Some housing not so cheap when you factor in transportation costs

Plenty of people may move to where the cheaper housing is located but this could come with higher transportation costs:

In Chicago’s transit-rich Ravenswood neighborhood, where there is an average of one automobile per household and 42 percent of commuters use transit, monthly transportation costs averaged $751 in the five-year period studied, the center determined.

Households in Marengo in McHenry County incur an average of $1,324 in transportation costs each month, the study found. Each household in Marengo, where transit ridership is less than 1 percent, also logs an average of 24,438 miles per year in their cars, versus 12,150 miles annually in Ravenswood.

When people are looking for a place to live, taking into account housing and transportation costs changes the affordability outlook significantly, said Scott Bernstein, the center’s president…

[From the print edition:] Some 69 percent of neighborhoods in the Chicago area are considered affordable under the traditional definition of housing affordability: rent or mortgage payments consuming no more than 30 percent of household income, the study said. But only 42 percent of the neighborhoods are considered affordable when housing and transportation costs are measured, it said…

The study also found that it is more difficult for a typical household in the U.S. to find an affordable place to live compared to a decade ago because incomes increased about half as much as transportation and housing costs since 2000.

This provides some data to back up Joel’s claim from earlier this week: life is cheaper (and perhaps better?) without a car.

What I find fascinating about this is that this report ties transportation costs to the idea of affordable housing. Typically, we only think about the cost of the housing itself but if you built affordable housing in the middle of a corn field 90 miles west of Chicago, those housing units won’t really help anyone.

At the same time, this is a trade-off many Americans seem willing to make: you pay less for your house and then pay more for transportation costs over time. Perhaps because the house is a significantly larger “one-time purchase” (you have repeated payments but they are somewhat fixed and you have already psychologically taken possession of the house even though you don’t own it) people can justify then paying more for transportation over time because the money trickles out and the costs are more variable. Plus, if you think of the home as one of the key pieces of the American Dream and Americans should love to drive anyway, this all could make some sense.

This is also a reminder that the cost for entry to the suburbs is not just about finding somewhere to live which often requires a sizable down payment and a mortgage. In order to get anywhere, whether it is a job or store or recreation area or church, one needs a car in the suburbs and one needs to have extra money on hand to deal with this. Without being able to pay for insurance, gas, maintenance, and somewhere to park (which is factored into a parking space or the driveway/garage that is factored into the mortgage), there is plenty of extra cost involved with having a car. This reminds me of a story I read recently about an affordable car program in Wisconsin where the state or some agency was providing cheap but reliable cars to people to help cover these growing and important transportation costs.

Questionable web survey of the day: smart USA finds Americans prefer “right-sizing”

I ran across a recent survey that initially looked promising as the findings suggested Americans prefer “right-sizing”:

While the last decade is often seen as a period of gluttonous consumption, McMansions, and Super-Size meals, the old adage that less is more seems to be ringing true in today’s post-recession era. The survey found that three out of four Americans prefer to receive a present in a small package over a large one. Those who thought bigger was better tended to be young, a preference that shrinks as people get older and wiser. (34% of Americans age 18-34 preferred bigger presents compared to 22% of those age 45-54 and 17% of those age 55+).

Overall, on the subject of preferring less over more:

  • 97% of Americans believe that at least some of the items in their household are junk (i.e., they could easily get rid of it)
  • Nearly one out of 10 (9%) Americans believe they can part with a full half of their stuff
  • 9% of Americans believe that 51-100% of the items in their household are junk, indicating that the supposed American obsession with size and quantity is overstated

I’m not sure the statistics here strongly show “the supposed American obsession with size and quantity is overstated” but this still seems interesting. Lots of people would argue Americans have too much stuff and particularly the admissions about having some or a lot of junk back this up. But if you read more closely, two issues pop up:

1. The survey was sponsored by smart USA and Harris Interactive. Not familiar with smart USA? Here is a hint:

“The fact that a majority of Americans are deeply concerned with right-sizing their lifestyles and making intelligent choices shows why smart has so much curb appeal today,” says smart USA General Manager Tracey Matura. “People are rethinking whether bigger is actually better and focusing instead on value. They’re looking at how they can cut down the clutter in their lives, whether in their choice of vehicle, home or other purchases, so they have fewer, better things rather than simply more, more, more. And smart is proof that good things do come in small packages.”

