Google Street View Is Helping Scientists Spot Methane Leaks

In a new collaboration, the tech giant is sniffing out emissions in a handful of American cities.

Methane is pretty much invisible to humans’ senses of sight and smell. As the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in America, methane leaks pose a significant challenge in the fight against climate change—mostly due to the fact that they are notoriously hard to detect.

Since our human senses don’t tingle at the hint of a methane drain, a team of scientists and technology experts have figured out a way to effectively play ‘spot the leak.’ Part of a collaboration with Google, researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund and Colorado State University have been using the tech giant’s Street View cars to trail methane levels in big cities across the U.S.


The project, which is described in a research paper published by the American Chemical Society in the Environmental Science and Technology journal this week, involves equipping Street View cars with sensors to chase down methane leaks under metropolitan streets.

The problem with methane leaks can be traced back to the 19th century and a couple of feet below the streets of American cities like Boston and Chicago, where thousands of miles of cast-iron and steel pipes are buried. Originally built to host cooking fuel, the often-outdated infrastructure also distributes natural gas to homes—and, in many areas, results in harmful leaks in the process. According to the paper, methane contains 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, but replacing even a mile of the pipes can cost up to $2 million. The researchers conclude that a tracking model could help utility companies prioritize serious leaks and tackle potential problems more quickly.

The paper argues that urban natural gas pipelines haven’t received much academic attention, and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of reliable data concerning methane leaks. In an interview with the Washington Post, the lead researcher Joseph von Fischer pointed out that there have only been “a handful of studies” on the subject matter, explaining that it’s “very labor-intensive to measure the leaks from the distribution system.”

The fleet of cars is one way to make that easier. The sensor-equipped cars roamed through Boston, Burlington, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and Staten Island and Syracuse in New York. The researchers then mapped the results, illustrating clusters of leaks.


Boston: Older pipes, more leaks (Environmental Defense Fund)

Indianapolis: Newer pipes, fewer leaks (Environmental Defense Fund)

As depicted in the maps above, there’s a striking difference between Boston and Indianapolis. The researchers found that the leaks tend to cluster in cities with older pipes, like Boston, which saw hundreds of thousands of leaks. Indianapolis, which overhauled its pipes in the 1980s, recorded less than a dozen leaks.

These maps can be extremely helpful as their data offers a guide for prioritizing gas line replacements. With direct input from the team’s early research, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved a three-year, $905 million plan to replace up to 510 miles of its old pipeline. While you’ll only see these cars in a handful of cities so far, Google is currently setting up more cars to map other parts of the country.

666 Fifth Avenue Is the Perfect Symbol for the Trump Era

From its shady financing to its spectacular design, Zaha Hadid’s 666 Fifth Avenue captures the Trumpian moment.

“So-and-so stands to make a fortune.”

It’s a routine objection about the conflicts of interest that have framed the early days of the Trump administration. From President Donald Trump’s potential infractions of the Emoluments Clause to the efforts by his family members to cash in on the presidency, the outcry is so familiar that it’s an exhausted chorus.

But Jared Kushner really does stand to make a fortune. The deal that Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor is structuring with Chinese investors for the redevelopment of a poorly performing Manhattan office property promises a windfall of hundreds of millions for Kushner Companies. This, despite the fact that New York faces a glut of office supply and rising vacancies.  

The proposal for 666 Fifth Avenue—you can’t make this stuff up—unites all the worries over the Trump family’s business practices under one garish roof. From the millions the project may garner for the sale of U.S. visas to foreign petitioners to the building architect’s embrace of autocracy, 666 Fifth as projected is a gleaming crystallization of the Trump era.


Keeeeep scrolling…   (Kushner Companies/Zaha Hadid Architects)

Details for 666 Fifth emerged this week in reports from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. According to those outlets, Kushner Companies is negotiating with investors over a development that may generate as much as $12 billion in investment. The company’s partners may include Anbang, whose $4 billion investment in the plan would include $400 million for Kushner Companies.

Given the break-even status of the current property and the sag in office real estate across New York, the project is already raising eyebrows. Anbang’s relationship with the Chinese government is a well-shrouded secret; critics say that a sweetheart deal for 666 Fifth could be a play by China to buy influence with the White House. (Jared Kushner sold his personal stake in 666 Fifth to a private trust, but that trust is controlled by his family members, much as Trump has arranged his own business interests in an extremely half-hearted effort to avoid the appearance of conflict.)

The proposal for 666 Fifth Avenue features a design by the late Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid, whose name is synonymous with luxury, curvilinear design, and autocratic tendencies. Zaha Hadid Architects’ work in the U.S. includes One Thousand Museum, an “exoskeleton” tower in Miami whose structural supports are visible from the outside. London’s Design Museum called her Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, the design of the year in 2014, despite the human rights violations that led to its construction. Concerns over the deaths of hundreds of migrant construction workers in the build-out for the Qatar 2022 World Cup have dogged the firm’s work for Al Wakrah Stadium (where at least one worker has died to date). Japan bucked Hadid from its plans for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games once costs for the firm’s Olympic stadium eclipsed $1.6 billion.

Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s successor at the helm of the firm, has only fanned the flames of controversy. Schumacher has called for scrapping social housing and ending government support for art school in the U.K., where the firm is based, among other Ayn Rand–ian positions. As a company, Zaha Hadid Architects has publicly distanced itself from his pronouncements, including his call for the abolishment of all public space.

