Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Ways to develop social norms needed for ride-sharing carpools

Sharing a ride-sharing vehicle with other passengers can lead to problems:

“These days, I’m always worried about if I’m going to get in a car with a passenger who is new to pooling and won’t know how to behave properly,” says Omar Paten, a 36-year-old Brooklyn resident who pines for his carpool of yore in Atlanta, Ga., where he grew up. “It was like there were unwritten rules that everyone knew to follow. No one would eat, no one would smoke, no one would play loud music just out of respect for others.”…

Vanessa Graham didn’t bother to rate one recent ride—she just decided to swear off ride-sharing. The 26-year-old Queens native says her early-morning commute to Manhattan was shattered by a booming beat after two co-passengers joined the ride and plugged an iPhone into the car’s auxiliary cord. Then they started freestyle rapping…

“It was 95 degrees outside! My makeup was literally melting off in the car,” said Ms. Sheppard. Most egregiously he insisted that she was a spoiled American princess who didn’t understand the real struggles of life. “He told me that AC was a luxury not a necessity, and that he never drove with the AC on any of his personal cars. I laughed out loud.”

The article hints that earlier iterations with carpooling worked because knowing your fellow passengers and sharing a vehicle for a long period means that everyone tried to behave. Additionally, the ride-sharing services ask passengers to rate drivers and not other passengers:

One loophole in the app: You can’t rate an obnoxious fellow rider, or even learn who they are, beyond a first name that disappears when the ride is over.

So how do social norms develop in such situations? I could imagine a few paths:

1. The companies provide guidance for passengers on how to act and/or enable drivers or passengers to offer feedback to each other.

2. The press or regulators emphasize stories of bad passengers, either shaming the companies or riders into acting.

3. Passengers observe bad passenger behavior and informally a set of norms arise.

4. Drivers push back consistently against bad passengers.

If I had to guess which one will happen, I would go with #1 as the issue could be one that limits business for particular companies that do not act. How exactly companies would encourage social norms – positive reinforcement? Rating poor behavior? – would be interesting to watch.

What was present and missing from my peak suburbia drive to Costco

A few days ago, I picked up a few family members and we visited the nearest Costco (utilizing one of their memberships). One family member remarked this may have been a peak suburbia experience – and they may be right for several reasons:

  1. We traveled in a minivan. We didn’t necessarily need all of that space but it could have proved useful at some point.
  2. We stopped at McDonald’s along the way. The minivan went through the drive-through, a common American occurrence.
  3. We traveled to a quintessential big box store: Costco. The store was crowded, we browsed for over an hour, and we purchased a good number of items.

At the same time, we missed a few elements of a truly peak suburban experience:

  1. The trip to Costco was not sandwiched between a kid’s activity. Put a pick-up from preschool at the beginning and a travel to a lesson or sports practice at the end.
  2. The crowds and traffic were not too bad because of the time of day we went to Costco. Instead, make this all part of a evening commute between roughly 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM.
  3. While we certainly purchased items that we did not need, I would not say that we mindlessly consumed on bulk items. Most or all of the items had a justifiable reason for their purchase.

The combination of driving in a large vehicle for consumption purposes among a semi-dense landscape…is this what Americans dream of when choosing to live in suburbia?

Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Speeding occurs when a road feels like a highway but has low speed limits

An analysis of high-speed tickets issued in Chicago highlights a fundamental contradiction with Lake Shore Drive:

The number of tickets issued on Lake Shore Drive points to a long-standing problem — with four lanes in each direction along most of the road, the drive looks and feels like a highway, though it was intended as a scenic boulevard and in some places has no guard rails or emergency shoulders. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the North Side and 45 mph on the South, but up to 95 percent of drivers exceed the limit when the road is not congested, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study.

The majority of motorists getting nabbed for speeding on the drive were going at least 75 to 80 mph.

“I observe some people driving extremely fast,” said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “The roadway kind of invites that. When there’s not much traffic, it’s a pleasant drive; there are not many sharp curves. It feels like the Edens Expressway.”…

While drivers speed both north and south of Madison, there are more tickets on the South Side. It is both easier to go at high speeds and easier to catch speeders south of the Museum Campus.

The current solution to the contradiction seems to be more enforcement of speed limits on Lake Shore Drive. More tickets and public knowledge of more tickets issued should theoretically help drivers think twice before going fast.

