Mar 4, 2021

Axios Cities

Something you cannot unsee: the Froot Loops pizza they serve in Des Moines. (It's at the bottom.)

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  • Situational awareness: Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $150 million to Harvard for a program to train mayors to handle society's increasingly sophisticated problems.
1 big thing: Robots get legal rights as "pedestrians"

"We’ve got about 1,000 of them running around out there," Ryan Tuohy of Starship tells Axios. Photo: Starship Technologies

As small robots proliferate on sidewalks and city streets, so does legislation that grants them generous access rights and even classifies them, in the case of Pennsylvania, as "pedestrians."

Why it matters: Fears of a dystopian urban world where people dodge heavy, fast-moving droids are colliding with the aims of robot developers large and small — including Amazon and FedEx — to deploy delivery fleets.

  • "The sidewalk is the new hot debated space that the aerial drones were maybe three or five years ago," says Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, which makes a suitcase-sized $3,250 robot called gita that follows its owner around.

Driving the news: States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin have passed what are considered to be liberal rules permitting robots to operate on sidewalks — prompting pushback from cities like Pittsburgh that fear the repercussions.

  • In Pennsylvania, robot "pedestrians" can weigh up to 550 pounds and drive up to 12 mph on sidewalks.
  • The laws are a boon to Amazon's Scout delivery robot and FedEx's Roxo, which are being tested in urban and suburban settings.
  • "Backers say the laws will usher in a future where household items show up in a matter of hours, with fewer idling delivery vans blocking traffic and spewing emissions," per Wired.

The other side: The National Association of City Transportation Officials — NACTO — says the robots "should be severely restricted if not banned outright."

Where it stands: Starship Technology has deployed its "coolers on wheels" on more than 15 college campuses and just started grocery delivery with Save Mart in Modesto, California.

  • "They can carry about three bags of groceries or half a dozen pizzas with drinks," Ryan Tuohy, SVP of business development at Starship Technologies, tells Axios.
  • The company warns against putting children or dogs in them.

But: There've been reports of Starship robots getting stuck and driving into a canal.

  • "Last October, the University of Pittsburgh paused testing of Starship robots after one wheelchair-using student tweeted that one partially blocked a curb ramp," Fast Company reported in September 2020.

The bottom line: "We're still in the really early stages of deciding what it means to have a bot running round the sidewalk," Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, tells Axios.

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2. Cities are starting to ban gas stations

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Petaluma, California, has voted to outlaw new gas stations, the first of what climate activists hope will be numerous cities and counties to do so.

Why it matters: Expect more such ordinances, particularly in liberal towns. Grassroots groups are popping up with the mission of banning new gas stations and forcing pollution cleanups at existing ones.

  • The movement aims to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles.
  • "This is not a ban on the existing gas stations, which are providing all the gas currently needed," Matt Krogh, U.S. oil and gas campaign director for the environmental group, tells Axios.

Driving the news: In Petaluma — where neighborhood opposition to a new Safeway gas station prompted years of litigation — the council adopted the permanent ban on Monday.

  • Existing stations won't be allowed to add new gas pumps, though they're encouraged to build electric charging stations.
  • "The city of roughly 60,000 people is host to 16 operational gas stations, and city staff concluded there are multiple stations located within a 5-minute drive of every planned or existing residence within city limits," per the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The big picture: The Petaluma effort inspired groups like the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, which is working to ban gas stations in Sonoma County, California.

  • A Seattle-based group called Coltura, which seeks to phase out gasoline altogether, is working on the issue locally and nationally.
  • "Just as the no-smoking movement highlighted the dangers of secondhand smoke, the beyond-gasoline movement raises awareness of the health, climate and equity impacts of gasoline and diesel use," Coltura says on its website.

The bottom line: The movement is still tiny — smaller than the movement to ban natural gas hookups in new construction — but seems to be spreading quickly.

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3. Tension in Minneapolis ahead of Derek Chauvin trial

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Anik Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Derek Chauvin trial is set to begin next week and tension is palpable in Minneapolis, Torey Van Oot and Nick Halter write in Axios Twin Cities (sign up here).

What's happening: Barbed-wire fences, concrete barriers and plywood are fortifying city buildings and private towers downtown, as officials prepare for the possibility of large crowds and civil unrest.

