Major highway projects continue in the year of COVID-19

The old Chicago joke goes that there are two seasons each year: winter and construction. During COVID-19, road construction goes on even with less driving, limited budgets, and the potential for sickness to spread among workers. First, an editorial update from the Chicago Tribune on the long-lasting Jane Byrne Interchange work in Chicago:

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The arrival of 2021 means we’ll soon be in Construction Season Nine of a notorious project that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially said would take four and a half years to complete.

We refer of course to the glacially paced reconstruction of The Jane Byrne Construction Museum. We use that respectful moniker — always capitalize The, like The Ohio State University — for what old-time Chicagoans used to call the Jane Byrne Interchange…

Whatever the reason, drivers who didn’t abandon the interchange years ago have, in recent days, found the final four rebuilt ramps open. Museum work has shifted to the mainline Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways — although we trust that, somewhere, IDOT also is building a museum wing to house its excuses for the years of delays and cost overruns: poor soil conditions, unhelpful rules from Chicago’s City Hall, mistakes by engineering firms, utility rerouting, the diversion of resources to emergency repair projects elsewhere, and on and on…

Surely you aren’t surprised that the cost has grown by some 48%, from $535.5 million to $794 million. Most museums recruit donors to cover their big projects. The Jane Byrne Construction Museum instead gets public dollars. Which has us wondering how many gazillion gallons of amply taxed gasoline burned into the atmosphere as all those mummified motorists sat and sat.

Second, a group puts together an annual list of road construction boondoggles. About this year’s selections:

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns.

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.

There’s also the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, a $7.3 billion highway set to loop around the eastern side of Cincinnati. Originally proposed by a local homebuilder as a replacement (and then some) for the aging bridge that leads into downtown Cincinnati, the 75-mile, four-lane bypass is designed to divert trucks passing through the region on Interstate 75, easing congestion for local drivers, boosters claim. But the report’s authors state that the highway is projected to add thousands of new vehicle trips per day, encouraging sprawl and contradicting Cincinnati’s goals to increase “population density and transit-oriented development” and decrease fossil fuel use by 20%.

No highway policy critique would be complete without a contribution from Texas. The $1.36 billion Loop 1604 Expansion in San Antonio would add four to six additional lanes on 23 miles of an existing four-lane highway, as well as new frontage roads and a five-tier interchange with Interstate 10. Texas DOT says that the new lanes are needed to keep up with population growth, but transportation planners say that the principle of induced demand would cancel out the benefits while adding pollution. The PIRG report puts it this way: “Additional capacity causes more driving and congestion.”

These summaries of major highway projects provide good reminders of several features of such undertakings:

  1. They often require years of planning and years to complete. From start to finish, this could cover a decade-plus. They take a lot of effort to get going across numerous agencies, governments, and actors and have their own kind of inertia as they move toward completion.
  2. These projects are often intended to make driving easier. Adding lanes and capacity can also attract more drivers. In a country devoted to driving, these contradictory ideas can go together. And the roads and systems for driving keep expanding and evolving.
  3. The costs are huge and the efforts required massive. Yet, the average driver may think about nothing but the congestion caused by the construction.
  4. When completed, such roads (and other significant infrastructure projects) can be impressive in their scale. (Whether this is the best use of the land or moving people around leads to other arguments.)

While these articles do not address this, are there significant infrastructure projects that drivers and residents would be pleasantly surprised to find that had been completed during COVID-19?

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

Driving less in the suburbs, a space devoted to driving

Nearing the ninth month of COVID-19 restrictions in our area, I remembered again this weekend that I have done one regular activity a lot less than normal in that time: driving. While this may be true for many Americans, this is particularly unusual in the suburbs. When a whole space where more than 50% of Americans live is organized around cars, driving significantly less makes for noticeable change.

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Americans like suburbs, in part, because they are organized around cars and driving. Single-family homes often features garages and driveways. Private lots are often located beyond walking distance of key destinations including schools, grocery stores, parks, and jobs. Commuting by car is required in the absence of other transportation options and the suburb-to-suburb trip is common.

To start, making fewer car trips during COVID-19 means I have more time in life. I do not have a long commute but with an average commute time of just under twenty-seven minutes, less driving and/or working from home means many suburbanites have more time during the week. Those who have had to continue to drive to work regularly encounter less traffic on the road and can arrive more quickly. And I have driven less to other locations as well. (Of course, others might have driven more during COVID-19, particularly delivery drivers of all sorts.)

Second, I have had to do less maintenance on my car and pay for less gas. Cars are expensive to own and maintain. It is not only about the frequency of trips; we have put off longer trips to visit family or take vacations. Suburbanites may be used to driving trips to the city or vacation spots but tourist activity is down during COVID-19. The time between oil changes and regular maintenance has increased, likely lengthening the life of our vehicles. (At the same time, COVID-19 might make owning a car more necessary when public transportation is not as attractive.)

