Can Starbucks be a third place when its drive-through is so full?

Starbucks aspires to be a third place, a setting where people of different backgrounds can gather in between home and work. Coffee shops, and restaurants more broadly, can play this role as people need to eat and drink and such activity is often tied to social interaction.

In my morning commute, I pass a Starbucks in front of a strip mall and right next to a busy suburban road. The drive-through line is always very full. The size of the line is particularly noticeable in this location because once the Starbucks line has more than eight cars, it spills over into the roadway through the shopping center and can block traffic.

The inside of this location is attractive. A month ago, I spent a morning working there. The store had dark walls and what looked like a tin ceiling plus a variety of seating options (tables, upholstered chairs, work counters). A steady flow of people came in and out and there were at least a few others like me hunkered down for several hours doing work. From my working location inside, all morning I could see the steady flow of people going through the drive-through.

Can a coffee shop or any restaurant so dependent on drive-through traffic for business (think McDonald’s) truly be a gathering spot, a social space, a third place? Perhaps the issue is much bigger than Starbucks:

1. Businesses do need to make money. Starbucks has encountered this problem before with people and visitors who might restrict or limit sales. Not having a drive-through is a bold statement but might not be financially viable (or might not generate the kind of revenue Starbucks desires).

2. The suburbs require driving (and many Americans seem to like it this way). Starbucks locations in denser settings do not have drive-throughs and perhaps they can better function as third places.

3. American fast food combines the ability to drive and getting food quickly. Without a drive-through, Starbucks is both missing out on business and putting itself into a different category of place.

4. Americans in general may not like third places given their preferences for single-family homes and private dwellings alongside their devotion to work. Any business or restaurant trying to fight against this may not make much progress. Even if people come to Starbucks or similar locations, how many engage with the people around them as opposed to focusing on their own work or interacting with a companion who came with them or who met they there? Public spaces where people come together are rare.

Maybe Starbucks can only be a third place in a certain kind of location with denser populations and less reliance on cars. Or, perhaps Starbucks can never really be a third place in a society dominated by driving and quick food.

Developing suburban tourist destinations along major highways

The suburb of Naperville is looking to develop entertainment and tourist destinations on undeveloped land in the northwest corner of the community:

In the works at the two properties both using the CityGate name are an apartment building with a rooftop event center on the east side of Route 59, along with an arena for hockey games, concerts and conventions; and on the west side, a brewery or winery with a restaurant and hotel, as well as residences and offices — all designed with public art as a focal point.

What CityGate as a whole aims to do, developers and city leaders say, is become a true entertainment destination, giving visitors and residents reasons to come, places to stay — even places to live…

Still, there is optimism for CityGate plans, which eventually could include a band shell, a pedestrian bridge over Route 59 and a connection to the Illinois Prairie Path.

“From what we’ve been able to gather, Naperville is gaining a number of people visiting because of tourist attractions outside of Naperville,” Halikias said. “We’re looking at it and saying, ‘You know what? We should have the tourist attractions in Naperville.'”

And all right off the interchange of Route 59 and I-88. Three thoughts in response:

1. Even though many Americans likely do not think “suburb” when they hear about tourism, more suburbs are pitching themselves as cultural or entertainment centers. Tourism can help bring in money from visitors, which helps grow the local tax base without further burdening local residents or property owners. Additionally, the right kind of tourism can be viewed as family-friendly, a vibe many suburbs would like to cultivate.

2. One of the draws of Naperville is its vibrant downtown. Would an entertainment center on the edge of the city compete with the downtown and its restaurants, stores, and other amenities? This connects to a broader question: how many entertainment centers can thrive in the suburbs of the same region, let alone within the same community?

3. The development is said to include apartments, nearly 300 of them. While this helps provide a base for the new amenities nearby, it does not completely alleviate a problem of this development: how accessible is it to nearby residences or communities and how car dependent will the new place be? Even with access to the Prairie Path, the majority of visitors will need to come by car. Two sides of the property will be bordered by very busy roads. The majority of people will drive, park, and leave. This is a very different kind of center than Naperville’s downtown – which can be said to help contribute to Naperville’s small town charm – because of transportation. Perhaps the development will have a full range of options that can keep people there for hours. But, creating a coherent space with its own feelings and around-the-clock vibe could be hard to develop.

