Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What Did We Talk About?

http://www.citylab.com; December 27, 2017

Hello Everyone: 

Blogger Candidate Forum will back next Wednesday, all rested and ready to go.  A big year for The Forum, the Mid-term elections are coming in November and there will be plenty to say.  In the meantime, Katie Pearce of CityLab has rounded up the "The 5 Stories We Couldn't Stop Seeing in 2017."

Let us be honest, if you could describe 2017 in a word, it would be WTF.  Okay that is three words.  Between Mr. Trump, fires (citylab.com; Dec. 6, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017) and floods (Ibid; Aug. 28, 2017), a news cycle gone wild, it was enough for even the sanest soberiest person to run screaming in the other direction.  Yours Truly managed to cope by avoiding any serious discussions with family.  However, our good friends at CityLab' s Lab Report (citylab.com; date Jan. 3, 2018)-the daily news roundup-scanned the headlines, followed the cultural changes, apocalyptic climate, and the hand-to-hand policy combat that roared through the year, a few recurring themes emerged from the mire.  Ms. Pearce highlights five urban stories that persisted throughout the year-the ones that we could not ignore.

"The Amazonian supremacy"

You know the part of a wedding where the bride tosses her bouquet and all the single ladies go lunging for it, hoping to be the next one to get married?  Brutal.  In 2017, Amazon was the bouquet tossing bride and 238 cities were the desparate single ladies elbowing each other out of the way for the honor of hosting HQ2, Amazon's second headquarters, and the promises of a billion dollar makeover.  Ms. Pearce writes, "Amazon's call for bids set off a courtship frenzy across the country, with a blitz of publicity stunts (Ibid; Oct. 10, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) giving way to seriously huge offers of land and financial incentives" (Ibid).

Even before the HQ2 contest, this was the year that economic stories orbited around the Amazon sun.  Online retailers were pilloried for accelerated the "retail apocalypse" (theatlantic.com; April 10, 2017; Jan. 3, 2017)-the nationwide epidemic of dead and dying department and the empty storefronts we meditated upon (citylab.com; April 30, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) again and again (Ibid. Dec, 19, 2017).  Looking for urban love was not the only thing Amazon did in 2017, it also flexed its physical store ambitions (businessinsider.com; Sept. 24, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018), buying high-end grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.  The online behemoth could hit the trillion-dollar value (quartz.com; Nov. 30, 2017; Jan. 3, 2018) in the coming year and founder Jeff Bezos' net worth could reach $100 billion (bloomberg.com; Nov. 24, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018).

No surprise that many are suspicious of the company's outsized power and influence, and potential impact on HQ2's future host.  "Just look to 'HQ1' host Seattle (citylab.com; Oct. 19, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018), whose relationship with Amazon is best described as: 'It's complicated.'"

"The ghosts of the Confederacy"

The South shall rise again.  Okay, may be not.  The angst over Civil War-era monuments in American cities is not a new subject-following the heinous Charleston church massacre in June 2015, efforts to remove monuments associated with the Confederate States of America redoubled in many cities.  The city of New Orleans led the way with Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivering his famous speech this past spring after the city took down four monuments (the video is available on YouTube and you can read the transcript at citylab.com; May 24, 2017; date accessed Jan 3, 2018).

Charlottesville, Virginia became the flashpoint for defenders and foes of the CSA monuments.  Katie Pearce writes, "The 'Unite the Right' rally-a gathering of white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and so-called 'alt-right' groups-descended on Charlottesville on August 11, as the city considered a vote to remove two Confederate monuments."  The nation's attention was focused on chilling images of torchlight parades, chants, and a fatal car ramming aimed at counter protestors.