The early design for 666 Fifth seems to create public space where there is none—a small irony, given that Trump Tower erases public space and Shumacher opposes it. A whole block of Midtown has disappeared in the design rendering, replaced by a park that fronts the podium of the building. The design itself is typical Zaha: spectacular, unyielding, devoid of context. The podium is a show-stopper that echoes Santiago Calatrava’s jaw-dropping World Trade Center transit hub, with a 1,400-foot-high super-tall skyscraper stuck on top for good measure. It is the kind of design that might seriously argue for clearing out blocks of Manhattan to make way for better views of the façade. Awesome, like the Burj Khalifa, but awful, too, in the same way—an anti-populist building that rejects history, precedent, neighborhood, place. (Not unlike Trump’s approach to the presidency.)

One of the most risible qualities of 666 Fifth is bound to go overlooked, given the fog of influence-peddling and fascist spectacle concealing it. That is its potential use of EB-5 financing, an immigration program that has secured hundreds of millions in development for luxury real estate in exchange for visas for (mostly Chinese) foreign investors. The cash-for-visas program, which was the subject of House Judiciary Committee hearing in February, has garnered intense congressional scrutiny at a time when the Trump administration is closing U.S. borders for Muslims (and their laptops) as well as undocumented immigrants.

As it was originally designed, the EB-5 cash-for-visas program was meant to draw foreign direct investment to rural and distressed urban projects. Congress has pledged to take steps to either bring the immigration category back in line with its original intent or scrap it altogether. But Kushner’s interest in securing easy money for 666 Fifth could presage a White House defense of the beleaguered program. Specifically, a defense of EB-5 as a way to trade U.S. visas for Chinese investment in luxury real estate.

If plans for the 666 Fifth tower proceed, it will not be completed before 2025 at the earliest. By then, the president’s second term in the White House will have potentially just concluded. We might (or might not) have a big, beautiful border wall to stand as a concrete monument to his extraordinary administration, and all it represented. But no single Trump-era deal will show so neatly how the devil’s children have the devil’s luck quite like 666 Fifth.

The Tech Helping Immigrants Hack the Ban

Across the country, designers and coders are coming together to develop tools for communities targeted by Trump’s orders.

Tech firms are increasingly dipping their toes into politics since President Donald Trump took office. For one thing, they’ve been among the most vocal opposition to his immigration orders. When he floated the idea of a Muslim registry in December, more than a thousand tech employees signed a pledge not to take part in creating it. Then when he initiated his temporary travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries in January, companies from Apple to Netflix to Microsoft filed a legal brief arguing that the ban posed “significant harm” to businesses.

CityLab recently spoke with developers who say the contribution from Silicon Valley may not go much farther than that, at least from the executives. (In fact, according to the New York Times, it was the employees who pushed many of the tech giants to take a stronger stand against Trump.) Instead, those workers believe some of the most significant efforts will come from techies volunteering their time.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Andrew Gionfriddo, a New York-based software engineer who worked on one new civic-minded app. “Personally, I think that this is going to have the most success if it stays local and grassroots,” he says.

Gionfriddo is part of a growing number of designers, coders, and the like who are developing tools to help the communities at the center of Trump’s policies. From the big coastal cities like NYC and San Francisco, to mid-sized cities like Louisville, Kentucky, they’re teaming up with local nonprofits, joining civic organizations, and attending hackathons that put immigrants front and center.

Hacking the ban

Immigrants make up about 7 percent of the population in Kentucky, which has resettled over 4,000 refugees from countries like Iraq and Somalia since 2011. Despite being in a largely red state, Louisville touts itself as being especially welcoming. So when Donald J. Biddle, a GIS professor at the University of Louisville, organized a hackathon for International GIS Day with the school’s community engagement office, that population was at the front of their minds. The focus, organizers say, was less a response to Trump and more a mission to advance Louisville as a compassionate city.

Working directly with the mayor’s office and community organizations around the city, Biddle’s students created two projects: an introductory Story Map of Louisville’s stance on immigration, and an interactive map of the dozens of services available to the immigrant community, including family health centers, transit options, specialized education organizations, and community ministries.


Using GIS technology, students at University of Louisville categorized and mapped the dozens of immigrant and refugee services available in the city. (University of Louisville)

“We’ve all been to a lot of hackathons that haven’t had a lot of clear direction—and while effort is great, a lot of the ideas don’t connect with the actual need of the community,” Patrick Smith, coordinator of community partnership, says. “So we wanted to identify some folks in the community where we can meet their needs.”

That was the challenge Leslie Martinez, a New York-based researcher who tackles immigrant issues through design, faced back in February when she helped organize a hackathon called Hack the Ban. Initially, she had planned on mentoring students at New York University, her alma mater. But when Trump was sworn into office, riding on his promise to deport millions and to ban Muslims at the border, a sense of urgency kicked in.

“Oh my god, there will be an executive order pretty soon,” she recalls thinking. “If we need something done, a hackathon would have a quicker turnaround than waiting for students to design something within a semester.”


Developers congregated at the Hack the Ban event to code tech solutions for at-risk populations. (Justin Hendrix)

Figuring that the most useful products would come out of collaborations between the tech community and local nonprofits, Martinez and two former classmates gathered about 60 designers, programmers, lawyers, and immigrant advocates at the the NYU Tandon School of Engineering for a 12-hour hackathon. Some groups created apps, while others helped refine existing projects.

