Streetbeat, Vol. XXIV
A guidebook for infrastructure's next chapter, a city-backed career impact bond, and the return of outer-borough transit.
And welcome to this newsletter.
It's where I (John Surico) share thoughts & writing each month on cities & their contents: streets, people, energy, cultures, food, form, etc. Thanks for being here, and hope you enjoy your time!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “rose” question a friend posed at our last “Beers & Tears” meeting (a monthly talk on masculinity, fyi): what were the thorns, buds and flowers of your last year? Thorns: downsides; buds: upsides; and flowers: what you hope to grow. (A natural retort: 2021 had it all.)
January 2022 felt like an apt time to ask it. It’s been incredibly hard to shake the fatigue of these last two years, especially after these last few months; I mean, admittedly, the introductions to the last two Streetbeats were downright solemn. But the “rose” question reminded me of a shared experience my fellow volunteers and I have had out on the Open Street in my neighborhood. (We’re currently hibernating for the winter—a good time for this sort of reflection.)
Almost regularly, a day will include at least one negative interaction (thorn) with someone who’s upset over losing parking, or not being able to drive. (These complaints have lessened overall, but still happen.) Yet that same day, you’ll also have five to ten positive interactions (buds): a kid playing with chalk in the street; a parent saying how amazing the space has been for them; a neighbor telling you how they look forward to it each weekend; an event that drew a ton of people. Still, your mind returns to that one bad encounter—it sits with you. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, even neighbors have overwhelmingly told you they love what the space offers to the community (rose!).
That’s because thorns hurt. Despair over a persistent pandemic and what feels like a never-ending stream of trouble wherever you look in the world is as infectious as COVID itself. (Also: shit is bad!) Even if there was a lot of good that did happen this last year. This is what’s called negativity bias: humans tend to dwell on negative events, likely because they stimulate us, and thus we’re more likely to resign them to memory. You could be on a pleasant walk when you’re almost hit by a turning car—a sudden scare. Your mind jumps from feelings of joviality to fear, and now, that’s what you remember most from that walk.
That’s something I want to keep in mind as we start 2022: we’re designed to let the bad news hit us harder than the good. So let’s embrace the good some more.
Now, onto Streetbeat:
I very figuratively hung up my hat at Center for an Urban Future last month after almost five years (!) of policy research. CUF was my first foray into policy work, and, for that, it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. And the staff who welcomed in a freelancer like me (and are now good friends) was a nice plus.
We collaborated on one of the most exhaustive studies of the city’s parks system to date, which helped launch a successful campaign for more parks spending; a blueprint for the city to better utilize its incredible network of public libraries in the COVID-19 recovery (the synopsis of solutions is here); and a brief on the city’s clogged-up capital construction process (another debrief here). It’s work that I not only hope to pursue through different avenues (I’ll have some more news on that end soon!), but also, it made me think differently of how a city’s structures and stakeholders all interact, namely when it comes to social infrastructure.
That said, my last policy project with CUF is one I’ve mentioned in these pages before: the Economic Opportunity Lab, a five-part series on innovative solutions from cities and states nationwide for New York City’s new mayor to replicate here. I’ve penned two of the installments, and searched for all five this last summer. We’re releasing them throughout Mayor Adams’ first 100 days in office.
The first is on New Jersey’s Pay It Forward program, the first statewide career impact bond of its kind. What’s that, exactly?
Essentially, we know the world of work is changing. While I disagreed with the mayor’s choice of words around ‘low-skilled’ workers, there is some truth that the fastest-growing well-paying jobs today—in areas like tech, manufacturing, green energy, home healthcare, etc.—need an increasingly advanced set of technical skills. And there are ways to obtain said skills, particularly through certification programs, schooling, and bootcamps.
But therein lies the problem. These skills training programs: a) barely receive public dollars; b) often do not qualify for financial aid; and c) do not always align with the jobs actually out there. So if you’re a low-income worker looking to skill up, the path to actually do so is cost- and time-prohibitive. And with automation and subpar wages upending entry-level work, that doesn’t paint a pretty picture. (This is why policies like free community college and tuition help for adult learners are a big deal, which the second installment will dive deeper into.)
So, what does a career impact bond do? It pays for the upfront costs of these programs, along with ‘wraparound’ costs, like transit and childcare. And that is only repaid if said individual secures a job above a certain salary threshold. (Say $96,000 for a software developer.) But if that doesn’t happen, it vanishes.
In New Jersey’s case, the state corralled its biggest employers to put up half of the bond’s pot, and matched them. This shows that the state is serious about the idea, and also ties companies to its outcomes. With even more capital and resources than its neighbor (no offense, NJ), New York City should do the same.
The brief outlines how.
