McMansion owners giving thanks for their homes on Thanksgiving

I recently watched Kate Wagner, of McMansionHell.com fame, deliver a TED Talk titled “I hate McMansions – and you should too.”

Yet, with Thanksgiving here, I thought about all the Americans who live in such homes. How many of them are giving thanks today for their McMansion?

On one hand, the McMansion is viewed as a monstrosity, a destroyer of neighborhoods and land, a caricature of quality architecture, and perhaps the ultimate symbol of American turn-of-the-21st-century greed and consumerism. On the other hand, the McMansion is a shelter and genuine home for millions of Americans. This is a tension that is not easy to resolve. There are numerous critics of McMansions and a variety of reasons to dislike the homes (and prefer other kinds of dwellings). And numerous Americans might enjoy their McMansion (and perhaps for the same reasons critics dislike them).

Perhaps we can be thankful for the free discussion about McMansions and having the resources that would make a McMansion purchase possible (even if we personally would not make such a choice). On a related note, with all of the advice this year about how to avoid turning Thanksgiving dinner into a political battle, I would recommend that everyone celebrating Thanksgiving in a home that could be considered a McMansion would be better off not commenting on the faults they see in such a home while they are there. Of course, if while they find themselves later in the day traveling somewhere in a SUV to acquire Black Friday items, making a connection between McMansions, shopping, and American acquisitiveness might be apropos…

AAA’s negative Thanksgiving traffic outlook a lot of common sense and normal conditions

Over a week ago, predictions by AAA about record Thanksgiving driving traffic started circulating. However, the reports did not add much useful information. Here is how the Chicago Tribune summarized it:

In fact, Chicago is expected to log one of the worst traffic jams of any big city during the Thanksgiving holiday season on Tuesday afternoon, according to an analysis by AAA and global transportation analytics company INRIX. Motorists should beware that the worst time will be between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, when holiday travelers are expected to join post-work commuters on Chicago-area interstates. Already long travel times could quadruple, according to AAA…

In Chicago, area interstates may not only see one of the worst traffic jams over the holidays, the city also may come in second place for longest commute times to a major airport, analysts predict. The absolute worst time to take the Kennedy Expressway between downtown and O’Hare International Airport is 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m Tuesday, when it could take an hour and 14 minutes, the analysis shows. Only a trip to New York’s Kennedy International Airport — the same day and around the same time of day — is longer at nearly two hours.

And from aaa.com:

Based on historical and recent travel trends for the holiday week, INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts drivers will experience the greatest amount of congestion during the early evening – as early as Tuesday of Thanksgiving week – as commuters mix with holiday travelers. At its peak, drivers on Chicago’s interstates, for example, could see a delay of nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip.

“Thanksgiving has historically been one of the busiest holidays for road trips, and this year we could see record-level travel delays,” says Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic.”

Two quick thoughts regarding this data. First, traveling during rush hour is a bad idea in any major American city. There are simply too many vehicles on the highways at these times and the traffic flows everywhere these days, not just into the city in the morning and out in the evening. Whether planning relatively short or long drives, it is necessary to plan to avoid rush hour.

Second, saying that the delay in Chicago could be “nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip” or the trip from downtown to O’Hare will take slightly over an hour is really not that abnormal. Perhaps the key is the comparison to the “optimal trip” which in metropolitan areas tends to be somewhere between 8 PM and 6 AM when truck and car travel is limited. I have this optimal trip in mind all the time when I make a drive to the local airports: without traffic, the trip takes this amount of time but adjustments need to be made for any daytime or early evening hours. In the Chicago area, all it takes is a little rain or snow or an accident and the Thanksgiving travel times predicted here are fairly normal occurrences.

All that said, this is good PR for AAA. Americans may like driving but they do not like traffic.

Where does the data on the number of Americans traveling for Thanksgiving come from?

It was widely reported this year that nearly 49 million Americans would be traveling for Thanksgiving this year. This data comes from AAA and here is the methodology according to their press release from November 15:

AAA’s projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit. The London-based business information provider teamed with AAA in 2009 to jointly analyze travel trends during major holidays. AAA has been reporting on holiday travel trends for more than two decades. The complete AAA/IHS 2016 Thanksgiving holiday travel forecast can be found here.