“There are advocacy groups who have been doing this for a long time,” says Martinez. “We don’t need to create something new, but what can we do to support those same people who are already at the forefront of it?” At the same time the nonprofits were getting technical help, she adds, they were also guiding developers through the legal complexities of their products—making sure, for example, that any data gathered by the apps remain secured.

Designing electronic lifelines

Mohammad Khan, a campaign manager of the New York-based nonprofit MPOWER Change, is one of the Hack the Ban participants who used the hackathon to translate his idea into a digital tool to help Muslim travelers. He knows firsthand how unnerving it is to be detained at the U.S. border. He’s been held up at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport after returning from overseas.

“As you get through passport control, you know your next step isn’t going to be baggage claim but the ‘brown room,’” he says, referring to the moniker given the screening rooms because those in them tend to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Many are there without a lawyer and unsure of how to answer the questions being asked, or whether they should answer them at all.

So with the help of Andrew Gionfriddo and a few other developers, he created Border Buddy, a website that will soon let legal aid organizations monitor a person’s travel schedule, so that if he or she is unexpectedly detained, they can send a lawyer to the airport immediately. Users will be able to register their flight information ahead of time online or on their phone; the organization uses real-time flight data to track their arrival. If the traveler passes through Customs and Border Protection without any problem, he or she can send a confirmation text to the number provided. But if two hours go by and Border Buddy doesn’t receive anything, it will alert the organization to follow up and send a lawyer if needed.

The website will launch in New York, where the team has partnered with the immigrant advocacy group CLEAR at the City University of New York School of Law. “CUNY already has similar services, but they’re distributed in a very ad hoc manner,” says Dillon Powers, another developer on the team. “So we thought it would be great to make these things more streamlined and systematized.” Ultimately, the team hopes to partner with legal aid organizations across the country.

Hack the Ban is one of several events bringing the tech community together to fight Trump’s policies on issues like climate change, abortion access, and immigration. Grassroots groups like Tech Solidarity and Progressive Coders are arranging large get-togethers and inviting advocates to speak about the complexity of their causes. In some cases, individuals are simply going to neighborhood meetups to see where they can help.

It was at a small gathering in San Francisco for Latinos in tech that Adrian Reyna, the director of tech strategies at the immigrant youth-led organization United We Dream, met Natalia Margolis, an engineer at the digital agency Huge Inc. Reyna, who is undocumented himself, told Margolis about a Migrawatch hotline his organization runs, to which people can report ICE activities. But in times of panic, there isn’t a way for undocumented immigrants to quickly connect to their support network—their family, friends, and lawyers.


Notifica doles out legal advice to undocumented immigrants and securely lets users add emergency contacts. (Huge Inc.)

Margolis would eventually take that idea back to her company, and within a few weeks Notifica was born. It works like a panic button for undocumented people swept up in immigration raids. With a tap on their phones, users can send out distress signals to multiple people at once, including lawyers. For Reyna, who says he’ll work with organizations in Texas, Florida, and New Mexico to spread Notifica’s reach, the app could help his community hold ICE officers accountable and expose injustices.

Other apps that have made headlines in the past months include RedadAlertas (Spanish for “Raid Alerts”), which uses crowdsourced information to warn people about immigration raids and traffic checkpoints nearby, and DoNotPay, a chatbot initially created to overturn parking fines that was tweaked to aid refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., U.K, and Canada. The “robot lawyer,” as its creator Joshua Browder puts it, helps users determine their eligibility for asylum and fill out the right application through a series of easy-to-understand questions sent via the Facebook Messenger app.

While not of all the apps were created as a direct response to Trump’s executive orders—both Browder and Celso Mireles, creator of RedadAlertas, said they had started their projects when Barack Obama was still in office—they highlight the evolving role of the tech community in immigration politics.

“In 2012, we wouldn’t have thought about going to a tech firm to [ask for] support for DREAMers or immigrant communities,” Reyna says. “But nowadays, because tech is so intricately woven into society, there is a place for everyone in tech to advocate for people in the margins.”

What Is Denver Learning From Its Public Restroom Pilot Program?

Some preliminary observations and trends already have surfaced in the year since the project’s launch.

The idea of the government studying public restroom users’ habits might sound unusual, but it’s happening in Denver as part of a community improvement effort.

The city’s pilot program collects data about public restroom use and placement to clean up a tricky problem: There are too few public restroom facilities, leading to incidents of public urination and defecation.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the pilot involves testing “mobile restrooms” in various high-profile areas. The two moveable trailers house stalls and a urinal as well as an attendant who monitors the space.

Each mobile facility costs about $12,000 per month to lease, and nearly half of that is allocated for the attendant, says Denver Public Works Communications Director Nancy Kuhn. The restrooms are cleaned nightly and rotated regularly to different neighborhoods according to a schedule posted online. The city actively solicits feedback about the mobile units from those who have used the facilities, including suggestions for restroom placement.

Part of the mobile units’ purpose is to help planners determine the best place to install a new, permanent restroom. “In our mind, we’re avoiding the cost of building permanent structures in the wrong places” by investing in the pilot project, says Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “We know that this is an experiment [and] we know we’re learning.”

