Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

Seeing modernization and religious change in one small suburb

One way to approach the significant social changes of recent centuries is to examine broad patterns at a societal level. Another way to understand these changes is to look at what happened in a suburban community outside Boston:

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“What has produced this kind of world is modernization,” Wells said. “The public environment that results from it is modernity. But these words––modernization and modernity––are abstractions to so many people. How could I explain what has happened to my readers in a way that they could get it?”

He found the answer in a small Massachusetts town named Wenham––population 4,875 when Gordon College isn’t in session. Wells opens No Place by explaining how Wenham, settled by Puritans after a 1635 sermon, slid into modernity in stages––telegraphs gave way to radio and television and internet; farmland yielded to suburban homes; horses were replaced with trains and cars and airplanes.

At some point, Wenham crossed a divide along with everyone else, Wells wrote in No Place. “It is as if the ability to make better cars and better airplanes and better medicines and better theories imply an ability to make better selves––to transcend not only our own mortality, which would be no small feat, but also our own corruption, which would be an even larger feat.”

“So many people no longer believe in human nature––something all human being have in common,” he told TGC. Instead, “they believe in the self––the core at the center of each person that is unique to them and unlike any other self. This is really at the root of the extreme relativism of our time where people not only have their own ‘values,’ but also their own take on reality.”

I have not read the book being discussed – No Place for Truth – but this is a common academic approach: use an interesting case to illustrate broader processes. In this case, it sounds like Wenham, Massachusetts can help show how modernity played out in a community roughly twenty-five miles from Boston.

At the same time, I am more interested in the suburban connections here. Again, while I have not read book discussed above, I have been studying religion and place in recent years and there may be some patterns across communities. Here is my attempt to connect the case of Wenham to suburbs and religious change.

Wenham is a small and wealthy community. Founded in the mid-1600s, the community has just under 5,000 residents with population growth of over 30% three decades in a row after World War Two. The median household income is over $90,000 and the community is over 97% white. (All figures from the 2010 Census.)

When a large number of Americans moved to the suburbs during the twentieth century, these new suburban residents were often said to be conservative. This could apply to politics as well as religion. Religiosity soared after World War Two. Many new churches were founded in suburbs while others already present grew substantially.

But, even in small suburbs where religion was important, modernism prevailed. The focus on self became part of the American suburban dream. Even with a suburban focus on providing the best for the nuclear family, suburban residents could focus more on themselves free of the stronger community ties that could be found in either small towns or urban neighborhoods from which the new suburbanites came. And success in the suburbs came to be defined as personal or individual success: a nice house, a good income, leisure time, having all the necessities befitting a suburbanite.

This all had an impact on religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. A shift to the self changes beliefs about transcendent beings and doctrines, affects how people live their everyday lives, and weakens attachments to religious institutions.

Thus, the argument goes, modernism and religious change came to America and its communities. Life changed everywhere, even in exclusive suburban communities.

Driving less in the suburbs, a space devoted to driving

Nearing the ninth month of COVID-19 restrictions in our area, I remembered again this weekend that I have done one regular activity a lot less than normal in that time: driving. While this may be true for many Americans, this is particularly unusual in the suburbs. When a whole space where more than 50% of Americans live is organized around cars, driving significantly less makes for noticeable change.

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Americans like suburbs, in part, because they are organized around cars and driving. Single-family homes often features garages and driveways. Private lots are often located beyond walking distance of key destinations including schools, grocery stores, parks, and jobs. Commuting by car is required in the absence of other transportation options and the suburb-to-suburb trip is common.

To start, making fewer car trips during COVID-19 means I have more time in life. I do not have a long commute but with an average commute time of just under twenty-seven minutes, less driving and/or working from home means many suburbanites have more time during the week. Those who have had to continue to drive to work regularly encounter less traffic on the road and can arrive more quickly. And I have driven less to other locations as well. (Of course, others might have driven more during COVID-19, particularly delivery drivers of all sorts.)

Second, I have had to do less maintenance on my car and pay for less gas. Cars are expensive to own and maintain. It is not only about the frequency of trips; we have put off longer trips to visit family or take vacations. Suburbanites may be used to driving trips to the city or vacation spots but tourist activity is down during COVID-19. The time between oil changes and regular maintenance has increased, likely lengthening the life of our vehicles. (At the same time, COVID-19 might make owning a car more necessary when public transportation is not as attractive.)

