Limited solutions to ensuring more long green light stretches of suburban driving

After occasionally finding stretches of hitting all green lights on major suburban roadways, I wanted to consider how these experiences might become more common. Is it possible? Here are some strategies alongside my sense of whether these would help.

Photo by C. Cagnin on Pexels.com
  1. Synchronizing traffic lights. Los Angeles did this a few years ago to help traffic flow. As a kid, I recall sitting in the car in Chicago and hearing tell of how Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side was set up this way: follow the speed limit and a driver should hit multiple greens in a row. This could be harder to accomplish across a range of municipalities and the various traffic volumes intersecting with the main road. Additionally, this might not help much if there is just too much traffic on the road.
  2. Providing more lanes, more driving options. Americans tend to like this strategy: more lanes, more roads equals more space for vehicles, right? Research suggests otherwise: if you add road capacity, drivers will tend to fill that up. Americans like driving in the suburbs and this is not a long-term solution. In fact, road diets may be more helpful: reduce capacity and it pushes drivers toward other options. Furthermore, expanding roads in an already developed suburban area can get quite expensive and may be controversial.
  3. Encouraging more mass transit use, more walking and bicycling, and less driving. If there are simply too many cars, limiting trips would help ensure smoother driving experiences. All of these options are tough sells in the suburbs. It is hard to provide mass transit in a decentralized landscape and wealthier residents are unlikely to use it. Residential neighborhoods might be set up for biking and walking but connecting to other uses – grocery stores, schools, businesses – is often not possible or is dangerous.
  4. Having more employees work from home. This may be temporary due to COVID-19 but could be a long-term solution for traffic and congestion issues. Of course, there may be more people living in the suburbs due to COVID-19.

This suggests that there may be some short-term solutions but the bigger issue would take more time and effort: American suburbs are built around driving.

The magic of 10+ minutes of green lights on a major suburban road

I occasionally drive on major local suburban roadways. Think four lanes, direct north/south or east/west routes, speed limits of 35-45 mph, and lined with strip malls, fast food restaurants, gas stations, big box stores, and various other uses. Because of all of the traffic that wants to get on and off the road and because there are regulations about how to do this safely, such roads have regular traffic lights.

In the suburban road logic, these motorways are necessary to move larger volumes of traffic. Off these major roads are endless residential streets lined with single-family homes or small multi-family housing units. Traffic could cut through some of these neighborhoods but they have lower speed limits, narrower streets, and plenty of stop signs.

Occasionally, by finding the right time of day or the right position within the flow of traffic or finding the communities that have timed their traffic lights well, you can drive down such roads for ten-plus minutes without hitting a red light. It is smooth sailing. It is a slower but local highway. You can improve your gas mileage.

But, this is rare. During busier times, there may be too much traffic to get through each light. Late at night, the side streets might have sensors that turn their direction to green when just one car arrives. The drive becomes a series of stops and starts. Up to 40 mph, stop again, back up to 35 mpg, stop again.

Thus, when in the middle of a magical moment without stoplights impeding your path, enjoy it. Hear a few songs in a row while moving. Look at the communities as you go by. Marvel at the ground that can be covered when moving at the speed limit for more than a few minutes. Soon you will be back at a traffic light, waiting to get started again.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

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.

Less traffic, faster driving

Reports suggest more drivers are going fast on emptier roads:

Despite there being far fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, state highway safety officials across the country are seeing a severe spike in speeding. Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.

Being a safe driver should always be a priority, but during the coronavirus pandemic, traffic safety experts at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) say it is more important than ever. “While COVID-19 is clearly our national priority, our traffic safety laws cannot be ignored,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement officials have the same mission as health care providers — to save lives. If you must drive, buckle up, follow the posted speed limit and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Emergency rooms in many areas of the country are at capacity, and the last thing they need is additional strain from traffic crash victims.”

During the past month, pedestrian and bicycle traffic are reported to have increased exponentially, while motor vehicle traffic is down. Adkins noted that GHSA is encouraged to see so many communities across the country making roadways more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. To keep roads safe for everyone, traffic safety officials nationwide are pleading with motorists to slow down and respect traffic safety laws…

A 2019 report on speeding by GHSA, “Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” highlights excessive vehicle speed as a persistent factor in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle-related fatalities, while a 2020 GHSA report on pedestrian fatalities, published in February, finds that pedestrians now account for 17% of all traffic-related fatalities.