The pilot also involves reactivating existing public restrooms—such as those in parks—that had been closed or became at least partially inoperable. At some locations, that means winterizing non-heated buildings so the pipes don’t freeze, thus allowing facilities to remain open in the winter. Additionally, it can involve adding a “park host” who monitors and cleans the restrooms to alleviate concerns about safety and facility misuse. The facilities at Skyline Park, for example, added a park host and have been reactivated after closing in 2014, and permanent facilities opened to the public in late 2016 in the newly renovated McNichols Building in Civic Center Park. Four other restroom facilities—including those at the Capitol and central library buildings—have been operational for many years, but they now are posted on the project’s website so citizens know that they exist and when they’re open.

The restroom problem found a place on the city’s agenda in 2015 after gathering feedback from various stakeholders in 2014. During that time, officials found themselves regularly fielding resident complaints about passersby relieving themselves in public, Kniech says. Complaints increased significantly in downtown and the adjacent Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is the city’s most densely populated area.

Rather than rely on a law enforcement approach that might, for example, increase ticketing for public urination and defecation, residents largely preferred examining more compassionate approaches while tackling the root of the problem, Kniech says. That root, it turned out, was an overall lack of public restroom facilities in Denver.

City employees have uncovered some unexpected facts about who relieves themselves publicly while reviewing preliminary information gathered from complaints and citations.

“We certainly started the conversation with the perception that this was an issue just about homelessness and the indigent in our community, but the data pointed differently,” Kniech says. “The majority of people cited for public urination had home addresses, which meant that they were not all homeless.” In fact, she adds, many of them were tourists and bar patrons. The pilot program benefits permanent residents and visitors alike, including sometimes underserved populations such as aging citizens or those with children.

Public bathrooms are basic amenities, akin to street lights and bus benches that support people’s ability to move freely around the city and relieve themselves with dignity,” Kuhn says. “Everyone suffers when people are forced to relieve themselves in an inappropriate place.”

Viewing public restrooms as a municipal concern rather than placing the entire burden on private businesses highlights what Kniech considers a noticeable shift in the government’s duties. Due to that shift, she and other officials now view public restrooms as essential infrastructure.

“Public restrooms are a piece of the fabric of what urban life entails. We haven’t admitted that for a very long time, and we haven’t talked about it as policy makers,” Kniech says. “Urban living, particularly in a city like Denver that is experiencing growth and density, is really about redefining public spaces and public responsibilities.”

Because the pilot is ongoing, no firm conclusions have been officially announced. But in the year since the project’s launch, some preliminary observations and trends already have surfaced.

One idea developing from the information gathered about the mobile facilities is that restroom proximity and visibility matter, Kniech says. Data collected so far indicate people aren’t necessarily willing to walk an extra half mile to reach a restroom, so it should be in a well-traveled, highly visible location for maximum impact.

“That is what other cities do… the public restroom is right in the heart of where people are,” Kniech says. A public restroom loses its value if it’s “tucked away in some corner where no one sees it.”

Another emerging point is that neighborhood cleanliness and health improvements generally remain concentrated in the immediate vicinity of a restroom facility. One restroom, for example, doesn’t necessarily eliminate public urination eight blocks away. That takeaway could raise questions about committing to a larger-scale restroom project.

“I think what we’re learning is the impact is limited,” Kniech says. “You can’t really solve this [problem] with two restrooms… So how much can you achieve at this scale? It’s a question that we struggle with.”

The pilot is expected to run at least through the fall, and public works employees intend to share some findings with the community in December, Kuhn says. In the meantime, she says the city is stepping up its outreach to ensure everyone knows about the mobile facilities and the city’s desire for feedback.

“We hope to get to a place where public restrooms are the norm in Denver—welcomed, appreciated, and well-utilized,” Kuhn says.

Regardless of how many new restrooms Denver eventually invests in and where they are located, most leaders appear to agree on one major point: Public restroom access is now a municipal duty.

“I think the city will probably never go backwards in terms of thinking about restrooms as part of our responsibilities,” Kniech says. “But how we do it, we’re still learning.”

Madrid Wants Its Seniors to Find Roommates

To cut loneliness and costs, the Spanish capital region wants older citizens to move in together.

Any region with an aging population faces certain challenges, from managing housing and health-care costs to battling loneliness and decreased mobility. Hoping to make things a little easier for its elderly citizens, Madrid has a simple plan: Encourage them to move in together.

The city’s hope is that the benefits work in two directions: Aging residents will lead happier, safer, more comfortable lives if they don’t live alone. At the same time, they could share many costs of living and social care, and make it easier and more efficient for the state to monitor them and offer assistance.

The plan is part of a package that also includes more contact between seniors and social services via Whatsapp and Skype, and comes to a city where the elderly population is growing fast. Madrid is the region with the highest life expectancy in Spain—currently 84 years—and 1.1 million people among its metro area’s population are over 65. Among this population, 31 percent are already over 80. Managing this growth is likely to strain state resources, and there’s certainly a bluntly pragmatic aspect to the plan. Bundling older citizens together into shared apartments would make them cheaper and easier to provide care for, while avoiding the expense and loss of independence that often comes with putting people in retirement homes.

Its ability to cut costs doesn’t mean the concept is a bad or heartless idea. Providing innovative solutions like apartment sharing could also be a positive opportunity to create new ways of living for citizens who don’t wish to see their final years as a mere anteroom to death. It also reflects a shift in senior care that has already been going on in Europe for some time. It used to be common for European states to place older people who needed assistance in retirement homes—especially in Northern Europe, where few seniors share households with their children.

