America suffers from a deep and worsening housing crisis, especially in the nation’s superstar cities. It would take the average worker in the Bay Area—a place that is flush with rich venture capitalists and highly paid tech workers—more than a decade of wages and income to afford the median home price. That’s more than four times the typical benchmark of 2.6 years of salary for housing affordability.
While much has been made of the housing struggles of middle-class and professional families in expensive cities, the housing affordability crisis hits much harder for the nation’s low-paid blue-collar workers.
In a new analysis I conducted with my University of Toronto colleague, Karen King, we introduce a new benchmark for housing affordability: the amount of money residents have left over in wages after paying for housing. We calculate this for the nation’s three major economic classes: the creative class consisting of highly paid professionals, knowledge workers, and cultural creatives; the blue-collar working class of factory, construction, and transportation workers; and the service class who prepare and serve food, take care of kids, and staff stores. We used housing data that reflects the 2017 median monthly housing costs; the wage and salary data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational and Employment Survey, also for 2017. In total, our analysis covers 382 metros across the United States. My CityLab colleague, David Montgomery, graphed the data.
Annual average wage
Money left after housing
Share of total employment
Note: The median cost of housing is $12,264, or just over $1,000 a month.
The nearly 70 million workers who make up America’s service class—almost half of the entire workforce—are left with a meager $23,000 after paying the median price of housing. The 30 million members of the working class do a little better, ending up with about $30,000 left over. Compare this to the 40 million creative class workers who end up with nearly $70,000 left over after paying for the median-priced home: That’s more than three times the number for service class workers.
Members of the creative class are actually better off financially in America’s superstar cities and leading tech hubs, even with the through-the-roof housing costs. They end up with anywhere from $75,000 to almost $90,000 left over after for paying for housing in tech hubs like Silicon Valley (San Jose), Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. That’s because the salaries of this class reflect the high cost of housing in these places to begin with. They are able to effectively capture what economists dub the “urban wage premium.” This premium is so substantial in superstar cities that members of the creative class are significantly better off in these expensive metros. Although expenses may be higher in these urban centers, a creative class member in San Jose, for example, has roughly double the income left over after for paying for housing than their peers in St. George, Utah.
But members of the other classes are struggling to meet the high housing prices of expensive metros. Working-class members have just $23,000 to $33,000 left over after paying for housing on average, depending on the city. Service-class workers have just under $16,000 to $23,000 left. While these blue-collar workers may make a little more in expensive cities, the legal minimum wage in most locations means that their income falls far short of what is needed to cover the much more expensive housing. The table below shows the ten best and worst metros for creative-class Americans based on how much money they have left after paying for housing.
Best and Worst Metros for the Creative Class After Paying for Housing
Best metros for the creative class
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA
California-Lexington Park, MD
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX
Worst metros for the creative class
St. George, UT
Great Falls, MT
Jefferson City, MO
Once we factor in huge differences in housing costs between expensive cities and the rest, members of the working and service classes actually have little to gain financially from living in expensive cities, despite the fact that these places may offer slightly higher wages or more job opportunities. Financially, blue-collar workers are much better off living outside these expensive places.
The table below shows the ten best and worst metros for working-class Americans based on how much money they have left after paying for housing. Taking the combination of wages and housing costs into account, the best places include resource-based metros in Alaska, Texas, and Louisiana, and manufacturing centers in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Among the worst include metros in California and Texas, a state that has cities among both the worst and best for working-class people.
Best and Worst Metros for Working Class
Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX
Los Angeles-Long Beach-
Santa Clara, CA
Lake Charles, LA
El Paso, TX
Austin-Round Rock, TX
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA
West Palm Beach, FL
Service-class workers have it even worse in expensive cities, ending up with a paltry $16,000 after paying the median price of housing in San Jose, five times less than the nearly $90,000 creative-class workers have left over. Based on the combination of wages and housing costs, the best places for service-class workers include smaller, less costly metros in California, Washington, South Carolina, Arizona, North Dakota, New Jersey, and upstate New York.
This phenomenon is harmful, not just for service workers, but for our cities. America’s superstar cities are at the forefront of a cruelly Darwinian sorting process, where higher-paid knowledge workers crowd into them, pushing lower-paid blue-collar workers and their families either to the urban fringe or out of the metro all together. But these workers provide vital functions these cities need to function and survive. The rise of such housing-inflected inequality exacerbates the issue, making it harder and harder for cities to provide basic services.
Best and Worst Metros for the Service Class
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA
East Stroudsburg, PA
Urban Honolulu, HI
Santa Clara, CA
Sierra Vista-Douglas, AZ
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC
It is true that superstar cities have higher rates of innovation and productivity, generate multiplier effects for new jobs, and offer workers a skill premium. But the reality is nearly all of that skill premium accrues only to the already highly-paid knowledge workers. Whatever meager skill premium blue-collar workers seek is consumed up by higher housing prices. The advantaged third of the workforce benefits from the economic might of superstar cities, while the far less advantaged 66 percent of workers sink further behind, pulled down by the weight of expensive housing costs.
Taking housing into account magnifies the already severe inequality that defines America’s economic landscape. Our nation is growing more and more unequal, both in terms of class and geography. And inequality of housing only serves to compound these growing divides.
CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.
To understand local housing politics over the past several decades, consider a recent study out of Boston University. Political science professor Katherine Levine Einstein surveyed all of the minutes for zoning and planning meetings about housing across 97 cities and counties in Massachusetts. The study covers housing-cost-burdened cities likeBoston but also older industrial cities such as Lawrence and Worcester.
“In every single city and county we studied, the advantaged dominated the proceedings,” Einstein said at a recent Brookings Institution panel on housing. Residents who are older, men, longtime residents, local voters, and homeowners are much more likely to participate in these meetings. And they are much more likely to oppose new construction than the general public.
Residents who oppose new housing are also whiter. The population of Lawrence is 87 percent Latino or Latina, for example. But during 80 planning and zoning meetings, only one resident who spoke had a Latinx surname, Einstein said.
This is the context in which we enter the current debate over housing inequality. Planning by bulldozer failed America. And in the wake of urban renewal, neighborhoods have much greater say in deciding their own destiny today. Yet the last 40 years have shown that local control enables people with greater social power to steer the process.
As housing affordability and inequality become national political issues, the people who have long dominated those meetings are starting to see their anti-development agenda upended. Cities are gaining political traction for policies that once seemed out of the question. The newest tool that cities are deploying in the ongoing fight against segregation and housing inequality is to let their streets get denser, in what is known as upzoning. Making zoning more progressive still faces awfully long odds, though, which makes this strategy a question of policy and politics.