Third, with less driving and more time at home, I have been more free to walk and bike locally. While I tend to do these things already, it is a more attractive option for many in order to get out of the house and get some fresh air. This can help suburbanites pay more attention to what is going on around them rather than just retreat to their private spaces. Similarly, streets can be more about people than just cars and trucks.

Finally, driving less means more suburbanites are spending more time at home. The private single-family home in suburbia may look more attractive during COVID-19 as it often offers space and distance from others. Particularly in wealthier suburbs, residents can work from home, have plenty of entertainment and leisure options, and have things delivered to them.

While COVID-19 has affected driving and time use in suburbs, it is less clear how attractive this is to suburbanites. Americans in general like to combine driving and homes but during COVID-19 they may have seen more of their homes and less of the road. Since driving is connected to many social and economic activities in suburbs, this is not just about accessing opportunities; it is about living out a particular style of life. Will suburban COVID-19 experiences help push residents and leaders toward a new kind of suburbs or will people be overjoyed to return to typical driving patterns?

Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

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And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Imagining self-driving car underground tunnels under major American cities

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars to operate in tunnels under Las Vegas appears close to becoming reality:

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On Tuesday, Musk announced on Twitter that, after a full year in the making, The Boring Company’s first operational “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is “almost done.”…

The Boring Company built a test tunnel in 2018 near its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. A year later, it landed a commercial contract in Las Vegas to build a loop tunnel system for public use. According to The Boring Company’s proposal, the final system will be able to shuttle passengers in self-driving Tesla cars between any two destinations in Sin City within minutes.

Construction of the initial twin tunnels near the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) was complete in May. The system is expected to be ready for public use for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2021. But the event has been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, The Boring Company won a county approval to expand its LVCC transportation Loop to include an underground station at the new Resorts World hotel located at the north end of the Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the company aims to connect all major tourist destinations along the Strip, as well as two terminals of the nearby McCarran International Airport and downtown Vegas.

This location makes sense when tourism is in full swing in Las Vegas. While the airport is relatively close to the strip, it is not necessarily close time-wise and a quick, automated car ride could please a lot of visitors. It is also fun to imagine this in other cities. The tunnels bring to mind memories of playing the Lower Wacker track on Cruis’n USA. Chicago has some of this infrastructure already in place while other cities might be able to convert or expand existing tunnels.

How this could positively affect streetscapes is fascinating. Imagine major American cities with less traffic in their denser areas, more room for pedestrians, more space for properties to extend past the building. Cars would still be in use – just moved to a different plane – but the emphasis on vehicles would be reduced. More streets could be closed, the scale of social life could change (though the towering buildings in some districts would still loom), and the streets would be safer. (I imagine taxis and others might not be pleased to have the business moved underground.)

This is likely a long project to pursue in any city; making big changes underground in many locations is very difficult. It does keep cars around (just more out of sight) and both the money spent to put the system in place and the ongoing commitment to the system could continue to inhibit other options such as promoting mass transit.

The rise of SUV nation(s)

A look at the impact of increased SUV sales on the environment includes a short history of the rise of the vehicle category:

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SUVs raced to a new milestone in 2019, surpassing 40 percent of all car sales worldwide for the first time. The world’s roads, parking lots, and garages now contain more than 200 million SUVs, eight times the number from a decade ago. SUVs’ share of car sales in the U.K. has tripled over the past 10 years; in Germany last year, 1 in 3 cars sold was an SUV…

This global phenomenon has its roots and impetus in the U.S., where in the 1980s the car industry carved out a new category called the “sport-utility vehicle”, a sort of mashup between a truck, a minivan, and the traditional American family car. After successfully lobbying lawmakers to class these vehicles as light trucks rather than cars, binding SUVs to less stringent fuel efficiency standards, the industry set aboutslotting them into almost every arena of American life…

The industry found that American drivers enjoy the lofty seating position of SUVs as well as the capacity and the comforting feel of security their bulk provides, even if half of all journeys taken in the U.S. are mundane trips of under 3 miles to run errands rather than high-octane adventures in the Rocky Mountains. For many Americans, SUVs invoke alluring qualities of fortitude and independence…

As Bloomberg’s Nat Bullard noted in a recent tweet: “We don’t buy cars here. We buy big cars built on truck bodies, and we buy trucks and drive them like cars.” The U.S. is now indisputably an SUV nation, a transformation that has had profound consequences for American cities as well as the global climate.

