The weekend of “Carmageddon” in Los Angeles

Local highway construction doesn’t typically garner national attention. But there has been plenty of news for weeks about a key highway closing in Los Angeles:

Interstate 405, a freeway normally so clogged that locals like to joke that its name is shorthand for “traffic that moves no faster than 4 or 5 miles an hour,” is closing for 53 hours for a major construction project.

As crews worked feverishly to get the freeway open in time for Monday morning’s rush-hour, residents have been making plans for weeks to stay off local roads, lest they trigger what officials dubbed “Carmageddon.”

Such an event could back up vehicles from the 405 to surface streets and other freeways, causing a domino effect that could paralyze much of the city.

With warnings having been broadcast through television, radio, social media and flashing freeway signs as far away as San Francisco, much of the city’s nearly 4 million residents appear ready to stay off the roads.

As I have seen multiple stories about this, several thoughts came to mind:

1. It is a 53 hour closure, not the end of the world. This has been overhyped. People will survive.

2. Shouldn’t planners be lauded more for doing the work over a summer weekend? The preparation for the whole project actually sounds pretty good.

3. People don’t often think about roads until they are a problem. This is a good example of that.

4. Even though it may have been overhyped, this is still a legitimate social problem, particularly for emergency vehicles and other important highway users. This seems to be more common with highway construction: a long, well-publicized campaign to make sure that residents are made aware of what is to come. If people know what is coming, they are usually pretty good at making other plans. Like with many other social issues, public officials need to walk a fine line between overhyping this, like using the term “Carmageddon,” while also making sure that people are aware of the severity of the problem.

5. This would be a good opportunity to think about new transportation options in the Los Angeles region. As the map accompany the AP story shows, there are only a few routes across the Santa Monica mountains. The answer is simply not to construct additional highway lanes and more drivers will then use the highway.

6. This reminds me of some examples of cities that have eliminated highways, like the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, and traffic has adapted. Closing the highway for a short time is a nuisance but if the highway was closed longer, I bet people would adapt.

How rural homelessness might differ from urban homelessness

An Illinois sociologist argues that rural homelessness can look quite different from urban homelessness:

“In rural America … a lot of homelessness is hidden from the community,” said Judi Kessler, associate professor for the department of sociology and anthropology at Monmouth College. In a big city like Los Angeles, “homeless is easily identified and easily spotted.”

As a result, residents conjure up images of the homeless in larger cities, which contrasts sharply with homelessness in rural Illinois…

Instead, some rural homeless people “couch surf” by living with a friend until they are no longer wanted. They then move in with a new friend or into a rundown, low-rent home that may not have proper utilities. This process, while very telling, goes largely unnoticed by the general population.

“I think it’s fair to at least speculate that homelessness is much bigger than is immediately evident to our eyes,” Kessler said

Being homeless in rural America also presents unique challenges, which were discovered last spring by a group of students in Goble’s class who were assigned to produce a documentary on rural homelessness.

The group decided to focus on one person who had some bad luck and was staying at a Monmouth shelter…

Among the problems she faced were the lack of mental health services and public transportation in a town of 10,000 residents. Health services are at least 30 minutes away from the shelter, yet the female didn’t have a vehicle. She also had kids, and child care was hard to come by.

This brings up the issue of the social problem of rural homelessness – if people can’t easily see it, then they don’t know it exists. And if they are unaware, it is hard to motivate people to act. Is there a concerted effort in Galesburg or other rural areas to tackle this issue? How can social services be distributed in rural areas in a way that people could access them on a regular basis or in a time of crisis?

A second thought: how prevalent is rural homelessness? Are there figures from certain areas or across the country? I wonder how many cases of rural homelessness are linked to not knowing anyone in the small community.

Infrastructure improvements needed but the will is lacking

The hidden backbone of any community is its infrastructure: the roads, sewers, electricity lines, and more that make the basics of life possible. But it appears that there might be a perception issue among Americans: even though there are a number of experts calling for infrastructure improvements (read The Infrastructurist for more information), Americans either don’t see it is a priority or don’t want to commit extra money to projects (I’ve moved around some of the text from the article):

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – half what it was in 1960 — compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, according to the government report.

