How Chicago became “the alley capital of the country”

Chicago has a lot of alleys and here is how they came to be:

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west…

According to cartographer and Chicago history buff Dennis McClendon, alleys had become so commonplace in the American West that the Illinois General Assembly “simply expected it to happen in Chicago.”…

The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”…

For its boom years in the 1800s, Chicago was an alley monster; it planned new blocks with alleys, annexed towns with alleys, and added territory to its alley-riddled gridiron. But all grid things must come to an end, and soon communities started popping up without alleys.

The first of those communities arrived in 1869. That year, Frederick Law Olmsted — the father of landscape architecture (and who later played a huge role in Chicago’s landscape) — planned the community of Riverside, which was situated on what was considered to be the far western outskirts of the Chicago region. It was the first planned suburb in America, and the earliest sign of divergence from Chicago’s alley trend.

In other words, Chicago has alleys because when it was founded, many communities had alleys. Chicago just happened to boom at this time and the alley was seen as a normal feature – until it slowly petered out in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, different expectations took over which emphasized lawns and cars. The vast majority of post-World War II housing does not include alleys as the car is given a prominent spot at the front of the house (with a driveway and garage) and the backyard became a private and important space. Today, New Urbanists promote alleys largely because they are a traditional design feature that removes undesirable activities (like cars) to the back and allows the house to be closer to the street (encouraging sociability). And, I have hard time imagining many municipalities want to pay for alleys – they add an additional layer of cost and infrastructure.

Children and mass transit

As a new father who uses public transportation almost exclusively, two recent items re: public transportation and children caught my eye. First, a Rockville, MD “Principal Calls CPS After Mom Lets Daughter, 10, Ride City Bus to School” [h/t Adam Holland]

It had been brought to her attention, the principal said, by some “concerned parents,” that my daughter had been riding the city bus to and from school. I said, yes, we had just moved outside of the neighborhood, and felt that this was the most convenient way for our 5th grader to get there and back. The principal asked was I not concerned for her safety? “Safety from what?” I inquired. “Kidnapping,” she said reluctantly. I said that I would not bore her by talking statistics that, being in the business of taking care of young children, she surely knew better than I did….

It was raining hard the next day so I offered to drive L. [my daughter] to the bus stop. I thought she’d want to wait in the car with me, but she said, “It’s okay mom, you go work. I want to say hi to my friends.” “Your friends?” “Well, they are not my kid friends. They are just, you know, my people friends.” There was the Chinese lady, the lady with the baby who cried a lot (but it’s not his fault, he can’t help it), and the grandma who always got on at the next stop. In a few short weeks, my daughter had surrounded herself with a community of people who recognized her, who were happy to see her, and who surely would step in if someone tried to hurt her.

My son is only five months old–years away from travelling solo. But I can attest that a community springs up around him whenever I take him on a bus or train. Our fellow riders are generally friendly when he is happy and understanding when he is not.  Either way, they definitely notice him, and I have little doubt that they would step in if something were wrong.

Moreover, even at his young age, my son seems to enjoy making friends through these public interactions, often going out of his way to stare at someone seated nearby until he catches their eye and can start smiling and babbling at them. As Carla Saulter explains in a second post, “Why Public Transportation Is Good for Kids“:

It’s become part of the collective American belief system that cars are the preferred (if not the only acceptable) mode of transportation for our children. Cars are now viewed as an essential tool of good middle-class parenting — both as a means of keeping our children safe from the evils of the outside world and of providing convenient access to the myriad destinations to which we are required to deliver them….

As they grow up riding buses and trains, kids master the skills required to get around. They start small, like my daughter, who recently began carrying her own bag (a pink backpack with a train, per her request) and move on to stop recognition, schedule reading, and trip planning. Long before their peers are old enough to drive, junior transit riders have the skills to ride solo. The confidence that comes from these abilities will help them when they face problems mom and dad can’t help with.

And speaking of facing things … Kids who spend most of their time in controlled spaces — from home to car to school/mall/lesson/play date — have very limited contact with the people they share the world with. Kids who ride transit, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunity to interact with their fellow humans. They learn to accept differences, interact politely with strangers, and set and respect boundaries.

Riding mass transit can be inconvenient, and it certainly isn’t a parenting panacea. However, it can also be a safe, wonderful option for exposing children to other people and the wider world.

I think my son and I will be riding the bus for years to come.

“This [car] is bound for glory…”

Megan Garber of the Atlantic explains the car-centric origins of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral:

The efficiencies of the [Orange Drive-In Theatre where Rev. Schuller first held services in 1955 in Orange County, CA] were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car….”

