Could the Universal Basic Income unleash a new wave of civic activism?

Is this the future of public services? Occupy Wall Street's camp in Zuccotti Park, New York City, in 2012. Image: Getty.

In 2012, New York was pummelled by Superstorm Sandy: a wall of wind and water that would kill at least 53 people, cut power to large parts of the city, and flood the subway and most of Manhattan’s road tunnels.

As the federal authorities struggled to respond, messages started appearing on Facebook asking for space to cook food and help with building a website. The rump of the Occupy movement, which had so spectacularly camped out in Zucotti Park the previous year, was starting to turn itself into a disaster relief operation. Over the following months, a scheme that hoped to recruit about 40 volunteers ballooned into a 60,000 strong operation. Where government was failing, the anarchists were stepping into the breach.

Disasters are highly unusual times, but the Occupy movement still teaches us a simple lesson: where government fails, ordinary people can sometimes devise better alternatives for themselves. Across the globe we can see similar examples of citizens taking on public assets, reinventing public services and hacking the urban environment. At a time when city governments are under huge pressure, the idea that the people themselves might be able to drive innovation from the outside-in is hugely appealing.

The problem is that most people simply do not have time to make this kind of contribution to their cities. People are simply too busy to create the new urban commons.

But over the past few months we have seen the revival of an old idea that might unlock huge change. The universal basic income (UBI) is a radically fresh way of thinking about welfare. Instead of having a benefits system which imposes complex conditions on recipients, a UBI simply pays an unconditional flat amount of money to everyone.


It is an idea whose time may have come. Dutch cities are clamouring to run pilots; the Finnish government is discussing how a form of UBI could be implemented; and in the past week, the UK has seen the publication of a major study into the idea from the RSA.

There is a lot to recommend UBI. It would massively simplify the benefits system, render much of the Department for Work & Pensions obsolete, and provide everyone in the country with a basic level of security that might help empower them to leave a bad job or an abusive partner. Under the RSA’s plan, most working age people would receive £3,692 a year as a right of citizenship, with a higher payment for pensioners and lower ones for children and under-25s. Housing and incapacity benefits would continue to be paid separately from the core basic income.

At a time when many people are concerned about a labour market being transformed by automation and the huge rise in self-employment, the appeal of UBI is obvious. This is a welfare system which recognises that many short periods of unemployment might become a feature of the British economy, rather than a moral failing on the part of the individual claimant.

But from the perspective of the city, the key benefit is the time and energy that UBI might unleash. Some people might choose to use their annual payment to watch more television – but if even a few percent of the population engage in Occupy-style activism, then that might represent a renaissance of civic life.

The Italian city of Bologna is starting to create something approaching a mass movement for the commons, bringing citizens into the management of public assets and spaces. Imagine that movement turbo-charged by the free time and enthusiasm unleashed by a basic income.

There is no such a thing as a magic bullet for the challenges cities face. The pressures of growing populations, falling funding and pressurised infrastructure require a wide range of solutions. But we can probably all agree that a new wave of civic activism is part of the answer. Will UBI unlock it? I suspect we are going to find out very soon.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and author of “Taking Power Back: putting people in charge of politics”, available from Amazon.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.