Covid-19 is helping cities kill the car

CXCVIII

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Looking for another newsletter? Check out my colleague Dan Kopf’s Golden Stats Warrior, a data-based look at the Bay Area. Dan is an excellent data journalist who spends his spare time dissecting questions like how Uber and Oakland are changing BART and why it’s so hard to be in the Bay during a pandemic (those housing stats!). If you need more San Francisco-themed charts in your life, this is the newsletter for you.


Bright lights.

Cities are remarkably resilient, and some pretty spectacular urban reimagining is happening as nations prepare to slowly lift their lockdown measures.

In Lithuania, the capital city of Vilnius will open up 18 public spaces including its central Cathedral Square to outdoor cafes and restaurants, allowing them to set up outdoor tables free of charge to maintain social distancing as the city gradually restarts. The plan came about after restaurateurs in the city’s medieval Old Town worried that it would be difficult to set up more than a few tables at least two meters apart, as required by social distancing rules, on narrow streets.

“Plazas, squares, streets—nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius told the Guardian. More than 160 businesses have applied so far, and the city expects to add more usable public spaces as the summer gets underway.

Over in France, meanwhile, cars are out and bikes are in. The country plans to spend €20 million ($21.9 million) to fund bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics, as well as invest in temporary bike racks and cycle training courses. That’s right, Covid-19 is helping French people get a free tire change.

The Île-de-France region, which includes Paris, is pumping another €300 million into temporary and permanent cycle lanes. Paris is converting boulevards into cycling highways for key workers, and encouraging people to travel by bike and foot as lockdown measures lift. “It is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution,” Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier this week. “It will make the health crisis worse.”

Turning parks into open-air cafes and roads into cycleways is simpler when cities and restaurants are working toward a shared goal of safe re-opening and motorists are stuck at home. Selling people on these changes is easier when they’ve had a chance to experience their cities without the congestion that seemed like a fact of life, and to enjoy quiet neighborhoods without the constant rumble of cars. We talked last week about how Milan also plans to reclaim streets for pedestrians and cyclists as it emerges from its coronavirus lockdown.

Most people don’t like change, and they especially don’t like feeling as though something has been taken away. But because the coronavirus did the taking away (of public transit, cars on roads, crowds in parks, and so many other things), the cities didn’t have to. The virus created space for cities to reimagine life, and now, as they cautiously re-open, to choose which Covid-19 induced shifts they would like to stick.

Layoffs.

The pandemic pain has moved from frontline gig workers to those at corporate offices. In the past week, Lyft laid off 982 employees, 17% of its workforce, and furloughed another 288. Lime cut 13% of global staff, or around 80 people. UK-based Deliveroo axed 367 employees, around 15% of its workforce, and furloughed another 50.

Uber, meanwhile, is weighing layoffs of 20% of employees, or some 5,400 people, a move that would save it close to $1 billion a year, according to The Information. To restart its flagging rides business, Uber plans to require US drivers and riders to wear face coverings. The sole bright spot for Uber is Eats, which has reportedly grown 70% over the previous year and as we discussed previously is well positioned to meet surging demand for last-mile delivery services. Both Uber and Lyft report first-quarter results this week, and I’m guessing they won’t be pretty.

Then there is Bird, which cut 406 employees, roughly 30% of global staff, in a two-minute Zoom webinar on March 27, including the IT staffer who wrote the script to log fired employees out of their work accounts the moment the meeting ended. The Verge has the brutal play-by-play, the best part of which is the increasingly specific and absurd denials from Bird’s comms team of various reported anecdotes about the company’s leaders and culture.

For instance, regarding a time that chief operating officer Steve Schnell allegedly yelled, “You can either shut up or get the fuck out!” at employees who complained of low pay, before offering $1,000 to anyone who chose to quit (a classic GTFO, Bird-speak for “Get the Flock Out,” management strategy!):

In a statement responding to the story, Bird said: “During an operations all-hands meeting, Steve delivered a pay increase message to members of the team, offering them $1,000 to leave if they were not happy with that increase, similar to the Zappos pay-to-quit approach. Steve regrets using offensive language, and HR and the legal department counseled him about how he delivered the message following this meeting.”

On another time when Schnell reportedly got so drunk at a work event in Amsterdam that he joked it would be fun to fire employees at random over Slack (every manager’s favorite drinking game!):

“While at a summit in Amsterdam, someone took Steve’s phone and played a practical joke on two top-performing employees he’s close to, and those employees recognized it was a joke.”

Of a pizza party that was allegedly held on March 14, 2019 (Pi Day) at the same time that 4-5% of the workforce was being laid off in a nearby conference room:

“We did not host a companywide pizza party prior to a reduction in force in 2019. It’s true that 4 percent of the Bird workforce was laid off in March 2019.”

And my personal favorite, on a time Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden reportedly paid “thousands of dollars” for a cup of coffee using the glitchy Bird Pay app:

“Our CEO never paid $1,000 for a cup of coffee because of an early version of an app feature that was quickly fixed.”

Bills come due.

The “magical money” is gone for Airbnb hosts who built property empires to cash in on the short-term rental boom. Hosts like Jennifer and David Landrum of Atlanta are now staring down tens of thousands of dollars in rent and other monthly expenses with no revenue in sight, the Wall Street Journal reported:

In 2016, [the Landrums] started a company named Local, renting the 18 apartments they leased and 21 apartments they managed to corporate travelers and film-industry workers. They spent more than $14,000 per apartment to outfit them with rugs, throw pillows, art and chandeliers. They grossed about $1.5 million annually, mostly through Airbnb, Ms. Landrum said.

