Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

NYC Uber Rides Will Soon Get More Expensive

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In a move widely regarded as the first step toward congestion pricing, the New York state legislature last weekend agreed to tax rides on Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services south of 96th Street in Manhattan.

The tax, which will also apply to taxis ($2.50 vs. $2.75 for the ride-hailing companies), was included in the state’s $168.3 billion budget that passed Saturday, the Associated Press reports. The fees are projected to raise about $415 million annually, which will go toward much-needed subway repairs.

Both Uber and Lyft support the surcharge, provided it is, in fact, a step toward broader congestion pricing, Engadgnet reports.

“Congestion will not be fully addressed until the Governor and Legislature enact a comprehensive plan that also addresses all commercial vehicles and the real issue driving congestion: personal vehicles,” a Lyft spokesperson told the news site.

Not everyone agrees.

“It’ll hurt our business,” taxi driver David Heller recently told NY1. “People won’t want to pay more money, and that’s what’s going to happen. There’s 130,000 Ubers, ok? They created the congestion, ok? Get rid of them.”

A smaller tax of 75 cents will also apply to shared-ride operators like Via and uberPOOL. Via voiced concerns to NY1 recently as well, pointing out that if a car contains four riders, that vehicle will be taxed $3.

“A tax that encourages driving or riding alone while imposing a higher fee on efficient pooled vehicles shared by multiple passengers clearly does not represent a win for anyone who cares about congestion in NYC,” a spokesperson told the station.

Congestion pricing in New York has been talked about — but not enacted — for years, either dying in the legislature or winning only partial approval. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently took another stab at the elusive policy with a blueprint containing three suggested phases.

As Aline Reynolds wrote for Next City last month:

Phase One would focus on improving transit service and connectivity in Manhattan and around the city, and would require the NYPD to step up enforcement of the city’s existing traffic laws. The second phase would introduce a surcharge to taxi and for-hire vehicular trips in Manhattan’s central business district, once, over the course of 10 months, the appropriate GPS technology is installed in cars. Phase three would establish a zone-based pricing program — first for trucks, then for all vehicles, that travel through Manhattan below 60th Street. The report predicts that the fee system could potentially generate between 1 billion and 2 billion dollars annually.

Transit advocates are hopeful about the plan, because it originated with the governor’s office. Previous (unsuccessful) proposals have risen to the state from New York City Hall.

“It’s a strong proposal,” John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, recently told Next City, stressing that all three phases would need to be carried out in full for the plan to work. “Any credible solution to the crisis in transit service will require modernization of some very outdated equipment — and there is no serious way to do that on the cheap … It’s going to take billions of dollars.”

New York is not the first to tax ride-hailing companies, with the fees intended for public transit. Last year, Chicago City Council approved a 15 cent increase to the fee already tacked on to every trip to fund its city-run transportation networks.

 

Boston HQ2 Bid Puts Spotlight Back on Long-Delayed Transit Project

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Boston’s elusive Red-Blue connector — which would synch up the MBTA’s only two disconnected lines — has been discussed, and at several points, planned for, since the 1970s. But the state effectively dropped the notion in 2013, when the federal government gave it permission to break an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, according to Boston.com.

Amazon, however, might help to bring it back. The Boston Globe reports:

After the online retailer initiated its search for a second North American headquarters, Boston mentioned the idea of connecting the two subway lines as part of its pitch for Suffolk Downs in East Boston …

The bid said the Red-Blue connector was a “clear goal” of the state government. That was, at best, a charitable read of the situation, but it looks slightly more accurate now.

Suffolk Downs is reportedly slated for redevelopment, and its developer believes the project would benefit from an easier connection to the Red Line, according to the paper. So whether or not Amazon chooses Boston as the site of HQ2, the MBTA has announced a $50,000 study to look at the feasibility of a synch-up. The study will look at whether ridership potential has changed over the last several years, and update construction options since the last time a study was performed.

The connector was originally part of a list of projects the state committed to in a legal agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation — the idea being that it would mitigate against traffic created by the Big Dig, according to Boston.com. In 2006, however, it got legal permission to scale back its commitment, and simply create a design. The design was never finished, and in 2013, the state received permission to ditch the project wholesale.

Boston is one of 20 cities on Amazon’s short list for its HQ2. As Next City has covered at length, the bidding war between cities has led to some wild antics and shady promises of corporate subsidies.

 

Prague Rethinks Cyclists’ Place in Downtown Mix

Prague's Old Town Square is among the historic regions where cyclists will soon be banned. (Credit: Joolz)

As officials in other European cities announce plans for car-free city centers, Prague’s leaders have decided to ban bikes from the urban core.

