Mapping daily life amidst COVID-19

I like the Citylab project of asking readers to submit their maps life during COVID-19. A few thoughts:

1. COVID-19 affects multiple dimensions of social life, including the distance people must keep from each other (and social interactions). The maps help highlight the spatial dimensions of COVID-19, reminding us of the relatively free mobility many people have during normal times (think regular commutes, a sprawling country often based on driving a car to different locations). The maps also highlight the difficulties or significant changes because of reduced mobility. On one hand, we have more technology than ever that lets us access people and places wherever all the time. On the other hand, not being able to move as we typically do is worth acknowledging.

2. It can be both fun and informative to ask people to draw their daily activities or their community. It pushes people to think spatially (which they may or may not do on a regular basis) and can quickly show what places they find more meaningful. Asking about someone’s day often leads to a list of activities or tasks; the map can include this information but add a valuable spatial dimension.

3. As a bonus, such maps not only provide information but they also allow people to display their creativity. This is clear in the Citylab maps: the contrasts of color, styles, and interpretations is engaging. Compared to more common methods of data collection like surveys or interviews, drawing a map provides a worthwhile contrast.

4. Perhaps reduced mobility will push more Americans to know their immediate surroundings in and around their residences. Instead of passing many places while driving, current circumstances may push more people to pass places at walking or bicycling speed. I know I see my neighborhood differently through regular walks; perhaps other will have similar experiences.

 

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The nuanced reasons for population loss in Illinois

With the problems facing the state of Illinois, how many people are actually leaving?

In 2018, the state had an estimated net migration loss of 6.5 people for every 1,000 residents, according to the most recent census data. Five years earlier, the net loss was about 3 people per 1,000 residents.

The latest number puts Illinois 49th out of the nation’s 50 states on net migration loss. Only Alaska had a worse rate, with a loss of 11 people per 1,000 residents…

Population decline is also happening in more parts of the state. From 1990 to 2000, 68 of Illinois’ 102 counties gained population. But so far this decade, only nine counties, including Kane, Will and DuPage in the Chicago area, have added residents…

In 2017, Indiana drew nearly 9% of the Illinois residents who moved out of state. Florida, California, Wisconsin and Texas were among the top destinations as well…

But the city’s black population has shrunk much more. Over the same time period, Chicago had a loss of about 35,600 black residents. Meanwhile, the number of white, Asian and Latino residents all grew…

But the biggest reasons people usually give for moving, Percheski said, are jobs (or shorter commutes), schools and to be closer to family. People also seek out available housing that fits their needs, she said, whether that is more space for a growing family, a smaller place because children are grown, or a more affordable option.

This is a well-done article: lots of good data with helpful commentary from experts. There is not an easy headline here but a full read leads a more complete understanding of the issues. A reader should go away from this thinking population loss is a multi-faceted issue that is more nuanced than “high property taxes mean people are leaving Illinois.” One piece that is missing: in an earlier post, I noted that there are also many reasons for people to stay in the Chicago region (including inertia).

This also means there are multiple ways to address the issue. Just from the numbers I pulled out above: is it about net migration loss or attracting more new residents? How could prospects be improved in most of the state’s counties? What do other states offer that Illinois does not? What might lead black residents to stay? Is this primarily about good jobs and available housing? Tackling all of these at once would be difficult. For example, simply adding jobs does not necessarily mean that they are located in places that many people can access, that those jobs can support a household or family, that housing is available nearby, or that such jobs are more attractive than jobs elsewhere. Yet, some targeted efforts at a few of these trends could help slow or reverse them.

Of course, this all comes amidst trends of population loss in Chicago and within a larger backdrop that American communities believe population growth is good. The reasons behind the population decline may be complex but this nuance may matter little if the trend continues.

 

A country of roving electric car fleets

Andrew Yang is not the first to propose this though he may be the first presidential contender to do so: replace car ownership with fleets of autonomous vehicles.