Minneapolis led the charge last December by introducing a plan designed to explicitly address the legacies of segregation that continue to divide the city. Rewriting the script with Minneapolis 2040, said Mayor Jacob Frey, involved loosening up the restrictions that solidified some of those divisions: Zoning laws.
“We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm initially inflicted,” he told CityLab in March, when it passed.“And that harm was precise.”
Other upzoning plans are committed or on deck. Seattle—home to Amazon, Microsoft, and the third-largest homeless population in the country—loosened the zoning code in 27 transit-oriented urban villages in March. Austin’s city council just approved an ordinance that will allow more homes to be built on single-family zoned plots, but only if a certain percentage of development is affordable. Oregon’s Speaker of the House proposed a bill to eliminate single-family zoning state-wide. Charlotte leaders invited Minneapolis planners to come down to explain how they got it done.
The idea driving all these projects is simple: When developers are legally allowed to build more kinds of housing, more of it will conceivably be built. Especially for cities strapped for affordable housing, this increase in housing stock is attractive as a path to lower costs. For the cities jumping on the densification train, however, no single one-size-fits-all solution has surfaced. Every specific fix chosen by cities is up for debate—and still subject to the anti-development preferences of vocal blocs of primarily wealthier, whiter, homeowner residents.
“There's this belief that if you just get rid of single-family zoning, it's the Mecca,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “And I just I think you’ve got to do more to really make it work right.”
Seattle has tried a different tack than Minneapolis. Under new Mandatory Housing Affordability rules passed in Durkan’s city, zoning reform will be paired with developer incentives: They’ll be faced with the choice to build more affordable housing or pay into an affordable housing fund.
Still, Durkan is promising even more dramatic results than Minneapolis. “I'll bet you coffee that five years from now, Seattle’s inclusionary zoning and MHA has made much more progress on adding density than Minneapolis,” she told CityLab. “Because Minneapolis didn't include any incentives, and so you're relying solely on normal market forces—which history has proven are not inclusionary.”
(The Minneapolis 2040 plan calls on the city to expand its inclusionary housing policies to apply to newly built housing developments, so incentives for developers could be on the horizon.)
Upzoning faces stiff resistance from the left, too. A frequent criticism from the socialist set holds that permitting more housing doesn’t necessarily mean more affordable housing, especially if developers are left to their own, market-influenced devices. In California in particular, tenants’ rights groups have expressed the fear that giving developers freer rein to build taller will result in more displacement, not more accessibility. Given the intense demand for housing, increasing density only a little—or upzoning just in neighborhoods where it’s cheaper to build—could make matters worse.
In the Golden State, groups that oppose SB 50 have assembled under the banner of Livable California. The bill “created a conjuring,” as Wiener put it during the Brookings event. “Every anti-growth coalition found each other.” A statewide upzoning effort has marshaled a statewide opposition movement, which Wiener refers to as “Livable-for-people-who-have-housing California.”
In high-income neighborhoods that have long enjoyed stagnant supplies of single-family homes, proponents argue that any push to densify will be transformative. In California, it’s currently illegal to build anything but single dwellings designed for single families, sometimes with an in-law unit, in roughly 80 percent of the state’s residential neighborhoods.
“Pure unadulterated local control, not just at a city level, but at a neighborhood level, has not worked for housing,” Wiener says.
Still, as Alex Baca and Hannah Lebovits wrote in CityLab, advocates also “recognize that reforming zoning on its own is not, has never been, and never will be a silver bullet.” Indeed, in several cities where upzoning has been proposed or employed, loosening building restrictions has been inextricably linked to other policy pushes. SB 50, for example, would enhance tenant protections and introduce stricter affordability requirements. For communities deemed sensitive to the risk of displacement, the bill will delay implementation by five years. Austin’s Affordability Unlocked bonus program, which amends city code to promote more density, is strict about which developers will be nudged to build, and where. For a developer to gain relaxed site restrictions, for example, at least 50 percent of all units must be made affordable for income-restricted residents—the more affordable housing units built, the higher developers will be allowed to build.
Proposals for upzoning are also evolving in response to criticism. After SB 827, a predecessor to SB 50, died in committee in 2018, Wiener retooled the bill to expand the affected area beyond places adjacent to transit, since these tend to be lower-income areas. (Wealthier communities have a history of blocking transit access.) SB 50 is a more robust upzoning bill, Wiener says, that covers jobs-rich areas, not just transit-adjacent places. It applies a lighter touch to communities that don’t have access to jobs or transit.
“The mayor of Beverly Hills has been one of the foremost critics of the bill, so 90210 is covered,” Wiener says, noting that Beverly Hills is rich in both jobs and transit.
In Seattle, Durkan says that building more housing in Seattle’s high-opportunity neighborhoods will continue to be a challenge. Where the exit-ramp to pay into a fund rather than build affordable housing exists, the majority of developers choose to take it, she says. This trend contributes to wealth and racial segregation, which she says could be avoided with on-site development.
“It’s got benefits, because you can aggregate that money and then use that money to leverage it with the federal benefits to build more housing,” Durkan says. “But it has, I think, a real downside, which is that you then create affordable housing that is separate and apart from all the other housing where people live.”
Skeptics of density still retain power, despite the upswell in interest in upzoning. In Philadelphia, officials are pushing back against land-use reforms passed in 2011. City Council President Darrell Clarke just introduced two bills that would lower density and increase parking. He aims to create a commission under the council comprising residents, developers, and other professionals, which does not give much voice to future residents who have yet to move to this growing city. “Growing” is a relative term for what’s happening in Philadelphia today, which (like many American cities) is only now rebounding from a massive population fall-off.
The dynamic in Philadelphia is tied to the broader shape of urban growth in America. For decades now, wealthier residents in districts zoned exclusively for single-family homes have consolidated their political power. They have held tight to these zoning restrictions and developed a sophisticated vocabulary for defending them, arguing that change will usher in traffic congestion, crime, over-crowded public schools, a “change in neighborhood character,” or even too much shade. With this input, cities have historically balked at passing ambitious measures like that of Minneapolis.
But as Benjamin Schneider, a CityLab alum, writes in The Nation, cities once allowed for far greater density. And with enough pressure, they could return to those roots. Between 1960 and 2010, zoning laws in Los Angeles changed from accommodating 10 million people to 4.3 million people. As Schneider writes, “San Francisco’s 1978 citywide downzoning decreased the number of housing units that could be built in the city by 180,000, equivalent to more than 50 percent of the city’s housing stock at that time.”
