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.

Some hints about the effectiveness of relocation incentives offered by American communities

A number of American communities are offering monetary incentives to bring in residents and workers. Do the incentives work? Here are some recent clues:

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Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to makemymove.com, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.

So far, many areas have failed to bring in significant numbers of remote workers despite offering incentives. Most don’t have the staff and money backing the Tulsa Remote program, which is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even so, smaller areas have found advantages in remote worker programs. Natchez, Mississippi, a river town north of New Orleans where the population has been declining for decades, saw home sales double to 700 in the past year, even though only 12 people have used a $6,000 incentive for remote workers, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc. Economic Development, which operates the Shift South remote worker incentive plan…

Tulsa’s program is often cited as a rare success story. It moved 100 people in its first year, 2019, and despite the pandemic it projects another 950 moves this year. Along with cash incentives up to $10,000 for living in Tulsa at least a year, the program offers a free trip to check out the area and intensive social networking in person and online…

A new study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found the new workers created almost $14 in new local labor income — a measure of earnings by employees and business owners — for every dollar spent on relocating workers, adding $62 million in earnings by the workers themselves and the jobs created to support them in 2021.

It sounds like more data and time is needed to figure out whether the incentives lead to increased populations and, if they do, how and/or at what cost or benefit.

But, I could imagine many communities and their leaders would be interested in offering such incentives even if the data suggests they do not do much. Why? It is an actionable step that sounds like it should work. The community can lead with the incentive in their marketing. If people or businesses are looking to move, wouldn’t an incentive help encourage a particular decision? At the least, such an effort would get the name of the community out in front of the public or other interested parties.

Some of the other tidbits from the article cited above are interesting. Incentives could target particular kinds of residents or businesses. Increased housing costs could make an incentive worth very little. Could we imagine a future where potential residents negotiate with several communities in order to get a better deal? Just as businesses negotiate for tax breaks and communities compete with each other, why not residents?

If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Americans continue to move from one address to another less and less

By one measure, American mobility is down to its lowest level since 1948:

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows just 8.4 percent of Americans live in a different house than they lived in a year ago. That is the lowest rate of movement that the bureau has recorded at any time since 1948.

That share means that about 27.1 million people moved homes in the last year, also the lowest ever recorded.

The number of Americans who move from one home to another has been falling for decades, said Cheryl Russell, who authors the Demo Memo blog on demographic trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, about one in five Americans moved homes in a given year. That dropped to 14 percent by the turn of the century, and to 11.6 percent a decade ago.

The more sedentary population is a product of a handful of demographic factors that have grown as the American population gets older, as fallout from the Great Recession a decade ago continues to play out and as the pandemic put the brakes on many people’s plans.

The postwar era was one of a lot of mobility, particularly as those who could moved to the growing suburbs. The car and expanding networks of highways made it possible to access many destinations and workplaces did not necessarily have to be near homes.

Since then, mobility has declined for the reasons cited above. People can still move about on a daily basis but they are not moving addresses as much. Even as parts of the United States are growing in population and others are not, fewer people are moving overall.

Even as I have watched reports on this trend in recent years (see earlier posts here and here), I have seen little discussion of what this means or whether reduced geographic mobility is desirable or not. In a society that often celebrates mobility more broadly – social, economic, geographic – does this trend signal something troubling? Or, does this mean more Americans have an opportunity to develop roots and relationships within their communities?

Is there another possible explanation? Technological change, particularly smartphones and the ability to work from home, reduces the need for moving locations. More and more can be experienced and interacted with from anywhere with Internet and data access.

Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

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I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

Graphic options for illustrating where Americans moved during COVID-19

I appreciate the effort at CityLab to take all of the data regarding where Americans moved during the COVID-19 pandemic and put it into graphs and charts. Good graphs and charts should help illustrate relationships between variables and help readers see patterns. Here are several choices that I thought succeeded.

First, start with patterns in metro areas across the United States.

The two colors plus the size of the circle show the percentage change in population. The percentage is a nice touch yet the comparison to the previous year might slip past some viewers.

Second, another way to look at metro areas on the whole regarding population changes.

The side-by-side of central cities and suburbs quickly shows several differences: lower ratios for cities, more variability among suburban counties, more losses for cities during COVID. The patterns among suburban counties are a little hard to pick up; there are a number of counties that lost people even as the general trend might have been up.

Third, where did all those people moving from New York City, specifically Manhattan go?

