What community wants to actually fine residents for not shoveling their sidewalks?

Shoveling sidewalks in front of residences and businesses is important for pedestrians. Many communities have penalties on the books for those who do not clear their sidewalks, including Chicago:

Property owners in the city are legally required to shovel their sidewalks after it snows. And on the South Side, one alderman has been out cracking down on the problem.

Ald. Ray Lopez has been out in his 15th Ward neighborhoods since Tuesday, directing Streets and Sanitation workers to problem spots to hold people accountable.

Department workers were writing tickets to home and business owners who did not comply. Fines range up to $500…

Thirty two businesses got ticketed in the 15th Ward Tuesday, and Lopez said he expects there to be just as many Wednesday.

Even if neighbors get mad at a lack of shoveling, who wants to be the politician or local official who gives tickets to homeowners for this offense? From the information provided in the article above, it looks like the tickets were issued to businesses. It could be argued that businesses have a strong obligation to snow as it would be good for potential customers and they are often located in areas where there are more pedestrians (street corners, commercial areas along busy streets, etc.). But, imagine the optics of giving a ticket to an elderly homeowner or a single mother with multiple small children. Americans may like local government but not when that government appears to be heavy-handed.

A similar comparison might be fines many communities issue regarding long grass. If people do not keep their lawn below a certain height, some communities will come mow that lawn and then send a sizable bill. Neighbors do not like the message tall grass sends (regular lawn maintenance suggests a certain standing). I do not know the recidivism rates after this is done; it would be interesting to know if this helps promote more lawn mowing in the future.

Or, consider traffic tickets. Many drivers speed but few want to be ticketed if they are swept up in efforts to generate revenue for the community, outsiders are targeted, or routine acts are criminalized. Arguments can be made about safety and the good of the community might I would guess few people support getting a ticket.

All of this can put local officials in a tough position. These problems, unshoveled snow, long grass, and bad driving, can create dangers and resentment in a community if not addressed. But, fines may not be the best way to prompt action. Tomorrow, I will consider other options for clearing sidewalks beyond fines.

Explaining a low housing supply

Relatively few homes are available for purchase in the United States:

Sales of existing homes rose a steeper-than-expected 3.5% in December compared with January, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Demand is surging because mortgage rates are about a full percentage point lower than they were a year ago, and the largest generation, millennials, are aging into their homebuying years.

That demand has pushed the supply of homes for sale down 8.5% annually to the lowest level since the Realtors began tracking inventory in 1982…

Sales of homes priced below $100,000 were down 7.7% annually in December, while every other price category saw increased sales. That is because there is so few for sale at the entry level. Investors have been very active in this category, turning these homes into lucrative rentals.

The article cites multiple factors at work: low mortgage rates, older millennials looking to purchase properties, and a decreased supply of cheaper homes (in part because of investors looking for rental properties).

I am curious about two things the article does not mention:

1. Who are all the actors involved in these trends? Mortgage rates are down – because federal interest rates are low? How are lenders reacting to this? Millennial homebuying might be up – what do the trends look like for other groups (particularly since homeownership is not necessarily high)? How are policymakers reacting to this shortage, particularly when affordable housing is a major concern in many markets?

2. This seems like an opportunity for builders and developers: the supply is low, people want homes. How are builders responding? According to the Census, new housing construction is trending up in the last few years:

NewResidentialConstructionDec19

These converging actions and trends bear watching in a country devoted, at least in ideology, to homeownership.

 

Can Starbucks be a third place when its drive-through is so full?

Starbucks aspires to be a third place, a setting where people of different backgrounds can gather in between home and work. Coffee shops, and restaurants more broadly, can play this role as people need to eat and drink and such activity is often tied to social interaction.

In my morning commute, I pass a Starbucks in front of a strip mall and right next to a busy suburban road. The drive-through line is always very full. The size of the line is particularly noticeable in this location because once the Starbucks line has more than eight cars, it spills over into the roadway through the shopping center and can block traffic.

The inside of this location is attractive. A month ago, I spent a morning working there. The store had dark walls and what looked like a tin ceiling plus a variety of seating options (tables, upholstered chairs, work counters). A steady flow of people came in and out and there were at least a few others like me hunkered down for several hours doing work. From my working location inside, all morning I could see the steady flow of people going through the drive-through.

