AAA’s negative Thanksgiving traffic outlook a lot of common sense and normal conditions

Over a week ago, predictions by AAA about record Thanksgiving driving traffic started circulating. However, the reports did not add much useful information. Here is how the Chicago Tribune summarized it:

In fact, Chicago is expected to log one of the worst traffic jams of any big city during the Thanksgiving holiday season on Tuesday afternoon, according to an analysis by AAA and global transportation analytics company INRIX. Motorists should beware that the worst time will be between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, when holiday travelers are expected to join post-work commuters on Chicago-area interstates. Already long travel times could quadruple, according to AAA…

In Chicago, area interstates may not only see one of the worst traffic jams over the holidays, the city also may come in second place for longest commute times to a major airport, analysts predict. The absolute worst time to take the Kennedy Expressway between downtown and O’Hare International Airport is 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m Tuesday, when it could take an hour and 14 minutes, the analysis shows. Only a trip to New York’s Kennedy International Airport — the same day and around the same time of day — is longer at nearly two hours.

And from aaa.com:

Based on historical and recent travel trends for the holiday week, INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts drivers will experience the greatest amount of congestion during the early evening – as early as Tuesday of Thanksgiving week – as commuters mix with holiday travelers. At its peak, drivers on Chicago’s interstates, for example, could see a delay of nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip.

“Thanksgiving has historically been one of the busiest holidays for road trips, and this year we could see record-level travel delays,” says Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic.”

Two quick thoughts regarding this data. First, traveling during rush hour is a bad idea in any major American city. There are simply too many vehicles on the highways at these times and the traffic flows everywhere these days, not just into the city in the morning and out in the evening. Whether planning relatively short or long drives, it is necessary to plan to avoid rush hour.

Second, saying that the delay in Chicago could be “nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip” or the trip from downtown to O’Hare will take slightly over an hour is really not that abnormal. Perhaps the key is the comparison to the “optimal trip” which in metropolitan areas tends to be somewhere between 8 PM and 6 AM when truck and car travel is limited. I have this optimal trip in mind all the time when I make a drive to the local airports: without traffic, the trip takes this amount of time but adjustments need to be made for any daytime or early evening hours. In the Chicago area, all it takes is a little rain or snow or an accident and the Thanksgiving travel times predicted here are fairly normal occurrences.

All that said, this is good PR for AAA. Americans may like driving but they do not like traffic.

The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

Facebook’s goal: build community, help people find purpose

This story tracks Mark Zuckerberg’s language about community and the purpose of Facebook. There has been a recent change:

But when 2017 arrived, Zuckerberg immediately began talking about Facebook “building community.” In February, he wrote a massive post detailing his vision to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

We now know that sometime in late 2016, Mark Zuckerberg directed some new questions at his employees. The company had noticed that there was a special subset of Facebook users, about 100 million of them. These were people who had joined “meaningful communities” on the service, which he defined as groups that “quickly become the most important part of your social-network experience and an integral part of your real-world support structure.”..

This marks the first mention of “meaningful communities” from Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, he’d talked about “our” community, “safe” community, and the “global” community, of course. But this was different. Meaning is not as easy to measure as what people click on (or at least most people don’t think it is)…

But the route to a “sense of purpose for everyone is by building community.” This community would be global because “the great arc of human history bends toward people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

I could imagine several possible reactions to this new message:

  1. Cynicism. How can Facebook be trusted if they are a company and their primary goal is to make money? Community sounds good but but perhaps that is what is customers want right now.
  2. Hope. Facebook began in the minds of college students and now has billions of users. This has all happened very quickly and alongside a number of social media options. While traditional institutions (particularly those related to the nation state) seem to struggle in uniting people, Facebook and other options offer new opportunities.
  3. Indifference. Many will just continue to use Facebook without much thought of what the company is really doing or trying to figure out what they can really get out of Facebook and other platforms. They just like having connections that they did not used to have.

Given that the messages on connecting people and community has changed in the past, it will be interesting to see how they evolve in the future. In particular, if Zuckerberg wants to get more involved in politics, how will these ideas change?

The permanent placelessness of suburbs

Can suburbs provide permanence or a sense of place?

Fortunately, the perils of mobility have not gone unrecognized. Those who care about place, permanence, and civil society have taken up the argument for remaining in one’s hometown. Justin Hannegan, writing in The Imaginative Conservative, presents a compelling case for hometown living, urging Americans to consider that “perhaps permanence—the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture—is worth it.”

