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).

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

A country of roving electric car fleets

Andrew Yang is not the first to propose this though he may be the first presidential contender to do so: replace car ownership with fleets of autonomous vehicles.

He told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that “we might not own our own cars” by 2050 to wean the United States economy off of fossil fuels, describing private car ownership as “really inefficient and bad for the environment.” Privately owned cars would be replaced by a “constant roving fleet of electric cars.”…

“What we’re really selling is not the car, it’s mobility,” he said. “So if you have mobility that’s then tied into a much more, if you had like, for example, this constant roving fleet of electric cars that you would just order up, then you could diminish the impact of ground transportation on our environment very, very quickly.”

Americans like driving and have integrated vehicles into all sorts of daily activities. This would not just be about replacing the ability of a car owner to get into their vehicle whenever they want and drive around; this could change how houses are designed (garages could be placed elsewhere or eliminated), the fast food business, big box stores, rush hour (perhaps there would not or should not be enough vehicles in the fleet to meet the needs of current rush hour), road trips, and more.

It is interesting to consider how willing people would be to do this. Is this really just about mobility? Interest in driving may be lagging for younger Americans but do they want to give up cars altogether (or privately owned autonomous vehicles that could be more like rooms) in favor of vehicles that are shared with others? Would such changes require denser housing or could it enable more sprawl? If given choices about what changes to make regarding climate change, would people favor other options rather than giving up cars?

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?