Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Imagining self-driving car underground tunnels under major American cities

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars to operate in tunnels under Las Vegas appears close to becoming reality:

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On Tuesday, Musk announced on Twitter that, after a full year in the making, The Boring Company’s first operational “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is “almost done.”…

The Boring Company built a test tunnel in 2018 near its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. A year later, it landed a commercial contract in Las Vegas to build a loop tunnel system for public use. According to The Boring Company’s proposal, the final system will be able to shuttle passengers in self-driving Tesla cars between any two destinations in Sin City within minutes.

Construction of the initial twin tunnels near the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) was complete in May. The system is expected to be ready for public use for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2021. But the event has been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, The Boring Company won a county approval to expand its LVCC transportation Loop to include an underground station at the new Resorts World hotel located at the north end of the Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the company aims to connect all major tourist destinations along the Strip, as well as two terminals of the nearby McCarran International Airport and downtown Vegas.

This location makes sense when tourism is in full swing in Las Vegas. While the airport is relatively close to the strip, it is not necessarily close time-wise and a quick, automated car ride could please a lot of visitors. It is also fun to imagine this in other cities. The tunnels bring to mind memories of playing the Lower Wacker track on Cruis’n USA. Chicago has some of this infrastructure already in place while other cities might be able to convert or expand existing tunnels.

How this could positively affect streetscapes is fascinating. Imagine major American cities with less traffic in their denser areas, more room for pedestrians, more space for properties to extend past the building. Cars would still be in use – just moved to a different plane – but the emphasis on vehicles would be reduced. More streets could be closed, the scale of social life could change (though the towering buildings in some districts would still loom), and the streets would be safer. (I imagine taxis and others might not be pleased to have the business moved underground.)

This is likely a long project to pursue in any city; making big changes underground in many locations is very difficult. It does keep cars around (just more out of sight) and both the money spent to put the system in place and the ongoing commitment to the system could continue to inhibit other options such as promoting mass transit.

Trying to make a better Walmart parking lot experience

I have driven through many Walmart parking lots and while doing this, I often wonder how a better parking lot experience could help avoid regular issues. Here are some of the big concerns:

  1. There are often a lot of vehicles, people, and carts moving around. It is hard to keep track of all the activity.
  2. Depending on the traffic flow of the location, some of the traffic can be routed right in front of the store as vehicles turn in from a street or adjoining parking lot.
  3. At least a few cars always seem to be lingering right at the front doors or nearby, waiting for people.
  4. Carts are strewn throughout the parking lot; most are in corrals but there are often other ones on medians, in parking spots, and even several parking lots over. (Imagine if the Walmart lot had Costco sized shopping carts!)

A few solutions come to mind:

  1. Everyone needs to be very attentive. Having to pay close attention is not necessarily bad for drivers or pedestrians.
  2. It is better to have the majority of drivers enter the parking lot area from the back rather than from the sides and drive directly in front of the store.

I started thinking about this recently after realizing that I have been in multiple parking garages at Target locations but never at a Walmart. In these locations, there are advantages to having the parking further away from the store and/or having the store on a different level from the traffic flows.

Figuring this out could have multiple benefits including: drivers and pedestrians would feel safer, the parking lot experience could be less fraught and more pleasant, and fewer work hours might need to be devoted to the parking lot.

Perhaps this is just the price Americans are willing to pay for their love of driving and sprawl: complicated parking lots. This is not an issue exclusive to Walmart as many big box stores demonstrate similar patterns. But, since Walmart has so many locations and so many customers, solving issues there could be a big deal.

NYC plans to provide social distancing space for pedestrians by closing more streets to cars

Sidewalks may not provide enough room to keep distance from others so New York City is planning to close more roads to vehicles:

New York City will close 40 miles (64 kilometers) of streets to cars, mostly near parks, to expand the amount of space that pedestrians have to keep social distance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The ultimate goal will be to have 100 miles of “open streets” during the coronavirus outbreak, de Blasio said Monday at a press briefing.

The mayor has been pressed by the City Council and bike advocates to open more streets to pedestrians and bikers, and to give more recreation possibilities to New Yorkers. De Blasio had resisted these proposals, saying they would create challenges for law enforcement. The mayor also said he was concerned that drivers might not obey the street closing, placing pedestrians and bikers in danger.

As a temporary measure, this seems like it makes some sense given the need for space to get outside within denser communities. It does raise other issues, such as delivering packages in certain areas or, as the article notes, law enforcement concerns.

Perhaps more interesting is the long-term consequences of such a move. In the last one hundred years or so, American cities and communities have often prioritized moving vehicles through cities. Manhattan already had a problem with crowded sidewalks before COVID-19. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety is already an issue. More cities were already considering closing streets to cars. Road closures might be motivated in the short-term by COVID-19 but this could also be part of a growing movement to provide for human-powered means of transportation.

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

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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My suburban neighborhood had the most pedestrians out that I have ever seen

We moved to a single-family home neighborhood nearly three years ago. Our street has a unique location; we have a mix of housing types within half a mile including single-family homes at several price ranges, condos, townhomes, and apartments and there is a good-sized city park around the corner. For a suburbanite, I am outside walking around pretty often and fairly observant.