When numbers like this are used in public and reported on by the media, I would guess many Americans expect these figures to be based on surveys. So what is this projection based on? Surveys (probably via phone calls)? Historical models (based on factors like gas prices and broader economic indicators)? Certain retail and tourism figures like hotel and airfare bookings?

What makes this more complicated is that AAA is an organization that could benefit from increased travel, particularly driving. And as they note on the press release, their organization can provide benefits to travelers:

AAA will rescue thousands of motorists this Thanksgiving AAA expects to rescue more than 370,000 motorists this Thanksgiving, with the primary reasons being dead batteries, flat tires and lockouts. AAA recommends that motorists check the condition of their battery and tires and pack emergency kits in their vehicles before heading out on a holiday getaway. Drivers should have their vehicles inspected by a trusted repair shop, such as one of the nearly 7,000 AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities across North America. Members can download the AAA Mobile app, visit AAA.com or call 1-800-AAA-HELP to request roadside assistance.

This does not necessarily mean that the data is inaccurate. At the same time, it would help to make the methodology of their projections available.

Another thought: are Americans helped or hindered by these broad projections of holiday travel? If you are traveling, does news like this change your plans (i.e., leave earlier)? If AAA projects more drivers, do traffic delays increase (such as on the 405 in Los Angeles)? If the BBC links the incidents, perhaps people take these figures seriously…

Thanksgiving and Black Friday expose class differences

What people do on Thanksgiving and the day after is indicative of their class status:

But Black Friday is also, as pseudo-holidays go, more class-conscious than most. It is thus more divisive than most. If you can’t normally afford a flat-screen/iPad/Vitamix/Elsa doll/telephone, Black Friday discounts could offer you the opportunity to purchase those items. If you can normally afford those things, though, you may well decide that the trip to the mall, with its “throngs” and its “masses” and its sweaty inconvenience, isn’t worth the trouble.

Which is another way of saying what a headline last week, from the Los Angeles Times, summed up well: “Black Friday highlights the contrast between rich and poor.” As a spectacle, it may be celebrated by all, but it is participated in, increasingly, by a few. Black Friday stands, both temporally and culturally, in stark contrast to Thanksgiving, which is not a Hallmark holiday so much as a Williams-Sonoma one, and which involves, at its extremes, people who can afford heritage turkeys/disposable centerpieces/vessels designed solely to pour gravy congratulating themselves on how wonderfully non-commercial the whole thing is. With stomachs full of bird and broccolini and bourbon-ginger-apple pie, they settle in to watch the news stories that come out of Black Friday—the stampedes, the stabbings—and gawk in amusement and amazement. “All that for a flat screen,” they say, drinking their wine and clucking their tongues.

Perhaps this helps explain something I saw in a number of news stories about shoppers going out to line up for Thanksgiving evening store openings. A number of those interviewed suggested they didn’t like the idea of having to leave home to shop (some foregoing their family meals) or having retail workers put in holiday hours. Yet, they felt compelled to shop because the deals were too good to pass up.

This all sounds like Bourdieu’s lifestyle differences through class distinctions. How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? It should be little surprise that food and entertainment choices that day are guided by class-influenced tastes. When do you shop and how do you do it? It is all likely (from brands to time you have to spend on it) influenced by class.

I remember one professor of mine suggesting to the class that they needed to go to Walmart to find real (implied: average) Americans. At least one student seemed aghast. Perhaps the peak of that would be to go to Walmart on Thanksgiving and Black Friday…

LA to have the worst traffic on Thanksgiving getaway day

Add in more drivers this Thanksgiving and one firm says Los Angeles will have the worst getaway traffic on Wednesday:

Trips on Wednesday—deceptively nicknamed “getaway day”—are expected to take 36 percent longer on average, with peak times from 3 to 5 in the afternoon. Perhaps it would be more efficient for everyone to just Skype their family members while eating meals at home.

A rep for Inrix tells the LA Times that leaving either before or after the late afternoon peak times might spare drivers a little road pain, but that leaving the morning of Thanksgiving would be even better. The unfortunate folks picking up at LAX on Wednesday and traveling on the 110 south can expect the worst delays on their trip between 7 and 8 a.m., with delays of up to 15 minutes, which actually just sounds like regular holiday traffic at the airport.

