An argument for why “cars are simply vastly superior to transit alternatives”

An economist makes the case for why Americans choose cars:

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Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which transit riders find the most onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability (which is why restrictions on auto use punish working mothers most). They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.

Autos’ superiority doesn’t stop there, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars undermines those major benefits, as well.

Cars allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefiting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. The magnitude of such advantages is seen in a Harvard analysis that concluded that for someone lacking a high-school diploma, owning a car increased their monthly earnings by $1,100.

Cars are also the only practical way to assemble enough widely dispersed potential customers to sustain large stores with affordable, diverse offerings. “Automobility” also sharply expands access to social opportunities. 

My sense is that Americans tend to agree with this, even if they do not think much about other transportation options.

At the same time, I could imagine two questions about this superiority:

  1. Is part of the superiority of the car due to the ways that American life are structured around cars? It is not just that people choose cars: the American way of life encourages car use.
  2. Are the individual choices made for cars best in the long run for communities and societies? Many individuals may like what cars enable but others would argue it leads to bad outcomes for the whole (one example here).

This belief in the superiority of cars also makes it difficult to find monies and the will to pursue other transportation options.

How effective are religious and political billboards?

On a recent long drive, I noticed two additional types of billboards compared to the typical ones selling good and/or services: religious billboards and political billboards. These do not comprise a majority of billboards in my observations – or even a significant minority – but there were at least a few. Such efforts raise several questions for me:

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  1. Do religious and political billboards reach a large audience compared to other forms of media advertising? Compared to some other forms of advertising, the audience along the road might be more known: traffic counts are known and drivers who use a particular road or go through a particular location are a particular group. This may be more targeted advertising with a known number of daily viewers.
  2. Do people seeing religious or political billboards respond to them similarly or differently compared to commercial billboards? The medium of a billboard requires a fairly simple message as people go by them at a high speed. An image or two and limited text are possible. People are used to commercial appeals. So, does anything change if a Bible verse is on a sign? I know there is a religious marketplace in the United States but does a billboard encourage more religiosity? Or, does an image of a politician and a short statement catch people’s attention? Are these just like other billboards, or, because religion and politics can be personal and contentious, do they provoke more engagement or more turning away?
  3. My bigger question about billboards and all forms of advertising: how much does it influence behavior? I saw these billboards, they caused me to think a little and I am blogging about the concept here, and any other ongoing influence is hard to ascertain. In my lifetime, I have seen thousands of billboards, just as I have likely seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements in other forms. I know they influence people but it is hard to connect the dots between billboards and change.

I will keep looking for and reading more unusual billboards. At the least, they help break up a long drive.

Balancing the needs of a region and nation versus the impact on local communities

Following up on a possible railroad merger that would affect multiple Chicago suburbs, several suburban leaders acknowledge that there are both community and larger interests at stake:

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Communities’ concerns about the length and frequency of trains are valid, but the key is to find a balance between alleviating their concerns and letting the railroads operate efficiently, bringing needed goods from one place to another, said Karen Darch, village president of Barrington and a board member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who has worked on railroad issues.

“We need transportation, this is a big industry for us, for the country,” she said. “And yet we want our communities to be safe and livable.”…

“It’s hard to argue against the commercial benefits that will occur from unifying these lines, and so the city’s trying to be realistic in terms of balancing its own interests with the greater benefit that can come for the U.S. economy,” he said. “We’re just asking, with the recognition that the railroads are going to benefit from this merger, we need some help.”

This is a conundrum that faces communities, regions, and the nation in multiple areas. The issue often arises in transportation but could also include eminent domain and land use, the move of a company from one location to another, and uneven development across communities. Whose interests should win out? How much room for compromise is there? How much can everyone involved see all of the layers?

There is little question that the Chicago region is an important region for railroad traffic in the United States. At the same time, that traffic impacts day-to-day experiences as well as long-term prospects for communities. What is good for the region or for national traffic may not look like what communities want.

The key here might be the efforts of the railroads themselves. What would they be willing to change about their operations and how much money would they contribute to help alleviate problems? This could range from listening to concerns, rerouting traffic away from residential areas, and contributing to the construction of bridges or underpasses to alleviate issues at at-grade crossings. This also helps make the contributions of railroads more tangible to suburbanites; people may know abstractly that railroads are important but have little to no direct interaction with any railroad company or representatives.

Focusing mass transit on those who need it or commuters

Looking at those who continued to use mass transit during COVID-19 helps raise the question of who public transit should serve:

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Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not…

But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.

That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.

In a country devoted to driving, those who have alternatives to mass transit to get to work will use those. Additionally, there is a class element to how mass transit is used and regarded and COVID-19 made work from home possible for some and not others.

The underlying assumption here appears to be that public transit cannot or cannot easily serve both groups of users. One aspect of this is that underlying patterns of residential segregation in cities and urban areas mean potential riders live in different locations. Additionally, later parts of the story cited above highlight the money mass transit systems have at the moment due to federal funds.

