NYC to require 5¢ charge for single-use shopping bags

Over two years ago I wrote about my experience on a quick run to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. Seven items, to be exact—which were then placed in six plastic bags, flimsy because they were intended to be used only once and then tossed out. (It was a spur-of-the-moment trip on the way home that evening, so I didn’t have the usual reusable bags I would have given the grocery store to put my items in.)

Those six bags were among the approximately 10 billion single-use bags that the NYC Department of Sanitation estimates New Yorkers toss out every year—a whopping 19,000 every minute. Disposing these bags costs city taxpayers in excess of $10 million a year.

So it is welcome news today to learn that the New York City Council has passed legislation that will require stores, with “limited exceptions”, to charge five cents for every single-use bag they give shoppers. According to The New York Times, the legislation passed by one of the closest margins in recent years, 28–20. The mayor, Bill de Blasio, has expressed his support for the law.

But it’s not in the clear yet: former mayor Michael Bloomberg “offered a proposal in 2008 for a 6-cent bag fee — 5 cents for stores; a penny for the city — before dropping it several months later amid strong opposition. At the time, one of the opponents on the Council was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who is now a state senator. Last month, Senator Felder introduced a bill [S7336] that would prohibit the levying of local fees on bags; it passed a committee this week,” writes the Times.

And the fee itself is not perfect. Unlike the bag fee imposed in my former hometown, the District of Columbia, where the nickel collected on every bag helps clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River, the stores will keep every cent they collect of New York’s proposed charge.

But, in the end, if the results in New York are anything like those in the nation’s capital and other cities that have imposed a charge on single-use bags, you can expect to see far fewer of them littering our streets and polluting our city very soon. A small fee can lead to big behavioral change.

Image: New York City Hall by Momos via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A major economic report—and my small role in its release

Did you know that the New York metro area’s economic output is larger than the GDP of all but 13 nations—bigger than countries such as Spain, South Korea, and Mexico, Turkey, and The Netherlands—and will top a whopping $1.5 trillion by 2015? (That’s trillion, with a t!) Or that over one-third of the world’s 100 largest economies would be U.S. metro areas, if metro areas were nations? Or that 90% of U.S. GDP is produced in the nation’s urban regions?

In short, U.S. metro areas are economic powerhouses—the engines that power the largest economy on earth.

America’s urban areas are the engines that power the most prosperous economy on earth.

That’s the message of the Metro Economies Reports series, produced by IHS Global Insight for the Council on Metro Economies and the New American City at The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM). The underlying message is that if we are going to expand economic opportunity at home and remain competitive in the global economy abroad, as a nation we must invest in our urban areas. It is a simple message that federal and state officials find surprisingly hard to grasp—but that mayors clearly understand and that USCM works hard to promote.

Columbus, Ohio, mayor Michael Coleman, chair of the Council on Metro Economies and the New American City at USCM, releases the latest Metro Economies Report at the opening press conference of USCM’s annual meeting in Dallas, 20 June 2014. (Photo courtesy USCM via Flickr)

The Metro Economies Reports are issued two or three times a year. The latest one was released just last Friday, 20 June 2014, at USCM’s annual meeting in Dallas. The report’s findings on the performance and resilience of our metro areas were, as usual, impressive:

  • Among the 100 largest metro areas, the largest increases in gross metropolitan product, or GMP, were in Austin (4.6%), San Jose and Nashville (4.2%), San Francisco (4.1%), New Orleans (3.9%), and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and my hometown, Charlotte (3.8%).
  • In 2014, 344 metro areas—a full 95%—will see real GMP growth. Together, America’s metro areas will contribute 87% of the nation’s payroll, 88% of total income, 97% of population growth, and 91% of real GDP growth to the nation’s economy.
  • The combined economic output of just the 10 largest metro areas—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and Atlanta—exceeds the combined output of an astounding 37 states.

The list goes on.

And for the past several years I’ve been able to play a small role in releasing these major economic reports, which frequently get picked up by national and local media alike. See, these are hefty reports; this latest one runs to 132 pages alone. So, to break down the data and make it more digestible for mayors, the media, and the public, I’ve worked with the Council on Metro Economies and the New American City to produce companion charts that convey the most salient information in easy-to-understand graphs. Here’s the latest:

For this latest set of charts, I proposed a few changes both to pique mayors’ and others’ interest and to help save on printing costs and waste. The front page of this report contains a new “dashboard”, where macro data are gathered in a series of concise graphs, allowing readers to quickly understand the contributions of metro areas to the nation’s economy. Flip it over to the back page (the fourth page in this online version) and there’s a list of the top 100 metro economies. Inside, rankings of metro areas with nations and with U.S. states are now found side by side. It’s all a matter of taking something with an established legacy and making it better and more relevant.

To learn more about my contributions to the Metro Economies Reports series over the years and to see past editions of these charts, check out my portfolio.

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, president of The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), holds a copy of the June 2014 Metro Economies Report while speaking at the opening press conference of USCM’s annual meeting in Dallas, 20 June 2014.
courtesy USCM via Flickr

Modern traffic safety engineering

“The tree-lined road goes against the typical engineering paradigm, which would have deemed the trees unsafe and in need of removal. With the trees (the potential source of system failure) removed, a typical pattern would have happened: Speeds would have increased. The risk to pedestrians … would have gone up; perhaps a pedestrian would have been struck. The police would have been called in to set up speed traps. Eventually, vertical deflection—a.k.a. speed bumps—would have been installed to calm the traffic. Having made the road safer, new measures would have been needed to again make it safe.”

