Aug 27, 2020

Axios Cities

Welcome back. If your children have started school already, I hope it's going as smoothly as possible.

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Programming note: This newsletter will take a quick end-of-summer break next week. We'll be back in your inboxes on Sept. 10.

1 big thing: The age of constant crises

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The era of tackling one crisis — or even two — at a time is over.

Why it matters: The new normal is a series of crises hitting simultaneously, and localities are bearing the brunt.


  • Many states and cities are still struggling to get COVID-19 under control as cases soar and testing remains erratic.
  • States and cities are collectively facing hundreds of billions of dollars in budget shortfalls — Moody's puts the number at around $500 billion — because of COVID-19's economic disruptions.
  • Climate change continues to trigger more extreme weather, including massive fires in the West and multiple hurricanes in the Southeast.
  • Millions of students are stuck in precarious learning situations. The mess is expected to result in extensive learning loss that could derail a generation’s opportunity and earning potential.
  • Social unrest in response to police brutality against Black residents continues to erupt in city streets. Meanwhile, debates about police budgets, the role of public safety and the lack of social services for society’s most vulnerable rage on.

What they're saying: "We should no longer be surprised by crises, we should be prepared for them and we should expect them as part of the new normal," said Clinton Vince, partner at Dentons law firm and founder of Dentons Smart Cities/Communities Think Tank.

  • "We need infrastructure in place urgently to deal with crises. We're so far behind on each of these critical issues."

Resiliency, sustainability and urgency are the new buzzwords of urban planning.

  • In the absence of federal action, the think tank is sketching out "mini Marshall Plans" with financing mechanisms that would work in cities, counties and states.
  • Disaster relief experts and urban policy professionals have put together numerous tools for cities, nonprofits and community groups trying to stem the damage to jobs, families and local services as more crises pummel increasingly fragile institutions.

Mayors are repeatedly sounding alarms about cities' dire financial conditions and the threat to the overall economy if they don’t get help.

  • "We all know this pandemic is not going to be over in a matter of weeks or months," said Mesa, Arizona, Mayor John Giles at an RNC kickoff virtual event Monday. Mesa was one of only 38 U.S. cities with populations large enough to receive federal funding from the CARES Act.
  • "The assistance needs to continue in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that would result without it."

Between the lines: When crises overlap the way they increasingly are, the challenges with addressing them don't just pile up, they multiply — what engineers call "cascading failures," where one problem makes solving another problem many times harder, notes Axios managing editor Scott Rosenberg.

  • For example, California released thousands of inmates to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but that left the state without the typical workforce for fighting wildfires.

The silver lining: The clustering of crises has led to many intersecting catalysts for change and a political appetite — at least at the local level — for a more equitable recovery, said David DeVaughn, director of HR&A's inclusive cities practice.

  • While the default, knee-jerk reaction is to get back to the status quo, "Getting back to normal is completely unacceptable. That normal is why we are in these circumstances to begin with," he said.
2. Most urban schools will start the year with all-remote learning
Reproduced from a CRPE report; Chart: Axios Visuals

About half of school districts across the country will return to school buildings in the fall — but the majority of the big-city school districts that also serve large numbers of at-risk students will be doing remote learning for the foreseeable future.

The big picture: There's a stark divide in school reopening plans between urban and rural districts, according to an analysis by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

  • Students in most rural U.S. school districts will be returning to classrooms this fall.
  • Meanwhile, almost 4 out of 5 urban districts will start the year fully remote.

Why it matters: Remote instruction challenges — such as spotty broadband access and poor instruction — in the spring have already created major learning hurdles for the students with the most to lose from school disruptions.

  • Even though many districts rushed to provide digital access to as many students as possible in the spring, there are still gaps in students' ability to learn in an all-virtual environment.
  • The divide in school reopening plans could lead to even more divergent learning outcomes as the true levels of COVID-19 learning loss are more understood in the coming years, noted CRPE director Robin Lake.

A worrisome finding: There's significant overlap between districts with the highest poverty levels and those planning to start the year with fully remote classes.

  • That's problematic because many students in poverty tend to need more social, emotional and academic support that is harder for their households to provide.
  • Parents are less likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home and help supervise their children's online learning progress.

The bottom line: "[T]he challenge this fall isn’t to just continue learning. For so many students, the challenge will be to start to make up for lost time from last spring," per CRPE.

3. Exclusive: Curb management in the age of coronavirus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Now that we're in the pandemic habit of ordering everything online, delivery drivers are swarming streets and clogging curbs.

  • That wasn't a huge problem last spring when few people were on the road anyway. But now that people are driving and venturing out more, curb congestion is worsening again.

Driving the news: Curb management software maker curbFlow is launching a new pilot program that places tiny cameras, or "computer vision devices," in street-facing storefronts to detect when parking spots are available for delivery vehicles.

