What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

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Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

Buying and selling real estate in the metaverse

With Facebook pivoting to the metaverse, real estate activity is picking up in this realm:

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In October, Tokens.com, a blockchain technology company focused on NFTs and metaverse real estate, acquired 50 percent of Metaverse Group, one of the world’s first virtual real estate companies, for about $1.7 million. Metaverse Group is based in Toronto but has virtual headquarters in a world called Decentraland in Crypto Valley, which is the metaverse’s answer to Silicon Valley. Decentraland also has districts for gambling, shopping, fashion and the arts.

“Rather than try to create a universe like Facebook, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and buy the parcels of land in these metaverses, and then we can become the landlords?” said Andrew Kiguel, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tokens.com…

For those wondering why a company would want to invest in a virtual office in the metaverse, Michael Gord, a co-founder of the Metaverse Group, said that skeptics should look at the trends catalyzed by the pandemic…

The Metaverse Group has a real estate investment trust and it plans to build a portfolio of properties in Decentraland as well as other realms including Somnium Space, Sandbox and Upland. The internet may be infinite, but virtual real estate is not — Decentraland, for example, is 90,000 parcels of land, each roughly 50 feet by 50 feet. Among investors, there’s a sense that there’s gold in those pixelated hills, Mr. Gord said.

Let the artificially-induced-scarcity-fueled-boom begin!

Seriously though, this offers an opportunity to acquire real estate that otherwise might be very difficult to find online or offline. In the offline world, how often do significant new parcels of land or developments come available? If they can be bought, they are not cheap, they probably attract a lot of interest, and there might be restrictions based on what is already there or what is possible on the site. In the online world, it could be difficult to predict where users might show up, how long it could take for sites to develop, and what it all might be worth?

In the meantime, investors and speculators will wait and see what happens. The bet could pay off massively: if the metaverse is successful with a few years or even a decade or two, those who got in early in prime locations with the right offerings could gain a lot. And if the metaverse does not develop in this way or other factors go awry, the money lost will be in a long line of those who hoped for the best with property and nothing materialized.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

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In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.

Median home values in Austin more than double in one decade

In the last decade, housing values have jumped a lot in Austin, Texas:

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A decade ago, Austin, the capital of Texas often deemed a liberal oasis in a staunchly conservative state, was among the most affordable places to live. Now, according to a forecast prepared by Zillow, a real estate company that tracks affordability, the Austin metropolitan area is on track to become by year’s end the least affordable major metro region for homebuyers outside of California. It has already surpassed hot markets in Boston, Miami and New York City…

Home sale prices in the city of Austin skyrocketed to a record median of $536,000 in October, up from about $441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median sales price was $216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trade group. Rentals, too, have surged, with the average cost of an 864-square-foot apartment now $1,600.

Much of this article addresses the effects on the city and residents. The rapidly rising costs have consequences for many.

Thinking beyond this particular city, I wonder at the convergence of people, business, and real estate in the last decade in one city and region. Particular communities, including cities and suburbs, have experienced this before during boom times. Is Austin’s case unique or is it simply the latest American community to go through such growth? Austin has a unique mix of tech industry, cool culture, it is the capital of an important state and home to the flagship university in the state system, and once had cheaper housing.

At some point, the pace will slow down in Austin. This could happen because of the rising real estate values or other factors. What community and region is next? Based on what made Austin successful, I could venture some guesses. The first places that come to mind are on Richard Florida’s lists of creative class havens in The Rise of the Creative Class. Or, perhaps the tech industry gathers in a new yet unlikely location that offers similar advantages.

Tiny homes for vacations – but for full-time living?

Tiny houses are popular for vacations and getting away from daily life:

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Along with housing a growing number of thrifty millennials and ever-wise minimalists, tiny homes are becoming go-to lodging for travelers looking to embrace that simple-living mindset or get up close and personal with their destination.

They are used as getaways or guesthouses from the Catskills in New York to Vail ski trails in Colorado. Some companies, like Tiny Home Vacations in northern Texas, feature clusters of tiny homes that cater directly to tourists. Airbnb dedicates a section of its website exclusively to its finest tiny home listings.

In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, ESCAPE Homes founder Dan Dobrowolski and his wife, Lisa, have constructed a finely outfitted fleet of petite dwellings near Rice Lake as part of their burgeoning tiny home empire. What began as a lodge built on the site of an abandoned church camp near Chetek, Wisconsin, in 1993 has morphed into high-end Canoe Bay Resort, with accommodations designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Rattenbury. Most expensive is the 2,000-square-foot Edgewood Villa, $999 per night, but smaller rentable homes start at $348.

How’s business? “It’s exploding — like a bonfire,” says Dobrowolski, who fished on the 280 acres of northern Wisconsin land as a boy (and worked long ago as a weatherman for WFLD-TV in Chicago). The pandemic “was gas on the fire” of the trend, because “people want to feel safe” yet have a vacation spot or accommodate visitors, he says.