—Tom Vanderbilt
in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), page 210, which I’m currently reading

Does America need its states?

Are states an anachronism, an outdated relic of an earlier era? That’s the question prolific writer, blogger, and urbanist Aaron Renn—a.k.a. the Urbanophile—poses in a recent blog post, reposted from 2011. Mr. Renn draws heavily upon the writings of Richard Longworth in describing the myriad ways states are hobbling cities and metro areas economically and politically—and states certainly provide a lot of fodder. Specifically, there are five broad ways in which states are harming cities’ and metro areas’ economic competitiveness—which, in turn, is damaging the national and, ironically, state economies as well:

  1. “States do not represent communities of interest.” The vast borders of most of the states pull together cities and regions with disparate histories, cultures, and economies. No wonder there is such dysfunction in so many state governments.
  2. “Arbitrary state lines encourage senseless border wars.” Take Kansas and Missouri, for example. Forget competing with Europe, China, India, and the rest of the world; they’re just slugging it out with each other.
  3. “Many state capitals are small, isolated, and cut off from knowledge about the global 21st century economy.” Look at the location of many, if not most, state capitals: they’re located at the geographic, not economic and cultural, center of the state. Sure, you have Atlanta, Boston, and Phoenix, but you also have Sacramento, Tallahassee, and Jefferson City—the last of which is so isolated it’s not even connected to the Interstate Highway System. (A certain town called Albany also comes to mind.)
  4. “Metro areas are the engines of the modern economy, but the rules for municipal and regional governance are set by states, and often in a manner that is directly contrary to urban interests.” This neatly sums up my years of work for The United States Conference of Mayors and its Metro Economies Reports: metro areas are the engines of the nation’s economy—some 90% of GDP is produced within the nation’s 360+ urban areas. If we want our economy to grow and to remain viable in the face of mounting global competition, we need to concentrate public and private investment in urban areas, and we need to cooperate rather than compete with each other.
  5. “States can’t do much to help, but they can do a lot to hurt.” Mr. Renn notes two states where statewide policies seem to make no difference: in Ohio, Columbus thrives while Cleveland falters, and down in Tennessee, Nashville grows while Memphis stagnates.

Mr. Renn notes one area of state policy that has had long-lasting implications, banking:

I think that historically states imposed rules on cities deliberately designed to hobble their growth. For example, the laws that restricted branch banking in most states until recently had the effect of keeping big city banks from buying up rural and small town banks around the state. The end game of course is that when deregulation occurred, the banks in most big cities were so small because of these rules, they were easy prey to out of state acquirers. Thus most states saw basically their entire indigenous banking industry swallowed up.

(I’ll note that my home state, North Carolina, got it right on this score: it had no such restrictions on intrastate banking, which allowed its homegrown banks, NCNB/NationsBank, First Union, and Wachovia, to become national behemoths. Though the crisis in the banking industry took its toll and today only one of those, Bank of America, the successor to NCNB and NationsBank, remains headquartered in the state today.)

Are states an anachronism? Personally, I don’t think so. Most of us still have a strong identity with what we consider our home state. At least, I know I do—even if I never live in North Carolina again, you’ll never scrape the tar off these heels. And I think they provide a necessary middle ground in American governance, balancing power not just across branches of government but across levels of government as well. From health care to the environment to infrastructure to education, there are plenty of examples of forward-thinking states blazing trails on progressive public policy when the federal government wasn’t up to the task and it was outside the scope of local government.

But the question leads to an interesting discussion, and undoubtedly we can come up with some fixes that will allow states to help more than they hurt.

Read more
Replay: Are States an Anachronism?
by Aaron Renn
The Urbanophile, 5 May 2014

The Georgia State Capitol against the backdrop of the Atlanta skyline.
by dgphilli via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Obama administration submits transportation bill to Congress

The White House and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (the former mayor of my hometown, Charlotte) have submitted a transportation bill to Congress—a first for the Obama administration, reports Streetsblog USA. Highlights from the four-year proposal include:

  • $206 billion for highway projects and $72 billion for transit projects over the next four years. That’s approximately a 75/25 highway/transit split, an improvement (as I see it) from the current 80/20 split.
  • It would plug the hole in the Highway Trust Fund using corporate tax reform. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently revealed that the trust fund may be out of money as soon as this summer.
  • Rail would receive $19 billion, including nearly $5 billion a year for high-speed rail.

Then there’s this interesting tidbit:

Reporters on the call were most interested in the increased authority the administration seeks for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating and penalizing automakers who fail to act quickly on vehicle recalls. The administration seeks to increase civil penalty limits nearly tenfold, to $300 million, so that they would be “more than a rounding error” in the company’s bottom lines.

I’ll need a little more time to learn about the proposal and gather others’ reactions, but at first blush, though we still have  a ways to go in reforming the nation’s transportation policy, this appears to be a significant step in the right direction.

Read more
Obama Administration Sends Transportation Bill to Congress
by Tanya Snyder
Streetsblog USA, 29 April 2014