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?

Chicago’s rail and intermodal facilities, pollution, and COVID-19

One of Chicago’s advantages is its transportation sector, particularly the railroad and truck traffic that passes in and through the region. But, the railyards and intermodal facilities where rail and truck traffic converge can cause a lot of pollution, even during COVID-19:

But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, people in Chicago and its suburbs aren’t breathing dramatically cleaner air during the pandemic…

Likely culprits include buildings, factories and diesel engines that burn coal, oil or natural gas. Diesel emissions in particular remain a chronic problem in Chicago, a racially segregated freight hub where rail yards, warehouses and intermodal facilities are concentrated in low-income, predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We already have roughly double the amount of heavy-duty traffic than other major cities in the country,” said Zac Adelman, executive director of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, a group of state officials from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin…

During the past decade, scientists at the U.S. EPA have discovered daily spikes of soot pollution near intermodal facilities in Chicago and other cities that far exceed average urban concentrations.

The article primarily focuses on Chicago where intermodal and railroad facilities tend to be located near poorer residents. Leaders have sought to move traffic away from the center of Chicago and more to the edges of the region, but this means this is also a problem for the entire region. With numerous facilities far from Chicago, such as in Will County or as far as New Rochelle near Rockford, the air quality for millions is affected. It would also be worth looking at where the suburban and exurban facilities are located; what residents are most affected? How far away are these facilities from wealthier communities?

The article also suggests new regulations mandating cleaner locomotives and trucks would help. How this would play within a region that relies on the transportation industry – Chicago was not only the convergence center for Midwest commodities, it also developed the capacity to move those goods throughout the United States and world – would be interesting to watch. Suburbanites would not like the pollution if they knew about it or were concerned about it in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere nor do they like the inconveniences of a lot of rail and truck traffic. Yet, they like cheaper goods and jobs, perhaps even more so if the immediate problems of pollution are borne by other residents of the region.

NYC plans to provide social distancing space for pedestrians by closing more streets to cars

Sidewalks may not provide enough room to keep distance from others so New York City is planning to close more roads to vehicles:

New York City will close 40 miles (64 kilometers) of streets to cars, mostly near parks, to expand the amount of space that pedestrians have to keep social distance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The ultimate goal will be to have 100 miles of “open streets” during the coronavirus outbreak, de Blasio said Monday at a press briefing.

The mayor has been pressed by the City Council and bike advocates to open more streets to pedestrians and bikers, and to give more recreation possibilities to New Yorkers. De Blasio had resisted these proposals, saying they would create challenges for law enforcement. The mayor also said he was concerned that drivers might not obey the street closing, placing pedestrians and bikers in danger.

As a temporary measure, this seems like it makes some sense given the need for space to get outside within denser communities. It does raise other issues, such as delivering packages in certain areas or, as the article notes, law enforcement concerns.

Perhaps more interesting is the long-term consequences of such a move. In the last one hundred years or so, American cities and communities have often prioritized moving vehicles through cities. Manhattan already had a problem with crowded sidewalks before COVID-19. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety is already an issue. More cities were already considering closing streets to cars. Road closures might be motivated in the short-term by COVID-19 but this could also be part of a growing movement to provide for human-powered means of transportation.

When a billboard with a basketball player slowed down Chicago traffic

Along one of the most congested stretches of highway in the United States, a mural of NBA player Dennis Rodman led to even more traffic in early 1996:

In March 1996, men’s clothier Bigsby & Kruthers painted an image of Rodman on the side of a building just off the Kennedy Expressway. The 32-foot-high mural stared eastbound traffic in the eye, causing gapers delays in both directions that snarled traffic as badly as road construction.

An operations manager for a traffic-data company said the larger-than-life image added 20 to 30 minutes to morning commutes on the Kennedy and the Edens Expressway. And that was before Rodman’s hair was even on it.

“The 75-foot-wide advertisement included a color image of Michael Jordan looking down on traffic,” a March 26, 1996, Tribune story read. “But it’s the oversize Rodman who has taken the rush out of rush hour. His power glower is punctuated with three earrings and a nose ring; his arms are crossed, and his natty suit has the sleeves ripped out to reveal his collection of tattoos. He is even leaning forward, as if he just might want to butt heads.”

Standing just before the North Avenue exit, the painting was wider and taller than billboard laws normally would have allowed. But because the building was being used as a Bigsby & Kruthers warehouse, the advertising was not limited in size.

While most of the mural was black and white, the hair was in color — and changed as Rodman’s dye did, only adding to the traffic headaches.

Alas, the mural didn’t last. Bigsby & Kruthers covered it up a little more than two weeks after it first appeared in response to the concern of traffic officials.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. Cities have regular spots that come up on traffic reports and the Kennedy is typically on the list in Chicago (“from O’Hare to downtown”). These spots can be on the list for a variety of reasons: a chokepoint for traffic, an odd curve or different road design (such as narrowing of lanes), and/or regular accidents. Billboards probably are not common contributors to this.
  2. At the same time, certain billboards or advertisements can be become part of the urban highway experience. As commuters travel regular routes, they get used to seeing particular signs. New signs can also garner attention if they are a significant change or unusual. The other sports one that comes to mind from the Chicago region involved a series of Brian Urlacher balding treatment billboards along I-294 that popped up several years ago. I’m not sure if it caused any delays but it certainly caught people’s eyes as one of the city’s most recognizable recent sports stars suddenly had hair.
  3. The particular Rodman billboard came as part of a perfect storm. Take a regularly congested stretch of highway plus an incredible basketball team that set the record that year for most wins in a season plus a truly unique player on the billboard (and not one who fit the typical Chicago image). The billboard did not last long but it left a mark.

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

A brief history of the Sunday drive

With Illinois residents asked to shelter in place, architecture critic Blair Kamin suggests the Sunday drive could be revived – and provides a brief history of the practice:

Building on the precedent of the high society horse-drawn carriages that rolled down elegant boulevards in the late 19th century, the Sunday Drive is thought to have originated in the 1920s — just a few years after the great influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed at least 50 million people worldwide…

Henry Ford, whose mass production methods made cars available to millions, is said to have supported the Sunday Drive because it helped to sell cars…

The popularity of the Sunday Drive reached its apex in the 1950s and 1960s, when cars were still associated with personal freedom, not air pollution or suburban sprawl.

But something changed in the 1970s. Perhaps it was rising gas prices or a heightened environmental consciousness. Or maybe, some urban planners think, suburban sprawl was blurring the once-clear boundary between town and country. Where once there were farm fields and expanses of nature, now there were strip malls and traffic-jammed arterial roads. That made the Sunday Drive a lot less alluring.

This impulse is not foreign to Americans today. Driving is romanticized in many ways, from the celebration of road trips to marketing for cars which shows happy drivers moving through alluring landscapes to ordering social life in the suburbs around the need to drive. At the same time, as Kamin notes, driving is a humdrum activity much of the time. The car commercials that show people cruising down empty roads in the middle of the day do not match everyday experiences.

I also wonder about the connections between Sunday drives and other activities. For example, take organized religion. The classic sociological study Middletown describes the changes in a small city with the introduction of cars, including some residents who shifted from going to church on Sundays to taking recreational drives with family. The car offered an escape from the typical way of life. As a more recent example, data suggests younger people are less interested in getting their driver’s licenses. Why would you want to go for a leisurely drive when a smartphone or tablet or laptop offers access to what information and destinations you want?