Nowadays, there is an increasing emphasis on more flexible, experimental ways of caring for seniors. Norway, for example, has opened state-funded senior homes in Spain, where costs are lower and weather is warmer. Both Finland and the Netherlands have pilot schemes that mingle senior and student housing to encourage a mutually better quality of life. More prosaically, beyond these unusual projects, there has been a general move toward more home care. In the U.K., for example, an elderly person whose limited mobility might have seen them placed in residential care 30 years ago is nowadays more likely to receive up to four daily visits from state-funded home help, supported by family care.

This isn’t always ideal—services are almost routinely stretched and underfunded—but it’s often cheaper and allows people to stay relatively independent and remain in familiar surroundings. Madrid’s plan is thus an urban counterpart of a general shift in provision that has already long been underway.

Don’t expect Madrid to turn into a senior hippy commune anytime soon, however. The scheme’s scope is intentionally narrow. Only older citizens living in specific conditions would be eligible for the scheme, which would be entirely voluntary. To become a host for new senior roommates, applicants would have to own their own homes and have space to share that is in good condition. Prospective elder roommates, meanwhile, would need to be either rental tenants or live in a self-owned home that is in poor condition.

It’s also fair to say that the scheme may not yet be fully thought through. The incentive remains rather meager: free tickets to cultural events. That sounds like a good way of helping to keep older citizens cheerful, but will it be enough to entice someone to share their home? Still, a future where senior citizens live together informally in standard houses and apartments rather than nursing facilities seems like a good, humane direction for cities to head in.

Do You Know Who Needs Your Subway Seat?

New etiquette campaigns aim to lessen the stresses of commuting with chronic health conditions that may not be immediately visible to fellow riders.

When Liz Jackson crowds on to a subway car during rush hour, she insists that she needs a seat.

“Somebody looks at my face, they realize I’m young and healthy looking and they just sort of say, ‘No, there’s no seat available,’” says the 34-year-old New Yorker.

Jackson suffers from a neurological disorder with symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis. It leaves her constantly tired and run down, she says, “like a weak battery.” Even though Jackson has a cane and an uneven gait, few people spot either of these when she gets onto a packed subway car. It’s only when she insists that she needs a seat that passengers look down to see her purple cane. “I don’t think I would ever ask for a seat without it,” says Jackson. “I have something that validates my ask.”

But others dealing with chronic pain, fatigue, dizziness, or other health issues may not have any visible symptoms or an assistive device such as a cane or wheelchair, rendering their condition “invisible.” While there’s no centralized data on how many people live with an invisible illness or disability, Census Bureau records show that more than 50 percent of disabled Americans who have difficulty walking or climbing stairs—15.4 million people—do not use a wheelchair, cane, walker, or crutches to help with their mobility.

“When we think of disability on the public transportation system, we’re really thinking about wheelchairs and people who can’t see,” says Elizabeth DePoy, a professor of disability studies and social work at the University of Maine. “When you look at a disability sign, you see a wheelchair, you see a cane, you see an ear, and you see an eye. There’s nothing that says or stipulates policy for anybody else.”

That’s why Transport for London (TfL) is trying something new this spring. The agency will issue badges with the message, “Please offer me a seat.” Intended to be worn by passengers with invisible conditions, the badges aim to encourage others to offer up their seats to fellow commuters who may not ‘look’ disabled.

“Most people know that there are invisible conditions out there,” says David McNeill, TfL’s director of public affairs and stakeholder engagement, and one of the driving forces behind the badge. “You don’t need to ask why someone needs a seat. You just need to key into people’s natural politeness.”

According to McNeill, participants who wore the badge in a trial program in October 2016 were seven times more likely to be offered a seat than those who did not. In TfL’s summary report of the trial run, which included more than 1200 participants, 75 percent felt more comfortable asking for a seat when they needed one, and 86 percent felt more confident on their travels while wearing the badge.


The new badges are designed to encourage riders to give up seats to fellow passengers. (TfL)

According to McNeill, the program’s price tag isn’t as burdensome as one might think. Modeled after the ‘Baby on Board’ badge for pregnant women, the new badge will cost approximately a quarter of a million pounds. Although a senior press officer for TfL was not able to say how many badges the agency hopes to produce at that price, McNeill said the overall cost was “hardly anything” for an agency with an annual budget of £11 billion, or $13.7 billion USD.

Back in the United States, public transportation systems have been slow to launch programs that go beyond simply raising awareness. In 2015, the metro system in Washington, D.C., installed signs encouraging passengers to keep disabled seating open, with one such ad declaring, “Who needs this seat? You’d be surprised.”

In other cities, support for passengers with invisible conditions is less, well, visible.

Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), writes in an email, “We don’t have any campaigns specific to people with disabilities that cannot be seen.”

But MTA employees are instructed to help those with invisible illnesses, if they ask for it. “If a customer makes the bus operator aware that they have a disability and asks for a seat, the bus operator is instructed to make a request to customers in the ‘additional’ priority seating area,” writes Ortiz.

But for some people, that gets into one of the most difficult parts of having a condition that can’t be seen: vocalizing one’s own disability and asking for help.

“It’s not a process that a lot of people will willingly go through,” says Jackson, referring to the awkward ‘May I have your seat?’ ask. “They’re fearful of a ‘no,’ or of being shamed or stigmatized for just having a need.”

It’s a process Jackson eventually got used to, thanks to a stylish purple cane and the support of her friends, who would sometimes ask for a seat on her behalf when she first lost partial function in her right leg in 2012. Now founder of the Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective, she’s become accustomed to bringing attention to her disability.

