, because all around me there are thousands of other for-hire cars also empty. All of us are competing for a smaller slice of the pie as Uber adds more cars to the streets each month with no limit.”

The new bills could help fix that, Streetsblog pointed out Wednesday.

Citywide, Uber and Lyft vehicles have no passenger 45 percent of the time they’re in service, according to [transportation analyst Bruce] Schaller’s analysis of trip data. To reduce that unoccupied time, the centerpiece of the City Council legislative package, Intro 144 (sponsored by Council Member Steve Levin), enables the TLC to establish “vehicle utilization standards” in specific parts of the city.

Schaller, an ex-DOT official, noted in a 2017 report that transportation network company ridership has doubled annually since 2013 in New York, as Next City reported last year. That growth increased driving in the city by about 600 million miles from 2013 to 2016.

The move is a “course correction,” according to Streetsblog that will be emulated by other U.S. cities being similarly strained. At least Uber can be glad the city hasn’t refused to renew its license altogether. Last year, Transport for London did just that, announcing that it didn’t find Uber London Limited “fit and proper to hold a private hire operator license.”

It’s also not as hard a cap as ride-sharing supporters imply — the freeze on ride-hailing vehicle licenses doesn’t apply to wheelchair accessible vehicles, Streetsblog also reported, speculating that the exception may “may serve as an incentive to make fleets accessible more than a hard constraint on growth.”

 

School Segregation is on the Rise in Boston

(Photo: Rick Berk)

Boston’s public schools are becoming resegregated, according to a new analysis from the Boston Globe.

Nearly 60 percent of the city’s schools are “intensely segregated,” meaning students of color occupy at least 90 percent of the seats, the Globe reports. That’s a sharp uptick — 20 years ago, 42 percent of the city’s schools fit that definition. Meanwhile, more schools are becoming majority-white as well.

Those shifting demographics are “largely the consequence of steps taken by city and school officials to allow more students to attend schools in their neighborhoods as they did prior to court-ordered busing,” according to the paper.

The schools that are becoming majority white, for example, are appearing in the same neighborhoods that had them prior to court-ordered segregation. And dramatic gaps exist in both performance and opportunities between majority-white schools and those labeled intensely segregated.

Laura Perille, interim superintendent of the Boston schools, pointed out that school demographics generally reflect the city’s segregated housing patterns.

“A lot of these schools are affirmatively chosen by families and students by the fact they are close to home,” she said, according to the paper. “From our perspective at the BPS, we educate all the children who come to us and celebrate their extraordinary diversity however that breaks down.”

Boston — like just about every U.S. city — had segregation baked into today’s real estate patterns, as Next City has covered. But according to the Globe, the city overhauled its school assignment system five years ago — and achieving racial balance wasn’t part of the equation. (Perille served on an advisory committee that helped with that overhaul.) What’s more, Mayor Marty Walsh also halted an effort to increase diversity at the city’s exam schools amid public backlash in 2016.

And although more local and state policymakers are exploring ways to desegregate their schools, federal mandates can easily stymie their efforts. One example: Two provisions tucked into a federal appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year. Those provisions would continue barring federal funds from going toward transportation for the purpose of school integration, as Next City has covered.

In other words, Boston’s geography is only one factor in the schools’ increasing segregation.

“This is devastating,” City Council President Andrea Campbell said of the findings, according to the Globe. “Not only does there need to be a sense of urgency to address this, but there also has to be a willingness to try new things. From where I sit, it’s important for every student and family who chooses to enter the system to have a spot at a quality school, but that is not currently happening in Boston.”

 

Bird Drops More Scooters on the Sly

A woman riding a Bird dockless electric scooter on a San Francisco crosswalk. (Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Bird has struck again — this time in Charleston.

The Post and Courier reports:

The scooters arrived with little warning — no hype, no preview, no city approval. When day broke on the weekend, they were just there.

Several dozen of them, actually, scattered across the Charleston peninsula and West Ashley. They were parked around The Citadel, they were parked on sidewalks on the Westside, and they were parked around Avondale.

Last month, the Santa Monica-based scooter company left fleets on the sidewalks of three New England cities without any notice, and it’s pulled similar stunts in St. Paul and Salt Lake City. Its strategy appears to be a two-wheeled version of Uber’s notorious “ask forgiveness, not permission.” (Bird was, after all, founded by a former Uber executive). By just showing up, the company forces a faster kick-off of the regulation process.

But according to the Charleston City Paper, this drop happened in less of a legal gray area. Bird apparently began operating without a business license even after the city told the company that would be illegal.

