Category Archives: Uncategorized
Electric Airplanes: Quieter, Cleaner, And Coming Soon?

The sky may be the actual limit when it comes to what types of transportation we can electrify. We know electrification is a great fit for passenger vehicles.  But trucking and aviation are iffy for battery electric transport, as the weight of the battery doesn’t work so well for powering long-distance trips.

But short-haul trips may be another matter. A company in the United Kingdom wants to electrify short plane trips from places like London to Paris and Amsterdam, per the Guardian:

Carolyn McCall, easyJet’s chief executive, said the aerospace industry would follow the lead of the automotive industry in developing electric engines that would cut emissions and noise.

“For the first time in my career I can envisage a future without jet fuel and we are excited to be part of it,” she said. “It is now more a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly.”

The airline said it was the next step in making the airline less harmful for the environment, after cutting carbon emissions per passenger kilometre by 31% between 2000 and 2016.

Wright Electric claims that electric planes will be 50% quieter and 10% cheaper for airlines to buy and operate, with the cost saving potentially passed on to passengers.

It’s pretty amazing to imagine the reduction in noise and air pollution from electric airplanes. Like trucking, other fuels will be needed for long trips (ideally low-carbon biofuels). But short-haul electric flights may be an idea ready to take off soon.

What To Make Of Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, or as more places are calling it: “Indigenous People’s Day.” I support this terminology change, as the brutal impact of Columbus’s journey on Native Americans (throughout both continents) is too often overlooked by the dominant culture.  Case in point: we still regularly use terms like “settler” and “colonialism” rather than more straightforward terms like “invasion.”

But I didn’t totally agree with this short, entertaining video takedown of Columbus by “Adam Ruins Everything” from College Humor, which is making the internet rounds today:

A lot of the points in the video are accurate. And I’m glad a spotlight is being shone on Columbus’s foibles and cruelty.  But some context would be helpful.

First, Columbus was a master navigator, and his achievement of sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is a legitimate one.  It’s supposedly the route that sailors still take today.

Second, the idea that Columbus was a “footnote” in history until Washington Irving wrote about him, as the video argues, was not by accident: the Spanish tried hard to keep their “discovery” a secret from other European powers.  They wanted monopoly access to the Americas. As a result, Columbus was not celebrated or promoted officially during his time (actually, it’s even worse than that: Columbus was evidently such an autocrat and tyrant that his crew eventually had him sent back to Spain in chains below deck).

Finally, like it or not, Columbus’s voyage set in motion a massive invasion from Europe (and Asia) into the Americas.  While other Europeans had made it to the Americas before, none generated a lasting wave of migration like what Columbus’s voyage did.

That’s not to say that the impact was all because of Columbus: Spain was financially, technologically and politically ready to capitalize on its discovery.  But Columbus’s voyage was a cataclysmic and world-changing event that is worth being remembered and honored.  Just not by idolizing the flawed man at the center of it.

How To Sell Congestion Pricing

Los Angeles residents have been debating a recent proposal to implement congestion pricing around the region’s most congested area, as London, Stockholm and other cities have successfully implemented.

The idea is straightforward: charge drivers to enter the congested area during peak commute times.  The tolls will discourage extraneous trips and encourage people to drive during off-peak times when they can. Traffic then falls within the tolled area.  Meanwhile, the money raised can support transit investments there.

Larry Mantle’s AirTalk program on KPCC recently explored the proposal in a segment with UCLA professor Mike Manville and journalist Felix Salmon. Manville has conducted important research demonstrating that congestion pricing doesn’t necessarily hurt poor people disproportionately, as critics of the policy often allege.

Manville made a strong case for congestion pricing, but he got tripped up by a caller and Mantle when he argued that right now drivers use the roads for free.  They pointed out that gas taxes and other fees help pay for roads, so they’re already paying for them.  Manville instead argued that nobody pays for using the space on the road, which is a nuanced point.

The problem, politically speaking, is that people are going to recoil being charged for using something that 1) they previously used for free and 2) they feel they already pay for through other fees and taxes.  The policy proposal will be vulnerable as a result, unless backers can describe how the additional fee or toll will give them a specific benefit. In this case, the benefit is reduced congestion.