The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged….It was, with its peculiar yet practical combination of openness and enclosure, an improvised idea that happened to fit its time. The Schullers’ motto? “Come as you are in the family car.”

As the article goes on to note, Schuller eventually moved out of the drive-in and into his Crystal Cathedral, which has been “in the news most recently for its financial troubles — culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church’s leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese.”  I guess things went a little off the rails at some point.

More seriously, however, I find Schuller’s integration of the automobile into Christian liturgy fascinating (and more than a little disturbing).  Megan’s article makes it clear that, by and large, Schuller’s drive-in congregants remained in their cars throughout services (“Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows”).  It’s hard to understand how attendees could have Christian communion–in either the literal or general sense–by themselves from the walled-off comfort of their own cars.

“Peer to peer” car sharing ramps up

I’ve talked before about how car sharing service Zipcar has freed my wife and me from needing to own a car.  Unfortunately, similar non-ownership options aren’t available to most Americans for the simple reason that Zipcar’s fleet is mostly concentrated in urban centers and around college campuses.  For many suburbanites, the prospect of an inexpensive, on-demand, by-the-hour car rental hasn’t been an actual prospect.

With RelayRides rolling out nationwide this week, however, that may be changing:

Companies like RelayRides…offer a different take on carsharing than the one established by Zipcar and its competitors. While those companies own fleets of cars, RelayRides is entirely peer-to-peer — if you have a car, then you can make it available for rental when you’re not using it. RelayRides says the average car owner makes $250 a month from the program.

Since it takes advantage of the cars already on the road, founder and chief community officer Shelby Clark argues that peer-to-peer carsharing can have a big impact — after all, a fleet-based company couldn’t simply declare one day that it’s launching nationally.

This is potentially very disruptive of Zipcar’s business model.  RelayRides (and other challengers like Getaround) don’t have to go head-to-head with Zipcar in many parts of the country because those markets are utterly unserved.  And even where RelayRides has to go head-to-head with Zipcar, their prices seem comparable.  So long as the reservation process and pickup hassle is roughly the same, I know I would have no problem booking cars through RelayRides.  My purchases within an active market for by-the-hour car rentals would simply be driven by normal consumer considerations like price, convenience, customer service, etc.

Indeed, this is the beauty of the free market, as Leigh Beadon over at Techdirt reminds us:

Nobody is immune—not even the last disruptor. Companies like Zipcar changed the game with their car-sharing services, but they are already facing new challengers….How big and how successful [RelayRides’] approach will become remains to be seen, but it’s a creative idea that makes a clear point: disruption can happen anywhere, to anyone. As the entertainment industry continues to fight progress, experts from every side of the debate love to make profound-sounding statements about how the internet has changed our media consumption habits, but that’s old news. From mobile-based taxi & limo services to the coming era of 3D printers and things like the Pirate Bay’s Physibles site, digital technologies are disrupting a lot of things, not just media.

Pedestrians in a world of driverless cars

Many bloggers are starting to tease out the social and infrastructure implications of driverless cars, including David Alpert over at the Atlantic:

[Driverless cars] will bring many changes, but when it comes to the car’s role in the city, they may just intensify current tensions.

David suggests that new technology will simply exacerbate current trends by “trigger[ing] a whole new round of pressure to further redesign intersections for the throughput of vehicles above all else”:

If autonomous cars travel much faster than today’s cars and operate closer to other vehicles and obstacles, as we see in the [University of] Texas team’s simulation , then they may well kill more pedestrians. Or, perhaps the computers controlling them will respond so quickly that they can avoid hitting any pedestrian, even one who steps out in front of a car.

In that case, we might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can’t kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.

Our metropolitan areas could then look, more and more, like zoos for humans interlaced with pathways for the dominant species, the robot car.

Personally, I think one of these scenarios (i.e., “travel much faster…[and] kill more pedestrians”) is unlikely.  Initially, driverless cars will almost certainly be much more expensive than equivalent conventional vehicles.  A car that is both (1) more expensive and (2) more dangerous seems unlikely to sell well, to say nothing of the likelihood that such lawsuit-magnets would be sued utterly out of existence.  To catch on with a mass market, driverless cars will at least need to uphold safety’s current status quo.

As far as David’s second fear (“metropolitan areas [that] look, more and more, like zoos for humans”), I’m unclear how much that differs from current development patterns.  While there are plenty of examples of “walkable” cities, much of contemporary American infrastructure is extremely unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-car users.  To the extent that cars dominate today’s roads, a move to driverless cars seems only to continue, rather than augment, that trend.