Seattle neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes feature thousands of older multi-family units. (Sightline Institute)
Seattle, too, used to allow for denser development. Part of advocates’ campaign is to communicate to residents just how common older multifamily housing is across the city, in neighborhoods that are now zoned strictly for single-family homes, and would not allow similar construction to happen today. The Sightline Institute, a think tank, published a map that reveals the city’s historic multifamily housing, home to some 12,000 Seattle residents across the city’s more exclusive neighborhoods.
Downzoning efforts changed the fabric of cities. Upzoning policies could change them again. “We missed a lot of the uptick in Seattle,” Durkan says, referring to a population spike that has outpaced new housing construction in her city. “But hopefully we've got uptick remaining.”
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What We’re Following
Street fight: Is Uber a transportation company or just an app that connects riders with drivers? That distinction has big consequences for deciding who regulates the company, and how they do it. While many local, state, and national governments around the world have grappled with this question, in Buenos Aires, it’s a battle that’s playing out in the streets.
Uber asserts that it is a “connecting app,” rather than a taxi operation, but the Argentinian government disagrees. It says drivers are operating illegally and subject to steep fines if caught. Drivers, as a result, prefer cash payments and pick up passengers discreetly. Some have even faced attacks from taxi vigilantes called “Uber hunters.” Meanwhile, the government is demanding unpaid taxes from Uber and hindering credit card payments to the company. “When Uber is legal, maybe they’ll reclaim this debt,” one Uber driver in the country tells CityLab. “But I don’t think Uber cares. Why? Because Buenos Aires—Argentina—we’re a little town to them. Nothing. Zero. Uber doesn’t care because it has the whole world.” Today on CityLab: The Dangerous Standoff Between Uber and Buenos Aires
Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government.
Daniel Cox and Ryan Streeter
“They sell us medallions, and they knew it wasn’t worth price. They knew,” said Wael Ghobrayal, 42, an Egyptian immigrant who bought a medallion at a city auction for $890,000 and now cannot make his loan payments and support his three children.
“They lost nothing. I lost everything,” he said.
The New York Times has the first two parts of its 10-month-long investigation into New York City’s taxi medallion bubble. How these permits rose to a value of $1 million before crashing in late 2014 looks a lot like the 2008 housing crisis: A confluence of reckless lending practices and a lack of regulation across state and city agencies led to cheerleading medallions as a vehicle for long-term investment that left thousands drivers with loans they couldn’t afford to pay. The city, meanwhile, earned more than $855 million from medallions under the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations. Read part 1 and part 2 of the New York Times investigation.
Welcome to the second season of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
As soon as word spread of I. M. Pei’s death last week at the age of 102, architecture lovers around the world (ourselves included) shared their memories of the much-admired Modernist and his buildings. While most remember Pei for the Louvre and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, folks in Oklahoma City are more likely to recall him for something entirely different: Pei was also an urban planner, and his vision for the young city’s downtown in the 1960s would change it forever.
As seen in the 1964 promotional film, A Tale of Two Cities, Pei gave the Urban Action Foundation—a group of Oklahoma City power brokers—the city of tomorrow that they wanted. Gone would be the blighted older buildings and their modest, even unsavory, tenants. In their place would be soaring modern skyscrapers, a massive new convention center, and postcard-worthy public spaces, all filled up with productive, affluent locals and tourists.
A Tale of Two Cities moves back and forth between the real and imagined Oklahoma City, cutting between shots of what looks like a pretty normal frontier town with sweeping aerial views of Pei’s model city, which looks slightly more exciting than Crystal City, Virginia.
But like so many anxious American downtowns with big dreams at the time, knocking stuff down was the easy part. As recalled by 405 Magazine in 2015, city officials adopted the plan in 1965 and embarked on a demolition spree, flattening 40 percent of the existing downtown (530 buildings!) in anticipation of the Pei’s concrete-and-glass towers. Gone, recalled 405, were the “French-inspired Criterion Theater, the Venetian-themed Baum Building, the ornate Mercantile and Pioneer buildings, the dramatic Patterson Building, the limestone-and-marble Hales Building.” Even buildings not targeted under the Pei Plan were demolished, including the Lee-Huckins and the Biltmore hotels. But as the region sprawled, aided by developers who were more than willing to accommodate their needs, the retail and residential dreams from the Pei Plan never came to be.
An aversion to the this kind of ‘60s-style urban renewal eventually emerged, and by the late 1980s, it was time for a reckoning in Oklahoma City. Some of the big architectural visions were realized—the city did get a massive parking garage, a convention center, a new tallest skyscraper in town (surpassed in 2012), a new theater (since demolished), and a botanical gardens—but downtown lost its vitality in the process. By 1993, city officials had established a new capital improvement program (still used today) that was able to more successfully realize a lot of the same ambitions as the Pei Plan: a downtown that could draw in conventioners and tourists while addressing the needs of urban dwellersand attracting more of them.
At a critical point in its evolution, Boston enjoyed a special relationship with I. M. Pei, who passed away last week at the age of 102. It was the locus of his architectural education, the place where he met his business partner, the sites which established him as a cultural icon, and produced both built and unbuilt work that would come to define both this city, and cement his reputation as one of the world’s most evocative architects.
The outlines of Pei’s early years in the Boston area are well known—an undergraduate transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, student and then colleague of Walter Gropius at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the publishing of his thesis in 1946 in the French journal l’architecture d’aujord’hui, which merged traditional Chinese garden typologies with a highly modernist parti, which would become a signature of Pei’s hand throughout his lengthy career.
Pei left Boston, in 1948, to become the architect for the New York developer William Zeckendorf, where he would refine, alongside his future business partner Harry Cobb, ideas in housing and corporate office space in buildings such as Kips Bay in New York, Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia, and Cobb’s Place Ville Marie in Montreal. This professional experience—primarily in the material concrete—that allowed Pei’s work upon his return to Boston to flourish.
But Boston beckoned. An invitation from his alma mater would launch his independence from Zeckendorf and form the basis of his and Cobb’s business practice. Pei was invited by MIT in 1959 to design a building for the Earth Sciences Center, which had recently been endowed by Cecil H. Green, an alumnus and co-founder of Texas Instruments. Pei himself was stretched thin with Zeckendorf responsibilities, and assigned Araldo Cossutta initial responsibility for the building’s design. As the initial scheme developed, however, Pei became increasingly unhappy with Cossutta’s solution, in which oval windows were the dominant feature. Pei preferred a more minimal solution, and to his relief, value-engineering necessitated a solution defined by a rigorous grid of concrete apertures set on a nine-foot module.
