As air pollution increases, so does violent crime.
- A new report suggests air pollution from highways increased violent crime in Chicago by two percent.
- The effect was consistent across different parts of the city and independent of other factors.
- The research suggests that a tax simultaneously could lower air pollution and crime.
Air pollution doesn't only harm the lungs. An increasing number of studies suggest that it is also associated with lower productivity, reduced short-run cognition, and an increase in psychological distress and even suicide.
Now, a new study soon to be published in the American Economic Journal adds another potential side effect to polluted air: increased rates of violent crime.
My kind of town (Chicago is)
While Chicago isn't the most violent city in the country, it does have a treasure trove of data on reported crime, neighborhood pollution levels, weather, and other micro-geographical information that makes it an excellent choice for a study like this. By combining the information collected between 2001 and 2012, the authors were able to compare changes in the crime rate upwind and downwind of several major highways — namely I-90, I-94, I-290, I-55, and I-57 — on a day-by-day basis while controlling for other factors, such as temperature, that are also known to influence crime.
The study omitted areas near multiple interstates, including downtown, and the extremities of the city such as O'Hare International Airport to avoid data that was too noisy to use. Data from days when the wind was not within sixty degrees of the line orthogonal to the interstate were also excluded. Importantly, the number of major roadways considered means that the data includes areas containing all socioeconomic levels.
The authors provide the example of taking measurements for neighborhoods near I-290, an east-west roadway connecting downtown with the suburb of Oak Park:
"To causally estimate the effect of pollution on crime, we compare crimes along the north side of I-290 to the south side of I-290 on days when the wind is blowing orthogonally to the interstate. On a day when the wind is blowing from the south, the pollution impacts the north side of I-290 and vice-versa. In essence, the side of the interstate from which the wind is blowing acts as a control for unobservable daily variation in side-invariant criminal activity, driven by, for example, weather."
In total, the effect of the wind-driven pollution amounted to roughly a two percent increase in violent crimes (homicide, assault, etc.) on the downwind side of the interstates.
There was no consistent effect on property crimes like theft or burglary. Areas further from the roadways, and thus with less pollution, saw reduced effects. The effect was also most notable when the weather was nice enough to be outside, possibly prompting people to go out, which in turn exposed them to more air pollution.
Possible long-term effects were not investigated by the authors, in part because the crime rate and pollution levels in Chicago went down over the time period considered in the study.
Why would air pollution cause crime?
The authors "do not take a stand on the exact underlying mechanism" at work. However, they do point out that their findings align with others suggesting a connection between air pollution and aggression.
Additionally, the causes of crime are often complex and multifaceted. While this study does show that pollution can increase crime rates downwind of pollution sources independently of other factors, the cause of the basal crime rate is another question entirely.
What do these findings mean for how we handle pollution?
The authors suggest that the costs of air pollution are higher than we currently calculate. For policy, this means that the optimal Pigouvian tax — that is, the tax that properly prices in negative externalities — should be higher than they currently are for products that cause air pollution, like gasoline.
Furthermore, the authors estimate that lowering crime by two percent would have saved the city $22 million dollars in social costs during each year considered in the study. If applied to the country as a whole, the reduced crime might save $2.2 billion dollars.
A tax that lowers both pollution and crime might be worth it.
The Kazungula Bridge connects Zambia and Botswana, barely missing Namibia and Zimbabwe.
- The Kazungula Bridge has turned a cartographic near-miss into a geopolitical marvel.
- It's where maps show the world's only quadripoint, and the bridge is built across the world's second-shortest border.
- The bridge has the potential to completely revamp Africa's economy and transportation situation, from Cape to Cairo.
The arrow points to the only place on any world map where four countries meet — until you zoom in really close.Credit: Mapswire via public domain
On 10 May of this year, half a dozen African presidents came to Kazungula to inaugurate a bridge. Not just any bridge, then: the Kazungula Bridge, linking Zambia to Botswana across the mighty Zambezi River, is a game-changer. It has the potential to redirect the flow of traffic throughout much of Africa as well as provide a major boost to the entire region's economy.
A gentle but curious curve
There's more going on with the Kazungula Bridge, though. As it connects one country to the other, it makes a gentle but curious curve. There is no structural reason for it, only a geopolitical one: this is to avoid touching two other countries located on either side of the bridge. Because the bridge passes by the point where the world's only international quadripoint isn't.
An international quadripoint is a place where four countries meet. World maps show just one: a point in southern Africa where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia all touch, right in the middle of the Zambezi River. But they're wrong.
Like a magic trick in reverse, the point disappears if you examine it too closely. Zoom in and the world's only international quadripoint turns into two tripoints. The western one is where Botswana and Zambia meet Namibia. The eastern one is where they meet Zimbabwe.