“Bird Rides, Inc. applied for a business license in Charleston sometime last week, but the application process was not completed after city officials determined that the business plan violated city rules,” the City Paper reports.

A letter from city attorney Steve Ruemelin to Bird says the city will consider it a violation each time a scooter is rented and “each day a scooter remains in the city,” according to the City Paper.

Bird’s statement suggested the company will comply.

“After testing a pilot program over the weekend, Bird has agreed to remove its scooters from Charleston,” the company said, according to the City paper. “We look forward to working with city officials on a framework that would allow our reliable transportation option to be available, and we are hopeful that we will be back on the streets soon to help the people of Charleston more easily move around their city.”

In May, Nashville regulators also chased Bird out of town — and reception has been mixed in San Francisco and Denver as well, as Next City has reported.

Despite its fly-by-night drop-offs, the company has also tried to play nice with city governments, vowing to pick up its scooters and share data with public entities. Earlier this month, it announced that it would begin directing revenue into a dedicated fund to create and improve transit infrastructure in the cities where it operates. The initiative would set aside $1 per day per scooter to build and maintain protected bike lanes.

After removing the scooters from Charleston by Monday, Bird’s scooters showed up in a neighboring city by Tuesday, according to WCSC Live 5 News.

 

Transit Union Says it will Refuse Special Accomodations for White Nationalists

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (Metro) is considering providing separate trains for participants of a white nationalist rally on August 12, the Washington Post reports. But the agency may be short-staffed that day; its largest transit union has implied that members won’t be showing up.

The “Unite the Right” rally is being organized by the white supremacist group behind the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration of the same name. Participants at that rally beat 20-year-old Deandre Harris and murdered counterprotester Heather Heyer. Speakers at this year’s event include neo-Nazi Patrick Little, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and “pro-white” town manager Tom Kawczynski, according to documents released by the National Park Service and reported on by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Jack Evans, Metro board chair, has said that the separate trains would be supplied in an effort to prevent violence between rally participants and counter-protestors.

“We haven’t made any decisions about anything,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “We’re just trying to come up with potential solutions on how to keep everybody safe.”

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 president Jackie Jeter released the following statement, according to the region’s ABC News affiliate:

Local 689 is proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C. including the March of Life, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matters. We draw the line at giving special accommodation to hate groups and hate speech, especially considering that the courts granted Metro the ability to deny ads on buses and trains that are ‘issue-oriented,’ we find it hypocritical for Mr. Wiedefeld to make these unprecedented special accommodations for a hate group.

ATU Local 689 has also pointed out that more than 80 percent of its members are people of color, according to the station.

Metro enacted rules on what can (and can’t) be displayed on the sides of buses and inside trains in response to a string of anti-Muslim ads, as Next City has covered. Its policy against “issue-oriented ads” was challenged by the ACLU last year; the organization claimed Metro’s practice was overly broad and deeply selective.

 

Transit Union Says it will Refuse Special Accommodations for White Nationalists

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (Metro) is considering providing separate trains for participants of a white nationalist rally on August 12, the Washington Post reports. But the agency may be short-staffed that day; its largest transit union has implied that members won’t be showing up.

The “Unite the Right” rally is being organized by the white supremacist group behind the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration of the same name. Participants at that rally beat 20-year-old Deandre Harris and murdered counterprotester Heather Heyer. Speakers at this year’s event include neo-Nazi Patrick Little, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and “pro-white” town manager Tom Kawczynski, according to documents released by the National Park Service and reported on by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Jack Evans, Metro board chair, has said that the separate trains would be supplied in an effort to prevent violence between rally participants and counter-protestors.

“We haven’t made any decisions about anything,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “We’re just trying to come up with potential solutions on how to keep everybody safe.”

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 president Jackie Jeter released the following statement, according to the region’s ABC News affiliate:

Local 689 is proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C. including the March of Life, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matters. We draw the line at giving special accommodation to hate groups and hate speech, especially considering that the courts granted Metro the ability to deny ads on buses and trains that are ‘issue-oriented,’ we find it hypocritical for Mr. Wiedefeld to make these unprecedented special accommodations for a hate group.

ATU Local 689 has also pointed out that more than 80 percent of its members are people of color, according to the station.

Metro enacted rules on what can (and can’t) be displayed on the sides of buses and inside trains in response to a string of anti-Muslim ads, as Next City has covered. Its policy against “issue-oriented ads” was challenged by the ACLU last year; the organization claimed Metro’s practice was overly broad and deeply selective.

 

Chicago Alderman Wants to Test Out Universal Basic Income

Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar. (Credit: Daniel X. O'Neil)

Chicago may be the next city to test universal basic income.

Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar recently proposed giving $500 a month to 1,000 Chicago families, no strings attached, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. His resolution has more than 30 co-sponsors and directs the mayor’s office to create a task force exploring a local universal basic income program, starting with the 1,000-family pilot.

Pawar fears that automation — particularly in the areas of hospitality, food services and transportation — could deepen the city’s existing fractures along the fault lines of geography, race and class, according to the Sun-Times.

“We are headed towards a perfect storm,” he said, according to the paper. “And I think that the best way to prevent that perfect storm is to start having a conversation and piloting innovative public policies so that people can start to see a different path.”

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board is skeptical of Pawar’s proposal. His plan “suffers from a number of flaws, the most obvious being: How would Chicago pay for it?” the board wrote in a Monday op-ed. “Chicago has huge unfunded pension obligations, a lousy bond rating and rising property taxes. This pilot program would cost at least $6 million a year. When asked on WTTW’s ‘Chicago Tonight’ where the money would come from, Pawar had no answer.”

As Next City has covered, however, universal basic income pilots aren’t necessarily publicly funded. In Stockton, where a similar program is being tested, the Economic Security Project and Goldhirsh Foundation are financing the city’s efforts. Pawar would like to see Chicago’s pilot funded by donations from wealthy supporters of the idea, the Sun-Times reports — but that’s no small endeavor.

“What they’re planning is quite substantial,” Saadia McConville, communications director at the Economic Security Project recently told the paper. “I can speak from experience in Stockton that it’s definitely not an easy task, but it is something that [donors] are interested in.”

Universal basic income has supporters from across the political spectrum, from the Movement for Black Lives to tech billionaires. Its skeptics point primarily to that latter group, questioning whether the policy would simply be a new way for corporations to keep up their tax-evading, workforce-shrinking ways.

As Douglas Rushkoff wrote in an LA Times op-ed last year: “Where is [universal basic income] supposed to come from, after all, if not the profits that Silicon Valley companies have made by cutting out human labor in the first place?”

But the idea has also been hailed as a way for cities to invest more directly in their citizens. Officials already dole out corporate subsidies by the millions, the argument goes — why not cut out the corporation and provide an income floor for residents’ basic necessities?

“What $500 a month is going to do is to get [pilot participants] over the hump: [help them] plan for emergencies, to have some money in the bank … put groceries in their refrigerator, food on the table, to pay for childcare, to repair [their] car,” Pawar said, according to the Sun-Times.

 

Massachusetts Gives Cities its Blessing to Tax Airbnb

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

In June, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh signed an ordinance regulating short-term rentals. Now, the Massachusetts state legislature appears to be following his lead.

Last week, House and Senate negotiators agreed to legislation that would allow cities to tax short-term units at a rate of up to 17.5 percent, WBUR reports. Taking a cue from New Orleans, Seattle and Nashville — where similar policies have been debated — legislators also allowed cities to tie their local taxes to affordable housing development, effectively blessing the creation of informal linkage fees.

Massachusetts would become the first U.S. state to maintain a central registry of units under the bill, to be overseen by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The legislation extends the state’s current 5.7 percent hotel tax to most short-term rentals while giving municipalities the option of tacking on an additional 6 to 9 percent, depending on how many units the owner is renting out, according to CBS Boston.

“We felt strongly that having some funding go toward more affordable housing was a critical piece and were happy to have it in the bill,” Representative Aaron Michlewitz said, according to WBUR.

Airbnb criticized the initial bill as “onerous and overly burdensome,” WBUR reports. In a statement, Airbnb spokesperson Crystal Davis said last week: ”While we appreciate the Massachusetts Senate and House for their progress on home sharing policy and taxation, a public registry of our hosts sets a precedent that negatively impacts families who home share, and the state’s reputation as a business leader.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh commended the legislature, however.

In June, Walsh signed an ordinance banning the listing of “investor units” rented out by people who don’t live on or near a property, as Next City reported. All owners wanting to list properties on sites like Airbnb would need to register with the city and pay permit fees ranging from $25 to $200 under the ordinance.

Linking short-term rental taxes to affordable housing — which the state bill allows — was debated in Nashville earlier this year. While some short-term rental critics wanted to phase out the practice entirely, one council member proposed adding a fee on the units. That tax would benefit a local consortium of nonprofits and religious entities that build below-market-rate housing.

Last November, Seattle also passed legislation to tax short-term operators. The funds were intended for both affordable housing and the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, which combats displacement.

The new taxes proposed in the Massachusetts bill would take effect in January 2019 for all units booked after the first of the year.

 



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