What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

Photo by UnknownNFT on Pexels.com

Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

Photo by Artyom Kulakov on Pexels.com

In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.

The boom and bust RV cycles of Elkhart

The latest rankings in the Emerging Housing Markets Index has Elkhart, Indiana at the top of the list:

Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Small U.S. cities dominated The Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index in the third quarter, as high housing costs and remote-work opportunities drive many home buyers to seek out more living and outdoor space…

Elkhart, Ind., which bills itself as the RV capital of the world because its region is the country’s leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, topped the housing index this quarter, followed by Rapid City, S.D., Topeka, Kan., Raleigh, N.C., and Jefferson City, Mo…

The recreational-vehicle industry is a major player in Elkhart’s economy. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred more RV demand, as households wanted to travel while keeping their distance from others. Wholesale RV shipments in the first eight months of 2021 rose 53.8% from the same period in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association…

The median home-sale price in Elkhart County rose 12.3% in August from a year earlier to $209,900, according to the Indiana Association of Realtors. There were 163 homes for sale that month, down from 220 a year earlier.

I am glad that Elkhart appears to be doing well at the moment. Having lived nearby for five years, the area has a lot to offer and economic development would be welcomed.

At the same time, it was not so long ago that Elkhart faced a difficult time. When the economy is not doing so well, such as in the late 2000s with a burst housing bubble, fewer people had money for RVs. Demand shrunk. Jobs disappeared. Before that, this area and South Bend were home to numerous manufacturers who went out of business or left. The homes have been cheaper here for a long time because few people want to move in.

It is good that this community in the Rust Belt at least has the opportunity to at times benefit from upticks in RV sales. Such industries and jobs could leave completely. But, having so many fates tied to one industry that can go up and down is trying in the long run. Numerous communities in the United States have looked to diversify their economic base – see the recent rush to add tech companies to their portfolios – even as they might have local economies based around a few companies or a few sectors. RVs may sell well one day and then conditions change and demand drops or new technology moves in. May Elkhart take some of this positive momentum and add to lineup of industries and services.

Familiar road trip highways, Part Two: always seeing sites from the same perspectives

After two day trips on a recent weekend, I thought of what happens when you drive on the same highways many times. While yesterday I considered what the familiarity with roads and sites allows, today I briefly discuss what a slightly different route might bring. Two examples come to mind.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

The first example comes from the way I have approached the city of Chicago. For most of my life, this involved traveling east on the Congress Expressway. This meant that we passed through particular suburbs and neighborhoods, saw the skyline from a particular angle, and were in a particular relationship to the sun.

With a move after college east of Chicago, for a while my driving angle to the city changed dramatically. Now we approached via the Skyway and then either the Dan Ryan or South Lake Shore Drive. We saw different parts of the suburbs and city, the skyline of the same buildings looked different, and then shone from a different spot. The similar sites appeared quite different from a different highway just miles away. Chicago from the south is a different place than Chicago from the west, even from a fast-moving car.

A second example. Interstate highways often offer the ability to go around population centers. This speeds up driving. The city off in the distance is reduced to a set of tall buildings and/or landmarks that can be viewed from a distance.

One time, we took the business route through a small big city instead of skirting around its edges. We ended up in the same place and it took a little more time but we had a very different view of the city. Now we could see strip malls and residences. The big buildings from the distance looked even bigger close up. There was a sense of human activity rather than whatever life can be observed at 70+ miles per hour.

Familiar highways present opportunities but they limit what can be seen. The same familiarity that can contribute to an enjoyable road trip stop drivers from new angles.

Familiar road trip highways, Part One: going into travel autopilot

On a recent weekend, I made two separate day trips. Each sojourn required driving on highways in and out of the Chicago region that I have traveled on, either as passenger or driver, at least dozens of times. Because of its location and its transportation infrastructure, the Chicago area has numerous highways plus a good number of interesting locations within several hours.

One feature of such drives is the ability to go into a kind of travel autopilot. These roads are familiar. You know the sights. In the Midwestern landscape, there may be relatively variation in scenery.

To me, this eases the drive. Yes, hours may pass but you have done this before and you can get it through it again. On these routes, I have encountered clear skies, dark, rain, snow, and light traffic and heavy traffic. The drive is still roughly the same.

This may seem boring to some. What is the point of such a drive? Why not just go a lot faster and get there as soon as possible?

However, the familiar roads and scenery can open up room for other activities. Enjoying music is easier when the roads are familiar. So is good conversation or listening to an audiobook or doing some contemplating. Because what is going on outside the vehicle is not much of a distraction, many of the things that people celebrate about road trips are possible.

