Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Not needing “for sale” signs in wealthy suburbs

The Connecticut suburb of New Canaan is testing banning “for sale” signs:

The “trial ban” on real estate signs will run from July 1 to Jan. 1, according to Janis Hennessy, president of the New Canaan Board of Realtors.

The decision was made by members of the Board as well as the New Canaan Multiple Listing Service, “to further improve our already beautiful town,” Hennessy said in a release…

“Millennials and other potential buyers shop for real estate online and we believe they will be able to find New Canaan homes without these signs. We have seen how eliminating the signs has improved the look of other towns in Fairfield County without impacting the real estate markets. New Canaan Realtors believe it is worth a try here in the ‘Next Station to Heaven’ as well.”

The question of whether to implement a ban, such as a longstanding one in Greenwich, has been battered around New Canaan for some time. Saying the sheer number of ‘For Sale’ signs undermines the town’s attractiveness and ability of some property owners to sell, advocates for the change are cheering the decision.

There are four explanations provided or hinted for why “for sale” signs will not be allowed for six months:

  1. Younger homebuyers do not go driving around looking at homes; they look online.
  2. Other suburbs nearby already have a ban in place. New Canaan needs to keep up.
  3. Not having the signs makes the properties more attractive.
  4. There are too many “for sale” signs.

There may be a single underlying reason behind these explanations: the higher social class of residents in New Canaan. “For sale” signs may be gauche in a community that is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States (with Greenwich also as one of the wealthiest zip codes). Selling and buying property in a wealthy community does not have to be such a public event. The crass exchange of money for property is essential to American life but may be too prosaic to acknowledge in a place where residents could live in a myriad of places. Not making the sale as public (no signs plus pocket listings and listing only in certain places) may just add to the cachet of the community.

In a place where there are no “for sale” signs and where there may be limited community interaction (one of the findings of The Moral Order of a Suburb), there may be few indications that a property has changed hands. The cars in the driveway may change a bit and home repairs may happen here and there but the single-family homes may be more permanent than residents.

Adding more context to Americans spending 7% of income on gas

AAA reports on how much Americans spend on gasoline:

Analysts say Americans are now spending 7% of their income on gas, a statistic that is up 1.5% from last year.

If you make $45,000 per year, you’re shelling out over $3,000 just to put gas in your vehicle.

The 7% figure may be interesting in itself but this is a statistic that begs for more background information. Is 7% a lot or a little? Should people be alarmed?

The story already includes two pieces of context:

  1. This is an increase from last year. Generally, people do not want to be paying significantly higher prices year after year. While 1.5% is a low number, drivers would probably not want this number to keep going up.
  2. A slightly lower than average income person or family – the median household income is a bit higher than this – spends over $3,000 on gas. People could read this figure and then think where else that $3,000 could be used.

But, there is more information that could be useful here.

  1. Historically, how much do Americans spend on gasoline? The article includes a one-year trend but how does this look over decades? Are gas prices going up the same way medical costs are going up?
  2. How does this 7% compare to other essential categories of spending such as food (and the groceries vs. eating out breakdown could be interesting) or housing?
  3. What are the total costs of car ownership? Gasoline adds up but vehicle owners also have to factor in maintenance and insurance.
  4. These are average figures for gasoline consumption: how much different will gas costs be for SUV and truck owners (and these are driving the car market) versus small car owners?
  5. How does this compare to gasoline costs in other countries? The rise to 7% may seem like a lot but gasoline costs more in some other industrialized countries and people in other countries drive less than Americans.

While this may be too much to ask for a short news story, gas costs, as well as most other social and economic statistics, are complicated. The numbers do not necessarily interpret themselves. Something going up or down or staying the same is as meaningful as its context and what we make of it.

The never-ending summer hum of lawn mowers, construction, ACs, pressure washers, and more

As soon as the weather started turning warmer, the summer drone began. Not crickets or the sounds of children playing baseball or swimming at the pool. Rather, it was the background noise of summer that seems unavoidable for months: in a suburban subdivision with numerous nearby subdivisions, there is always someone within a relatively short distance using a lawnmower, a weedwacker, a pressure washer, or construction equipment. The noise starts as early as 7:30 AM and stops around 8 PM.

The typical idyllic summer looks something like this with green lawns, sunshine, and peaceful looking homes:

Lawn

But, this image fails to include the background noise that is ever present. That noise is often less than idyllic, particularly if it is close and/or persistent.

I know the expectation of having quiet is one that is not possible in many settings, particularly in urban areas. Many American residents have little exposure to true quiet (and may even find it unnerving). But, the early suburban ideal of the mid 1800s was to help urban residents get back to nature (or an altered environment that fit certain standards of “nature). That quiet of nature – rustling trees, bird calls, insects, stillness – is simply not possible in most suburban settings today either. Some of this is due to location and the need to locate near major roads or other land uses (such as commercial or industrial properties). Some is due to the rise of air conditioning which made development possible in certain climates. Yet, it also comes from all the maintenance required for single-family homes and their environment. Home upkeep to typical standards, such as a good looking lawn, is aided by noisy tools.

