Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

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.

A brief history of the Sunday drive

With Illinois residents asked to shelter in place, architecture critic Blair Kamin suggests the Sunday drive could be revived – and provides a brief history of the practice:

Building on the precedent of the high society horse-drawn carriages that rolled down elegant boulevards in the late 19th century, the Sunday Drive is thought to have originated in the 1920s — just a few years after the great influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed at least 50 million people worldwide…

Henry Ford, whose mass production methods made cars available to millions, is said to have supported the Sunday Drive because it helped to sell cars…

The popularity of the Sunday Drive reached its apex in the 1950s and 1960s, when cars were still associated with personal freedom, not air pollution or suburban sprawl.

But something changed in the 1970s. Perhaps it was rising gas prices or a heightened environmental consciousness. Or maybe, some urban planners think, suburban sprawl was blurring the once-clear boundary between town and country. Where once there were farm fields and expanses of nature, now there were strip malls and traffic-jammed arterial roads. That made the Sunday Drive a lot less alluring.

This impulse is not foreign to Americans today. Driving is romanticized in many ways, from the celebration of road trips to marketing for cars which shows happy drivers moving through alluring landscapes to ordering social life in the suburbs around the need to drive. At the same time, as Kamin notes, driving is a humdrum activity much of the time. The car commercials that show people cruising down empty roads in the middle of the day do not match everyday experiences.

I also wonder about the connections between Sunday drives and other activities. For example, take organized religion. The classic sociological study Middletown describes the changes in a small city with the introduction of cars, including some residents who shifted from going to church on Sundays to taking recreational drives with family. The car offered an escape from the typical way of life. As a more recent example, data suggests younger people are less interested in getting their driver’s licenses. Why would you want to go for a leisurely drive when a smartphone or tablet or laptop offers access to what information and destinations you want?

Less traffic, faster driving

Reports suggest more drivers are going fast on emptier roads:

Despite there being far fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, state highway safety officials across the country are seeing a severe spike in speeding. Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.

Being a safe driver should always be a priority, but during the coronavirus pandemic, traffic safety experts at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) say it is more important than ever. “While COVID-19 is clearly our national priority, our traffic safety laws cannot be ignored,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement officials have the same mission as health care providers — to save lives. If you must drive, buckle up, follow the posted speed limit and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Emergency rooms in many areas of the country are at capacity, and the last thing they need is additional strain from traffic crash victims.”

During the past month, pedestrian and bicycle traffic are reported to have increased exponentially, while motor vehicle traffic is down. Adkins noted that GHSA is encouraged to see so many communities across the country making roadways more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. To keep roads safe for everyone, traffic safety officials nationwide are pleading with motorists to slow down and respect traffic safety laws…

A 2019 report on speeding by GHSA, “Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” highlights excessive vehicle speed as a persistent factor in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle-related fatalities, while a 2020 GHSA report on pedestrian fatalities, published in February, finds that pedestrians now account for 17% of all traffic-related fatalities.

In many metropolitan regions, traffic is pretty constant throughout the day. COVID-19 has reduced the number of daily work trips plus some of the other reasons for cars and trucks on the road.

With more open road, perhaps it is “natural” for drivers to feel they can go faster. I am reminded of the argument by New Urbanists that narrower roads lined with parked cars and trees close to the street push drivers to slow down. The illusion is that with fewer potential obstacles on the road, a driver can be safe even while going faster. Of course, going faster reduces the time drivers have to correct and avoid things in their path.

It would be interesting to note how much local police forces are responding to speeders now. Is it worth stopping them if there is a risk of transmitting COVID-19? Are police resources needed more elsewhere? At this point, what other options do officials have in reducing speeds on less crowded roads?

Mapping daily life amidst COVID-19

I like the Citylab project of asking readers to submit their maps life during COVID-19. A few thoughts:

1. COVID-19 affects multiple dimensions of social life, including the distance people must keep from each other (and social interactions). The maps help highlight the spatial dimensions of COVID-19, reminding us of the relatively free mobility many people have during normal times (think regular commutes, a sprawling country often based on driving a car to different locations). The maps also highlight the difficulties or significant changes because of reduced mobility. On one hand, we have more technology than ever that lets us access people and places wherever all the time. On the other hand, not being able to move as we typically do is worth acknowledging.

2. It can be both fun and informative to ask people to draw their daily activities or their community. It pushes people to think spatially (which they may or may not do on a regular basis) and can quickly show what places they find more meaningful. Asking about someone’s day often leads to a list of activities or tasks; the map can include this information but add a valuable spatial dimension.

3. As a bonus, such maps not only provide information but they also allow people to display their creativity. This is clear in the Citylab maps: the contrasts of color, styles, and interpretations is engaging. Compared to more common methods of data collection like surveys or interviews, drawing a map provides a worthwhile contrast.

4. Perhaps reduced mobility will push more Americans to know their immediate surroundings in and around their residences. Instead of passing many places while driving, current circumstances may push more people to pass places at walking or bicycling speed. I know I see my neighborhood differently through regular walks; perhaps other will have similar experiences.

 

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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?