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.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

Americans love driving and this impacted the work of police

A country built around driving leads to profound effects on what police do:

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It is not an exaggeration to say that police power in the United States is built around the unique conditions created by car culture, in which virtually everyone is breaking the law all the time—with occasionally severe consequences. In her book Policing the Open Road, the legal scholar Sarah Seo points out that mass car ownership prompted a wholesale reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against search and seizure. Or it did, until we all started driving everywhere.

Police often abuse this authority to perform “pretextual stops” hoping to find guns or drugs, knowing that trivial traffic violations give them the power to search citizens at will. Officers have at times undertaken this constitutional sleight of hand with explicit federal endorsement, deputized as foot soldiers in the war on drugs. In one of the most notorious examples, police in Arizona used traffic stops to enforce federal immigration law.

For Black drivers, pretextual traffic stops—per Jay-Z, “doing 55 in a 54”—are a routine occurrence and the foremost symbol of racial profiling in this country. For many police departments, these violations are used to fill government coffers and prompt devastating cycles of fines, debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped, according to a study last year, and almost twice as likely to be searched.

While the article is about speeding, there are numerous additional areas where police work intersects with driving: stops for all sorts of reasons (as noted above), dealing with crashes or road conditions, escorting important people, and police driving the same roads as everyone else in order to address an issue at a particular location.

In many parts of the United States, it would be hard to imagine police without a vehicle or not interacting with vehicles regularly. Even the community policing idea where police spend lots of time in the same community and at the pedestrian level may still require using a vehicle to travel back and forth or to address particular issues they encounter. The sight of police on foot, horse, or bicycle in certain settings may be unusual to many who are used to the cars and flashing lights.

The same kind of methods proposed to limit traffic fatalities (also discussed in this article) or to promote the use of other modes of transportation could also have the effect of reducing the need for police to patrol or drive on roadways. But, reducing the American dependence on or love for driving is a sizable task.

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).

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.