Confederates under fire: Protesters in Louisville, Kentucky, hang banners demanding the removal of a monument to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman.
Confederates under fire: Protesters in Louisville, Kentucky, hang banners demanding the removal of a monument to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman. Madison McVeigh/CityLab. Photo: Bryan Woolston/Reuters

From the alt-right to HQ2, some major narratives just kept going.

In this year of Trump, fires, and floods, as the news cycle spun from one WTF? story to the next, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the ceaseless stream of craziness. But as CityLab’s Lab Report—our morning news roundup—scanned the headlines and monitored the cultural shifts, climate cataclysms, and policy battles that rumbled through 2017, a handful of recurring themes emerged. These are the five urban stories that wouldn’t go away this year—the ones that we had to just keep reading, and writing.

The Amazonian supremacy

An Amazon distribution center in Arizona. (Ralph Freso/Reuters)

It was September when the retail giant tossed a pretty bouquet in the air—and 238 cities came lunging for it. The stampede-worthy prize of “HQ2,” Amazon’s second headquarters, promises a transformation worth billions for the TBD winning city. Amazon’s call for bids set off a courtship frenzy across the country, with a blitz of publicity stunts giving way to seriously huge offers of land and financial incentives.

Even before the HQ2 sweepstakes began, this was a year when all economic stories seemed to orbit around Amazon’s sun. Online retailers were widely blamed for hastening the “retail apocalypse”—the nationwide scourge of dying department stores and vacant storefronts that we pondered again and again in 2017. Amazon also flexed its own brick and mortar ambitions this year, buying high-end grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. The mega-corporation could hit a trillion-dollar value next year, and its founder’s net worth hit $100 billion.

Little wonder, then, that many remain wary of the company’s oversized power and influence, and its potential impact on the future HQ2 city. Just look to “HQ1” host Seattle, whose relationship with Amazon is best described as: “It’s complicated.”

The ghosts of the Confederacy

White supremacists gather at the “Unite the Right” rally in August. (Reuters)

The struggle over Civil War-era symbols in American cities isn’t new—after the Charleston church massacre in June 2015, efforts to remove symbols and monuments associated with the Confederacy redoubled in many cities. New Orleans was a leader in this movement, with Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivering a now-famous speech this spring after the city removed four monuments.

But it was the Virginia college town of Charlottesville that would become ground zero for both defenders and foes of CSA statuary. The “Unite the Right” rally—a gathering of white supremacist, KKK, neo-Nazi, and so-called “alt-right” groups—descended on  Charlottesville on August 11, as the city considered a vote to remove two Confederate monuments. The nation’s attention was riveted as cameras captured chilling scenes of torches and chants, and a fatal car attack aimed against counter-protesters.

On top of the big questions the rally raised over free speech and protest safety, Unite the Right set off a fresh domino effect of cities removing—or considering removing—Confederate symbols. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters toppled statues; days later in Baltimore, the city removed four monument overnight. But for many cities in Southern states, decisions on monument removal are complicated by state laws—that’s why Memphis, for example, just orchestrated a creative workaround.

Charlottesville is still dealing with a similar legal battle—its two controversial monuments remain standing today, draped in tarps. The city has also put a halt to plans for a 2018 anniversary of “Unite the Right.”

Blue cities vs. red states

A gaggle of mayors sign the Chicago Climate Charter in December. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

America’s urban-rural divide became an inescapable talking point immediately after the election of President Donald Trump, and the first year of his administration only added fuel to the notion that urban enclaves with generally progressive values were facing off against the conservative hinterlands. Take a look at the “declaration of urban independence” that CityLab’s Richard Florida penned for Politico, urging cities to work around the anti-urban White House.

That conflict played out across many battlefields in 2017. After Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, many cities reacted by teaming up for the “We Are Still In” movement and the Chicago climate charter, while doubling down on their own sustainability goals. Cities also flexed local policy muscle on topics ranging from marijuana and ride-sharing to gun control, LGBTQ rights, and minimum wage. Going into the new year, the latest clashes concern the GOP tax bill and net neutrality.