The building program—mostly laboratories and offices—was ideal for a tall and slender tower, which was a drastic departure from MIT’s then-horizontal campus organization. Having gained expertise in concrete in projects such as Syacuse’s Everson museum, Pei’s experiments in the material reach a sublime apogee. There are no superfluous materials, no hiding of the structure as it transitions between interior and exterior. The precision of detailing allowed for the complete elimination of window frames, an unnoticeable detail which endows the tower with an air of irreproachable modesty. The smooth surface of the concrete was the result of a poured-in-place system that used plastic forms reinforced with fiberglass, and a mix that closely matched the limestone of adjacent buildings.
The Green Center created a vertical punctuation among the low-rise, neoclassical buildings that then formed the majority of MIT’s stock. Whereas the Great Dome by William Welles Bosworth of 1916 once dominated the campus as a symbol of enlightened learning, Pei’s monolithic, 20-story tower became the prime indication of MIT’s vision for a distinctly modern, vertical, and technologically advanced campus.
Simultaneous with the commission of the Green Center, Pei was retained by the Institute to develop an existing master plan by Sasaki Walter & Associates for the area known as the East Campus. This would result in the design of two additional concrete buildings by Pei’s office, immediately adjacent to the tower—the Dreyfus and Landau Chemical engineering buildings. Pei’s master plan created two distinct courtyards, with a building set perpendicular to the prevailing axis of MIT’s original organizing device, known as the Infinite Corridor. This trio of the tower and two lower volumes formed a significant part of the growing MIT campus, establishing entrances, axes, and courts while setting the stage for an extension of the campus to the east. This expansion is celebrated by another iconic Pei intervention, the concrete frame adjacent to his Wiesner Building of 1985, which houses MIT’s Media Lab.
But Pei’s work for MIT was just the beginning of the firm’s influence in the reinvention of the city. The newly appointed Boston Redevelopment Authority director Edward J. Logue commissioned I. M. (with Cobb) to develop a master plan that would transform 60 acres of what was deemed a derelict neighborhood around Scollay Square, reducing 22 streets to six and designating a large area for a grand public space modeled on historical European piazzas. Completed in 1961, this large-scale vision located a series of buildings that were called on to express a civic character, particularly Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles’s Boston City Hall (the Pei plan specified its location, overall dimensions, and the plaza setting surrounding it), The Architects Collaborative’s JFK Federal Building, and Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center. Soon after its completion, Ada Louise Huxtable pointed to the success of this urban complex in combining “monumentality and humanity,” where “old and new Boston are joined through an act of urban design that relates directly to the quality of the city and its life.”
And of course, there is the Hancock Tower, whose trials and tribulations are notorious, and belie the powerful influence the building-as-object has on the city, giving form to Kevin Lynch’s concept of the high spine. It’s origins, however, are less known. Pei’s initial proposal for the tower was a truncated, cylindrical concrete object that was fortunately overtaken by events and consolidation of the program. Cobb became the partner in charge, bringing his own experiences as a Bostonian to his mute, minimalist masterpiece.
The upward trajectory of his career would be accelerated by his selection in 1964 by Jaqueline Kennedy as the architect of the library and monument to the Boston-born president. Prior to his death, Kennedy had chosen a site along the Charles river adjacent to the business school. Pei's first proposal for the site was a glass pyramid, truncated to represent the abrupt end to the president’s life. The location changes to a site overlooking Dorchester Bay, and Pei (along with Ted Musho) re-imagined the museum to complement the surroundings. This library-as-monument is a testament to Pei’s control of architecture as narrative, of the museum as an abstract expression of celebration and solemnity, and of the elegance of the various geometries Pei had become an expert of. Though it took until 1979 for the library to open, Pei’s status as a cultural architect was set. He would design the East Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before being commissioned to reimagine the Grand Louvre in Paris, where the pyramid would reappear, amid much controversy and acclaim.
For Pei, Boston was briefly his home, but the profound effect the city had on his career, and the effect he had on its environs reverberate. His widespread influence throughout Boston in buildings as well as urban plans led architecture critic Robert Campbell to refer to Pei in 1977 as “the most important Boston architect since Bulfinch, he has dominated the major public architecture of the city as no other recent architect has dominated an American city.” For the late historian Douglass Shand-Tucci, Pei “like Charles McKim, another New Yorker who spent his formative school years and did arguably his best work in the New England capital, Pei shaped 20th-century Boston after World War II as much as McKim shaped late 19th-century Boston in the post-Civil War era.” Indeed.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—Most Porteños, or residents of Buenos Aires, know the drill when it comes to hailing an Uber. Change the payment method to cash on the app, memorize the driver’s license plate number, be subtle when trying to match the driver on the app to the waiting car, and sit in the front seat when it arrives to look like a pal, not a fee-paying passenger.
“There’s a risk to driving an Uber,” said Fabian, 50, an Uber driver in Buenos Aires who didn’t want to give his last name. “The cops can grab us, seize the car, make us pay a fine.”
Uber’s operations in the city aren’t legal according to government officials in Buenos Aires, but Uber says Argentina is Uber’s fastest growing market. Confused? You’re not alone. Uber is a taxi service and thus illegally operating, Buenos Aires believes. Uber is a connecting app, and thus doesn’t need to follow regulations for taxi or livery services, Uber contends. This battle over Uber’s identity means that the Uber situation in Argentina is crazy.
Since 2016, Uber has been operating in Buenos Aires, the country’s capital, and rapidly adding drivers who are desperate for work in an ailing economy. Yet the city government has throttled Uber and its profits by: punishing drivers caught using Uber, banning Porteños from paying with Argentine debit and credit cards, and preventing Uber from holding an Argentine bank account thereby making it difficult for Uber to collect credit card fees, pay drivers, and take commissions. Thus, as an Uber representative described the company’s position in Buenos Aires to CityLab: “We are now more in an investing mode in terms of how we want to approach this market.”
“If it’s not a crime or a misdemeanor, they cannot say it’s illegal. We’re not violating any law or regulation right now,” Juan Labaqui, Uber’s head of communications for the region, told CityLab.
Uber issued a statement in response to the decision saying that the court ruling means Buenos Aires no longer has legal standing to block credit card payments since the court ruled that they were not guilty of those specific violations. But while this ruling removes some of the penalties owed, Buenos Aires claims that it doesn’t make Uber legal. And it’s true that the May 7 ruling also stated that while drivers were able to circulate in public space: "if some drivers do it by providing the public taxi service or remises (livery car services), they must do so with the authorization and respective licenses. If they do not do so, they will not be using the public space illegally, but will violate the rules that prevent such activities without a license or authorization."