The reason we're so easily fooled – and so grievously disappointed – is that those two tripoints are separated by no more than 443 feet (135 m).
To add to the cartographic near-miss, that doesn't even make the international border between Zambia and Botswana the shortest in the world. That distinction goes to a line just 279 feet (85 m) long, separating the tiny Spanish peninsula of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera from the Moroccan mainland.
A clear top-down overview of the border situation, still showing the launches for the Kazungula Ferry.Credit: Sovereign Limits, reproduced with kind permission
In short, the border here is a bit of a mess. In the 1970s, the question of whether there existed a quadripoint was a highly contentious matter between Zambia and Botswana on the one hand and the white-minority-ruled regimes of South Africa (which then occupied Namibia) and Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known) on the other.
A geopolitical flashpoint no more
Should the quadripoint exist, South Africa and Rhodesia would control all cross-river traffic between Zambia and Botswana. Operating under that assumption, South Africa declared the Kazungula Ferry, which linked Zambia to Botswana, illegal. This ultimately led to an armed confrontation in 1970. A few years later, the Rhodesian Army actually sank the ferry, claiming it was serving military purposes.
With both racist regimes now consigned to the dustbin of history, the specter of a Kazungula turning into a geopolitical flashpoint has largely receded. What's more, the Kazungula Bridge shows what excellent lemonade you can make with the lemons that geography hands you.
Cutting exactly through the "quadripoint zone," the bridge is 3,028 feet (923 m) long and 60.7 feet (18.5 m) wide. It's a cable-stayed construction carrying two car lanes each way, a single rail track, and pedestrian walkways on either side. It took South Korea's Daewoo E&C six years to complete at a cost of $259 million. Financing was provided by the Zambian and Botswanan governments, the African Development Bank, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, and the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund.
The bridge replaces a pontoon ferry which could carry just two trucks at a time. That means the busy road traffic between the Copper Belt in southern DR Congo and northern Zambia now has a viable alternate route to the South African port of Durban, one that doesn't lead through Zimbabwe. That route is often congested at the Beitbridge border crossing into South Africa.
It was exactly for fear of losing the lucrative toll on that traffic that former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe withdrew from the consortium building the bridge. Zimbabwe's "Second Republic," under his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, has taken the more sensible approach of requesting to rejoin and is already upgrading its roads towards the crossing.
From landlocked to "landlinked"
Either way, the bridge will ease congestion, lower the cost of doing business, and boost trade between Zambia and Botswana as well as for the wider Southern Africa Development Council (SADC), the 16-country economic and political cooperation body covering Africa's southern third.
Africa still suffers from poor or non-existent road infrastructure. The SADC sees a well-maintained road network as key for promoting integration and development across the continent. The Kazungula Bridge is considered an essential instrument in turning Zambia and Botswana (and soon perhaps also Zimbabwe) from landlocked into "landlinked" countries.
Perhaps one day when cars and trucks can drive smoothly from Cape Town all the way up to Cairo, they'll do so across the Kazungula Bridge.
One country that hasn't been mentioned but is essential to the story — because there is no quadripoint without four countries — is Namibia. Located mainly on the Atlantic coast and inland desert of southwest Africa, it projects this one panhandle into southern Africa's wet heart.
That is the Caprivi Strip, named after the German chancellor who obtained it in 1890. He wanted the then-German colony of South-West-Africa to have access to the Zambezi in the hope that it would be navigable all the way down to the Indian Ocean. It isn't: 40 miles (70 km) east of Kazungula, the majestic Victoria Falls block off that option.
If Caprivi's gamble had paid off, the "quadripoint zone" could now have been a bustling transit area for people and goods all across southern Africa. Thanks to the Kazungula Bridge, that vision may soon come true, if slightly differently configured.
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What's to blame for the recent uptick in containership accidents?
- At any given time, 6,000 containerships are moving the vast majority of global trade on the world's oceans.
- The average number of annual containership accidents has been on a downtrend for the past decade, but accidents have become more common since the start of the pandemic.
- One factor behind the recent rise in containership accidents could be rising demand for imported goods from U.S. consumers.
In November 2020, the containership ONE Apus was sailing from China to California when a severe storm struck. The 364-meter ship began rolling heavily. Soon, nearly 1,800 of the ship's containers—some of which were carrying dangerous goods like fireworks and liquid ethanol—came loose. Some crashed onto the deck. Others spilled into the ocean, lost forever.
The ONE Apus incident was one of at least six major containership accidents that occurred since November, which altogether have resulted in the loss of 2,980 containers. That's more than double the annual average number of lost containers from 2008 to 2019, according to a recent report from the World Shipping Council.
