I like the band name “Big Data”

Band names can often reflect societal trends so I’m not surprised that a group selected the name Big Data. I like the name: it sounds current and menacing. I’ve only heard their songs a few times on the radio so I’ll have to reserve judgment on what they have actually created.

It might be interesting to think of what sociological terms and ideas could easily translate into good band names. One term that sometimes intrigues my intro students – interactional vandalism – could work. Conspicuous consumption? Cultural lag? Differential association? The culture industry? Impression management? The iron cage? Social mobility? The hidden curriculum?

Reminder of how much we can cheaply consume today

Megan McArdle discusses living standards in earlier period of American life and suggests we can consume a lot more now:

In 1901, the average “urban wage earner” spent about 46 percent of their household budget on food and another 15 percent on apparel — that’s 61 percent of their annual income just to feed and clothe the family. That does not include shelter, or fuel to heat your home and cook your food. By 1987, that same household spent less than 20 percent on food and a little over 5 percent of their budget on apparel. Since then, these numbers have fallen even further: Today, families with incomes of less than $5,000 a year still spend only 16 percent of the family budget on food and 3.5 percent on apparel. And that’s not because we’re eating less and wearing fewer clothes; in fact, it’s the reverse.

The average working-class family of 1901 had a few changes of clothes and a diet heavy on beans and grain, light on meat and fresh produce — which simply wasn’t available for much of the year, even if they’d had the money to afford it. Even growing up in the 1950s, in a comfortably middle-class home, my mother’s wardrobe consisted of a week’s worth of school clothes, a church dress and a couple of play outfits. Her counterparts today can barely fit all their clothes in their closets, even though today’s houses are much bigger than they used to be; putting a family of five in a 900-square-foot house with a single bathroom was an aspirational goal for the generation that settled Levittown, but in an era when new homes average more than 2,500 square feet, it sounds like poverty.

At that, even the people living in the last decades of the 19th century were richer than those who had gone before them. I remember coming across a Mauve Decade newspaper clipping that contained a description of my great-grandmother “going visiting” in some nearby town during the 1890s. On the other side of the clipping was a letter to the editor from a woman in her 90s, complaining that these giddy young things didn’t know how good they had it compared to the old days — why, they even bought their saleratus  from a store instead of making it from corncobs like they did back when times were simpler and thrifty housewives knew the value of a dollar.

As McArdle notes at the end, it is difficult to remember these conditions of the past when we have so much today. Part of the story here is just how much we have but it is worth thinking about why we have a hard time remembering these conditions that were not really that long ago.

We have certain social values that may make us more ahistorical than others. For example, Americans value progress. We’re always talking about novelty and developing solutions. We consistently suggest our kids should have better lives than we did and we expect it to happen. The American Dream is about getting ahead so why would we want to spend much time thinking about the poverty of the past? Not only do we have a lot, we like the acquisition process. Shopping is a popular activity and we spend a lot of time looking at various consumer objects (clothes, cars, smartphones, etc.). Capitalism is good, consumption is a necessary part of the economy, it is just part of everyday life. Some might point to the role of technology in making the past even further away or more fragmented from our everyday reality. When many things come so quickly today, how can truths about the early 1900s be communicated in a way that resonates? (It is interesting that McArdle uses the example of reading Little House on the Prairie books. Do we expect the children of today to be reading those or similar books about that time period?)

Making a concrete McMansion with a 3D printer

A Chinese firm can put together a McMansion with a 3D printer:

WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co., a Chinese architectural materials company with more than 70 patents to its name, has now come up with a way to construct a 12,000 square-foot home – a kind of McMansion – out of 3D printed blocks.

A special technique has resulted in a concrete building that, while requiring paint to be attractive, still manages to be perfectly functional.

The printer that created these buildings is 105 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 21 feet tall, larger than most rooms, but it works on basically the same principles as one of MakerBot’s printers. It uses a nozzle to pump a mix of concrete, sand and fiberglass (which are recycled; the company’s name seems to translate to ‘Surplus’) onto a flat substrate, slowly accumulating into a tough material that can be buffed to create a smoother edge and/or overlaid with various traditional-looking decorative elements. A zigzag design inside the pieces helps reinforce them, similar to corrugated cardboard.

It takes about a day to print all the components. The prefab blocks are then trucked to the construction site, where it takes just five days to put them all together. The final height of the building is 20 feet by 4,000 feet wide, and the total cost to build it was just $161,000. This method saves between 30 and 60 percent of construction waste, cuts down on time by 50-70 percent, and cuts labor costs from 50-80 percent.