In many metropolitan regions, traffic is pretty constant throughout the day. COVID-19 has reduced the number of daily work trips plus some of the other reasons for cars and trucks on the road.

With more open road, perhaps it is “natural” for drivers to feel they can go faster. I am reminded of the argument by New Urbanists that narrower roads lined with parked cars and trees close to the street push drivers to slow down. The illusion is that with fewer potential obstacles on the road, a driver can be safe even while going faster. Of course, going faster reduces the time drivers have to correct and avoid things in their path.

It would be interesting to note how much local police forces are responding to speeders now. Is it worth stopping them if there is a risk of transmitting COVID-19? Are police resources needed more elsewhere? At this point, what other options do officials have in reducing speeds on less crowded roads?

Need bigger garages and parking spaces for bigger vehicles

Americans’ interest in bigger vehicles means more space needs to be devoted to their storage:

Across America, the drive for bigger vehicles is bumping into physical limitations. SUVs and pickups are getting so large that they’re struggling to fit into some home and parking garages and public parking spaces.

Homeowners may need to think twice about purchasing larger vehicles, while parking lot operators are starting to charge oversize fees to accommodate behemoth SUVs and trucks…

“Nowadays, there’s people buying Dodge Rams, Ford pickups that don’t fit, and they’ll park them outside,” he said. “The difference here is this is an electric vehicle and … you need to plug it in. I’m not gonna spend $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 on a vehicle and then have to run an extension cord outside the garage or an outside outlet.”…

While larger vehicles may pose some inconveniences, Americans don’t seem too bothered by it overall, at least if the vehicles being introduced by automakers are any indication.

This goes along with the idea that Americans should buy bigger houses to help store their stuff!

I first noticed this last year on a trip to New York City. In looking ahead of time for a parking garage, I saw that garages charged more for oversized vehicles. The article notes that this is largely confined to New York City but from other recent experiences seeing large vehicles in parking garages in the Chicago area, I would not be surprised if this idea spreads.

Another casualty to these large vehicles: lanes on roads and highways. A bigger vehicle means it takes up more of a lane, particularly on roadways with narrower lanes and tighter conditions. There is also less room for drifting from going straight ahead.

There is a focus in some places of reducing the number of parking spots as communities have long had generous numbers of spots compared to the average number of parkers. It would be interesting to see how a reduction in the number of parking spots might clash with a need to create bigger spots (which would take up more space per spot).

More major American cities closing major roads to cars

San Francisco recently moved to restrict vehicles on Market Street, following actions and plans in other major cities:

A few weeks ago, there was a dramatic shift when San Francisco banned private cars on the busiest section of Market Street. Suddenly most automobiles were gone — Ubers, Lyfts, and tourists in rental cars banished. Historic streetcars and electric trolley buses glided along. Cyclists and electric scooter-riding commuters celebrated their new freedom…

Alarmed by rising traffic deaths and painful gridlock on downtown streets, New York City, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Toronto and other cities have instituted restrictions — forcing vehicles to share fewer lanes, ending curbside parking during rush hour or banning virtually all cars from signature boulevards in favor of mass transit.

Los Angeles is considering its own bold step: dramatically reducing the number of lanes for traffic along Hollywood Boulevard…

City officials nationwide talk of “Vision Zero,” a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, and “complete streets,” which value safety not only for cars but pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

This is a small shift away from prioritizing vehicular traffic over other uses for streets, including pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit, and street life. Closing major streets to vehicles, even for just part of the day, signals that cars and trucks should not necessarily have priority.

Yet, even with these changes, significant challenges are still ahead:

1. Such closures can help make these streets more attractive to other users. However, does it deal with the issue of driving more broadly? Making moves such as this without adding mass transit options throughout the region or discouraging driving in other ways may not do much beyond make particular streets better off. Hopefully, these road closures are part of comprehensive plans to address driving and congestion in the big picture.

2. Once there are fewer cars, how can the city return the roadways and sidewalks to a more pedestrian and social scale? Take Market Street. It is a wide roadway. It is lined with tall buildings. Retailers have struggled to stay in business. Simply reducing traffic does not necessarily turn it into a lively streetscape.

