We’ve got a lot of, well, bummer news this week underscoring the major challenges facing cities in coming decades. Major home insurers will no longer offer coverage in California due to wildfires and the high cost of reconstruction, drought has prompted Arizona to put the brakes on home-building in Phoenix, and falling birth rates are forcing major cities to ponder a future without growth. Despite major investments in rail improvements in recent years, India suffers a devastating train crash that claims at least 275 lives.
Also: two Uber drivers read the small print of Prop 22 and force the company to pay millions in back-pay, Los Angeles takes another step towards congestion pricing, ‘Buy America’ requirements threaten high-speed rail, France announces a major investment in new bike infrastructure, and an electric Toyota drives 1,200 miles without re-charging.
California’s horrible housing climate: Two large insurers, State Farm and Allstate, have stopped insuring homes in California, citing both the mounting risks of wildfires as well as the high costs of reconstructing houses. Unfortunately, there’s only so much the state can do to prevent natural disasters linked to global warming, although it’s yet another reminder that it should do all it can to keep the planet from warming further. However, there is likely much California can do to reduce the cost of building homes: Gov. Gavin Newsom is signalling that reducing regulatory barriers to home-building is a major priority.
…and Phoenix runs out of water: In another ominous sign of a changing climate, the state of Arizona restricts new home construction in Phoenix, citing a critical water shortage.
The anatomy of India’s train disaster: Officials say the catastrophic train collision in Odisha that killed at least 275 was caused by a signal fault and a “change in electronic interlocking.” It’s a horrifying reminder that as much as we need to invest in new transit systems, we also need to continue maintaining and upgrading existing ones. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a big point of highlighting investments in new rail technology aimed at improving safety and reliability. It remains to be seen how, if at all, this will affect his government, but opposition leaders are already calling for his rail minister to step down.
Get ready for congestion pricing, LA: The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to release a study in the coming months on congestion pricing for some of the region’s major highways. The agency has identified three initial segments to test a pricing scheme, including a 16-mile stretch of I-10 between downtown LA and Santa Monica. There are no concrete details about price or how the tolls will be collected, but the objective is clear: reduce driving during peak times and encourage mode shift. Ideally, the increased cost of the commute will push more people to opt for public transit, while the money raised from those who continue to drive can be used to bolster the transit system.
Pay up, Uber: Thanks to the intrepid research and activism of two Uber drivers, ride-hail and delivery apps in California are sending millions of dollars in belated reimbursements to California drivers to pay for vehicle maintenance. At issue is a provision of Prop 22, the ballot that classified drivers as contractors rather than employees. To avoid paying a minimum hourly wage, the gig economy companies that drafted Prop 22 agreed to include a minimum “earnings guarantee.” Drivers making the minimum are entitled to reimbursement for vehicle expenses, initially set at 30¢ per mile. However, earlier this year two Uber drivers realized the state treasurer was not fulfilling its duty to regularly adjust the rate to account for inflation. After months of public pressure, the treasurer upped the per-mile fee, resulting in big payouts for drivers.
Buy America versus high-speed rail: Rail advocates worry that President Joe Biden’s “Buy American” policies are incompatible with his desire to build high-speed rail. To be clear, the U.S. has long had in place laws requiring federally-funded transportation infrastructure to be made domestically with domestically-sourced materials. However, the federal government has routinely waived requirements if they are deemed infeasible for certain projects. The Biden administration has taken steps to reduce exceptions.
…meanwhile, a way around ‘Buy America’ for EVs: Buy America requirements have disqualified most EVs from the $7,500 tax credit –– but only if you’re looking to buy. However, car dealers can qualify for the tax credit for any EV, no matter where it was made, if they plan to lease it. In theory, the $7,500 tax credit will allow the dealer to lease the car out for less.
San Francisco’s last ditch effort against robo-taxis: In comments submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission, which is considering allowing Waymo and Cruise to operate driverless taxis 24/7 in San Francisco, city officials say that the “numerous violations” committed by driverless Waymo vehicles “would preclude any teenager from getting a California driver’s license. Despite the vociferous pushback from city officials, the state commission has signaled it is likely to grant the permit.
Feds want to require automatic brakes: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposes requiring cars and trucks to be equipped with automatic braking technology that will kick in at up to 37 mph to avoid hitting pedestrians and at 62 mph to avoid hitting slow-moving vehicles. Most new cars do have some type of emergency braking system but many do not comply with the what the NHTSA is proposing. The proposed requirements will save 360 lives a year and prevent roughly 20,000 injuries. That’s but a small dent in the 40,000 per year death toll on U.S. roadways, but it’s something.
France announces €2 billion bike plan: The French government unveils plans to double the country’s bike infrastructure. Announcing the plan, Transport Minister Clement Beaune noted that half of car trips are under 5 km, representing “immense potential” for increased biking. The transformation of Paris into a bike-friendly city over the past three years offers the government a template for making cycling safer and more popular in the nation’s other cities.
GM chief says AVs are coming: GM CEO Mary Barra pushes back on skepticism of the autonomous revolution, predicting that personal autonomous vehicles will come to market before the end of the decade.
A scary fast scooter: Chinese e-scooter company InMotion previews a stand-up scooter that can go up to 70 mph. You can see a video of the vehicle, the RS, being tested out on rough terrain and country roads. If this sounds insane, keep in mind that at least the company is not marketing the vehicle specifically to thrill-seekers with experience in motor sports. Still…
Will wireless charging solve range anxiety? To demonstrate the power of its wireless charging technology, Israeli startup Electreon drives a Toyota Rav4 Prime for 1,200 miles straight without hooking up to a charger. Fleet operators are already partnering with Electreon, which buries its tiny wireless chargers alongside roads, to forgo large batteries. The company predicts it will eventually become the norm for passenger vehicles. We’ll see…
The demographic destiny of cities: In her new newsletter focused on urbanism, longtime CoMotion friend Diana Lind speaks with Alan Mallach, author of a new book, Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World: Learning to Thrive Without Growth, which ponders the implications of falling birth rates in many of the world’s largest cities. For instance, will fewer people mean more open space for parks? Maybe, but it will likely also mean less tax revenue to build and maintain them.
A changing of the guard in Berkeley: In the New York Times Magazine, author Daniel Duane reflects on the generational divide in his hometown, Berkeley, over how the city should grow –– or whether it should grow at all. The latest example of the divide is a plan to convert several blocks of parking lots around a rail station into hundreds of desperately-needed apartment units.
Defining and measuring New Mobility: The International Transport Forum releases a new report with recommendations for how local governments should define, regulate and assess the performance of new mobility modes. It highlights examples from cities around the world. Canberra, Australia, for instance measured the number of hospital admissions linked to scooters to try to assess safety, while Boston has surveyed new mobility users on whether their scooter/bike trips are replacing car trips to try to estimate the environmental impact. The report is dense and academic, but it’s worth a read for anybody interested in mobility policy.
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