While the cost seems attractive, I can only imagine what McMansion critics would say if some of these started showing up in American neighborhoods. Want mass produced? Want concrete as your primary material? Of course, this all may get refined over time but there is some work to do before this would meet single-family home standards in the United States.

Cities that have experimented with free mass transit

Some communities have tried free mass transit but it doesn’t often lead to increased ridership:

The earliest urban experiment in free public transit took place in Rome in the early 1970s. The city, plagued by unbearable traffic congestion, tried making its public buses free. At first, many passengers were confused: “There must be a trick,” a 62-year-old Roman carpenter told The New York Times as he boarded one bus. Then riders grew irritable. One “woman commuter” predicted that “swarms of kids and mixed-up people will ride around all day just because it doesn’t cost anything.” Romans couldn’t be bothered to ditch their cars—the buses were only half-full during the mid-day rush hour, “when hundreds of thousands battle their way home for a plate of spaghetti.” Six months after the failed, costly experiment, a cash-strapped Rome reinstated its fare system.

Three similar experiments in the U.S.—in Denver, Colorado, and Trenton, New Jersey, in the late 70s, and in Austin, Texas, around 1990—also proved unfruitful and shaped the way American policy makers viewed the question of free public transit. All three were attempts to coax commuters out of their cars and onto subway platforms and buses. While they succeeded in increasing ridership, the new riders they brought in were people who were already walking or biking to work. For that reason, they were seen as failures…

Another report followed up 10 years later, revisiting the idea of a fare-free world. The report reviewed the roughly 40 American cities and towns with free transit systems. Most of the three dozen communities had been greatly successful in increasing ridership—the number of riders shot up 20 to 60 percent “in a matter of months.” But these successes were only to be found in communities with transit needs different from those of the biggest cities; almost all of the areas studied were either small cities with few riders, resort communities with populations that “swell inordinately during tourist seasons,” and college towns. In other words, slashing fares to zero is something that likely wouldn’t work in big cities.

Despite that, one big city has tried. In January 2013, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, announced that it was making public transit free to all of its citizens. A study released a year later revealed that the move only increased demand by 1.2 percent—though it did inspire Estonians that year to register as Tallinnian citizens at three times the normal rate. The authors of the Tallinn study reached the same conclusion as the NCTR: Free subway rides entice people who would otherwise walk, not people who would otherwise drive.

Two thoughts:

1. More evidence that once people can drive they don’t want to go back to mass transit? We might expect this in the United States but could it also be true elsewhere in the world?

2. Even experimenting with this sort of strategy requires a long-term perspective. thinking about giving up fares for the good benefits of less driving. I’m not sure many communities would be willing to undergo such a test.

Affordable housing issues in rural America

Rural America may have fewer people than suburban or urban areas but it also faces an affordable housing problem:

It can be hard to understand how finding affordable housing could be an issue in areas where housing is substantially cheaper than it would be in the nearest city or suburb. But the fact of the matter is, despite lower costs of living, income for many in rural areas is also significantly lower thanks to limited economic opportunities and struggling industries, like coal.

“When we are looking at areas that are most challenged economically we’re also finding some of the most challenging housing conditions,” says David Dangler, the director of Rural Initiatives at NeighborWorks America, an organization that advocates for affordable housing and acts as a network for nonprofit housing groups. Poverty is high in rural areas, with about 17.2 percent of rural residents living below the poverty line in 2012 versus 14.9 percent nationwide, according to 2012 data from the HAC. “Much of the affordable-housing stock in rural housing areas is old and in need of repair. Many of the people who live there don’t have the resources that they need in order to keep the houses in good repair,” says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition…

When it comes to creating new homes, interest is often thin and those that do opt in, face many unique hurdles. “Developers can’t count on any kind of municipal infrastructure to help them,” says Dangler. When it comes to building, things that are often taken for granted in more urban areas, like water, sewers, and even access to quality roads, aren’t guaranteed, which can make building a quality house much more challenging.”

Aid is somewhat sparse too, for both building and rehabilitating properties. “There’s a handful of programs that serve people in rural communities. They tend to be much smaller in scale in terms of the amount of money than the HUD programs. They also tend to be lost in the bureaucracy,” says Crowley. That’s particularly problematic because “rural areas have been traditionally more dependent upon public subsidies and publicly-funded programs than their urban counterparts,” according to Dangler. “There can be a disproportionate pain in rural areas as we attempt to right our financial books by cutting back on federal-housing programs.”