But beyond the feds was another, maybe more potent, line of obstruction: the preemption of state governments. That’s especially true for blue cities in rural or Southern red states, like, say, Texas. (Last week CityLab presented a scale measuring these “anti-urban” tippings.)  

The perfect storm of all the above forces came with this year’s battles over sanctuary cities, as the Trump Justice Department tightened immigration enforcement, and many states fell in line. For a lot of cities, though, the response has been to ignore, resist—or sue.

Uber’s annus horribilis

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did not have a great 2017. (Shu Zhang/Reuters)

If it weren’t such an embedded fact of life for hundreds of cities across the globe, Uber may not have survived its scandal-plagued 2017. The ride-sharing company seemed to endure a relentless string of setbacks. The most foundation-shaking was probably the exit of CEO Travis Kalanick in June after a group of shareholders demanded his resignation.

The announcement followed a dumpster fire of PR crises that included the #DeleteUber protests, accusations of a sexist workplace culture, and a major lawsuit from Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit. News broke, too, on a pair of ominously named covert programs, “Greyball” and “Hell,” that Uber used to evade regulations and track competitors. Overseas, things are no better: Uber is struggling to keep its London license and battling regulators in Europe. It’s also grappling with a new privacy nightmare: a massive hack of customer data that Uber reportedly paid to conceal.

All that bad news tended to overshadow other developments in Uber-land, like the expansion of UberEATS, the launch of Uber Freight, a new Movement tool, and various big promises on self-driving cars (more on them later) and “flying taxis.”As Bloomberg reports, the company’s revenue and bookings are up—but so are losses. The biggest beneficiary of Uber’s crises seems to be rival Lyft, which has seen revenue triple. Kalanick’s replacement—former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi—will have his work cut out for him in 2018.

After the AV tipping point

A Waymo van roams the streets of Chandler, Arizona. (Natalie Behring/Reuters)

Speculation about how autonomous vehicles could transform our lives and our cities has been an irresistible parlor game for urbanists, futurists, and transit wonks for a few years now. But this year AVs became impossible for regular citizens to ignore: In November, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the topic. Across the world, 55 cities are now actively testing autonomous vehicles. Sixteen of those in the U.S., according to an atlas tracking the trend from Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute.

Those burgeoning pilots mean that more of us are finally starting to see the darn things on public roads. Chandler, Arizona’s new Waymo pilot, for example, is putting everyday citizens in self-driving vans on public streets. Unlike similar efforts by Uber in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Tempe, the Chandler model notably ditches human “safety drivers” entirely.

Beyond Waymo and Uber, a ton of tech companies and automakers are all-in on AV—among them Tesla, GM, Volkswagen AC, and Ford. The latter, for instance, plunked down $1 billion this year for AI expertise, while devote its Detroit plant to building a fully self-driving car within four years. Startups, too, are playing a growing role, as we see in nuTonomy’s pilot with Lyft in Boston, reportedly rolling out this month.

Legislative momentum is also building: 33 states introduced new bills this year on various aspects of driverless tech. To date, 20 states and Washington, D.C. have actually passed such laws. The feds also embraced the AV reality on an unprecedented scale this year. This September, as the U.S. DOT issued a landmark piece of policy guidance for AV development, the House unanimously passed the nation’s first federal law governing self-driving cars.

At the year’s end, that bill is now stalled in the Senate, but its implications are huge, barring states and cities from setting “unreasonable” restrictions on the rollout of AVs. A national policy, too, will override the existing patchwork of state and city regulations—which could streamline tech growth, but strip localities of their ability to right-size. The U.S. momentum, of course, is part of a global big picture. A recent Brookings report gauged worldwide investments in self-driving tech at $80 billion.

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