Americans love driving and this impacted the work of police

A country built around driving leads to profound effects on what police do:

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It is not an exaggeration to say that police power in the United States is built around the unique conditions created by car culture, in which virtually everyone is breaking the law all the time—with occasionally severe consequences. In her book Policing the Open Road, the legal scholar Sarah Seo points out that mass car ownership prompted a wholesale reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against search and seizure. Or it did, until we all started driving everywhere.

Police often abuse this authority to perform “pretextual stops” hoping to find guns or drugs, knowing that trivial traffic violations give them the power to search citizens at will. Officers have at times undertaken this constitutional sleight of hand with explicit federal endorsement, deputized as foot soldiers in the war on drugs. In one of the most notorious examples, police in Arizona used traffic stops to enforce federal immigration law.

For Black drivers, pretextual traffic stops—per Jay-Z, “doing 55 in a 54”—are a routine occurrence and the foremost symbol of racial profiling in this country. For many police departments, these violations are used to fill government coffers and prompt devastating cycles of fines, debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped, according to a study last year, and almost twice as likely to be searched.

While the article is about speeding, there are numerous additional areas where police work intersects with driving: stops for all sorts of reasons (as noted above), dealing with crashes or road conditions, escorting important people, and police driving the same roads as everyone else in order to address an issue at a particular location.

In many parts of the United States, it would be hard to imagine police without a vehicle or not interacting with vehicles regularly. Even the community policing idea where police spend lots of time in the same community and at the pedestrian level may still require using a vehicle to travel back and forth or to address particular issues they encounter. The sight of police on foot, horse, or bicycle in certain settings may be unusual to many who are used to the cars and flashing lights.

The same kind of methods proposed to limit traffic fatalities (also discussed in this article) or to promote the use of other modes of transportation could also have the effect of reducing the need for police to patrol or drive on roadways. But, reducing the American dependence on or love for driving is a sizable task.

The importance and consequences of separating single-family homes from other land uses in the United States

A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.

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From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.

This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:

  1. Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
  2. Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.

Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

What are the odds that a proposed 5 million person American city built from scratch gets off the ground?

A recently unveiled plan from an American billionaire for a new large city verges on the utopian:

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The cleanliness of Tokyo, the diversity of New York and the social services of Stockholm: Billionaire Marc Lore has outlined his vision for a 5-million-person “new city in America” and appointed a world-famous architect to design it…

The former Walmart executive last week unveiled plans for Telosa, a sustainable metropolis that he hopes to create, from scratch, in the American desert. The ambitious 150,000-acre proposal promises eco-friendly architecture, sustainable energy production and a purportedly drought-resistant water system. A so-called “15-minute city design” will allow residents to access their workplaces, schools and amenities within a quarter-hour commute of their homes…

The first phase of construction, which would accommodate 50,000 residents across 1,500 acres, comes with an estimated cost of $25 billion. The whole project would be expected to exceed $400 billion, with the city reaching its target population of 5 million within 40 years…

On Telosa’s official website, Lore explains that he was inspired by American economist and social theorist Henry George. The investor cites capitalism’s “significant flaws,” attributing many of them to “the land ownership model that America was built on.”

From what I read here, I would say the odds are low that this comes close to the proposed population. Playing Simcity is one thing; building a large city from scratch and with such a master plan is difficult to pull off in the United States. At the same time, having a good plan and incorporating the latest ideas could help avoid problems later that cities face as they age (such as with infrastructure). Taking the best of older cities and adding more recent ideas could break through the problem of updating existing communities.

One factor I could see in favor of this plan is a significant public-private partnership developed with a state or a local government. The United States has a long history of public-private partnerships to address public goods. Imagine a state or county or public agency that is looking for a unique opportunity or a way to generate economic activity. Starting a new city with multiple funding sources could help provide jobs, residences, and a new sense of community. This could be the “garden city” of the twenty-first century on a grander scale compared to the smaller American efforts in the twentieth century.

If mathematicians addressed traffic problems

How would mathematicians solve traffic? Here are the suggestions from a 2020 book:

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All drivers need to be on the same navigation system. Cars can only be efficiently rerouted if instructions come from one center hub. One navigation system rerouting some drivers does not solve traffic jams.

Parking bans. Many urban roads are too narrow and cannot be physically widened. Traffic-flow models can indicate where parking spots should be turned into lanes.

Green lanes. For cities that want to increase electric car use, special lanes should be created for electric cars, providing an incentive for their use.

Digital twins. Traffic demands and available infrastructure can only be balanced with digital modeling that creates an entire “twin” of existing roadways. The software will be “an extremely useful thought tool in the hands of transport engineers.”