But what happens when suburbia is our place? The explosion of the suburban model of development in the postwar period has put record numbers of Americans in the uncomfortable position of having no other place than placeless suburbia to call home. By some estimates, as many as 53 percent of Americans describe their residential area as suburban. Adolescence in suburbia has become such a common experience that it now pervades our pop culture, as the familiarity of the references on (and, frankly, the mere existence of) Buzzfeed’s list here shows. The ubiquity of suburban modes of development has pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.

The inverse of Kauffman’s question, then, becomes arguably more pressing for those who value permanence and place: Why not just move from your manicured suburb with high average SAT scores to a small town (or city neighborhood) with a built environment much more conducive to fostering civil society? It seems many millennials are making the gamble to do just that, as demand for walkable, mixed-use developments is on the rise, and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs as they start families.

Yet is this really the solution to the ails of suburbia? As much as flight from suburbia may help to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles to a robust civil society, it will also trigger the malevolent effects of rampant mobility. It’s quite possible that those who settle in small towns or city neighborhoods from the suburbs will develop a sense of rootedness in their new place. But in doing so, local and familial ties to place are necessarily severed, which simply further atomizes American life. Mobility, even if undertaken with the intention of building community, is by its very nature an act of severing previous communal bonds.

This is a question that has plagued suburbs for decades: do they have their own unique and enduring qualities even though people regularly move in and out and their physical form looks similar to other suburban places?

I think this conflates two issues: (1) mobility and (2) whether suburbs are truly places. Regarding mobility, Americans are historically a mobile people (though this has decreased a bit recently). The suburbs were a place where a good number of people moved in and out regularly as they became the primary places for Americans to live after World War Two.

The second issue is trickier. I suspect much of this idea comes from critics of the suburbs. Such refrains began decades ago as mass produced subdivisions and suburbs (though the Levittowns put together by one builder were the exception, not the rule) became more common. All the similar-looking houses within new suburban street patterns were assumed to lead to conformity and a lack of individualism. Later critiques added that such places were not all that social: even with plenty of families and children living near each other, social ties were limited. (There is more academic support for this second claim: see The Moral Order of a Suburb.)

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that suburbs have no place to them or lack permanence. I’ll bring up two points of evidence from my own research to counter these. First, different suburban communities do indeed have different characters as a result of numerous decisions made by local officials and residents. See my study “Not All Suburbs are the Same.” Second, suburbs do have permanence. The oft-criticized postwar suburbs are now at least several decades old but many having already passed the fifty year mark. Additionally, numerous other suburbs were founded prior to World War II and have longer histories. For a case study of one such suburb, see my study “A Small Suburb Becomes a Boomburb.” Even these transient suburbs have unique features accrued over decades.

As a final thought, the final two paragraphs cited above suggest that moving to either small towns or city neighborhoods would provide residents a stronger sense of place and permanence. I am not so sure. A good number of Americans think of their suburbs as small towns. Plus, urban neighborhoods often involve a good amount of change. Simply having more history or time as a place does not necessarily mean that a sense of community organized around this occurs. Placemaking is a process in cities, suburbs, and small towns that for a variety of reasons happens more or less in different locations.

In the end, suburban communities do not have to be placeless. This is one way to look at them but I’m not sure it is a sentiment shared by many suburban residents nor is it something that worries them if they do acknowledge it.

Closing the blinds when showing home interiors on HGTV

I watch my fair share of shows on HGTV and I recently noticed something: many of blinds or shades are closed when the interior of the homes are shown. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Lighting issues. Windows can produce glare either from interior or exterior lighting.
  2. The shows may be filming at night. Looking out into blackness is not that appealing.
  3. Blocking off the windows means the show can emphasize the interior and perhaps particularly show new window treatments.

These are good reasons to cover the windows. Yet, it strikes me that taking this action means the private nature of the home is emphasized even more. HGTV homes tend to emphasize the actions of the nuclear family inside the new home. Sometimes, the yard is really important to the homebuyers or homeowners but even then, the exterior is far less important than the interior spaces where it is presumed the family will spend more time.

Additionally, blocking off what is outside the windows ignores one of the most important features of homes: location, location, location. HGTV shows spend little time showing the neighborhood. Again, even when the characters are really tied to a location or neighborhood, this is primarily conveyed verbally and then the rest of the show focuses on interiors. Thus, not only do we not see much of the neighborhood, we also do not always see what the homeowners would see out their own windows.

All of this makes more sense when it is placed into the larger context of the American ideal of a single-family home on its own plot of land inhabited by a nuclear family. This is a powerful ideal, particularly for HGTV’s target demographic.

 

 

Self-driving cars could benefit suburban residents the most

While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.

Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:

1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.

2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).

3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.

4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.

5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.

6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.

7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).

Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.