I have argued before that tiny homes often appear to appeal to wealthier Americans who want mobility, minimalism, or a chance to get away. Some escape McMansions for tiny houses and others do not want tiny houses to be associated with lower classes.

Of course, one of the big possibilities of tiny houses is that they offer cheaper housing. Whether they provide housing for the homeless or affordable housing, they can provide options for those who would struggle otherwise to find housing.

If tiny houses become associated with tourism, does this mean they are for those who have the income to spend on getaways? This would make tiny houses a luxury item, not one that could help people.

While the tiny house movement is still small, there is still time to find builders and others who can make tiny homes affordable and common and not just tourist destinations.

If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Thankfulness for libraries and all they provide access to

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for libraries. Throughout my life, public libraries and school libraries have provided endless hours of reading, learning, entertainment, and programs. While sociologist Eric Klinenberg celebrates libraries as important public spaces, I am grateful for their physical presence as well as the knowledge they contain and provide for users in a variety of formats. Here are some ways libraries have mattered in my life:

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-As a kid, my family would go to the public library in our community once a week. The first public library was a home that had been converted into a library. It had did not have much open space but there were plenty of books to pique my interests. I recall leaving with large stacks of books to read. The second and current public library was a completely new space with more openness that enabled larger collections, providing plenty of material for me to find.

-I have experience with two academic libraries and have benefited greatly from my interactions with both. One of the underestimated perks of involvement with colleges and universities is the ability to access so much material, both on-site and from other libraries. I have used these borrowing privileges a lot, enabling research and learning from thousands of materials that would have been difficult or impossible to obtain otherwise. While I have not used library space for studying as much as some, it is always helpful to have a place to go where learning is encouraged.

-Now with my own kids, the library provides learning, opportunities, and materials to enjoy at home. The fun it is to browse through books, new areas of knowledge, and activities all in one building. I hope they enjoy both the library as a space different than other spaces and a place to enjoy learning.

In sum, I think libraries are worth every penny of my individual tax dollars as well as deserve the support of the full community. Even in a world of smartphones and computers that can provide you access to information and material in no time, having a physical space dedicated to learning and books remains very important.

(One note: none of my school libraries pre-college stand out to me. This could be partly due to my reading choices when younger which veered more toward non-fiction. Or, perhaps because of my time in them was part of organized activity as opposed to operating on my own.)

Americans continue to move from one address to another less and less

By one measure, American mobility is down to its lowest level since 1948:

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows just 8.4 percent of Americans live in a different house than they lived in a year ago. That is the lowest rate of movement that the bureau has recorded at any time since 1948.

That share means that about 27.1 million people moved homes in the last year, also the lowest ever recorded.

The number of Americans who move from one home to another has been falling for decades, said Cheryl Russell, who authors the Demo Memo blog on demographic trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, about one in five Americans moved homes in a given year. That dropped to 14 percent by the turn of the century, and to 11.6 percent a decade ago.

The more sedentary population is a product of a handful of demographic factors that have grown as the American population gets older, as fallout from the Great Recession a decade ago continues to play out and as the pandemic put the brakes on many people’s plans.

The postwar era was one of a lot of mobility, particularly as those who could moved to the growing suburbs. The car and expanding networks of highways made it possible to access many destinations and workplaces did not necessarily have to be near homes.

Since then, mobility has declined for the reasons cited above. People can still move about on a daily basis but they are not moving addresses as much. Even as parts of the United States are growing in population and others are not, fewer people are moving overall.

Even as I have watched reports on this trend in recent years (see earlier posts here and here), I have seen little discussion of what this means or whether reduced geographic mobility is desirable or not. In a society that often celebrates mobility more broadly – social, economic, geographic – does this trend signal something troubling? Or, does this mean more Americans have an opportunity to develop roots and relationships within their communities?

Is there another possible explanation? Technological change, particularly smartphones and the ability to work from home, reduces the need for moving locations. More and more can be experienced and interacted with from anywhere with Internet and data access.

Only megachurches and “minichurches” in the United States?

Recent data suggests there may be two very different sizes of churches in the United States:

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According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100…

“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.

While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.

The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.

Are they being sorted or has this been going on for a while? On the larger end are megachurches, congregations with more 2,000 members. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades. Megachurches get a lot of attention due to their size, their programs, and leaders. Since each one attracts many attendees, they could equal dozens of smaller churches in terms of people there for services. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades.

If the primary marker of a religious congregation is size and growth, then megachurches are more successful. The article goes on to talk about different reasons why people and leaders might choose smaller congregations. The megachurch experience is not for everyone. Whether there is much left for small congregations if much of the resources and attention is going to larger congregations is another story.

And the answer regarding this competition between megachurches and minichurches might be in between. The big megachurches are known, small congregations are everywhere, and a sizable set of Americans worship in congregations of several hundred. These medium sized congregations can offer some of the amenities of the biggest churches while staying at an approachable size.