Urban Notebook

What Cuba Can Teach America About Ride-Sharing

Thanks to recently normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, I got to visit Havana this summer. What I discovered there was an unenviable economic system. Residents are strikingly poor, and because much entrepreneurship is illegal, they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future. But when Raul Castro became president in 2008, he pursued mild liberalizations. One was letting citizens use their cars as taxis. This has created a complex ride-sharing system within Havana that may be worth imitating in the U.S.

To be clear, Havana has two systems. One is the traditional government-run cabs that serve tourists. These are unaffordable to Cubans, most of whom live on less than $240 annually. But early on I learned about the other system, a private option called carro particular that locals take for 10 pesos, or about 40 cents. The cars don’t serve lone patrons, but those willing to share rides. To hail one, you go to a curb along a busy avenue and signal with your arms your desired direction. Once a car pulls over, the driver quickly negotiates how close to your destination he can get. You either hop in or you don’t. If you don’t, another driver is usually close behind. READ MORE

Drowning in Data, Cities Need Help

When I was an urban planning student at the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 30 years ago, my area of concentration was known as the “built environment” -- the bricks and mortar, the form and design of the buildings, the streets, the sidewalks, the parks and everything else that makes up the way humans have manipulated the environment to create built spaces. The course of study led me to think that cities are pretty static: Buildings, roads and other structures are expensive and time-consuming to build, and they don’t change much over time.

If you want to understand how completely wrongheaded that way of thinking is, just check out Corridorscope. It’s a website created by the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, and it displays all kinds of data that shows just how dynamic a city is. Specifically it shows how Wi-Fi connections, 311 service requests, bike-share docking and trash compactors grow and shrink during the day as humans come and go. It’s a startling depiction of how one street in one neighborhood in one city changes over the course of the day. READ MORE

How Miami Fought Gentrification and Won (for Now)

Can growing cities avoid gentrification simply by building skyscrapers? Harvard economist Edward Glaeser thinks so. In his 2012 book Triumph of the City, he famously argues that in order to address housing shortages, cities need to build up. If they don’t, he warns, wealthy people who would buy high-rise units will instead buy older housing and displace longtime residents and businesses.

Glaeser’s theory has mostly gone untested as the nation’s most gentrifying cities -- such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- still heavily control building heights.But an area around downtown Miami might finally offer some support to Glaeser’s premise. READ MORE

Are Millennials Really More Urban Than Previous Generations?

Blowback against the urban legend of the millennials has begun. We’re still seeing 10 stories a day about how they’re reviving city neighborhoods, but traditionalist pundits such as Joel Kotkin suggest that we have reached “peak urban millennial.” Millennials, he argues, will soon start getting married, having kids and moving to the suburbs just like they’re supposed to. So are millennials actually different?

To be sure, they are changing our cities in a fundamental way. They are reclaiming and activating huge swaths of the urban core and having an enormous impact on our markets for all kinds of things -- nice apartment buildings, Uber, Airbnb, food trucks. I think it’s safe to say nothing like this has happened to cities in my lifetime. READ MORE

How to Design a Pedestrian Mall That Works

Pedestrian malls have a long and complicated history in the U.S. During the 1960s and ’70s, several cities closed parts of their downtown to auto traffic at one time or another. It seemed like a natural placemaking tool, but eventually, many failed. Poorly planned, most pedestrian malls were inaccessible, hid businesses and attracted crime.

That was certainly true of one such pedestrian mall in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va. “You could shoot a gun at five o’clock from one end and not hit anyone on the other,” says Mayor Satyendra Huja. “Because there was nobody there.” READ MORE