So the survey shows that there should be plenty of Americans who want to buy a smart Fortwo! While early sales of the car lagged, Mercedes Benz trumpeted moving 9,341 smart cars worldwide in April 2011. Is this really just a marketing survey?

2. There is another issue with the survey, which happened through the web:

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of Smart from December 6-8, 2011 among 2,246 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact

Perhaps I’m missing something but the admission that this is not based on a probability sample is bad news. This usually means that the survey is not terribly representative of the American population at large. Of course, the surveys results could be weighted to try to make up for this but weighting may not be able to truly adjust for having a bad sample.

In conclusion, I’m not sure this survey really tells us much about anything. I assume that the findings are useful to smart USA but the results about larger American consumer patterns should be used with much caution.

Why the Washington Metro doesn’t yet reach Tysons Corner

As part of an argument that seems to really be about the difficulties of large-scale bureaucracies in responding to change, Michael Barone explore why the Washington Metro has had difficulty in reaching suburban destinations like Tysons Corner, the prototypical edge city.

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A movement away from one-way streets

Even as one-way streets are found in thriving downtowns in cities like New York City, Toronto, and San Francisco, there is a movement away from one-way streets:

St. Catharines was only following the example of hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada that have been shutting down their one-way streets since the 1990s. In Ottawa last week, planners announced they are considering the two-way conversion of several streets in the shadow of Parliament Hill. Two-way roads would help to “‘normalize’ the streets, by slowing traffic, creating a greater choice of routes, improving wayfinding, creating a more inviting address for residential and commercial investment and improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists,” according to a plan drafted by consulting firm Urban Strategies Inc. In 2005, even Hamilton, Ont., began to end its addiction to fast-flowing urban streets by cutting the ribbon on two-way traffic on some of its most prominent thoroughfares…

“The one-way is designed to maximize efficiency for the car; that’s its purpose,” said Larry Frank, the UBC-based J. Armand Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Urban Transportation Systems. As car culture bloomed beginning in the 1930s, and city dwellers ditched their apartments and townhomes for suburban ranch houses, one-way streets became the “mini-freeways” that could speed them to and from work. According to U.S. urban development advocate John Norquist, one-ways were also particularly attractive to Cold War-era planners because they allowed speedy evacuation in the event of a nuclear attack.

The effects on urban cores were immediate. In small towns, the conversion of Main Street to one-way was usually the first harbinger of urban blight. A much-quoted statistic holds that 40% of the businesses on Cincinnati’s Vine Street closed after it became a one-way. By the 1980s, one-ways had become potent symbols of urban racial divides. In dozens of U.S. metropolises, poor black neighbourhoods were severed by loud, dangerous one-ways jammed with mainly white drivers speeding to the suburbs. “It’s environmental racism,” said Mr. Gilderbloom.

Since they encourage higher speeds, one-ways have consistently been found to be hot spots for pedestrian fatalities. In a 2000 paper examining pedestrian safety on one-ways, researchers analyzed traffic statistics in Hamilton from 1978 to 1994 and concluded that a child was 2.5 times more likely to be hit by a car on a one-way street.

It is hard to argue with safety today. But the larger argument seems to be this: planning cities in a way that privileges automobiles is now considered more problematic than in the past. With the blooming of movements like New Urbanism, more places and planners are now thinking about others who use the streets including pedestrians, bicyclists, and businesses and residences along the street. While one-way streets may be efficient, they don’t necessarily serve all interested parties well.

There is some history here: with the rise of the popularity of the automobile in the 1920s plus the beginnings of highway construction around the same time (Federally-funded interstates came later), city planners started building cities (and suburbs) around the car. The goal was to move as many drivers in and out of the city with the intention that the ease of travel would actually bring more people into the cities. While the ease of automobile traffic may have improved, it had negative side effects: people moved out of the city and sidewalk traffic decreased. Cities tried to adapt by doing things like making certain streets pedestrian malls (Chicago’s State Street was a notorious example) but these generally proved unsuccessful.

The claim about one-way streets being examples of “environmental racism” is not one I have heard before. While I have heard of highways being used in this manner, it would be interesting to see data on where exactly most one-way streets are located.

Seeing traffic and congestion as a sign of success

While some might generally consider traffic and congestion to be negative (see examples here and here), here is an alternative argument: traffic and congestion are one sign of urban success.

Congestion, in the urban context, is often a symptom of success.

