US roadway deaths rise 10.5% in one year

Fatalities on American roads increased quite a bit in 2021:

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Nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year, the highest number in 16 years as Americans returned to the roads after the coronavirus pandemic forced many to stay at home.

The 10.5% jump over 2020 numbers was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its fatality data collection system in 1975. Exacerbating the problem was a persistence of risky driving behaviors during the pandemic, such as speeding and less frequent use of seat belts, as people began to venture out more in 2021 for out-of-state and other road trips, analysts said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said America faces a crisis on its roads. The safety administration urged state and local governments, drivers and safety advocates to join in an effort to reverse the rising death trend…

Buttigieg pointed to a national strategy unveiled earlier this year aimed at reversing the trend. He said earlier that over the next two years his department will provide federal guidance as well as billions in grants under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law to spur states and localities to lower speed limits and embrace safer road design such as dedicated bike and bus lanes, better lighting and crosswalks. The strategy also urges the use of speed cameras, which the department says could provide more equitable enforcement than police traffic stops.

Americans like driving and all that comes with driving. Because of this, Americans generally accept the risks of driving. While people may have fears of airplanes crashing or being hit by lightning or other improbable occurrences, the regularity of vehicle accidents does not seem to bother many.

Would a big jump in roadway fatalities catch people’s attention in a way that a typical year-to-year change would not? That this jump is tied to COVID-19 is also an interesting twist; driving might be more dangerous during and after a deadly pandemic. Also in the article, officials note the difficulty of quickly reducing roadway deaths. When do such deaths become an acknowledged crisis or a serious social problem?

Many goods come via truck, few want to encounter those trucks on a suburban road

Trucking is essential to the American economy. However, it is not desirable to encounter many trucks on local roads. Here is how one Chicago area county wants to address the issue:

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“The key is really getting trucks onto the interstate as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Patricia Mangano, senior transportation planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

As the county grows and the region continues to be an important national transportation hub, the study recommends strategies to minimize the negative impact of freight traffic to residents and the environment…

The report says that high volumes of truck traffic have led to safety and congestion concerns, especially in sensitive areas such as historic districts, neighborhoods or environmentally protected areas. The study notes western Will County’s natural and cultural assets, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Kankakee River, could be negatively affected by new development and traffic…

“We are the proverbial crossroads of America,” he said, noting residents just want to ensure they can get from work to home to their children’s activities without being caught in traffic.

In recent decades, Will County has become home to an increasing number of warehouses and intermodal facilities. This could be viewed as a positive for economic activity and growth which then leads to more tax revenues, jobs, and prestige.

Yet, certain industries do not necessarily mesh well with the suburban single-family home ideal. Trucks are related to a number of concerns residents have about all sorts of land uses: noise, traffic, lights, threats to the residential ideal they hope for.

I see the point of routing truck traffic along particular roads. This also has the effect of altering those roads. I can think of several major thoroughfares near here that are full of truck traffic during the day. Driving on these roads can be quite different than driving on other main roads. And because the way many suburban communities are laid out, there are often not good alternative routes since traffic in general is funneled from smaller residential streets to larger volume roads.

An impractical suggestion that might please suburban residents: have truck only roads that lead from industrial and commercial properties straight to highways. In many locations, this might work as warehouses and distribution centers are clustered together as are big box stores and shopping malls. On suburban roads without big trucks, suburbanites might occasionally find the opportunity to drive like people do in car commercials: on the open road.

Can a suburban newspaper call for less driving and two long-term options for minimizing driving in suburbs

The headline to an editorial earlier this week in the suburban Daily Herald said “we need to re-evaluate our relationship with cars”. More from the editorial:

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If drivers have been reluctant to limit their car use and reduce mileage in the past, they now have two headline-making reasons to reconsider: painful prices at the pump and a sobering recent report on climate change.

Meeting both challenges means committing to conservation as individuals — and as a society…

Minimizing driving and maximizing the efficiency of our cars are vital tools in the battles to lower gas bills and protect our planet.

The Daily Herald covers news in the suburbs of Chicago and is based in Arlington Heights, a suburb with a denser downtown roughly 25 miles northwest of Chicago. In other words, they serve an area built on cars and driving. Their headquarters is primarily accessible by cars and is next to a major interstate.

One of the primary features of the American suburbs is that it revolves around driving. Single-family homes with larger lots are made possible by cars. Commuting to other suburbs or large cities is made possible by cars. Fast food is made possible by cars. Big box stores and shopping malls rely on cars. And so on. More broadly, one could argue the American way of life is built around cars.

