Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Local TV market ad celebrities, Bob Rohrman edition

For decades, American television viewers have been treated to (or subjected to, depending on one’s point of view) recurring characters in local television ads. In the Chicago region, Bob Rohrman was a mainstay:

Of all the Chicago auto dealers who ever graced the small screen as their own TV pitchman, few were as delightfully campy as Bob Rohrman.

Rohrman’s low-budget commercials radiated good humor and bad production, featuring his mustachioed and bespectacled face peering out from a variety of goofy costumes, a uniquely awkward delivery and flubbed lines that often devolved into a joyous cackle.

The spots were punctuated by a cheesy cartoon lion and the tag line: “There’s only one Bob ROHRRRR-man!”

Somehow it all worked, turning the Bob Rohrman Auto Group into one of the largest family-owned dealership groups in the Midwest, and its spokesman/founder into something of a Chicago celebrity.

In the era of cable and satellite television, streaming options, declining network television and local radio, and targeted commercials on particular platforms, we may be at the end of local advertising like this. All the advertising then becomes more corporate, slick, tied to national or multinational corporations. And we lose a few public characters who few people may have actually met but who many could recognize.

We purchased a vehicle from a Rohrman dealership several years ago. At no point, did I think about the commercials in that process. But, given the number of Rohrman commercials I have seen and heard over the years, who knows if it influenced me. (I can safely say that other auto pitchmen or dealers, including Max Madsen or the Webb boys, did not lead me to visit their lots.)

Advertising yourself through your vehicle

What does your car say about you? It can say a lot according to one Washington police department:

RichlandPDcars

The emphasis here is on limiting exposure to crime. Put a lot of information on your car, people might see it and take advantage.

But, this goes against what Americans argue is a feature of consumerism: the products purchased plus their customization and deployment reflects individuals and their personality. Americans do not just buy cars to get from one place to another. Instead, what model and trim and color buyers select reflects something about them. The pick-up truck reflects rugged individualism. The Toyota Prius reflects different sensibilities as does the Nissan Versa or the Subaru Outback. And then owners can modify the vehicle in a myriad of ways, including adding stickers or decals or a vanity plate to the back. And driving is essential to the American way of life.

Not all information given in public will lead to a crime. Of course, the tweet above does not cover all of the information one could add to their car. This includes messages about particular religions (think Coexist or fish emblems), political bumper stickers, and sports teams, just to name a few.

Seinfeld on the suburbs (and city)

I have watched a few episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I recently saw the opening episode of Season 4 where Jerry Seinfeld talks with Sarah Jessica Parker that included Seinfeld discussing the suburbs:

I grew up in the suburbs, didn’t like it — always wanted to live in the city. Now, I want to live in the suburbs.

This could be the story of many Americans. Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954, the era of a postwar population boom and mass suburbia. Millions grew up in new and expanding suburbs organized around single-family homes and driving. At some point, Seinfeld was drawn to the city where I’m guessing comedy and entertainment possibilities beckoned. His iconic television show Seinfeld revolved around quirky New York characters doing city things. Yet, whether he was in the suburbs or cities, he wanted to be elsewhere.

Seinfeld’s line in the episode is enhanced both three features of the episode: the 1976 Ford Squire station wagon Parker owns and loves, the discussion Parker and Seinfeld have about their growing up in the suburbs (with Parker just outside the suburban Baby Boomers but sounding like she had some similar experiences), and they drive out of Manhattan to the suburbs.

This could simply be the case of the grass is always greener on the other side. Seinfeld and Parker seem caught up in some nostalgia about simpler times. Or, it might hint at a larger conundrum in American life for many residents: is the suburban or urban life preferable? The big city offers cultural opportunities, jobs, unique communities, and often an urban identity. The suburbs offer private space, perceived safety and opportunities for kids, the American Dream.

There may even be places that offer some of both. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other major cities offer urban residential neighborhoods that have single-family homes where urbanites can escape to private dwellings and still be close to the urban excitement. Or, there are some suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs, with denser residences and downtowns, that feel more lively than the stereotypical suburban bedroom community.

This also gets to the crux of Seinfeld as a show. While it was massively popular and helped lead to a run of popular television shows on network television in the 1990s, Seinfeld’s quote above makes me wonder: is it a critique of cities or is it a celebration of them? Just as the characters turn out in the series to now be nice people, how does New York City fare in the end? The individual characters are not happy or content people; is this because of their personalities (the types that would never be happy anywhere) or is it provoked by the setting? Jerry lives in the city but the city always presents problems, from people who get in their way to unusual settings.

Even though these might just be television shows and personal memories, how these are later interpreted – positive sentiments regarding the suburbs or city? – can later influence whether Americans pursue a suburban or urban future.

NYC plans to provide social distancing space for pedestrians by closing more streets to cars

Sidewalks may not provide enough room to keep distance from others so New York City is planning to close more roads to vehicles:

New York City will close 40 miles (64 kilometers) of streets to cars, mostly near parks, to expand the amount of space that pedestrians have to keep social distance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The ultimate goal will be to have 100 miles of “open streets” during the coronavirus outbreak, de Blasio said Monday at a press briefing.

The mayor has been pressed by the City Council and bike advocates to open more streets to pedestrians and bikers, and to give more recreation possibilities to New Yorkers. De Blasio had resisted these proposals, saying they would create challenges for law enforcement. The mayor also said he was concerned that drivers might not obey the street closing, placing pedestrians and bikers in danger.