Perhaps a better framing question would be: how much would you pay per car trip to avoid being stuck in traffic?

RIP Tom Petty, Rock Hit Machine & Los Angeles Icon

Tom Petty, rock hitmaker for four decades with his band the Heartbreakers, passed away yesterday of a massive heart attack (on my birthday, no less).  I always liked Tom Petty and bought many of his records, but it wasn’t until I heard a Tom Petty cover band play in Marin County over the summer (with the perfect name of “Petty Theft”) that I took stock of his impressive catalogue of hits.

Like many in my generation, Petty’s music was a constant throughout my life.  As a middle schooler, I did my math homework with MTV on in the background, playing his wacky Alice In Wonderland-themed video for Don’t Come Around Here No More.  After high school graduation, my friends and I rocked out in the car on the way home from a Yosemite backpacking trip to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”  In college, I checked email to his newly released greatest hits CD, bobbing my head to “Even The Losers” while I mastered this then-new form of communication.  I played guitar at numerous party sing-alongs to “Free Fallin'” and “American Girl,” and most recently my family and I drove on the dirt roads of Carrizo Plain during an epic superbloom, listening awe-struck to his acoustic “Wildflowers.”

Tom belongs among the wildflowers of Carrizo Plain

He was not without his detractors.  Some turned their nose up to his pop-everyman songs.  He certainly didn’t aim for high-minded poetry, as his tunes were mostly about relationships.  He told an interviewer that listeners can spot a phony lyric from the “back row.” And I remember a college classmate of mine remarking that she found his lyrics sexist, with many references to “little girl” and the like.  But listening to his Tom Petty radio channel yesterday, it was clear from the callers that many women (and men) found his message inspiring, as they escaped close-minded small towns for a better life elsewhere.

Petty was also funny.  One of my first CDs ever was his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever.  Halfway through, in his Florida drawl, he informed us that we had reached the point on the CD where those listening on cassette would have to remove said cassette (or LP) and turn it over to Side 2. And in one of his final concerts in August in Berkeley, he told the audience he was going to play a song by request.  “And the request,” he deadpanned, “was by me.”

The recent HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, about record magnate (and my former employer) Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured interviews with Petty, too.  Jimmy was a hardscrabble, son of a New York longshoreman who had just moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to produce the up-and-coming Petty’s new record.  Jimmy asked Tom to play some of the songs he wanted to record for the album.  After previewing what would become numerous hit singles on Damn the Torpedoes, Petty remembered Jimmy exclaiming, “We’re going to be rich!”

Petty was also an icon for Los Angeles.  Although he was famously from Gainesville, Florida, he moved to Los Angeles early in his career and sung about the place often.  He even rhymed “Los Angel-eeze” (as my grandparents’ generation pronounced it) with “knees” in Crawling Back to You.

But it was probably his biggest hit, Free Fallin’, that cemented his Los Angeles home in the minds of the public.  The video featured him in the Westside Pavilion and apparently on a crane in the San Fernando Valley.  True to the auto-oriented character of the city, he sang about its freeways and boulevards, from Mulholland Drive along the Santa Monica mountains to the harsher roads below:

It’s a long day livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’

All the vampires walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd.
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts

My favorite song of his though was not his biggest hit, and I was pleased to hear that at his Berkeley concert he told the crowd it was his favorite song of his, too.  The last lyric of Crawling Back To You is probably the one that has stuck with me the most, a good reminder to all of us to take it easy and enjoy life as we can:

I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway

Rest in peace, Mr. Petty, and thanks for so many memorable tunes.  You belong somewhere you feel free.

Climate Change Law & Policy In The Age Of Trump: Register For Sacramento County Bar Association Presentation On Tuesday, Oct. 3rd

The election of Trump last November was a jolt to U.S. climate policy, and we’re seeing the impacts now, eight months into his term.  But the efforts to dismantle federal climate policy have not always been successful, and they’ve sparked a significant backlash at the state and local level.

