Trying to revive buses in American cities

A new book looks at how buses could become more viable transportation options. From the author of the book:

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives…

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground…

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.

One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around. You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing. We have this terrible conception of the so-called captive rider in transportation planning, when all the actual data shows that basically everyone has choices, and sometimes those choices can be pretty inconvenient, like having to get a ride with your friends, or having to walk four miles to work. Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

There a lot of issues to overcome in addition to the ones cited above. In my mind, buses have one major advantage over other forms of mass transit: they utilize existing roads and highways to provide mass transit. It would take a lot to reverse the American preference for driving and all that comes with it. Of course, as the article notes, buses that crawl along in traffic like cars and trucks may not be very attractive to riders and may require dedicated lanes. Similarly, buses in sprawling areas may not work as well if people are not willing to start at a common location and give up some freedom of mobility. (The discussion in the article revolves around cities but there are denser suburbs – and suburban like areas of some cities – where buses might work.)

The discussion hints at a related issue: there has to be enough bus service to be attractive but getting people to ride the bus in the first place is difficult when driving a car is a culturally preferred option as well as the option that best suits the existing infrastructure. How many local governments are willing to stick with busing even when it might not be successful at first? Furthermore, would increases in service be accompanied by changes in development policy that would seek to create housing and jobs along bus transit corridors?

Reading the full discussion, it does seem it might not be too difficult to revive bus transit in big cities. On the other hand, bus transit is a hard sell in many American communities and a long-term commitment from all levels might be needed before significant change occurs.

 

 

At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world

Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:

  1. Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
  2. The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
  3. Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
  4. Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
  5. Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
  6. There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
  7. Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
  8. A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
  9. The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
  10. Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
  11. McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
  12. The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.

(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)

Implicating suburban sprawl in the spread of ticks and pathogens

As new tick-borne illnesses spread, sprawl is part of the problem:

But as climate change, suburban sprawl, and increased international travel are putting more ticks and the pathogens they carry in the paths of humans, what’s becoming more urgently apparent is how the US’s tick monitoring systems are not keeping pace.

“It’s really a patchwork in terms of the effort that different areas are putting into surveillance,” says Becky Eisen, a tick biologist with CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne diseases. The federal public health agency maintains national maps of the ranges of different tick species, but they’re extrapolated from scattered data collected in large part by academic researchers. Only a few states, mostly in the Northeast, have dedicated tick surveillance and control programs. That leaves large parts of the country in a data blackout.

To help address that problem the CDC is funding an effort to identify the most urgent gaps in surveillance. It has also begun publishing guidance documents for public health departments on how to collect ticks and test them for diseases, to encourage more consistent data collection across different states and counties.

In an ideal world, says Eisen, every county in the US would send a few well-protected people out into fields and forests every spring and summer, setting traps or dragging a white flannel sheet between them to collect all the ticks making their homes in the grasses and underbrush. Their precise numbers, locations, and species would be recorded so that later on when they get ground up and tested, that DNA would paint a national picture of risk for exposure to every tick-borne pathogen in America. But she recognizes that would be incredibly labor-intensive, and with only so many public funding dollars to go around each year, there are always competing priorities.“But from a research perspective, that’s the kind of repeatable, consistent data we’d really want,” says Eisen. “That would be the dream.”

While there is little direct discussion of sprawl, I wonder if there are two problems at play.

First, sprawl puts more people in interaction with more natural settings. As metropolitan areas expand, more residents end up in higher densities in areas that previously had experienced limited human residence. More people at the wildland urban interface could potentially lead to more problems in both directions: humans can pick up diseases while nature can be negatively impacted by more people.

Second, increasing sprawl means more data needs to be collected as more people are at possible threat. Metropolitan areas (metropolitan statistical areas according to the Census Bureau) typically expand county by county as outer counties increase in population and have more ties to the rest of the region. Since many metropolitan regions expand in circles, adding more counties at the edges could significantly increase the number of counties that need monitoring. And as the article ends with, finding money to do all that data collection and analysis is difficult.

Making a horror film about illnesses carried by ticks would take some work to make interesting but these sorts of hidden and minimally problematic in terms of number of suburbanites at this point issues could cause a lot of anxiety.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live

Want to pass a Green New Deal to benefit the United States? One commentator suggests it must reckon with the legacy and persistence of sprawl:

The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program. If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land-use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to jobs centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.