Cyclists will be forbidden from entering many of the city’s most famous historic districts between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. starting May 1, the Guardian reports. Parts of those districts are “pedestrian-only,” but cars are often still permitted — even on some streets supposedly designated solely for walkers. The Prague 1 municipality argues that bikes are a hazard to tourists.

“We are not against cyclists, but the problem is space,” Oldřich Lomecký, the Prague 1 mayor, recently told the paper. “In a pedestrian zone, the advantage should be for pedestrians, not cyclists.”

The bike ban started as a Segway ban — in 2016, officials forbade the scooters from entering certain historic zones, claiming that they clogged streets and endangered pedestrians. Motorized bikes then became popular among tourists, and councilors wanted to ban those. After concluding that police couldn’t tell the difference between regular and motorized bikes, they opted to make the districts completely bike-free.

“It’s a very stupid decision that will cut off central Prague from the infrastructure that’s been provided for cyclists elsewhere in the city,” Jan Cizinsky, mayor of the Prague 7 area known for its cycling paths, told the Guardian. “If they want to create more space for pedestrians, it would be better to reduce the size of open-air pavement restaurants.”

Bike advocates are likewise incensed, claiming that a ban on cars in the pedestrianized zones would be smarter.

“Data shows there were 21 pedestrians hit by cars over the past 10 years, and only three involved in accidents with bicycles,” Vratislav Filler, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Auto*Mat, told the paper, adding that the decision “means cyclists are going to be forced on to streets that are dangerous because they have heavy car traffic and busy tram lines.”

Madrid, Cape Town and Paris are among the growing list of cities that have recently moved to make portions of their cities either completely car-free, or available only to zero-emission vehicles, in a bid to reduce emissions.

 

Amazon Tax Investigation Highlights How Cities Lose Out

(Credit: ITEP)

Last year, Amazon began collecting state-level sales tax on its direct sales. But it’s still not collecting city taxes in a number of states — while taking advantage of city services like roads and police forces — according to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

The e-commerce giant, which has been criticized for paying little in federal income taxes and asking cities to incentivize its HQ2, is either collecting a lower amount or not collecting local tax at all in seven of the 37 states with local-level sales taxes, the report from the left-leaning think tank states. Amazon charges less tax than local retailers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Birmingham, among other cities in the seven states, which include Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. The gap between what Amazon collects and what local retailers collect “can be as high as 7.5 percent of an item’s pre-tax purchase price (in Homer, Alaska), but it is more commonly in the range of 1 to 3 percentage points,” the report states.

“This collection gap is harming local governments’ ability to fund vital programs, and it is contributing to an unlevel playing field for local businesses because millions of shoppers are able to pay less tax if they choose to buy products from out-of-state companies over the Internet rather than at local stores,” according to ITEP.

The gap can’t be blamed solely on Amazon — and is often the fault of state legislation, the report points out. In a recent article on the research, the New York Times detailed several of those laws.

(Credit: ITEP)

“Sales tax rules based on the location of the seller may be impossible to enforce if the company has no physical presence in that jurisdiction,” according to the paper. “And smaller online retailers can escape collecting sales taxes in more places than Amazon does — even when they use Amazon to sell their products.”

What’s more, a “hodgepodge of state laws” govern tax collection, according to the paper, so there’s no one simple solution for municipalities that are being undercut. The report offers several suggestions for cities left out under state law, including “destination-sourcing,” where the location of the buyer (rather than the seller) determines the tax amount collected, and the implementation of local “use taxes” at the state level to apply to interstate sales.

According to the Times, Albuquerque relies on sales tax for about two-thirds of its general fund revenue, which added up to about $500 million last year. The city has estimated that it lost roughly $5 million in tax revenue on Amazon purchases in 2016.

“The loser in that arrangement is cities,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the paper. “Cities are really being left to themselves.”

 

Atlanta Gets an Ambitious New Transit Plan

(Photo by dbking)

A bill that could expand transit and unify the county-by-county patchwork that makes up Atlanta’s transportation grid passed the General Assembly last week.

HB 930, the so-called “transit expansion bill,” now awaits a signature from Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who has endorsed the measure according to the AJC.