Eleven years in, self-driving cars are still a ways off

Transportation has changed in the last decade but self-driving cars will still take some more time:

The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.

But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.

Reading this brief overview, two things struck me:

  1. Having a computer do all that is needed to drive is a monumental task. There is a lot of information to take in from behind the wheel and the environment keeps changing. This makes human drivers look pretty good. Even with all the accidents and deaths that occur every year, that humans can handle all of this at 60 mph or higher is remarkable.
  2. All the money and effort that has gone into this simply reinforces the car as the primary agent of transportation in the United States. While having no human driver could be a game changer, all this effort does little to displace the car as center of social life, work, urban planning, and sprawl. Perhaps it would be too much to ask Americans to give up cars but this could be viewed by future Americans as a missed opportunity to reorganize society.

Even if the next decade features truly autonomous vehicles, it will take more time for these vehicles to work their way through the system. Since I have also seen lists of the new laws and regulations going into effect January 1, is it far-fetched to imagine a new rule starting in early 2025 that all new vehicles purchased must be fully autonomous?

Boost economic opportunity by giving all Americans a car

In discussing the possibility of free transit, the alternative of providing cars comes up:

Instead of the pledges to expand electric vehicle charging stations that fill their presidential platforms, the candidates should all be focusing on how to eliminate car ownership. Because right now, if our only goal were to improve individual economic outcomes, we’d just give every person in this country a brand-new car. In the same way universal health care has been made part of the Green New Deal, universal access to zero-emission transportation needs to be included, too.

A driver’s license has has become virtually required to participate in much of U.S. society. But what if the piece of plastic we use to validate our identities guaranteed access to so much more? Imagine a single card—or an app—that, like in many other countries, could unlock train rides, bus rides, bike rides, scooter rides, van rides, car rides anywhere in the nation. Now imagine what we might achieve when those services are not only funded adequately, but also free for everyone to use.

Free transit alone isn’t nearly enough to fix this country—but it could be one piece of a bigger, truly universal transportation solution that might.

This reminds me of a program I once heard about in Wisconsin. A group provided lower-income residents a reliable used car so that they could then access jobs and other opportunities. If the goal is to help people find steady employment, having a car that works without needing a lot of maintenance or a lot of gas can go a long way.

The paragraphs above do bring up a conundrum in the United States: if many people need to drive significant distances on a daily basis to find good work (spatial mismatch) and having a car is expensive, what are those without resources supposed to do? A consequence of sprawling cities, suburbs, and regions is that people need to provide their own transportation and this comes at a significant cost. As noted in the article, even free transit may not solve everything if mass transit does not connect where people live to where people work.

As people try to promote free transit (and better transit), this conversation could lead to a different kind of car commercial at the holidays. Used Toyota Corollas for those who need them! A Christmas gift of a reliable used car could just mean the difference between a good life and a tough life.

Considering regional transit in the suburbs of Detroit

Suburban voters and leaders regularly resist efforts to bring mass transit to the suburbs (see examples like Nashville). The tide might be changing in parts of suburban Detroit:

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

Suburbanites have resisted mass transit for multiple reasons: they do not want tax money going to transportation forms they do not plan to use or going to bureaucrats they do not control; the kinds of people who might ride mass transit (particularly from the city to the suburbs); the kind of denser development that might accompany mass transit corridors or hubs; and concerns about having enough money to pay for roads since many suburbanites would prefer to drive.It is then interesting to put these reasons next to the logic expressed above: what if mass transit is an economic development tool for suburbs? If suburbs are regularly competing with other suburbs and a big city within their own metropolitan region (let alone competing with other metropolitan regions), what if they need mass transit to keep up? Putting in significant mass transit will not be easy and I assume there will always be limits on how much density suburbs will accept but it will be worth watching to see how many wealthier suburban areas go in this direction in the next decade or two.