He told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that “we might not own our own cars” by 2050 to wean the United States economy off of fossil fuels, describing private car ownership as “really inefficient and bad for the environment.” Privately owned cars would be replaced by a “constant roving fleet of electric cars.”…

“What we’re really selling is not the car, it’s mobility,” he said. “So if you have mobility that’s then tied into a much more, if you had like, for example, this constant roving fleet of electric cars that you would just order up, then you could diminish the impact of ground transportation on our environment very, very quickly.”

Americans like driving and have integrated vehicles into all sorts of daily activities. This would not just be about replacing the ability of a car owner to get into their vehicle whenever they want and drive around; this could change how houses are designed (garages could be placed elsewhere or eliminated), the fast food business, big box stores, rush hour (perhaps there would not or should not be enough vehicles in the fleet to meet the needs of current rush hour), road trips, and more.

It is interesting to consider how willing people would be to do this. Is this really just about mobility? Interest in driving may be lagging for younger Americans but do they want to give up cars altogether (or privately owned autonomous vehicles that could be more like rooms) in favor of vehicles that are shared with others? Would such changes require denser housing or could it enable more sprawl? If given choices about what changes to make regarding climate change, would people favor other options rather than giving up cars?

Online courses open opportunities…to study close to home

The spatial dimension of taking online courses provides a surprising finding in a new survey:

While studying online theoretically gives students who are place bound for work or family reasons more geographic flexibility than does in-person study, the Online College Students research shows that ever larger numbers of fully online students are staying close to home.

As seen in the graphic below, 67 percent of respondents said they lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying, up from 42 percent just five years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they are studying at least 100 miles from where they live has dropped by more than half, to 15 percent in 2019 from 37 percent in 2014.

The report’s authors offered this analysis: “The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students.”

The explanation offered makes some sense: nearby colleges are known in the community. A degree from a local school may mean more than a school from elsewhere.

But, this could lead to some interesting connections:

1. Does this suggest that students have a hard time differentiating from all of the online course options out there? One way to filter all of those options would be to stick to recognizable nearby names.

2. I wonder how the marketing of local institutions matters. Media outlets in the Chicago area are full of advertisements from universities and colleges pushing online programs. Of course, there are national voices advertising in there as well but some of these can be unknown institutions (I’m thinking of Southern New Hampshire University).

3. Could this be linked to decreased geographic mobility among Americans? If Americans like to be rooted in a place, choosing a place to take college classes – whether online or not – may matter.

4. I’m reminded of findings that suggest social media users often make online connections with people they already know offline. In other words, social media users are not always seeking out random connections or unknown people to interact with. Could the same principle apply to colleges?

In the long run, what if the online world ends up leaning local in terms of the connections people make and maintain?

The factors that keep stop some Americans from moving even when they have opportunities elsewhere

Richard Florida summarizes survey data that looks at why Americans are resistant to moving:

The survey identifies respondents’ most recent move, their probability of moving in the next two years, and other data related to moving including job opportunities and income prospects, housing costs, the distance from current home, costs of moving to various locations, crime rates, taxes, community values and norms, and proximity to family and friends. The researchers use these data to estimate the overall costs—what they call the “willingness to pay” or WTP—for people to move different locations. They then use statistical models to examine the importance of these psychological factors compared to other mostly financial explanations.

A significant reason for the decline in mobility is that many of us are highly attached to our towns. Nearly half of those in the survey (47 percent) identify as rooted. The rooted are disproportionately white, older, married, homeowners, and rural. Their reasons for not moving are more psychological than economic: proximity to family and friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.

Another 15 percent identify as stuck, lacking the resources or ability to move. The stuck have less formal education, are in worse health, and are less satisfied with their jobs, the survey finds. In addition, they are more likely to live in cities and live relatively close to family members. Their reasons for not moving are mainly economic: the costs of moving, the affordability of housing in other locations, the difficulty of qualifying for a new mortgage, and the perception that there is less opportunity for them elsewhere…

It turns out that the personal costs of moving—and leaving family members, loved ones, and friends behind—are quite high. According to the study, the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100 percent of income. The psychological cost of leaving family and friends alone equates to 30 percent. As the study reads: “The median person in our sample will forego 30 percent of his or her income in order to stay close to family.”