The final version of the bill allows the 13 counties around Atlanta to impose sales taxes of up to 1 percent for mass transit. Fulton County (where 90 percent of the city is located) already has a .75 percent tax for road and bridge construction and a 1 percent MARTA tax, so it would be limited to a smaller increase of .2 percent. The legislation also creates a regional board — which would have the final say over which project lists counties submit to voters — to oversee transit funding and construction. Finally, it allows Gwinnett County to hold another vote on joining MARTA this year (although the county has twice rejected proposals to join) and authorizes a special transit district in Cobb County to ask voters for approval of a transit expansion.

The state plans to add $100 million in bonds for transit expansion under a 2019 budget that already passed the General Assembly, the AJC reports. Those funds, combined with the bill’s allotted taxes, could “spark the biggest transit expansion in metro Atlanta since MARTA finished its existing passenger rail system in 2000,” according to the paper.

Curbed points out, however, that the bill simply allows — but doesn’t mandate — each county to impose taxes or join up with systems like MARTA.

It “provides flexibility and autonomy for member counties, who must ‘opt in’ to any specific project or funding mechanism,” a release from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) states.

As Next City has covered, the (historically whiter and wealthier) suburbs around Atlanta have long resisted joining transit systems like MARTA. In 1987, the New York Times reported that bumper stickers often seen on suburban Cobb County cars declared “Share Atlanta Crime — Support MARTA.”

In 2014, however, residents of Clayton County voted to tax themselves to join the regional transit agency. And as traffic worsens, voters in Gwinnett County have warmed to alternative transportation as well, according to the AJC.

“Traffic congestion doesn’t stop at the city or county line. It’s a regional problem that requires a regional solution,” Rep. Kevin Tanner, House sponsor of the Bill, said in a statement. “Improving regional transit is also important for economic development, as many businesses are choosing to locate in places served by public transit.”

 

Seattle Baseball Fans Get Free Light-Rail Rides

(Photo by SounderBruce via Flickr)

As stadiums and public transit operators squabble over the cost of keeping trains running late, a new partnership in Seattle shows that the two can — sometimes — play nice.

Beginning this week, Mariners fans will be able to start showing their game tickets and receiving free rides to Safeco Field on Sound Transit’s light rail, the Seattle Times reports. The arrangement is meant to encourage transit ridership (and decrease downtown traffic and parking) while boosting game attendance. It’s modeled on a similar program in Phoenix, in which participating venues pay transit operators a set amount, and then ticket-holding attendees can ride free on the day of their event.

“It brought thousands of new passengers onto their system — passengers who then, having discovered the convenience of light rail, stayed with the system,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said, according to the Times. “We expect the exact same thing to happen here.”

Critically, the Mariners will reimburse Sound Transit. That’s notable because of controversies that have erupted over the last year between the 49ers and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the Bay Area, and the Washington Nationals and D.C. Metro, over who should pay for late-night service, with both parties refusing to pick up the tab.

Of course, offering special services to game-day riders can also be controversial. When Metro Transit in Minneapolis announced that it had reserved light-rail service along several lines for Super Bowl attendees, regular commuters pushed back.

“It’s creating two tiers of people: Those who can afford expensive Super Bowl tickets, and those who cannot,” St. Paul resident and Metro rider Nate Hood told TwinCities.com last year.

In Seattle, the Mariners have also arranged for fans who take Uber to or from certain light-rail stations on game days to have $3.50 shaved off their fare. Unlike the Phoenix program, Seattle’s pilot will not cover rides on Metro buses. Both discounts — for the ride-hailing services and light-rail rides — run through June 3.

 

This NYC Park Is Designed to Be Flooded

(Credit: The Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency)

An East River park that will protect residents from storm surges while providing access to the waterfront moved one step closer to completion this week. A series of designs — showing bike paths and play areas for children that would double as seasonal flood lands — was approved by Manhattan’s Community Board 3, the Architect’s Newspaper reports.

From the paper:

Mathew Staudt, senior designer at New York’s One Architecture, told the assembly that the team hoped to rely on flood walls and traditional levees, plus earthen levees as space allows, to minimize the use of functional but not-too-pretty movable gates that can close to protect inland areas from rising waters. The flood protections are built to oppose a 100-year coastal storm in the 2050s, a model that assumes 2.5 feet of sea level rise over the next three-plus decades.

The designs mirror other proposals in the Bay Area and metro Houston, where natural infrastructure like wetlands, marshes are parks are increasingly favored as ways to absorb rising tides and soak up heavy rains.

The park was originally part of the Big U Proposal, developed by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) with One Architecture, Starr Whitehouse and others and submitted to the first Rebuild by Design competition. All of the areas Big U targeted flooded during Hurricane Sandy, as Next City has covered, but the project was eventually split into two phases — the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR), which just passed the Manhattan board, and the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project. The ESCR will be jointly funded by the City of New York and the federal government, and is aiming for FEMA accreditation.