I do see two longer-term and possible suburban options that could minimize driving:

-Denser suburban developments, downtowns, and communities. In the Chicago area, downtown densification has been a trend for a while as communities seek downtown residents who can then patronize local business. “Surban” communities are of interest. New Urbanists promote residences within walking distances of regular needs.

-More working from home. COVID-19 has accelerated this but technology does make it possible for some workers.

In both cases, suburbanites might not be able to give up cars all together but a household might be able to go from two to one car with less driving. That would reduce pollution, traffic, and parking needs.

However, both of these shifts are significant ones. Denser suburban areas are not necessarily ones with single-family homes on big lots. Denser areas put people in closer proximity to each other. Working from home might be technologically feasible but might not be desirable by corporations and organizations or by communities who relied on commuters and workers. These might be options more available in some communities or some residents rather than to all suburbanites.

The multiple NIMBYs in the way of “electrify everything”

A new book suggests a climate change answer is “electrify everything” but the author describes some NIMBY roadblocks to this idea:

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Griffith: There is no easy answer. There are different NIMBYs at play. There are “No wind turbines off my coastline!” NIMBYs. There are “No gas line running through my backyard!” NIMBYs. There are “I don’t like the look of solar cells!” NIMBYs. For those complaining about the view, I would remind them that a huge amount of land is already taken up by our energy-transmission systems. Millions of miles of dedicated coal rail lines and natural-gas pipelines are already strewn across the landscape. They only seem invisible because they’ve blended in over the past century.

Thompson: Okay, if there’s no easy answer, what’s the hard answer?

Griffith: I’m going to give you an answer that I’ve only been thinking about for a few weeks. I think the argument will be won on local economics. If you take a suburb with a thousand homes in it, those families might spend $3.5 million a year on gasoline. When those families fill their car with gas, the money immediately leaves the community and goes to Texas or Saudi Arabia. But if the cars are run on electricity that comes from their own rooftops and houses, then no money is leaving the community. You can take that $3.5 million and build new classrooms. That’s really exciting to me…

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

This does seem to be the trick: how to convince the majority of Americans that green energy benefits their daily lives. And if they actually gain money for their own households or for goods they want in their community, this would help. If individual homeowners do not want to take more responsibility for generating electricity (solar panels on the roof), it could devolve into arguing which less fortunate suburb should be home to the solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

Thinking bigger, what if green energy enables suburban life to continue, as opposed to a vision where people need to live in denser concentrations in order to use less energy? I wonder about this externality of more electric vehicles: if pollution via driving and the need for gas are reduced, can sprawl even expand?

You can buy the newly constructed home – without a garage door

Supply chain issues have limited the availability of garage doors for new homes:

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In most parts of the country, a builder can’t pass final inspection for a home that is otherwise perfectly complete — but that is missing its garage door. That means builders don’t get paid and home buyers can’t move in…

These last two years, the garage has also become the answer to all kinds of pandemic problems. It’s the remote office, the home gym, the one-room schoolhouse and the makeshift bedroom for doubled-up family. The pandemic has effectively completed the decades-long evolution of the garage from a detached carriage house to a connected car annex to a space inseparable from the home itself.

Along the way, the garage door became, for many, the real front door. And so it can be surreal to see brand-new homes with their garages sealed in plywood, or to hear homebuilders talk of installing temporary ones. Welcome to your dream home! The real garage door will be coming later…

Amid all this variety, a few problems have been acute lately. Many doors contain spray-foam insulation, which has been in short supply since the plants in Texas that manufacture its chemical components were disrupted in last year’s winter freeze. (If you make garage doors, you’re also competing for polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride with window frames, vinyl siding, caulking — and the aerospace, cruise ship and automotive industries.)

Many other garage door components are made from steel, which has also been in short supply. And even companies that manufacture the finished doors domestically typically source parts from China that have been snarled in global shipping.

Having a garage is essential in many ways (hence the need for it in a final inspection): it protects whatever is in the garage from the elements, it seals up the opening for safety, it provides for entering and leaving, and it is part of the front that home presents to the world.

Indeed, with the development of the single-family home in the United States, the garage became a key, and sometimes, leading component. With homes in the suburbs dependent on cars plus the ownership of more and more vehicles, garages became larger and featured more prominently in the front facade. As the term “snout house” implies, some houses literally lead with the garage closest to the street. In other homes, the garage might be set further back or even discreetly turned or more hidden from the front. Regardless where the garage is placed and featured, it is very important to the American single-family home.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink garages and how they might work. As noted above, many garages have been used in different ways during COVID-19. Is there a way to build them where they can be more quickly converted without the need for a traditional large door? In a possible future of electric car fleets, how would a home garage work?