I’m guessing there is a lot more to explore here with more data collected from a variety of angles.

Why does Florida talk of these factors as primarily psychological factors? The survey results do not sound like Americans are afraid of moving but rather there are broader social and economic forces that both tie them to their current communities and limit their perceived options elsewhere. Together, these sound like sociological conditions.

How does this fit with suggestions that local ties and interactions are fewer in number or weaker in intensity in America today compared to the past? Or, do Americans now have tools that allow them to maintain and stay in certain social networks without a need to move across networks or join new ones?

How can researchers get at a different cultural milieu regarding mobility? Over time, how could Americans shift from fairly mobile to less mobile?

Would new local taxes on large tech firms really cause them to leave Silicon Valley?

Several communities in Silicon Valley are considering levying special taxes on large companies, possibly affecting some of the biggest tech companies:

Cupertino, Mountain View and East Palo Alto have begun to ponder new taxes based on employer headcounts — levies that could jolt Apple and Google — and if voters endorse the plans, a fresh wave of such measures may roll toward other corporate coffers.

Alarmed by traffic and other issues brought on by massive expansion projects, the three Silicon Valley cities are pushing forward with separate plans to impose new taxes that could be used to make transit and other improvements…

A lot of factors point to this being a prime time for efforts such as these. San Francisco ranked fifth worst for traffic congestion in the world — and third worst in the U.S. — last year, according to INRIX Global Congestion Ranking. Record housing prices in 2018 boosted the median price of a single family home in the Bay Area to a record $893,000 in April, according to a CoreLogic report.

Federal tax cuts also have improved the balance sheets on an array of U.S. companies, large and small. Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies have contributed to the gridlock on freeways and soaring housing costs as they’ve grown rapidly in recent years, with brisk hiring and expansion in unexpected areas and mega-leases that gobble up huge swaths of office space.

If this works the way that some would argue it does, then the local taxes will be viewed by the tech companies as an unnecessary burden for their operations. They should then consider moving elsewhere where they are not subject to such local taxes. Indeed, if they wanted to move sizable operations, they could probably get numerous communities to offer them tax breaks.

However, this assumes that the local taxes are the primary factor that determines where companies and organizations locate. Instead, there are a variety of factors that both support and work against staying in their current location. I assume these are important reasons for why Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are in this location: the construction and maintenance of large headquarters, proximity to other like-minded organizations, an talented employee pool nearby, and the proximity to major cities like San Jose and San Francisco. Are local tax issues more important than these other concerns? Probably not. And even if they are, it would take some time before a large organization could significantly alter their operations in response.

Does having a small or tiny house make it easier to have your home stolen?

A couple reported that their Madisonville, Texas vacation home had disappeared:

Jo and Lonnie Harrison told Eyewitness News someone stole their entire home off their property in Madisonville, Texas. They bought the 10-acre property with a prefab home on site last year.

It’s a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home with a green roof and wood siding…

“Nothing. Nothing that I wanted to see. I didn’t see the house,” said Harrison. “All I saw were blocks and pipes sticking out. The whole house gone. Everything except the blocks.”…

“I said, ‘You know this is really going to sound strange, but I need to report a stolen house.’ They were like, ‘A house?’ I said yes. We have 10 acres and had a little cabin and the cabin is gone,” said Jo Harrison. “Give us a call. Call the Madisonville Sheriff’s Department and let them know what you see. We really would like to have our house back.”

One of the features of these smaller homes is that they can be easily moved. Load it onto a truck or tow it away (since some of the homes have wheels) and you can move your home from here to there. Depending on your family and friends as well as your tastes, you could keep a vacation home moving every once in a while and still feel like you have a home to return to.

But, those same features may just make it easier for someone else to take that home. What is the equivalent of a strong bike lock for a small house or tiny house? Embed a GPS tracker somewhere hidden? Mount a security camera high up in a tree nearby? The flip-side of the mobility – and I have not seen any figures on how often the typical tiny house owner would actually move – could be less security.