(Credit: The Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency)

(Credit: The Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency)

Access played a big role at this week’s meeting, according to the Architect’s Newspaper. Per community feedback, designers adjusted plans for a pedestrian bridge, trading a sloped walkway for a ramp and stairs, and added a new bridge with both a ramp and stairs elsewhere.

 

Mapping 80 Years of Segregation in U.S. Cities

(Credit: NCRC)

It’s no secret that redlining shaped the economic and racial disparities on display in U.S. cities today. But the extent to which the notorious red “hazardous” zones — the source of the term “redlining” — depicted by Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps in the 1930s overlap with current neighborhood-level economic and racial data is still arresting. In fact, three out of four neighborhoods marked in red on the federal agency’s maps 80 years ago are still struggling economically, according to a new study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC).

The HOLC maps, which were digitized by the Mapping Inequality project in 2016, were created by government surveyors to document which neighborhoods local lenders considered “risky”. Their overarching goal, as Next City has covered, was to guide lenders making residential loans in the wake of the Great Depression. But while they considered things like access to transportation and quality of housing, a key driver of their system for assessing the risk of lending to any given neighborhood was the racial and ethnic makeup of each neighborhood’s residents.

NCRC compared the HOLC grading of 115 cities with data including each city’s median family income (classifying it as either low-to-moderate, or middle-to-upper) and the numbers of non-Hispanic white people in each census tract (classifying the tracts as either majority-white, or majority-minority). They also looked at patterns of gentrification with a subset of 30 cities — examining neighborhoods where educational attainment and median home value increased sharply from 2000 to 2010.

The overlaps are stark.

“Most of the neighborhoods (74 percent) that the HOLC graded as high-risk, or ‘hazardous’ eight decades ago are low-to-moderate income (LMI) today,” researchers state. “Additionally, most of the HOLC graded ‘hazardous’ areas (nearly 64 percent) are minority neighborhoods now.”

The enduring legacy of redlining is particularly apparent in the 10 cities containing the most neighborhoods graded “hazardous” — which today remain hyper segregated — according to the NCRC.

(Credit: NCRC)

“Eight of those cities were in the South, including Macon, Georgia, the most redlined city in America,” the report’s overview states. “In Macon, 65 [percent] of neighborhoods were deemed “hazardous” and unworthy of credit. Today, 1 in 4 residents of Macon County are still below the poverty line, and that rate is 2.5 times higher among black residents.”

The pattern is region-wide.

“Cities in the South showed the least change in the HOLC-evaluated ‘hazardous’ neighborhoods that today have lower incomes and higher populations of majority-minority residents,” the report states. “The Midwest closely followed the South in the persistence of low-to-moderate income (LMI) neighborhoods and HOLC ‘hazardous’ areas.”

(Credit: NCRC)

But that doesn’t necessarily mean cities in other regions are more equitable. Cities in the west are still highly segregated, according to the report, but that segregation isn’t associated with quite as much economic discrepancy. And several of the cities with the highest levels of gentrification (Seattle, Portland, Denver) are in the west — and those 10-year changes come with their own version of economic inequality.

(Credit: NCRC)

Overall, the research demonstrates again — in hard numbers — that the racial wealth gap is not some kind of accidental phenomena, but comes from intentional policies. There’s some question as to whether HOLC itself can be held completely responsible for its “hazardous” zones (or whether it was simply chronicling a patchwork of regional practices already in existence). Regardless, as Amy Hillier, a professor of social policy, told Next City for a story published last year: “Systemic disinvestment between the federal government, private sector and individual citizens caused long-term damage, in particular to urban neighborhoods of color.”

Or, in the words of Jason Richardson, Director of Research at NCRC: “It’s as if time stood still in some of these places, locking people into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.”

 

Dockless Scooter Company Wants to Start on the Right Foot with Cities

(Credit: Bird)

Park-‘em-anywhere electric scooters — i.e., adult versions of the Razor with a dockless twist — are now available on the sidewalks of San Francisco and San Jose, as well as Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

Santa Monica, California-based dockless scooter start-up Bird began offering their black-and-white two-wheelers in the Bay Area cities last weekend, the San Francisco chronicle reports. Waybots, another California start-up, rolled their scooters out in D.C. in February. And Limebike, a dockless bike-share operator, is also testing electric scooters in San Francisco.

