North American cities are competing to host Amazon’s new headquarters. Here’s what they should do

Amazon HQ, Seattle. Image: Getty.

Cities across the US and Canada are locked in fierce competition to host Amazon’s second headquarters – known as HQ2. This is a big race: a shortlist of 20 cities seems to think this particular corporate investment can go a long way to solving some of their ongoing economic problems.

The process of inward investment – whereby large firms establish operations in a new location, either at home or abroad – has been seen for a long time as a way of creating positive economic change. They can create many new jobs in areas which are crying out for them, but they also bring new entrepreneurial activity, improved management skills, international know-how and a wider boost to other local businesses.

But these decisions can cause big problems. As is typical, Amazon has effectively set off a competition between a number of major US cities for its investment, which means they will all now be trying to outbid each other in terms of the “offer” they can make. This will include their existing assets such as land, infrastructure, transport connectivity and, most importantly, people – ideally with the right blend of skills and aptitudes that Amazon needs.

The big downside of this form of competition is that cities will start offering inducements of a fiscal nature – usually in the form of tax breaks – in order to capture the big prize.

A big prize

Amazon is now one of the biggest businesses in the world, having very successfully tapped into our growing desire for the convenience of online shopping and deliveries to our doorstep. The business is evolving and expanding, and the company now needs a second major HQ operation, in addition to their existing global control centre in Seattle.

With the promise of up to 50,000 new jobs and $5bn in construction investment, it is no surprise that over 230 US cities threw their hats into the ring for this major prize. Bids were invited, and then a shortlist of 20 possible host cities drawn up. This list includes major metropolises such as Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as smaller cities such as Indianapolis, Miami, Austin and Columbus, Ohio.

Major inward investments do indeed have the capacity for major economic uplift. But it’s not just the volume of jobs that might be created locally which is important – it’s how this new investment becomes truly embedded into the local and wider regional economy. There are many examples of big business investing in an area, only to up sticks a decade later and move on to the next best location – often overseas - to take advantage of lower operating costs.

The long game

Each bidding city needs to be very clear about what it is prepared to offer Amazon. If this includes tax incentives, then there also needs to be an obvious, long-term payoff, in terms of local economic impact. The winning city must have a firm strategy in place for receiving Amazon, and this needs to cover a few significant factors. For instance, the city needs to have a clear idea of how many new jobs will really be created, how good they are and over what time period they will appear.


Amazon, like many big e-commerce businesses, will be quick to take advantage of the efficiency savings driven by automation and artificial intelligence. This may eventually reduce the total number of jobs available in its new facility.

Ideally, the city that wins will be able to create a business environment that encourages Amazon to locate more and better quality jobs away from Seattle and not just have lower-order, back office functions in its new operation.

Similarly, inward investment can have a major impact economically by strengthening local supply chains – those local businesses that can provide specialised goods and services to the new arrival. These supply chains need to operate effectively and be supported with managerial, infrastructural and skills enhancement, so that they become a critical part of Amazon’s business model. That way, the firm will not want to move away later on, because it cannot take its unique local supply chain operation with it. Better to stay put and keep investing in the host location.

The ConversationThe race to win the new Amazon HQ should not be a quick sprint to the finish. It’s more like a marathon that needs careful, long-term planning if the full benefits are to be achieved for the winning city.

Jim Coleman, Professor of Professional Practice, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.