And one other thought about security: larger homes tend to provide spaces where an occupant can hide if someone is outside or trying to break in. Smaller homes may not offer the same possibilities for staying out of view or escaping out of an alternative exit. So, when will we see the tiny house with a panic room or with significant features for the security conscious?

Side note: this is not typically a problem with larger homes – though if the home was secluded enough and the owners away for long enough, something could happen there too. Perhaps the larger size would attract too much attention from someone nearby or on local roads.

The permanent placelessness of suburbs

Can suburbs provide permanence or a sense of place?

Fortunately, the perils of mobility have not gone unrecognized. Those who care about place, permanence, and civil society have taken up the argument for remaining in one’s hometown. Justin Hannegan, writing in The Imaginative Conservative, presents a compelling case for hometown living, urging Americans to consider that “perhaps permanence—the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture—is worth it.”

But what happens when suburbia is our place? The explosion of the suburban model of development in the postwar period has put record numbers of Americans in the uncomfortable position of having no other place than placeless suburbia to call home. By some estimates, as many as 53 percent of Americans describe their residential area as suburban. Adolescence in suburbia has become such a common experience that it now pervades our pop culture, as the familiarity of the references on (and, frankly, the mere existence of) Buzzfeed’s list here shows. The ubiquity of suburban modes of development has pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.

The inverse of Kauffman’s question, then, becomes arguably more pressing for those who value permanence and place: Why not just move from your manicured suburb with high average SAT scores to a small town (or city neighborhood) with a built environment much more conducive to fostering civil society? It seems many millennials are making the gamble to do just that, as demand for walkable, mixed-use developments is on the rise, and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs as they start families.

Yet is this really the solution to the ails of suburbia? As much as flight from suburbia may help to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles to a robust civil society, it will also trigger the malevolent effects of rampant mobility. It’s quite possible that those who settle in small towns or city neighborhoods from the suburbs will develop a sense of rootedness in their new place. But in doing so, local and familial ties to place are necessarily severed, which simply further atomizes American life. Mobility, even if undertaken with the intention of building community, is by its very nature an act of severing previous communal bonds.

This is a question that has plagued suburbs for decades: do they have their own unique and enduring qualities even though people regularly move in and out and their physical form looks similar to other suburban places?

I think this conflates two issues: (1) mobility and (2) whether suburbs are truly places. Regarding mobility, Americans are historically a mobile people (though this has decreased a bit recently). The suburbs were a place where a good number of people moved in and out regularly as they became the primary places for Americans to live after World War Two.

The second issue is trickier. I suspect much of this idea comes from critics of the suburbs. Such refrains began decades ago as mass produced subdivisions and suburbs (though the Levittowns put together by one builder were the exception, not the rule) became more common. All the similar-looking houses within new suburban street patterns were assumed to lead to conformity and a lack of individualism. Later critiques added that such places were not all that social: even with plenty of families and children living near each other, social ties were limited. (There is more academic support for this second claim: see The Moral Order of a Suburb.)

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that suburbs have no place to them or lack permanence. I’ll bring up two points of evidence from my own research to counter these. First, different suburban communities do indeed have different characters as a result of numerous decisions made by local officials and residents. See my study “Not All Suburbs are the Same.” Second, suburbs do have permanence. The oft-criticized postwar suburbs are now at least several decades old but many having already passed the fifty year mark. Additionally, numerous other suburbs were founded prior to World War II and have longer histories. For a case study of one such suburb, see my study “A Small Suburb Becomes a Boomburb.” Even these transient suburbs have unique features accrued over decades.

As a final thought, the final two paragraphs cited above suggest that moving to either small towns or city neighborhoods would provide residents a stronger sense of place and permanence. I am not so sure. A good number of Americans think of their suburbs as small towns. Plus, urban neighborhoods often involve a good amount of change. Simply having more history or time as a place does not necessarily mean that a sense of community organized around this occurs. Placemaking is a process in cities, suburbs, and small towns that for a variety of reasons happens more or less in different locations.

