Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.

Speeding occurs when a road feels like a highway but has low speed limits

An analysis of high-speed tickets issued in Chicago highlights a fundamental contradiction with Lake Shore Drive:

The number of tickets issued on Lake Shore Drive points to a long-standing problem — with four lanes in each direction along most of the road, the drive looks and feels like a highway, though it was intended as a scenic boulevard and in some places has no guard rails or emergency shoulders. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the North Side and 45 mph on the South, but up to 95 percent of drivers exceed the limit when the road is not congested, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study.

The majority of motorists getting nabbed for speeding on the drive were going at least 75 to 80 mph.

“I observe some people driving extremely fast,” said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “The roadway kind of invites that. When there’s not much traffic, it’s a pleasant drive; there are not many sharp curves. It feels like the Edens Expressway.”…

While drivers speed both north and south of Madison, there are more tickets on the South Side. It is both easier to go at high speeds and easier to catch speeders south of the Museum Campus.

The current solution to the contradiction seems to be more enforcement of speed limits on Lake Shore Drive. More tickets and public knowledge of more tickets issued should theoretically help drivers think twice before going fast.

But, this ignores the underlying issue: the road is built and designed in such a way that fast driving can appear safe. Even if the road is not actually built for those speeds, having all those lanes plus a large number of drivers going fast can overrule a rational approach to the speed limit. Additionally, this is a major north-south artery in Chicago. There are a limited number of these, particularly those without many traffic stops. Outside of a crowded Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways (consistently rated as some of the worst spots for traffic in the United States), Lake Shore Drive is it. Even with its traffic lights around Grant Park, it offers unparalleled ease of travel.

It would be interesting to see what the City of Chicago could dream up to slow down drivers. The other complication is the road is intended to be a scenic one as it often travels through parks and offers numerous great views on one side of Lake Michigan and on the other a thriving global city. Speed bumps? Giant signs about traffic? A road diet to limit the width of the road? More guard rails and visible safety symbols? If the true goal is to improve safety, just handing out tickets is not enough.

The social norm of calling the authorities regarding the mothering of others

Mothering is not an activity just left to individuals or families; it is a communal activity that occasionally veers into differences of opinions and the actions of authorities:

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts…

This has actually been confirmed by researchers. Barbara W. Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues presented subjects with vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended, and participants estimated how much danger the child was in. Sometimes the subjects were told the child was left unintentionally (for example, the parent was hit by a car). In other instances, they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work, volunteer, relax or meet a lover. The researchers found that the participants’ assessment of the child’s risk of harm varied depending on how morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving…

It’s not about safety,” Dr. Sarnecka told me. “It’s about enforcing a social norm.”…

These women’s critics insist that it’s not mothers they hate; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.

Social norms and expectations about roles are powerful parts of social life. Everyone has social guidelines to follow but the expectations can differ dramatically across groups. As the piece goes on to note, what individuals and society expect from fathers in similar situations differs.

This leads me to a few other thoughts:

  1. The appeal to third-party authorities rather than talking to the mother or just keeping an eye on the kids for a few minutes without alerting anyone reminds me of Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb. She argues suburbanites help keep the peace by not interacting with each other. When they have problems, they may call the police or the city or some other party who can mediate in the situation. The same seems to be happening here.
  2. Part of the issue here is that these laws were enacted because there are situations where children can be helped. So, how exactly can the public be shaped to react when it is truly needed and ignore the situation when children are not really in danger? This is a big task and goes beyond the ability of laws and regulations to shape society. At the same time, I would not say that there is some zeitgeist that will just change. How people view mothering and the safety of children is dependent on numerous concrete actions and values.

