Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
Please, no more internment camp throwbacks next year.
Running a city ain’t easy, but that can’t excuse some of the ideas put forth by local leaders around the U.S. this year. We’ve rounded up the most bizarre and egregious contenders covered by CityLab in 2015, listed here in chronological order. They range from rear-guard actions against urbanist improvements to self-serving NIMBY ploys to eerily fascist displays of force. Here’s hoping nobody calls for bringing back any of these truly terrible ideas in 2016.
January: Gainesville backtracks on better streets
The new year kicked off with this Florida city undoing a road diet that had converted a four-lane road into two car lanes and two bike lanes. The redesign coincided with an eightfold jump in cyclists using the road and a decrease in injuries and damage from car crashes. With limited data it’s hard to say for sure that the road diet was the cause of those improvements, but there’s good reason to believe it was. In any case, occasional bottlenecks where the road narrowed down to two lanes spurred a backlash and prompted the mayor to decry “road diet ideology” in an editorial. The city sent in a paint crew to reinstate the road’s old car-first approach.
April: Los Angeles aggressively tickets pedestrians
The LAPD went on a pedestrian ticketing spree in late April, targeting high-foot-traffic crosswalks near Metro stations and slapping $197 fines on anyone who stepped into the street after the red hand started flashing. (The city council responded by asking the LAPD to justify the action and by examining the law behind the tickets.) As L.A. ramps up its effort to convert from a car-oriented city to a more walkable one, obsessively fining pedestrians for, well, walking is as counterintuitive as it gets.
May: Chicago offers up historic parkland for a presidential center
President Obama has deep ties to Chicago, so it’s not surprising he’d want his presidential library to be built there. What is surprising, though, is the manner in which his foundation and its academic partner, the University of Chicago, proposed to build it: by seizing 20 acres of historic, Frederick Law Olmsted-designed public parkland. Mayor Rahm Emanuel easily shepherded a bill through the state legislature to enable just that. The move means that, instead of looking at 100 or so acres of vacant land in the vicinity of the parks under consideration, the presidential library will be taking away common land that the public has enjoyed for decades. Nothing grassroots about that.
June: L.A. contemplates a war on the homeless
In June, the Los Angeles city council passed an ordinance to encourage the seizure of homeless people’s property stored on sidewalks or in parks within 24 hours of a warning—including medications and personal documents. Mayor Eric Garcetti let the policy become law without his signature but said he didn’t want it to be enforced until some amendments were added. The bill drew support from homeowners who would like to see the city’s sizable homeless population (currently estimated at 25,000) cleaned up and removed, but it’s the city’s job to balance clean streets with human welfare. Confiscating the few items left to someone who’s lost everything ensures the problem of homelessness won’t go away any time soon.
August: New York targets the Times Square pedestrian zone
The Bloomberg administration managed to change New York’s Times Square from a congested intersection with limited sidewalk space into a roomy pedestrian plaza with tables, chairs, and space to live your life. The transformation received rave reviews, people flocked to it, and pedestrian injuries dropped 35 percent. Yet all that progress was no match for a few painted nipples. The success of the plaza attracted a rambunctious assortment of street performers including desnudas, women who don body paint and little else to pose for photos and earn tips from tourists. Rather than constructively address concerns about the topless women, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested removing the plaza altogether, reminding the world that even successful, widely praised city innovations aren’t safe.
September: Coronado, California, votes to suspend new bicycle lanes because they … look bad
The seaside town of Coronado was trying to decide whether or not to add 12 additional miles of bike routes. But that simple expansion—shown to decrease travel times, increase traffic for businesses, and generally make the streets safer for everybody—ran into a firestorm of befuddling opposition. Residents lambasted the new bike lanes as “graffiti on the streets” and “a visual cacophony that if you look there long enough it will induce a dizzying type of vertigo.” One citizen of Coronado took the grand prize for hyperbole: “It’s very similar to personally taking all three of my daughters to a tattoo parlor and having them completely body tattooed.” The mayor and city council evidently found these arguments persuasive.
October: Charlotte police propose exclusion zones for anyone who’s been arrested there
The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police asked for the power to designate “public safety zones” that would allow them to legally bar anyone arrested there from reentering later. Of course, not everyone arrested for a crime is charged or found guilty of it, meaning people who don’t actually do anything wrong could be kicked out of whole swaths of the city. On top of that, the police department has a well-documented history of searching and arresting black men at higher rates than white men. As our own Kriston Capps described the ill-conceived policy (which has since, thankfully, been abandoned):
“Public safety zones” would return Charlotte to de jure segregation. Or at least, to a standard whereby white authorities could decide where black citizens can and cannot congregate.
October: A Boulder, Colorado, ballot initiative puts zoning in the hands of NIMBYsCities have to balance many complicated values when deciding on housing density. There are homeowners who made an investment they’d like to see grow, but there are also the concerns of the future city, where new residents will need places to live, too. Boulder’s ballot initiative No. 300 would have pulled zoning discussions from the citywide level down to the neighborhood level, with disastrous effects. Previously, the public could challenge zoning decisions with a petition signed by 10 percent of the electorate. This measure would have divided the city into 66 neighborhoods, each of which could challenge and vote on a zoning decision affecting that neighborhood. “This is mega-NIMBYism at work,” wrote CityLab’s Kriston Capps, allowing any given part of town to reject any new housing. Voters rejected the proposal in November.
November: Houston voters equate equal rights with men in women’s bathrooms
Houston’s city council had passed a proposal that would have protected residents from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, among many other characteristics. But then a Texas court ruled that it needed to go before voters. A group called the Campaign for Houston ran a media blitz suggesting that male sexual predators, posing as transgender men, might exploit the anti-discrimination measure to follow women or girls into the bathroom and do terrible things. Of course, such a crime is against the law with or without an equal rights ordinance. But the fact-blurring campaign succeeded in selling its message—vote “No” to keep men out of women’s bathrooms—and won the day, 61 percent to 39.
November: Roanoke likens Syrian refugees to Japanese-Americans interned in World War II
All those Syrian refugees who had planned to cross an ocean and find a new life in Roanoke, Virginia, suffered a rude awakening when Mayor David Bowers called on his city to “suspend and delay” any help for refugees until the war in Syria ends. Moreover, he said the threat from ISIS was just as grave as that which drove the U.S. to “sequester Japanese foreign nationals” after Pearl Harbor. Where to begin with this idea. First off, it conflates the civilians fleeing civil war in Syria with the combatants of ISIS. It then holds up as praiseworthy the Japanese internment program, which is widely recognized as a black mark on American history (and for which Congress officially apologized with hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations). Bowers later apologized, saying, “It's not in my heart to be racist or bigoted.”