I’ll be discussing the record so far at a lunchtime presentation at the Sacramento County Bar Association this Tuesday, October 3rd, from noon to 1pm.  Attorneys will get continuing legal education credits, and the event is open to non-members and non-attorneys (with a ticket, as space is limited).  Hope to see you there!

Redesigning Bus Networks Won’t Recapture Lost Riders — More Bus-Only Lanes, Lower Fares & Transit Oriented Development Needed

Transit ridership is falling across the country, while driving miles are up.  Much of the change is probably due to a relatively strong economy and low gas prices, plus the impact of venture capital-subsidized rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft.

But what about poor transit service, particularly on buses?  The ridership decline provides opportunities for transit agencies to rethink their bus systems.  But it may not be enough.

Governing.com profiles Columbus, Ohio’s recent efforts on this front:

The Columbus transit agency spent four years and $9.4 million studying its bus network, gathering public feedback and designing alternative routes. All of that work came to a head this May, when COTA switched to a completely new system. It doubled the number of bus lines with frequent service (every 15 minutes or less), deploying many of them along major roads far from downtown. The new routes added or increased service to the airport, shopping malls, a casino and many other job centers. By COTA’s estimate, the number of jobs within a quarter mile (a five-minute walk) of a frequent bus line jumped from 155,000 to 265,000. The number of people who lived within a quarter mile of those lines increased from 116,000 to 219,000. Plus, the agency beefed up service on Saturdays and Sundays. And Columbus did all of it without an increase in funding.

It remains to be seen how effective this redesign will be.

Meanwhile, pre-Hurricane Harvey Houston also redesigned its bus network in the past few years, adding $12 million to the operating budget.  But the results were mixed-to-disappointing: ridership increased 6.8 percent in the first year, with most though from increased light rail trips and 1.2 percent from bus trips (weekday trips decreased).  Ridership during the second year was flat.

So if a redesign is not enough, what needs to be done?  Three things:

  1. Build more bus-only lanes and bus rapid transit lines.  If buses can avoid traffic and beat car travel times, ridership will surge.
  2. Build more housing and jobs around high-traffic bus corridors (and stop building automobile infrastructure in these areas).  The more people living and working near bus lines will boost ridership.  And the more cars are not accommodated, such as through locally mandated parking spaces or garages, the faster bus service will be.
  3. Lower fares.  History has shown that lowering fares is a good way to attract more riders.  The fare decreases could be paid for by congestion pricing on automobile traffic in key corridors during peak commute times.  It’s a double-win: less automobile traffic, more bus ridership.

All of these solutions will require policy action and investment, which means political will to get it done.  It’s harder than a bus redesign but will ultimately provide a lasting solution to the ridership challenges.

Amazon’s New Headquarters Could Turn Some Key Red States Blue: A City-State Analysis Of The Potential Move

UPDATE: The original employee numbers from the San Francisco Chronicle that I used to make the calculations below have since been significantly revised downward.  As Geekwire reports, the numbers I cited were for Amazon company-wide, not just Seattle. In fact, Amazon employees 40,000 in Washington state, not the 340,000 I cited below.  While this changes the single impact of Amazon’s move, my original post was perhaps conservative in underestimating the overall demographic impact, as Amazon’s move will attract other tech companies to the region, plus spouses. So the original point of the article stands, although the impact of Amazon’s move alone will not be as significant as I originally calculated.

Amazon.com just announced that its seeking a city for its second headquarters, outside of Seattle.  Could an influx of Democratic-voting tech workers to a city in a red state be enough to turn that state blue?  I ran through the list of reported city contenders and their respective state vote tallies below.  My goal was to find out which city, if chosen, would have the greatest effect on the state’s (and therefore the nation’s) presidential politics.

The bottom line, as you’ll see below: Democrats should be rooting for Amazon to move to Tucson, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, which would flip those states from red to blue (or in the case of Pennsylvania and Michigan, back to blue).

But first: the criteria for Amazon and the potential job numbers.  According to the Chicago Tribune:

Whichever city wins Amazon’s “HQ2” will host up to 50,000 workers with salaries that could reach $100,000 annually.