Sounds like a variety of problems at work including difficult economic conditions, a lack of public, government, and philanthropic attention, and, lurking in the background, the difficulty in administering social services in less dense areas. Just like communities have to work harder to tackle more distributed by still present poverty in the suburbs, attacking this housing issue in rural areas is simply harder to do in decentralized locations.

Plug and play 10 square feet Cubitat on display

Toronto’s Interior Design Show featured a 10×10 square foot Cubitat living unit:

Cubitat is a 10-by-10-by-10-foot cube that houses a kitchen, bathroom, bed, laundry, and storage.

Once plumbing and electric are hooked up, the structure can theoretically turn any dwelling into what the developers are calling a “plug and play” living space that looks something like a giant’s Rubik’s cube and seems to beg to be painted in Mondrian colors…

The concept is appealing but problematic: For the moment, Cubitat comes assembled in one giant piece. So although it looked great in the large, light-filled exhibition space at the Toronto show, figuring out how to get this giant module through the doors of most existing structures is an obvious obstacle (unless you’re lowering it into a roofless barn or sliding it into a converted double garage).

The pictures are really interesting and hint at the creative possibilities of mass-produced small housing units. Yet, the biggest problem seems to be ignored: since a number of the features open outward (the bed, the kitchen, etc.), this unit is only as good as the larger space in which it sits. If you had a big loft – particularly with taller ceilings – you could plop a Cubitat or two right in the middle. But, what other spaces offer such options and provide another set of exterior walls?

Naperville mayoral candidates all want to fix traffic problems…but how?

The four men running for mayor in Naperville agree that fixing traffic issues is important but differ on the solutions:

Walker says the city should adjust traffic signal timing street by street to alleviate common backups.

Jim Haselhorst says the city’s traffic problem needs a comprehensive solution because every time signals are adjusted on one street, drivers change their habits, causing backups elsewhere.

Steve Chirico says the planned implementation of an integrated traffic management system on Washington Street will help, as will good city planning to avoid creating future traffic nightmares.

And Doug Krause says the city needs to form better intergovernmental partnerships — since many roads in Naperville are managed by a township, a county or the state — and spend more on street improvements and maintenance.

This is an important issue for a suburb that claims a high quality of life (#33 in Money‘s recent list of best places to live) yet has a large population (the fifth largest city in Illinois). The problems stretch back decades: Naperville, like many Chicago suburbs, had a better system of east-west transportation (think the highways and trains on the hub and spoke model with Chicago); the city’s sprawling growth outpaced the local north-south roads; the proposed Fox Valley Freewayway never materialized; and mass transit does not adequately connect destinations along the north-south axis (though Pace and others always have plans). The best answer for these issues is probably that this should have all been planned for a long time ago. But, few people ever thought Naperville would have been this big.

Yet, I think simply talking about existing roads doesn’t do much. Traffic light synchronization should have been done a while ago if it is such a solution. Again, why weren’t plans implemented earlier on Washington Street to help traffic get through downtown? Widening roads may increase the number of lanes but this can also increase traffic volume which fills up those new lanes. Adding right-turn lanes could help at intersections but it can be a lot of work for relatively little new road space.

I would be interested to see some Naperville officials think big here. Single, easy solutions will be hard to find. Enhancing mass transit within Naperville and to other communities would help. A comprehensive and varied approach is needed, particularly if the city has any designs on denser development (which is what is needed if the city wants to continue to grow given its lack of large plots of open land).

Can townhouses look like McMansions?

One resident claims units in a proposed townhouse development “look like a bit like the stereotypical “McMansions. Here is a description of the proposed units as well as an artistic rendering:

“The idea is to capture the transient market of people coming from urban areas to work at the colleges,” Buhl said.  “They would ultimately buy a house, but don’t know where to locate.  We’re looking for young, two-worker families.  It’s an in-between type of rental of higher-end people that we’re looking for.”

Cayuga Farms has gone through several changes over the past recent years.  Originally it was conceived as a 144 unit townhouse condominium community.  Today it is being packaged as a 102 rental two and three bedroom townhouses with one or two-car garages in a total of 21 buildings.  Buhl characterized it as a high-end development targeted at young families who may have moved to town to work here, renting for a while before purchasing a house.  He said rents will range between about $1,800 and 2,200 per month…

cayugafarms elevation
An artist’s elevation of the proposed design for the townhouse buildings

These do seem to be aimed at a wealthier renter. So, could these be McMansions? These townhouses do appear to have some of the features tied to McMansions. A multi-gabled roof. Big emphasis on garages. A mish-mash of styles on the facade. Possibly two-story entryways (the windows right above the door do suggest this). Odd dormers on the third story. Windows of all sorts of sizes. Porticos at the front door. Height and width that seems to dwarf the green space between the driveways.

