The limited safety of pedestrians and bicyclists even in quiet residential neighborhoods

Street and intersections in quiet suburban subdivisions are not necessarily designed with the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in mind:

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The station reached out to county officials and the local police precinct; everyone sure scratched their heads about that one. There was supposed to be a stop sign there, said the county, and they didn’t know why there wasn’t one installed. The police made sure to point out that it wasn’t their fault, either, because, they said, residents hadn’t complained. “Some residents have now reached out to us requesting additional signage,” said the precinct’s commissioner, James Mett. “In the coming days, we plan to examine and research the issue to determine the best course of action moving forward.” A few phone calls later, it was announced that a new stop sign would be installed Thursday.

So, that’s one thing that made this street unsafe. But there are plenty of other problems, not unique to this intersection but common to many, many American streets, that also made it unsafe. There’s no signage of any kind to alert drivers to the possibility that walkers or cyclists might want to cross. There are no traffic-calming design elements, like speed bumps, raised crosswalks (or any kind of crosswalk), or extended curbs. There’s no protected bike lane.

The speed limit on this road is 30 miles per hour, as it is on roads in all Texas cities. Last year a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill to lower the speed limit on such roads to 25 miles per hour. Cars traveling 30 miles per hour are 43 percent more likely to kill pedestrians they hit than cars traveling 25 miles per hour, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is the lawmaker’s third attempt to pass this bill, and it seems to have been just as successful as the first two times, as nothing has happened to the bill in more than a year. (We don’t know how fast the driver of the Hyundai was traveling. Maybe she was going less than 30 miles per hour. Or maybe she was going faster; after all, Google Street View suggests you can drive the entire length of Kings Mill Road, a circuit of nearly a mile, and never see a single speed limit sign.)

And notably, the driver who struck and killed Chase Delarios was driving a midsize SUV. The heavier the car, the more likely it is to kill a person if it strikes them. At between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds (depending on specific model), a 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe is more than a match for an 8-year-old and his bike. (The post-crash local news coverage shows the bike, horribly, jammed under the Hyundai’s rear wheel.)

And the conclusion:

Like most American streets, Kings Mill Road is not a safe area for pedestrians or people riding bikes. It’s designed for drivers, and drivers use it that way. That’s the system we’re trapped in…

In the United States, cars and vehicles with engines rule the roads. We have built whole systems and ways of life to accommodate them and ease their travel. It is supported by public and private money, public sentiment, and an ongoing series of decisions.

If you are traveling via other means, you have to be aware and careful. Know where vehicles are at all times. Be cautious in crossing, even at clearly marked walkways. Be ready to move quickly if needed. Make yourself visible to vehicles.

To change this or seriously address this would require a long-term effort to redesign basic aspects of everyday American life. It can be done, but a sustained series of actions is difficult to organize and execute.

Updated figures on Chicago as “the country’s largest freight hub”

Freight and cargo continue to be important for Chicago and the region:

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Chicago is still the country’s largest freight hub, handling half of all U.S. intermodal trains and a total of $3 trillion worth of cargo each year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

That is a lot of money and traffic.

Whether the Chicago region is acting as a good steward of all of this is another matter. The figures come from an article about pollution from idling trains and truck plus increased freight traffic. Additionally, is the Chicago area prepared to be a freight leader in the future? If so much traffic passes through the region, there is a lot riding on facilities and infrastructure making sure everything gets to its destination.

Is it possible to get convincing data on whether the media is covering a story or not?

A strike is threatening the operation of railroads in the United States. Is the media coverage of the story sufficient or appropriate to the scale of the issue? How could this be measured?

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Media stories and/or reports can be counted in multiple ways. Count articles, headlines, the number of words written, social media posts, time spent on it during television broadcasts. Look at where and when stories are reported or not; does it lead the news or come later? Is it buried on a webpage or a newspaper page? How many resources are devoted to the topic could involve looking at how many reporters are on a story or the length of stories and reports.

But, this measurement question is complicated by the issue of knowing when the coverage is enough or not. My sense of most of the Internet arguments about this is that one political side feels for one reason or another that a story is not getting sufficient attention. Would an accurate count or measurement of coverage be convincing? What is an appropriate level of coverage depends on who is asking.

Additionally, the media has its own logics and pressures regarding what stories it covers and how it displays them. Not everything can be the top headline. Resources for covering the news are limited.

This might just be a perfect kind of argument for our politicized and fragmented current age. For those who really care about an issue, no level of media coverage might be enough. For those who are less interested or less aware, they might not care or know what they are missing. Media sources will provide information but not so do necessarily evenly across all news stories. And social media, the Internet, and politics provides space to express concern or outrage about the coverage or lack thereof.