Suburban traffic trapped by train, Barrington edition

Combining the issues posed by numerous at-grade crossings in the Chicago area plus the purchase of the EJ&E tracks by Canadian National, an afternoon rush hour situation arose June 12 in the suburb of Barrington because of a stopped freight train:

Among the thousands of vehicles caught in the jam were ambulances headed to Good Shepherd Hospital with two patients from a DUI crash at Ela Road and Northwest Highway…

As first-responders quickly found out, all four CN crossings — at Main Street, Hough Street (Route 59), Northwest Highway and Lake Zurich Road — were inaccessible, and trains on an intersecting rail line also backed up…

While traffic gridlock spiraled, Barrington police who had coalesced south of the tracks to handle the DUI crash reached out to neighboring departments. “Can you please let Lake Zurich PD, Lake County and Barrington Hills know on our northwest side we have no officers on right now. So if we need assistance we’ll be calling them,” a dispatcher asked.

As she idled in traffic, Barrington resident Erika Olivares tried to troubleshoot how to reach her 8-month-old son, Leo, before day care closed. “Basically I was panicking,” she recalled Thursday.

Some desperate commuters ducked under train cars to reach the opposite side. “There are numerous people who are actually crawling over the train that’s stopped here,” a 911 caller reported. “It’s getting more and more dangerous — there are kids doing it as well.”

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I would guess the winning issue on which to focus to solve this problem are the safety concerns. If people cannot make it to the hospital or police and fire units cannot make it to scenes, lives in the community may be endangered. Even though it would be interesting to look at how many safety cases are involved on an annual basis, the argument that even one endangered life is too many would likely convince many suburbanites.
  2. The traffic caused by such an incident is experienced by numerous Chicago area suburbs. Lots of at-grade crossings add up to the potential for outraged drivers. Even if rail lines move tremendous amounts of goods, the backups may leave the average suburbanite with the impression that the trains are foremost a nuisance.
  3. The fallout of the Canadian National purchase of the EJ&E tracks continues. What is potentially lost in stories like this from Barrington about changes in communities are the effects on the entire region. One of the outcomes of the purchase was to be that more freight traffic would be rerouted around the region rather than to areas closer to the city with further inconveniences to those communities. The Chicago area has long had problems with too many trains yet it is a vital part of the local and national economy.

Survey suggests women prefer suburbs more than men

A 2016 survey from mortgage company Lendinghome shows gender differences in which kind of places men and women would like to live:

According to Lendinghome, 54 percent of women want to live in the suburbs, while only 42 percent of men share that goal. Among women, 46 percent prefer established neighborhoods, while only 21 percent want an urban-like environment; for men those two options are nearly equally favored: 40 percent want an urban-like environment and 39 percent want an established neighborhood. One good thing about living in Chicago is that you can find neighborhoods that fit both criteria, said Julie Kim, realty agent with Century 21 in Lincolnwood. “One neighborhood I love showing to couples with this dilemma is Sauganash, which is still part of Chicago but gives that nice suburban pleasantville type of feel,” she said.

Lendinghome summarized the findings this way in May 2017:

Some couples may also struggle with different housing preferences based on gender and location. The data shows that women prefer traditional, cozy homes (48 percent) in the suburbs (54 percent), while men are more open to modern homes (48 percent) in urban-like settings (40 percent). Additionally, survey respondents from the West opted for city living (31 percent) more than those from the Midwest (8 percent).

Here is some speculation on why these differences might exist. The suburbs are often touted as the place that is better for kids because there is more space, the schools are better, and neighborhoods are safer. Since women are still often more responsible for the care of children, perhaps they prefer the suburbs because of their children. Additionally, many Americans see cities as less safe and women may feel this even more as they do not desire having to look out for their safety on a daily basis in the city.

In contrast, men have less responsibility for childcare or don’t think about this as much as being in their future and cities then offer more excitement. If they do think of the suburban life, some may see it as a trap: going to work for long periods bookended by significant commutes, having to keep up a yard, a lack of neighborhood activity, and a life revolving around the nuclear family with little chance for getting away.

I would guess that the preference for a suburban life goes up for both men and women with children but is lower both before couples have children and after those kids leave the house or become adults.

 

What social level should help better protect Illinois pedestrians in crosswalks?