A few thoughts:

  1. This timeline roughly lines up with connection I have found in my years of studying McMansions: SUVs and McMansions can be viewed as related phenomena. They are both large and represent increases in size from typical earlier versions. The 1980s appears to be a key decade with a bigger economy, plenty of spending, and a growing emphasis on larger consumer goods. And those SUVs may need a three car McMansion garage to fit.
  2. There are hints here but there are also links to a suburban lifestyle that is largely structured around driving and short trips. Granted, just because Americans live in a sprawling landscape does not necessarily mean they need large vehicles to get around; they could use smaller cars. Yet, all that driving – even for relatively short distances – means Americans get lots of time to think about vehicles and what they want to have (and need to have to access many places).
  3. It is interesting to note that SUV sales and use are up in other countries as well. SUVs are often tied to American interests in driving and size; what explains increased sales in Germany and the UK? Car makers could be pushing these vehicles more and why are drivers more itnerested now than earlier?

Trying to make a better Walmart parking lot experience

I have driven through many Walmart parking lots and while doing this, I often wonder how a better parking lot experience could help avoid regular issues. Here are some of the big concerns:

  1. There are often a lot of vehicles, people, and carts moving around. It is hard to keep track of all the activity.
  2. Depending on the traffic flow of the location, some of the traffic can be routed right in front of the store as vehicles turn in from a street or adjoining parking lot.
  3. At least a few cars always seem to be lingering right at the front doors or nearby, waiting for people.
  4. Carts are strewn throughout the parking lot; most are in corrals but there are often other ones on medians, in parking spots, and even several parking lots over. (Imagine if the Walmart lot had Costco sized shopping carts!)

A few solutions come to mind:

  1. Everyone needs to be very attentive. Having to pay close attention is not necessarily bad for drivers or pedestrians.
  2. It is better to have the majority of drivers enter the parking lot area from the back rather than from the sides and drive directly in front of the store.

I started thinking about this recently after realizing that I have been in multiple parking garages at Target locations but never at a Walmart. In these locations, there are advantages to having the parking further away from the store and/or having the store on a different level from the traffic flows.

Figuring this out could have multiple benefits including: drivers and pedestrians would feel safer, the parking lot experience could be less fraught and more pleasant, and fewer work hours might need to be devoted to the parking lot.

Perhaps this is just the price Americans are willing to pay for their love of driving and sprawl: complicated parking lots. This is not an issue exclusive to Walmart as many big box stores demonstrate similar patterns. But, since Walmart has so many locations and so many customers, solving issues there could be a big deal.

Local TV market ad celebrities, Bob Rohrman edition

For decades, American television viewers have been treated to (or subjected to, depending on one’s point of view) recurring characters in local television ads. In the Chicago region, Bob Rohrman was a mainstay:

Of all the Chicago auto dealers who ever graced the small screen as their own TV pitchman, few were as delightfully campy as Bob Rohrman.

Rohrman’s low-budget commercials radiated good humor and bad production, featuring his mustachioed and bespectacled face peering out from a variety of goofy costumes, a uniquely awkward delivery and flubbed lines that often devolved into a joyous cackle.

The spots were punctuated by a cheesy cartoon lion and the tag line: “There’s only one Bob ROHRRRR-man!”

Somehow it all worked, turning the Bob Rohrman Auto Group into one of the largest family-owned dealership groups in the Midwest, and its spokesman/founder into something of a Chicago celebrity.

In the era of cable and satellite television, streaming options, declining network television and local radio, and targeted commercials on particular platforms, we may be at the end of local advertising like this. All the advertising then becomes more corporate, slick, tied to national or multinational corporations. And we lose a few public characters who few people may have actually met but who many could recognize.

We purchased a vehicle from a Rohrman dealership several years ago. At no point, did I think about the commercials in that process. But, given the number of Rohrman commercials I have seen and heard over the years, who knows if it influenced me. (I can safely say that other auto pitchmen or dealers, including Max Madsen or the Webb boys, did not lead me to visit their lots.)

Carmageddon in Los Angeles vs. Carmageddon in New York City

Remember Carmageddon and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles? Now, Carmageddon has come to New York City:

In Chicago and in other cities with robust transit systems, people who have never owned cars before are suddenly buying them. In New York City, some are calling it “carmaggedon,” as residents there registered 40,000 new cars in July, the highest monthly total in years. Meanwhile, NYC subway ridership is still down more than 75% from last year.

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The difference in what leads to carmageddon in each city is striking. In Los Angeles, closing a section of a major highway is a problem for the entire system. Because of the emphasis on driving and the various chokepoints in the road system, a single closure has ripple effects. In New York City, the opposite is the case: high mass transit use, particularly in Manhattan and denser parts of the city, is necessary. If something threatens the mass transit lines – here, it is an unwillingness to use mass transit when there is a pandemic – then too many cars may be on roads that cannot handle the increased volume.

Fortunately for Los Angeles and unfortunately for New York, the length of Carmageddon matters. Closing a major highway for just a few days is survivable. Indeed, Los Angeles got out ahead of the problem and enough drivers were able to make alternate plans. Decreased mass transit use due to COVID-19 is another story. How long will the virus be around? Will there be a point where residents return to mass transit even with the threat of the virus present? Carmageddon in New York might prove more lengthy and much more difficult to remedy.