Three major challenges facing tiny homes and their owners

Given that tiny houses have not exactly taken off, here are three possible reasons why:

The concept is appealing, but in truth, people have found it challenging to locate places where they can permanently park their home on wheels. It has become an issue in many communities, as homeowners worry that the character of the mobile homes will diminish their property value. Locating the perfect site can be easier in rural areas.

Another dose of reality has come in the form of human behavior. It turns out that for some of the people appearing on the various HGTV programs devoted to tiny-house living, the strain of living in such tiny quarters has surfaced. As we see with follow-ups, some couples cannot manage to live in 300 square feet together, and one moves out.

Additionally, when compared with the lifestyle of an urban micro-unit, rural or suburban settings are more restrictive. In the city, for example, people can get to a pub, cafe or coffee house in minutes simply by walking out the building’s front entrance and down the block.

These are three important challenges. The first and third discussed above seem related to me: it may take a significant amount of time before communities develop zoning and planning that allows for tiny houses. Current residents might view them as threats not only because are they mobile but also because the homes are also significantly cheaper than many other kinds of housing units. In the best case for tiny homes, communities would allow them to fill in spaces between existing buildings and units. This would increase density and possibly provide more tax revenue. In the worst case, tiny houses will be excluded from many desirable locations, contributing to the third issue above where the advantages of a tiny home and budget may be combined with needing to drive everywhere.

As for the second issue above, Americans like their (1) personal space and (2) space for lots of stuff. Tiny houses do not have much square footage for either. In a perfect world, the tiny house might be located in a vibrant urban or suburban area where the owner(s) could spend a lot of time outside the unit (taking advantage of third and public spaces like coffee shops, parks, and libraries). Without those nearby amenities, a tiny house might simply not offer enough separation from others. Additionally, a tiny house likely requires an owner to do without many things. This could be overcome through a variety of methods – living near family and friends with whom one could share, storage units, or a barter or sharing economy – but this requires more work and resources.

All of these problems might be solved eventually but it will take time.

Why don’t American subways feature open gangway cars?

American subway cars differ in design in one crucial way that would help solve overcrowding issues:

Open gangways, as it happens, may be one of the more widely used elements of subway design. You will find trains like these on every subway system in China, India, Spain, and Germany, as well as in Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Toronto. According to research by planner Yonah Freemark, open gangway trains run on 3 out of every 4 subway systems in the world. Mexico City hasn’t bought separate-car trains in two decades.

Yet open gangway trains are nowhere to be found in the United States. They will debut in Honolulu in 2018. New York City might request 10 of them—in an order of 950…

That American transportation authority leaders are reluctant to embrace the concept reflects a couple of facts about how they do business. First, they clearly don’t spend enough time using the systems they run. Second (and relatedly), they are conservative about change. They are willing to let culture, or their perceptions of it, dictate design—rather than the other way around.

The most convincing explanation for the absence of open gangways in the United States is that planners feel “amenity-conscious” (or “choice”) riders would find them unpleasant. The enhanced mobility open gangways grant to beggars, merchants, and buskers has been cited as a potential problem with the model. That shouldn’t be sufficient reason to keep riders stuffed in like sardines. New Yorkers don’t take the subway because it’s pleasant, but because it gets them to work on time. The MTA could aid that cause by ordering a hundred—or a thousand!—open gangway train cars.

Americans have different ideas about personal space as well as who they are willing to mingle with. This isn’t only about subways; planners have tried to figure out how to get more well-off Americans to ride the bus even as Americans seem pretty happy to drive solo in their cars unless it is quite difficult.

Here is a question: what would happen if an entire mass transit system did this without consulting riders? Would people in New York City really stop taking the subway and find other ways to get around? In some places, subways are the most efficient and I’m guessing that riders would adjust over time. When riders have more options, particularly in more sprawling cities, this might not be a good solution as people might actually stop using the subway.

Ikea survey on American home patterns

Here is one snarky interpretation of some interesting data from a recent Ikea survey of Americans:

Only 1% [of those surveyed] want their home to reflect how successful they have been.
Analysis: This may seem surprising, but in fact Americans often choose to lie to surveys to make themselves appear more humble…

43% state they have assigned seating in their living room.
Analysis: Americans care deeply about personal property and annex even the smallest items…

31% of people with pets answered that the pet cuddles with them in bed “every night.”
Analysis: American pets do not respect boundaries.

I’ve wondered why sociologists don’t spend more time studying what Americans do in their homes. I could see why companies like Ikea want such information (see the survey results here): they want to sell us things for our homes. While such research questions may seem intrusive, Americans have created a superior private realm that keeps them away from community life (the interpretation of several New Urbanists in Suburban Nation) so something interesting must be going on at home, right? We know that Americans consume lots of television (lots of studies on this) and find ways to handle housework (lots of studies on this) but what about regular interactions? What about what they think about what their own home says about themselves? What do they do when left alone in their own homes? Surveys could help us get at this but participant observation would also help: seeing Americans in their natural and prized personal settings.One book that does do some of this is one I read a while back in grad school called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Also, Pierre Boudieu’s classic Distinction looks at numerous household items and activities.

