Explaining why Americans desire larger homes

Here are several possible explanations for why Americans want bigger houses:

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’…

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist…

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’…

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

With these four factors – the status of a larger house, the American Dream, more disposable income and more stuff, and finding more happiness – perhaps we could argue that it requires some effort for Americans to live in a smaller place. It is not impossible to do so and certain factors, such as living in an expensive metropolitan area like New York City or San Francisco, can override the cultural conditioning to have a larger house. But, the American inertia may just be to have a larger dwelling.

We could also add some additional factors leading to larger homes in the United States:

  1. Suburban sprawl leads to more room for larger homes.
  2. Americans privilege private spaces over public spaces.
  3. Over the decades, the government and other actors helped make it easier for more people to own homes.
  4. Americans don’t necessarily need the space but they like the flexibility that more room provides such as having a hobby room or having children, parents, and/or relatives live with them.

Update on CN freight traffic on the EJ&E

The purchase of the EJ&E railroad tracks by Canadian National in 2008 was contentious in a number of Chicago suburbs. Here is an update on freight figures as the federal requirement that CN report data to local communities has ended:

Freight trains on the old EJ&E tracks have spiked from about four or five daily to 19 or 20 in communities stretching from Lake Zurich to Barrington and West Chicago.

But municipalities such as Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines are getting fewer trains. There were 3.6 freights a day in November compared to 19 before the merger as CN moved trains to the EJ&E tracks, which form a semicircle along the North, West and South suburbs…

Barrington and the Illinois Department of Transportation, with support from U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, want to extend the oversight period by two years and get CN to chip in for an underpass at Route 14. The underpass will allow ambulances to reach Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital quickly and prevent traffic backing up, Darch said…

The freight train increase is no surprise and is below projections on average, the railroad has stated.

Looking back, it appears that the train traffic has shifted further away from the Chicago. This was the original plan as so many tracks and trains go through the Chicago region that congestion is a major issue. For the whole region, this changed freight train pattern is probably a good thing. But, if “all politics is local,” this may be truest in suburbs where any perceived negative change – such as an increase in trains – is seen as destroying an idyllic locale where homeowners have invested much money.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

Doing urban planning with driverless cars in mind

If and when driverless cars become the norm, how might places change?

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen…

At IIT, such efforts crystallized in the “The Driverless City,” a 168-page book by Brown and fellow faculty members Lili Du, Laura Forlano, Ron Henderson and Jack Guthman, an adjunct professor and well-known Chicago zoning lawyer. The book serves up visions of the future that read like an update of Verne’s Victorian-era novels, which foresaw the advent of inventions such as submarines. Take this description of future commuting patterns, which is rendered in the past tense:

“On heavily trafficked arterial roads in Chicago and cities throughout the country, human driving faded away as driverless cars become more affordable and widely available. … Collisions and fender benders became rare events. … The clutter of omnipresent traffic lights gave way to smaller furnishings with embedded infrastructure that helped control the flow of vehicles.”

The book also offers a vision of how driverless cars might break down traditional barriers between street and sidewalk, nature and technology. Focusing on a proposed transformation of the South Side’s King Drive, the authors see parking spaces disappearing and vegetation sprouting in their place:

This sounds what like a number of urban planners (such as Jeff Speck in Walkable City) have been suggesting for years: the streetscape could be organized around pedestrians and social life on the street rather than on moving as many cars as efficiently as possible. Americans like their cars and many don’t seem to mind the required changes that must go with it – but this could force their hand regarding urban planning. While American communities are clearly designed with the car in mind, it is interesting that it would take a major technological advance – vehicles that can safely operate themselves – to finally tip the scales toward other street users.

More broadly, driverless cars will likely be sold to the public because of their safety but they could transform all sorts of areas.

Apartment construction increases in the Chicago suburbs

The construction of apartments in the Chicago suburbs reached some high marks in 2016:

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, more apartments were opened last year than in any time in the past 20 years and demand for those units meant suburban rents grew more than the increases downtown, according to research by Appraisal Research Counselors…

The rents in new or almost-new units in the suburbs increased 6.7 percent in 2016, while they increased just 2.85 percent downtown, according to Appraisal Research. The median rent was just $1.39 per square foot in the suburbs in 2016, while downtown it was $2.89 a square foot for space in a newer building. In other words, for 1,000 square feet a renter would pay on average $1,390 in the suburbs and $2,890 for one of the new downtown apartments. An older but well-kept Class B building downtown would be $2.52 a square foot, or $2,520 for 1,000 square feet…

The strongest occupancy in 2016 was in DuPage County, with 95.7 percent of the apartments full and the median price of a two-bedroom apartment at $1,315. Northwest Cook County was 95.4 percent full with a two-bedroom apartment averaging $1,390. The weakest area was the North Shore at 93.8 percent occupancy and a two-bedroom apartment at $2,446…

“From Schaumburg to Naperville, you are starting to see new construction,” said Stephen Rappin, president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association. It’s a trend that’s occurring nationally after the surge of construction in downtown areas.

