What the losers for Amazon HQ#2 might gain

Amazon may be leading the way to more highly public location searches and there is one way this could help the communities who lose out:

All may not be lost for the 237 also-rans, though. They’ll have thick books filled with available sites, potential incentives and glossy pages touting their best attributes, and they’ve learned lessons for their next big pitch.

“A positive outcome of this could be the self-reflection of communities throughout the country,” Sessa said. “They’ve had to be very honest about where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are. Only one is going to be selected, and the other 237 will have assembled a lot of good information. If the weaknesses are addressed, the beneficiaries will be the companies who reside there now and the companies looking to move there in the future.”

This is a positive takeaway from what promises to be a disappointing outcome for numerous major cities: they will be better positioned to make the next pitch. But, I can imagine multiple ways this self-reflection and self-improvement will not work in the long run:

  1. There are not many future large-scale searches like this for cities to participate in. Amazon is a special case both because of its size as well as its desire to add jobs (rather than relocate existing facilities and employees).
  2. It is unlikely there are enough major companies for every major city to win something in the coming years. Additionally, major companies tend to want to locate near other major companies and in hot areas.
  3. The tax breaks and incentives required to attract these companies may not be worth it, particularly in an era when many communities are struggling to generate revenues.

In my mind, honest self-reflection in many communities would involve the realization that fighting for the biggest companies is not in their best interest.

How can a city reduce driving by 45%? Sustained effort over decades

Paris has significantly reduced traffic since 1990 but this was not an easy or quick task. This article suggests sustained effort from the city’s mayors was critical:

  • Jacques Chirac, Paris’ famously conservative (and public fund-embezzling) mayor from 1977 to 1995, helped encourage pedestrianism by increasing the number of bollards to prevent illegal sidewalk parking, Héran writes. Chirac also rehabilitated the Champs-Elysees into a true public promenade, with widened sidewalks, street parking eliminations, and refreshed green spaces.
  • Chirac’s chosen successor, Jean Tibéri, came under fire for not cracking down hard enough on Paris’ air quality problems (and was accused of election fraud!), but he does get credit for banning cars in the Place de la Concorde. In an effort to reduce traffic, he also introduced the city’s first bike plan in 1996, which established paths along the city’s main arteries and lower-speed neighborhood zones, Héran notes.
  • Elected Paris’ first openly gay mayor in 2001, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë “vowed that automobile interests would no longer dominate the city and he would focus on improving public spaces,” wrote Stephane Kirkland for the Project for Public Spaces in 2014. Delanoë made good on those promises during his 13-year tenure (while largely avoiding scandal): A number of streets were reconfigured to accommodate dedicated bus lanes. Some 400 miles of bicycle lanes were created. The banks of the Seine began to close to traffic in the summertime to make way for public “beaches.”And in 2007, the city introduced its bikeshare program, Vélib, now arguably the largest and most used such system in the West.
  • Delanoë’s protégé and current Mayor Anne Hidalgo is an outspoken environmentalist responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city,” CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year. Hidalgo has implemented a ban on older cars on roads during weekdays, and has pedestrianized the lower quays of the Seine. “Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles,” O’Sullivan wrote. (Furthermore, recent trip data from city hall do not support the claim by some motorists that Mayor Hidalgo’s car-free policies have made congestion worse. There’s been a sharp decline in the kilometers-traveled within the city, but only a small dip in kilometers-per-hour.)
  • Paris’ commitment to public transport far surpasses that of any city in the U.S., where it has been more than 30 decades since any new system opened. RATP, the public transport operator for the Île-de-France region, has increased its reach with new bus rapid-transit lines and a steadily growing suburban tram network whose first line opened in the early 1990s. New routes have been accompanied by sidewalk improvements, bike paths, and a variety of traffic calming measures. The lines are frequent and fast. Some are even driven autonomously.

Three quick thoughts regarding this brief history of Paris:

  1. Sustained effort across mayors and local government officials is not easy to do. This article covers 25+ years where different actors from different perspectives contributed to a desirable outcome. The amount of emphasis on reducing traffic probably differed quite a bit across administrations yet the small and big steps added up over time. Significant social change in large cities does not often happen quickly.
  2. The reasons for pursuing less car traffic are varied. Some might decry the environmental issues. Others might want more space for bicycling. More public space might motivate others. I wonder if any of these one reasons would have been enough to motivate these actions and push forward big changes. But, put together multiple reasons and people with different interests might be more likely to come together and promote fewer cars.
  3. How much easier is it to pursue such plans in a European city versus an American city? Additionally, this is Paris, a tourist hot-spot where people want to walk around and experience charming sights and neighborhoods. American cities may also desire less traffic – who wants to be delayed? – yet this is difficult to reconcile with American desires for individual transportation. At the same time, a chart in the article suggests London and Berlin are more like New York City in terms of driving.

