American laws privileging driving, zoning, and differential effects

A law professor summarizes how American law reinforces driving in multiple ways:

A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit…

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths…

In a similar spirit, criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. Deep down, all of us who drive are afraid of accidentally killing someone and going to jail; this lesser charge was originally envisioned to persuade juries to convict reckless drivers. Yet this accommodation reflects a pattern. Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light. So often do police officers in New York fail to enforce road-safety rules—and illegally park their own vehicles on sidewalks and bike facilities—that specific Twitter accounts are dedicated to each type of misbehavior. Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.”

Several related thoughts after reading the plentiful examples:

  1. The first example provided involved single-family home zoning. Cars and homes are intimately linked in the United States and particularly in the suburbs.
  2. I would be interested to see more discussion of how the legal structures arose alongside the rise of driving in the United States. Was it a back and forth? Did the quick acceptance of driving push the legal system in certain directions or did early legal changes give driving a boost?
  3. The approach of this article reminds me a bit of The Color of Law with the emphasis on the legal system. And the overall argument seems to be that such laws force Americans into driving. But, are there precedent-setting legal cases that could reverse this? Does the legal preference for driving rise to the level of discrimination? A case could be made since driving is expensive and owning a reliable car and driving is related to class which in the United States is also tied to race. Homeownership helps build wealth for certain groups that own but could driving also do the same? Or consider spatial mismatch where jobs and economic opportunities might be hard to access without a significant drive via car.
  4. How might this change with driverless cars and autonomous vehicles? The current system seems to privilege drivers but what if there are not drivers but rather processors, companies, and vehicle owners?

Get creative and sell home and new car together as package deal

Thinking about an earlier post linking new upscale car purchases with suburban gentrification, I had an idea: why not sell more homes and new cars together as a package deal? Here are reasons this could be a good pairing:

  1. Americans like the lifestyle that comes with a single-family home and driving a car. It is particularly important in the suburbs where owning a home and the ability to drive rank high in importance. Put these two big purchases together and sell a whole lifestyle.
  2. Both a home and a car are a status symbol. Pairing the two really provides an opportunity to brand the owner. Would someone want to purchase a McMansion but still drive a two Toyota Tercel or a Pontiac Aztek? Or, retire and downsize to a nice urban condo and keep driving a minivan or an older model SUV? Matching the home and the car at the same time provides a unique opportunity to establish oneself.
  3. I wonder if there are some “efficiencies” in purchasing both at the same time. On the producer side, developers and dealers want to move properties and cars; if selling them together helps, this is a deal. On the buyer side, perhaps they can roll all of the costs together and just pay one lump sum a month for two important items. (Mortgage documents might be hard enough to put together, let alone a joint document rolling together a mortgage and a car loan). Could it all be cheaper for the buyer (or get the sellers/lenders more money in the long run on interest)?

I would guess there are also good reasons this is not done widely. Still, given how much Americans like buying properties and like driving and cars, there may be potential here.

Linking nicer cars to a suburb on the rise

From the Australian suburbs: one insider suggests seeing nicer cars in driveways signals good prospects for the suburban community.

The gentrification of the driveway happens before the gentrification of a suburb, says the boss of a data analytics company.

Upmarket vehicles beginning to appear in the carports and garages of houses is often a forerunner of a suburb on the rise, as renovators move in...

When more models such as a BMW X5 or an Audi SUV begin appearing in the driveway of houses and apartments in particular suburban streets, it is a reliable predictor of a suburb undergoing gentrification and becoming much more popular with renovators. Extra investment in community infrastructure often followed, and there was a broad flow on to higher property prices…

He said households who were taking out a loan for $500,000 to buy a rundown home in an up-and-coming area were often also purchasing a $30,000 to $40,000 car to fit the aspirational lifestyle.

The article chalks this up to a big data insight as bringing together multiple pieces of information helped reveal this relationship. I can see how this new information might help investors but it is less clear how this would help residents or local governments.

More broadly, this gets at something my dad always said: look at the cars in driveways, on the street, or in parking spots and it gives you a sense of the people who live there. In societies that prize cars, such as in the United States and Australia and particularly their suburbs, a vehicle becomes an important social marker. The one-to-one relationship might not always work as some people buy more expensive cars than their housing might indicate and vice versa (recall the stories of millionaires driving old reliable cars). Yet, on the whole, people of different social classes drive different vehicles in varying states of repair. Hence, various brands aim at different segments of the market. Famously, General Motors did this early in the 20th century with five different car lines to appeal to different kinds of buyers.