If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, they’ve not yet won; thank God. After all, when the congestion warriors have won, the results aren’t often pretty. Detroit, for example, has lots of expressways and widened streets and suffers from very little congestion. Yet no one would hold up Detroit as a model.

After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.” Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume…

This doesn’t mean that cities should strive for congestion, but they should recognize that traffic is often a sign of dynamism. Moving vehicular traffic is obviously a necessary function, but by making it the only goal, cities lose out on the economic potential created by the crowds of people that bring life to a city.

Let me translate this argument into the suburban context in which I have studied. Most suburban communities would love to have thriving businesses within municipal limits. This brings in tax dollars, jobs, and a better image (a good place to do business, a vibrant place, etc.). But, for this to happen, this is going to require more people driving through and into the community. A typical NIMBY response to new development, particularly commercial property, is that it will increase traffic which threatens safety. There may be some truth to this but it is also about an image and whether the location is a residential space or something else. Additionally, many suburbanites assume traffic and congestion are city problems, not suburban problems, and therefore are unhappy when their mobility is more limited. A classic local example is Naperville: I’m not sure too many people in Naperville really desire having large parking garages in the downtown. At the same time, it is good that so many people want to come downtown and spend money. Ultimately, there are ways to limit this auto dependence and congestion in downtowns but you still need to plan for and accommodate the large number of cars.

All this suggests that there may be some contingencies regarding congestion:

1. There is a somewhere between not enough traffic and too much. These standards could be very different in different places. In quieter and smaller communities, I suspect the threshold is much lower. The character of a neighborhood or community is going to impact this decision. Perhaps there are even formulas that can predict this.

2. This is location dependent. Looking at congestion in a downtown area is very different than looking at traffic on collector roads or nearby interstates. Problems arise when transportation needs cross these location boundaries, say, when roads in a downtown are used to get to the other side of the community rather than to visit the vibrant downtown. The solutions for each location may be very different, and one size fits all policies may not be very effective.

Overall, it is unlikely that single suburbs or even small groups of suburbs can eliminate congestion and traffic on their own. It is not about getting rid of cars but rather successfully adapting spaces so that the cars are not overwhelming. We can think about ways to reduce congestion or ameliorate its occurrence in particular contexts, even recognizing that it may be a good sign.

Bringing the Middletown study to the stage at Ball State

The Middletown studies are classics within the field of sociology. Students at Ball State, located in “Middletown” itself, are adapting the project for the stage:

Almost a century later, 40 theatre and sociology students join in an immersive project to take the social experiment and put it in motion in live theater.

“The thing about the Middletown studies and what Robert and Helen Lynd were trying to accomplish was ground-breaking,” Jennifer Blackmer, associate professor of the Department of Theatre, said. “They came to Muncie to study Middle America like they would a tribe in New Guinea.”…

Beginning in spring 2011, the students conducted around 60 interviews with Muncie community members and studied various records of the Middletown studies, including the products of the Lynds studies: “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture,” published in 1929, and “Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts,” written as the couple revisited Muncie in the midst of the Great Depression. Students admit they were skeptical at the project’s start…

The couple serves as two personalities in the play among a cast of four main characters; the Lynds who are conducting their study in the 1920s, and two fictional Ball State sociology students trying to copy the Middletown study process. There are sixteen voices in the play of both students and community theater actors.

I would be interested in seeing this. It could bring life to some classic studies that most (all?) college students have never heard of but in their time revealed a lot about “normal” America. Plus, it allows students to connect with their community, linking art with real life. Just as some sociologists have started pursuing video projects and blogs, could theater (and art more broadly) become a way that sociologists share their findings?

Though the study isn’t referenced much in sociology these days, I am including it in current lectures in my American Suburbanization class. When talking about the rise of the automobile, the Middletown studies reveal some interesting details: people basically changed their lives so that they could drive around. The American love affair with the car started early and changed cultural patterns and values as well in addition to the obvious changes in development patterns.

The financial benefits of not living in sprawl

Richard Florida argues “The neighborhood you live in can have a huge effect on your ability to spend or save, do the kind of things you really want to, and navigate the ongoing economic crisis.” Cars are indicted here as they require large sums of money to maintain and operate.