Additionally, the rally and subsequent protests raised major questions about free speech and protestor safety (Ibid; Oct. 13, 2017), Unite the Right set of a chain reaction of cities removing or considering removing (Ibid; Aug. 17, 2017) Confederate monuments.  Protestors in Durham, North Carolina took down statues (Ibid; Aug 14, 2017); days later Baltimore Maryland removed four statues overnight.  However, for many Southern states (Ibid; Aug. 17, 2017) the decision to remove a monument is complicated by state laws, which is why Memphis, Tennessee found a creative workaround solution (theatlantic.com; July/August 2008; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018).

Charlottesville is still dealing with a similar legal issue (dailyprogress.com; Nov. 20, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018)-the two monuments at the center controversy remain standing, covered by tarps.  Wisely, Charlottesville put a halt to plans for a one-year anniversary "Unite the Right" March (nytimes.com; Dec. 12, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018).

"Blue cities vs. red states"

Blue City, Red State sounds like a title of a Dr. Seuss story, however, it is a description of the American urban-rural divide that became an unavoidable talking point (citylab.com; Nov. 15, 2016; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) in the wake of the Presidential election and throughout the first year of the administration.  This talking point fueled the notion that "urban enclaves with generally progressive values were facing off [theatlantic.com; March 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018] against the conservative hinterlands."  Richard Florida's article "A Declaration of Urban Independence" for Politico (politico.com; July/August 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) get cities to find a way to work around the anti-urban White House (more on that next week).

The Blue City-Red State conflict played out across many policy combat zones over the past year.  After the administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement (nytimes.com; June 1, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017), many cities responded by joining together (citylab.com; June 6, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) for the "We Are Still In" movement and the Chicago climate charter, while redoubling their sustainability goals.  Cities also demonstrated their power on a variety of local policy intiatives such as: LGBTQ rights, marijuana, ride-sharing, gun control, and the minimum wage.  Going into the new year the new clashes will center on the much detested GOP tax bill (Ibid; Dec. 15, 2017) and net neutrality (Ibid).

Beyond clashes with the federal government, red state government present a more formidable preemption to the cities (Ibid; Feb. 2, 2017).  Ms. Pearce writes, "That's especially true for blues cities in rural or Southern red states, like, say, Texas [Ibid; Dec. 21, 2017]."  In an aside, she continues, "last week CityLab present a scale [Ibid] measuring 'anti-urban toppings."

The perfect storm of all these forces is brewing over the white hot subject of sanctuary cities,  just as the Department of Justice is tightened immigration enforcement, and many state fell in line.  For the majority of the cities, the response has been to either resist, ignore, or sue (Ibid; March 29, 2017).

"Uber's annus horribilis"

You thought you were having a horrible year?  Be grateful you were not Travis Kalanick, the ousted head of the ride-sharing app Uber.  In its short life, Uber has become enmeshed with the global urban fabric.  However by the end of 2017, it was stalled out in the wake of a series of scandals that even a jump-start cannot revive.  It seemed that it was one setback after the other.  Of course the biggest engine rattler was the dismissal of CEO Travis Kalanick in June after a group of shareholders demanded his resignation (Ibid; June 21, 2017).

  
Katie Pearce writes, "This announcement followed a dumpster fire of PR Crises [Ibid; March 9, 2017] that included the #DeleteUber protests, accusations of a sexist workplace culture, and a major lawsuit from Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit."  That was only part of Uber's horrible year.  To add more injury to injury, there was the revelation that  "...a pair of ominously named covert programs, 'Grayball' and 'Hell' that Uber used to evade regulations and track competitors."  There is more.  "Overseas, things are no better: Uber is struggling to keep its London license [Ibid; Sept. 22, 2017] and battling regulators in Europe [Ibid; Dec. 20, 2017]."   If this was not enough, Uber is dealing with a massive customer service data breach (the guardian.com; Nov. 22, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017) that, wait for it, it allegedly paid to conceal.  As Yours Truly said, you thought you were having a horrible year.