But for those without a cane, getting a seat is that much harder. And taking a seat, especially one marked ‘priority,’ poses its own set of challenges.

“I am often given dirty looks or asked to move,” says Thalia Mostow Bruehl, a 33-year-old writer and chronic pain patient living in Chicago. Although she’s spoken up for herself in the past, she often finds it easier to get up or sit elsewhere on the bus than explain the long medical history that’s caused her leg muscles to spasm when she stands. “I don’t think that I’m a shy person but there is something about being on public transportation that makes me be less confrontational,” says Mostow Brueh. That’s especially true when she has her two-year-old daughter in tow.

Then there are those for whom disabled seating—or any seating—doesn’t work. Stephen Gilson, 66, had to get his hip fused after a cross-country skiing incident left him unable to sit with his leg bent at a 90-degree angle.

“People see me with my leg sitting out in the middle of the aisle, and they think I’m just being a jerk,” says Gilson. “That I’m there to trick people or that I’m not being thoughtful about public space.”  

It’s this combination of judgment and discomfort that caused Jackson to come up with NYC Seat Share, a potential plan to put the onus of accessibility on able-bodied passengers. Instead of asking people with invisible conditions to wear a badge to signal their needs to others, those who are willing to give up their seat—no questions asked—signal their willingness with a colorful brooch. And instead of asking for a seat, those in search of one could say “nice badge,” a secret shorthand to the wearer. “It becomes this sort of gritty, underground grassroots thing that really opens the door for needs getting met,” says Jackson.

Although she’s lined up a design firm to make the brooch and has talked about the idea with New York City’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the idea is still in the pipeline while Jackson searches for a sponsor who can help foot the bill for producing the badges.

Her plan is to charge one to two dollars per brooch, but therein lies another consideration: how many people who don’t need a seat would actively participate? Similar attempts to show solidarity—such as the anti-hate safety pins worn earlier this year—have been mocked for being ineffective or reductive, which Jackson says gave her some reservations. Instead, she envisions the brooch as “the next level of Livestrong,” the yellow silicone wristband Nike began producing in the early 2000s in conjunction with the Livestrong Foundation, a non-profit that helps cancer survivors. Unlike the Livestrong wristband, the NYC Seat Share badge brings the wearer and the recipient together, Jackson explains.

For her, it’s an important step toward making life with an invisible condition a little bit easier—one that comes from within the community and encourages support from allies. “This isn’t about making invisible visible,” says Jackson. “This is about making invisible accessible.”

Can the Great Lakes Shake Off the Rust?

The decline of manufacturing in the Rust Belt is more recent than we think, and jobs are slowly returning. But the region desperately needs a youth revival to balance national population trends.

“Rust Belt” has proved to be an exceptionally useful moniker for the narrative of industrial decline in Middle America. It provides a symbol for the long decay of productivity and power in the region since the 1970s. But rust isn’t the whole story: The disappearance of manufacturing jobs isn’t quite the same as inevitable, unfixable corrosion. Those jobs can come back.

That’s the glimmer of hope that steely-eyed Rust Belters should take out of a new report from the Urban Institute. The report takes a look back at industry and labor statistics for the states that surround the Great Lakes—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and makes economic, demographic, and social projections for how those trends will play out through to 2040. Overall, the report conveys the impression that it’s possible to fix up the region’s sputtering economic engine.

One key starting point: That manufacturing decline started more recently than we think—in 1999. “The big surprise for me looking back was how severe the manufacturing loss was between 2000 and 2010,” says Rolf Pendall, one of the report’s authors. “The narrative that I always understood wrongly about the Great Lakes was that there’s been this steady loss of manufacturing jobs pretty much since the 1970s. I thought that people may be nostalgic for something that really wasn’t there.”


Note: In the late 1990s, the United States reclassified all its economic activity from the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system to the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS). (Urban Institute)

“In fact, there was a 15-year period between about 1985 and 2000 when the total employment in manufacturing was pretty steady,” says Pendall.

By 1999, the industry had reached its highest employment level since 1980, but during the first decade of the 2000s, manufacturing employment in the six-state region fell, shedding about 1.6 million jobs.

A major factor that led to decline was the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which caused the value of the dollar to rise. Exports from the United States (see: cars) suffered abroad while imports became more attractive to consumers. From 1998 to 2010 Michigan lost 45 percent of its manufacturing jobs—912,000 to 499,000—while Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana lost over 30 percent. “Manufacturing jobs just went into a freefall,” says Pendall. “They dropped by about 35 percent in just a decade—that was huge.”

The global financial crisis also took a toll on the region; median household incomes fell more sharply in five of the six states compared the rest of the country. Manufacturing jobs have increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2014, but the recovery hasn’t been able to make up all that lost ground: There were 22 percent fewer industry jobs in the region in 2014 than in 2000.

And this region is particularly vulnerable to the loss of those jobs. In 2015, about 10.5 percent of Great Lakes jobs in 2015 were in manufacturing, compared to 6.9 percent nationally. Manufacturing accounts for a higher proportion of jobs and gross regional product also. Job growth in the Great Lakes has lagged a bit since the Great Recession, but Pendall and his co-authors find the main challenge isn’t so much creating jobs: It’s bringing people back to fill them. “Employers are saying, ‘We would love to expand more but we can’t find the labor force here to do it.’ The idea is that these jobs have been outsourced or offshore, that the region has no manufacturing future—that’s just not true. “


Data from the 2000 US decennial census 5 percent sample and 2015 one-year American Community Survey sample. (Urban Institute)

But stagnant wages and economic distress have contributed to population decline in the region, especially among young people. Low-wage work has been the greatest source of employment growth in the region. “The problem with the bounce-back is that it’s mostly been in low-wage jobs,” Pendall says.