The company said it’s aiming for a metropolitan area of at least 1 million residents, opening up, theoretically, a few dozen cities in the U.S., from New York to Tucson, Ariz., and a handful more in Canada. It’s unclear whether Amazon would consider a bid from a Mexican city.

But the employment — and therefore the voter — numbers could be far bigger than that. As the SF Chronicle reports:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the company plans to make the second headquarters — dubbed HQ2 — “a full equal” to its Seattle home base [which employs more than 340,000 people].

And any new Amazon home would also bring additional tech workers from other companies that would locate nearby to do business with Amazon. In short, the headquarter decision could result in a major influx of educated tech workers who could greatly affect the state’s voting results, given that tech workers vote Democrat by potentially large margins (as Nate Silver documented in 2012).  The key would be for Amazon to locate in a city that could grow just enough relative to the number of Republican-leaning rural residents.

So for this exercise, I assumed that the Amazon move would eventually result in 300,000 tech workers moving in (less than Seattle’s current headquarter count and including potential workers from other tech companies).  I also assumed their voting rate would be 80%-20% Democrat vs. Republican, which would roughly track the financial contributions from this sector, as a proxy for their voting habits.

That means the Amazon move could bring 240,000 new Democratic voters to the state, along with 60,000 new Republican voters.  The net gain would be 180,00 new votes for the Democrats.

Could that be enough to turn a state from red to blue?

We should first note that in 2016, Trump beat Clinton by 306 to 232 electoral votes, leaving a gap of 74 electoral votes for Democrats to regain.  No single state switch will reverse that gap.  But a switch in one sizeable state could alter the presidential calculations going forward.  Demography is destiny.

Here are the reported city candidates and the potential impact of an Amazon move on their state election results, based on the 2016 election (I left out the blue state candidate cities, because a move there would simply improve existing Democratic majorities):

FLIPPING TO BLUE

Tucson, Arizona
The state has 11 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.25M votes
Clinton 1.16M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 90,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be enough to flip the state to blue, leaving 90,000 extra Democratic votes.

Detroit, Michigan
The state has 16 electoral college votes
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 2.279M votes
Clinton 2.268M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 11,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be more than enough to flip the state to blue, leaving a cushion of 169,000 extra Democratic votes.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The state has 20 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 2.970M votes
Clinton 2.926M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 45,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be more than enough to flip the state to blue.  It would leave a cushion of 135,000 extra Democratic votes.

CUTTING THE REPUBLICAN LEAD

Kansas City, Missouri
The state has 10 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.594M votes
Clinton 1.071M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 520,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state to blue.  It would cut the Republican lead by about one-third though.

Nashville, Tennessee
The state has 11 electoral college votes at stake.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.5M votes
Clinton 870K votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 650,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state, but it could cut the lead for Republicans by about a quarter.

Austin, Texas
The state has 38 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 4.685M votes
Clinton 3.878M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 810,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state to blue.  It would cut the lead by about one-fifth though.

Bonus Analysis: Boise, Idaho
Note: this city does not fit Amazon’s reported criteria for a move, but the city has the makings of a future tech hub, given the low-cost of living and proximity to a lot of outdoor recreation.
Idaho otherwise has 4 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 409K votes
Clinton 190K votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 220,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough, by just 40,000 extra votes, to flip the state to blue.  But it would make a significant difference in Idaho politics.

Bottom line: if Amazon moved to Tucson, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, it could potentially flip those states to blue in 2020.  A Boise move would come close to flipping the state, falling short by 40,000 votes.  And a move to Kansas City, Nashville or Austin would chip away at Republican voter leads in those states by the following: one-third in Missouri, one-quarter in Tennessee, and one-fifth in Texas.

So for those who care about politics, Amazon’s move could have a significant effect on the 2020 election (not to mention House and Senate races, which would need to be covered in a different post).

Now that’s the kind of prime delivery that would make Democrats happy.

