New York politicians push back on Amazon HQ2 plans

Amazon’s HQ2 process was bound to polarize (though I do enjoy a good dueling op-ed on these pages) no matter how it landed. But the decision to set up shop in New York City is likely ruffling more feathers than just about any other possible outcome.

As a resident of neighboring Astoria, Queens, the less I say about the matter the better — I’m going to assume you didn’t click on this story to read five paragraphs of me complaining about the N train and my rent.I will say I haven’t spoken to too many fellow NYC residents who are excited about the personal impact Amazon’s move will have on quality of life.

A number of local and state representatives are also finally starting to weigh in on the matter, and many of the comments don’t reflect the sort of capitalist cheerleading one anticipates from elected officials. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took to Twitter to express “concern” with how the process played out.

In particular, the one-time Blue Dog Democrat (who handily won her latest Senate bid a few weeks back) singles out Amazon’s tax breaks, along with the impact on struggling families, writing, “One of the wealthiest companies in history should not be receiving financial assistance from the taxpayers while too many New York families struggle to make ends meet.”

New York assemblyman Ron Kim took things further, promising legislation aimed as using tax subsidies to help cancel student debt, rather than prop up Amazon. It’s a move that reflects Bernie Sanders’ recent successful bid to provide Amazon warehouse employees a $15 minimum wage.

Congress member-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed support for Kim and voiced her own disappointment in a deal that was brokered without community input.

“Amazon is a billion-dollar company,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”

How issues of microtransit, congestion and parking are closing in on cities

Earlier this week in a new experimental newsletter I’ve been helping Danny Crichton on, we briefly discussed transit pundit Jarrett Walker’s article in The Atlantic arguing against the view that ridesharing and microtransit will be the future of mass transit. Instead, his thesis is that a properly operated and well-resourced bus system is much more efficient from a coverage, cost, space, and equality perspective.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on.  I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @[email protected].

From an output perspective, Walker argues that by operating along variable routes based on at-your-door pick ups, microtransit actually takes more time to pick up fewer people on average. Walker also gives buses the edge from a cost and input perspective, since labor makes up 70% of transit operating costs in a pre-autonomous world and buses allow you to service more customers for the price of one driver.

“The driver’s time is far more expensive than maintenance, fuel, and all the other costs involved.  In almost every public meeting I attend, citizens complain about seeing buses with empty seats, lecturing me about how smaller vehicles would be less wasteful. But that’s not the case. Because the cost is in the driver, a wise transit agency runs the largest bus it will ever need during the course of a shift. In an outer suburb, that empty big bus makes perfect sense if it will be mobbed by schoolchildren or commuters twice a day.”

But transit is not solely an issue of volume and unit economics, but one of managing public space. Walker explains that to ensure citizens don’t use more than their fair share of space, cities can either provide vehicles that are only marginally bigger than a human body, i.e. bikes and scooters, or have many people share large-scale vehicles, i.e. mass transit. Doing the latter through a mass fleet of on-demand microtransit solutions, Walker argues, increases congestion and makes it harder to manage scheduling and allocate infrastructure.

While the article offers an effective comparison of unit economics and acts as a useful primer on the various considerations for city transit agencies, some of the conclusions are a bit binary.  The discussion is a bit singular in its focus of microtransit as a replacement of public transit rather than an additive service and doesn’t give much credit to the trip planning and space management capabilities of many microtransit services, nor changes in consumer expectations towards transportation.

But despite some of the gaps in the piece, Walker highlights two ideas that spill over to some broad areas that have caught my interest lately: Tolls and Parking.

Tolls

Photo by Michael H via Getty Images

“To succeed, microtransit would have to help people get around cities better, not just make them feel good about hailing a ride on a phone. Full automation of vehicles, if indeed it ever arrives, might solve the labor problem—although it would put thousands of drivers out of work. But the congestion problem will remain.”

Like many, Walker argues that ridesharing aggravates city traffic rather than alleviates it.  Even though ridesharing’s long-term impact on traffic is widely contested, nearly everyone agrees that a solution to urban congestion is desperately needed.

What’s interesting is that regardless of the discourse that surrounds them, trends in US tolling mechanisms seem to suggest American cities may be moving closer to congestion pricing methods.

As an example, solutions to congestion are top of mind behind the New York state election that saw Democrats taking control of both state legislative houses. Though it seems like the argument resurfaces every few years, the elections have brought renewed debate over the possible implementation of congestion pricing in New York City.  In essence, congestion pricing is a system where drivers would pay higher prices for using high-traffic streets or entering high-traffic zones, allowing cities to better dictate the flow of drivers and reduce congestion.   