Third, with less driving and more time at home, I have been more free to walk and bike locally. While I tend to do these things already, it is a more attractive option for many in order to get out of the house and get some fresh air. This can help suburbanites pay more attention to what is going on around them rather than just retreat to their private spaces. Similarly, streets can be more about people than just cars and trucks.

Finally, driving less means more suburbanites are spending more time at home. The private single-family home in suburbia may look more attractive during COVID-19 as it often offers space and distance from others. Particularly in wealthier suburbs, residents can work from home, have plenty of entertainment and leisure options, and have things delivered to them.

While COVID-19 has affected driving and time use in suburbs, it is less clear how attractive this is to suburbanites. Americans in general like to combine driving and homes but during COVID-19 they may have seen more of their homes and less of the road. Since driving is connected to many social and economic activities in suburbs, this is not just about accessing opportunities; it is about living out a particular style of life. Will suburban COVID-19 experiences help push residents and leaders toward a new kind of suburbs or will people be overjoyed to return to typical driving patterns?

The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

Why studying multiple suburbs is helpful compared to studying suburbia or a single suburb

As I prepare to present research tonight on suburbs and race, specifically in Wheaton, Illinois, I reflected on my methodological approach. In sociology and the social sciences, we often seek data that is both generalizable and detailed. In my research, I have largely worked to study suburbs through comparisons with other suburbs. I believe this has some distinct advantages, even as it also presents limitations.

One approach to studying suburbs would consider them as a whole: suburbia. Even though there are thousands of suburbs, they share common characteristics. Suburbs are distinct from other settings and their geography, density, physical arrangements, and social and cultural life separate them from big cities and rural areas.

Instead of focusing on the whole, a study could go another direction: focus on one specific suburban community. Perhaps it is a suburb that exemplifies suburbs as a whole, perhaps it is a more unusual suburb. Studying the history and particulars in depth could provide rich details about suburban communities and life.

My research thus far has tried to take a middle approach. This involves finding a small set of suburban cases to compare and contrast. I studied each of these cases in a good amount of detail. The comparison between cases helps me assess whether patterns in one community are unusual or not. The detail I have about each community helps me know whether these suburbs fit broader patterns.

Urban Affairs Review article

Selecting the right suburban cases can be difficult. Among all the suburbs, it is better to choose ones that share certain traits or better to find more different ones? All the detail about specific places may not be that useful if the cases cannot relate to suburbs.

Another downside of the historical/comparative method is the amount of time it requires. Gathering details on specific suburbs can take time. Going through the data and finding patterns can take time.

And, the study of American suburbs benefits from all of the approaches I mentioned above: broad patterns in all suburbs, case studies of particular communities, and historical/comparative work among sets of suburbs. Even as my initial study of suburbs took this middle approach, I have also written in the other veins considering suburbs as a whole and focusing in more on a specific community. With complex suburbia and many suburbs to consider, there is plenty to study from multiple angles.

Co-presenting at the Wheaton Public Library on Race in Illinois: From Southern Counties to Northern Suburbs

With DePaul professor Dr. Caroline Kisiel, I will be presenting via Zoom tomorrow night at the Wheaton Public Library:

Wheaton Public Library on Instagram

Register ahead of time for the Zoom webinar here.

My presentation will largely draw on the 2019 article I co-authored with David Malone titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.

Suburban shift: 49-45 for Trump in 2016, 51-48 in 2020 for Biden

In 2020, the tight suburban vote swung opposite of 2016 and slightly in favor of Joe Biden:

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While there was much attention paid to late-counted mail ballots in urban areas that put Biden over the top in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the bigger shift was in the suburbs. In fact, there’s evidence that Trump actually improved his lot slightly in urban areas, which made the suburbs crucial for Biden.

In 2016 exit polls, Trump won the suburbs by four points, 49 to 45. This time, Biden won them 51 to 48 — a seven-point shift in the margin. Biden also joins Obama as the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the suburbs since 1992, if the exit polls don’t shift from now. The New York Times has a great visualization of the shift from 2016.

