Automation Leading To Job Losses At California’s Ports

Automation has already helped wipe out many manufacturing jobs around the world, as robots now perform factory line tasks that used to be done by humans. Now the technology is starting to be deployed through self-driving vehicles in places like ports, with similar results.

KQED radio in San Francisco ran an excellent piece recently that describes the battle going on in Southern California’s ports. These critical areas of goods movement typically offer some of the highest-paying union jobs around for longshoremen. But a new project with automated, self-driving cargo vehicles and cranes has led to layoffs.

This video below, shot by one of the laid off workers at the Long Beach port, shows in stark terms both the promise of these amazing (and zero emission) technologies as well as the human cost (profanity included):

We certainly can’t turn our back on new technology that offers societal benefits, from cleaner transportation to cheaper goods. But we can’t be insensitive to the human costs from this deployment. One would like to think that the benefits will outweigh the costs, that the savings will help the economy overall to create more jobs, and that new jobs will be created to work on these automation technologies.

But we know there will be losers, and policy makers will need to devise ways to address what they’ve lost. Meanwhile, the trend will only intensify, as automation through self-driving technologies will eventually displace jobs from truck driving to airport shuttles to taxis, and everything in between.

Alameda Housing Debate — Tonight At 7pm

The Alameda Democratic Club is hosting a meeting tonight at 7pm with a panel on housing — specifically the challenges facing Alameda and the region from the statewide housing shortage. I’ll be one of the speakers on the panel, which features a wide range of viewpoints (including a member of the Alameda City Council):

  • Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Alameda City Council
  • Victoria Fierce, East Bay for Everyone
  • Paul Foreman, Alameda Citizens Task Force
  • Catherine Pauling, Alameda Renters Coalition
  • Jose Cerda-Zein, Realtor

Members of the public are welcome, and it will be held at the Alameda Hospital, Second Floor Room A. I’ll be sure to discuss SB 827 (Wiener) and other policies needed to address the housing shortage. Hope you can attend!

Trump’s Puny Infrastructure Plan Seeks To Boost Privatization & Weaken Environmental Laws

The Trump Administration yesterday unveiled its long-heralded “infrastructure plan,” which Trump himself claimed would be a top priority in his 2016 election night speech.

While some headlines described it as a $1.5 trillion plan, it actually boils down to $200 billion in new spending, supposedly from offsetting savings elsewhere in the budget. And that $200 billion is conditioned on state and local government funding together with private investment. Think toll roads, which create a necessary revenue stream in order for the federal money to flow, as my colleague Dan Farber explained.

But even if the $200 billion didn’t have the privatization strings, it’s a drop in the bucket. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the current infrastructure backlog amounts to $4.59 trillion in needed investments by 2025, per Politico. $200 billion is therefore negligible (although arguably at least a start). But to make matters worse, his proposed federal budget seeks to gut other infrastructure spending programs on badly needed investments like new rail transit and Amtrak.

In addition, the infrastructure plan proposes putting a hard time limit on environmental reviews, ostensibly to weaken their efficacy. I’m definitely in favor of re-examining our environmental review processes, as I’m sure there are efficiencies that could be gained. But knowing the people involved in the Trump Administration and their record on the environment versus business interests, it’s hard not to be skeptical of this proposal.

Ultimately, a robust infrastructure bill without the privatization strings should have been passed during the last recession, when we needed the jobs and the construction and labor costs were much lower. Now we have a tepid proposal which mostly seeks to privatize public assets and weaken environmental laws, during a time when the economy is humming and construction costs are high.

My guess is the bill is either not going to pass Congress anywhere near its current shape, or it simply won’t be effective in spurring much infrastructure investment. Either way, the country has missed an important economic window for this needed investment, and now only has this relatively weak offering to show for it.

Cape Town’s “Day Zero” Water Shutdown Could Be A Postcard From A Climate Future

Image result for cape town reservoirCape Town, South Africa, a city of about 4 million people, is just three months away from having to shut down their water supply for residents, barring rain between now and then. Residents will then have to line up at 200 sites around the city to pick up a ration of 6 gallons of water per day per person.