To coincide with its Bay Area expansion, Bird released a pledge entitled “S.O.S.,” or “Save our Sidewalks,” addressed to the CEOs of four dockless bike-share start-ups, LimeBike, Ofo, Mobike and Jump.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce car trips — especially the roughly 40 percent of trips under two miles — thereby reducing traffic, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions,” Founder Travis VanderZanden wrote in the document. “Yet, we have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China — huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards and creating new forms of pollution, and new problems for cities.”

In the pledge, VanderZanden (formerly of Uber) makes three promises to cities: Bird will operate a daily pick-up program to retrieve all scooters and “reposition” them so they’re not cluttering up sidewalks; it will not increase the number of vehicles in a city unless they’re being used, on average, at least three times per day; and it will remit “$1 per vehicle per day” to city governments for research and infrastructure improvements. The document includes spaces for the other CEOs to sign.

(Courtesy of Bird)

The S.O.S. is a response to city regulators, who have been cautious of dockless bike-share start-ups. Last year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released a statement saying that the “rogue” systems raise a bevy of concerns — among them sidewalk clutter. In January, Sacramento officials approved an ordinance that would ban riders from leaving bicycles in any position that would block sidewalks or bike paths, as Next City covered at the time.

But the aesthetic problems addressed by Bird’s pledge are secondary to another, deeper concern on the part of city officials: The companies’ funding structures. Bird, Ofo, MoBike, Waybots and Limebike are all start-ups buoyed by an infusion of venture capital up-front. (Bird recently raised $100 million in Series B funding, according to a release from the company). Regulators who have crafted bike-share systems as public-private partnerships that address long-term planning and equity goals worry that the competing start-ups will focus on rapid expansion in efforts to please investors rather than building a cohesive system.

Bird has also had its own share of run-ins with public officials, according to Curbed. In December, the city of Santa Monica “filed a criminal case against the company, accusing it of operating without proper permits and owing more than $6,000 in fines, accrued in part from riders using city sidewalks,” the site reports. Bird agreed to pay upwards of $300,000 as part of a settlement.

Still, the goals outlined in the pledge — particularly the second two — could net the company some municipal goodwill, provided it demonstrates self-regulation. The first is standard practice among a number of private dockless operators in the U.S., but the second two, particularly providing public funding, could go a long way toward winning over skeptics.

“We need to lead not just on technology, but on social responsibility,” VanderZanden wrote. “We hope that all of you join us in this S.O.S. Pledge to help our cities thrive.”

 

Hoping for More Density, Minneapolis Proposes “Fourplexes”

(Photo by Michael Adams)

Minneapolis appears to be the latest city embracing so-called gentle density — but the opposition to one unique proposal for incorporating multi-family units into single-family neighborhoods is anything but gentle.

Minneapolis officials first publicly discussed allowing fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods citywide earlier this month — and the city’s draft comprehensive plan update, released last week, cemented that proposal. Like Toronto’s alley houses and stacked townhomes, the fourplexes would densify Minneapolis neighborhoods while sticking to existing design standards, according to the MinnPost. The buildings would “look like existing houses, and even be conversions of existing houses, coming in at no more than two-and-a-half stories with similar setbacks,” the paper reports.

In other words, the fourplexes would gently densify a city zoned (mostly) for single-family homes — and, in theory at least, they wouldn’t face the same opposition as true high-rises.

But density, gentle or not, is already a dirty word among Twin Cities neighborhood groups, the Star-Tribune reported in early March. (The Kennilworth Corridor light rail controversy, which Next City covered in February, is a similar example of backlash to the region’s urbanization). Soon after officials first discussed the fourplexes, opponents branded them “freyplexes” after Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Some officials expressed concern as well, saying the fourplexes might take away affordable starter homes.

Soon, the narrative became “that the city would allow apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods,” MinnPost reports. Both the mayor and City Council President Lisa Bender took to Twitter to reiterate their support of the idea.

Officials will hold a series of meetings and community outreach sessions through the end of July to discuss the draft, according the plan’s website. But since “Access to Housing” as listed as the document’s very first policy goal — and since Frey campaigned on a platform that included both multi-family housing and density — the fourplex idea may very well go forward. And the plan is clear as to why zoning codes have historically separated single- and multi-family neighborhoods.

“Areas of our city that lack housing choice today were built that way intentionally,” it states. “In the first half of the twentieth century, zoning regulations and racist federal housing policies worked together to determine who could live where, and in what type of housing. This, in turn, shaped the opportunities available to multiple generations of Minneapolis residents.”

 



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