Democrats’ suburban edge was also slightly bigger than in the 2018 election in which they won the House, when those areas split about evenly. And given that the suburbs account for about half the votes these days — and growing — Democrats will want to keep that going.

The only problem for them — and it’s a big split between the presidential race and down-ballot — was that this performance didn’t stretch to the conservative-leaning suburban seats Democrats were hoping to take from Republicans. So Democrats need to ask themselves whether this is really about the new reality or whether it was just about Trump, who underperformed his party in many ways, but particularly in these areas.

Two takeaways from these four paragraphs:

  1. The suburbs will continue to be a battleground in presidential, congressional, state, and local races.
  2. There appears to be a shift in 2020 compared to 2016 but this was a relatively minor shift. What happens in subsequent elections will help indicate whether a suburban shift is longer-lasting.

In other words, expect more of the same in 2022 and 2024 with campaigns and pundits focused on suburban locations in the swing states of the 2016 and 2020 elections as well as some other possible locations (like Texas). And county level analysis will be helpful but more fine-grained study will reveal where some of the important divides or pockets of different voters are in sprawling geographic areas.

Getting the categories right in continued urban/rural-plus-suburbs-and-exurbs-in-the-middle divide

Numerous outlets have commented on the continued presence of an urban/rural divide in 2020 voting. Here is another example:

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Rather than flipping more Obama-Trump counties, Biden instead exceeded previous Democratic win margins in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

That pattern extended to Michigan and other battleground states, with Biden building upon Democrats’ dominance in urban and suburban jurisdictions but Trump leaving most of exurban and rural America awash in red.

The urban-rural divide illustrates the pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results. The split underscores fundamental disagreements among Americans about how to control the coronavirus pandemic or whether to even try; how to revitalize the economy and restore jobs; how to combat climate change or whether it is an emergency at all; and the roles of morality, empathy and the rule of law in the body politic.

Four thoughts in reaction to this.

  1. The urban/rural divide is described in an interesting way above: it is cities and suburbs for Democrats and exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. This matches the patterns of this and recent elections. However, is separating the suburbs and exurbs worthwhile? Here is where county level analysis may not be fine-grained enough to see the patterns. Another way to put it might be this: there is a gradient in voting by party as the distance from the big city increases. Does it shade over to Republicans only in exurbs – which are suburbs on the outer edges? Is the 50/50 split a little before exurbs? A concentric circles approach could help though there still could be pockets that break with the overall pattern.
  2. Suburbs might just be too broad of a term to be useful in such analysis. The exurb/suburb split it one way to put it. Might it help to also think of different types of suburbs (wealthier bedroom communities, ethnoburbs/majority-minority communities, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, etc.)?
  3. Explaining the differences as urban/rural has a nice short ring to it and it fits the data. Introducing more categories in the middle is interesting to campaigns, pundits, and researchers but is harder to quickly describe. Perhaps the urban/suburban versus exurban/rural divide?
  4. Is the urban/rural divide one of the most fundamental aspects of polarization? Or, is it a symptom? In this story, the divide leads off the discussion of polarization on a number of fronts. But, what leads to these spatial patterns in the first place? While the geography is helpful to think about, are the real issues behind the urban/rural divide about race/ethnicity and class? Given residential segregation patterns in the United States, using the spatial patterns as an explanation covers up a lot of important social forces that led to those patterns in the first place.

First exit poll I have seen on suburban voters

In reporting exit polls yesterday, the New York Times included votes for Biden or Trump by location:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html

The 2020 election, according to many pundits, was going to be decided by suburban voters.

The data above appears to follow the patterns from the last few elections. Cities go for Democrats. Rural areas and exurbs go for Republicans. The suburbs are contested ground. The splits are bigger in the table above: 9% advantage for Trump in small city or rural areas, 23% advantage for Biden in cities. And the suburbs are close with just a 3% gap.

Going even further, the suburbs of the true battleground states may be home to the truly important voters. In this election, the residents outside Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix and more might have just decided the election. That national 3% difference might not seem like much but it could matter a lot when state races are tight.

I am sure there will be more fine-grained analysis of the suburban vote by itself as well in comparisons to other demographic factors that influenced vote totals. But, this early data seems to suggest suburban voters will continue to be important in coming elections.

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.