Oct 2, 2019

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

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Today's newsletter is 1,830 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Golden age for local leaders

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While approval ratings of Congress are at all-time lows, people in both parties still largely trust their local and state elected officials.

The big picture: Congressional gridlock and partisan divisions in Washington will likely deepen leading into the 2020 presidential election. But at the city level, officials are able to move quickly to address their communities' problems, from housing zoning to climate change to gun control.

Americans view local elected officials much more favorably than members of Congress, per Pew Research Center.

  • Tw0-thirds of U.S. adults think local elected officials care about the people they represent "all or most" (14%) or "some of the time" (53%). Just half say the same about members of Congress.
  • Similarly, 64% say local elected officials provide fair and accurate information to the public at least “some of the time," while fewer than half (46%) say the same about members of Congress.
  • Public school principals and police officers get the highest marks for trust.

Local officials are also viewed more favorably than state elected leaders, per a 2018 Gallup poll — the continuation of a 10-year trend.

  • 72% of U.S. adults say they have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in their local government. 63% say the same about their state government.
  • Both Republicans (74%) and Democrats (78%) share relatively high levels of confidence in local governments.
  • Democrats' trust has risen since 2016, Gallup notes, as they have turned to mayors and local officials to pick up the slack for the federal government.
"Cities can't wait for political change. Cities have problems, and cities develop solutions to those problems. And then they export those solutions."
— Andrew Young Jr., former member of Congress, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaking at a conference in Atlanta last month

What's happening: States have been increasingly active during the Trump administration, with attorneys general challenging policies on immigration, energy and health care.

  • This week, a court confirmed states’ authority to enact their own net neutrality rules.
  • California has aggressively pursued consumer privacy laws that could become the de facto national standard. Nevada's own privacy rules went into effect this week.

At the local level, mayors and city councils have passed ordinances to address their communities’ priorities — including issues where national leaders are stuck.

  • Mayors from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Columbia, South Carolina, have passed gun control ordinances in response to gun violence in their towns.
  • Los Angeles and Miami have launched climate change initiatives.
  • Minneapolis became the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning to tackle its affordable housing crisis. Oregon followed suit.

“It’s the worst of times for national America, and it’s the best of times for local America,” says Richard Florida, an urbanist at the University of Toronto.

Reality check: Local leaders aren't unassailable. Similar to how they view members of Congress, U.S. adults have negative opinions of local officials' ability to admit and take responsibility for mistakes, per Pew.

  • A majority (57%) say local elected officials take responsibility for their mistakes only a little or none of the time, and 41% say they take responsibility at least some of the time.
2. Cities aren't ready for the AI revolution

No city is even close to being prepared for the challenges brought by AI and automation. Of those ranking highest in terms of readiness, nearly 70% are outside the U.S., according to a report by the Oliver Wyman Forum.

Expand chart
Data: Oliver Wyman Forum; Table: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: Cities are ground zero for the 4th industrial revolution. 68% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, per UN estimates. During the same period, AI is expected to upend most aspects of how those people live and work.

The big picture: Many cities are focused on becoming more efficient and sustainable "smart cities," hoping to attract companies to compete with Silicon Valley.

  • But the majority of cities have ignored or downplayed the downsides of automation, Oliver Wyman concluded after interviewing more than 50 business and city leaders and reviewing 250 city planning documents.
"What struck me most is just how many cities didn't have this on their radar screens. The thing about AI is that it's fundamentally opaque, and that makes it harder for cities to keep track of it. The overall focus on smart cities almost masks the broader trends."
— Timo Pervane, partner at Oliver Wyman, told Axios

What they found: No city or continent has a significant advantage when it comes to AI readiness, but some have parts of the recipe.

  • Size matters: Megacities have an advantage thanks to their well-developed business communities and high-skilled talent pools. But smaller cities win regarding their "vision" for the next few decades — 5 of the top 10 cities have populations under 5 million people, with Amsterdam and Stockholm seen as global leaders.
  • Urban realists: A global survey of 10,000 city dwellers found that, while they are optimistic about the opportunities provided by technologies in their cities, roughly 45% anticipate job loss resulting from AI or automation.
  • Small city confidence: In the U.S., there is an inverse relationship between city size and perception of job loss. Pittsburgh and Boston are the least concerned about job loss due to AI.

Cities to watch:

  • Dubai scores high points in the vision category, having appointed a minister for artificial intelligence.
  • Moscow is developing its industrial and tech sectors by making it easier to do business there.
  • Berlin gets high marks for its vision and ranks first in the large city category for activation, meaning its city leaders have a track record of executing forward-looking plans.

Reality check: Cities can't deal with the repercussions of AI on their own. National and regional governments will also have to step in with policy strategies in collaboration with businesses.

Go deeper: See how cities measure up

3. Cities vs. dollar stores

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In an effort to revive shuttered main streets, empower mom-and-pops and reduce food deserts, a number of U.S. cities are trying to limit the rapid expansion of dollar stores, Axios' Erica Pandey reports.

