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?

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.

Great Quotes in Homeownership #4: Obama in 2013

Speaking at a Arizona high school in August 2013, President Obama both addressed specific policies he hoped Congress would pass regarding homeownership as well as the dream of middle-class homeownership. Here is part of the speech connecting middle-class aspirations and homeownership:

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What we want to do is put forward ideas that will help millions of responsible, middle-class homeowners who still need relief.  And we want to help hardworking Americans who dream of owning their own home fair and square, have a down payment, are willing to make those payments, understand that owning a home requires responsibility.  And there are some immediate actions we could take right now that would help on that front, that would make a difference.  So let me just list a couple of them…

So I want to be honest with you.  No program or policy is going to solve all the problems in a multi-trillion dollar housing market.  The housing bubble went up so high, the heights it reached before it burst were so unsustainable, that we knew it was going to take some time for us to fully recover.  But if we take the steps that I talked about today, then I know we will restore not just our home values, but also our common values.  We’ll make owning a home a symbol of responsibility, not speculation — a source of security for generations to come, just like it was for my grandparents.  I want it to be just like that for all the young people who are here today and their children and their grandchildren.  (Applause.)

These sections echo common themes of how the American public often thinks about housing:

  1. Homeownership is a symbol of successful hard work and responsibility. Put it in the time and effort and it should lead to a home.
  2. Systems and particular actors can conspire against possible homeowners – financial speculators, irresponsible people – but the government should be in the business of helping people achieve homeownership.
  3. Homeownership is a goal across American generations, from grandparents to current adults to future children.
  4. The middle class and homeownership are intertwined.

Even as President Obama sought specific actions, he appealed to cultural goals and narratives very familiar in American life.

(This is part of a very occasional series of quotes about homeownership. See #1 featuring William Levitt, #2 featuring Herbert Hoover, and #3 involving George W. Bush.)

The importance and consequences of separating single-family homes from other land uses in the United States

A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.

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From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.

This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:

  1. Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
  2. Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.

Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.

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.

Americans continue to move from one address to another less and less

By one measure, American mobility is down to its lowest level since 1948:

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows just 8.4 percent of Americans live in a different house than they lived in a year ago. That is the lowest rate of movement that the bureau has recorded at any time since 1948.

That share means that about 27.1 million people moved homes in the last year, also the lowest ever recorded.

The number of Americans who move from one home to another has been falling for decades, said Cheryl Russell, who authors the Demo Memo blog on demographic trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, about one in five Americans moved homes in a given year. That dropped to 14 percent by the turn of the century, and to 11.6 percent a decade ago.

The more sedentary population is a product of a handful of demographic factors that have grown as the American population gets older, as fallout from the Great Recession a decade ago continues to play out and as the pandemic put the brakes on many people’s plans.

The postwar era was one of a lot of mobility, particularly as those who could moved to the growing suburbs. The car and expanding networks of highways made it possible to access many destinations and workplaces did not necessarily have to be near homes.

Since then, mobility has declined for the reasons cited above. People can still move about on a daily basis but they are not moving addresses as much. Even as parts of the United States are growing in population and others are not, fewer people are moving overall.

Even as I have watched reports on this trend in recent years (see earlier posts here and here), I have seen little discussion of what this means or whether reduced geographic mobility is desirable or not. In a society that often celebrates mobility more broadly – social, economic, geographic – does this trend signal something troubling? Or, does this mean more Americans have an opportunity to develop roots and relationships within their communities?

Is there another possible explanation? Technological change, particularly smartphones and the ability to work from home, reduces the need for moving locations. More and more can be experienced and interacted with from anywhere with Internet and data access.

The value of highlighting Starbucks, since 1971

In a Starbucks TV commercial, I noticed the company notes it was founded in 1971. Here is a logo from their website that highlights 50 years of business:

Starbucks.com

The company’s website highlights their heritage:

Our story begins in 1971 along the cobblestone streets of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market. It was here where Starbucks opened its first store, offering fresh-roasted coffee beans, tea and spices from around the world for our customers to take home. Our name was inspired by the classic tale, “Moby-Dick,” evoking the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.

Ten years later, a young New Yorker named Howard Schultz would walk through these doors and become captivated with Starbucks coffee from his first sip. After joining the company in 1982, a different cobblestone road would lead him to another discovery. It was on a trip to Milan in 1983 that Howard first experienced Italy’s coffeehouses, and he returned to Seattle inspired to bring the warmth and artistry of its coffee culture to Starbucks. By 1987, we swapped our brown aprons for green ones and embarked on our next chapter as a coffeehouse.

