• Trusting tenants and landlords

    On the surface, Airbnb offers very little defense for bad guests. Yet millions of hosts trust millions of guests every year. Reviews are a powerful credential, and a guest with many good reviews finds it easy to book.

    Could these reviews apply to tenants and landlords? They might be more valuable than the traditional credentials. The pay stub excludes people without a traditional income source, the credit check excludes young people without much credit history, and references are hand-picked and easy to game. 

    A tenant already familiar with Airbnb might look there first. And she already knows how to pay Airbnb, avoiding the often complicated need for checks and snail mail.

    Furnished apartments might become more common because that’s the expectation of an Airbnb rental. And finding a temporary guest is easy if the tenant decides to go on vacation for a week or a month. The landlord and tenant could share the extra income, making vacations cheaper. Coupled with jobs that support working remotely, many more people could travel much more often.

    Prospective tenants might try out a house for a week or two before committing to stay long term. Airbnb could offer a model similar to ski & snowboard demo rentals, where the cost of the rental is applied to the monthly rent if the guest decides to become a tenant.

    Instead of long-term and inflexible, housing is now lightweight and flexible.

  • Measuring Value

    Economists ask “How do consumers spend their money?”, attributing value to goods and services that people pay for. 

    Also useful to ask “How do people spend their time?” Facebook is valuable in part because 1 in 7 people have decided it’s worth some time each day

    What does this mean for cities? One way to be valuable is to be the cafe that sells lots of coffee. Another way is to be the cafe that people come to and stay at all day. One way to measure your bus system is by the number of fares, but another way is to measure bus trips as a percent of total trips. And when building a new high rise, consider the medium income apartments where people will live year-round compared to the most expensive where the owner may just parachute in for a weekend before heading back to their second (or third, fourth, fifth) home.

  • Community involvment

    Have you ever been to any public workshops or meetings held by the city? Maybe a workshop on the new bike lane that your block will get next spring, or the hearing about the redevelopment of an art shop into a high rise? 

    If you’re like most people, you never even hear about these meetings. But if you talk to the team leading the meeting they’ll tell you that they’ve engaged with and have the support of the community. This mismatch erodes trust when changes happen abruptly and disruptively.

    We need a new system for engaging people with local governments. A convenient way to stay connected that isn’t overwhelming and a way to dive deep when it’s something you care about. 

  • A funding source that encourages speed and success

    If someone at the Department of Transportation upgrades to smart parking meters and saves the city $100,000 per year on parking enforcement, that cash typically goes into a general budget. Using it for new bike lanes or pothole repair requires legislature approval. 

    What would change if instead the department could immediately reallocate those funds? Most companies are set up this way. It’s no wonder they have a reputation for moving faster and having more success.

  • Introducing change into a community

    “Not in my backyard” is a common call to action against the new. After all, new is scary, and new can mean pain and loss. As a leader your job gets far harder after you encounter this resistance. Some see this as necessary. But what if you could avoid it?

    Are you able to knock on every door, and patiently explain your plan to every person? Chicago did this with a new bike lane in their densest part of downtown, and completed the project in record timie with near universal support from local businesses.

    By all means, lead your way through resistance. Even better, find another path that avoids it entirely. 

  • Provide structure with a development plan

    A developer starts building a new apartment building on a vacant lot. A few blocks over, a restaurant is torn down to make room for another set of apartments. Left alone, these new developments might be internally consistent but are chaotic in aggregate, like a team of people all working towards different goals. Sometimes this chaos is desirable, like when an artist pushes against the grain to let us see things in a new light. But it can also overwhelm a system, causing breakdown and leaving everyone worse off. One building that has 2 parking spots for each unit defeats the purpose of the next building over with its transit focus and 0 parking spots.

    Better to start with a plan so that it’s clear how the pieces can support each other to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. 

    One example is the Market Octavia Plan. Another is the San Francisco Transit Agency’s 20 year Capital Plan. These plans let us ask the question: Does this construction bring us closer to our goals? And, just as important: How can this construction be changed to better fit our goals?

  • How do you measure a successful commute?

    Let’s say you’re the Department of Transportation. What’s at the top of your list? Building more lanes on highways? Creating a bike share? Buying more busses? Repaving the streets? Unless your strategy is to win the funding lottery (not likely), you can’t do it all. 

    Of course, most smart managers will choose the projects that accomplish their goals. If success is reducing the commute delay on your highways, then build more lanes. If it’s emissions per commute, buy bikes and busses. If it’s miles traveled per commute, reduce the speed limit on all of your roads and collaborate with the housing authority to build more homes downtown. 

  • Low tech

    Two grocery stores in opposite directions. One is closer, but has a smaller selection. Does it have tomatoes? Better to go to the bigger store. 

    What if there was an easy way to know if the small shop carries tomatoes, or oatmeal, or cinnamon? Easy, just pick up the phone. Sometimes low tech is good enough. 

  • "used to be here"

    Live somewhere for a year and you’ll see one shop replaced. Live somewhere for a decade and you’ll see many more.