Uber is not interested in hearing about the rules for taxi or livery services. It denies categorization as either and says that it occupies a category for which Buenos Aires has not yet created regulation. “There can be a lack of regulation and still have something that is perfectly legal under Argentine law. In Buenos Aires, there is no regulation that is specific for our category. Citing previous court decisions, Labaqui said, “According to all the rulings so far, we are not to be fitted by force into the two categories that exist. Our objection is that we’re trying to be forced into a category that doesn’t apply to us. And that’s why we simply don’t abide by it.”
But the Ministry of Transport in Buenos Aires is holding firm that Uber is a transport service and thus the regulations already exist. “Uber does not consider itself a transport company, but one of services, connecting riders to drivers. But it nonetheless presents the characteristics of a public transport service,” Buenos Aires secretary of transport Juan José Mendez told CityLab via WhatsApp message. According to Mendez, “If Uber complies with the laws and conforms to the city standard, it can circulate without restriction.”
Uber has repeatedly insistedthat it is an “information society service” that connects riders with drivers. By classifying itself this way, Uber can be treated as a digital service that can avoid regulations that taxis have to adhere to in many countries.
“It is not an application,” said Mendez. “It is a multinational transport company that uses technology to offer an illegal service, evading all possible taxes. It decided not to respect the law of the city of Buenos Aires, and operate in its total illegality regarding local and national regulations.”
Still confused? You’re not alone. This extended stand-off has created confusion and anger that has manifested in violent ways at times. In addition to the steps Buenos Aires has taken against Uber drivers—including imposing steep fines of up to $200,000 Argentine pesos (about USD $5,000), and as the Buenos Aires Ministry of Interior and Transport acknowledges, withholding licenses for seven to 30 days—drivers live in fear of ‘Caza Ubers’ or ‘Uber hunters,’ taxi vigilantes who have attacked Uber drivers and even their passengers over the past months.
Fueled by the stress of rising inflation, spiking electric, water, and heat bills, and a sliding currency, some people, reputedly taxi drivers, have taken to punishing individual Uber drivers for undercutting taxi fares. Last year, Uber reported 750 attacks by Uber hunters, including car fires in some Buenos Aires neighborhoods.
“The taxis usually don’t do anything too bad,” said Fabian, the Uber driver. “They’ll give you dirty looks mostly. They realize that we’re Uber when the passenger is standing on the street looking back and forth at license plates and at their phones. If they’re really angry or violent, they might bump your car to try to hurt or scare you. Or they’ll cut you off in traffic and try to sideswipe you.”
“It’s dangerous but…” he said with a shrug.
Fabian has only been driving with Uber for about eight months, and he’s doing so out of necessity. He was laid off due to lack of production from his factory job, and “It was either this or the streets,” he said.
“Uber is affecting our work,” said Edgardo Goldman, 56, a taxi driver in Buenos Aires with 25 years in the industry. “You can feel that there’s less work. During the day, it’s not as bad, but at night, especially on the weekends, it’s bad. I’ve always worked on the weekends, usually until three in the morning, but now I finish my shift around one. The young people don’t want to take taxis. They’re all on their phones, so they take Uber.”
“I’m not happy with the Uber drivers, but I understand that it’s a job and people need to work,” he continued. “In reality, it’s the government’s fault. Because Uber isn’t regulated, it’s not paying taxes and so it’s not in competition with the taxis. As it is now, Uber is much cheaper to ride.”
A taxi from Ezeiza International Airport into the city center, for example, might run you about AR $1500 (approximately USD $35). An Uber could cost around AR $700 (USD $15). That’s if you can snag a driver. Due to heightened controls and the presence of more taxi drivers at the airport, Ubers tend to be extra watchful when picking up passengers. Foreign riders often complain of multiple canceled rides, which happens when drivers divine that the nature of their payment won’t be in cash, since, aside from the sanctions and roadblocks the city has imposed on drivers, the Buenos Aires Justice banned Argentine credit and debit card payments to Uber in 2017. This means that most Porteños pay for Uber with cash, a situation that suits the drivers fine for the present moment because there’s no paper trail to their money, and it ensures that they actually get paid for their service.
“We prefer cash payments because if someone pays with an international credit card, for example, that payment stays with Uber,” said Fabian. “They don’t have a way of paying us because they aren’t allowed to have an Argentine bank account. So it’s like I’m doing the job for free.” While Uber claims the May 7 ruling should change this, the murkiness of the decision means that Buenos Aires hasn’t allowed their card payments yet.
Until this is solved, Uber’s finances are effectively being strangled. According to various Uber drivers, in Buenos Aires, it’s difficult for Uber to pay them what’s owed them from international credit card payments, and the drivers can’t pay Uber their commission from cash payments. “The drivers will have a debt to Uber built up if most of their passengers pay in cash, but it’s really the only way I get to keep my commission,” continued Fabian.
“At the end of the day, the problem isn’t us. The problem is that Uber doesn’t want to pay tax to the government. If Uber paid taxes, there would be more competition between the apps and taxis, and the people could decide which they wanted to use,” Fabian said.
“When Uber acts illegally, it denies any opportunity for dialogue,” said Mendez. “We are currently in discussions with other actors, like taxis and Cabify (a legal transport app) to improve regulations and deregulate many aspects of the taxi, and incorporate more technology to the service. If Uber wants to discuss changes, it must first comply with the rules and operate on equal terms with the current actors. But they can’t violate the rules and try to change them by exercising unfair competition in parallel.”
Fabian thinks that Uber isn’t really that concerned with the situation in Buenos Aires, so he doesn’t worry about the debt he’s accruing to Uber for commission from the cash payments.
“When Uber is legal, maybe they’ll reclaim this debt. But I don’t think Uber cares. Why? Because Buenos Aires—Argentina—we’re a little town to them. Nothing. Zero. Uber doesn’t care because it has the whole world. They make a lot of money around the world, but here they accept that they’re just promoting themselves. They don’t care if they’re losing money.”
Uber’s Labaqui concurs with at least part of this man on the street, or rather, man in the car, assessment. At this moment in the battle for Buenos Aires, with Uber drivers stealthily but steadily picking up passengers, dodging angry Uber hunters, and getting Porteños hooked on Uber’s lower fares, it’s not about the money for Uber.
"We are not currently going through collections,” Labaqui said. “That’s not the focus of Uber in this phase."