Large disparities in risk of death across American transportation modes

Here is the risk of dying in a vehicle compared to other modes of transportation:

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Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage examined American crash data over a decade, concluding that 7.3 people died in a car or truck for every billion passenger miles, 30 times the risk on urban rail and 66 times the risk aboard a bus. (If you’re wondering, motorcycles are by far the riskiest vehicles of all, while airplane travel is the safest.)

Even with these numbers, there are multiple reasons why many continue to prefer to drive:

Studies show that people typically feel safer in vehicles they control compared to those they cannot (i.e., a car compared to a bus or train). Worse, the rare transit crash is often a top media story, while daily car collisions barely register. “It’s baked into how we talk about crashes,” says Millar, of Washington State. “We had an Amtrak train crash here, three people died, and it was international news. That same week 10 people died on highways in this state—and it was the same the week before that, and the week before that.”

According to psychology’s “availability heuristic,” the intense attention paid to exceedingly rare plane or train crashes can lead us to unconsciously exaggerate their frequency, while the media’s shrug at car crashes causes us to discount the dangers of driving. One extreme example: A study found that the shift away from flying toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 led to over 2,000 additional traffic deaths in the United States.

Lots of interesting factors to consider here. Do the perceived advantages of driving block out any consideration of the risk? Even if people had these numbers at their fingertips, would they consider risks or numbers?

I have argued before that the preference for driving is strong. If people in the United States have the resources and opportunity, they will pick driving over mass transit. Of course, the system is set up to make this choice for driving easier with an emphasis on roads and linking important cultural values and driving (such as individualism, taking road trips, suburban life, etc.).

This may be a prime case where making an argument from the numbers simply will not get far given the cultural narratives and social systems already in place. Perhaps the numbers could be paired with a compelling story or narrative? Even then, it could take a long time to convince Americans that because driving is more dangerous than other options they need to switch to other modes of transportation.

Suburban voters and the French presidential election

Residents of the American suburbs may hold the keys to major political outcomes. Is the same true in France?

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ON THE FRINGES of greater Paris, where urban concrete meets farmed fields, lies the suburb of Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. Gently curved streets of two-storey houses, each with a parking space and garage, cover what were once apple and pear orchards. The narrow high street has just one café, and a “Cheesy Pizza” takeaway joint; but there is a drive-in Burger King on the outskirts. This is what the mayor, Nicolas Leleux, calls “the border of two universes”: city and countryside. It captures the worries and hopes of middle France, and exemplifies a crucial electoral battleground for April’s presidential poll.

Shy of extremes, the suburb tilts to the centre-right. In 2017 Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt preferred the centre-right presidential candidate, François Fillon, in the first round, but backed the centrist Emmanuel Macron against the nationalist Marine Le Pen in the second. In 2020 it replaced a centre-right mayor with Mr Leleux, a former navy submariner who belongs to Mr Macron’s party. Locals, in other words, may be torn at the presidential poll this time between a vote for Mr Macron, assuming he runs for re-election, and his centre-right rival, Valérie Pécresse. A well-known figure locally, she is the president of the Ile-de-France region, which encompasses the city of Paris itself and Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, 17 kilometres (11 miles) away…

What comes into sharpest relief in Saint-Brice is the collision between the needs of daily life, notably the car, and the desire for a greener future. A place of quiet middle-of-the-road aspiration, it evokes what Mr Leleux calls the “French dream”. “People have left the city to come here, not to live in a tower block, but in a house with a little garden, with neighbours, and a place to barbecue.” Nearly 88% of households own at least one car. His task, he explains, is to reconcile that dream with the need to reduce car usage. Few can afford an electric vehicle. Mr Leleux is planning cycle lanes and building a bike shelter at the railway station, on a direct line to Paris. Yet on a cold day in January there are no cycles to be seen on the streets…

Fashionable Parisian talk of the ideal “15-minute city” is all very well, says Mr Leleux. The reality is that to buy a baguette in under 15 minutes without a car is not possible in much of suburbia. If anybody has learned this, it ought to be Mr Macron, who won a huge majority of the vote in big cities in 2017, but later faced months of gilets jaunes protests. For now, insists the mayor, locals credit the president nonetheless with having been a “good captain” in difficult times. In April, it is on the streets of middle France, not the parquet-floored salons of Paris or its tenements, that such a claim will be tested.

The focus in this analysis is on cars as a divisive political issue. Can suburbanites afford electric cars? If they cannot, what does this mean for suburban life? I could imagine a similar question in the United States with numerous manufacturers moving to electric vehicles

But, I wonder if the electric car is just a symptom of deeper differences based on how the car factors into the fabric of suburban life. In the United States, I have argued that homes, cars, and a way of life are all connected in suburbia. It is not just that a new kind of car is expensive; any disruption to driving changes suburban life. Cars help enable larger yards, private space, and separated land uses. People want amenities to be within a 15 minute drive and this significantly widens their travel radius compared to walking.

