Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on

Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

From quaint suburban neighborhood to sprawl imposed on the land in ten minutes

A recent suburban drive showed me the variety in the built suburban landscape – all within ten minutes. Here is the first residential neighborhood I drove through, right near a downtown:

Tree-lined streets, older homes, walkable, pleasant sidewalks for pedestrians, a two lane road.

But, as I continued down this road, I soon found myself in a different suburban landscape:

Green space on one side, houses on the other side within subdivisions, fewer trees, a wider arterial road with a higher speed limit, power lines on one side.

The local context matters in this case: the first picture is near the downtown of a suburb where the land was first settled in the 1830s and the community was incorporated several decades later. In contrast, the second picture is land more in between suburbs where homes and subdivisions were constructed later. They are good illustrations of the different waves of suburban settlement as discussed by Dolores Hayden in Building Suburbia.

Though these are very different settings, they are now all grouped together as “suburbs.” They may even exist within the same suburban municipality; some suburbs are all sprawl, some are all denser areas, many have a combination of both. The interests of the homeowners in one setting may not match those in the other.

Infectious diseases in urban and suburban life

Americans already have a predilection for suburban life; might a global pandemic push even more people out of cities and to the edges of metropolitan regions? One take regarding safety in suburban life:

As maps like this show, major metropolitan areas are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 infections spreading across North America. And that makes sense: Though there’s no way to know for sure how the virus arrived, it almost certainly came by way of an international flight to a major airport (or several of them). But while infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say…

That is not to say that cities aren’t Petri dishes — they are. Relative to rural areas, urban centers do provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher rates of contact and larger numbers of infection-prone people. And historically, urbanites paid a price for this vulnerability…

Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics…

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. This highlights the connectedness of cities and suburbs today, even if there is significant physical distance separating communities. The rate at which people travel around the world, to other regions, and throughout regions is high compared to all of human history and is relatively easy to do. Cities and suburbs are not separate places; they are parts of interdependent regions that are highly connected to other places.
  2. Safety and health was a part of creating the suburbs in the United States but it is hard to know how this might matter in the future. Given all the reasons people now settle in the suburbs, would avoiding communicable diseases be a top factor? I would think not, particularly compared to factors like housing prices or amenities (schools, quality of life, etc.), or demographics.
  3. If particular places are not that much safer, does the sprawl of American life then limit the response to any illness? Imagine the Chicago region with dozens of hospitals that need to be equipped spread throughout the region as opposed to that same number of people packed into a smaller area where it is easier to get supplies and people to medical facilities. Or, the need to supply grocery stores throughout a huge region.

Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

Aiming for resilient suburbs with long-term thinking about development

Fate, Texas, almost thirty miles northeast of Dallas, has grown rapidly in recent decades. But, the community is aiming for a different kind of suburban growth:

This financial distress is the inevitable endgame of a development pattern that doesn’t generate enough private wealth to sustain the public investment that supports it. So Fate planning staff began asking developers to document the ratio of public to private investment for every proposed project. This process lends itself to difficult, adult conversations about the long-term fiscal impacts of near-term growth. And elected officials in Fate have proved willing to have those conversations. The next challenge: bringing the public along with an affirmative vision of a financially resilient future for the small city…

What’s difficult is fostering such a conversation while the continued booming growth of North Texas drives developers to seek permission to build in Fate now, not a decade from now. One approach the city has taken is to work with the developers of in-progress or phased projects to alter their M.O. moving forward…

The city finds developers amenable to such voluntary amendments, because there is usually some overlap in interests. A more compact development pattern that integrates single-family homes with townhomes, apartments, or mixed-use development, for example, can simultaneously shore up the city’s revenues and render development more profitable in the long run. Still, residents are struggling with getting more and more neighbors, and with the high taxes they have to pay to special districts that facilitated the first waves of growth…

This path forward, if the city can manage it, entails actively pursuing high-quality, compact downtown development that pays its bills—now and in the long run—as a proof of concept, a way to demonstrate to residents that this path can lead to a desirable, prosperous community. It would be a gamble on the proposition that most people, in North Texas or elsewhere, aren’t unshakably anti-walkability or anti-urbanism. It would be a bet that the right kind of strong neighborhood will change some hearts and minds. Fate’s plan to attract new residents to the city—people looking for something different than what Richardson or other nearby towns have to offer—might just work in the long run.

In the United States, municipal growth is good but that does not necessarily mean it is sustainable in the long run. At the least, suburban communities can only grow so long in generating more and more subdivisions until they run out of land. As this article notes, the infrastructure of suburbia can be expensive to maintain as growth slows.

There are multiple solutions communities can pursue:

1. Like in Fate, consider the long-term early on to hopefully avoid other problems down the road.

2. Slow growth/limited development. This helps avoid the big boom suburbs can face for a short stretch that occurs and disappears quickly.

3. Just keep growing; if the open land runs out, start building up. Population growth can come through multiple paths.

If the bigger picture is correct (titled “the Growth Ponzi Scheme”), then many suburbs will have much to reckon with in the coming decades.


The eventual plowing of residential streets after snowfall

Once snow starts falling, snowplows emerge and start rumbling down roads. They start with main streets, roadways many drivers travel on and that are often necessary for people hoping to get from one place to another. Depending on the rate of snowfall, the width of primary roads, and the number of main roads, it could be a while until plows make it to residential streets.