They spend about $50,000 annually with cleaning services, about $25,000 on an inspector and $30,000 a year on maintenance staff and landscapers, Ms. Landrum said, not to mention spending on furnishings.

When Airbnb began refunding guests March 14, the Landrums had nearly $40,000 in cancellations, she said. The couple has been able to pay only a portion of April rent on the 18 apartments they lease and can’t fulfill their obligations to pay three months’ rent unless bookings resume. They have reduced pay to cleaning staff and others. Adding to the stress, Georgia banned short-term rentals through April.

“It’s scary,” said Ms. Landrum, who said she has discounted some units three times since mid-March. The Landrums have negotiated to get some leniency from apartment owners on their leases. If not, Ms. Landrum said, they would have to sell their house.

One interesting effect of the coronavirus pandemic is that it could disproportionately hurt the most controversial Airbnb host, people like the Landrums who built small rental empires rather than using the platform to just “make ends meet,” as the company likes to say. Such “commercial operators” have long irked cities around the world, especially in places with housing shortages. Airbnb has maintained over the years that commercial operators are in the minority, but analytics firm Airdna estimates that two-thirds of Airbnb listings for entire homes in the US are run by a host with more than one property.

Airbnb, like other “sharing” economy companies, emerged from the 2008 recession, having realized smartly that people needed money and could start earning it with an asset they already owned. The trouble is that the logic doesn’t hold in a crisis where no one can travel and people may very well remain fearful of coming within six feet of strangers for a long time after borders re-open. Every host on Airbnb is likely suffering—the family renting out a vacation home, the empty-nester with a spare bedroom—but losing a bit of monthly income from one rental is drastically different from a shortfall of tens of thousands of dollars on an opportunistic portfolio. It would be more than a bit ironic if the Airbnb hosts who bought in most to the vision are the ones who end up most devastated by the pandemic.

Preppers.

Nellie Bowles on Silicon Valley preppers is delightful, as always:

Now, with Covid-19, they feel vindicated. Because they are. The coders and founders long snickered at for stockpiling flour and toilet paper were absolutely right.

Properly masked and drenched in Purell, they are railing against a tech press that they feel mocked them as late as February for reducing travel and not shaking hands. They are — of course they are — making a slew of Covid-related start-up investments. And a coolheaded blog called The Prepared, with features like “Prepping Checklist for Beginners” and “Rational Reasons You Should Prepare,” is emerging as the voice of a movement.

The prepper movement preaches preparing for various apocalyptic scenarios—climate change, inequality, civil war, a pandemic—with stocks of food, personal protective equipment, remote shelters, and even weapons (the chief investment officer at a cryptocurrency investment firm who spoke to Bowles from an “undisclosed rural location” keeps a machete by the door). In the early stages of the pandemic, longtime prepper devotees feuded with panic buyers who they blamed for creating supply shortages. There’s no doubt that being prepared paid off for a near-global lockdown. But Silicon Valley prepping goes further than modest readiness; it assumes a collapse of institutions, and says that the richest and most privileged among us should invest in expensive backup plans for tail risks, rather than direct their considerable resources toward a broader societal solution. To prep in this sense is to turn inward, away from society and social responsibility, until the danger to be kept at bay is everyone else.

This time last year.

Some Uber drivers still don’t know what they actually earn driving for Uber

Overshearing.

Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang’s mom conscripted her to dye her roots, a “pretty low point” in her mom’s beauty routine, as Alix tells it:

My mom is blonde, her name is Stephanie. Anyone who’s ever met her knows her as a blonde. But the funny thing is that she’s not actually blonde. She’s just been dying it blonde for over 30 years, and she’s never let her roots grow out to get a glimpse of what her hair color really was all these years later. So we finally got a glimpse, and it was dark brown hair with gray highlights, basically. We were all laughing over looking at her roots. She had her hair dresser in Manhattan order her the right color and she sent it in a kit. What’s for the back of her head, what’s for the hairline, with little typed out directions. I’m the least beauty-centric person you could meet—my manicures involve me biting my nails—so I think her having to ask me to color her hair was a pretty low point in her beauty maintenance. I had to watch a video and take a brush and, I don’t know how to describe it, color in her roots.

Other stuff.

Instacart books first-ever profit on coronavirus boom. Brian Chesky wears pants. Invite to virtual Amazon protest mysteriously vanished from Amazon employee inboxes. Caspar Sleep lays off 21% of workers, closes Europe operations. Mutual funds mark down Airbnb. East African truck drivers carrying essential goods cross-border may also be transmitting Covid-19. San Francisco’s 75 billionaires cobble together $10.5 million for local Covid relief. Europe copies German work scheme to protect jobs from Covid-19. France to auction off antique furniture to fund hospitals. Americans are shopping at the grocery like it’s 1996. For Brits, the weekly grocery shop is back in fashion. Essential workers protest on May Day. America is about to witness its biggest labor movement in decades. Things are not going well for Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens. Woe is SoftBank. The Future of Fitness Is at Home. Need flour? Try the local wine bar. “In hindsight, I see that I perhaps should have made it a bit less expensive.”


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