Nonstop Work Is Hurting Our Health And Productivity

As we head into Labor Day weekend, it’s worth taking stock of how the ever-increasing pressure to work all the time — whether at home or on the job — is damaging virtually every facet of our society.  Benjamin Cardullo, a dual citizen of Italy and the U.S., describes just the health impacts alone:

Americans are literally working themselves to death. Forced overtime, over scheduling, commuting, unpaid labor, housework, increased standards of cleanliness, church service, time cost, and media usage occupy so much of our day that no time is left for ourselves, and we glorify this. We use our busyness to stroke our egos, we work all day and fill our free time with additional activities because we’re “important” and no one else can do what we do.

Well this culture of busyness is creating an extremely unhealthy nation, both mentally and physically. CNN reports that health care costs will grow at an average rate of 5.8 percent every year until Nearly $1 in every $5 spent in the United States by 2024 will be on health care, and for a country where 1 out of 5 dollars is spent on healthcare, America is extremely unhealthy.

This maniacal working syndrome isn’t even making us more productive or wealthier. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect:

Mexico—the least productive of the 38 countries listed in 2015 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—has the world’s longest average work week at 41.2 hours (including full-time and part-time workers). At the other end of the spectrum, Luxembourg, the most productive country, has an average workweek of just 29 hours.

The United States ranks fifth, according to the OECD, contributing $68.30 to the country’s GDP per hour worked, countering claims that Americans are the most productive workers in the world. America put in more hours—33.6 per week on average—than all four of the European countries with higher productivity rankings.

Time spent relaxing is the antidote. It helps people manage stress, gain new perspectives, and restore and renew energy.

Sounds like we all have our assignment for Labor Day weekend — and beyond.

Kotkin & Cox Blast L.A. Rail For Failing To Support Their Suburban Utopia

Kotkin and Cox, living the dream

Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox recently tried to explain falling transit ridership in the Orange County Register, offering an inaccurate diagnosis of the cause, along with counter-productive, infeasible solutions.

First, the problem of falling transit ridership they describe is definitely real and pressing:

[S]ince 1990, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. MTA system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, and the population of Los Angeles County was about 20 percent lower. In some places, like Orange County, the fall has been even more precipitous, down 30 percent since 2008.

Yet they attribute falling ridership solely to the sprawling “urban form” of Southern California, which they argue is too spread out to support much transit, particularly rail.  But this factor doesn’t necessarily explain why transit ridership is down nationwide.  While researchers are still examining it, it is likely due to a combination of larger trends such as low gas prices, more congestion from increasing vehicle miles traveled (which slows down buses), higher fares and decreasing service, and the rise of venture capital-subsidized Uber and Lyft.

Still, Cox and Kotkin are right that Los Angeles is generally a “spread out” city, with the downtown area employing just two percent of the region’s workers (although it has pockets of density to rival any eastern city, such as the Wilshire Corridor).  As a result, transit — particularly rail — has a tougher time attracting sufficient riders in low-density areas.  This decentralized pattern has also been the cause of the region’s severe traffic (and air quality) problems.

But then Kotkin and Cox — pardon the expression — go off the rails.  In their view, Los Angeles’ sprawling urban form is the result of collective individual preferences, as expressed in a free market for housing — and not public policy interventions.  They see the single-family home with a two-car garage and a driving commute as the dream that virtually every American wants to achieve.

According to this logic, any effort that makes it harder to live in suburban-type housing must be a form of social engineering by heavy-handed government officials or greedy developers, trampling the will of the home buyer.  They use expressions to characterize this dynamic like “a growing fixation among planners and developers” and “the urbanist fantasies of planners, politicians and developers.”

And yet the evidence does not support their vision of the ideal housing situation.  Land use is in fact one of the most regulated sectors of the economy, not the perfect expression of free market demand.  The lack of density in economically thriving parts of Los Angeles has little to do with people’s aversion to “stack-and-pack” housing, as Kotkin and Cox term it.  It is instead largely the result of highly restrictive zoning practices that prevent new multifamily housing near transit and jobs from getting built.

Similarly, the suburban homes in communities far from job centers, like in the Inland Empire, are made feasible by public policies that subsidize the automobile and its related infrastructure.  Basically, most home buyers have little choice: if you’re raising a young family, you’re likely priced out of expensive, job-rich neighborhoods due to the lack of new housing supply there.  And you’re unlikely to want to live in high-crime urban areas with underperforming schools.  As a result, your only option is cheap land in a far-flung suburban area.

