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.

Advertising yourself through your vehicle

What does your car say about you? It can say a lot according to one Washington police department:

RichlandPDcars

The emphasis here is on limiting exposure to crime. Put a lot of information on your car, people might see it and take advantage.

But, this goes against what Americans argue is a feature of consumerism: the products purchased plus their customization and deployment reflects individuals and their personality. Americans do not just buy cars to get from one place to another. Instead, what model and trim and color buyers select reflects something about them. The pick-up truck reflects rugged individualism. The Toyota Prius reflects different sensibilities as does the Nissan Versa or the Subaru Outback. And then owners can modify the vehicle in a myriad of ways, including adding stickers or decals or a vanity plate to the back. And driving is essential to the American way of life.

Not all information given in public will lead to a crime. Of course, the tweet above does not cover all of the information one could add to their car. This includes messages about particular religions (think Coexist or fish emblems), political bumper stickers, and sports teams, just to name a few.

Reminder of Chicago’s vital position in the American railway network

I recently saw a map on Reddit that displayed four maps of railway networks: Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.RailwayNetworksJul2320

There is a lot that could be said with these maps. When I looked at the North America map, one thing jumped out at me: the centrality of Chicago to the passenger network (and to railroads more broadly). Not surprisingly, given the density of population and major population centers, there are more passenger trains between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The rest of the country is relatively sparse except for the convergence of lines in and out of Chicago. This is partly the result of geography – Chicago’s position at the base of the Great Lakes helps – but also the result of decisions to route traffic and develop infrastructure in and around Chicago and not elsewhere (like in St. Louis or Memphis or Cincinnati or other options). And a lot of rail traffic and freight runs through the region as well.

If a more robust passenger rail system develops in the United States, this map suggests Chicago will be in the thick of it. This would present an opportunity for a city that is already a transportation center with busy airports, crowded roads, and potentially more rail traffic and visitors. It is a little surprising that Chicago and Illinois leaders do not talk more about potential railroad options – consider the decades-long focus on a potential third airport, plans for highways that do not get off the ground, or the slow speed at which railroad congestion is addressed – as this could only add to what Chicago already has.

Bringing the Texas U-turn to Chicago

An innovation is coming to a particularly difficult Chicago road construction site: a Texas U-turn will be in place for drivers hoping to get on the northbound Kennedy from the eastbound Eisenhower.

Google Maps image of Meachem Road and Illinois Route 390

Kennedy-bound traffic will be detoured onto the far-right Eisenhower lane and steered to the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway. From there, motorists will take a “Texas U-turn” at the Taylor Street interchange and go from there to the westbound Kennedy…

“The detour will be a dedicated lane separated by a barrier wall to restrict merging into the regular Dan Ryan lanes and requiring drivers to use the Taylor Street interchange,” IDOT engineers said.

What’s a Texas U-turn? It “refers to a roadway that allows vehicles to make a 180-degree maneuver to go in the opposite direction, usually without traffic signals,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. “They were first widely used in Texas on one-way frontage roads that paralleled expressways.

“The free flow U-turn improves traffic flow and reduces congestion in certain situations because it keeps the U-turning traffic out of the cross road intersections. An example of this is at the Meacham Road interchange on Route 390.”

According to Wikipedia, the Texas U-turn is present in a number of states.

Two additional thoughts:

1. A precondition for the Texas U-turn seems to be having frontage roads along highways. There are some areas in the Chicago region where this is common – such as long the Dan Ryan Expressway – but many other areas where frontage roads are not present and properties back up to the highway. In Chicago, I wonder if the frontage roads are the result of fitting highways into the existing street grid (such as the Congress Street Expressway, later the Eisenhower).

2. It would be interesting to see how different road innovations spread across states. How do highway innovations diffuse across the United States? They may arise because of particular local conditions but then engineers and planners elsewhere see how they are applicable. At some point, there is federal intervention regarding safety and regulations. Having driven on highways across the United States, there is both familiarity with the system – similar signage, the roadways themselves look similar – as well as local peculiarities – exits on different sides, the size of on and off-ramps as well as the space between them, HOV lanes, etc.

Related post: the coming of the diamond interchange to the Chicago area.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?