Starbucks would soon expand to Chicago and Vancouver, Canada and then on to California, Washington, D.C. and New York. By 1996, we would cross the Pacific to open our first store in Japan, followed by Europe in 1998 and China in 1999. Over the next two decades, we would grow to welcome millions of customers each week and become a part of the fabric of tens of thousands of neighborhoods all around the world. In everything we do, we are always dedicated to Our Mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time

Fifty years is likely a safe point to highlight a founding date as it is a nice round number, a half century. Sure, 49 or 51 years gets at the same idea but it does not have the gravity of 50. Yet, I could imagine two sides to whether promoting this date is helpful.

On one side, fifty years is a long time. Many businesses do not make it this far. Even fewer companies are so long for so many years. Highlighting the date implies permanence, tradition, stability. Starbucks is not just a passing trend; they are good at what they do, they have been around five decades, and hope to be around for many more.

On the other side, Americans tend to like upstarts and novelty. Does fifty years imply old age and lack of innovation? Starbucks is established while other successful companies are offering new models and products. There are Starbucks locations everywhere but once companies like Sears or Woolworths also thrived.

Even as the company celebrates 50 years, companies are not permanent. Perhaps there is a time when fast food in general no longer exists or people can get similar food products at home. Or, Starbucks does something internally that causes issues. Or who knows what. Does it reach 75 years or 100 years, other round milestones worth celebrating? It is hard to know now; Starbucks will keep going until it doesn’t.

An ongoing American antagonism toward big cities

As noted in a recent opinion in the New York Times, the divide between cities and other kinds of communities in the United States has a long history.

From the beginning, Americans have differed on whether to uphold as ideal the urban life or the rural life. Should the model be New York, Boston, or Philadelphia or the plot of land in the country? These differences became more pronounced as urbanization picked up in the 1800s. With the majority of Americans now in the suburbs, the issue still is ongoing as many Americans say they prefer small towns (the suburbs?) while enjoying proximity to urban centers (jobs, cultural opportunities, transportation, etc.).

This is not just a geographic distinction or a set of preferences that some people have compared to others. These choices and systems that push people one way or another (with a lot of social actors and forces involved in encouraging uburbanization) also include a moral dimensions or a set of values and meanings. These are not just spaces; Americans have processes of meaning-making in all of these contexts.

With that in mind, there are several ways one could think about this ongoing contrast:

  1. A binary between city and country. This encourages each side to praise the traits of their option and denounce the other. Very black and white, one is better and one is worse.
  2. The suburbs are an attempted solution to this ongoing binary: some of the country, some of the city (or, as critics of the suburbs might say, none of either).
  3. Connected to different political battles. In the early days, this was part of the issues between Jefferson and Hamilton. Today, this is an issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is also about local/state/regional politics where urban interests go against those of other locations.
  4. A superfluous debate for a long time as we should think about regions with cities as anchors for wide territories where economic, social, and political activity is all intertwined. Think of Boston in the Northeast.
  5. A reaction to the rapid urbanization of the last two centuries that has upset much of human history where most people lived in small communities. Perhaps we are still figuring out how everything works with megacities where so much – population, economic activity, political power, globalized activity – is so concentrated.

In short, this divide is probably not going away soon. Hopefully, the conversation is more productive than denigrating other kinds of communities but rather seeking ways of working together since many of the issues Americans care about would benefit from cooperation across geographies.

Do Americans actually like to drive or do they say this because much of American life requires driving?

Do Americans actually like driving? Or, do they just do it a lot?

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Many Americans must drive on a regular basis. They need vehicles in order to get to work, obtain groceries and other goods, take advantage of recreation opportunities, and get to school. Many communities are designed around roads and emphasize moving large numbers of cars through areas at fast speeds. Americans have a system that privileges driving.

Americans might cite numerous aspects of driving and cars that they like. Driving is its own unique challenge requiring skill and attention. The driver is responsible for maneuvering a several ton vehicle. There are rules to be followed and ways to make driving more interesting. The average person does not have many other means to match the feeling of speed that a car can offer. Vehicles themselves can spark interest, ranging from their styling to their upkeep to their different features.

Additionally, driving has cultural meanings attached to it. From the beginning of cars, Americans loved the mobility and freedom they offered. Cars are more individualistic than mass transit. Vehicles represent progress with people behind the wheel. Cars and driving skills say something about their owners.

With an infrastructure that emphasizes driving and features of driving that Americans like, perhaps these two are simply intertwined today. Cars and driving are just part of the American way of life. Perhaps American drivers do not need to even like driving; they just have to tacitly support the structure that keeps driving as the primary mode of transport. Liking driving could then a resignation to the status quo or finding joy in what they are going to do anyway. Or, it could genuine joy at sitting behind the wheel. Changing this love of even or even acceptance of driving would take significant time and/or effort given how Americans feel about driving.

Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.