3. It is worth watching how these closures affect traffic elsewhere. Generally, going on road diets should help reduce car usage. If people cannot drive down Market, will they clog up other roads or switch to other forms of transit? San Francisco and the other major cities cited above are all known for traffic and congestion; what if more traffic moves to residential areas? While they are not an organized force, the thousands of drivers each day in major cities can make their voices heard in various ways (and know ride-sharing companies can represent some of that population).

The top 5 posts of 2019: the suburbs (on TV and the development of), changing households, and potholes

As 2019 comes to a close, here are the five most visited pages on Legally Sociable for the year:

  1. The exterior vs. the interior of the Brady Bunch house and architecture in TV and movies. This post continues to be popular; here are three possible reasons: there are dedicated fans of the Brady Bunch, this home is particularly iconic, and there is relatively little scholarly work about depictions of suburban homes on television (though this post helped inspire two publications of mine: one on suburban TV shows and one on the fictional McMansions of the Soprano family).
  2. A new term: the “accordion family.” Household arrangements continue to change in the United States and this is one of the changes that emerged out of the economic troubles of the late 2000s: more twenty-somethings living at home.
  3. The highest post from 2019 on this list: Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One. This overview of two local zoning concerns, one a proposal to rezone property along a major road through a town and one a proposal to build a five story apartment building in a suburban downtown, had a Part Two with more sociological analysis that was nowhere near as popular.
  4. Responding to “The Disturbing History of Suburbia.” I add some scholarly sources and discussion to this video which is a good starting point to thinking about the large role race and ethnicity played in the creation and maintenance of American suburbs. It is hard to escape the importance of race in understanding the American suburbs.
  5. Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing). There are few songs even hinting at these topics and Twenty One Pilots are popular.

Of the top posts, three involve reactions to popular culture (the Brady Bunch, Adam Ruins Everything, and a song from Twenty One Pilots), one is about a sociological concept, and three invoked sociological reaction in two areas of my research interest (suburbs on television and suburban development).

On to a new year of sociological commentary.

Designing your own Peytonville, Part 5

In a new iteration of the Peytonville commercials from Nationwide, Peyton is in the big city that loomed at the edge of his region:

peytonville5.jpg

This is one broad avenue with at least four lanes of traffic and it looks like there are bike lanes on each side. There are plenty of trees on wide sidewalks. The buildings are not that tall and are setback a ways. They primarily look like newer structures – glass facades – with some older buildings (or at least structures clad with bricks).

Is this a typical American big city? This view looks like either a sprawling city found in the Sunbelt or a smaller big city in the Midwest.

Is this meant to be an inviting image? My first thought is that this is a city built for cars and not people or pedestrians. With such wide streets, the scale is slightly off (even though the sizes of the buildings showed here do not overwhelm the streetscape). For example, crossing the street at this traffic light would take some time.

I wonder what kind of urbanism Peyton Manning prefers. Would he prefer a college town? A mid-sized big city like he played in during his NFL career?

Limiting suburban through traffic by putting up gates during rush hour

Some neighborhoods and communities are fed up with people cutting through on their streets. A Denver suburb considers putting up gates:

The town of about 800 is now proposing gates at two main entrance/exit points, blocking access during the morning and evening rush…

“The traffic has become increasingly problematic both in volume and speeding. The Town does not have sidewalks and it is dangerous for residents to walk,” said Lisa Jones, mayor of the Town of Foxfield.

While two gate locations are recommended, there are still about a half dozen other entrances to Foxfield that would not be gated. The gates will be paid for by the Town of Foxfield.

I can imagine a driving landscape in a decade or so where only certain vehicles are allowed down certain streets. Imagine a large city banning Uber and/or Lyft during certain hours of the day. A wealthy suburb restricting access to delivery trucks in the early morning. Another community not wanting commuters to go through residential neighborhoods. A neighborhood not allowing certain size vehicles (like oversized pickup trucks).

All of these might help local residents feel better but they fail to help with the bigger problem: traffic is a regional issue. Communities should be working together on these issues, not walling themselves off. Creating more private space will only serve to make the problem worse for everyone.

I am not sure who exactly would have any sway in these matters. In the case above, it sounds like other communities could lodge objections and emergency services could require that the gates allow them access. Should state transportation agencies look into this? Can a legislature suggest restrictions cannot be put on public roads? Could a coalition of local and regional governments make a pact not to do this to each other? Perhaps this is not needed yet as few communities have gone too far down this road. But, it might come sooner than we think.