The report estimates that the region will see its population increase by only about 6 percent between 2015 and 2040; while in the rest of the country, growth is expected to be about 21 percent. The Great Lakes are getting grayer, too: The number of residents age 65 and older will grow about 62 percent between 2015 and 2040, from 8 million to over 13 million. “There are a whole lot more older people, and that’s not balanced by young adults and children as much as the rest the United States,” Pendall says.

These states are currently older and whiter than the rest of the country, and they will remain that way unless they can boost immigration. At the current rate, it will take until 2040 for the Great Lakes to become as diverse as the United States is right now.


(Urban Institute)

“The region does not get as much immigration from abroad as some other regions do and there’s net out-migration of people domestically. That means slower population growth and strain on resources with aging population.”

People of color will drive the region’s population growth between 2015 and 2040. “The non-Hispanic white population in the region will decline from 39 to 36 million, while the number of people of all other races and ethnicities will grow from 13 to 19 million,” the study states. The Great Lakes is not keeping pace with the rest of the country in attracting foreign-born populations, with 8.5 percent of residents in 2015 having been born abroad compared to 16.2 percent elsewhere in the United States.


Poverty-stressed county seats either have more than 20 percent of residents below poverty on average from 2011 to 2015 or experienced at least a five percentage point increase in poverty from 2000 to 2011–15. (Urban Institute)

What’s the role of Rust Belt cities in this story? Many rural counties, as the above map shows, have lost population or are poverty-stressed. To keep more young people in the region, the region will also have to grapple with the challenges of entrenched segregation and poverty in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, so that its residents can take the jobs that are available. “The secret for success in that region is investing in the kids and the young people who already live there,” Pendall says.

The challenge of tackling distress runs deeper than just fixing big cities, he adds. “Chicago has those kinds of resources; some place like Lancaster, Ohio, where Anchor Hocking glass is still based, doesn’t. It’s been really hollowed out by restructuring. The answer has to has to be found, not just in Lancaster, but also in Columbus and to some extent in Washington, D.C.”

A broader approach to tackling these challenges, rather a policy of place-based company poaching, means taking a good look at the future of people who live near the Great Lakes. The Rust Belt’s revival won’t be delivered by the old time religion of protectionism and chasing the ghosts of jobs cannot work without people there ready to take them.

“We tend to notice the things in our community that are missing or new,Pendell says. “We lose sight of the people who are there, who have been there, and who are going to be there.”

The Midwest Is in Trouble

New Census estimates show the Snowbelt-to-Sunbelt migration pattern is deepening.

For all the talk of downtown revitalization in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, the numbers don’t lie.  

The U.S. Census bureau released population estimates covering counties and metro areas today, and the picture is grim for the post-industrial Midwest and Northeast. For example, the city of St. Louis lost nearly 3,500 residents between July 2015 and 2016, representing a 1.1 percent population dropthe sharpest out of any city in the country, and a much sharper local decline than in recent years. Chicago, too, saw its long-term losses compound, with the largest numeric decline out of any metro area: more than 21,000 people, or 0.4 percent of its population. A similar story unfolded in Baltimore, which saw a rapid acceleration in population loss from 2015 to 2016. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Syracuse, Hartford, Buffalo, Scranton, and Rochester also lost thousands.

All told, according to Governing magazine, the “146 most densely populated counties lost a total of 539,000 residents to other parts of the country over the 12-month period ending in July, representing the largest decline in recent years.”

By far, Cook County, Illinois, saw the greatest losses. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

That also accounts for slowed growth in the largest metros in the U.S., including L.A. and New York City.

Urban centers, and particularly those in the Midwest and post-industrial north, are struggling to compete with the draw of the suburbs. That includes those along their own borders—for example, St. Charles County, outside St. Louis, posted growth. But the more dramatic migration continues to be from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt. Looser patterns of development, affordable housing, and jobs (particularly in the service industry and healthcare) in and around cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, and Phoenix drew in hundreds of thousands of newcomers.

King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, was a rare geographic outlier in the largest-gaining counties. Smaller cities in the Northwest showed surprisingly strong growth, too, as the economist Jed Kolko pointed out:

Among all metros with at least 250,000 population, four of the 10 areas where growth accelerated most from 2015 to 2016 were in Washington (Olympia and Spokane) or Oregon (Eugene and Salem); another northwestern city, Boise, Idaho, was also on the list.

Americans love their big, hot suburbs. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Several cities on the decline are actively strategizing ways to draw in more residents, selling off vacant properties at discount prices, offering tax breaks to businesses, and rolling out welcome mats to refugee populations. But the story of post-Recession migration hasn’t changed much in the past couple of years, and these numbers suggest that the Snowbelt-to-Sunbelt pattern is deepening.

London Has Not Fallen

In the wake of another terrorist attack on a major capital city, the citizens of London have chosen to shrug and carry on. You should, too.

Last night in London, bars and restaurants near Britain’s Parliament at Westminster were just as packed as ever. Walking to meet a friend just across across the river in Waterloo last night, I saw office workers spilling out of pubs and lined up as usual at bus stops; if you didn’t know better, it’d seem improbable that a terrorist attack had occurred hours before, just minutes’ walk away.

