Jul 23, 2021

Axios What's Next

Friday means the return of superstar cities, riding the Blade helicopter service and how we spent the time saved by not commuting.

"What was next" trivia: On this day in 1886, Steve Brodie allegedly became the first person to survive jumping off which bridge? Hint: It's not for sale.

  • Credit to reader Isaac Stephenson for being the first to note that Jeffrey Dahmer was caught on July 22, 1991.
  • Send your answer, along with tips and feedback, to whatsnext@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,355 words ... 5 minutes.

1 big thing: The return of superstar cities

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the pandemic emptied out Main Streets and normalized telework, many experts speculated that it would loosen superstar coastal cities' grip on the economy, writes Erica Pandey.

  • Far from it.

The big picture: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the like are coming back even stronger, solidifying their economic dominance for the future.

  • "These cities serve deep purposes for the economy and society," says Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution. "So it’s always a pretty bad bet to bet against the existence or survival or dynamism of cities."

What's happening: Despite projections of an exodus from the big cities, home sales are actually at their highest level in over a decade in Manhattan, and San Francisco's market remains hot with homes consistently selling above asking price.

  • Yes, Americans moved during the pandemic, but the vast majority of those moves were within metro areas, so the economic might of the big cities remains relatively unchanged. "The pandemic just stretched the bounds of metro areas," says Richard Florida, an urbanist at the University of Toronto.
  • Per a Brookings analysis of U.S. Postal Service address change requests, of the 1.4 million moves out of the New York metro area in 2020, just 37,000 of them were to the heartland or Mountain States. "These moves are not going to save the heartland," Muro says.
  • Of the 1.1 million moves out of Los Angeles, just 72,000 were to the middle of the country, and of the 500,000 out of the Bay Area, 27,000 were to the heartland.

And restaurant traffic is roaring back in the top cities. According to data from the marketing software and analytics firm Zenreach, Bay Area restaurant traffic has jumped by 192% since the start of 2021, leading major cities. Also dominant are Los Angeles (161% increase), New York (132%), Chicago (131%) and Boston (123%).

The other side: Two metrics tell a different story.

Unemployment is high in superstar cities. About 13% of America's unemployed people are concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, three cities that together only account for 4.6% of the nation's population, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

  • That's mostly due to the huge hit retail and food service jobs took in the big metros. While restaurants and stores are coming back, they're still dealing with reduced traffic when compared with the pre-pandemic world due to the persistence of hybrid and remote work.

Office vacancy rates are also high. Vacancy rates in previously busy business districts in New York and San Francisco have hit all-time highs of over 20% and are well above national averages.

Read the rest.

2. Riding the future of urban air mobility

The Brooklyn Bridge, center, and Manhattan Bridge, left, as seen from a Blade helicopter. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The future of urban air mobility is a lot closer than you think and could start changing the way cities work in just a few years, writes Joann Muller.

The big picture: As roads get ever more congested, transportation is moving to the skies. Electric flying taxis will zip over choked highways, ferrying passengers among a network of "vertiports" around the city. From there, passengers can walk or use another mode of transportation to get to their final destination.

I got a glimpse of the future this week on a quick day trip to New York, where I tried out Blade Urban Air Mobility's helicopter service from Manhattan to JFK Airport.

  • The trip — five minutes in the air, and 20 minutes to curbside at my terminal — cost $195.
  • That compares to the one hour and 13 minutes it would have taken midday in an Uber, which quoted me a fare of $111 (or $142 for an Uber Black car).

How it works: The booking process on Blade's website or app is simple and straightforward. I typed in what time I wanted to arrive at the airport and it scheduled my seat on the appropriate helicopter.