(On a more cynical note, perhaps the demographic change in the suburbs with more non-white and lower- or working-class residents means that suburbanites can no longer easily dismiss mass transit because they are worried about city residenst accessing the suburbs.)

Palaces for the People, Part 3: school entries that discourage social interaction

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. I have been highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

Discussing how schools are constructed, Klinenberg contrasts a school in Greenwich Village that was set up in such a way to foster community between parents and guardians versus a suburban setup that discouraged interaction:

But when the academic year began we quickly noticed some major flaws in the otherwise excellent social infrastructure. The campus, while beautiful, is mostly off-limits to parents, who are expected to drop off their children at the entrance and are allowed into classrooms on special occasions only. There’s some space for casual interaction on the sidewalk in front of the school, but it’s not designed for socializing, especially not at the beginning or end of the school day. The reason will likely be familiar to everyone who’s spent time in large suburban schools: the entryway is dominated by a long, roundabout driveway, and every day hundreds of parents drive through it to drop off their children and quickly pull away. It’s a remarkably efficient system – so efficient, in fact, that parents have little opportunity to get to know one another on or around the school grounds. (85)

If the name of the game is efficiency – get as many kids as quickly as possible in and out of school – this might be the best physical setup. If the goal is to encourage community and an interactive time before and after school, this may be the worst way to do it. But, if suburbs are often about “moral minimalism” where residents build community by leaving each other alone, perhaps this is the plan all along.

Looking at how schools could foster community and social interaction makes sense as many American kids and families are already interacting with public schools. With some tweaks to the physical environments of schools, even more social interaction and community might be encouraged. The flip side of this is whether schools continue to be centers of community and interaction even when people do not have children.

This reminds me of the TED talk on suburbs by critic James Howard Kunstler. He has a bit where he shows a picture of the exterior of a school in Las Vegas. From the particular angle, it looks like a prison. This is part of Kunstler’s argument: buildings that cut themselves off from the rest of the community do a disservice to the public. A school that limits social interaction in favor of cars misses an opportunity.


Going without a car in Tempe, Arizona

Is it possible to not own a car in Tempe? A new apartment project hopes the answer is yes:

The 1,000-person rental community, which broke ground this month in Tempe, won’t allow residents to park cars on site or in the surrounding area as a term of their leases. The founders say it will be the first of its kind in the U.S.

The neighborhood’s scale will be modest, with mostly three-story buildings. In place of parking spaces, the development known as Culdesac Tempe will feature significantly more retail and open spaces than are typical for its size. It will include a market hall for food vendors, coffee shop, plazas, communal fire pits and a building that residents can rent to host events.

The site is next to a light rail that connects residents to a grocery store, Arizona State University, downtown Phoenix and the airport. There will also be designated spots for ride-sharing and an on-site car-sharing service for residents traveling to other neighborhoods…

The Phoenix area might seem an unlikely spot for such an experiment, but Tempe is something of an outlier among its neighbors. The 190,000-person college town has a median age of less than 30 years old, and younger people are less interested in driving than they were in the past.

A suburban community in a sprawling region might not be the location I would first think of in embarking on this new idea. At the same time, the last paragraph cited above suggests Tempe is a unique place.

I wonder if a residential development would attract only certain kinds of residents and whether that is desirable in the long-run either for the developers or the community. The hint in the article is that this might especially appeal to younger adults. It might also appeal to older adults who want a car-free lifestyle, perhaps those who for environmental reasons do not like car ownership or those who cannot drive. There could be a market for such housing. Additionally, what kind of community or culture in the building might arise if many people come primarily because of not knowing a car? This could be interesting to explore down the road.

Going further, it would be worth knowing whether this is a viable concept in different kinds of places and different kinds of housing. It probably makes the most sense with denser housing (multi-unit apartment buildings) but could it work with rowhouses or townhomes built near a mass transit stop or hub?