  • Thousands of National Guard troops and law enforcement officers will be on hand to help with security.
  • Businesses are grappling with whether to board up or stay open.
  • Protesters are vowing to show up downtown to demand justice and more police accountability.
  • And organizers at 38th and Chicago are planning to create "space for grief, love and community-building" at the site of George Floyd's killing.

What Axios readers are saying: "Way more on edge than normal." ... "Anxious about civil unrest." ... "Very concerned that police/security presence will escalate the situation again." ... "Scared that justice won’t be served, but determined and ready to stand with my neighbors and raise my voice."

4. A muscular tool for tracking citizen sentiment

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

City governments hire ZenCity to monitor the mood of local residents on social media, and soon the company will add civic polling to its platform through its acquisition of Elucd, writes Kim Hart, the founding writer of Axios Cities.

Why it matters: Keeping tabs on citizen's feedback and responses to government actions has become a key job for local leaders who are dealing with multiple crises brought on by the pandemic.

What they're saying: The companies say the combination will give cities, counties and law enforcement agencies a digital platform to track a community's opinions, reactions and needs in real time.

  • This will help local leaders address skepticism and misinformation related to measures to contain COVID-19, plus efforts to roll out vaccinations.
  • "City leaders are making life-changing decisions every day. They need to be able to see what's working and what's not," said Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO of ZenCity, which is based in Tel Aviv.
  • Elucd conducts smartphone polls of demographically representative populations, providing near-instant feedback.
  • The companies say they collectively work with more than 200 cities.

Reality check: While plenty of people use social media and respond to smartphone polls, many people don't — and their voices will inevitably be left out.

  • The companies acknowledge this limitation, but say their methods are more inclusive than previous citizen engagement strategies — such as town hall meetings — that have high barriers for participation.

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5. Baltimore's new weapon to fight illegal guns

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Baltimore is piloting a software program developed by Everytown for Gun Safety that will enable it to identify patterns of gun trafficking and illegal sales.

Why it matters: If successful, this crime-fighting software — which draws data from multiple systems and connects the dots — could be used to crack down in many cities where gun violence is a big problem.

Driving the news: Everytown worked in-house and with an outside software developer to create the tool and partnered with Baltimore to tailor it to the city's needs.

  • The system can pinpoint gun shows and individual dealers who serve as major suppliers, plus the names of repeat "straw purchasers," who buy firearms on behalf of prohibited buyers. 
  • "By aggregating data, you are not solving one crime at a time, but you’re actually seeing patterns that allow you to unlock trafficking enterprises," John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, tells Axios.
  • "Cities have been operating largely in the dark, and this tool is really a flashlight."

Where it stands: Baltimore has suffered from high rates of gun violence for years. While it has strong gun control laws — as does Maryland — it sits on the I-95 corridor, where guns flow in from states with weaker laws.

  • Of the 2,543 weapons seized in Baltimore in 2020, 63% came from outside the state, and 82% from outside the city, Mayor Brandon M. Scott tells Axios.
  • "We are a city that’s been dealing with this epidemic of gun violence as long as I’ve been alive," Scott says.

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6. The nation's Froot Loops pizza capital

Savor the frooty aroma. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

It started when Fong's Pizza of Des Moines announced on Facebook that it was introducing breakfast items, including "The Loopy Fruit Pizza," writes Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines (sign up here).

  • For $20, you can purchase a 16-inch pizza, topped with cream cheese, mozzarella cheese, vanilla icing and Froot Loops.
  • The Des Moines Register tweeted a picture of the pizza in all its glory, and it was absolutely ratioed.

Taste-tester Linh said the pizza had a "fruity scent" and a "strangely nostalgic taste and texture."

Her conclusion: This is literally just cheese pizza and Froot Loops.

Fellow word-lovers: Today I am gifting you the Jargon Master Matrix, born 25 years ago when my friend Tony Mattera — a longtime bank PR guy — emerged from a stultifying meeting with his head aswim in corporate buzzwords.

He drew up a three-column mix-and-match chart that lets you craft meaningful verbal concoctions like "long-term operating infrastructure" and "strategic customer-oriented support" — to cite two examples that the WSJ picked when it wrote about the matrix in 1996.

The chart holds up remarkably well in 2021, as does the kicker to the Journal piece about Tony: "Among his other talents are writing parodies of popular songs, most recently, a song entitled 'Severance Pay,' sung to the tune of the Beatles' 'Yesterday.'"

Thanks for reading!