For my last edition of Navigator,* I have a special treat in store for you. I spoke with novelist and author Teju Cole about his new book collaboration with photographer Fazal Sheikh. It’s called Human Archipelago.
I love that name because it reminds me of what I imagine is Navigator’s audience—a network of people around the world that functions like a community; a conglomerate of souls curious about the places they live and travel to, who are also interested in inspecting their own place in the world.
But back to Cole and Sheikh’s book, which has a bit more of a specific and timely focus. Through portraits and impressionistic text, the book explores the lives of displaced and dispossessed people around the world. Its structure affords the viewer/reader glimpses of a migrant’s journey and invites us to consider what stories, dreams, histories, and complications lie behind the steady gazes of the people pictured in the book. Alongside the images is Cole’s ruminative and impressionistic text, which provides another layer—deepening the experience. Hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Calcutta, then and now. (Quartz India) ¤ On traveling, with mom. (Glamour) ¤ “By any calculus, he was one of the first black celebrities in the South.” (The New Yorker)¤ “The traffic is a permanent feature on the roads in Accra.” (Popula)¤ Good night, Boa Vista. (n+ 1) ¤ German émigrés in Manhattan. (The Baffler) ¤ “Thirty years living in New York and years of traveling for work had taught me that the fastest way to orient yourself with any city is to walk it as much as you can.” (Vice)¤ Who owns the NYPD brand? (Vox) ¤
View from the ground:@gmasera captured this sleek apartment building in Manhattan. @_bithia highlighted the many skyways in Atlanta. @__txiki__ saw this twisting tower near San Francisco's Embarcadero. @whatthebruff visited the shiny Seattle Public Library.
Tag us with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we'll feature your photos on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.
*I’m off to a new adventure and will no longer be a staff writer for CityLab, but Navigator is not going anywhere. Future editions will be handled by my very able colleagues, so don’t miss out! It’s been a real joy writing Navigator, and hearing from you.
No stone unturned: I. M. Pei died Thursday at the age of 102 after a long career as an architect of great renown. Most known for his glass pyramid addition to the Louvre Museum in Paris, the China-born, M.I.T-educated, and Harvard-molded architect took on commissions both big and small around the world, particularly in the United States.
Since the 1960s, he helped define the ambitions of American cities through various cultural, academic, and civic commissions on high-profile sites including the JFK Library (Boston), the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (D.C.), Everson Museum (Syracuse), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland). Although mostly earning praise over the years, Pei’s firm was nearly ruined in the 1970s by the fallout from faulty glass panels used for the facade of the Hancock Tower in Boston. And then there was the Pei Plan for Oklahoma City, adopted in 1965, which demolished various treasured buildings and nearly 40 percent of downtown for a new “City of Tomorrow” that was hardly realized before local resentment pushed officials to move on and make a new plan in the ’90s.
Pei’s career was long and impressive. The work of his firm and the civic ambitions that fueled it are inescapable. Stay tuned to CityLab over the next few days as we publish stories about his designs and his legacy.
The theory, introduced in a 1982 Atlantic article, that maintaining order could reduce the incidence of serious crimes remains contentious 35 years later.
Concrete Jungle Gym
New York City’s public playgrounds are so ubiquitous they’re almost invisible. With over 2,000 spread out across five boroughs, tens of thousands of kids play in them every day. But just over a century ago, they didn’t exist. As the city industrialized and urbanized, children played in streets, alleys, and vacant lots. In the late 19th century, though, social reformers began to fear for kids’ health and safety. They organized play spaces in tenements, lobbied local government for parks and facilities—and then the playground movement was born.
I. M. Pei died Thursday at the age of 102 after a long career as an architect of great renown. Most known for his glass pyramid addition to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the East Building addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the China-born, M.I.T.-educated, and Harvard-molded architect took on commissions both big and small and helped reshape cities around the world through the second half of the 20th century.
After studying under former Bauhaus master Walter Gropius, Pei worked for New York City real estate developer William Zeckendorf from 1948 to 1960, where he designed various gridded concrete towers. In the following decades he helped define the ambitions of modern cities through various cultural, academic, and civic commissions on high profile sites. While his straightforward geometric forms aren’t for everyone, so many of his buildings are used by seemingly everyone. Here are some that have delighted and confounded CityLab staff over the years:
The Louvre Pyramid, ParisInstead of competing with the surrounding buildings, Pei’s diaphanous pyramid accentuated their age and beauty. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
“The first year and a half was really hell. I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say … ‘What are you doing to our great Louvre?’” Pei’s words (told years later to a documentary crew) capture just how negative the reaction was to his famous pyramid when its design was unveiled.
The embodiment of French culture, the ancient Louvre has been a medieval fortress, a royal palace, and since the French Revolution, a public museum (it is now the world’s largest art museum). After so many modifications over the centuries, it had become a dense, confusing maze for visitors. Which is where Pei came in, in 1983. His solution was a bold one: Build a new entrance in the exterior courtyard, as well as new public spaces and corridors underground. The new entrance would be a metal-and-glass pyramid, utterly different from the buildings around it in form and style. Parisians were appalled.
But there’s more than one way to show deference to history. Instead of competing with the surrounding buildings, the diaphanous pyramid accentuated their age and beauty. Pei’s inspired approach to combining old and new won Paris (and the world) over, and made his pyramid an enduring symbol of the city in its own right.
—Amanda Kolson Hurley
L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, D.C.L’Enfant Plaza is a reminder that architecture and urban design are distinct arts, and that innovation can rapidly curdle into obsolescence. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Marking Pei’s 100th birthday a couple of years ago in the Washington City Paper, I wrote that L’Enfant Plaza is “a dead zone, an overscaled void where you expect to see tumbleweeds blowing through.” With all respect for the dead, my opinion of it hasn’t changed. L’Enfant doesn’t work as an urban space. The proportions are wrong; it doesn’t offer a sense of enclosure as the Louvre’s courtyard does. The street on its western edge is a Brobdingnagian 150 feet wide. Not all of L’Enfant’s failures were due to Pei, its master planner. A proposed cultural facility that became Washington’s Kennedy Center was initially supposed to go here—that would have brought nighttime foot traffic and vitality. Pei also opposed the construction of the federal Forrestal Building, which effectively cuts the plaza off from the National Mall. Now, the brand-new International Spy Museum has filled in much of the central void, but the monolithic character remains (stores are buried in an underground mall). L’Enfant Plaza is a reminder that architecture and urban design are distinct arts, and that innovation can rapidly curdle into obsolescence. Design is always contingent on a host of factors: site, budget, policy, the client’s whims, cultural trends. Pei was a modern master, but any designer’s mastery has its limits.