The Daily Herald did an “informal study” of using crosswalks in the suburbs and the results were not good for pedestrians:

Daily Herald journalists conducted 49 tests of crosswalks not connected with stop signs or traffic lights in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties in November and December. Among the findings in the informal study:

• In 20 percent of tests, drivers whizzed through crosswalks despite a reporter either standing or walking within the striped area.

• Walkers were temporarily stranded in the middle of crosswalks 12 percent of the time as traffic continued without allowing them to reach the other side.

• One reporter on a busy stretch of Central Road in Mount Prospect waited more than 10 minutes while at least 99 vehicles surged through the crosswalk at Emerson Street until a vehicle stopped. It took more than 99 vehicles until it was safe for the reporter to proceed.

• Ninety percent of the time, traffic continued through crosswalks without heeding people on the curb.

Illinois’ nuanced law saying cars can continue through crosswalks until a pedestrian has both feet in the crosswalk is pure “Catch-22,” widower Eric Jakubowski of Mount Prospect thinks.

There are various levels that could be blamed for these issues:

  1. Local government. Why not put more stop signs or traffic lights in that would give pedestrians more help? (Easy answer: drivers do not want the flow of traffic impeded.) My own anecdotal evidence also suggests these traffic devices are also not guarantees for the safety of walkers, joggers, and bicyclists.
  2. Local law enforcement. Why is this law not enforced more? It reminds me of the cell phone laws in Illinois that are rarely enforced (and some communities have basically said as much).
  3. Pedestrians. Are they aggressive enough in stepping out into the street? Of course, one could hardly blame them as you often have to step out into traffic and catch the eye of drivers.
  4. State officials. Why not clarify the law so that pedestrians come first and also impose steeper penalties for lack of compliance?
  5. American society. Why must we privilege driving so much? And the suburbs are particularly designed around cars where people often have to go several miles to reach basic needs. Pedestrians slow down traffic and suburbanites dislike traffic. Different approaches to community life and urban design could help address these issues.

All of this is the case when many would suggest Americans should walk more for their own health as well as for building community.

Traffic deaths increased in 2016

Explaining the rise in traffic deaths in the last two years may be difficult to explain:

Cars may be safer than ever, but 37,461 people died on American roads that year, a 5.6 percent hike over 2015. While fatalities have dramatically declined in recent decades, this is the second straight year the number has risen. It’s too early to say why, exactly, this is happening. Researchers will need much more time with the data to figure that out. But here’s a hypothesis: It’s the economy, (crash) dummy.

“People drive more in a good economy,” says Chuck Farmer, who oversees research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They drive to different places and for different reasons. There’s a difference between going out to a party in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar area and driving to work—that nighttime driving to a party is more risky.”…

Researchers have long known that driving deaths rise and dive with the economy and income growth. People with jobs have more reason to be on the road than the unemployed. But this increase can’t be pinned on the fact of more driving, the stats indicate. Even adjusted for miles traveled, fatalities have ticked up by 2.6 percent over 2015. You can still blame the economy, because people aren’t just driving more. They’re driving differently. Better economic condition give them the flexibility to drive for social reasons. There might be more bar visits (and drinking) and trips along unfamiliar roads (with extra time spent looking at a map on a phone).

The DOT numbers seem to confirm that drivers involved in traffic deaths were doing different things behind the wheel last year. The feds say the number people who died while not wearing seat belts climbed 4.6 percent, and that drunk driving fatalities rose 1.7 percent. Contrary to what you might expect, the numbers show distracted driving deaths dropped slightly, but experts caution against putting too much faith in such info. The numbers are based on police reports. They’re reflections of what cops are seeing at crash sites, but also of what’s in the zeitgeist at the time. It could be that first responders weren’t, for example, looking out for distracted driving last year because it wasn’t in the news as often.

Official statistics do not provide all the information we might want. In this case, the figure of interest to many will simply be the total number of deaths. Is an increase over two years enough to prompt rapid action? If so, I would imagine the regulatory structures regarding driverless cars might attract some attention. Or, do car deaths continue to be the costs we pay for having lifestyles built around driving?