As a temporary measure, this seems like it makes some sense given the need for space to get outside within denser communities. It does raise other issues, such as delivering packages in certain areas or, as the article notes, law enforcement concerns.

Perhaps more interesting is the long-term consequences of such a move. In the last one hundred years or so, American cities and communities have often prioritized moving vehicles through cities. Manhattan already had a problem with crowded sidewalks before COVID-19. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety is already an issue. More cities were already considering closing streets to cars. Road closures might be motivated in the short-term by COVID-19 but this could also be part of a growing movement to provide for human-powered means of transportation.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Subways and individual cars during COVID-19

A new study suggests New York City’s subway system helped spread COVID-19:

The paper, by MIT economics professor and physician Jeffrey Harris, points to a parallel between high ridership “and the rapid, exponential surge in infections” in the first two weeks of March — when the subways were still packed with up to 5 million riders per day — as well as between turnstile entries and virus hotspots.

“New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic,” argues Harris, who works as a physician in Massachusetts.

While the study concedes that the data “cannot by itself answer question of causation,” Harris says the conditions of a typical subway car or bus match up with the current understanding of how the virus spreads…

“Social density … was a result of many factors — business, restaurants, bars, Madison Square Garden, sports arenas, concerts, and the things that make New York happen,” Foye said.

New York City is already unique with its level of mass transit use. The large subway system helps people move around in a crowded city where both parking and driving a car can prove difficult.

The contrast to New York City is sprawling suburbia (including within the New York City region – see Levittown). Americans love to drive and the suburbs are built around cars, driving, and covering relatively large distances on a daily basis within a private vehicle.

With Americans already predisposed toward driving if they can, will COVID-19 increase their reluctance to take mass transit? Is driving safer in these times? (Of course, one could look at the number of deaths related to cars – accidents, pedestrians – and argue otherwise.)

New York City is not the only city dependent on subways; numerous large cities around the world need subways to move large numbers of people. Perhaps there will be new health measures in subways and other forms of mass transit moving forward. But, without fundamentally altering such cities and the benefits that come with density, subways cannot be removed or limited on a long-term basis – can they?

A nation beholden to cars: a record number of pedestrians die in US in 2019

A new report highlights the dangers to pedestrians in the United States:

Based on data from the first six months of 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association predicts there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths that year, which would be a 5 percent increase over the 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018.

The 2019 figure is the highest number of such deaths in more than 30 years, according to the association…

While there’s been a significant increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade, the number of all other traffic deaths increased by only 2 percent…

“Following 30 years of declining pedestrian fatalities, there has been a complete reversal of progress,” Retting said in the release. “Pedestrians are at an inherent disadvantage in collisions, and we must continue to take a broad approach to pedestrian safety.”

While there are particular aspects of driving and pedestrian behavior that could be debated and addressed, there is a larger point that can be made with such data: the priority on American roadways goes to vehicles. This has been the case for decades and will continue to be the case for years to come. While efforts to make streets more amenable to walkers and bikers, these efforts are often limited to only a few areas. The goal of roadways in many places, included dense, populated areas, is to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible to where drivers want to go.  Tackling specific issues may help reduce the number of deaths but still leave the larger problem: Americans like cars and driving and our lives are often organized around driving.

More major American cities closing major roads to cars

San Francisco recently moved to restrict vehicles on Market Street, following actions and plans in other major cities:

A few weeks ago, there was a dramatic shift when San Francisco banned private cars on the busiest section of Market Street. Suddenly most automobiles were gone — Ubers, Lyfts, and tourists in rental cars banished. Historic streetcars and electric trolley buses glided along. Cyclists and electric scooter-riding commuters celebrated their new freedom…

Alarmed by rising traffic deaths and painful gridlock on downtown streets, New York City, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Toronto and other cities have instituted restrictions — forcing vehicles to share fewer lanes, ending curbside parking during rush hour or banning virtually all cars from signature boulevards in favor of mass transit.

Los Angeles is considering its own bold step: dramatically reducing the number of lanes for traffic along Hollywood Boulevard…

City officials nationwide talk of “Vision Zero,” a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, and “complete streets,” which value safety not only for cars but pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

This is a small shift away from prioritizing vehicular traffic over other uses for streets, including pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit, and street life. Closing major streets to vehicles, even for just part of the day, signals that cars and trucks should not necessarily have priority.

Yet, even with these changes, significant challenges are still ahead:

1. Such closures can help make these streets more attractive to other users. However, does it deal with the issue of driving more broadly? Making moves such as this without adding mass transit options throughout the region or discouraging driving in other ways may not do much beyond make particular streets better off. Hopefully, these road closures are part of comprehensive plans to address driving and congestion in the big picture.

2. Once there are fewer cars, how can the city return the roadways and sidewalks to a more pedestrian and social scale? Take Market Street. It is a wide roadway. It is lined with tall buildings. Retailers have struggled to stay in business. Simply reducing traffic does not necessarily turn it into a lively streetscape.

3. It is worth watching how these closures affect traffic elsewhere. Generally, going on road diets should help reduce car usage. If people cannot drive down Market, will they clog up other roads or switch to other forms of transit? San Francisco and the other major cities cited above are all known for traffic and congestion; what if more traffic moves to residential areas? While they are not an organized force, the thousands of drivers each day in major cities can make their voices heard in various ways (and know ride-sharing companies can represent some of that population).