How did this major city, which ironically won an international award for water conservation at the Paris UN climate talks in 2015, end up in this situation? Climate change-induced drought, a growing population, and poor planning are the major culprits. As Warren Tenney from Arizona Municipal Water Users Association explained:

Cape Town’s reservoirs are drying up. There is no precedent in their records for three consecutive years this dry. The extreme drought is compounded by a 79 percent growth in population since 1995, while water storage capacity increased only 15 percent. Plans for developing new water supplies, including a desalination plant, are behind schedule. Steps were not taken early enough to head off this slow-moving disaster. Cape Town is now trying to catch up by lowering water pressure in its distribution system and investing in a far-reaching public information campaign to conserve water. These actions have helped to cut the city’s daily water consumption by 45 percent. If Cape Town can reduce consumption yet another 25 percent, they may make it to the rainy season that is supposed to begin in May – if the drought eases and it rains.

Cape Town’s situation should be particularly alarming for California and other parts of the American West that only get rain during winter seasons. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate like California with long dry spells, plus a similar agricultural industry. Climate change is already contributing to major droughts on the West Coast, and our growing population could one day face Day Zero conditions as well.

What can be done? The obvious step is to encourage as much water conservation as possible, and use recycled wastewater as much as possible as well. Secondarily, we need to be smarter about our groundwater usage and ensure that we leave enough groundwater in our aquifers as possible (California’s 2014 groundwater legislation is for the first time spurring needed management of this resource here). And finally, we’ll need to explore options to boost supplies through desalination. But this costly and potentially polluting step should be a last resort, after conservation and recycling measures (my Berkeley Law colleague Mike Kiparsky is featured in this Wired article explaining the drawbacks of desalination).

These steps may help other jurisdictions avoid a Day Zero scenario — but for how long? As climate change takes us into unprecedented weather changes, even these actions may not be enough. But that’s no excuse for not trying or not planning.

Federal Electric Vehicle Tax Credit Needs Reform To Avoid Penalizing Early Adopters

The federal tax bill back in December spared the generous $7500 EV tax credit that a purchaser of an electric vehicle now receives. But not all the automakers are jumping for joy about it, particularly GM and Tesla. As the New York Times explained:

That’s because as now structured, the tax credit puts Tesla and G.M. at a competitive disadvantage, especially compared with foreign rivals who are just starting to ramp up electric vehicle sales in the United States. The tax credit begins to phase out after a company sells 200,000 electric vehicles — a threshold both Tesla and G.M. are expected to reach this year.

Meanwhile, buyers of electric BMWs, Volkswagens and Volvos will continue to get the full $7,500 credit. All of those manufacturers have announced aggressive sales plans for electric vehicles in the United States but so far have sold relatively few of them.

It now seems clear that limiting the taxes to 200,000 vehicles per automaker, as opposed to an industry-wide credit or one that expires for all companies by a date certain, will penalize EV pioneers like Nissan, GM and Tesla going forward. Their vehicles will soon be more expensive than competitors’ who waited to introduce their EVs until now and will therefore have customers who can take advantage of the tax credit for their company.

It’s already affecting customers who want to buy Tesla’s “mass market” Model 3. Many of them were hoping to get the cheaper version of the vehicle before the tax credit expires for the company, but Tesla is first introducing the more expensive version of the car with longer range. Customers who want the cheaper model will probably be out of luck by then, tax credit-wise.

With Republicans in charge of congress, it’s unlikely they’ll change the current EV tax credit structure. But ideally it would be reformed to affect all companies equally, while phasing out over time to reflect the decreasing costs of producing the vehicles.

Platooning Electric Buses Could Make Rail Transit Technology Obsolete

What value does rail transit bring to a city? The bottom line is increased capacity. You can squeeze a lot of people into multiple rail cars, all driven (or overseen) by one conductor in the lead car.

There are other benefits, too, of course, like fast electric acceleration (if it’s not diesel powered), smooth riding (if the rails are in a separate right-of-way and not stuck in street traffic), and general reliability (again, if the rail travels in a separate right-of-way and not slowed by cars). And as a uniquely permanent infrastructure investment, with tunnels and elevated tracks (sometimes) and fixed stations, it can help stimulate real estate investment to encourage thriving, walkable neighborhoods around it.