—Amanda Kolson Hurley
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.The National Gallery’s East Building renovation in 2013 shows that even a flawed work by Pei still encodes a concept with integrity—an idea that another architect was able to carry forward.(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
When the East Building of the National Gallery of Art closed in 2013 for a comprehensive renovation, it offered a protégé of Pei the opportunity to think deeply about triangles. The museum was built around a singular primitive geometric conceit—the isosceles triangle—and architect Perry Chin highlighted this form throughout the three-year renovation. The East Building, which is arranged as a series of towers around a central atrium, is now more legible than ever, thanks to new hexagonal staircases, detailed in stainless steel and featuring glass balustrades. This museum has always been a difficult space: There’s no straightforward path between the galleries in the three towers, and the atrium is too fragmented to be useful as a space for art. Still, the recent renovation shows that even a flawed work by Pei still encodes a concept with integrity—an idea that another architect was able to carry forward.
Dallas City Hall, DallasDallas City Hall may stand out as his finest work: an expression of the twin strains of populism and idealism that make anti-ornamental Brutalism the language of civic structure. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Pei had more hand in designing Dallas than any other architect. His firm designed three of the city’s sharpest skyscrapers (One Dallas Centre, Energy Plaza, and Fountain Places), leaving the architect’s fingerprint on the skyline. But Pei’s projects in Dallas also express his range of interests. Dallas City Hall, which Pei designed in 1970, is an imposing Brutalist wedge; nearly 20 years later, he gave the city the Meyerson Symphony Center, a light and flowing study in geometry. Both are composed of many of the same materials. Of all these, Dallas City Hall may stand out as his finest work: an expression of the twin strains of populism and idealism that make anti-ornamental Brutalism the language of civic structure.
Everson Museum, SyracuseThe Everson Museum is Pei at his best, years before the world fell in love with his greatest hits. (Mark Byrnes)
Years before his additions to the Louvre and the National Gallery, Pei built perhaps his finest museum in downtown Syracuse, New York. The Everson, which specializes in ceramics and video, does not have upstate’s biggest nor best art collection, but it does provide a superior architectural experience.
Pei’s cantilevered, sculptural concrete building and its generous public plaza arrived during a period of large-scale, state-wide urban renewal and cultural investment under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. First receiving the commission in 1961, he had only recently broken free from an exclusive contract with New York City developer William Zeckendorf. The Everson project provided Pei with a unique opportunity to take what he learned from his thesis, “A Museum for a Chinese City”—a contemplation on regional vernaculars in building materials and exhibited art—to create a consciously un-Miesian design. (Fittingly, Mies had once proposed “A Museum for a Small American City” for Syracuse as part of a 1943 Architectural Forum and Fortune project).
Pei’s museum was to be just one element of an official renewal plan by Victor Gruen for a “Community Plaza” in which multiple cultural and civic structures would be built along a superblock on the edge of downtown. Opened in 1968, the building exceeded the ambitions of its donors and launched Pei towards bigger cultural commissions in the following decades. Its delightfully complex spatial arrangement of galleries, accented by concrete and natural light and anchored by an unforgettable atrium with its signature spiral staircase, make it Syracuse’s finest postwar building. It is Pei at his best, years before the world fell in love with his greatest hits.
Bank of China Tower, Hong KongAs Hong Kong continues to build up years later, Pei’s late-’80s addition to the skyline still stands out. (Kin Cheung/AP)
Pei had lived in Hong Kong as a child and was given the chance to build one of the city’s most distinct towers at the height of his career. The Bank of China asked him to build their new headquarters in 1982, one year before he won the Pritzker Prize.
Locally, its construction represented an era of tremendous real estate speculation and civic uncertainty. The skyscraper’s neighbors included Norman Foster’s HSBC Tower, the instantly recognizable “High-Tech” kinetic facade, and Paul Rudolph’s dramatic, glass-enclosed Bond Center. But, completed just one month after the May 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against the government of China— which would take back the city from British rule the following decade—the tower ended up receiving limited promotion at first. It was also designed without consulting Hong Kong’s feng shui masters, who deemed its sharp corners as “knife blades aiming at the building's neighbors.” Its X-shaped steel supports didn’t win many favors among Chinese traditionalists who looked at the tower and thought of the “X” mark used to strike through the name of someone scheduled for execution. For most everyone else, the tower stands as a bold and elegant solution to an extremely difficult site. As Hong Kong continues to build up years later, Pei’s addition to the skyline still stands out.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland
It’s probably for the best that I. M. Pei didn’t know anything about rock. The then-seventysomething architect admitted he was more of a jazz fan when he was handed the impossible task of creating a shrine to the aging icons of a youthful art form. Rolling Stone founder and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun dutifully dragged Pei to Memphis and New Orleans for a crash course in the roots of the music. Of course, the building itself would be sited not in those cities but in Cleveland, where city leaders were willing to bankroll the goofy idea of a $92 million megaproject celebrating the Majesty of Rock.
This idea was hatched in the mid-1980s, a time when Cleveland really needed a win. And an I. M. Pei-designed waterfront attraction, complete with one of the architect’s signature glass “tents” looked like just the economic-development ticket. When it opened in 1995, critics mostly raved about the complex’s funky swirl of geometric shapes (“Mr. Pei adds the Pyramid, the Spiral and the Drum to the Frug, the Swim and the Watusi,” Herbert Muschamp declared in the New York Times) and general swagger. Since then, the museum has welcomed 12 million visitors and many entertainingly shambolic induction ceremonies. (That annual event is now shared with New York City.) For tourist-hungry Cleveland, the Rock HOF remains a major draw: A 2018 study found that visitors to the attraction spent $127 million in 2017; the Hall claims a total economic impact of almost $200 million annually. Johnny Rotten might not be a fan, but Pei’s unlikeliest gig has won over plenty of fans.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, IthacaRobert Barker/Cornell University
If you live in Ithaca, New York, and you are hosting out-of-town guests who’ve never visited the bucolic Upstate New York college town, you’re going to face this question, very quickly: “What’s going on with that?”
That is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which looms over the town from the hill that holds the Cornell University campus. It’s inevitably and not inaccurately described as “the sewing machine,” but in truth the structure can assume any number of forms in the viewer’s imagination. From the front three-quarters angle it’s more like a giant Brutalist piano; stand right below it and it’s a big beige Transformer, frozen somewhere in between robot guy and kitchen stove.