In the long run, when wealthier residents are asked to devote more funds to mass transit for equity and those who need it, will they agree? In Chicago, this has manifest in limited mass transit service in some areas compared to others. The new federal money means the Red Line can be extended on the South side. How far can efforts go? In other metro areas in recent years, wealthier suburbanites (see Nashville) have rejected efforts to expand mass transit. When suburbs are increasingly diverse and home to poorer residents, is there will to have consistent mass transit service?

Seeing 1930s Los Angeles streetcars in color

The fabled Los Angeles streetcar system is visible in a colorized video with added sound of the city in the 1930s:

The streetcar system is no more with numerous works discussing how it was dismantled amid a push for cars and highways. But, the video is a reminder that cars and streetcars operated together for at least a while as the city and region grew quickly. Both provided opportunities to travel throughout the area and utilized the same roadways.

It is also interesting how such altered videos – here with color and sound added – have the opportunity to change perceptions of the past. When even relatively recent history is displayed in black and white, it seems less vibrant and real. Throw in approximate sound and such video could help viewers feel as if they are back in Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

Fighting for decades against more freight trains in the Chicago suburbs

The mayor of Barrington, Illinois recently spoke about a long fight against large train companies and more freight traffic through the suburban community:

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Karen Darch was elected mayor of Barrington in 2005, only two years before the merger of the Canadian National and EJ&E that would increase the freight traffic in Barrington from three trains to up to 20 each day. She understands what worries Roselle and other suburbs along the Canadian Pacific line, as CP and the Kansas City Southern pursue a merger.

The merger could bring six to eight more freight trains a day through Roselle, Itasca, Wood Dale, Elgin, Bartlett, Schaumburg, Hanover Park and Bensenville. Leaders in those towns are concerned about potential traffic backups, emergency vehicle delays, additional noise and more pollution, as vehicles idle for longer…

Under Darch’s leadership, Barrington fought to extend the oversight period over CN, arguing that crossings were being blocked for longer than what the railroad agreed to.

The village also worked for years to get federal money to build an underpass for Northwest Highway at the CN tracks — improving traffic flow and making it easier for ambulances to get to Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.

I first ran into this issue in the late 2000s while conducting research involving a community that was also affected by the moves of Canadian National. To many leaders and residents in such suburbs, the increased traffic was not just a nuisance; in a region with many at-grade rail crossings, more and/or longer trains has the potential to snarl traffic, limit the ability of emergency vehicles to get around the community, and create more noise and pollution.

The irony is that many Chicago suburbs were founded along railroad lines and the region itself is central to the American passenger and freight rail network. Without the railroad, the Chicago region and many of its communities would not be the same. That same train that makes day to day suburban life more difficult is important for Barrington and the region as a whole.

There still might be solutions to these problems. One solution underway for a while is to move more of the freight train around the outskirts of the region so that it is does end up in communities and the city itself. A second solution is to limit the number of at-grade crossings so that roadways and trains do not interact as much. A third option is to see the whole of the region in these discussions so that what is good for Barrington and other suburbs could also be good for the region and vice versa.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

Americans love driving and this impacted the work of police

A country built around driving leads to profound effects on what police do:

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It is not an exaggeration to say that police power in the United States is built around the unique conditions created by car culture, in which virtually everyone is breaking the law all the time—with occasionally severe consequences. In her book Policing the Open Road, the legal scholar Sarah Seo points out that mass car ownership prompted a wholesale reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against search and seizure. Or it did, until we all started driving everywhere.

Police often abuse this authority to perform “pretextual stops” hoping to find guns or drugs, knowing that trivial traffic violations give them the power to search citizens at will. Officers have at times undertaken this constitutional sleight of hand with explicit federal endorsement, deputized as foot soldiers in the war on drugs. In one of the most notorious examples, police in Arizona used traffic stops to enforce federal immigration law.

For Black drivers, pretextual traffic stops—per Jay-Z, “doing 55 in a 54”—are a routine occurrence and the foremost symbol of racial profiling in this country. For many police departments, these violations are used to fill government coffers and prompt devastating cycles of fines, debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped, according to a study last year, and almost twice as likely to be searched.

While the article is about speeding, there are numerous additional areas where police work intersects with driving: stops for all sorts of reasons (as noted above), dealing with crashes or road conditions, escorting important people, and police driving the same roads as everyone else in order to address an issue at a particular location.

In many parts of the United States, it would be hard to imagine police without a vehicle or not interacting with vehicles regularly. Even the community policing idea where police spend lots of time in the same community and at the pedestrian level may still require using a vehicle to travel back and forth or to address particular issues they encounter. The sight of police on foot, horse, or bicycle in certain settings may be unusual to many who are used to the cars and flashing lights.

The same kind of methods proposed to limit traffic fatalities (also discussed in this article) or to promote the use of other modes of transportation could also have the effect of reducing the need for police to patrol or drive on roadways. But, reducing the American dependence on or love for driving is a sizable task.

Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

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In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

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My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.