Understanding car ownership in the United States through comparative data

Americans like cars. Just how much they do is easier to see with two sets of comparative data (first image, second image).


1510B35-vehicles per person finland andorra

Several things to note:

  1. The United States is toward the top of the list with a number of notable smaller countries. Other large countries tend to be further down the list (except for Italy).
  2. It is interesting that the number of vehicles per person is so high in many countries that have smaller populations and a smaller land area. In the United States, cars often seem necessary because it is a big country and the population is spread out. (This would be interesting to measure exactly: before the widespread popularity of cars, was the dispersion of the American population significantly different from other countries? This would help get at whether the car caused greater American sprawl or Americans had already spread out and it only accelerated with the availability of cars.)
  3. Having higher levels of wealth seems to be at least slightly connected to higher rates of car ownership. However, this is not necessarily a strong relationship. In other words, different wealthy countries have different approaches to vehicles. Compared to the United States, the other G7 members are far down the list.

Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.

Social change through a bureaucratic manual

Producing a manual may not seem like an effective pathway to social change but it can help in certain areas, such as new standards for bicycling in American cities:

To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.

The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space…

The publication of the NACTO bikeway guide didn’t directly result in the creation of any new bike lanes. But the planners and engineers who wrote it recognized that for each of them to further progress in their own city, they had to collaborate on standards that would enable progress in any city.

As it turns out, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide was just the beginning. NACTO later released the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, a broader effort to push back against America’s car-first road designs and define streets that support urban life, with narrow lanes that encourage reasonable driving speeds and traffic signals that give people plenty of time to cross the street. More recently, the organization has published guides on designing streets to speed up public transit, and incorporate storm-water infrastructure.

It sounds like the manual was the culmination of collective efforts in multiple cities as well as the form that would be recognized in that particular field (urban planning). But, it hints at larger issues involving social change: it can happen through a variety of materials and people. If I were to teach about social change in an Introduction to Sociology class, we might talk about (1) large-scale social movements or (2) significant shifts in large institutions (like the economy or politics). We acknowledge material changes here and there: think the revolution of the printing press, the arrival of social media or smartphones, the invention of air conditioning, etc. Yet, bureaucratic changes (except national laws) receive little attention even though such shifts can influence many people without even knowing. Take the bike lanes example from above: the average city resident may notice the shift but would probably attribute the change to either local officials or local interest groups (and both would be partly true). But, the manual behind the changes will only be known to experts in that field.

Infrastructure grade for Illinois: C-

The infrastructure of Illinois did not receive a good grade in a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers:

The overall Illinois grade was a combination of individual grades for different elements of state infrastructure, including aviation, bridges, drinking water systems and rail.

The card’s lowest individual grade — a D- — went to the care of navigable waterways, noting that the confluence of the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers are crucial to the country’s navigation system. But this advantage is threatened by deferred maintenance on locks that have “long exceeded” their 50-year design life, the group said.

Illinois’ roads got a D, as they are ranked third worst nationally for travel delay, excess fuel consumed, truck congestion cost and total congestion cost, the engineers’ report found. The report noted that despite the need for maintenance and repair, the state’s 19-cent-per gallon fuel tax has remained the same since 1991. Other states have raised their gas taxes in recent years to fund road programs.

Illinois transit also got a D, because of lack of capital funding, according to the society.

This is not just a concern because Illinois is a populous state where many people rely on the infrastructure. This also matters because Illinois depends on this infrastructure quite a bit for industry and business. Because of the state’s location roughly in the middle of the country plus containing a path from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and numerous busy facilities that enable travel and the shipping of freight (railroad lines, O’Hare and Midway Airports, intermodal facilities), Illinois’ infrastructure is particularly important as it helps make many other things happen.

Despite its importance, I’m not sure I hold out much hope that significant efforts will be made to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure in Illinois given the state’s budget and political issues. Illinois could be a fantastic example of a state that builds for the future by comprehensively addressing infrastructure here and now to set up future decades.

New standard and platform for city maps

Maps are important for many users these days and a new open data standard and platform aims to bring all the street data together:

Using giant GIS databases, cities from Boston to San Diego maintain master street maps to guide their transportation and safety decisions. But there’s no standard format for that data. Where are the intersections? How long are the curbs? Where’s the median? It varies from city to city, and map to map.

That’s a problem as more private transportation services flood the roads. If a city needs to communicate street closures or parking regulations to Uber drivers, or Google Maps users, or new dockless bikesharing services—which all use proprietary digital maps of their own—any confusion could mean the difference between smooth traffic and carpocalypse.

And, perhaps more importantly, it goes the other way too: Cities struggle to obtain and translate the trip data they get from private companies (if they can get their hands on it, which isn’t always the case) when their map formats don’t match up.

A team of street design and transportation data experts believes it has a solution. On Thursday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the nonprofit Open Transport Partnership launched a new open data standard and digital platform for mapping and sharing city streets. It might sound wonky, but the implications are big: SharedStreets brings public agencies, private companies, and civic hackers onto the same page, with the collective goal of creating safer, more efficient, and democratic transportation networks.

It will be interesting whether this step forward simply makes what is currently happening easier to manage or whether this will be a catalyst for new opportunities. In a number of domains, having access to data is necessary before creative ideas and new collaborations can emerge.

This also highlights how more of our infrastructure is entering a digital realm. I assume there are at least a few people who are worried about this. For example, what happens if the computers go down or all the data is lost? Does the digital distance from physical realities – streets are tangible things, not just manipulable objects on a screen – remove us from authentic streetlife? Data like this may no be no substitute for a Jane Jacobs-esque immersion in vibrant blocks.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?