A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

Continuing to see Illinois highways as growth and job generators

The selection of a new executive director of the Illinois Tollway suggests the agency wants to continue to push growth:

Greg Bedalov, president and CEO of Choose DuPage, an economic development organization, will take over as executive director at the agency, officials said…

Rauner’s pick for Chairman Bob Schillerstrom told the Daily Herald that economic growth and job creation go hand-in-hand with the tollway.

It’s expected Bedalov will reflect that philosophy as the tollway heads into the third year of a massive $12 billion road building program…

In a 2012 op-ed piece for the Daily Herald, Bedalov talked about communities collaborating in the region instead of competing to create jobs.

“It is critical that local and county economic development agencies work collaboratively with state and federal agencies to uncover additional opportunities for economic wins,” he wrote.

This sounds like a growth machine approach to building tollways: providing increased capacity for vehicles will lead to new economic opportunities for businesses who want access to such transportation options, workers who can reach jobs more quickly, and developers who can develop and build nearby. The argument here is that this can be good for the entire region as the benefits of improved or new tollways would extend across communities.

Quickly, some possible objections:

1. It is really difficult to build new tollways in a region that is already largely developed. It is costly (acquiring land, environmental studies, increasing construction costs) and takes a lot of time.

2. Adding highway capacity just increases traffic: people see more available roads and drive on them. Why not put some of this transportation money into mass-transit and denser developments that could benefit from an economy of scale?

3. Who really benefits from such construction? The firms getting the contracts and the developers? How exactly do the benefits trickle down to the average resident?

Tolls to “never” go away on Illinois tollways

The acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation recently discussed the ongoing presence of tolls on Illinois highways:

Acting Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn Friday answered the question that’s been on commuters’ minds since the state’s first three tollways opened in 1958: When will the tolls go away, as promised.

“Never,” Blankenhorn told a gathering of Kane County leaders. “The existing tolls are going to be on the tollway. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth is unless we are willing to put significantly more state and federal money into the system, tolls are going to be the way we fund the system. It’s not going to be the only way, but it’s going to be part of the package.”…

Blankenhorn, calling himself “a user fee kind of guy” stuck to his support for existing and new tolls throughout his answers. The history of borrowing money to fund all segments of transportation, including ongoing maintenance, must end, he said.

“We’ve got to be able to pay for maintenance as we go,” Blankenhorn said. “We need a stable funding source that grows. User fees, I think, have to be part of this solution. If we don’t do something soon, we will have 5,000 miles of roadway in Illinois that will be in need of immediate repair. How long do we want to fund infrastructure on cigarette taxes and gambling?”

Given that the federal government nor states seem particularly interested in big infrastructure/highway funding (and even if they wanted to, money isn’t exactly flowing these days), I would guess that tolls will continue to grow. You the driver want a road, particularly a new one that cuts through already-developed areas? Be prepared to pay tolls.

Does posting the number of highway deaths in Illinois lead to safer driving?

A columnist discusses the effects of signs on Illinois Tollways that post the number of automobile fatalities on area highways:

The first time I saw one of those grim Illinois expressway signs was in 2012. I was merrily driving to the family farm in Indiana to visit my mom when I spotted a roadside sign dishing a little shock and awe to commuters and vacationers. There was something cold about the little electric bulbs in the sign above my expressway lane letting me know: “679 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR.”

It made me think…

That’s precisely what the sign was meant to do. While many states were seeing fewer traffic fatalities during the summer of 2012, Illinois was seeing a substantial increase in the number of people killed on Illinois roads in the first half of that year. After the Illinois Department of Transportation started posting a running total of the dead in July, the last half of 2012 saw fewer fatalities than the last half of sign-free 2011.

Still, the number of fatalities went up in 2012, from 918 to 957. Last year, with those same signs updating our death toll daily and urging us to drive more safely, our fatalities inched higher again, to 973.

This evidence suggests the signs had little effect. This would line up with research that suggests drivers don’t pay all that much attention to road signs; hence, the suggestion that perhaps no signs might even be better. Indeed, the Illinois Department of Transportation has moved on to other strategies to reduce traffic deaths:

Michael Rooker, the actor who played Merle Dixon on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” stars in the latest IDOT safety campaign, a series of videos at thedrivingdeadseries.com and Facebook posts titled “The Driving Dead.” The postings don’t have anything close to the power of watching a young mother of two die while pinned in her car, but perhaps they will prove more effective than the road signs. The catchphrase of “The Driving Dead” gives those behind the wheel a new way of thinking about driving.

I would be curious to know whether IDOT is pursuing these strategies based on evidence that suggest they work or the agency is mounting what they think might work and/or what is publicly visible. Driving is a dangerous activity – one of the most dangerous the average person will partake in each day – and you would want solutions that work rather than guesses.

The closing of a Chicago Tollway oasis

In the 1950s, the new tollways constructed in the Chicago area included the occasional rest stop, including the Des Plaines Oasis which closes this weekend:

We spent 24 hours at the Oasis talking to people from all walks of life. Here’s a peek at what we saw and heard…

An extremely mismatched couple staggers in, tipsily leaning into each other. She’s tall and elegant in a long cashmere coat and large gold earrings, her hair stylishly up.

Him, he’s wearing ill-fitting pants and a bad baseball jacket with a white body and blue sleeves…

It’s not quite light out yet, but the Oasis bustles with customers. Many of them are truck drivers, like Freeman Barber of Cobbs Creek, Va.

Barber wears a shiny black jacket decorated with several American flag pins and a baseball hat bearing the acronym BARF…

Two buses pull up. Dozens of teenage girls — hair pulled into ponytails, some still in pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers — pile out.

They bypass the lunch crowd at McDonald’s and line up for the bathroom, talking as they wait. Moms, dressed more conservatively, join them.

In other words, a slice of life amongst American highway drivers. This is a good example of a modern-day journalistic human interest story that doesn’t tell us much about the more quantifiable side (number of people there each day, amount of goods sold, how much it costs to keep open, etc.) of the oasis.

It is interesting to note that this oasis is part of a longer chain of official Tollway rest stops that go all the way from the Chicago area through eastern Pennsylvania. This road, stretching from I-90 in Illinois to I-80 in Indiana and Ohio to I-76 in Ohio and Pennsylvania, was one of the first long highways in the United States. The reason it is a tollway is because it was built before the official Federal Interstate Act of 1956 which provided lots of federal funding for the American interstate system. States were responsible for funding highways then and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois put together a common road across their borders. Plans for highways in the Chicago area began in the 1920s and 1930s but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the tollways were built.

Having been in a number of these rest stops along this east-west route, here is my quick rankings of rest areas (from best to worst) between the Chicago stops through eastern Pennsylvania:

1. Tied for first: newer Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. They tend to feature good fast food options and airy buildings.

2. Illinois Oases. Pretty clean and lots of food options. Bonus: they take up less space since they span the highway and can be accessed from both sides.

3. Older Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. Dingier, worse food options.

4. Indiana rest areas. Nothing inspiring here.

A bonus: 5 fun facts about the history of the Des Plaines Oasis, including its short appearance in the The Blues Brothers.