Yet, I think not being single-family homes is a big barrier as McMansions are viewed by critics as cartoonish versions of the single-family house. The design of townhouses seems not to be as much of an issue. Perhaps this is because there are fewer design options for townhouses or because they tend to be located within their own developments (avoids teardown situations) or density is a bigger issue for opponents compared to design.

My verdict: these look like McMansions but can’t quite be labeled McMansions.

The county with the worst roads for traveling in the Chicago region

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has a new data tool online and it provides insights into the commuting experiences of Chicago area residents:

CMAP planners say it’s time to “get people excited about data.” The hope is CMAP’s constituents — Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties — will use the facts to understand why certain projects deserve prioritization and funding. To access the data, go to www.cmap.illinois.gov/mobility/explore…

To that end, a section on ride quality includes detailed maps measuring pavement conditions on both expressways and major roads. A snapshot of counties’ ride quality on major roads puts Cook County with a 47 percent rating compared to 72 percent in DuPage, 80 percent in Kane and 83 percent in Lake and 90 percent in McHenry.

Other data available includes stats on bridges in need of repair, pavement quality, the number of passengers boarding at Metra and CTA stops and the worst railway crossings for delays in the region — FYI, it’s on Chicago’s South Side at Morgan Street and Pershing Road with 3,194 vehicles delayed a day.

Taken cumulatively, the website sends a message that the region’s infrastructure needs more capital to avoid gridlock, stagnant transit and deteriorating roads. The warning is timely, with a new governor in Springfield and a push for state and federal multiyear capital programs.

Two things strike me as interesting:

1. I always like the idea of putting more data into people’s hands. Commuting is a common experience and one that people would probably want to see improved. However, without data that moves behind individual and/or anecdotal evidence, it is hard to have conversations about the bigger picture in the region.

2. Some people may like data but it is another thing to translate that data access into collective action. Assuming that some people go to this site, will they then take an interest in infrastructure projects? Will they contact political officials? Will they vote differently? How exactly CMAP goes about putting this data into action is worth paying attention to.

Lesson of Glendale, Arizona: don’t put so much public money into sports stadiums

The Super Bowl will be played in Glendale, Arizona but the suburb’s push to become a sports center has not exactly paid off:

As the Coyotes and Cardinals sought new facilities in the early 2000s and efforts failed to build them in other parts of the Phoenix area, Glendale stepped in. The city helped pay for the Coyotes’ arena with $167 million in bonds in 2003, and as the hockey team’s finances began to fade during the recession, Glendale went all-in to keep the team in Arizona. The city dished out $50 million earlier this decade to keep the team and continues to make annual payments toward the arena, but the money it is getting in return has not met expectations.

The football stadium was built in 2006, but Glendale was not on the hook for the costs of the $450 million retractable-roof facility. It was funded primarily with new taxes on car rentals and hotels in the Phoenix area, but that financing hit a snag last year when a judge ruled that the car rental tax was unconstitutional, leaving a major funding source for the Super Bowl venue in jeopardy. The issue is still being argued in the courts.

Glendale is far from alone. Cities and states nationwide have long struggled with how much public money to spend on stadium projects. The effort to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings became embroiled in controversy over a financial commitment by the state that opponents said was excessive. The St. Louis Rams are at the center of a debate over whether to spend public money on a new stadium. Topeka, Kansas, is immersed in a fight over a motorsports track that has drawn comparisons to hockey in Glendale…

In the case of the Super Bowl, he believes the city is paying dearly. He said Glendale will actually lose a “couple million dollars” by hosting the event. It’s spending huge amounts of money on overtime and police and public safety costs associated with hosting the Super Bowl but getting very little in return.

Super Bowl visitors are mostly staying in Phoenix and Scottsdale and only showing up in Glendale on game day, meaning the city won’t see much of a boost in tax revenue. And the city was hoping the state would reimburse Glendale for its police overtime costs, but lawmakers have scoffed at the idea.

Teams and cities typically sell stadiums as engines for economic development. Think of all the fans who will be there! You can build around the new facilities! This will put your city on the map! But, such stadiums come with big costs including tax money that is often used as well as a whole host of other infrastructure concerns (from police to building hotel rooms). And the winners in such schemes are often the team owners who don’t have to pay completely out of pocket for facilities that can immensely boost the value of their team. (A thought: just imagine a team owner selling the team for a big profit – and many current sports franchises would turn such a profit today – and having to reimburse the community for costs incurred.)

But, if Glendale hadn’t built these stadiums, some other community might have fallen over themselves to make it happen…