Outside of the obvious political tension created by effectively implementing a new tax, some lawmakers have pushed back on the effectiveness of a congestion pricing policy, with some arguing that it can aggravate income inequality or that a policy addressing construction and pedestrians, rather than vehicles, would have a bigger impact on traffic.

However, over the past year or so, an increasing number of states have been rolling out highway tolls that are priced dynamically, instead of using traditional fixed-price tolls. The exact drivers behind the toll prices vary, with some cities charging prices based on traffic conditions and others charging varying prices for the use of express and HOV lanes.

Several new technologies and companies have also made it easier for local governments to implement more sophisticated, adjustable toll pricing or congestion fees at a much lower cost. In the past, congestion pricing systems around the world have required physical detection systems that can be extremely costly to implement.

Now, companies like ClearRoad are helping governments use a wide range of connected vehicle technologies to establish and collect road usage pricing from any location without the need for physical infrastructure. Oregon is one geography working with ClearRoad to manage its new opt-in road usage program where the state is able to calculate drivers’ usage of certain roads and their gas consumption, and then reimburse them for gas taxes they’re paying.

So even though people are still screaming at each other in state capitols, it seems like we may be closer to seeing congestion pricing in major cities than we think. And while executing these programs can be difficult and painfully slow (often needing to satisfy city regulations and tax laws forty layers deep), if these smaller-scale programs we’re seeing in the US are actually effective, congestion pricing may be a solution to plug chunky budget gaps, better finance infrastructure projects and replace lost gas tax revenue in an electric vehicle future.

Parking

In his piece, Walker goes back to some basic principles of urban design, highlighting that at their core, functioning cities come down to how millions of people share a comparatively tiny amount of space.  

Walker explains that city dwellers that travel with cars and solo rideshare trips rather than with large-scale shared transit are effectively taking up more than their fair share of public space.  While the argument is made in the context of ridesharing and congestion, the same idea applies to the less-discussed impact mass-transit ridesharing can have on city parking.

At least in the near-term, certain cities have seen ridesharing actually increase vehicle usage rather than reduce it (a claim rideshare companies dispute), resulting in an even wider gap between the supply and demand for available parking spots.  And if people are using ridesharing but still choosing to own cars regardless, in an indirect fashion, they are similarly reducing the stock of available parking space by more than their fair share.

And while it makes sense that rideshare vehicles should receive a larger portion of the parking stock, given that it serves more passengers, the use of available parking by these vehicles can and has caused tension with local residents that have to store their cars further away.

There are companies like the mobility-focused data platform, Coord, that are working on tools geared towards helping cities and citizens more effectively allocate and plan parking strategies for the future multi-modal transportation network. And theoretically, ridesharing should reduce the number of vehicles in search of parking in the long-term. But at least for now, the impact on parking congestion is just another unintended consequence that weakens the argument for ridesharing as mass transit.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

PayPal shuts down accounts for Proud Boys and founder McInnes as well as antifa groups

PayPal has shut down several accounts, including those for far-right group the Proud Boys and their founder, Gavin McInnes, for the promotion of “hate, violence, or other forms of intolerance.” Several anti-fascist groups were also banned as part of the same wave of policy enforcement.

PayPal confirmed the bans to TechCrunch, which were first reported by BuzzFeed News. The Proud Boys are a right-wing organization that has until recently managed to avoid being labeled a hate group. However, the group’s increasing prominence, involvement in violent altercations and clear ties to white nationalism have earned it that dubious designation on a growing number of venues.

The organization was banned last week from Facebook, on which its many chapters relied for recruitment and propagandizing purposes.

As Gab, Hatreon, Infowars and others have found, it can be quite difficult for sites, companies or organizations that align themselves with hate and intolerance to use popular services online. Although some decry this as censorship or some other infringement of free speech, the terms of service are generally quite clear: groups employing or endorsing hate or violence are simply not welcome on these private platforms.

PayPal explained its actions in the following statement:

Striking the necessary balance between upholding free expression and open dialogue and protecting principles of tolerance, diversity and respect for all people is a challenge that many companies are grappling with today. We work hard to achieve the right balance and to ensure that our decisions are values-driven and not political. We carefully review accounts and take action as appropriate. We do not allow PayPal services to be used to promote hate, violence, or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory.

