Helsinki's Vision for Ending Car Ownership: Best #CityReads of the Week

A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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Helsinki from above. (Ville Miettinen/Flickr )

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Helsinki’s Ambitious Plan to Make Car Ownership Pointless in 10 Years,” Adam Greenfield, The Guardian  

Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here.

That the city is serious about making good on these intentions is bolstered by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority's rollout last year of a strikingly innovative minibus service called Kutsuplus. Kutsuplus lets riders specify their own desired pick-up points and destinations via smartphone; these requests are aggregated, and the app calculates an optimal route that most closely satisfies all of them.

The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit,” Ben Austen, The New York Times

Economists fret that Detroit, in the absence of the manufacturing economy that built it, no longer has any reason to be. And indeed, large chunks of the sprawling, 139-square-mile city have literally vanished: Of Detroit’s 380,000 properties, some 114,000 have been razed, with 80,000 more considered blighted and most likely in need of demolition. But the new prospectors have an abiding faith that cities, like markets, are necessarily cyclical, and that the cycle has finally come around. It is the same ethos that turned other urban disasters into capitalist boomtowns — New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or the cities of Western Europe after World War II. If the scale of Detroit’s failure is unprecedented, then so (the local reasoning goes) is the scale of its opportunity.

In the process, the Motor City has become the testing ground for an updated American dream: privateers finding the raw material for new enterprise in the wreckage of the Rust Belt. Whether or not they’re expecting to profit, Gilbert and other capitalists — large and small — are trying to rebuild the city, even stepping in and picking up some duties that were once handled by the public sector. 

 “Is there a D.C. Dialect? It’s a Topic Locals Are Pretty ‘Cised’ to Discuss,” Frances Stead Sellers, The Washington Post

Linguists have studied dialects all over the country — in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Stanford and Chicago. But Washington presents particular challenges, not only because so much of the population is on the move but because the city is at a “dialect crossroads,” Schilling says.

“When asked about their accent, people from D.C. often say, ‘Whenever I go north, they think I talk Southern, and when I go south, they call me a Yankee,’ ” Schilling says.

The city is also undergoing the social upheavals of gentrification — felt particularly by communities that have long called this city home.

Once in a while, Annan heads out to favorite spots on U Street, such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, to watch and document that change.

“It used to be solidly African American,” she says. Now, she can not only see the demographic shifts, she also listens for them in people’s speech.

California Screaming—The tech industry made the Bay Area rich. Why do so many residents hate it?,” Nathan Heller, The New Yorker  

In the folklore of the Costanoan, a native people of the Northern California coast, there is a story about Coyote, the trickster figure from whom all human beings descended. One day, Coyote caught a salmon, but he didn’t want to share, even with his children. As he cooked the fish over the fire, he covered it with ash to hide the meat. When he felt hungry, he plucked up some of the food and ate it. “You’re eating fire!” his children cried. “You’ll be burned!” But when he seemed all right they wanted to eat fire, too. Coyote, still hungry, forbade them. “You’ll be burned,” he said. His children got no fish.

Many people in San Francisco today worry that the tech industry is behaving like Coyote, professing to nurture and provide while actually hoarding. San Francisco has a real-estate shortage. Some speculators, looking to capitalize on growing demand, have started circumventing rent control using buyouts: lumps of cash given if long-term tenants leave. Others have invoked a 1986 California law known as the Ellis Act, which permits evictions when landlords want to go out of business permanently. By repeatedly going “out of business” and exploiting a loophole in the local condo laws, speculators have been able to transform rent-controlled buildings into market-value homes. From 1990 to 1997, there were twenty-eight Ellis Act petitions in San Francisco. From 2006 to 2013, there were three hundred and seventy-four. (A California Senate bill that would curb Ellis Act abuses had been heavily championed by the San Francisco mayor and a few tech firms, but it was abandoned in Sacramento by its chief legislative advocate last week.) San Francisco today has the second-highest median income in the United States, but, even using that peg, middle-income San Franciscans can afford less than a sixth of the homes available in town. Every city on the up-and-up must contend with a gap between rich and poor. Yet few have also, like San Francisco, managed to immiserate a relatively well-heeled middle class.

 When Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things,” Carl Alviani on Medium

Now, there’s nothing unusual about this kind of bikers vs everyone drama, especially on the Internet: browse the comments section beneath a bike-related article on almost any broad-reaching publication, and you’ll find that few topics besides Israel, healthcare and gun control stir up as much debate.

What’s remarkable is that Simon should’ve known better. An experienced reporter with a sterling reputation for fairness, he’s one of the last people you’d expect to engage in this sort of stereotyping. And yet something made it OK for him to veer from fact into conjecture when talking about some people riding their bikes, in a way that would’ve been unimaginable in describing a professional, economic, ethnic or gender group.

This exception is something I stumble across regularly though, in the media and in everyday life. Delia Ephron, the celebrated screenwriter of “You’ve Got Mail” and producer of “Sleepless in Seattle” was so perturbed by New York’s new Citibike bikeshare system last October that she wrote a 1000-word opinion piece for the New York Times, complaining that “these bicycles have made walking around the city much scarier.” It’s a bold statement, completely at odds with the evidence—as of last month, after 15 million miles traveled, the Citibike program has still caused not a single fatality for either pedestrians or riders, and fewer than 30 serious injuries, while helping to improve the overall safety of the city’s streets.

A similar bikeshare system has been proposed here in Portland, but was vocally opposed in 2011 by city commissioner Amanda Fritz, who cited the“unsafe behavior” of existing cyclists as a reason to avoid anything that might put more of them on the streets.

Even my mom has gotten in on the act, complaining several times of the menace that bicyclists pose to the citizens of Santa Barbara, where she lives. As evidence, she described once witnessing a pack of seven men on bikes, speeding down Alameda Padre Serra at 30mph in the dark, and being struck with terror, despite the fact that hundreds of cars travel that same stretch of road day and night at 35 or 40, posing a vastly greater threat.

In each of these cases, a thoughtful, intelligent observer is prodded by a mix of fear and anger to give an alarming anecdote more weight than an abundance of evidence, or even common sense. On a street carrying thousands of 3000 pound vehicles a day at 40mph or more, we focus our fears on the handful of 30 pound vehicles moving half that fast.

Crowdsourced signage. (Pablo BM/Flickr)

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