Yesterday, I was outside for an hour in the afternoon. The weather was okay by Chicago-area spring standards: near 50, mostly sunny, no breeze. But, there was a big difference in the number of people walking and biking. A steady stream of people came by as couples, in family units, teenagers with friends, and single pedestrians out to walk the dog. From my front yard, I can see our street, a perpendicular arterial street, and a pathway through the park – all had a consistent set of people.

This was unusual. I am not usually out on a Tuesday afternoon but neither are all of these people. Living in a state with a shelter in place requirement, more people are home. Perhaps by the early afternoon, they want to get outside. Even though the weather was not great, it was warmer than the last few days and the snow had melted the day morning before. There is only so much Netflix someone can watch before needing a little break.

I am not sure this increased pedestrian behavior leads to more neighborliness or social interaction. We all are supposed to be six-plus feet apart. Some people wore headphones. Some of the people knew each other but others came from different micro-neighborhoods in the area. At the least, those outside saw more people than they typically would.

Will this last? Maybe as long as the shelter in place is required. A few people might turn these behaviors in uncertain times into more regular patterns in normal times. I would expect that pedestrian life will decrease significantly once work and school go back to more normal levels. And my suburban neighborhood will go back to relatively small numbers of people walking around on a regular basis.

 

A nation beholden to cars: a record number of pedestrians die in US in 2019

A new report highlights the dangers to pedestrians in the United States:

Based on data from the first six months of 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association predicts there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths that year, which would be a 5 percent increase over the 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018.

The 2019 figure is the highest number of such deaths in more than 30 years, according to the association…

While there’s been a significant increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade, the number of all other traffic deaths increased by only 2 percent…

“Following 30 years of declining pedestrian fatalities, there has been a complete reversal of progress,” Retting said in the release. “Pedestrians are at an inherent disadvantage in collisions, and we must continue to take a broad approach to pedestrian safety.”

While there are particular aspects of driving and pedestrian behavior that could be debated and addressed, there is a larger point that can be made with such data: the priority on American roadways goes to vehicles. This has been the case for decades and will continue to be the case for years to come. While efforts to make streets more amenable to walkers and bikers, these efforts are often limited to only a few areas. The goal of roadways in many places, included dense, populated areas, is to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible to where drivers want to go.  Tackling specific issues may help reduce the number of deaths but still leave the larger problem: Americans like cars and driving and our lives are often organized around driving.

The sidewalk problems for walking and biking in the suburbs

Using suburban sidewalks is not easy for a variety of reasons. Here is a short list of the problems:

  1. Sidewalks with too many or too big of cracks and/or dips. This is less of an issue for walking but can range from annoying to tire-popping for bicycles.
  2. A lack of curb cuts or good ones in going between sidewalks and roads. It is can be enough work to watch out for vehicles at intersections but then many of the transitions between sidewalks and streets are poor.
  3. A lack of shade on sidewalks. This is particularly pronounced in newer developments where there is a lack of trees near the street or in places where diseases have limited trees.
  4. Too much vegetation along sidewalks so that users of the sidewalk have to dodge low branches or overgrown bushes. This is inconvenient for single users and could be really difficult when people are passing each other.
  5. No sidewalks at all. While this is a pronounced issue in more rural locations or unincorporated areas where sidewalks were never built, it can also pop up in weird in-city locations where a sidewalk will simply end, forcing a user to cross over to the over side or use the street.

All of these issues could reduce sidewalk use in a country where bicycling and walking is already dangerous and more people would benefit from moving around. The lack of sidewalk users might contribute to the poor conditions listed above and more local advocacy could help reverse these conditions.

Should I say hello to people I know on campus when they are walking by with their heads buried in their phones?

A college campus has many people walking around while looking at their phones. This leads to a common dilemma: should I say hello to someone when they are so engrossed by their smartphone? Earlier this week, I chose not to and I realized this is my default setting.

Here is my reasoning: these people are signaling they are busy or occupied. Walking in particular ways alerts others that they are not to be disturbed. Such behaviors include: closely looking at a smartphone screen; using headphones; talking on the phone; talking to someone walking next to them. Indeed, it is hard to be holding a smartphone while walking and not be viewed as saying, “Don’t disturb me.” (The only exception I could quickly think of: the number of people willing to offer to take a picture for you. I have had several people do this recently and I found it strange. Are selfies out? Did I look like I needed help?) I am helping these phone-lookers out: by not disturbing them and breaking their concentration, I am helping them accomplish what they need to do.

I do not know how many of these people I know would consider it a distraction or inconvenience if I did say hello. The posture of avoiding social interaction may be unintentional. We have a fairly friendly campus and if I see faculty, staff, and students that I know, we generally exchange greetings. Our regional norms are for fairly friendly greetings in public. As our students note, we are not quite the South but we are also not the Northeast.

If I were walking around campus with my nose buried in my phone, the biggest issue I would have with being greeted would be this: it might take me a second or two to recognize who issued the greeting. Rather than having the long lead-up to greetings where you see the person from a distance and can mentally prepare their name and your words (plenty of time for impression management), I am stirred from my focus. This will likely lead to a more generic greeting from me.

Will all this lead to the downfall of sociability on our campus? Probably not. Will it lead to more accidents as people walk into other and things? This has already happened. If anything, we will probably see more of his as time goes on and campus norms may continue to adjust to changing sociability.