In absolute numbers, there are patterns this map displays nicely: a lot of moves in New York City and in the region plus moves to other metro areas (including Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and more). The inset of the Southwest at the bottom left is a nice touch…presumably New Yorkers did not move in large numbers to anywhere roughly between Nashville and Seattle.

Fourth, which New Yorkers moved?

Looking at zip codes, neighborhoods with higher incomes had more people moving while the numerous neighborhoods with lower incomes had smaller changes in inflow.

All together, this is more than just a series of pretty graphics. These choices – first about what data to use and second about how to present one variable in light of another – help clarify what happened in the last year. Each choice could have been a little different; emphasize a different part of the data or another variable, choose another graphic option. Yet, while there is certainly more to untangle about mobility, cities and suburbs, and COVID-19, these images help us start making sense of complex phenomena.

Acknowledging our topophilia

More geographic confinement during COVID-19 can help remind us of our important attachments to place(s):

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There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”

In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.

It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland…

You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.

This is more than an acknowledgment of the importance of places in our lives; this encompasses all of the senses. One quick example: there is a home near us that has a line of four or five of the same kind of trees along the sidewalk. When I run by there, the smell alone is enough to transport me to a familiar family vacation spot where that smell is more common.

The argument here helps push back against a more recent narrative in human history that suggests people can and should be mobile. While people not too long ago might have been anchored in a relatively small geographic area for a lifetime, people today are more used to moving for jobs and travel across longer distances. Of course, as is noted above, such mobility might lead to loving a new place or an unexpected place. But, if people form these attachments to places, how do they then respond to mobility? Perhaps mobility can reinforce topophilia; you do not know how much you like places until you are away from them.

This also highlights the material world in ways that we sometimes ignore. Our environments matter, even if we are in an age of screens, private spaces, and lots of driving. There can be a lot of focus on this within private spaces – think decluttering trends or an emphasis on layouts and design in homes – but less emphasis on public or community spaces. To put it in the terms of James Howard Kunstler, are our collective environments worth paying attention to?

The American communities paying people to move there

At least a few American communities are offering financial incentives to try to entice new residents:

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Some cities and regions in America’s heartland are offering this sum — and more. They’re seeking to bring energy and vitality to their towns by attracting dynamic workers. With legions of people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, these programs are getting a lot of attention as people in congested cities seek more space and affordable housing.

Northwest Arkansas launched its program this year, in the middle of the pandemic. Other cities in the nation’s heartland have similar incentives: Topeka, Kan.; North Platte, Neb.; Hamilton, Ohio; and Newton, Iowa

The city had its sights set on the growing number of “laptop workers” who can do their jobs from home — or at the local co-working space or coffee shop — when it launched the program two years ago. Since 2018, it has welcomed nearly 500 new residents, according to Stewart…

The urbanist Richard Florida has worked with both Tulsa and northwest Arkansas on their efforts to attract remote workers. And he thinks these types of campaigns will benefit small cities in the heartland. But only if they’re attractive places to live. Cash incentives won’t do the trick on their own.

This story profiles communities largely in the center of the country that want to attract residents but likely have limited population growth (perhaps due to low birth rates, low numbers of immigrants, and some younger residents moving away) and are not in the public eye. Without long-term population growth, many communities may feel they are stuck. Growth is good – and population stagnation or less is unspeakable.

But, as the story hints, these incentives have not exactly led to a flood of people moving to these locations. For how many people would a payment like this make all the difference? On one hand, people often do desire good jobs – higher pay, that provide opportunities for advancement, in exciting fields, etc. – and some may be able to go where those jobs are. On the other hand, people live where they do for more than just new opportunities or a financial incentive: they may have social and personal ties to a community, be coming from an area that has lots of options, and moving can be costly. Sometimes, people talk as if all people need is a good job or money to move somewhere new. It does not exactly work this way.

I also wonder how these incentives line up with different pressures the people being targeted by communities face. The article said communities are interested in remote workers. I also imagine these communities – and many others – are interested in young professionals. What do these workers want? A financial incentive, a cheaper cost of living, and a slower pace of life in a smaller community might be attractive. But, so might urban neighborhoods in exciting cities with lots of cultural opportunities and plenty of tech jobs and corporate entities nearby. Or, perhaps a walkable suburb is attractive with jobs and culture available via a reasonable commute. In other words, these remote workers could go anywhere they can afford. We are not at the level yet of communities acting like they do to attract major companies with tax breaks but I would not put it outside the realm of possibility in the future.