Can a coffee shop or any restaurant so dependent on drive-through traffic for business (think McDonald’s) truly be a gathering spot, a social space, a third place? Perhaps the issue is much bigger than Starbucks:

1. Businesses do need to make money. Starbucks has encountered this problem before with people and visitors who might restrict or limit sales. Not having a drive-through is a bold statement but might not be financially viable (or might not generate the kind of revenue Starbucks desires).

2. The suburbs require driving (and many Americans seem to like it this way). Starbucks locations in denser settings do not have drive-throughs and perhaps they can better function as third places.

3. American fast food combines the ability to drive and getting food quickly. Without a drive-through, Starbucks is both missing out on business and putting itself into a different category of place.

4. Americans in general may not like third places given their preferences for single-family homes and private dwellings alongside their devotion to work. Any business or restaurant trying to fight against this may not make much progress. Even if people come to Starbucks or similar locations, how many engage with the people around them as opposed to focusing on their own work or interacting with a companion who came with them or who met they there? Public spaces where people come together are rare.

Maybe Starbucks can only be a third place in a certain kind of location with denser populations and less reliance on cars. Or, perhaps Starbucks can never really be a third place in a society dominated by driving and quick food.

Lamenting small town growth in Idaho

Star, Idaho is dealing with what many communities in the United States have experienced at one time or another: the change to the community that comes with a growing population.

Since then, Star, about 30 minutes west of Boise, has become the fastest-growing city in Idaho—one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Over the past nine years, Star’s population has doubled to more than 10,000. Most of the growth has come from people like the Turnipseeds who uprooted from the West Coast to the greater Boise area—known as the Treasure Valley—drawn by the promise of less stressful and more affordable living. By 2040, Star’s population could surpass 35,000, according to city projections.

Now Star is grappling with some of the same problems the Turnipseeds left California to escape. The town’s main drag, where ranchers once drove their cattle, is clogged with traffic during rush-hour commutes. Sprawling subdivisions have sprouted up around farmland, as have new chain stores. The median home price has more than doubled to nearly $400,000 since 2010…

According to a September 2019 survey by Boise State University, 75% of Treasure Valley residents said that growth was occurring too fast, up from 50% in 2016…

The debate over Star’s transformation mirrors the rest of the region, as disputes in neighboring cities have erupted over whether to approve major housing developments. A public meeting in Star this week on a proposed apartment complex is expected to draw a large crowd, officials said.

Growth is generally good for American communities. To not grow is to stagnate (or even decline).

But, this story presents one of the acceptable situations in which residents and leaders can argue their community should not grow. The typical argument goes like this: our community (or neighborhood) is unique because it is small, tight-knit, not over-developed and more people coming would ruin the character and atmosphere.

It gets more complicated when the community is full of relatively recent arrivals. In cases of suburban sprawl, people might choose a community to move to because of its particular features and then find in ten or twenty years that the community changed because other people had similar ideas. At what point do community members get to discuss and possibly enact drawing up the proverbial moat and saying they want no more growth?

Pretty much all communities change over time. Instead of thinking in binary terms of change versus no change, it would be helpful to think of community change on a continuum from slow change to major quick change. Some people do really want to live in communities that change relatively little and such places can be found. Others might want to be in dynamic places and they can find those. How many people will move when a community changes a lot? Hard to say as this might be dependent on personal circumstances or the direction of change.

Working out these tensions in a community can be difficult. Much public conversation and listening are needed. And some residents might move away seeking something else and others might still come as they see something attractive and exciting.

Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

Martin Luther King, atomic energy, open housing, and DuPage County

In 1967, the federal government had selected a site in southwestern DuPage County, Illinois, on the land of the small community of Weston, for a new National Atomic Laboratory. Dozens of locales across the country had applied, including places with existing concentrations of physics facilities and scientists. As the government worked to confirm and develop the site, in June 1967 protestors marched to Weston against the selection of the site because of open housing problems in nearby communities and the State of Illinois. Connected to the marchers? Martin Luther King, Jr.