This was not, perhaps, the atmosphere that the attacker was dreaming of when he planned the horrific attack he carried out Wednesday afternoon. Three people were killed and 29 others sent to the hospital after Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old man from just outside London, drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside the U.K. Parliament before he was killed. The terrorist organization ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.

It’s not just that Londoners are keeping calm and carrying on—that’s what they do in a crisis by default. It’s more that there’s little open acknowledgement in people’s behavior that this is a crisis at all. Going out into the streets, everything is so utterly normal that it’s almost disconcerting. Public transit has continued running without a hitch, shops stayed busy, and people seemed to be going on about their business without any apparent fear of peril.

There is a strain of relief in this show of strength. This in no way prevents it from being tragic, especially as the heartbreaking photos and profiles of the victims are emerging, smiling at us from some happy-looking place. But, in many ways, the attack could have been so much worse, and Londoners are taking comfort in the effectiveness of the city’s security measures. Thanks to swift, effective policing, the attacker never got into Parliament itself, only through its outermost cordon. And a far worse casualty toll could certainly have been possible. Indeed, the relative inability of the attacker to create the sort of carnage that terrorism thrives on has been seen by some experts as tentative confirmation that ISIS has failed to recruit many adherents in Britain.

There’s something else behind the calm. After Paris, Brussels (exactly a year ago), Berlin, Istanbul, and other cities, terrorist attacks and their aftermath are something that Londoners and other city-dwellers have become grimly familiar with. Now shock in itself has become something we expect. There’s a grin-and-bear-it quality to many reactions, as well as a strange sort of meta-reaction where people are commenting on their own and others’ first reactions.

Many people on social media, for example, have been sharing this photo, apparently showing one of the signs commonly written up at the entrances of Tube stations

Almost as frequent, however, are posts pointing out that this is actually a fake created by a meme generator.

This suggests people are feeling compelled both to draw together and show cheerful solidarity, but also to draw back from responses that package this feeling too neatly, to replace genuine if less pithy expressions of solidarity with their simulation.

That doesn’t mean Londoners don’t care, or aren’t sad. But we are familiar with terrorist mayhem in a way that many other Western cities aren’t. This is a place where, just between 1971 and 1997, there were more than 135 bombings, attempted bombings, and terrorist shootings planned by the I.R.A. In 2005, 56 people died after attacks by fanatical Islamist terrorists, while London’s neighboring capital cities, Paris and Brussels, have also experienced terrorist violence. You can’t just fall to pieces in the face of this sort of threat, surrender yourself to hatred, or let yourself get riled by inaccurate, trashy comments by an American president’s nitwit son.

Perhaps there’s something sad about this city’s skill and facility with managing threat and grief. It’s still the best thing Londoners can do right now.

This Map Shows When Female Workers in Each State Will Achieve Equal Pay

Women workers in some U.S. states might not achieve wage equality until the 22nd century, new research suggests.

Women in Florida may be the first in the U.S. to achieve paycheck parity in 2038, while those in Wyoming may be among the last to close the wage gap, not getting there until 2153. According to new research released today by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), there will be 13 states where movement in the gender wage gap is so slow that a woman born in 2017 will not see equal pay during her working life.

Nationally, women averaged 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man in 2015. Julie Anderson, a senior research associate with IWPR, looked at Census data between 1959 and 2015 to track the differences in earnings between women and men who are employed full-time, year-round. Based on historical trends, the research paper predicts how long it will take for women in each state to earn as much as their male counterparts. The answer isn’t very optimistic—projections reveal just how lethargic change has been so far and how significant the variations are across state lines.


Map showing the projected year the wage gap will close by state (IWPR)

If the current pace is to continue, the paper argues, it will take another 42 years until the country as a whole closes the wage gap in 2059. In four states—North Dakota, Louisiana, Utah, and Wyoming—pay equality won’t be achieved until the 22nd century.

It’s important to note that the situation is far worse for women of color. If current trends continue, Anderson warns that black women will have to wait until 2124, while Hispanic women will not see pay equity for another 231 years—until 2248.

Among the states that are the closest to ending wage inequality, the reasons aren’t uniform. For example, in Florida and Nevada, it’s not necessarily due to robust policies that bolster equal pay. Rather, it’s because men are setting a fairly low bar for earnings. “Women in states like Florida and Nevada earn somewhere in the middle when compared to other states, but men in those states earn near the bottom in relation to overall men’s earnings,” says Anderson.


Projection is based on the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings among full-time, year-round workers aged 16 and older. (IWPR)

When it comes to other high-ranking states, like California and Maryland, we can see how current efforts will pay off in the future. These states, Anderson says, are working hard to pass policies like paid sick leave and medical leave that play a major role in keeping women in the workforce. California and Maryland are predicted to close the wage gap in 2043.

The predominant industries and occupations within a state can also explain differences in earnings. States ranked at the bottom—Wyoming, Louisiana, and North Dakota—all have a very large share of men working energy and construction jobs. “These industries pay high wages, and employ very few women,” says Anderson. However, in states that employ a large number of government workers, such as Washington, D.C., there’s generally more transparency around things like promotion and hiring practices, which helps bridge the gap and boost equal pay, she adds.

Could focusing on state-level data help us better understand what is causing wage gaps? Anderson thinks so. It paints a complicated picture, she says, but mapping “also points out different entry points for states to focus their efforts on if they want to address the problem.”