I thought recently about having noise free days in suburban neighborhoods. Could everyone in a certain portion of a community schedule their outdoor maintenance for two or three days a week? This would make it more difficult to schedule things but the trade-off could be less noise for everyone. This could work with homeowner’s associations since they already contract for regular lawn service that typically happens on the same day each week. Imagine residents could have at least one weekday in which they knew the only noise outside would be from vehicles – would it be a better experience?

The declining value of shopping mall real estate

The declining shopping mall has led to a drop in value for these properties:

“It’s a tough environment. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the decline of the department store to happen as quickly as it did,” said Joe Coradino, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns 21 malls in the Mid-Atlantic region. “The sellers are clearly on their knees.”

The Philadelphia-based REIT has sold 17 bottom-tier malls since 2013. The last deal, completed in September, was a $33.2 million transaction for the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, Pennsylvania, anchored by Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears stores. If those same properties were on the market today, prices would be substantially lower, Coradino said…

Not long ago, some of the biggest names in private equity, such as KKR & Co. and Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group, were laying out substantial sums to snap up retail properties. In 2012 and 2013, Starwood purchased a combined $2.6 billion of malls from Westfield, followed less than a year later by a $1.4 billion deal to buy seven malls from Taubman Centers Inc. From 2012 to 2014, KKR bought four regional malls for about $502 million, Real Capital data show. That demand has all but evaporated as timing a wager on American malls becomes increasingly treacherous…

It’s easy to understand their reluctance to sell now. Prices for malls fell 14 percent in the past 12 months, even as values for other types of commercial properties, such as warehouses and office buildings, rose or held steady, according to Green Street Advisors LLC. At least four properties have been pulled from the market in recent months because the bids were too low, Dobrowski said.

Even with efforts to save some shopping malls, from adding restaurants and entertainment options, housing, and community spaces, a good number will simply not survive. They will not be desirable enough for retail activity nor prime spots for redevelopment. They may sit empty for much longer than communities desire or can bear. I suspect we will see a lot of potential creative solutions to these dead shopping malls as land owners, developers, and communities try to turn them into sites that again contribute to the surrounding area.

Perhaps the most interesting question here is how low prices will get before they interest someone who will buy them. Are we headed for the equivalent of $1 homes for shopping malls? Perhaps they will become subject to blight and renewal programs? Will the price be low enough for neighbors or communities to buy them simply to raze them? Perhaps they will be the dystopian spaces featured in films like Gone Girl?

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

If golf and football are dying sports, what would happen to that land?

I recently discussed NIMBY responses to redevelopment of golf courses but this had me thinking more broadly about land dedicated to sports and recreation: what happens to the land if the activity becomes less popular?

Golf was the sport cited in the CityLabs article:

Golf is dying, many experts say. According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. Ratings are down, equipment sales are lagging, and the number of rounds played annually has fallen.

Part of the bust can be blamed on the fallen fortunes of a single person: Tiger Woods. Golf boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic superstar raked in titles. Then, beginning in 2009, it faced a one-two punch of recession and bad press when its star golfer’s chronic infidelity came to light.

But the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the athletic tastes of Millennials, who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits. Unless the golf industry can change its ways, the decline will mean a lot of empty greens across the country. How that land is used—or isn’t—could reshape America’s suburbs for decades to come.

Beyond golf, the next sport that comes to mind is football. If youth leagues continue to see a decline in participation, less park and school land would be needed for football fields. What would then happen to that space? For a good number of high schools, that land is already shared with sports like soccer and lacrosse. Park space could simply become large fields again. But, some football facilities could be turned over to other uses (and cause NIMBY issues similar to those faced by golf course redevelopment).

What other sports could be next? Baseball still has a lot of young players but imagine that participation dries up in a few decades. Baseball fields can take up a lot of space. Could there be sports that arise and take up some of this space? Nice basketball courts would be welcomed in many places but neighbors and communities often have concerns about building these. I can think of several lesser known sports but cannot realistically imagine they would become so popular as to take up public park space or space at schools. But, perhaps parks in a few decades will include a much wider variety of sports fields and spaces to better serve a fragmented sports playing populace.

Sports spaces come and go over time. Bowling alleys thrived decades ago but now are more sparse. Skate parks started a few decades ago and now are found in many American community. Large cities have spent millions on helping to fund sports arenas but this could stop as communities realize who benefits from the stadiums. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that in a few decades very few people will play sports outdoors due to a combination of a lack of interest in physical activity, inside facilities, e-sports, and simulators that could provide similar experiences? Could parks and outdoor spaces become exclusively about “natural settings” and open land?