In the end, suburban communities do not have to be placeless. This is one way to look at them but I’m not sure it is a sentiment shared by many suburban residents nor is it something that worries them if they do acknowledge it.

Why doesn’t everyone leave Chicago or Illinois?

With the recent news of Chicago’s continuing population decline as well as population loss in some suburbs, some critics have suggested this all makes sense with the problems facing Chicago and the state of Illinois. The argument goes like this: when social, economic, and political conditions are bad, people vote with their feet and leave. Look at all the people moving to Texas and the Sun Belt!

However, there are multiple reasons people stay in Chicago and Illinois. Among them:

  1. It is costly financially to move. It takes time and money to move to a new location. Having a good job on the other hand is needed.
  2. It is costly socially to move. Finding new friends and social connections can be difficult, particularly in today’s society where Americans tend to stick to themselves.
  3. They have a good job in Illinois or Chicago. There are still plenty of good jobs here; Chicago is the #7 global city after all and there are lots of headquarters, major offices, and research facilities alongside large service and retail sectors.
  4. They have families or ties to the area. The Chicago region is the third biggest in the country – over 9 million residents – and there are lots of residents with long histories and/or many connections.
  5. Both places have a lot of amenities. One of the busiest airports in the world? Impressive skyline? Access to Lake Michigan? Good farmland? Located in the center geographically and socially in the United States? Land of Lincoln?

All that said, for the vast majority of Chicago and Illinois resident, there are not enough negatives outweighing the positives of staying. (This is not the same as saying current residents are happy or wouldn’t prefer to live somewhere else.) Compared to other American locations which are growing more quickly, it doesn’t look good but Chicago and Illinois also aren’t emptying out like American major cities did in the postwar era or some rural areas.

More on the reduced geographic mobility of Americans

A new book from economist Tyler Cowen discusses how the geographic mobility of Americans has declined:

Nowadays, moving from one state to another has dropped 51 percent from its average in the postwar years, and that number has been decreasing for more than 30 years. Black Americans, once especially adventurous, are now especially immobile. A survey of blacks born between 1952 and 1982 found that 69 percent had remained in the same county and 82 percent stayed in the same state where they were born…

One reason people don’t move where the jobs are is because of real-estate prices — which in turn are kept at high levels by regulatory restrictions and NIMBY-ism. In New York City in the 1950s a typical apartment rented for $60 a month, or $530 today if you adjust for inflation. Two researchers found that if you reduced regulations for building new homes in places like New York and San Francisco to the median level, the resulting expanded workforce would increase US GDP by $1.7 trillion. That won’t happen, though: More homes would diminish the property values of existing homeowners.

That locked-in syndrome is a factor in economic stagnation, too: A recent Wells Fargo survey found that white-collar office productivity growth was zero. As the economy was supposedly recovering from the financial crisis, from 2009 to 2014, American median wages fell 4 percent. Men’s median incomes today are actually below 1969 levels. Had we retained our pre-1973 rates of productivity growth, the typical household would earn about $30,000 a year more than it does.

Despite all the hype attached to a few tech companies, far fewer companies are being formed than in the 1980s, and fewer Americans are working for startups. Such new companies are linked with rapid job creation. We’re coming close, Cowen says, to realizing the 1950s cliche (not really true then) of everyone clinging to a job at a handful of huge, soul-crushing companies.

As I’ve seen a number of stories about declining mobility (see earlier posts here, here, and here), I wonder if the period between the early 1900s and 1960s was simply unusual. The American economy was doing well (except for the Great Depression and the World Wars) and other factors including legal segregation in the South drove mobility. What if more limited mobility is “normal” outside of unusual time periods? Should we expect that Americans should be willing to pick up and move just because there may be a job or an opportunity elsewhere? I would guess humans default toward less geographic mobility because moves limit the ability to develop communities. In fact, it has only been in recent centuries that more of the population has even had the opportunity to travel or move large distances from where they were born. Perhaps the real question here is to find out more of what would lead people (whether in the United States or elsewhere) to move significant distances.