Inspite of scandal-fest, there was some good news to report: the ride-sharing app expanded its UberEATS, the launch of Uber Freight, the new Movement tool (citylab.com; Oct. 13, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018), assorted grandiose promises of autonomous vehicles (more on that in a moment), and vague notions of "flying taxis" (Ibid; Nov. 9, 2017).  The business news service Bloomberg reported,

Uber told stockholders that gross bookings,the key yardstick of demand for ride services, rose 11 percent to $9.71 billion in the period that ended in September...Net revenue grew 21 percent to $2.01 billion in the third quarter from $1.66 billion.

But losses, which had been narrowing in previous quarters, reversed course.  The net loss increased 38 percent from the second quarter, when it was $1.06 billion. (bloomberg.com; Nov. 28, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018)

Naturally, the biggest beneficiary of Uber's scandal-filled year has been its rival Lyft, which experienced a tripling of its revenue (techcrunch.com Nov. 30, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017)    Mr. Kalanick's replacement-for Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi-definitely has a packed agenda for the new year.

"After the AV tipping point"

In 2017, we could not stop talking about autonomous vehicles and how they could affect our lives.  Frankly, Blogger is still a wary of a self-driving car but that has not stopped urbanists, futurists, and transportation policy makers from speculating about them.  Be that as it may, AVs were hard for the average citizen to ignore: "In November, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the topic" (nytimes.com; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017).  Around the world, 55 cities are currently testing self-driving cars.  Ms. Pearce reports, "Sixteen of those in the U.S., according to an atlas tracking the trend [avcities.bloomberg.org; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018] from Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute."

The expanding pilot programs means that we are seeing more of them on public roads.  Ms. Pearce writes, "Chandler, Arizona's new Waymo pilot, for example, is putting everyday citizens in self-driving vans on public streets.  Unlike similar efforts by Uber in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Tempe, the Chandler model notably ditches human 'safety drivers' [theverge.com; Nov. 7, 2017; date accessed Jan.3, 2018] entirely."  Blogger is still not sure if she would want to get into an AV without a human "safety driver."

Waymo and Uber are not the only tech companies fully committed to an AV program-Tesla, General Motors, Volkswagen AC, and the Ford Motor Company are all developing their own version of an an autonomous vehicle.  In Ford's case, the company spent over $1 billion last year (Ibid; Aug. 16, 2017) for AI expertise, while dedicating its Detroit plan to building a fully AV within four years.  Startups are also getting on the AV bandwagon, nuTonomy's pilot program with Lyft in Boston (techcrunch.com Dec. 6, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2017) is ready to go this month.

There is momentum growing in state legislatures: "33 states introduced new bills [ncsl.org; Jan. 2, 2018; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018] this year on various aspects of driverless tech.  To date, 20 states and Washington, D.C. have actually passed such laws."  The federal government has also friended the AV future on a massive scale.  This past September the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a landmark policy guidance (citylab.com; Sept. 15, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) on AV development.  Surprisingly, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the first federal law regulating autonomous vehicles.

Katie Pearce reports, "At the year's end, that bill is now stalled in the Senate, but it's implicate are huge, barring states and cities from setting 'unreasonable' restrictions on the rollout of AVs."  A consistent national policy would override the existing hodgepodge of state and municipal regulations (Ibid; April 25, 2017)-potentially streamline tech growth (Ibid; May 14, 2017), but remove a city's ability to right-size.  A new Brookings Institute report, Gauging Investment in self-driving cars by Cameron F. Kerry and Jack Karsten (brookings.edu; Oct. 16, 2017; date accessed Jan. 3, 2018) measured worldwide AV tech investment at $80 billion.  This is a substantial amount that may grow as AV tech becomes more refined.  

The key issue that companies like Tesla, GM, Ford, Waymo, and Uber must address is passenger safety concerns.  Autonomous vehicles may sound like a great idea but unless the makers of of these cars can reasonably assure the public that they will get to where they want to go in a safe and timely manner, any and all investment-now or in the future-may be for naught.