But technology may make this beloved, nineteenth century style of transit propulsion obsolete. I’m talking about electric platooning buses, which makes use of the self-driving car technology that is rapidly advancing. As the U.S. Department of Energy defined it in a recent post about platooning trucks:

Platooning involves the use of vehicle-to-vehicle communications and sensors, such as cameras and radar, to virtually connect two or more trucks together in a convoy. The virtual link enables all of the vehicles in the platoon to communicate with each other, allowing them to automatically accelerate together, brake together, and enables them to follow each other at a closer distance than is typically possible with unlinked trucks.

If we can place 8 or 10 buses in a row, have them all accelerate electrically and brake together, be separated by just a few inches, and be operated by just a single lead driver (or computer), isn’t this essentially just a long train?

The benefits would be immense:

  1. Massive cost savings: with electric buses, you don’t need to lay tracks or have overhead or down-below wiring to power trains. You don’t need substations along the way. The buses would be battery operated (as they already are, through companies like BYD and Proterra), so they could charge in central, convenient places. Sure, that requires charging infrastructure. But it’s much less expensive than wiring an entire route.
  2. Faster build times: transit agencies could build transit lines much more quickly without all the wiring infrastructure and tracks. Tunneling and overpasses still take time, but transit agencies basically just need to put down pavement and striping. Bus rapid transit lines can be built in about a fifth of the time as rail (and at a fifth of the cost), meaning a city can get a lot more transit, a lot more quickly.
  3. Operational flexibility: the buses would be free to travel on surface streets as needed, giving transit agencies much more flexibility to move buses around as needed.

And the potential downsides? First is the technological uncertainty, as platooning is still being tested. Second, and related to the first point, is the cost and range of the battery. But as I mentioned, electric buses are already being used now, battery prices are falling dramatically, and energy density is improving. True, the buses have higher upfront costs, but they offer significant and offsetting savings on operations and maintenance. Finally, we’d need more charging infrastructure for the buses, as mentioned. Although again, that infrastructure is proven — and simpler than overhead lines or third rails.

But there’s one additional important point here: the prospect of electric platooning buses should not be used as an excuse to kill or postpone new rail transit proposals in the works today. City residents still need the infrastructure that goes with a separate right-of-way for rail, even if the technology changes. They need tunnels, grade separation, elevated lines, dedicated lanes, and overpasses and underpasses to keep rail out of street traffic. Even if platooning electric buses happen soon, that construction will still be put to good use, albeit with ripped out tracks and overhead lines.

But as transit agencies think about other types of rail upgrade projects, like converting the Orange Line bus rapid transit in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles into light rail, maybe they should take a step back and assess the state of platooning electric bus technology. That Orange Line project in particular is costly, and the dedicated right-of-way already exists to convert to electric bus. If rail construction is underway in 2020 or 2021 just as electric platooning buses are market-proven, it will be a giant waste of money.

So transit advocates should still want rail projects to move forward, and cities will still need dedicated rights-of-way, separate from car traffic. But looming around the corner may be a technology solution that could dramatically reduce costs and construction time for major transit projects. Even for those who will always love steel wheels on rail, it’s got to be hard not to see the appeal.

Video History Of L.A.’s Badly Needed Purple Line Subway Down Wilshire

Los Angelist offers a nice and succinct video summary with narration of the Purple Line heavy rail extension down Wilshire Boulevard. As I wrote in the book Railtown, Wilshire Boulevard is the most densely populated corridor west of the Mississippi and should have been the first route to get rail transit in Los Angeles. So of course it’s only now under construction more than 30 years since Metro Rail began construction.

Here is the video for your viewing enjoyment, complete with a welcome shout-out to Railtown at the end (plus a rightful shaming of the Beverly Hills Union School District, which has wasted about $10 million so far on losing lawsuits against this line):

“Exploding” Automobile Ownership Is Undermining Transit; SB 827 Would Help Solve The Problem
An “exploding level of car ownership” is undermining transit usage nationwide, but particularly in Los Angeles. CityLab covered these findings from a new report by my colleagues at UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.

Lost riders on L.A. Metro alone, which serves L.A. County, accounted for fully 72 percent of lost transit patronage across the entire state. Those losses are even further concentrated: Remarkably, just a dozen bus and rail routes in L.A. County account for nearly 40 percent of all the vanished ridership in California.

