Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving

If the single-family home offers private space in suburbia, the car offers private mobile space. The home offers a base to which the owner can retreat, the car offers the chance to travel elsewhere. Even if the single-family home is the ultimate focus of suburbia, these homes are hard to imagine without cars in the garage or driveways (usually front-facing, sometimes in the rear) or without traveling to the suburban in something other than a car. Cars and homes are intimately connected in American society.

Americans love driving (and need convincing to instead use mass transit). The suburbs require driving. The sprawling nature of suburban communities are often ill-suited for mass transit. On one hand, driving offers freedom to go where you want when you want. It is a symbol of American individualism. On a global scale, Americans have one of the highest rates of car ownership. On the other hand, owning a car has numerous costs. It is not just the obvious costs of gas, insurance, and car maintenance (and even these add up for the average owner). Additionally, critics would argue cars are a drain on community life as people can build relationships and spend money wherever their car can take them, commuting via car can take a lot of time and can limit economic mobility, road networks are costly to maintain, have negative effects on the environment, contribute to health issues through limited walking and biking, and are a menace to pedestrians and bicyclists who want to be part of the streetscape as well as are a safety threat to drivers and passengers themselves. Even with these costs, Americans persist in driving. For example, rather than push back against highways and driving in the auto-dependent Los Angeles area, officials instead focused their efforts on getting more efficient cars. The thought of major highways closing for a few days in a sprawling region creates near panic and highways can become effective sites for protests because of the number of inconvenienced drivers.

Numerous aspects of suburbia emphasize the love of cars. The single-family home would be incomplete without a garage. As homes increased in size over the decades, so did garages. The pattern of driving out of the garage at the beginning of the day and back in at the end with minimal neighborhood interaction may not characterize every home but is common enough. Many suburban single-family home are located along residential streets that are plenty wide and can handle cars traveling at decent speeds. The fast food restaurant would not be possible without cars. What is more American than going through the McDonald’s drive-thru in the midst of another suburban trip? Think of the many commercial strips all around America with fast food restaurants and strip malls (they may even not be considered aesthetically appealing by some suburbs). Similarly, the big box store – Walmart, Costco, Ikea – and shopping malls would not be possible without cars. In these spaces, hundreds of separate drivers can congregate in massive parking lots for unparalleled choice and prices. Numerous industries, let alone the automobile industry, depend on cars, vehicles, and roads.

The suburban car is part status symbol, part lifeline to the outside world. What vehicle you have matters and judging from the vehicles around me, the suburban family life is impossible without an SUV or minivan. Not being able to drive is a huge problem (sorry teenagers and some seniors). The largest category of trips involves drives between suburbs, particularly for work as jobs are spread throughout suburban regions. Additionally, the image of soccer moms persists as kids need to get to all of their activities.

It is difficult to predict how exactly cars fit into the future of suburbs. Driverless cars may mean fewer people need to own their own vehicle (those garages can then be used to store more stuff!) but being able to relax or do work rather than drive may mean people could live even further from cities. Millennials have less interested in car ownership and driving. Numerous suburbs are pursuing denser developments, particularly along railroad or transit lines, and this could limit car use in those areas and create more walkable spaces. Yet, it is hard to imagine the American suburbs without many cars and the ability to travel from a single-family home to all sorts of places.

Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

Pneumatic road tubes to count traffic, check speed

Here are the secrets of “those weird black tubes in the road”:

Here’s a good description of the actual operation of the tube setup from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

“Pneumatic road tube sensors send a burst of air pressure along a rubber tube when a vehicle’s tires pass over the tube. The pressure pulse closes an air switch, producing an electrical signal that is transmitted to a counter or analysis software. The pneumatic road tube sensor is portable, using lead-acid, gel, or other rechargeable batteries as a power source.”…

A single pneumatic road tube is most commonly used to simply count the number of cars on the road, as well as time the gaps between individual vehicles.

If two pneumatic road tubes are set up spaced slightly apart, the counter can track the number of axles a vehicle has to better determine each individual vehicle’s class, the direction of traffic and the speed at which vehicles are moving.

A relatively simple device to figure out how many vehicles are on the road. These traffic counts are then very helpful for additional decisions like traffic control, widening or adding to roads, and even thinking about new roadways.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

A man on a mission: correct Chicago area road signs

Steven Bahnsen is determined to change signs on the Dan Ryan Expressway from “22nd Street” to “Cermak Street.” This is not a singular issue for Bahnsen:

A retired Chicago postal worker, Bahnsen has spent years complaining about missing, inaccurate, poorly placed and misleading signs along Illinois roads.

He has written so many letters to government agencies that one exasperated Illinois Department of Transportation manager told staffers that they did not have to respond to him, according to a 2013 email Bahnsen obtained through a public records request…

 

As Bahnsen notes, 22nd Street was changed to “Cermak Road” by the Chicago City Council in 1933, following the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. The shooter had been aiming at President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The road is “Cermak” from 400 East to 4600 West, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation…

In response, IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said there are two exits from the northbound Dan Ryan to Cermak, and so two names are used. “As to not confuse the motoring public, the labels are different to distinguish between the two exits,” Urgo said in an email. She said that Exit 53C is labeled as I-55 N, Lake Shore Drive and 22nd Street, while exit 53A is labeled as Canalport Avenue and Cermak Road. As for whether it might be less confusing to refer to the roadway as Cermak in both cases, Urgo explained: “Because of the close proximity to each other, having the same exit sign posted in different spots could confuse people more.”

I am sympathetic to the general argument: signs that do not seem to match up streets can be very confusing to visitors. What particular roads and highways are called can be a very local thing. Just listen to a traffic report on the radio and between the speed at which the report is given and the local monikers for roads, it can be difficult to understand.

Bahnsen is not the only concerned resident when looking at street signs; see another case a few years back in Los Angeles where a resident took things into their own hands in correcting signs.

 

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.