Based on this data, Florida argues that we need to rethink what we promote:

There remain some pundits and politicians who continue to believe that we need to get housing back to its former levels. But that won’t work this time. The old Fordist housing-auto-energy economic model which helped bring on the crisis in the first place has reached its sell-by date. Our continued commitment to (and massive subsidizing of) it will only further erode the financial situation of middle-class and working families and hold back the recovery.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the typical tools of monetary and fiscal policy are proving insufficient to sustain the recovery. Our future prosperity requires that we to begin to shift precious resources from houses, cars and energy toward investments in new skills, technologies, and industries that can generate higher paying jobs and improve overall living standards.  And that in turn requires a new geography built around denser (more innovative and productive), more walkable, transit-oriented (more efficient) communities.

If American families and policy-makers don’t see being green or sustainable as reason enough to change the way we live, perhaps seeing the very tangible financial rewards that accrue to those who do will help them change their minds. As the poet wrote, “You must change your life.” The numbers speak for themselves.

In addition to being more green, Florida is making the pragmatic argument that denser, more walkable communities actually help improve the financial situations of residents.

This may be compelling evidence – Americans can be persuaded by financial incentives – but I still think it is an uphill climb against an American culture that prize cars, driving, and the freedom that it represents. Changing this mindset is difficult even with at least 38 years of evidence that gasoline will not always be cheap or plentiful, evidence that suggests long commutes harm relationships, and research showing people aren’t necessarily happy in the suburbs. People are willing to trade a lot for the vision of the dream of the single-family home in the suburbs.

What would help is an alternative, positive vision that would celebrate denser neighborhoods and more urban life. Rather than simply attack the suburbs, sprawl, and McMansions, how about images of more urban life that can combine the best of both city and suburban life? The narratives regarding denser lives tend to be about chaos and a lack of control – think of the recent stories of “flash mobs” and “wilding” in Chicago. This could change with younger generations as they grow up with different aspirations and values. As Florida has argued, younger people are attracted by more exciting urban areas and they have the potential to change social patterns as well as promote new types of policies. But this vision needs to include family life, not just 20-something or single life, in denser areas.

Become friends with your Toyota

Companies are looking for ways to leverage social networking sites for their own purposes. Now Toyota announces plans to create their own social networking service where you will be able to become friends with your car:

Toyota is setting up a social networking service with the help of a U.S. Internet company and Microsoft so drivers can interact with their cars in a way that’s similar to posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and, based in San Francisco, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners…

With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction, [Toyota’s president] said.

“I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

There is the whole purpose of this: strengthen the relationship between customer and product. I wonder if Toyota owners would really flock to this concept. They might be loyal customers because of the value and reliability of Toyotas but is there a fervent fan culture that would want to be part of a social network?

But there is an interesting phrase in this article: “cars can become friends with their users.” Perhaps it was not intended this way but it implies that cars have agency. The article talks about how newer cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles, need more monitoring and so users will be open to getting more information from their cars. But in the end, these cars are just cars, machines that help people get around. We are a ways from having cars that could hold human-like conversations with their owners (see this recent piece on progress in tackling the Turing Test).

While some commentators have lamented the difference between off-line and online friends, perhaps this is the next controversial step forward: friendships with products. Right now, you can be a “fan” on Facebook but a friendship implies a closer and more interactive relationship.

A “children at play” sign as a symptom of a larger issue rather than the solution

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt argues that Americans rely on a lot of road signs even though there is little to no evidence that having more signs increases the safety of drivers and pedestrians. As an example, Vanderbilt looks at the “children at play” signs:

Despite the continued preponderance of “Children at Play” on streets across the land, it is no secret in the world of traffic engineering that “Children at Play” signs—termed, with subtle condescension, “advisory signs”—have been proven neither to change driver behavior nor to do anything to improve the safety of children in a traffic setting. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program, in its “Synthesis of Highway Practice No. 139,” sternly advises that “non-uniform signs such as “CAUTION—CHILDREN AT PLAY,” “SLOW—CHILDREN,” or similar legends should not be permitted on any roadway at any time.” Moreover, it warns that “the removal of any nonstandard signs should carry a high priority.”…

If the sign is so disliked by the profession charged with maintaining order and safety on our streets, why do we seem to see so many of them? In a word: Parents. Talk to a town engineer, and you’ll often get the sense it’s easier to put up a sign than to explain to local residents why the sign shouldn’t be put up. (This official notes that “Children at Play” signs are the second-most-common question he’s asked about at town meetings.) Residents have also been known to put up their own signs, perhaps using the DIY instructions provided by eHow (which notes, in a baseless assertion typical of the whole discussion, that “Notifying these drivers there are children at play may reduce your child’s risk”). States and municipalities are also free to sanction their own signs (hence the rise of “autistic child” traffic signs)…