Emphasize the drive-thru and delivery, ditch the indoor dining

More fast food, coffee, and fast causal restaurants are moving toward no indoor dining space:

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Last August, Dunkin’ opened its first “digital” location on Beacon Street in Boston. There are no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.

Dunkin’ is far from alone. Name a fast-food restaurant and the odds are the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant at all. Chipotle’s first “Digital Kitchen,” which opened in upstate New York in 2020, has no dining room. A branch that opened last year in the Cleveland suburbs doesn’t even let customers inside the store. This summer, Taco Bell opened something it calls Taco Bell Defy, which is not a restaurant at all but a purple taco tollbooth powered by QR code readers and dumbwaiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen. The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.

What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most Americans’ rear-view mirror, Chipotle’s in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business. At Panera, which opened its first to-go-only locations this summer, that figure is under 20 percent…

Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect an ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.

This kind of eating works in the United States largely because of the amount of driving Americans do. In commuting and other trips from place to place that are required for daily life, they want access to food on the go. The option of indoor dining might be nice for some – see the idea of third spaces above and the ways this can enhance public life – but much business via people who never leave their car.

If those who used to eat inside these restaurants cannot do this, where will they go instead? This could lead to an uptick in eating restaurant food at home. This is a different kind of experience, more private with the diner have much more control over lighting, screens, sound, and more. It is much harder to fix wrong orders or to get more food. The restaurant experience might be limited to only larger outlays of money and specific foods in particular locations.

America: attend a festival and end with an 8 hour traffic jam

Live by the car, get stuck in traffic with the car:

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The first Burning Man festival after three years of COVID pandemic delays ended rather unceremoniously as exhausted revelers endured an apocalyptic eight-hour traffic jam in the sweltering desert to leave the site. Twitter posts depicting the post-revelry congestion — and a bizarre “Thunderdome”-style fight — are going viral online.

“Exodus wait time is currently around 8 hours,” Burning Man’s official travel account confirmed regarding the bash, which saw 80,000 Burners descend on the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada, for nine days ending Monday. “Consider delaying your departure until conditions improve.”…

Meanwhile, one burned-out reveler posted photos depicting 15 lanes of traffic that were clogged bumper to bumper for miles like something out of a classic disaster movie.

At least this traffic jam had different scenery compared to the typical highway landscapes found in metropolitan areas?

The car may be essential to the American way of life – and celebrations of life – but traffic jams are one consequence many would hope to avoid. It offers freedom for individual drivers to go when they want at a pace partly of their own choosing, yet the system of roads and land uses can easily lead to backups and delays that limit such perceived freedoms. The car commercials featuring people enjoying driving on the open road do not typically reference any traffic jams. Or, how many movies or TV shows show the difficulties of traffic congestion? After a period of festival-going, just how frustrating is a long traffic jam?

How US freight trains might come to a halt (or, how a crisis can be averted)

Many goods are carried by the freight train network in the United States. Yet, several factors are converging that could lead to a disruption of freight service:

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In April, the STB held hearings on the meltdown, where representatives from sectors including agriculture, energy, and chemicals joined trade unions to complain of poor service and working conditions. STB data says railroads cut their workforce by 45,000, or 29 percent, over the past six years, with pandemic furloughs pushing staffing levels past a tipping point. By late May, only 67 percent of trains arrived within 24 hours of their scheduled time, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, according to data submitted to the STB by the four largest US freight railroads.

Worse, the US freight rail system is now poised on the brink of total paralysis because of a contract dispute between 115,000 rail workers and their employers. Negotiations have dragged on since the last contract expired in 2019, during which time rail workers have not had a raise. Under the Railway Labor Act, federal government mediators try to prevent railroad work stoppages, in this case to no avail. On August 16, a three-member presidential emergency board appointed by President Biden issued recommendations for the basis of a new contract. If the sides don’t reach agreement by September 15, rail workers can strike—a scenario that Rick Paterson, a rail analyst at the investment firm Loop Capital Markets who testified during the STB hearings, calls “economic WMD.”

The fallout of a prolonged strike would likely eclipse those from pandemic delays to ocean shipping because a foundational component of many supply chains would see its labor supply evaporate overnight, says Paterson. Ports would jam; trucking rates would soar; livestock would run out of feed. For that reason, Congress would likely intervene to delay or quickly end a strike, as it did during the last railroad strike in 1991. But lawmakers may not have much time: The deadline is just three days after the House of Representatives returns from recess…

US freight railroads cut staff in recent years as part of a shift toward a leaner and more profitable operating model dubbed Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). It was invented by a Canadian railroad executive and later replicated in the US, with the intention of simplifying a complex rail network by running fewer, longer trains, replacing single-commodity trains with mixed freight, and slashing labor. US freight trains grew 25 percent in length between 2008 and 2017 and now sometimes reach 3 miles long. And while the profits materialized, the promised service improvements have not always followed.