In addition to the Proud Boys and McInnes (and, yesterday, U.K. nationalist Tommy Robinson), PayPal banned a number of anti-fascist, or antifa, groups in Atlanta, Sacramento and other cities. These are generally considered far-left, and although some antifa are known for violent protest or stoking conflict with police during demonstrations, it’s far from a core principle, if such a loosely organized group can even be said to have one.

This doesn’t prevent these groups from doing what they do, of course. But it can make it difficult to support themselves financially, and exclusion from platforms like Facebook complicates communication and organization.

Apple, Amazon, Google and others sign letter opposing Trump’s attempt to redefine gender

A list of 50-plus companies, including some of tech’s top names, joined forces this week to pen a letter calling out the Trump administration over a reported plan to narrow gender definitions.

Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and more drafted the letter (full text below) in response to a recent New York Times story about a planned federal rollback of Obama-era civil rights protections for transgender and gender non-conforming citizens. The move by the Trump administration set off a spate of protests around the world in support of transgender rights, and the response from the tech industry soon followed.  

“We oppose any administrative and legislative efforts to erase transgender protections through reinterpretation of existing laws and regulations,” the note reads. “We also fundamentally oppose any policy or regulation that violates the privacy rights of those that identify as transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex.”

Rights groups and activists are mobilizing against a reported Trump administration plan to narrowly define gender, a move that could dramatically reduce federal protections for and recognition of transgender people on October 28th, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In Amsterdam people gathered Sunday night during a rally which was a call-to-action to all to members and allies of the trans, LGBQIA, black and brown resistance, immigrant and social justice movements to stand side by side with trans men, trans women and non-binary & intersex people, and to send a message of resistance and strengthen around the world. (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The initial Times report stems from a memo proposing that the gender of individuals be solely based on their biological traits at birth.

“Proposed Definition: Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the memo reads. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

This isn’t the first time a Trump administration LGBTQ policy has united some of the industry’s biggest competitors. In February of last year, Apple and Google among others spoke out against the administration’s plans to roll back Obama-era guidelines surrounding transgender bathroom use in public schools.

Here is the full text of the letter:

We, the undersigned businesses, stand with the millions of people in America who identify as transgender, gender nonbinary or intersex, and call for all such people to be treated with the respect and dignity everyone deserves.

We oppose any administrative and legislative efforts to erase transgender protections through reinterpretation of existing laws and regulations. We also fundamentally oppose any policy or regulation that violates the privacy rights of those that identify as transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex.

In the last two decades, dozens of federal courts have affirmed the rights and identities of transgender people. Cognizant of growing medical and scientific consensus, courts have recognized that policies that force people into a binary gender definition determined by birth anatomy fail to reflect the complex realities of gender identity and human biology.

Recognizing that diversity and inclusion are good for business, and that discrimination imposes enormous productivity costs (and exerts undue burdens), hundreds of companies, including the undersigned, have continued to expand inclusion for transgender people across corporate America.

Currently more than 80 percent of the Fortune 500 have clear gender identity protections; two-thirds have transgender-inclusive health care coverage; hundreds have LGBTQ+ and Allies business resource groups and internal training efforts.

Transgender people are our beloved family members and friends, and our valued team members. What harms transgender people harms our companies.

We call for respect and transparency in policymaking, and for equality under the law for transgender people.

Facebook bans the Proud Boys, cutting the group off from its main recruitment platform

Facebook is moving to ban the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization with ties to white supremacist groups. Business Insider first reported the decision. Facebook confirmed the decision to ban the Proud Boys from Facebook and Instagram to TechCrunch, indicating that the group (and presumably its leader Gavin McInnes) now meet the company’s definition of a hate organization or figure.

Facebook provided the following statement:

“Our team continues to study trends in organized hate and hate speech and works with partners to better understand hate organizations as they evolve. We ban these organizations and individuals from our platforms and also remove all praise and support when we become aware of it. We will continue to review content, Pages, and people that violate our policies, take action against hate speech and hate organizations to help keep our community safe.”

Even compared to other groups on the far right with online origins, the Proud Boys maximize their impact through social networking. The organization, founded by provocateur and Vice founder McInnes, relies on Facebook as its primary recruitment tool. As we reported in August, the Proud Boys operate a surprisingly sophisticated network for getting new members into the fold via many local and regional Facebook groups. All of it relies on Facebook — the Proud Boys homepage even links out to the web of Facebook groups to guide potential recruits toward next steps.