Start to the semester
It was telling of the times that the first run of my cities-focused journalism class at NYU in spring 2021 was done almost entirely remote. (We met up a few times in a park, which was also of the moment.) But that’s not the case this year—we’re back IRL at 20 Cooper Square, and so, finally, the capstone course I created about cities, and how journalists write about them, can be properly exposed to an actual city in real-time. And no better time than now, as cities everywhere confront near-existential level events: the pandemic’s perseverance; the impact of remote work; out-of-control congestion; climate threats; housing shortages.
The stories are everywhere.
On that note: we’ll be taking field trips around New York City and reading a ton of good urban journalism. Reader: if you have any suggestions for either, please drop me a line. Eager to get out in the field. (And you can follow our work here.)
Solutions Corner: A 21st century system for infrastructure
At the end of last year, I started working on a policy report for Aspen Digital, the online arm of Aspen Institute, one of the biggest think tanks in the country. And I was thrilled to see it go live this month.
Its aim: what does a 21st century understanding of infrastructure look like?
Most of the ‘infrastructure’ systems we experience in our daily lives—our power lines; our roads; our mass transit; our sewers—were built in the 20th century, and need to be upgraded to meet a rapidly warming, inequitable planet. But that takes redefining what infrastructure even means, which, I know, Washington had a lot of fun doing this last year. In all seriousness, infrastructure is not just the built environment; it’s inherently multi-faceted: physical; social; and digital. (Libraries are a great example of this.)
So as money starts to pour in from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act this year (and perhaps more at some point from a scaled-down Build Back Better Act), there needs to be some new ground rules—especially since the bulk of the federal dollars will be doled out to leaders at the local, city and state levels, who might still be using age-old approaches. (USDOT nudging state DOTS to use the influx of highway money on renovation rather than expansion was a sign of this.) Writing that rulebook was what this report was all about.
With that came three categories: mindsets; metrics; and money.
Adopt the governing practices from COVID-19 pilots. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, most jurisdictions entered into a state of emergency, which allowed them to bypass traditional processes to more quickly deliver goods and services. (That’s why restaurants were able to spread into the street—a process that previously took forever.) It demonstrated a more nimble and flexible governance, and knowing the challenges we face will only get more complex, let’s keep some of that mentality around.
Make community engagement an ongoing process. Having local ‘buy-in’ matters at a time of such institutional distrust and fatigue. But rather than checking the box of outreach during the planning process, bake community into the lifespan of any project. Because what we’ll need our infrastructure systems to do is likely to be in flux for the foreseeable future. (Just think of how much has changed in the last 10 years.)
Create shared, multi-agency goals around infrastructure. The way governments have assigned infrastructure roles is outdated. Our streets, for example, are often overseen by DOTs, but what happens when our streets become sites for stormwater retention, new parklets, 5G networks, cultural programming, or outdoor dining? Their use starts to leak into other agencies’ jurisdictions. So let’s make agencies work together by creating a system of shared goals—where targets have to be met collaboratively. That will require having to talk to one another; this is revolutionary stuff in governing, believe me.
Create an ‘access’ measure for equity. For years, infrastructure projects have been measured by what they are said to deliver—jobs, level of service (i.e. how well drivers are accommodated), and other promises of performance. This criteria is important, but it tends to ignore a project’s impact on surrounding communities, thus creating the structural inequities we see today. A way to offset that? Measure for “access,” or what people can get to if said project is implemented—schooling, healthcare, cultural institutions, and the like. (I mentioned the concept, popularized by expert Jarrett Walker, in an MIT Tech Review piece from last year.)
Include ‘climate’ impact on future generations in cost-benefit analyses. We live in a world of cost-benefit analyses, but too often, these studies are focused on the here and now, and don’t account for damage that will wreck the future. Example: a power plant might help provide fuel to a neighborhood at low cost (CBA looks good!), but if it’s emitting a ton of carbon, then the cost on future generations is astounding. Let’s factor that into our analyses going forward. (H/t to my old UCL program director Robin Hickman for pushing this concept.)
Encourage community-driven data. This is something I can personally attest to, as we recently finalized a community feedback for the Open Street. Is this something that we’d trust the city to do? Or is it better for locals who know the neighborhood to go out and collect? (We think a mix of both!) Data is often distrusted due to who’s collecting it, so any opportunity to involve communities in data-gathering can help with buy-in—and, hopefully, address skepticism.
Legalize ‘new’ methods of infrastructure delivery. Not only is infrastructure itself outdated, but the way we build it is, too. Traditionally, towns and cities use what’s called ‘design-bid-build’: you get a designer for the blueprint, and then bid out the contract to the ‘lowest responsive bidder,’ who builds it. Although its intent is noble (to root out nepotism), this disjoint leads to problems, of which I did an entire report on for CUF. There are innovative approaches, like design-build, that could speed up project delivery, but they’re limited in application. If we’re going to build the infrastructure of tomorrow, we’re going to need the tools to do so today.
