Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

The consequences of self-driving cars as “rooms with wheels”

Thinking of autonomous vehicles as just another iteration of the car may not go far enough:

If you think of driverless cars as nothing more than cars without drivers, Burns says, you’re not seeing the full picture. These will be rooms with wheels. And that means their implications extend far beyond transportation—into retail, commerce, and even an expansive re-imagination of where Americans should live. Commuting an hour to work from the far suburbs isn’t such a drag when the autonomous pod comes with Netflix, email, and wi-fi.

What this might lead to is unclear:

In sum, self-driving cars have the potential to improve existing transportation technology in unambiguous ways, to expand the suburbs, and to create new economic opportunity for a variety of industries, from hotels to restaurants. But they might also change the character of our cities for the worse and strangle roads with cars in a way that ruins the urban experience for millions of people. What does this sound like? It sounds like the legacy of highways in America.

Given the love of cars among Americans plus the way social life is ordered around them, the implications could be wide-reaching.

But, the idea that cars could become rooms is intriguing. Americans like having private space. Hence, the ideal of the large single-family home in the suburbs. A few thoughts on cars as rooms:

  1. What kinds of rooms do they become? If primarily occupied during commuting, they could become work spaces. Of course, not everyone might want to work on the way to or the way home from work. Napping spaces? Outfitted with televisions and wifi?
  2. Does having a mobile room mean that homes do not have to be so large? The vehicle could become a mobile extension of the home. Members of the home could always escape to the vehicle, even if they are not going anywhere.
  3. Does a mobile room elevate vehicles to an even more important status symbol? If owners could customize their vehicle spaces to their tastes, the range of interiors could be impressive.

I would guess many Americans would like a mobile room.

Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Argument: mass transit service comes before demand

A history of the decline of mass transit in the United States concludes with this claim: there must be transit service in order to generate demand.

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented. As poverty suburbanizes, and as more jobs are located in suburban areas, the inaccessibility of transit on a regional scale is becoming a crisis.

The only way to reverse the vicious cycle in the U.S. is by providing better service up front. The riders might not come on day one, but numerous examples, from cities like Phoenix and Seattle, have shown that better service will attract more riders. This can, in turn, produce a virtuous cycle where more riders justify further improved service—as well as providing a stronger political base of support.

I wonder how much infrastructure – largely paid for by taxpayers and serving the public – differs from other kinds of innovation. Sometimes, new products meet a clear demand. At other times, a new product generates new demand that people did not even know existed.

Furthermore, let’s say for the sake of argument that this claim is true: building more mass transit lines and options would eventually increase demand. Municipalities and governments would still be left with a tricky issue: is there enough will or enough resources to pay what can be massive costs up front with a promised payoff in the future? Long-term thinking is not necessary something Americans have done well in recent decades. (And this does not even include the possibility that the big investment might not pay off.)

Finally, another way to approach this is to start with smaller-scale projects, show people that they work, and then build up to a larger structure. In many American communities, this would mean starting with bus service since plenty of roads already exist. But, many Americans do not like buses. They may be more likely to take trains but these require a lot more work and money.

Speeding occurs when a road feels like a highway but has low speed limits

An analysis of high-speed tickets issued in Chicago highlights a fundamental contradiction with Lake Shore Drive:

The number of tickets issued on Lake Shore Drive points to a long-standing problem — with four lanes in each direction along most of the road, the drive looks and feels like a highway, though it was intended as a scenic boulevard and in some places has no guard rails or emergency shoulders. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the North Side and 45 mph on the South, but up to 95 percent of drivers exceed the limit when the road is not congested, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study.

The majority of motorists getting nabbed for speeding on the drive were going at least 75 to 80 mph.

“I observe some people driving extremely fast,” said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “The roadway kind of invites that. When there’s not much traffic, it’s a pleasant drive; there are not many sharp curves. It feels like the Edens Expressway.”…

While drivers speed both north and south of Madison, there are more tickets on the South Side. It is both easier to go at high speeds and easier to catch speeders south of the Museum Campus.

The current solution to the contradiction seems to be more enforcement of speed limits on Lake Shore Drive. More tickets and public knowledge of more tickets issued should theoretically help drivers think twice before going fast.

But, this ignores the underlying issue: the road is built and designed in such a way that fast driving can appear safe. Even if the road is not actually built for those speeds, having all those lanes plus a large number of drivers going fast can overrule a rational approach to the speed limit. Additionally, this is a major north-south artery in Chicago. There are a limited number of these, particularly those without many traffic stops. Outside of a crowded Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways (consistently rated as some of the worst spots for traffic in the United States), Lake Shore Drive is it. Even with its traffic lights around Grant Park, it offers unparalleled ease of travel.

It would be interesting to see what the City of Chicago could dream up to slow down drivers. The other complication is the road is intended to be a scenic one as it often travels through parks and offers numerous great views on one side of Lake Michigan and on the other a thriving global city. Speed bumps? Giant signs about traffic? A road diet to limit the width of the road? More guard rails and visible safety symbols? If the true goal is to improve safety, just handing out tickets is not enough.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).