This is where the debate between whether cities are growing or suburbs will win the day breaks down. What if the American future is denser suburban development and a shift away from single-family home ownership even as people stay in the suburbs? This would represent a change from “typical” suburban life – single-family home, lawn, lots of private space – while better mimicking some urban conditions such as denser housing, renting, and giving up a home to be near certain amenities.

As this article suggests, it is not surprising that the suburban apartment demand would be high in places with more economic and quality of life opportunities, places like Schaumburg and Naperville that have little greenfield space but where people would still want to live. Just like Chicago where apartment construction has boomed in the Loop but lagged elsewhere, a similar process will likely take place in the suburbs. This may be good for developers since there will be high demand for certain places but isn’t necessarily good for aiding issues of affordable housing.

Could high school football stadiums drive economic development?

Among other reasons, the construction of impressive new high school football stadiums in Texas is justified by the idea that they will promote economic development:

School officials have responded to critics by pointing out that the stadium would also be used for soccer games, band competitions, and some state football games; there’s also the hope that retail and restaurant development will spring up nearby. A high school football stadium serves the community in ways other than just bringing in visitors, business, new residents and more tax dollars. One of them is clearly Texas pride in the game-day spectacle.

The evidence is pretty clear with sports stadiums that the public money spent on them tends to go back to the owners and teams, not the community. Could high school stadiums – paid for with tax money yet serving the community – be different?

One point of skepticism is to ask how many significant events these stadiums would hold each year. The biggest crowd events are football games. But, a high school team plays roughly five to eight home games each year. While these stadiums are bigger than the average high school stadium, are there enough fans to support local businesses? It seems like the stadiums need to hold a lot more events to truly bring in people. (Perhaps some of them could attract concerts or festivals?)

A second question is how to directly link the football stadium to economic development. As the article notes, a number of these communities are expected to grow. At least some of this growth would have happened without the flashy new stadium. Are the communities going to survey new residents and businesses to see if the stadium factored into their decision? Or, having built the stadiums, will they attribute positive changes to the stadium?

Finally, it sounds like these communities are locked into competition for stadiums (and other amenities as well as general growth). Is it necessarily the case that building a great stadium would give one suburb a significant leg up on another suburb? If this is a zero-sum game or an arms race, someone will lose. A different view might be that Sunbelt suburban growth will continue in a number of these communities and may not be strongly related to the construction of high school stadiums (or other public amenities).

When a suburb dismantles a plane in a homeowner’s driveway

You don’t see too many airplanes parked on the typical suburban street but this incident in New York may serve as a warning to those interested in just that:

A 70-year-old Long Island man who allegedly ignored 17 summonses calling for him to remove a plane parked in his driveway threatened to use a crossbow on town officials who dismantled it.

Crews spent most of the day Thursday disassembling the single-engine Cessna parked outside Harold Guretzky’s home in Oceanside, ending a 1½-year saga that pitted Guretzky against his neighbors and the town…

Town officials said housing the aircraft in Guretzky’s driveway violates building safety codes…

Last year, Guretzky likened it to parking a boat in a driveway and has said he didn’t have money to house the plane in a hangar. Some neighbors, however, said there’s no comparison.

What a production that included local officials giving a press conference in front of the plane in the driveway of street of raised ranch homes. The main reason given for removing the plane was safety but no one said exactly why it was a safety hazard. The owner compares it to a boat and the safety issues there could be similar: large gas tanks just sitting there. Presumably, he is not going to try to take off on the suburban street (though wide streets of many recent suburbs would help avoid clipping mailboxes).

My guess is that this is more of an eyesore/property values issue. For similar reasons, communities may not allow RVs or work trucks to be in driveways. Is a plane that is rarely used really more of a safety hazard than a large truck? However, it does look unusual (particularly with the wings spread out) and probably draws the ire of some neighbors who are worried about potential homebuyers or outsiders getting the wrong idea about the block.

One solution is for Guretzky to find a suburban airplane subdivision. They do exist: see the example of Aero Estates in NapervilleAero Estates in Naperville.