Right now, the best explanation seems to be a staggering increase in cars on the road, owned and driven by the very people who used to ride buses, the report states. From 2000 to 2015, the population of the Southern California region grew by 2.3 million people, and the region added 2.1 million household vehicles—close to one new car for every person and a huge jump from the previous decade. In the same period, the proportion of immigrant households that own zero vehicles dropped 42 percent, and a whopping 66 percent among Mexican immigrant households specifically.

The ridership gap and vehicle usage seems to be particularly high among immigrant communities that previously were a backbone demographic for transit.

What are the solutions? One option is simply to make it more expensive to drive a car, through mileage-based fees, congestion pricing, and other taxes and fees. There’s merit to that approach, particularly if the funds generated help support transit in those corridors as an alternative.

But the other alternative is to stop forcing people to use cars as the most convenient travel option, and similarly stop subsidizing automobile infrastructure, particularly “free” mandated parking. And that all boils down to land use. People use cars to travel because their home is nowhere near convenient transit, they may have readily available free parking on-site and at their jobs (while paying for it via higher home prices and rents), and their jobs and other destinations are similarly not near transit.

So the most effective solution, as we’ve seen all over the world throughout the history of transit, is to encourage more homes and jobs near transit. It’s not really complicated: we need to build transit-oriented, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods within a convenient transit-ride of clustered job centers. Needless to say, this is exactly the goal of SB 827 (Wiener), which would lift local restrictions on growth near major transit stops.

Possibly the biggest beneficiaries in government from an SB 827 to approach to housing would be transit agencies. These agencies across the country have suffered this declining ridership over the past decade, hurting their revenues and undermining political support.

So far I haven’t heard California transit agencies clamoring to support SB 827, probably due to the complicated politics involved. But if they were honest, they would tell the public that SB 827 and similar approaches are what is truly needed to bring ridership back.

The Bay Area’s Fight To Save Net Neutrality — Tonight On City Visions, KALW Radio At 7pm

Net neutrality rules are designed to prevent internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast from discriminating against websites and apps based on content or rate structures. The Obama Administration enshrined these rules in regulation back in 2015, but a Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal them in December.

Tonight on City Visions we’ll discuss the future of net neutrality rules at the local, state and federal level and how it may impact a region like the San Francisco Bay Area. Specifically, what impact would repeal have on the digital economy?  How are Bay Area cities, Silicon Valley, and state government responding?  And what will the rule change mean for your internet service?

Joining me to discuss:

As always, please call or email with your questions. You can tune in live on KALW 91.7 FM or stream starting at 7pm. Hope to hear from you on the air!

Avett Brothers — New HBO Documentary Captures Their Folk Sound & Spirit


I’ve been familiar for the past decade or so with the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina-based folk band centered around two brothers. But after watching the new HBO Judd Apatow documentary on them, consider me a full-fledged fan. Apatow filmed the documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers over more than two years, which coincided with the recording of their most recent (and biggest hit) record True Sadness.

A few things stood out to me in watching the documentary:

  • The brothers initially rejected their North Carolina musical roots in favor of bands like Nirvana and Prince. But they got tired of playing more amped up music and instead focused on acoustic guitar and banjo southern folk traditions — essentially returning to their roots.
  • Their grandfather was a prominent minister, and from him they took the advice that people may actually care what they think and feel about things. While that might sound arrogant, that guidance gives them the courage to share some deeply personal lyrics and stories through their music, and is probably an essential mindset for any compelling artist to have.
  • They view music and songwriting as essentially putting their diaries on public display. Again, it’s that kind of courage and honesty that makes their music compelling and at times inspiring.

The documentary is filled with some fascinating moments, particularly around the brothers’ deeply supportive and close relationship. It also focuses on their humility, both through their personalities, actions to help their bandmates, and their living circumstances in their hometown near their parents and sister.

One particularly revealing moment came after they recorded the waltz “No Hard Feelings” (video below), where the brothers had difficulty processing their emotions while professionals in the studio discordantly celebrated their new “hit.”

It’s that kind of sensitivity that helps make their music passionate, personal, and sometimes toe-tappingly enjoyable.

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