The two best sociological books on suburbs I know

I recently worked a project that involved looking over a number of studies of suburbs undertaken by sociologists and other scholars. After being immersed in these works for a while, I was reminded of my two favorite sociological books about the suburbs:

#2. Baumgartner, M. P. 1988. The Moral Order of a Suburb. New York: Oxford University Press.

This work is relatively short and simple for an ethnographic study: it examines the social interactions of suburbanites in a New York suburb. The main finding is that suburban community is built around limited interactions as well as interactions that keep the peace. Open conflict is limited. Privacy and autonomy are very important. The residents are fairly transient and mobile but the community is held together by the social norms that limit open or consistent conflict. The study is not comprehensive regarding suburban life yet its insight about what holds suburban communities together is hard to match.

#1. Gans, Herbert J. 1967. The Levittowners. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gans moved into one of the early Levittowns and proceeded to study the community from the inside for several years. His work both provides one of the most comprehensive looks into post-war suburban life (many discussions about schools, interacting with neighbors, raising kids) as well as interacts with common critiques and stereotypes of such suburbs (some of which have some validity while others are not true). I have not found another sociological study of suburbs of this magnitude.

Watching for the rise of Accessory Dwelling Units

A new book suggests Accessory Dwelling Units – ADUs – are going to become more common in the United States:

Eight years later, Peterson works full-time helping others build ADUs, preaching the granny-flat gospel via classes for other Portland homeowners. The number of ADU permits the city issues has risen dramatically; in 2016, it was 615. In Vancouver, Canada—an ADU pioneer—more than 2,000 ADUs have been built citywide in the last decade. But for most cities in North America, steep legal barriers are preventing this form of housing from taking off: Many cities ban them outright, and those that don’t often have severe restrictions on size, owner occupancy, and parking. Only a handful of cities have adjusted their regulations to encourage more ADUs—mostly on the West coast, where severe housing affordability is a growing problem. But Peterson and other ADU advocates are predicting that the country is on the verge of welcoming more of them.

 

And a short portion from the interview with Peterson regarding the benefits of ADUs:

ADUs allow people housing flexibility over time. You can design an ADU in which to age in place, and then rent out your main house, allowing you to stay in your neighborhood as you grow older, and at less cost. Parents, caregivers, or adult children can also live in ADUs.

ADUs use fewer resources like gas and electricity due to their size, and because they’re often built in walkable and bikeable areas, their residents generate less of an environmental impact that way as well. They also reduce the per capita residential footprint. This is important because there are a lot of one- and two-person households in cities, but not the housing to match that demographic. ADUs can help fill this need.

And ADUs generally don’t have a significant infrastructural impact on a city, in contrast to, say, a 400-unit apartment building. They bring more housing to an area organically, and the city doesn’t have to build new infrastructure to accommodate it.

If these do catch on, in which neighborhoods would be become most popular? I would guess they would be most attractive in working-class and up-and-coming neighborhoods where homeowners are looking to generate extra income and where they are more open to having close neighbors. In contrast, I think it would be more difficult for these to catch on in wealthier neighborhoods. After all, don’t Americans tend to think that one of the benefits of having a larger and more expensive home is the ability to be separate from other people?

 

Calculating and using the Gini index for suburbs

The Gini index is often invoked for countries but it would be interesting to see it regularly utilized for suburban communities:

There are multi-million dollar McMansions and blue-collar families just trying to make ends meet. Across New Jersey, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to get wider.

But how are things changing in your town?

The Census calculates income inequality using a measure called the Gini index, which assigns a value between 0, which would mean complete equality, and 1. The closer a score is to 1, the more wealth is concentrated among fewer people and the bigger the income inequality.

My first thought is that I wonder how much income hetereogeneity suburbs have. There can be quite a bit of income or class segregation across different suburban communities but some of the larger suburbs could have quite the variation.

Then, it would be interesting to see how such information would be used. Would suburbs with less inequality use this as a selling point? Would community groups and activists be able to pressure suburbs into change with this statistic?

Finally, it would probably take a lot of work for this figure to become as widely known for suburbs as it is across countries. Yet, at this point, there is not an agreed-upon figure that works like this in order to compare suburbs. Median household income or the poverty rate can be used in this manner. Population figures probably matter the most for suburbs: it gives a sense of the character of the community and also hints at the growth that may be taking place.

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.