US lessons for UK metro mayors: the hard impact of soft power

Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, one of this column's authors, speaks at a memorial following the death of native son Muhammad Ali last year. Image: Getty.

In May, Britain will hold elections for metro mayors in six metropolitan areas as part of a broader push toward devolution. Most focus has been on the formal powers the nation is devolving to this new position.

That is appropriate: the power of US mayors owes much to the fact that city governments have the ability to raise taxes and other local revenue and to set their own budgets. They also have the responsibility to appoint the heads of multiple influential agencies and authorities and the freedom to innovate locally while reaping the benefits of smart governance.

Yet, as a current US mayor and an advisor to mayors across the United States, we both know that the impact of the office is greater than merely managing and guiding the administrative functions of local government. Unlike a nation-state, cities are not governments. Cities are co-governed by networks of public, private, and civic institutions and leaders. The under-appreciated power of mayors is the ability to convene these leadership networks and to design, finance, and deliver collective responses to difficult challenges.

Louisville, Kentucky, provides a case in point. The 27th largest city in the United States, with a population of more than 750,000, mayor Fischer’s city resembles many of the areas holding elections in Britain, incorporating urban, suburban, and rural areas under one unified government as a product of a city-county merger in 2003.

Like city-regions across the United Kingdom and the United States, Louisville has struggled to achieve inclusive economic growth — to build an economy that works for all citizens. But the city has made great strides, thanks not to any formal legislation, but by leveraging the power of the mayor’s office to convene stakeholders and set an agenda for inclusive growth.

Louisville has committed to preparing young adults for a rapidly changing economy through lifelong learning. In 2014, the City of Louisville launched Cradle to Career, an integrated effort between disparate organisations focused on kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion, and workforce-oriented skills training.

It is obvious to any parent that these issues are inextricably linked; a smart intervention in a child’s early years pays off for decades. But, unfortunately, it’s just as obvious in cities around the country that the leaders of these programs have too few incentives to work together.


While the mayor’s office does not directly control any of these systems, it does offer the perspective and the constituency to consider the life trajectory of a child as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected, compartmentalised approaches. Impacts to date include material gains in kindergarten readiness, college degree attainment, and median wage compared to the national norm.

An inclusive economy requires both skilled workers and quality jobs that pay well. That’s why in Louisville, we worked with business leaders, the state government, and a traditional rival in the nearby city of Lexington to create the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (“BEAM”). The ambitious goal: bolster the region’s prowess in advanced manufacturing, exports, and foreign direct investment, building on the distinctive competitive assets and advantages of this broader region.

Through targeted company outreach programs, small export grants, and a region-wide export strategy, BEAM’s five-year goal of increasing export successes for small businesses by 50 percent was reached in only three years. 

The success of the Cradle to Career and BEAM initiatives require leadership traits that are qualitatively different from the more conventional ones used to run a hierarchical government. Soft power requires the ability to convene, cajole, and even shame private, civic, university and community leaders to come together and collaborate to compete and solve problems. This is community organising at the highest level, and it requires system-wide insights unique to mayors to lead disparate actors towards common visions, tangible actions, and sustained commitment.

In the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, US and UK cities face a democratic deficit — a loss of trust in institutions and lack of clarity about the future. The elections of metro mayors and other devolution efforts offer the potential to restore confidence in government and repair the frayed civic fabric of our societies.

Many of the challenges of the 21st century will not be solved in far-off bureaucracies of national governments; rather they will be tackled on the ground via cross-sector solutions.  Mayors can and should lead this, and as voters across Britain head to the polls this May, they should vote for those who will.

Greg Fischer is the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky.  Bruce Katz is the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution. The two participated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Summit on Inclusive Growth on 23 January 2017 in London. 

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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.