  • The Blade West lounge — in a trailer next to the Hudson River at 30th Street and 12th Avenue — isn't impressive from the street, but inside, there's everything you'd expect in a VIP lounge.
  • When it was time to board, the Blade staff escorted me and another passenger to the whirring chopper, where we buckled into our leather seats, put on headsets and took off.
  • We headed south over the Hudson, around the tip of Manhattan, and then flew over Brooklyn to Queens, where we landed at the Sheltair general aviation facility at JFK.
  • I was escorted off the helicopter to a waiting Cadillac Escalade, where the driver already had my flight information and took me straight to my terminal.

What's next: Perhaps as early as 2024, Blade's helicopters will start to be replaced by a new type of electric vertical aircraft that is lightweight, quiet and emission-free.

Read the rest.

3. Fusing synthetic biology and AI for faster drug discovery

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Absci — a company that uses synthetic biology and machine learning to help pharmaceutical companies rapidly identify new drugs — went public yesterday, writes Bryan Walsh.

Why it matters: Discovering a new drug usually takes years of trial and error and huge amounts of investment. Also, more often than not, a candidate will never make it to market.

  • Approaches that mine the intersection of AI and biology should help accelerate that timeline.

Situational awareness: After opening yesterday morning at $16 per share, Absci's stock was up more than 30% by the end of trading.

How it works: Absci's chief innovation is its ability to use the tools of synthetic biology to generate the proteins needed for drug manufacture in specialized E. coli bacteria, rather than the mammalian cell lines that have traditionally been used by the pharma industry.

  • Absci, based in Vancouver, Washington, also uses deep learning tools to rapidly sift through potential protein sequences in computer models, rather than the lab, and identify the ones that could have the most clinical benefit and be the most efficient to manufacture for trials.

What they're saying: "The drug discovery and manufacturing process is completely disjointed, which is why it requires years to go from idea to drug in the clinic," says Sean McClain, Absci's CEO.

  • "We're collapsing that into a single stage in an integrated drug creation platform, taking it from years down to weeks or months."

Read the rest.

4. Field trip: Axios goes to Amazon's cashierless store

The directions are pretty clear at the cashierless Amazon Fresh store in Washington, D.C. Photo: Nicholas Johnston/Axios

What's new: Amazon's cashierless stores are expanding again; an Amazon Fresh just opened in Washington, D.C., writes Axios editor-in-chief Nicholas Johnston.

Why it matters: These stores are some of the best examples of the cashierless future that awaits us all.

How it works: You scan a QR code to open a gate and then scores of tiny cameras and other sensors watch you as you browse and put things into your bag.

  • It works! On visits to similar Amazon Go stores in Chicago and San Francisco, I've tried to trick the machines by changing my mind, trying to surreptitiously put things into my pocket, etc. etc., but to no avail. 
  • Then you just walk out. About 30 minutes later, I got a phone notification telling me that I'd been charged for the bottle of water I had just finished drinking and the cookie in my bag.

My thought bubble: This is not a glimpse of a dystopian future where the most basic human interactions are erased from daily life, but rather a vision of the panopticon utopia of frictionless retail. (I once bought a soda at one of the Chicago stores in just 31 seconds!)

Go deeper on Amazon's bigger cashierless grocery stores.

5. Number of the day: 26 minutes

New York's empty Soho neighborhood during June 2020. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That's the drop between 2019 and 2020 in the average amount of time employed Americans spent traveling, including commuting, in a given day, writes Bryan.

  • The data comes from the Department of Labor's American Time Use Survey, released yesterday, which tracks how we spend our seconds, minutes and hours.

By the numbers: That reduced time — the result of a massive increase in remote work and a sheer lack of places to go during the pandemic — adds up to 6.5 days saved over the course of the year.

  • Employed Americans spent much of that saved time on household activities and sports and leisure — all of which rate significantly higher than commuting, which is notoriously people's least-favorite regular way to spend time.

The bottom line: If remote work is here to stay for many Americans — and signs are it is — it's due to the fact that most people would rather do almost anything than commute.

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One correction: Yesterday's story about companies in need of workers contained an error about the percentages of different employer types posting urgent notices for new workers. It's been corrected.