At the time of writing, Facebook’s ban appeared to affect some Proud Boys groups and not others. The profile of Proud Boys founder McInnes appears to still be functional. Facebook’s decision to act against the organization is likely tied to the recent arrest of five Proud Boys members in New York City on charges including assault, criminal possession of a weapon and gang assault.

California delays its net neutrality law while FCC’s new rules are challenged

California’s much-anticipated net neutrality rules, which were signed into law last month, are being put on ice until a challenge to the FCC’s own rules at the federal level is resolved. It’s unfortunate, but logical — if the FCC rules are undone or modified, the necessity and legality of California’s will also be affected.

As you likely remember, the FCC repealed 2015’s net neutrality rules at the end of 2017 and implemented a new, much weaker set that more or less puts broadband providers on the honor system when it comes to indiscriminate handling of your data in transit.

California responded by writing its own law establishing similar (and in some ways expanded) consumer protections. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who spearheaded the federal effort to overturn the old rules, was not amused; he called California’s rules “radical,” “anti-consumer,” “illegal” and “burdensome.”

So it was no surprise when, just hours after California governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, the FCC filed a lawsuit challenging it.

But the FCC is dealing with a challenge of its own: a lawsuit from a dozen or so internet advocacy companies including Mozilla, Vimeo, Public Knowledge, Etsy and others, alleging all manner of procedural and factual problems with the new federal rules.

If this suit succeeds and the FCC’s new net neutrality rules are rolled back or substantially altered (for instance, the court may find that some section or another is illegal or unenforceable), this could bear on the basis for the agency’s own lawsuit against California. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, and that’s why the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, decided it might be best to wait and not litigate a suit that may be mooted a few months from now.

Senator Scott Wiener (D-CA) explained in a statement that he regrets but understands the necessity of this measure.

“Of course, I very much want to see California’s net neutrality law go into effect immediately, in order to protect access to the internet,” he said. “Yet, I also understand and support the Attorney General’s rationale for allowing the DC Circuit appeal to be resolved before we move forward to defend our net neutrality law in court. After the DC Circuit appeal is resolved, the litigation relating to California’s net neutrality law will then move forward.”

Ajit Pai also issued a statement on the matter, saying he was pleased California was staying implementation of “its onerous Internet regulations.”

“This substantial concession reflects the strength of the case made by the United States earlier this month,” he continued. “It also demonstrates, contrary to the claims of the law’s supporters, that there is no urgent problem that these regulations are needed to address.”

Although the rationale for this delay is understandable, it’s unfortunate that California residents will have to wait months or longer for the protections they supported while this case plays out. I’ve asked the AG’s office for more information and will update this post when I hear back.

Google terminated 48 employees for sexual harassment in the last two years

Earlier today, The New York Times published a bombshell story about Google’s payout to Andy Rubin following reports of sexual misconduct by the Android creator.

In the wake of the piece, CEO Sundar Pichai and VP People Operations Eileen Naughton co-signed a memo sent to Google staff detailing what it deems “an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority.”

The note, which was obtained by TechCrunch via a Google spokesperson notes that 48 people have been terminated at the company for sexual harassment in the past two years alone. That list includes 13 individuals in a senior management position or higher.

The letter notes that “none of these individuals received an exit package,” a clear reference to the $90 million reportedly paid to Rubin in $2 million monthly installments. Rubin left Google in 2014. We’ve made the full letter available below.

We have also reached out to Playground — the hardware incubator Rubin launched in 2015 — for comment. We will update the story when we hear back.

From: Sundar

Hi everyone,

Today’s story in the New York Times was difficult to read.

We are dead serious about making sure we provide a safe and inclusive workplace. We want to assure you that we review every single complaint about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, we investigate and we take action.

In recent years, we’ve made a number of changes, including taking an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority: in the last two years, 48 people have been terminated for sexual harassment, including 13 who were senior managers and above. None of these individuals received an exit package.

In 2015, we launched [email protected] and our annual Internal Investigations Report to provide transparency about these types of investigations at Google.  Because we know that reporting harassment can be traumatic, we provide confidential channels to share any inappropriate behavior you experience or see. We support and respect those who have spoken out. You can find many ways to do this at go/saysomething. You can make a report anonymously if you wish.
We’ve also updated our policy to require all VPs and SVPs to disclose any relationship with a co-worker regardless of reporting line or presence of conflict.

We are committed to ensuring that Google is a workplace where you can feel safe to do your best work, and where there are serious consequences for anyone who behaves inappropriately.

Sundar and Eileen

Egypt and Thailand: When the military turns against free speech