“During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects — such as building schools, roads and parks — in order to meet balanced budget requirements,” the report concluded. “However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom.”

“My sense is things have changed,” said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and an expert on transportation policy. “People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that’s just wrong.”

“I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome,” he added. “High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that’s out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge.”

So how can the negative perception of infrastructure be changed? I don’t think many people would argue that it is unnecessary (particularly if it affects their personal travel or services) but there are stories of cost overruns, delays, and projects that seem unnecessary. This should be thought of as a social problem – and the American public needs some convincing, particularly in lean economic times.

Seeing Alzheimer’s as a social problem

The cover story in the current issue of Time is about Alzheimer’s research. The main story is set up in a typical way: the condition affects a lot of people and yet research into a cure is underfunded. What is interesting is that Time employs two statistics that suggest the cover story should really be about how people could make Alzheimer’s a social problem worthy of more attention.

The first statistic is an actual dollar amount: one expert says $500 million a year is spent on researching Alzheimer’s while $1 billion is spent on heart disease, and $5.6 billion on cancer. The second measure concerns public perception: 48% of Americans think “a great deal or some progress has been made in curing” the disease while 81% say the same about heart disease and 74% say the same about cancer. With these two statistics, Time suggests Alzheimer’s has a certain public image: it doesn’t attract the same kind of research dollars as other diseases and the public is pretty pessimistic about progress.

While the rest of the story concerns itself with the medical and scientific advances, perhaps it should be about how the public could be convinced that the disease deserves more attention. Some ways the public image could be enhanced: it needs more fund-raisers, more celebrity supporters, more support for research from public officials, and more stories that demonstrate how many people are affected by Alzheimer’s. Look at the public image of other conditions: diseases like breast cancer (where are those “edgy” Facebook campaigns for Alzheimer’s?) have effectively been cast as critical social problems that everyone should care about.

Perhaps this cover story is itself intended to help raise the profile of Alzheimer’s. While real medical progress is the true goal and it is what will ultimately benefit people, Alzheimer’s as a social problem is another important issue to be considered.

Venkatesh discusses five myths about prostitution

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh quickly dissects five myths regarding prostitution. Here are the myths: “prostitution is an alleyway business,” “men visit sex workers for sex,” “most prostitutes are addicted to drugs or were abused as children,” “prostitutes and police are enemies,” and “closing Craigslist’s “adult services” section will significantly affect the sex trade.”

Two quick thoughts:

1. It is difficult to tackle a social problem if people don’t know what is really going on. If Venkatesh is right about the role of Craigslist, then lawmakers and officials are just dealing with symptoms of the problem.

2. One common argument against the need to study sociology is that everything about the social world is “just common sense.” Venkatesh is suggesting based on research of his own and from others that much of the accepted wisdom about prostitution is inaccurate.

Drinking and driving in Montana

While many states have cracked down on drinking and driving, Montana has maintained a more accepting stance towards this activity. However, this era may soon be coming to a close:

Until 2005, when the state came under heavy duress from the federal government, it was legal to drink and drive in many places. And a few years before that there wasn’t even a speed limit on major highways and in rural areas.

But spurred by the high-profile death of a highway patrolman at the hands of an intoxicated driver, Montana’s Old West drinking and driving culture is retreating. Judges are rejecting lenient plea deals and law enforcement leaders are exploring different ways of keeping track of repeat offenders.

Even the Legislature, which just a few years ago struggled mightily to ban open containers of booze in cars, is beginning to promise tough new laws. This comes after years of virtually ignoring the state’s ranking at or near the top of per capita drunken driving deaths.

I didn’t even know this was possible in a country where drinking and driving has been a recognized social problem for several decades. Does Montana not have MADD or SADD groups or are such groups just ignored?

It would be interesting to track, as the article begins to do, how a state makes a transition from a culture open to drinking and driving to a place where this becomes defined as problem behavior. This would require a good amount of culture work among legislators and the average citizen.