The big picture: There are about 30,000 dollar stores in the U.S. today — more than the total number of Walmarts and McDonald's combined. And Dollar Tree and Dollar General have plans to open 20,000 more.

  • Experts say they contribute to food deserts because they rarely sell fresh food and they crowd out other retailers that do.

The problem is more acute in some cities than others, per a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

  • Birmingham, where nearly 70% of residents live in food deserts, is banning new dollar stores from setting up shop within a mile of an existing location and it's financing the opening of new supermarkets.
  • Northeast Oklahoma City's last grocery store closed in July. It has now prohibited new dollar stores from opening within a mile of old ones in that neighborhood unless the store commits to saving 500 square feet of floor space for fresh produce.

The other side: "We are disappointed a small number of policymakers have chosen to limit our ability to serve their constituents and communities," said a Dollar General spokesperson in a statement. "We believe the addition of each new Dollar General store presents positive economic growth for the communities we proudly serve."

4. The benefits of New York's congestion pricing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New York drivers collectively spend an extra 145 minutes sitting in traffic every time a single car drives into Manhattan during the afternoon rush hour, Axios' Felix Salmon writes.

  • Most of those delays, interestingly, occur outside Manhattan, as that car will spend much more time driving outside Manhattan than in it.
  • The dollar value of those 145 minutes works out to $82.32 — the negative externality imposed upon the city by just one car journey. That calculation comes from the Balanced Transportation Analyzer (BTA), the most sophisticated model in the world for how pricing affects traffic.

What we're watching: Congestion pricing will be implemented in New York in 2021. As a new report from the Regional Plan Association says, it's crucial that it gets done right. New York will be by far the biggest congestion pricing system in the world, and it will become the global benchmark by which the idea is judged.

  • New York's scheme will affect some 600,000 vehicles per day. Right now, the largest congestion pricing scheme in the world is London's, and that affects fewer than 100,000 vehicles per day.
  • The cost of sitting in traffic will go down by about one-sixth, according to Charles Komanoff, the architect of the BTA. That's based on the reasonable assumption that congestion pricing will reduce vehicle traffic into Manhattan's central business district by 80,000 cars per day.

The bottom line: New York's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority is charged with implementing a fee that will raise some $1 billion per year.

  • Forcing vehicles to cover some of the congestion costs that they cause will not only reduce congestion directly, it will also help fund much-needed improvements to alternative ways of getting around.
Bonus: Lego luxury

A luxury themed Lego creation is on display at the Lego building event in Helsinki, Sept. 28. Photo: Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP/Getty Images

For your inner Lego architect: A seaside village is one of the very impressive cities built out of Legos at a Finland Lego event held over the weekend.

5. The push for all-electric new buildings to wean off natural gas

Natural gas meters outside residential townhomes. Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

A growing number of cities are eliminating natural gas hookups in new homes and buildings as they work to reduce emissions and help meet climate targets, Mike Henchen of the Rocky Mountain Institute writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Where it stands: At least 8 California cities have passed new policies this year to support all-electric new construction, and the trend is spreading beyond the state.

An added benefit: Building all-electric new houses in Oakland, Houston, Chicago and Providence is cheaper than incorporating gas, according to Rocky Mountain Institute research.

Yes, but: As gas use declines, utilities will need new solutions to pay for gas grids that support a dwindling customer base. In many cases, outdated gas infrastructure will need to be decommissioned when it’s no longer needed.

The bottom line: Renewable electricity has become cheaper as it has expanded, helping the U.S. electricity system cut its emissions by 25% in the last 10 years. Transitioning from gas to fully electric power in buildings could further extend that progress.

6. Urban files
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Reproduced from UBS; Chart: Axios Visuals

The global real estate rethink (Axios)

Why U.S. tech investors are so highly clustered (CityLab)

Insurers deploy AI against California's wildfire crisis (Axios)

Former college towns left to adapt to business loss (NBC)

Holland covers hundreds of bus stops with plants as gift to honeybees (Independent)

How cities are driving electric vehicle adoption (Axios)


“With flames on our hillsides and floods in our streets, cities cannot wait another moment to confront the climate crisis with everything we’ve got.”
— LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, in HuffPost
7. 1 🛰 thing: Tracking cities from space

Satellite image showing NO2, a greenhouse gas, moving across the globe. Image: Descartes Labs

Major cities are getting bigger and satellites are getting better. That combination means satellite imagery can capture much more detail about urban landscapes than ever before.

Zooming in: Santa Fe-based Descartes Labs collects satellite imagery, weather data, device data, shipping data and other information — and then uses machine learning to predict future outcomes related to the physical world. For example:

  • The image above shows nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas produced by combustion from cars and factories, moving across the globe. Tracking NO2 from space can help climate scientists better understand patterns and hotspots.
  • The image below shows the tree canopy layer around Baltimore to pinpoint the areas of the city that experience the highest temperatures.
Tree canopy around Baltimore Beltway. Image: Descartes Labs
Kim Hart

See you next week!