The DuPage County site came through an interesting political process (see the book Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience) and the selection offered an opportunity for civil rights activists to pressure the state of Illinois and local governments, particularly in light of the lack of change after the Chicago Freedom Movement and Martin Luther King’s protests in Chicago in 1966. (See, for example, the subsequent push for open housing in nearby Naperville as detailed by Ann Durkin Keating in “Behind the Suburban Curtain.”)

King announced a rally for June 1967. Organizers talked of a “tent-in” and marchers had plans to walk from a nearby religious retreat center in Warrenville (where the Chicago Tribune reported they faced hecklers) to the Weston site. According to the Tribune, King made a short visit to the tented protestors on June 23:

Dr. King, a leader of the Chicago Freedom movement which is sponsoring the “tent-in,” spoke to the dozen campers and a battery of newsmen and called the Weston protest a necessity to keep civil rights alive.

Asked by newsmen if he was losing support for his civil rights programs, King said:

“I don’t know how much support we are losing, but I will say the vast majority of white Americans are against us. We hope the government will hear our pleas and our cries.”…

Dr. King spent about 15 minutes with the campers, who had pitched their tents Thursday afternoon in an effort to urge Congress not to approve the Atomic Energy commission’s request for the Weston accelerator.

The Chicago Tribune ran a small article on June 25 summarizing the march:

An estimated 350 civil rights demonstrators marched without incident yesterday into west suburban Weston to protest the Atomic Energy commission’s decision to build a proton accelerator there…

In Weston, Raby and McGermott addressed the crowd from a sound truck. “We are beginning to see the end of the 1964 civil rights act,” said Raby. “The Illinois state legislature, in failing to pass an open housing law, has demonstrated its total disregard for the laws of the federal government,” Raby said.

King did not attend the march. Yet, lending his name and effort to the protest helped publicize open housing issues facing Illinois suburbs as well as many other communities across the country. Furthermore, his efforts in suburbs are not widely known  as compared to efforts in large cities in which he spent significant amounts of time.

Open housing officially came through Congress in 1968 after MLK was assassinated. The Fermilab facility broke ground in December 1968 and operated as a premier science facility for decades. DuPage County continued to have a reputation of few minorities for decades and a long-running lawsuit alleged exclusionary zoning in the county and the county public housing authority faced issues. And while increasing numbers of minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, the suburbs can still be exclusive and exclusionary.

Sources:

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “King Admits His Movement Loses Ground.” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 10.

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “Marchers Protest Weston.” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 7.

Hoddeson, Lillian, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall. 2008. Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.\

Johnson, Michelle Kimberly. 2016. “”Who Speaks for Chicago?” Civil Rights, Community Organization and Coalition, 1910-1971.” https://www.brown.edu/academics/history/sites/academics-history/files/images/MJohnson%20Who%20Speaks%20for%20Chicago.pdf

Keating, Ann Durkin. 2017. “”Behind the Suburban Curtain”: The Campaign for Open Occupancy in Naperville.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 110(1):59-86.

 

The eventual plowing of residential streets after snowfall

Once snow starts falling, snowplows emerge and start rumbling down roads. They start with main streets, roadways many drivers travel on and that are often necessary for people hoping to get from one place to another. Depending on the rate of snowfall, the width of primary roads, and the number of main roads, it could be a while until plows make it to residential streets.

This all makes sense and I assume there are studies that confirm starting with the heavier-trafficked roads. (Do snow plows use the same kind of algorithms that guide delivery trucks to the most efficient routes?) At the same time, it could pose a predicament for residents. When you are starting or ending your drive, getting through the residential and side streets can prove quite a problem. It might be hours before people can easily pull in and out of their driveways.

Perhaps this is an argument against sprawl. Having thousands of driveways spread out along hundreds of streets in every suburban community means snowplowing is inefficient. Additionally, residents have to remove snow from their driveways and sidewalks. All this adds up to a lot of snow removal for relatively few people.

Eventually, the plow comes through and makes it easier to pass along residential streets. It may be a while before the side streets look as good as the main roads but they get there eventually. And perhaps the unplowed streets have their own beauty before the whiteness is sullied again by pavement, dirt, and tire tracks.