What's causing the uptick? It's likely a combination of bad weather and heavily loaded ships, some of which are packed to the brim due to increased U.S. imports since the beginning of the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that January brought the largest monthly increase in U.S. imports since 2012.
To be sure, the World Shipping Council notes that containership accidents have been on a downtrend over the past decade, writing "containers lost overboard represent less than one thousandth of 1% of the roughly 226 million containers currently shipped each year."
But that fraction of a percent adds up over time. After all, international containerships move more than 80 percent of global trade, representing a roughly $4 trillion industry. And while accidents are relatively rare, they pose significant threats to crew and the environment, not to mention the economic costs.
In its recent report, the World Shipping Council notes several ways the industry has been working to improve safety standards, including increased inspection programs and updated packing practices.
Still, accidents are bound to happen among the 6,000 containerships that are sailing the world's oceans at any given time. One reason is parametric rolling, a phenomenon only experienced by containerships.
The World Shipping Council
In short, parametric rolling is a sudden side-to-side movement of a large ship caused by a specific alignment of waves, usually during a storm. Parametric rolling can send containers, which are sometimes stacked six stories tall, toppling over each other.
Bigger ships tend to be more at risk.
"The new container ships coming to the market have large bow flare and wide beam to decrease the frictional resistance which is generated when the ship fore end passes through the water, making it streamlined with the hull," wrote Marine Insight.
"As the wave crest travels along the hull, it results in flare immersion in the wave crest and the bow comes down. The stability varies as a result of pitching and rolling of the ship. The combination of buoyancy and wave excitation forces push the ship to the other side."
On a broader scale, the cost of shipping goods by any method—train, truck, air, ocean—is rising as supply chains are becoming congested and demand for imports keeps increasing. For the most part, companies are fronting the bill.
As for U.S. consumers? They might start paying a premium for imported goods, or for goods that feature imported parts.
"Most prices along the supply chain have gone in one direction, and that's up, so it has to appear somewhere," Joanna Konings, a senior economist at ING, told CNN Business.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment?
What responsibilities do employers have in terms of supporting their workforce's commute to work?
There are great examples of efforts from employers to facilitate commutes to work, but the same mobility perks are much harder to offer for small business employers, non-traditional employers, contract workers and the self-employed.
For those groups who don't enjoy employee commute perks, transportation and access to jobs is yet another hurdle, especially during COVID.
In some tech companies, employers are offering stipends for their employees to deck out their remote working areas. Other firms are incentivising a return to work by offering additional mobility benefits that ease the struggle of a commute.
In fields like investment banking, it is not uncommon for employees to receive an allowance for a taxi home after working long hours. Ironically, these individuals could easily afford an Uber ride themselves. For most employees working for an hourly rate the same benefits often do not apply, and many essential workers in the food and healthcare industries fall into this camp.
Through the outbreak of the pandemic, employers have answered these questions, albeit inequitably. Some identify a responsibility to support their workforce commute. Recognizing their responsibility of giving their workforce the opportunity to protect their health and that of their loved ones, others still have helped non-essential employers establish alternatives to office commuting over the last year.
While some firms have attempted returns to the office, the understanding in many workplaces remains that employees are entitled to choose the risks to which they're exposed in order to get to work, even if there might be costs for collective productivity.
COVID has removed employees' needs for self-funded commutes, democratizing access to work. This historic shift triggers a broader conversation point: whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment, if affordable is defined in terms of dignity, safety, finances and time?
The commute as part of an obstacle to employment
Questions abound surrounding the commute and responsibility: Should the public sector help subsidise commuting solutions for underserved communities, to help combat unemployment? Should employers take the same care of their lower-waged employees as they do of their higher earners? Should contractors guarantee mobility support for the essential workers they provide, so they can continue delivering their services regardless of circumstances? Security guards would be one such example.
The ease or difficulty of a commute impacts worker performance, worker health and the length of stay of employees in the company. Commuting is an unspoken part of the job without any financial, social or environmental recognition. For many there is no financial returns for commutes; it's just the energy time sink you invest in to keep a job.
Environmentally, it's the unacknowledged pollution and traffic sink. But as a society we can choose not to perpetuate this broken reality.
When funding commutes is in the financial interest of the firm
In some industries, it can be relatively easy to quantify the costs of having an employee become unable to perform overtime. Associates in law firms, for example, track billable hours.
Without that allowance for a late-night taxi — i.e. if they just declared they were not comfortable getting back to their neighborhood via public transport late at night and therefore decreased their hours — employee bonuses and overall compensation would be proportionately lower, as would the revenue produced by the firm.