This all makes sense and I assume there are studies that confirm starting with the heavier-trafficked roads. (Do snow plows use the same kind of algorithms that guide delivery trucks to the most efficient routes?) At the same time, it could pose a predicament for residents. When you are starting or ending your drive, getting through the residential and side streets can prove quite a problem. It might be hours before people can easily pull in and out of their driveways.

Perhaps this is an argument against sprawl. Having thousands of driveways spread out along hundreds of streets in every suburban community means snowplowing is inefficient. Additionally, residents have to remove snow from their driveways and sidewalks. All this adds up to a lot of snow removal for relatively few people.

Eventually, the plow comes through and makes it easier to pass along residential streets. It may be a while before the side streets look as good as the main roads but they get there eventually. And perhaps the unplowed streets have their own beauty before the whiteness is sullied again by pavement, dirt, and tire tracks.

Eleven years in, self-driving cars are still a ways off

Transportation has changed in the last decade but self-driving cars will still take some more time:

The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.

But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.

Reading this brief overview, two things struck me:

  1. Having a computer do all that is needed to drive is a monumental task. There is a lot of information to take in from behind the wheel and the environment keeps changing. This makes human drivers look pretty good. Even with all the accidents and deaths that occur every year, that humans can handle all of this at 60 mph or higher is remarkable.
  2. All the money and effort that has gone into this simply reinforces the car as the primary agent of transportation in the United States. While having no human driver could be a game changer, all this effort does little to displace the car as center of social life, work, urban planning, and sprawl. Perhaps it would be too much to ask Americans to give up cars but this could be viewed by future Americans as a missed opportunity to reorganize society.

Even if the next decade features truly autonomous vehicles, it will take more time for these vehicles to work their way through the system. Since I have also seen lists of the new laws and regulations going into effect January 1, is it far-fetched to imagine a new rule starting in early 2025 that all new vehicles purchased must be fully autonomous?

The widest highway in the world: 26 lanes in Houston

I recently ran into a discussion of the widest highways and a 2018 Houston Chronicle article claims the 26 lane stretch in Houston leads the world:

For what it’s worth, we can lay claim to the world’s widest freeway: The Katy Freeway at Beltway 8 is 26 lanes across.

Here’s how that breaks down: 12 main lanes (six in each direction), eight feeder lanes and six managed lanes. The managed lanes carry mass transit and high-occupancy vehicles during peak hours and are made available to single-occupancy vehicles for a toll fee during off-peak periods…

A few other contenders come close to the title but don’t quite make it, Voigt said, noting that the discussion had come up at the institute when the Katy widening project was completed in late 2008.

“Off the top of my head, the 401 in Toronto is 22 lanes at the widest and I think a part of the NJ (New Jersey) Turnpike is 18 lanes at one point,” Voigt’s email said.

That is a lot of lanes to maintain and I imagine the highway takes up quite a bit of space (and woe to those located right next to this stretch of road). Driving here must be an interesting experience, particularly if the driver is used to narrower highways.

Is it a surprise that this is in Texas, where everything is bigger and people like to drive, and in Houston, the quintessential sprawling and growing city with no zoning regulations?

It would be interesting to get a more in-depth history of this particular stretch of road. How many lanes did the highway initially have? Who approved the construction of so many lanes? Is there consensus that this was a positive move for traffic? How much money has been spent on this stretch (and that could have been spent on other transportation options)?


Boost economic opportunity by giving all Americans a car

In discussing the possibility of free transit, the alternative of providing cars comes up:

Instead of the pledges to expand electric vehicle charging stations that fill their presidential platforms, the candidates should all be focusing on how to eliminate car ownership. Because right now, if our only goal were to improve individual economic outcomes, we’d just give every person in this country a brand-new car. In the same way universal health care has been made part of the Green New Deal, universal access to zero-emission transportation needs to be included, too.

A driver’s license has has become virtually required to participate in much of U.S. society. But what if the piece of plastic we use to validate our identities guaranteed access to so much more? Imagine a single card—or an app—that, like in many other countries, could unlock train rides, bus rides, bike rides, scooter rides, van rides, car rides anywhere in the nation. Now imagine what we might achieve when those services are not only funded adequately, but also free for everyone to use.

Free transit alone isn’t nearly enough to fix this country—but it could be one piece of a bigger, truly universal transportation solution that might.

This reminds me of a program I once heard about in Wisconsin. A group provided lower-income residents a reliable used car so that they could then access jobs and other opportunities. If the goal is to help people find steady employment, having a car that works without needing a lot of maintenance or a lot of gas can go a long way.

The paragraphs above do bring up a conundrum in the United States: if many people need to drive significant distances on a daily basis to find good work (spatial mismatch) and having a car is expensive, what are those without resources supposed to do? A consequence of sprawling cities, suburbs, and regions is that people need to provide their own transportation and this comes at a significant cost. As noted in the article, even free transit may not solve everything if mass transit does not connect where people live to where people work.

As people try to promote free transit (and better transit), this conversation could lead to a different kind of car commercial at the holidays. Used Toyota Corollas for those who need them! A Christmas gift of a reliable used car could just mean the difference between a good life and a tough life.