As with much critical infrastructure, relatively few Americans pay attention to its operation outside of the ways it might affect their daily life. See one recent example involving freight lines from the Chicago suburbs. If the trains keep running on time – or close to on time – it will not attract much attention.

But, a day without freight trains would quickly lead to big issues. Some might notice it quicker than others; perhaps they are associated with a certain industry or business or they live in a community where freight trains are ever-present and/or vital.

Given the stakes described above, I assume the crisis will be addressed and the trains will keep running. However, getting past this moment is not necessarily the same as setting up a structure that works for an extended period of time.

Americans love highways so much they are willing to volunteer to keep them clean?

I saw my share of Adopt-a-Highway signs this summer on driving trips. Here is some of the history of the program:

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The Birth of Adopt-a-Highway

The idea hit James Evans like an empty soda can, or maybe it was a discarded candy wrapper. Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, was driving one day in 1984 when he saw litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck. Littering was a growing problem in Texas at the time, and while Evans knew that his department didn’t have the resources to combat it, he saw a prime opportunity to promote volunteerism. One year later, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, collaborated with Evans and organized the first Adopt-a-Highway program.

How the Program Works

The program varies slightly by state, but volunteers typically apply to adopt at least two miles of highway for two years, and are responsible for cleaning that stretch at least four times per year. In return, the adopter’s name is recognized on a sign along that stretch of highway. The Adopt-a-Highway program saves taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs and allows state governments to allocate transportation funds to other projects. The number of state employees devoted to highway cleanup and beautification has plunged since the advent of the Adopt-a-Highway program. A number of states, including New Hampshire, have Sponsor-a-Highway programs, where volunteers make donations to pay for maintenance crews to clean a stretch of highway in exchange for recognition on a sign…

The Adoption Movement Spreads

The Adopt-a-Highway program was a huge success in Texas and other states soon took notice. The program, or a variation thereof, eventually spread to all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, and several countries, including Australia, Japan and Spain. The most common adopters are civic groups and local businesses, though individuals occasionally adopt. Celebrities, including Bette Midler and Robin Williams, helped raise the profile of the program by adopting their own stretches of highway. Today, a handful of for-profit companies manage the sponsoring of highways by large companies looking for positive publicity and what amounts to advertising space on a small billboard.

The description above hints at the convergence of multiple forces: a growing environmental movement, efforts to encourage civic engagement and pride, looking for ways to cut government costs, and opportunities for some marketing.

But, this could be put simply: largely for free, Americans clean up highways. Groups and individuals take time out of their schedules to pick up garbage and debris. Americans love driving and the way of life it is tied up with so much that they clean the highways that enable quick travel via car. Adopt-a-highway works because Americans like highways so much.

Consider an alternative approach. Instead of cleaning up littering and criminalizing the practice, what about deemphasizing highways and major roadways and pursuing other forms of transportation and denser housing? This may seem like a difficult task but so is cleaning the tens of thousands of miles of highways, whether through paid employees or mobilizing volunteers all over.

I missed the urban scooter revolution

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I saw a part of urban life I primarily read about: the proliferation of electric scooters.

The scooters were all over the place. There were more scooter users in the bike lanes than bicycles. Scooters of multiple services zoomed by. They could be parked anywhere.

They make a lot of sense in a place with good weather, limited mass transit, and a good number of visitors. (On the other hand, they do not make as much sense right next to the large vehicles Americans often drive.)

One additional thought: are these scooters doing what the Segway was supposed to do or could have done?

Midwestern ice fishing and McMansions

An analysis of words in Midwestern Airbnb listings includes a connection between McMansions and fishing:

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Anyone can catch a walleye with a few bucks’ worth of basic gear, some practice and a little luck, Roach said, though that doesn’t stop some Midwesterners from dropping the equivalent of several years’ salary on boats, McMansion-grade ice-fishing trailers and sophisticated electronics designed to better target the finicky fish.

Follow the link for the trailers and you can see large ice-fishing trailers. I assume that is the primary use of McMansion here: these trailers are large. They offer a lot of interior space. Maybe they are mass-produced or architecturally dubious but the size of these trailers is bigger than just a little ice fishing hut.

At the same time, the use of the term suggests that the ice-fishing trailers are over the top or unnecessary or undesirable thing. McMansion is an evocative term that is usually linked to negative judgments.

The lingering question here: is the large McMansion trailer a worse choice than a more modest ice-fishing dwelling?

(This is not the first time McMansions have been linked to transportation. See earlier posts here and here about McMansions and SUVs. Those ice fishing trailer need a sizable vehicle to tow them into place.)