Companies moving out of California – yet continuing offices and operations in California

I have read several news stories discussing the move of companies out of California. Such news feeds chatter about companies and residents leaving places because of politics, taxes, discontent, etc. But, the details in this one story suggest some companies are shifting some workers and activity while retaining operations in California.

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“Oracle is implementing a more flexible employee work location policy and has changed its corporate headquarters from Redwood City, California to Austin, Texas,” the filing said. “We believe these moves best position Oracle for growth and provide our personnel with more flexibility about where and how they work.”

The company already has a significant presence in Austin, opening a five-story, 560,000 square-feet campus overlooking Lady Bird Lake. It also has employment hubs in Redwood City, Santa Monica, Seattle, Denver, Orlando and Burlington…

Oracle follows a handful of similar moves by California companies and high-profile business leaders leaving the state. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he had moved to Austin last week at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit. His exodus followed months of bashing California for its handling of the pandemic. The billionaire CEO said he is maintaining company operations in California, but also has significant operations for Tesla and SpaceX in Texas…

HP Enterprise also announced its decision to relocate its headquarters from San Jose to the Houston suburb of Spring earlier this month. Palantir Technologies relocated from Palo Alto as well this year, landing in Denver. Tech giants Google and Apple have also been expanding their presence in Austin over the last several years.

Headquarters are important, particularly for cities. Attracting the headquarters of a major company is a big status symbol for any big city. See the interest in trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. The implication is that the new location has a favorable business climate and is on the rise (with the opposite assumed of the previous location).

But, headquarters are just part of a company. They may be the nerve center and the physical home of company executives. Yet, large companies today can have offices and plants all over the place connected to a headquarters elsewhere.

Another way to read the moves out of California above is to suggest that these companies are hedging their bets by being located in numerous advantageous locales. Having multiple locations can help take advantage of local tax breaks for particular purposes, build on local work forces, maintain their place in local social networks, and provide points to pivot around when conditions change. The headquarters may have moved but they may move again and the companies still see some value in keeping operations going in California (even if some of this is simply due to inertia).

This suggests a different future reality than one where cities serve as anchors for major corporations. Instead, major multinational corporations keep offices and facilities all over the place, ready to move when needed or when an opportunity arises. Austin and Houston might be attractive now, Miami or Denver in a few years (just sticking to US locations). And as cities continue to look for an edge over their competition, attracting another big company is important…even as that company is actually rooted in multiple locations.

Survey data on wealthy New York City residents thinking about leaving the city

New survey data looks at what New York City residents making more than $100,000 think about leaving the city:

We found that 44% of high-income New Yorkers say that they have considered relocating outside the city in the past four months, with cost of living cited as the biggest reason. More than half of high-income New Yorkers are working entirely from home, and nearly two-thirds believe that this will be the new normal for the city…

Of those considering leaving New York City, 30% say that the possibility of working remotely makes it more likely that they will move. Of New York City residents who earn $100,000 or more annually, 44% have considered moving out of the city in the past four months (see Figure 4). Looking ahead, 37% say that it is at least somewhat likely that they will not be living in the city within the next two years…

The cost of living, more than any other factor, contributes to the likelihood of leaving New York City (see Figure 5). A total of 69% of respondents cite cost of living as a reason to leave the city; that figure is even higher among black (77%) and Hispanic (79%) respondents. Other reasons cited by respondents considering leaving New York City include crime (47%), desire for a nonurban lifestyle (46%), and the ability to work from home (30%)…

Only 38% of New Yorkers surveyed said that the quality of life now was excellent or good, a drop by half, from 79% before the pandemic (see Figure 2). Most believe that the city has a long road to recovery: 69% say that it “will take longer than a year” for quality of life to return to normal.

Finally some data on New Yorkers leaving the city! (Of course, this is more about attitudes than actual behavior.)

If I am interpreting the data above correctly, it sounds like COVID-19 has brought some other issues to light. This includes:

(1) If I can work remotely, do I value city life enough to stay there even though I do not need to be close to work?

(2) If the city is not what it was – and it is not clear when it might return to normal – because of decreased social activity due to COVID, the cost of living may not be justifiable.

Ultimately, is it worth living in a global city – with all that comes with it for high earners including jobs, cultural amenities, and a high cost of living – when the positive features of this city are muted during a pandemic?