The catch: Cities had run pilot programs with curb management systems, but they're now facing steep budget woes of their own and have prioritized more pressing issues.

  • So curbFlow is partnering with the merchants who have an interest in keeping the curbs in front of their businesses more orderly.

How it works: curbFlow asks merchants for permission to place a computer vision device in their front windows for free.

  • Using edge processing, the devices send data on parking spaces available in real time to the curbFlow app. Commercial drivers working for, say, UPS, DoorDash or local pizzerias can then see which parking spots are available.
  • The program launches today in Washington, D.C., where the company did a pilot program with the city's Department of Transportation last summer, with plans to expand to other cities soon.
  • curbFlow makes money by charging the commercial operators a monthly fee.

The question I posed to curbFlow founder and CEO Ali Vahabzadeh: Why would merchants have an interest in giving delivery drivers access to their prime parking spots?

  • His answer: "Chaos at the curb is bad for business. When there’s double and triple parking, when delivery trucks are parked on the sidewalk, people don’t want to visit. Offering a free solution to mitigate chaos at the curb addresses the pain point of what's happening in front of their establishment."

What to watch: The company is announcing today that it has raised $8 million in venture funding, led by General Catalyst and Initialized Capital.

4. Airbnb becomes a force for remote workers

Photo: courtesy of Airbnb

Where would you like to live and work, if you could live and work anywhere?

  • In a work-from-home world, that question is turning from hypothetical to real for millions of workers, Axios' Felix Salmon writes.

One primary beneficiary seems to be Airbnb, which has seen a threefold increase in the number of reviewers talking about remote work.

The most popular locations for people and families renting homes for 28 days or longer are — so far — all places that are a beautiful escape from the heat during the summer.

  • Cities topping the list this summer: Stratton, Vermont; Portland, Maine; Whitefish, Montana; Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Saratoga Springs, New York.
  • Expect that list to migrate south to cities in Florida and New Mexico as winter arrives.

One thing the top destinations have in common: A lot of open space. "In the past, Airbnb was a force of gentrification in cities," writes critic Kyle Chayka. "Now, it’s accelerating the pandemic-era gentrification of the countryside."

5. Invisible valet will park cars in high-tech garage

Ford and Bosch's automated valet parking demonstration. Photo: courtesy of Ford

Ford and its partners have a plan to retrofit garages into systems that automate parking, allowing motorists to leave cars at drop-off locations to park themselves, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

What's happening: Ford is working with tech supplier Bosch and Detroit real estate developer Bedrock to perfect the system as part of a pilot at a retrofitted garage in Detroit. The companies said it is the first infrastructure-based solution for automated valet parking in the U.S.

Why it matters: Parking is a pain point for drivers in many cities. Automated valet parking is not only a convenience for motorists, it's an efficient space-saver for building owners, allowing them to squeeze up to 20% more vehicles into their parking garages.

  • Automated parking is also an important building block for self-driving technology.

What they're saying: "The healthiest, most vibrant cities in the world are not built around parking. They're built around people," says Kevin Bopp, Bedrock's vice president of parking and mobility.

How it works: Drivers exit their vehicles and then use their smartphones to tell their cars to park themselves.

  • In this case, it's the garage's sensors, not the car, that is calling the shots.
  • Lidar sensors on the ground communicate over WiFi with the Ford Escape's embedded modem, which issues commands to the steering and braking systems to maneuver the car as needed.
  • The lidar system can detect obstacles, such as a pedestrian or another car, and tell the car to brake as needed.
  • In the future, Bosch expects to replace the expensive lidar sensors with video cameras to perform the same functions.
  • Drivers can use their phones to summon their cars when they're ready to depart.

Between the lines: Ford says the infrastructure-based system helps keep down costs by requiring less onboard computing in the car.

What to watch: Ford's chief technology officer Ken Washington would not say when the system will be commercially available other than to say automated parking is "a high priority" and "stay tuned."

6. Urban files

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Betting on the return to the workplace (Axios)

California fixes bill that would’ve ended micromobility in the state (StreetsBlog)

The "expanding bull's-eye" of hurricane risk (Axios)

Suburbia, Reconsidered (Bloomberg CityLab)


"Miami I think is a microcosm of what the United States looks like and will look like over the course of the next few decades. So I think we should embrace the fact that we are a country of immigrants and that should strengthen us and not something we should vilify."
— Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (R) during an Axios virtual event at the RNC yesterday
7. 1 amazing thing: Rooftop acrobatics in Prague

Photo: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

Artists perform an acrobatic performance of the fairy tale "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep" by Hans Christian Andersen on the rooftop of the Lucerna building on Tuesday in Prague, Czech Republic.

  • The nine-minute performance was a combination of acrobats, actors, circus, dancers and pianists over the rooftops of Prague during sunset.