I have not read the book and this description is not long but it seems to depend on both understanding current and possible traffic flows through modeling. Often, Americans typically get more lanes added to roads – which then tend to fill up because there is more capacity and/or populations continue to grow.

I wonder how modeling would fit with other values underlying road and traffic decisions. A few examples:

  1. It might be better to have a centralized traffic and navigation hub. Is this technically feasible, would all car makers want to participate, and would there be privacy concerns?
  2. The politics of providing special lanes, whether for electric cars or high occupancy vehicles or bicycles, can get interesting. Americans often think the roadway should be for all users as opposed to particular users.
  3. The road system we have is the result of not just prioritizing efficiency but a whole host of actors and forces that includes privileging single-family homes (and generally keeping them away from busy roads) and highways in and out of major cities.

Walking to go somewhere or interact with people in contrast to walking suburban loops for exercise

Several months ago, I heard Andrew Peterson discuss “The Mystery of Making.” As he talked about places and suburbs, he mentioned something about walking: suburbanites walk in loops instead of having walks that go somewhere or involve interacting with people.

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As a suburbanite who walks both for exercise and in order to get to places, this is a thing. This could occur for multiple reasons:

  1. The design of suburbs limits walking options. Because of the emphasis on single-family homes and separating them from other uses, suburbanites may not be able to access many places as pedestrians. Can they get to schools, libraries, stores, workplaces?
  2. Perhaps suburbanites do not want to interact with many people. Suburbanites want to avoid conflict and interaction happens when people want it, not necessarily because of proximity or an orientation toward the community. Add headphones/earbuds/smartphones to this and pedestrians can be in their own waking cocoon.
  3. This sounds like a focus on walking as exercise as opposed to walking as a means to accomplish other worthwhile goals. Such a focus sounds like it would fit with American emphases on efficiency or productivity.
  4. If you really need to get somewhere, Americans often opt for a car, even when the route is walkable.

Having more walkable places would likely help here but it does not necessarily guarantee sociability or walking as transportation.

Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

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It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

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Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

If automated vehicles lead to more miles driven, does this mean cars will continue to dominate American society?

A new analysis suggests drivers who have vehicles that drive themselves put more miles on the road:

In a 2020 paper, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and he found that most thought the feature made driving less terrible. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman says. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”

In new research released this month, Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty suggest that making driving less terrible leads to a natural conclusion: more driving. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners, with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in.

Extrapolate that result to the wider population, and it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. For governments, which have to anticipate future infrastructure demands, understanding those changes are critical. Shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. If electric vehicles are doing the traveling, governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge them for it. And though electric vehicles like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always a renewable source. A country made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles to get to work or play, isn’t an efficient or sustainable one.

The new research suggests that partial automation could have upsides too. The bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, Hardman and Chakraborty found. Prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly, which would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions. In the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.

As noted here, there are a lot of possible consequences. I would add a big question asked for decades in the United States: would this continue the dominance of cars in American society? Much critique in the postwar era emerged around planning cities and suburbs around cars as opposed to around people and community needs. All the driving and the infrastructure for it helped give rise to white flight, fast food, big box stores, and even more sprawl within metropolitan regions. Efforts to limit car use have done little to reduce reliance on personal vehicles. Do self-driving cars make cars even more prevalent in American society?

Going further, would electric powered autonomous vehicles mean even more miles driven? If gasoline is out of the equation and the electricity (and car batteries) can be produced with fewer emissions, Americans might feel even more free to drive, commute, and travel.

If a major concern in society is driving itself, no matter how enjoyable it may be, new kinds of vehicles may not be welcome.

Publication in Planning Theory & Practice: “Planning and Religious Pluralism, Community by Community”

It was an honor to be invited to contribute to a symposium titled “Rethinking Religion and Secularism in Urban Planning” in the journal Planning Theory & Practice. See all of the contributions here.

My small piece worked with two articles I have published in the last few years: the 2019 article “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” and the 2020 article “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City region, 1992-2017.” I argue the aggregate of religion in the United States – interesting in itself given the particular history, legal structures, and social changes of the United States – and the community level religious experience are both important to reckon with because local officials and residents can respond to the wishes of local religious groups and residents.

For this particular symposium, all of the authors considered the role of urban planners amidst religion and secularism. Building on my findings, I suggest urban planners can play an important role in helping communities plan for future religious uses and, once a proposal is made, focus on welcoming groups and working with them and the community rather than allow the community to emphasize threats.

This will continue to be an issue in communities across the United States as both secularism and religion continue and change. For example, a recent survey suggesting 43% of millennials do not believe in God received a lot of attention in some quarters. But, it would be a mistake to focus on such a find just at the broader, abstract nation-state level; this has implications for communities.