UPDATE: I probably did not contribute to this upward trend with long-term ownership of a Toyota Echo. But, it looked good for its age.

 

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

UX, sociologists and anthropologists, and changing cars

Design thinking has come to Ford and with it insights from sociologists and anthropologists:

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work…

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s…

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Both disciplines of sociology and anthropology could benefit from sharing how corporations use them. UX is a growing field and majors in these disciplines could offer unique skills in going after such jobs.
  2. This reminds me of the process social scientists often go through with new concepts. If they pronounce concepts or labels from above, they may then get pushback from those closer to everyday life. On the ground realities should influence how we understand larger patterns. At the same time, the reverse could be true: the user-experience/everyday realities could become so important that they overshadow the larger patterns or constraints.
  3. That Ideo is involved in this process does not surprise me. In class, I use an old Nightline clip of Ideo designing a shopping cart to illustrate how organizations could work.

Consequences of an auto loan bubble

With more financing options available for purchasing cars, American driving is up:

By increasing access to cars, lax financing standards also appear to be contributing to a national rise in driving, and with it, declining public transit ridership. In the latest edition of its biennial survey of who’s riding buses and trains in U.S. cities, Transit Center, a public transportation research and advocacy group out of New York, notes that the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2015, with foreign-born residents, who are more likely to earn lower incomes and ride transit, posting even sharper declines.

In the survey, respondents who reported decreasing their bus and train use overwhelmingly replaced transit with private cars. And almost half of respondents who said they’d purchased a car over the past two years received a loan to finance it. Of those, 56 percent said that getting a loan “was easier than they had expected.”

Of course, improved car access among lower-income groups might look to be a positive trend on its face, since a personal vehicle can equate opportunity. So strong is the historic link between car ownership and household income that a trio of transportation equity scholars recently called for subsidizing access to wheels for poor Americans. But fewer rides made by public transportation and more by private automobile is a trend with consequences that transcend the U.S. economy: It feeds the planet’s existential problem of rising carbon emissions, especially since SUV and truck sales have become particularly popular during this auto-loan boom. “The rise in auto debt is evidence that we’re dependent on cars in an unsustainable way,” said Cross.

The new high-water line of defaulted auto loans also suggests that personal vehicles aren’t always golden tickets. Instead, for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they’re a catch-22: If you don’t have the money and can’t buy a car, you’ll struggle to make ends meet. And if you don’t have the money, but still buy a car, you’re liable to fall even further behind. Vehicles may be the table stakes for playing in the U.S. economy, but in so many ways, it’s getting harder to win.

As noted by many, just as homeownership came within the reach of more people in the 2000s due to creative lending options and subprime options, the same is true of the auto industry. Does this mean that a burst bubble in car loans – due to many people being behind on their vehicle payments – would cause Americans to rethink driving and the reliance on personal vehicles?

I would guess no. At this point in American history, the country is too far in on its dependence on driving. It is not just about driving to work; driving offers opportunities to access cheaper housing, independence for drivers compared to utilizing mass transit which works on consistent schedules and requires being around other people, and a host of consumer and recreational opportunities primarily accessible through driving (think big box stores, shopping malls, fast food places, road trips, etc.). This list does not even account for the auto industry and the construction industry which have huge stakes in more driving.

At the same time, while Americans have resisted public housing, would they be more amenable toward government help in obtaining or paying for cars? Few communities or government agencies have provided cars or money towards cars but it may be necessary in a society heavily dependent on getting around via a car.

 

#1 payment priority for Americans: car loan

In a country dependent on and built around driving, perhaps the importance of making car payments is not a surprise:

“Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, “said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.”

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places…

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be more savvy about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

This article made me think a little: does this mean that cars come before homes in the United States? This would counter my own claim that suburbs are more about single-family homes then they are about cars – see my rough rankings of Why Americans Love About Suburbs.

Yet, the suburbs existed before cars. By the early 1900s, suburbs existed and utilized transportation technologies like railroads and streetcars. Mass suburbanization certainly occurred on a different scale with the availability of cars in the 1920s and then after World War II. But, the United States would have had some form of suburbs and their emphasis on single-family homes without cars even if that was on a smaller scale.

The whole relationships between cars and homes was cemented in the postwar era when increasing sprawl really did limit other transportation options for many people. And the shift of jobs to the suburbs made this problem even worse. Perhaps we could shift the what-if scenario to the future: could the suburbs go on without cars (hard to imagine) or cars on without suburbs (probably)?