One of the things that is known, thanks to peer-reviewed science, is that increased traffic speeds (and volumes) increase the risk of children’s injuries. But “Children at Play” signs are a symptom, rather than a cure—a sign of something larger that is out of whack, whether the lack of a pervasive safety culture in driving, a system that puts vehicular mobility ahead of neighborhood livability, or non-contextual street design. After all, it’s roads, not signs, that tell people how to drive. People clamoring for “Children at Play” signs are often living on residential streets that are inordinately wide, lacking any kind of calming obstacles (from trees to “bulb-outs”), perhaps having unnecessary center-line markings—three factors that will boost vehicle speed more than any sign will lower them.

So the signs are more of a band-aid to a larger problem which Vanderbilt discusses more in his book: streets and roads are generally designed in America for cars to go fast rather than as structures that also accommodate pedestrians and other neighborhood activities. Signs can’t do a whole lot to reduce the effects of this structure even though citizens, local officials, and some traffic engineers continue to aid their proliferation. In a car-obsessed culture, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by all of this: people want to be able to move quickly from place to place.

This all reminds me of the efforts of groups like the New Urbanists who suggest the solution is to redesign the streetscape so that the automobile is given a less prominent place. By putting houses and sidewalks closer to the street, planting trees near the roadway, allowing parking on the sides of streets, and narrowing the width of streets can reduce the speed of drivers and reduce accidents. Of course, one could go even further and remove all traffic signs altogether (see here and text plus pictures and video here).

I wonder if we could use Vanderbilt’s examples as evidence of a larger public discussion about the role of science versus other kinds of evidence. There may be a lot of research that suggests signs don’t help much but how does that science reach the typical suburban resident who is concerned about their kids playing near the street? If confronted with the sort of evidence that Vanderbilt provides, how would the typical suburban resident or official respond?

General Motor’s “Parade of Progress” bus tour

General Motors has had difficulty in recent years but at one point, GM was important and big enough to cast a vision for America’s future. In addition to the “Futurama” exhibit which featured an impressive highway system, GM also had a bus tour that gave Americans a glimpse of the future:

General Motors’ research Vice President Charles Kettering (Boss Ket) decided to take GM’s show on the road. Between 1936 and 1956, the company’s “Parade of Progress” toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, visiting hundreds of towns and showing millions how working examples of modern technology would transform their everyday lives.

Eight 30-foot, streamlined buses led the parade, six with walk-through exhibits, one with a stage and one carrying equipment, while nine tractor-trailers carried the remaining gear, and new models of GM cars followed. The red-and-white buses would pull into a small town, circle the wagons at the football field, and the buses would open like clams while electric floodlights rose on poles. A crew accompanied the parade and erected a tent that could accommodate up to 1,500 people for a free technology show.

The show was such a success that GM built 12 Futurliner buses in 1940, after the New York World’s Fair. The parade continued to tour until Pearl Harbor, after which it was disbanded and the buses stored in Ohio. They wouldn’t see the light of day for 12 years, until the “Parade of Progress” was revived in 1953, with 12 buses. But the world had changed. TV had stolen the parade’s thunder, and even though the show included new exhibits — Highways of Tomorrow, How a Jet Engine Works, Wonders of Stereo, Kitchen of Tomorrow and What is the Atom? — it was over by 1956.

It really does seem like a bygone era: a bus tour of America that would pull into a community and residents would come out to see the technology of the future. It is interesting that the article notes that the television was part of the demise of these bus tours. With the information the television provided plus the information available to anyone today through the Internet, who needs to check out a bus tour? At the same time, these experiences are quite different in that they are solitary and more passive. Additionally, I imagine there could be quite a crowd or energy that would build at these exhibitions. This would be a Durkheimian “collective effervescence” experience. What would be the equivalent today: people showing up at the Apple store to see the latest technological wizardry? But this sort of experience would be about a single or just a few digital devices and less about an exciting vision of the future. Is there any place these days that offers a comprehensive and positive view of the future?

I also wonder how much these GM exhibits helped push the narrative of scientific and technological progress that seemed to develop in the post-World War II United States.