Some associates bill over $1,000 an hour. Some law firms then charge a fee on top for a supervising associate to review and approve the work. The math is simple: a $30 ride and a $50 dinner can yield a huge ROI for the firm.
The same math becomes much more complicated for the janitor who comes in at 10pm so he can clean the office before the next morning without bothering the managing partners or distracting high-paying customers. But isn't this person equally entitled to not jeopardize his safety, "just" so he can keep his job — financial gain for the firm, or otherwise?
COVID-19 has created a crystal clear understanding of the risks everyone is taking each time they step into an indoor space. And yet, in spite of the use of mask wearing to get on with our lives to some degree, the world has largely reached a consensus that COVID-19 was dangerous enough to justify not forcing commutes to the office.
The world now has an enormous learning opportunity. In re-evaluating the commute, we see we might have spent decades missing opportunities for greatly increased ROI for global economic development via corporate reform. We've taken the first steps towards democratizing commutes: let's stay on track.
How many hurdles stand in the way of hyperloops becoming a commercial reality?
- Hyperloops are a new type of transportation technology that involves vacuum tubes and passenger pods traveling at ultra-fast speeds.
- Although no commercial hyperloops exist yet, a handful of companies around the world are building test tracks, some in partnerships with national governments.
- Hyperloops could prove to be a faster and more environmentally sustainable form of transportation than flying and high-speed rail, though many obstacles remain.
Virgin Hyperloop has successfully completed the world's first passenger test of hyperloop technology, a new form of high-speed transportation.
The test was conducted Sunday in a desert outside of Las Vegas, where the company built a 500-meter vacuum tube as a test track. Inside the tube, a pod carrying two passengers used electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation to whisk above the track, reaching 107 mph in about six seconds before coming to a stop.
Virgin's test was designed to prove the safety of hyperloop technology for humans. The company, founded in 2014, hopes to build long-distance hyperloops that travel up to 600 mph, meaning a trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. would take about 30 minutes.
"With today's successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, in a statement.
It's a big milestone for the technology, which Elon Musk first proposed in 2012. Still, Virgin and other hyperloop companies have many hurdles to overcome before hyperloops become a viable form of transportation.
In addition to proving hyperloops are safe for humans at faster speeds, two major obstacles include:
- Cost: Building and maintaining miles of hyperloop tubes would be incredibly expensive, with leaked documents from 2016 suggesting that each mile of track could cost between $84 million and $121 million. It's unclear whether hyperloops could sell enough tickets at high enough prices to turn a profit, while competing with airlines and railways.
- Land: Due to the high speeds, hyperloop tracks would need to be constructed in near-straight lines. Turns would have to be wide: A Virgin Hyperloop engineer told the New York Times that a hyperloop pod would need about six miles of track to complete a 90-degree turn at 600 mph. It's unclear how or whether Virgin (or other hyperloop companies) would be able to buy or gain rights for all the necessary land to build the tracks.
Artist rendering of Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod
Hyperloop companies, which would be overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, would also have to sort out issues related to headway, maintaining a vacuum in the tubes, emergency exits, government regulations, passenger capacity and the simple possibility that people might not want to shoot through a vacuum tube at 600 mph.
(On that note: It's unlikely that hyperloops would reach average speeds of 600 mph because the pods would need to accelerate and decelerate at slower speeds for safety and comfort reasons.)
But hyperloop technology is moving forward. In July, the U.S. government published a policy document intended to serve as a regulatory "roadmap" for hyperloop companies seeking to test their technology in the country. Virgin recently announced plans to build a $500 million "certification center" in West Virginia, where the company will test future versions of its hyperloops, aiming to get government approval.
Virgin plans to build its first operational hyperloop in India, whose government has been in talks with the company since 2017. While still in the planning stages, the company hopes to have a commercial hyperloop up and running in India by around 2030.
Underground tunnel built by the Boring Company
Virgin isn't alone in the hyperloop space. For example, there's Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is working on test projects in the United Arab Emirates, France, and Germany, where the company aims to move cargo through hyperloops. The company said it hopes to open its first commercial operation by 2022.
Hardt Global Mobility, a Dutch hyperloop startup, hopes to build a 10,000-kilometer network of hyperloops throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's Boring Company is building underground tunnels designed for cars traveling short distances. But the company says its tunnels "are designed and built in preparation for their eventual transition to Hyperloop."Some critics of hyperloop technology say it's a "utopian vision" that's unlikely to pan out, while others note that hyperloops would essentially be maglev trains, but more expensive and faster (because the vacuum tube reduces drag). But if successful, hyperloops could not only decrease travel times, but also become a more sustainable form of transportation, potentially magnitudes more efficient than high-speed rail and flying.