A little bit more on one of the Ikea questions (page 3 of the PDF):

How do Americans feel about home?
•95% say home is a place they can relax
•94% feel their home is a place where they feel
safe and secure
• 78% stated their home reflects their character
•50% believe that when it comes to life at home,
the top priority is for the home to be warm and
• Only 1% want their home to reflect how successful
they have been

It is interesting how many Americans don’t want the home to reflect their success but it should reflect their character. Critics of McMansions might charge that the reason those homeowners bought such homes was to try to impress other people.

The most used subways in the world and American complaints about crowded mass transit

Check out this list of the subways with the most riders. This is the top 10: Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing/Moscow (tied), Shanghai, Guangzhou, New York City, Mexico City, Paris, and Hong Kong. Here is how the story describes these subways:

While vital to both big-city residents and visitors, subway systems can inspire a love-hate relationship, with overcrowding blamed for much of the frustration. While we may not love riding in sardine-like train cars, we do appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of many of the world’s most popular subway stations.

I’m not sure why there is consternation about the crowded nature of these subways: are there more efficient ways to move millions of people in some of the densest areas humans have every known? If everyone could have their personal space, like in cars which Americans prefer, it becomes really hard to have cities with densities like those in the top 10. If we operate with the assumption that all humans would prefer to be in less crowded spaces if they could afford to, then this might make sense.

I wonder if such complaints in the United States about crowded mass transit betrays American sensibilities for privacy and space. While people in other countries might choose mass transit over the costs of cars (and they are expensive to operate, in addition to the space, infrastructure, and resources they require), Americans work in the opposite direction: they would prefer a car until it becomes too difficult. For example, see this discussion about getting wealthier Americans to ride buses.

Trying to count the people on the streets in Cairo

This is a problem that occasionally pops up in American marches or rallies: how exactly should one estimate the number of people in the crowd? This has actually been quite controversial at points as certain organizers of rallies have produced larger figures than official government or media estimates. And with the ongoing protests taking place in Cairo, the same question has arisen: just how many Egyptians have taken to the streets in Cairo? There is a more scientific process to this beyond a journalist simply making a guess:

To fact-check varying claims of Cairo crowd sizes, Clark McPhail, a sociologist at the University of Illinois and a veteran crowd counter, started by figuring out the area of Tahrir Square. McPhail used Google Earth’s satellite imagery, taken before the protest, and came up with a maximum area of 380,000 square feet that could hold protesters. He used a technique of area and density pioneered in the 1960s by Herbert A. Jacobs, a former newspaper reporter who later in his career lectured at the University of California, Berkeley, as chronicled in a Time Magazine article noting that “If the crowd is largely coeducational, he adds, it is conceivable that people might press closer together just for the fun of it.”

Such calculations of capacity say more about the size of potential gathering places than they do about the intensity of the political movements giving rise to the rallies. A government that wants to limit reported crowd sizes could cut off access to its cities’ biggest open areas.

From what I have read in the past on this topic, this is the common approach: calculate how much space is available to protesters or marchers, calculate how much space an individual needs, and then look at photos to see how much of that total space is used. The estimates can then vary quite a bit depending on how much space it is estimated each person wants or needs. These days, the quest to count is aided by better photographs and satellite images:

That is because to ensure an accurate count, some computerized systems require multiple cameras, to get high-resolution images of many parts of the crowd, in case density varies. “I don’t know of real technological solutions for this problem,” said Nuno Vasconcelos, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego. “You will have to go with the ‘photograph and ruler’ gurus right now. Interestingly, this stuff seems to be mostly of interest to journalists. The funding agencies for example, don’t seem to think that this problem is very important. For example, our project is more or less on stand-by right now, for lack of funding.”

Without any such camera setup, many have turned to some of the companies that collect terrestrial images using satellites, but these companies have collected images mostly before and after the peak of protests this week. “GeoEye and its regional affiliate e-GEOS tasked its GeoEye-1 satellite on Jan. 29, 2011 to collect half-meter resolution imagery showing central Cairo, Egypt,” GeoEye’s senior vice president of marketing, Tony Frazier, said in a written statement. “We provided the imagery to several customers, including Google Earth. GeoEye normally relies on our partners to provide their expert analysis of our imagery, such as counting the number of people in these protests.” This image was taken before the big midweek protests. DigitalGlobe, another satellite-imagery company, also didn’t capture images of the protests, according to a spokeswoman, but did take images later in the week.

Because these images are difficult to come by in Egypt, it is then difficult to make an estimate. As the article notes, this is why you will get vague estimates for crowd sizes in news stories like “thousands” or “tens of thousands.”

Since this is a problem that does come up now and then, can’t someone put together a better method for making crowd estimates? If certain kinds of images could be obtained, it seems like an algorithm could be developed that would scan the image and somehow differentiate between people.