But, this ignores the underlying issue: the road is built and designed in such a way that fast driving can appear safe. Even if the road is not actually built for those speeds, having all those lanes plus a large number of drivers going fast can overrule a rational approach to the speed limit. Additionally, this is a major north-south artery in Chicago. There are a limited number of these, particularly those without many traffic stops. Outside of a crowded Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways (consistently rated as some of the worst spots for traffic in the United States), Lake Shore Drive is it. Even with its traffic lights around Grant Park, it offers unparalleled ease of travel.

It would be interesting to see what the City of Chicago could dream up to slow down drivers. The other complication is the road is intended to be a scenic one as it often travels through parks and offers numerous great views on one side of Lake Michigan and on the other a thriving global city. Speed bumps? Giant signs about traffic? A road diet to limit the width of the road? More guard rails and visible safety symbols? If the true goal is to improve safety, just handing out tickets is not enough.

Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving

If the single-family home offers private space in suburbia, the car offers private mobile space. The home offers a base to which the owner can retreat, the car offers the chance to travel elsewhere. Even if the single-family home is the ultimate focus of suburbia, these homes are hard to imagine without cars in the garage or driveways (usually front-facing, sometimes in the rear) or without traveling to the suburban in something other than a car. Cars and homes are intimately connected in American society.

Americans love driving (and need convincing to instead use mass transit). The suburbs require driving. The sprawling nature of suburban communities are often ill-suited for mass transit. On one hand, driving offers freedom to go where you want when you want. It is a symbol of American individualism. On a global scale, Americans have one of the highest rates of car ownership. On the other hand, owning a car has numerous costs. It is not just the obvious costs of gas, insurance, and car maintenance (and even these add up for the average owner). Additionally, critics would argue cars are a drain on community life as people can build relationships and spend money wherever their car can take them, commuting via car can take a lot of time and can limit economic mobility, road networks are costly to maintain, have negative effects on the environment, contribute to health issues through limited walking and biking, and are a menace to pedestrians and bicyclists who want to be part of the streetscape as well as are a safety threat to drivers and passengers themselves. Even with these costs, Americans persist in driving. For example, rather than push back against highways and driving in the auto-dependent Los Angeles area, officials instead focused their efforts on getting more efficient cars. The thought of major highways closing for a few days in a sprawling region creates near panic and highways can become effective sites for protests because of the number of inconvenienced drivers.

Numerous aspects of suburbia emphasize the love of cars. The single-family home would be incomplete without a garage. As homes increased in size over the decades, so did garages. The pattern of driving out of the garage at the beginning of the day and back in at the end with minimal neighborhood interaction may not characterize every home but is common enough. Many suburban single-family home are located along residential streets that are plenty wide and can handle cars traveling at decent speeds. The fast food restaurant would not be possible without cars. What is more American than going through the McDonald’s drive-thru in the midst of another suburban trip? Think of the many commercial strips all around America with fast food restaurants and strip malls (they may even not be considered aesthetically appealing by some suburbs). Similarly, the big box store – Walmart, Costco, Ikea – and shopping malls would not be possible without cars. In these spaces, hundreds of separate drivers can congregate in massive parking lots for unparalleled choice and prices. Numerous industries, let alone the automobile industry, depend on cars, vehicles, and roads.

The suburban car is part status symbol, part lifeline to the outside world. What vehicle you have matters and judging from the vehicles around me, the suburban family life is impossible without an SUV or minivan. Not being able to drive is a huge problem (sorry teenagers and some seniors). The largest category of trips involves drives between suburbs, particularly for work as jobs are spread throughout suburban regions. Additionally, the image of soccer moms persists as kids need to get to all of their activities.

It is difficult to predict how exactly cars fit into the future of suburbs. Driverless cars may mean fewer people need to own their own vehicle (those garages can then be used to store more stuff!) but being able to relax or do work rather than drive may mean people could live even further from cities. Millennials have less interested in car ownership and driving. Numerous suburbs are pursuing denser developments, particularly along railroad or transit lines, and this could limit car use in those areas and create more walkable spaces. Yet, it is hard to imagine the American suburbs without many cars and the ability to travel from a single-family home to all sorts of places.

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.