Car free in DC

Washington, DC is seeing fewer cars these days, at least on a per-person basis:

Car registrations in the District have hovered around 275,000 over the last decade, according to D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Director Lucinda Babers, even as the city’s population ballooned by more than 40,000 people in that time.

Experts say two forces are driving the change. There are more ways to get around the city without a car, and the down economy has everyone looking for ways to cut costs, like getting rid of that second vehicle.

As new residents of the DC area, my wife and I are part of this trend (though our location in the suburbs a few miles beyond the District’s boundary line means that we’re technically not part of this cited statistic).  There are indeed plenty of ways to get around the metro area without owning a car.  My wife’s office is a 10-minute bus ride away from our apartment (it would be 8 minutes by car), and I work mostly from home.  It’s hard to imagine that paying ~$600/month (i.e., conservatively, $200 car payment and/or maintenance, $200 insurance for two, $200 gas) vs. ~$60 for her bus fares is worth the extra 4 minutes a day.

To be sure, we are fortunate to have such great transit options available for our work (short bus ride and telecommuting, respectively).  But what really makes our situation workable is that we can (and do) still use cars quite often.  For short weekly trips (e.g., grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, etc.), we use Zipcar (~$10/hour all inclusive, including rental, insurance, and gas).  For more special occasions (e.g., weekend getaways), we hire a vehicle from a traditional rental car company (e.g., Hertz, Budget, Enterprise).

Moreover, not owning a car has had a surprising, unforeseen side effect:  I actually like driving again.  I used to commute 1.5 hours/day through the Chicago suburbs, and I detested driving.  Now, I drive a handful of times throughout each month, and every drive feels like I’m zooming through car-commercial-world, fused with the open road.

All in all, our monthly transportation budget is considerably more than the $60 “minimum” needed for my wife’s bus commute.  It is also far less than the $600/month it would cost us to own (and use) our own car.  And there are plenty of intangible benefits of not sitting in traffic every day.  Down economy or not, it doesn’t always make sense to own a car.

Consider not getting the Bluetooth option

A post in MIT’s Technology review today reminds us why embedded computing is not always a good thing:  the modern car is hackable:

Researchers who have spent the last two years studying the security of car computer systems have revealed that they can take control of vehicles wirelessly.

The researchers were able to control everything from the car’s brakes to its door locks to its computerized dashboard displays by accessing the onboard computer through GM’s OnStar and Ford’s Sync. [emphasis added]

Maybe you should seriously consider opting out of Bluetooth connectivity on your next vehicle.

Update: Stewart Baker over at the Volokh Conspiracy points out that some cars can be hacked via CDs or MP3s acting as a Trojan horse, which suggests a new RIAA business model:

Considering the clout they’ve already demonstrated on Capitol Hill, it may just be a matter of time before the industry persuades Senator Leahy to introduce the “Steal Our Music, We Steal Your Car” Act of 2011, authorizing copyright owners to introduce car-hacking code into Limewire and Bittorrent networks and then take possession of the music thieves’ vehicles.  No doubt, they can produce studies showing that the act would create thousands of exciting auto repo jobs, and a tie-in with CarMax would help share the lobbying burden.

He’s kidding, of course.  But it’s a little sad that you had to wonder for a second, isn’t it?

Flying car cleared for take-off

Perhaps the predictions from the mid 20th century about flying cars may become reality. (Or maybe not.) Regardless, the Terrafugia Transition has been approved as a “light sport aircraft” by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Telegraph gives some of the specs:

The two-seater Transition can use its front-wheel drive on roads at ordinary highway speeds, with wings folded, at a respectable 30 miles per gallon. Once it has arrived at a suitable take-off spot – an airport, or adequately sized piece of flat private land – it can fold down the wings, engage its rear-facing propellor, and take off. The folding wings are electrically powered.

Its cruising speed in the air is 115mph, it has a range of 460 miles, and it can carry 450lb. It requires a 1,700-foot (one-third of a mile) runway to take off and can fit in a standard garage.

The aircraft/car is expected to sell for just under $200,000 so it’s not exactly ready for the mass market. There are some suburban aircraft communities – they typically have houses surroundings runways so pilots can taxi their small planes right to their garage. But those communities still have regular aircraft, not a plane you could fly to your workplace and then drive to Wal-Mart. And just imagine skipping an interstate traffic jam by taking off.

Final question: does the Transition fit through a standard fast-food drive-through lane?