Where we live is no coincidence of preference. Federal policy has enforced inequities and disparities for both the environment and vulnerable people at a national scale. It’s never too late to address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live. And building housing near jobs, transit, and other housing—rather than ultra-LEED-certified parking garages—is merely a political choice. No innovation required.

This makes sense: how much can the United States truly address environmental matters if it does not reckon for the actions of roughly the last century that encouraged decentralization?

Here is what I wonder: would it be harder to address sprawl or environmental issues? On one hand, climate change is contentious and partisan. On the other hand, going after sprawl would require taking on deeply ingrained American values. When Americans value single-family homes, driving, and all that the suburban life offers, shifting priorities and funds to denser housing, mass transit, and cities may prove difficult.

The environmental movement in the United States has roots in suburbia. Rachel Carson was inspired by her suburban settings to write Silent Spring. But, truly reforming land use as opposed to making suburbs greener is a tall task. Of course, important decisions made today could address the issue of subsidized sprawl. American suburbs are neither natural or have to last forever. It would likely take decades to see the consequences on the ground.

American land uses in a number of interesting maps

Bloomberg put together a set of graphics to illustrate how Americans use land. Here are a few of the maps interspersed with information. First, the general patterns of land use:

AmericanLandUseGeneral

The U.S. is becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined. U.S. urban areas have more than quadrupled since 1945…

AmericanLandUseComparative

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that land is administered by the federal government, with most occurring in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.

There is some data here that could be viewed as conflicting: urban areas are the fastest growing land use – watch out for sprawl! – but the biggest land use overall is pasture and range – open land yet given over to creatures that are land and resource intensive!

One nice feature of these maps is that they are helpful for making comparisons between land uses. Given the size of the country plus the limited day-to-day experiences of many in different parts of the country, it can be hard to get a handle on all the land uses.

After looking this all over, I wonder what Americans and policymakers would say an ideal land use mix is for the entire country. This is a difficult question to answer, particularly since many people would not necessarily regularly encounter all the uses. If people want more protected land, what other land uses should be reduced and how would this affect individual lives as well as the American way of life?

 

McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

Three questions for political leaders as suburbs offer key to 2018 elections

The suburbs may continue in 2018 to be the true political battlegrounds in the United States:

The mounting backlash to President Trump that is threatening his party’s control of Congress is no longer confined just to swing districts on either coast. Officials in both parties believe that Republican control of the House is now in grave jeopardy because a group of districts that are historically Republican or had been trending that way before the 2016 election are slipping away…

From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican-held seats filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats, some of them nonwhite, who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Mr. Trump.

“If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who as a member of Congress in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House. “The president’s conduct has basically given voters this permission slip to go against the Republicans.”…

The suburban revolt, which began in a handful of little-noticed special elections and then exploded last month in governor’s and state House races in Virginia, was on display again on Tuesday in Alabama, where Doug Jones, a Democrat, claimed a stunning Senate win thanks to African-Americans and upscale whites.

This is not a new thing to watch: the suburbs have contained the real swing voters for at least the last few election cycles. These voters in middle suburbs, between inner-ring suburbs and the exurbs, can be swayed by either party depending on the situation.

A few thoughts about the upcoming 2018 elections:

  1. While this almost certainly means a lot of money will be spent in these districts, it will be interesting to watch how many political leaders visit such locations. For example, if you are a Democratic leader trying to woo voters in DuPage County (who voted pretty strongly for Hilary Clinton in what was considered a solidly Republican county), will you actually visit places like Villa Park and Carol Stream or will you stick to Chicago and hope you get enough attention in the big city?
  2. In wooing suburban voters, will sprawl be an issue on the table? Many metropolitan areas have large regional problems including inequality across communities (the residential and class segregation of big cities has been replicated to some degree in suburban areas) and congestion. Will Democrats push for more metropolitan initiatives and reducing the growth further out from the city or is this a losing pitch in a country where many Americans still seem to like the idea of a suburban home?
  3. How will Democrats approach wealthier suburban voters in blue states that have significant state issues? I’m thinking of places like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois that have massive budget issues. What can Democrats offer on a national platform that would suburban voters could find attractive for helping their state? Or how would suburban candidates address affordable housing, another major issue in many regions, and who exactly should help or sacrifice to help such housing be built?