Perhaps the other possible suburban disruption on this scale would be to threaten single-family homes and yards. I put the single-family home as the #1 feature of suburbs that Americans love. (Cars and driving is at #5.) Yet, it is hard to imagine suburbs today without homes and cars together.

In the meantime, I will keep an eye out for more analysis from France to see if the suburbs matter in elections in the same way as they have mattered in recent American election cycles.

An argument for why “cars are simply vastly superior to transit alternatives”

An economist makes the case for why Americans choose cars:

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Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which transit riders find the most onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability (which is why restrictions on auto use punish working mothers most). They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.

Autos’ superiority doesn’t stop there, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars undermines those major benefits, as well.

Cars allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefiting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. The magnitude of such advantages is seen in a Harvard analysis that concluded that for someone lacking a high-school diploma, owning a car increased their monthly earnings by $1,100.

Cars are also the only practical way to assemble enough widely dispersed potential customers to sustain large stores with affordable, diverse offerings. “Automobility” also sharply expands access to social opportunities. 

My sense is that Americans tend to agree with this, even if they do not think much about other transportation options.

At the same time, I could imagine two questions about this superiority:

  1. Is part of the superiority of the car due to the ways that American life are structured around cars? It is not just that people choose cars: the American way of life encourages car use.
  2. Are the individual choices made for cars best in the long run for communities and societies? Many individuals may like what cars enable but others would argue it leads to bad outcomes for the whole (one example here).

This belief in the superiority of cars also makes it difficult to find monies and the will to pursue other transportation options.

How effective are religious and political billboards?

On a recent long drive, I noticed two additional types of billboards compared to the typical ones selling good and/or services: religious billboards and political billboards. These do not comprise a majority of billboards in my observations – or even a significant minority – but there were at least a few. Such efforts raise several questions for me:

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  1. Do religious and political billboards reach a large audience compared to other forms of media advertising? Compared to some other forms of advertising, the audience along the road might be more known: traffic counts are known and drivers who use a particular road or go through a particular location are a particular group. This may be more targeted advertising with a known number of daily viewers.
  2. Do people seeing religious or political billboards respond to them similarly or differently compared to commercial billboards? The medium of a billboard requires a fairly simple message as people go by them at a high speed. An image or two and limited text are possible. People are used to commercial appeals. So, does anything change if a Bible verse is on a sign? I know there is a religious marketplace in the United States but does a billboard encourage more religiosity? Or, does an image of a politician and a short statement catch people’s attention? Are these just like other billboards, or, because religion and politics can be personal and contentious, do they provoke more engagement or more turning away?
  3. My bigger question about billboards and all forms of advertising: how much does it influence behavior? I saw these billboards, they caused me to think a little and I am blogging about the concept here, and any other ongoing influence is hard to ascertain. In my lifetime, I have seen thousands of billboards, just as I have likely seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements in other forms. I know they influence people but it is hard to connect the dots between billboards and change.

I will keep looking for and reading more unusual billboards. At the least, they help break up a long drive.

Expectations and realities: “Being in the most advanced country in the world, why can’t we do [blank]”?

One person stuck on I-95 overnight due to snow and conditions responded to the situation this way:

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“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

I have seen some version of this quote in numerous contexts in recent months. It could reference:

-health care

-US military and political involvement in Afghanistan

-infrastructure issues

-conducting elections

-responding to natural disasters

-passing basic legislation

The expectation is that the United States is highly advanced or the most advanced country in the world. The country boasts a history of innovation and pragmatism, a powerful military, and an influential set of ideals. If all of this is true, why then can the United States not address such basic issues (in the eyes of the questioner)?

Implicit in this question is whether the United States exists amid a massive contradiction. For all of those markers of success, perhaps the country is not as advanced as its people think. Perhaps there are difficult issues to solve, complex concerns that we do not know how to or do not have the will to address.

Take the above example of unexpected bad weather. Large highway backups during snowstorms are not unknown in the United States. They occur even in areas more accustomed to cold and snow. Sure, local responses can differ. But, these systems are complex with natural forces, hundreds of autonomous drivers, governments and private actors responding, and the relatively long distances Americans are used to traveling on a daily basis.

All of the issues mentioned above as something an advanced country should be able to address are not simple. The expectation that a country should always easily get it right might be unrealistic. Even so, if a large number of people think the issue should be easily solvable, this quickly becomes a problem when it is not.