What it basically never looks like is a building: It’s got that novelty-architecture roadside attraction vibe. Pei’s curious design was shaped by the challenges of its setting. Cornell wanted a signature structure on a fabled corner of its campus—the very spot, Big Red lore had it, where Ezra Cornell stood in 1865 to choose where to build his university. That location enjoyed sweeping views of Cayuga Lake and the town of Ithaca below, but university officials didn’t want to block views from the adjoining Arts Quad, and the amount of buildable land on the rugged site was limited. So Pei came up with a compact package: a 107-foot tower with a cantilevered fifth floor held up by two piers. You enter through a brick-shaped lobby in the space sheltered by that gallery floor. In the many gaps, the lake views remain.
The museum, which was just the third museum commission for Pei’s firm, was built using poured-in-place architectural concrete, a buff-colored mix of local materials designed to complement the Finger Lakes geography. When it opened in 1973, critics were largely enthusiastic—former Washington Post architecture writer Wolf von Eckardt told Museum News that it was “a perfect museum. You don’t suffer museum fatigue, because the gallery spaces vary in size and height.”
But students, profs, and locals found it somewhat more divisive. They still do. The Johnson Museum looms large in Ithaca—perhaps too large. You see that big concrete piano standing over the trees from most points in town, like some kind of powerful but benevolent machine. Its structural concrete façade has been sorely tested by the climate over the decades. Cornell’s relationship to its most iconic building remains somewhat fraught as well. A few years after an elegant 2011 addition was completed, university officials sued Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for “architectural malpractice” because of a host of problems with the new wing, including cracks and difficulties maintaining the correct temperature and humidity.
But, love it or hate it, the museum’s unmistakable shape dominates its host community (and the university’s branding) like few buildings can. And even if you despise looking at it, you’ll probably like the view from inside: Head up the fifth floor to get the full effect from the wide swath of Pei’s horizontal windows—a panoramic view of the lake, the gorge, and the little city nestled up beneath it.
If you are a Californian expecting your city’s leaders to provide an equitable, safe mix of transportation options, you may soon have a problem. State legislators in Sacramento are debating a bill that would strip away many of the tools cities using to shape policies for micromobility devices (e-scooters, e-bikes, and dockless bikes) offered by companies like Bird, Lime, and Jump.
Should it become law in its current form, Assembly bill 1112 (AB 1112) could curtail cities’ ability to: ensure micromobility access in underprivileged communities, establish caps on the total number of vehicles, or collect trip information to improve transportation policy. In a Democratic, urbanized state, it’s surprising to see legislators consider such an infringement on local authority.
As approved by the Legislature’s Assembly committee on April 30, AB 1112 includes language that would prevent local micromobility regulations “requiring operation below cost.” That could block cities from pursuing equity goals, such as Oakland’s requirement that half of all shared e-scooters be placed in “communities of concern” as identified by the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Without cities pushing micromobility companies to provide equitable access, it’s likely that residents in less affluent neighborhoods would have a tougher time finding a ride.
The bill goes further, banning any “unduly restrictive” local e-scooter regulations. That language could be used to challenge caps on the total number of shared e-scooters permitted in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. We’ve already seen in cities like Dallas the chaos that can follow an absence of rules around micromobility deployment.
AB 1112 has national significance, as California has long been ground zero for new mobility technologies. Lyft, Lime, and Uber are all based in San Francisco, and Bird is headquartered in Santa Monica. The first dockless e-scooters launched in Santa Monica in September 2017, and Los Angeles is the largest American city where shared e-scooters are currently legal.
AB 1112 would ban California cities from collecting individual trip data, allowing them to collect only aggregated data from micromobility companies. This would effectively kill Los Angeles’s groundbreaking digital tool, the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) that allows cities to monitor individual micromobility trips in real time and issue guidance to the companies providing them. Cities including Santa Monica, Seattle, Providence, and Louisville are currently using MDS to inform their e-scooter policies.
MDS has been controversial, with critics like the Center for Democracy and Technology claiming that the collection of individual trip data by the public sector jeopardizes the privacy of micromobility users. But defenders of MDS tout the data’s value to policymakers facing decisions like where to install a bike lane or how to ensure e-scooter availability in low-income communities. Last month Los Angeles began requiring scooter companies to provide data through MDS—over the strong objections of Jump, the micromobility provider owned by Uber.
To be fair, critics of MDS have argued that the use of aggregated trip data—which has fewer privacy risks compared with individual data—could still resolve the specific policy questions city officials face. Mobility data wonks are engaging in robust debates on that complex issue, and it’s hard to see why the blunt instrument of a state mandate is the right way to resolve them.
There is a term for this kind of state-based limitation on local power: preemption. In recent years preemption has become a common tool for Republican state legislatures to block policies enacted by Democratic cities, such as Ann Arbor’s attempted ban on plastic bags or Charlotte’s support for transgender-friendly bathrooms. In the urban mobility world, preemption has allowed Uber and Lyft to overcome local pushback against ride hail services. In Austin, residents voted in 2016 to require ride hail companies to conduct background checks on drivers, only to be forced into a reversal by Texas legislators.
With that history, it’s unsurprising that mobility companies would support preemption to block local micromobility policies as well. Uber, Lyft, and Bird have signed a letter of support for AB 1112 and they are seen as its primary advocates. Melanie Ensign, head of security and privacy communications for Uber, says her company backs the bill, especially the ban on cities collecting trip-level data through a tool like MDS: “We’re opposed to cities collecting any route information that could identify an individual.”
Fair enough, but why are legislators in deep blue, urbanized California inserting themselves into debates between city leaders and mobility companies, especially when we are just starting to understand the impacts of these new technologies on cities? As Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, observes, “there are not yet established best practices that should be codified at the state level.”
Micromobility companies have every right to lobby local officials, but it’s another matter entirely to do an end run around city hall and take their case straight to Sacramento. As the League of California Cities noted in opposing AB 1112, “shared mobility is a local jurisdictional matter. [C]ities are responsible for managing sidewalks, streets, and public spaces…[and] are responsible for the enforcement of and compliance with local and state laws that govern the public right-of-way.”
As much attention as emerging technologies like shared e-scooters and e-bikes attract, they aren’t the first new mobility services to affect urban transportation networks, and they won’t be the last. From electric unicycles to autonomous shuttles to drones, a number of new technologies are now beginning to appear on city streets—and they will be followed by others that we can’t even conceive of yet. How can we expect urban officials to harness the rapid evolution of mobility technology to promote safety and equitable access if those officials are hamstrung by state legislatures?