Now to be sure, a sizeable percentage of home-buyers do want to live in suburban-style homes, but there are limits to that demand.  In survey after survey, consumers report their strong preference for walkable neighborhoods and housing in proximity to jobs and schools.  For example, a 2015 survey showed that 68% of Bay Area residents place a high or top priority on walkability for a home, while 50% want convenient access to transit from their home.

Furthermore, demographics run against the trend of suburbanization that Kotkin and Cox favor. Between 1970 and 2012, the share of households with married couples with children under 18 decreased by half, from 40 percent to 20 percent.  Over that same period, the average number of people per household also declined from 3.1 to 2.6.  To put it simply, these are not trends that argue for building more single-family, far-flung homes.

In short, Kotkin and Cox miss the policy support for decentralization and sprawl that contributes to the transit ridership problem. To reverse these negative ridership trends, policy makers should instead be lifting the barriers to new housing and commercial development near transit.  They should also provide equitable funding for non-automobile infrastructure, such as bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and transit.  And they should price the externalities created by long-distance car commutes, such as through gas taxes that pay for the pollution and congestion pricing on crowded freeways and arterials.

But Kotkin and Cox instead advocate for unworkable solutions to address the ridership and mobility challenges.  Specifically, they want more people to work from home, more Ubers and Lyfts, and a Hail Mary from autonomous vehicles to shuttle everyone around in robot cars.

First, working from home is not a viable long-term solution for many workers, given that only a certain percentage of jobs allow for this kind of arrangement, specifically office workers.  Second, relying on Ubers and Lyfts, as well as autonomous vehicles, will only increase overall vehicle miles traveled in the region.  This means more traffic overall, more lost open space, and more air pollution — all counter-productive results.  And even if autonomous vehicles temporarily speed up freeway traffic, history has shown us time and again that increased road capacity only induces more car travel to fill it.

While Kotkin and Cox decry the worsening congestion from more “densification,” more compact neighborhoods actually decrease overall driving miles, even if congestion might worsen in the immediate areas.  Along with sensible local parking policies, congestion pricing, and enhanced investments in transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure, the real solution is to create viable, compact neighborhoods close to jobs and transit, without forcing residents to be car dependent.

More of these transit-friendly communities would meet market demand and provide an alternatives for the growing demographic that is sick of business-as-usual housing options.  It would also boost ridership on our buses and trains.  But more of the status quo, as Kotkin and Cox propose, simply doubles down on failed policies that created the region’s mobility, economic, and quality-of-life problems in the first place.

Why “Despacito” Is A Huge Hit

If you’re not stuck on the song “Despacito,” my guess is that you haven’t heard it — or heard it enough.  Not that it’s necessarily a great song, but the Justin Bieber remix of a Puerto Rico club tune seems to have redefined what a hit tune means.  Its music video is now the most watched on YouTube of all time at more than 3 billion views, with a “massive” 1.8 billion audience spins on radio.

So what explains the success?  Vox.com dug in to find out, and writer Alex Abad-Santos credits factors ranging from politics (protesting Donald Trump’s anti-Hispanic rhetoric) to recent music trends to an archetypal repeating chord progression.

Certainly there have been other Spanish language hits that have gone mainstream in the past, from “La Bamba” to “Macarena” to “Rico Suave.” But this song feels different, in that it’s not a cliche folk tune or gimmick but a legitimate Spanish-language dance and rap song. Justin Bieber’s popularity and vocals on the remix certainly opened the song to a whole new audience, but that only gets you so far.

The article is worth reading in full, but in particular it discusses the power of the particular chord progression. In this case, it’s an ambiguous major/minor progression made famous in the 1990s in songs like “(What If God Was) One Of Us?”

It’s also hard to deny the power of a mainstream Spanish-language song at a time of rising racial strife and hatred toward immigrants in the U.S. My guess is that for many listeners, the song feels like a bit of a protest and an affirmation of the power of diversity. And there are few better ways to experience that diversity than through something as universal as music.

Here’s the original version of the song, to compare to the remix:

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