Some interesting info – the data we have these days is pretty amazing – but this is such a limited issue. The two hour window in Los Angeles between 3 and 5 PM is expected to be worse and some of the other cities on the list have only one hour windows. If this is the case, then people should take note and try to leave at other times. Many people may not be able to help it given plane or work schedules but the traffic doesn’t have be as bad as suggested if people use the information well.

Predicting more Thanksgiving traffic due to a closed car-to-plane gap?

One way to predict traffic on the roads at Thanksgiving is to look at the car-to-plane travel gap:

Drivers will make up about 89.5 percent of holiday travelers this year, a gain of 0.1 percentage point from 2013, while air passengers will drop by the same amount to 7.5, forecasts prepared by Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc. show. A 0.1 point increase may not seem like a lot, but based on last year’s estimate that 39.6 million people traveled by car for Thanksgiving, that would roughly equate to at least another 40,000 people piling onto America’s highways.

The car-over-plane travel choice is made easier by the fact that airfares aren’t coming down like gasoline pump prices are. While the plunge in oil has driven down wholesale jet fuel prices 17 percent since August, almost matching the 18 percent drop in retail gasoline, airfares have risen 3.4 percent over that time, data compiled by industry groups show…

“Right now the airlines aren’t in the sharing mood,” Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of the Dallas-based travel website FareCompare.com, said. “They just went through six years of multi-megamergers and dividing the country up by city with little or no competition, so they’ll pocket whatever difference they may get for a while.”

Gasoline’s drop will save the average U.S. driver about $500 annually, helping boost consumer spending, according to IHS. U.S. auto sales have risen 5.5 percent to 13.7 million in the first 10 months of 2014, on pace to be the strongest in eight years, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based data provider Autodata Corp. said.

A few thoughts:

1. Having 40,000 more people on the roads at Thanksgiving is going to complicate traffic all across the United States? Spread these people cross hundreds of metropolitan areas and assume they aren’t all leaving at the same time (Wednesday after work) and adding that kind of volume may not matter much at all.

2. The prediction of future traffic is interesting to me. This reminds me of Carmageddon fears, first in Los Angeles (twice) and then in Chicago earlier this year. This seems like the creation of news: get prepared for more Thanksgiving traffic now! It is the kind of fear-based reporting done by many local news outlets about things like weather or traffic, fairly mundane events that occasionally turn out to be horrible.

3. The Carmageddon cases hint at another piece of this prediction: making such claims could change future behavior. If Americans hear that there will be more drivers at Thanksgiving, even just a few of them changing their plans (not driving or changing their departure times) might go a long ways toward relieving the predicted traffic. Perhaps this forecast is all part of some plan to actually reduce Thanksgiving traffic?

4. Just from personal observation: plane tickets appear to be really high during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s this year. As the article notes, airlines are looking to make money and haven’t budged much in their prices even with the recent gas price drops.

 

 

Don’t blame Black Friday and Thanksgiving shopping; they just expose the consumerist system

As crowds gathered to shop on Thanksgiving and into Black Friday, there has been plenty of backlash from those who think this violates a sacred family holiday to those who don’t like that relatively low-paid retail workers have to work another day to those who bemoan the lengths Americans will go to fight over some doorbusters. All of this might be true but I think it misses the point: these two days simply lay bare American consumerism. In a similar way that Walmart and McDonald’s tend to take the brunt of complaints about big box stores and fast food restaurants, Black Friday and shopping on Thanksgiving share a similar fate: they simply make real what is true about Americans and what they want.

There is a whole system at work here. It involves buying single-family homes, talk about the American Dream (equated with acquiring certain items), dreams about scientific progress and mechanical abilities such that life will be easier, liking having choices more than enjoying the goods themselves, acquiring stuff, and an economy and financial system dependent on average citizens continuing to buy beyond subsistence items. This system involves some great advances put to interesting uses, things like the assembly line, the internal combustion engine, transistors and semiconductors, the mass production of houses, the rise of marketing, and mass media.

The lesson is that hardly any day all year long is sacrosanct any longer; more than family togetherness, more than patriotism, perhaps more than the Super Bowl (which combines all of these things in a different way), Americans enjoy shopping, good deals, and consumption. It is competitive and alluring and our collective retirement accounts may all very well depend on this behavior.