    If housing in the neighborhood costs more than it did last year, the goods at the new shop probably cost more too. Imagine the pressure this puts on residents who moved in when the area was cheap. Even if their rent stays the same their costs go up. It’s easy to point to the new shop and talk about how much better the old place was. 

    What does this say about the kind of marketing and outreach the new shop should do? If they want to be good neighborhood citizens and help maintain diversity, how should they help those who can’t afford their services? Should a fancy restaurant sponsor the inexpensive corner grocery that makes less than 1/3 as much?

  • Why care about streets?

    It’s tempting to think of streets as negative but necessary space between all of the buildings that are the real heart of the city. While there might be strictly more square feet in buildings, streets are by far the single largest public space, vastly larger than parks, plazas, museums, restaurants, and any of the many other public spaces.

    This leads to a few realizations:

    • Small improvements to streets can have an outsized impact. 

    • While it might be hard to intimately know every park in a city, it’s likely impossible to intimately know every block. 

    • The portion of streets allocated to each use tells a story about their relative importance. Are pedestrians more important than parking? Bicycles than cars? How many lanes does each get? Who feels safe?

    • The values of the organization responsible for the streets will rub off on the streets, and by extension, the people using those streets. If the Department of Transportation cares about cars and car safety, what should we expect the people to care about?

    Want to improve your city? Start with the street. 

  • Reading List For Thinking About Cities

    Start with The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Most modern books on the topic reference this fundamental work from Jane’s time living in New York City. Jeff Speck continues the story started by Jane in Walkable City. In Streetfight, Janette Sadik-Khan offers a glimpse into the rapid evolution of bicycling coming out of NYC and the backlash it has caused. And Instant City by Steve Inskeep offers a rare perspective through the lens of Karachi, Pakistan.

  • Learning from people on the ground

    Every time I walk past the Ferry Building I see the same guy. He’s shirtless, wearing black sweatpants and matching armbands, with close cropped hair. He rides this tiny BMX bike around the plaza, around and around as thousands of pedestrians and cars pass by every day.

    Take a guess: has any traffic planner ever asked him what traffic accidents here have in common? Has an entrepreneur asked him what makes people here happy? What makes them cry? What happens on windy days, and rainy days, and in the burning sun? If you’re looking for answers, you might find experience and knowledge in unexpected places. 


  • Citizen Feedback

    When was the last time you gave feedback to a coworker? Or received feedback from your boss? Made a suggestion to a partner or housemate?

    Have you ever given feedback to your city about your local park? Or the new construction down the block? About that lip in the sidewalk that trips people up?

    What makes it so hard to give your city feedback? Do you know where to send it? Would your city acknowledge it? Would anyone act on it?

  • Public Hearing

    “My voice wasn’t heard!” says the concerned citizen.

    “We gave you a chance to give your comments at a public hearing” says the elected official. 

    “But I didn’t know the hearing was happening!”

    “It was posted on the telephone pole. Now please, move along.”

    The elected official had dozens of citizens at the hearing, so they can credibly claim that they notified the public of their plans. Why spend any more energy ensuring that everyone hears about it? People who support the plan don’t care if they missed the hearing. So more visibility means more opposition. Unlikely, then, that the official will spend time and effort spreading their message.

    Could the feedback process be improved by a grassroots effort? A simple app to list public hearings, which allows you to share hearings with people you think might also care. This platform could also have a way to aggregate feedback and deliver it to the elected official. If this platform became the fastest way for the official to know about opposition that was going to materialize anyways, then maybe it’s worth paying attention to. 

  • Skipping the middle

    Get in a car (or a train, or a bus). Get out at your destination. Something we all do almost every day. What about everything in the middle? In some ways it doesn’t exist. What might you discover if you try walking instead?

  • Desirable Housing

    Take two different people who both work the same job and earn the same income. One has 2 dependents, the other has just herself. Who can afford to pay more for housing?

    What does this say about the demographics of highly desirable areas?

  • Listening to the same song

    That moment when you glance at the person next to you and they’re listening to the same song as you. Doesn’t matter if they have a pink sparkly phone case and yours is matte black, the instant connection is still there.

    The same happens with other shared experiences. ”You were a camp counselor? Me too!”

  • Showing The Invisible

    Do people like me do things like this? This is a question that we all ask ourselves.

    San Francisco has figured out a creative way to answer this question. Walk down Market street and see the meters that show how many bikes have passed that point. For the aspiring bike commuter, this is social validation that yes, people like her bike to work. 

    As a bonus, it also taps into our desire to leave our mark. Every trip puts another drip in the bucket, a visible symbol of our presence. 

  • Main Street

    Consider the restaurant on the side street, the one you feel bad for because it’s clear that few people will ever stumble upon it. Better to be next to all of the other restaurants on main street than all alone one street over. 

  • Potholes

    What is the consequence of hitting a pothole on a city street?

    • A driver might not even notice.

    • A scoot feels the bump.

    • A bicyclist is thrown over her handlebars.

    • A pedestrian might break his ankle. 

    The importance of fixing the pothole clearly varies with the use of the street. And this just one type of obstacle. Consider train tracks, traffic cones, manhole covers, and patchworks of metal plates. What story is the city telling its people about the type of transportation they should take?