Tomorrow, what can happen when you are on a slightly different highway near what you thought were familiar locations.

An arboretum next to a parking lot for Amazon vehicles

The Morton Arboretum is no stranger to the juxtaposition of nature and suburban development. Founded in 1922 in Lisle, the Arboretum later adjusted to the construction and opening of the East-West Tollway (now I-88) on its edges:

1957

Construction of the East-West Tollway and widening of Illinois Route 53 changed the Arboretum landscape, resulting in new lakes, roads, and a staffed gatehouse.

In a recent popular exhibit, the Arboretum even leaned into the nearby development with one installment looming over the highway:

Note the large power lines, the evidence of two major highways nearby (I-88 and I-355), and office buildings.

Recently, I drove around the east side of the property. This land has had a number of office and warehouse properties for years. This makes sense: the properties have access to multiple highways and there are plenty of residents/workers nearby.

However, I have noticed a more recent addition to this set of land uses: there is a parking lot just for Amazon trucks and vehicles. As far as I could see, there was no building next to the lot; just many spaces for vans and trucks. Looking at Google Maps, there is indeed a parking lot there among some other development and some undeveloped land. There is an Amazon facility nearby – one of many in the Chicago region – but it is not directly connected to the parking lot so drivers would have to exit to the main road and then turn back into the Amazon facility.

It is hard to completely escape development when in the Arboretum. Traffic noise can be heard, airplanes fly overhead, and houses and other signs of suburbia are visible from different vantage points. Yet, the presence of an Amazon parking lot reminded me of what nature is in the suburbs: present but often in-between roads, homes, and other buildings that speak to the ways that humans have and continue to transform natural features to their own particular suburban goals.

If mathematicians addressed traffic problems

How would mathematicians solve traffic? Here are the suggestions from a 2020 book:

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

All drivers need to be on the same navigation system. Cars can only be efficiently rerouted if instructions come from one center hub. One navigation system rerouting some drivers does not solve traffic jams.

Parking bans. Many urban roads are too narrow and cannot be physically widened. Traffic-flow models can indicate where parking spots should be turned into lanes.

Green lanes. For cities that want to increase electric car use, special lanes should be created for electric cars, providing an incentive for their use.

Digital twins. Traffic demands and available infrastructure can only be balanced with digital modeling that creates an entire “twin” of existing roadways. The software will be “an extremely useful thought tool in the hands of transport engineers.”

I have not read the book and this description is not long but it seems to depend on both understanding current and possible traffic flows through modeling. Often, Americans typically get more lanes added to roads – which then tend to fill up because there is more capacity and/or populations continue to grow.

I wonder how modeling would fit with other values underlying road and traffic decisions. A few examples:

  1. It might be better to have a centralized traffic and navigation hub. Is this technically feasible, would all car makers want to participate, and would there be privacy concerns?
  2. The politics of providing special lanes, whether for electric cars or high occupancy vehicles or bicycles, can get interesting. Americans often think the roadway should be for all users as opposed to particular users.
  3. The road system we have is the result of not just prioritizing efficiency but a whole host of actors and forces that includes privileging single-family homes (and generally keeping them away from busy roads) and highways in and out of major cities.

Walking to go somewhere or interact with people in contrast to walking suburban loops for exercise

Several months ago, I heard Andrew Peterson discuss “The Mystery of Making.” As he talked about places and suburbs, he mentioned something about walking: suburbanites walk in loops instead of having walks that go somewhere or involve interacting with people.

Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

As a suburbanite who walks both for exercise and in order to get to places, this is a thing. This could occur for multiple reasons:

  1. The design of suburbs limits walking options. Because of the emphasis on single-family homes and separating them from other uses, suburbanites may not be able to access many places as pedestrians. Can they get to schools, libraries, stores, workplaces?
  2. Perhaps suburbanites do not want to interact with many people. Suburbanites want to avoid conflict and interaction happens when people want it, not necessarily because of proximity or an orientation toward the community. Add headphones/earbuds/smartphones to this and pedestrians can be in their own waking cocoon.
  3. This sounds like a focus on walking as exercise as opposed to walking as a means to accomplish other worthwhile goals. Such a focus sounds like it would fit with American emphases on efficiency or productivity.
  4. If you really need to get somewhere, Americans often opt for a car, even when the route is walkable.

Having more walkable places would likely help here but it does not necessarily guarantee sociability or walking as transportation.