Allow municipalities to experiment with new revenue schemes. On that same note, cities and localities are usually legally bound by their states or Washington in how they can raise money for projects. (The drag on congestion pricing in New York comes to mind.) But this comes at a time when these municipalities are being relied on more than ever to provide direct services to their residents. So let’s loosen the strings a little bit.
Bundle long-term maintenance into overall project cost. And finally: as many have said time and time again, America is great at building stuff, but not so great at maintaining it. Lack of repair costs us all—it leads to projects breaking down sooner, depriving communities of service for some time. (The bridge collapse in Pittsburgh right before the president’s visit this month is a tragic example.) Now that we have a ton of new capital coming into our communities, let’s agree to not do that again: every project scope should include a long-term maintenance plan, so we know what it truly costs up front. That’ll give planners and elected officials a much clearer picture of their checkbook.
The Aspen Digital report concludes with a section on how to pitch the public, which is increasingly vital in our polarized times. If interested, read on here.
City in Spotlight: Milan
Back to Italy. (And I promise to get out of Europe and North America next month.)
Milan already has some stellar cycling infrastructure, some of which I was able to experience firsthand this last summer. They also ushered in some ambitious pandemic-era pedestrianizations through their Strada Aperte program. (That’s actually Italian for Open Streets.) But the Northern Italian capital won accolades this month for approving the most ambitious cycling plan of any European city to date: 750 kilometers of cycle lanes, 100 more than the previous pioneer Paris’s plans. By 2035, the city hopes to have a series of rings forming out from the city center, with direct lines through them. Like a transit network, but for bikes.
What’s particularly audacious about Cambio Biciplan (or “Change Bike Plan”) is its huge bet on linking the countryside and city, a relationship often overlooked in transit planning and often a key driver of sprawl. (Most cities start at the center, the busiest, and slowly work their way out—the classic ‘hub-spoke’ dilemma, whose vulnerabilities were exposed by the pandemic.) The goal is to make cycling the easiest mode of transit available.
A programming note: I dedicated last month’s City in Spotlight to Boston after the election of Mayor Michelle Wu. So I was delighted to hear that Tiffany Chu, the former CEO of Remix—and Streetbeat subscriber!—has been named her chief of staff. Tiffany was the subject of a profile I wrote last April for her work at Remix (and then Via) and joined our walk down the notoriously dangerous Atlantic Ave for CityLab. A great addition to the team. Congrats!
Bright Side: Connecting the outer boroughs
I’d be remiss not to mention the biggest mass transit news in the tristate region from this last month: the plan for the Interborough Express (informally known as IBX). I’ve been a fan of Regional Plan Association’s ‘Triboro’ idea forever, which flips an under-utilized freight line stretching from the east Bronx to south Brooklyn into a rail line. (More on RPA’s other great ideas next month.) Curbed had a nice piece on how it could be a model for other U.S. cities, where freight once reigned supreme. I’d also suggest adding the London Overground to that list, a similar project that blew past all expectations of usage once it went live. It’s now a fixture of the city’s transit landscape.
The IBX—which has now been deemed feasible —only covers the Brooklyn-Queens portion, but that’s monumental for three reasons: a) the gap between the two boroughs is a huge hole in the city’s transit map, as I’ve reported before in CityLab; which b) leads to more car trips (about half between the boroughs are by car, per the MTA); and c) these areas are seeing rapid growth in jobs and population. In fact, more residents are traveling between Brooklyn and Queens for jobs than into Manhattan—a sure sign of the periphery recovery we’re seeing in cities everywhere that I spoke about some time ago.
So, three cheers for IBX—a project that couldn’t come soon enough.
Parklet of the Month: January 2022 version
Name: Ovelia (Astoria, NYC)
What: A smart use of ‘wedges,’ which I discussed last month.
FKA: An improperly parked car.
Ovelia, a popular Greek restaurant near me, has tried repeatedly (bollards, bushels of hay) to prevent cars from parking illegally next to their outdoor dining structure, yet each time the device was knocked down. But they seemed to have found a solution—which, inadvertently, helps with street safety.
Want to shout out a parklet where you live? Submit yours here.
Programming note: this month, I was invited to be a juror on AIA’s Open Restaurants Innovation program. The city’s outdoor dining program is here to stay, but it needs vision (i.e. proper design/regulation) to make it a sustainable feature on our streets. So as jurors, we’re judging different models on a set of diverse criteria to issue recommendations that get us there. More on this soon!
Streetbeat Gig Board
If millions are quitting their jobs in droves but even more are being posted, it is evident in this month’s job board:
Oonee, the fast-growing bike parking startup, is hiring a communications and policy associate.
Streetsblog, a must-read outlet if you’re interested in all issues unfolding on our streets, is hoping to add a reporter in New York City.
Open Plans, a potable force in public space activism, is seeking out a new policy associate.
Have a job to post? Submit it here.