In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

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Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

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My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.

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.

Editorial calling for better maintained sidewalks

The Chicago Tribune on Monday asked residents and municipalities to pay attention to the condition of their sidewalks:

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Today we write instead about the humble sidewalk. It’s prosaic. Unromantic. Mundane.

But to patrons of two-footed transportation – and to wheelchair users, kids on scooters and people consigned to canes or crutches – the humdrum sidewalk is either a safe glide path or a menacing minefield .It’s as crucial to its users as vast roadways are to motor vehicles. The difference is that drivers and passengers in the vehicles are better protected than is the postal carrier who each day risks tumbling onto your concrete.

We’re thinking about cracked sidewalks in part because of Chicagoland’s snowstorms last winter. If you’re the beneficiary of a Snow Samaritan – one of those thoughtful neighbors who helpfully pushes her snowblower down the whole block – imagine how she feels when her machine trips on a sidewalk that’s broken, caved low or heaved up by freeze-thaw cycles. When that happens once too often, she has to cue the costly repair.

So on behalf of all those who encounter your sidewalk, step outside and inspect. And if it’s damaged, call or email whoever oversees public works in your neighborhood – the ward superintendent, the village manager, the city council member, the local street department foreman.

This is the practical argument to make for sidewalks: safety and costs. Cracks and other sidewalk problems make it more difficult to navigate. I know this from my own experience walking, running, and biking. I am able to effectively move around sidewalk issues but not everyone can. These negative sidewalk experiences can then add additional costs, whether from addressing injuries from falls or damaged bicycles and other vehicles.

But, the practical argument may not be convincing or elegant enough. It strikes me as a very Midwestern way to address the problem. An additional way to make this pitch might be to appeal to what sidewalks make possible. The most famous part of The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs is the opening section which speaks to all the possibilities available because of thriving sidewalks. Repairing sidewalks is not just about safety or costs; it is about opening space for people to go back and forth and others to utilize. With the right mix of surrounding uses, the sidewalk then becomes a public space that enriches the neighborhood.

Put all of these arguments together and the humble sidewalk is pretty important. In communities dominated by cars, sidewalks offer an alternative path for transportation and sociability.

Mapping daily life amidst COVID-19

I like the Citylab project of asking readers to submit their maps life during COVID-19. A few thoughts:

1. COVID-19 affects multiple dimensions of social life, including the distance people must keep from each other (and social interactions). The maps help highlight the spatial dimensions of COVID-19, reminding us of the relatively free mobility many people have during normal times (think regular commutes, a sprawling country often based on driving a car to different locations). The maps also highlight the difficulties or significant changes because of reduced mobility. On one hand, we have more technology than ever that lets us access people and places wherever all the time. On the other hand, not being able to move as we typically do is worth acknowledging.

2. It can be both fun and informative to ask people to draw their daily activities or their community. It pushes people to think spatially (which they may or may not do on a regular basis) and can quickly show what places they find more meaningful. Asking about someone’s day often leads to a list of activities or tasks; the map can include this information but add a valuable spatial dimension.

3. As a bonus, such maps not only provide information but they also allow people to display their creativity. This is clear in the Citylab maps: the contrasts of color, styles, and interpretations is engaging. Compared to more common methods of data collection like surveys or interviews, drawing a map provides a worthwhile contrast.

4. Perhaps reduced mobility will push more Americans to know their immediate surroundings in and around their residences. Instead of passing many places while driving, current circumstances may push more people to pass places at walking or bicycling speed. I know I see my neighborhood differently through regular walks; perhaps other will have similar experiences.

 

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My suburban neighborhood had the most pedestrians out that I have ever seen

We moved to a single-family home neighborhood nearly three years ago. Our street has a unique location; we have a mix of housing types within half a mile including single-family homes at several price ranges, condos, townhomes, and apartments and there is a good-sized city park around the corner. For a suburbanite, I am outside walking around pretty often and fairly observant.

Yesterday, I was outside for an hour in the afternoon. The weather was okay by Chicago-area spring standards: near 50, mostly sunny, no breeze. But, there was a big difference in the number of people walking and biking. A steady stream of people came by as couples, in family units, teenagers with friends, and single pedestrians out to walk the dog. From my front yard, I can see our street, a perpendicular arterial street, and a pathway through the park – all had a consistent set of people.

This was unusual. I am not usually out on a Tuesday afternoon but neither are all of these people. Living in a state with a shelter in place requirement, more people are home. Perhaps by the early afternoon, they want to get outside. Even though the weather was not great, it was warmer than the last few days and the snow had melted the day morning before. There is only so much Netflix someone can watch before needing a little break.

I am not sure this increased pedestrian behavior leads to more neighborliness or social interaction. We all are supposed to be six-plus feet apart. Some people wore headphones. Some of the people knew each other but others came from different micro-neighborhoods in the area. At the least, those outside saw more people than they typically would.

Will this last? Maybe as long as the shelter in place is required. A few people might turn these behaviors in uncertain times into more regular patterns in normal times. I would expect that pedestrian life will decrease significantly once work and school go back to more normal levels. And my suburban neighborhood will go back to relatively small numbers of people walking around on a regular basis.

 

Should I say hello to people I know on campus when they are walking by with their heads buried in their phones?

A college campus has many people walking around while looking at their phones. This leads to a common dilemma: should I say hello to someone when they are so engrossed by their smartphone? Earlier this week, I chose not to and I realized this is my default setting.

Here is my reasoning: these people are signaling they are busy or occupied. Walking in particular ways alerts others that they are not to be disturbed. Such behaviors include: closely looking at a smartphone screen; using headphones; talking on the phone; talking to someone walking next to them. Indeed, it is hard to be holding a smartphone while walking and not be viewed as saying, “Don’t disturb me.” (The only exception I could quickly think of: the number of people willing to offer to take a picture for you. I have had several people do this recently and I found it strange. Are selfies out? Did I look like I needed help?) I am helping these phone-lookers out: by not disturbing them and breaking their concentration, I am helping them accomplish what they need to do.

I do not know how many of these people I know would consider it a distraction or inconvenience if I did say hello. The posture of avoiding social interaction may be unintentional. We have a fairly friendly campus and if I see faculty, staff, and students that I know, we generally exchange greetings. Our regional norms are for fairly friendly greetings in public. As our students note, we are not quite the South but we are also not the Northeast.

If I were walking around campus with my nose buried in my phone, the biggest issue I would have with being greeted would be this: it might take me a second or two to recognize who issued the greeting. Rather than having the long lead-up to greetings where you see the person from a distance and can mentally prepare their name and your words (plenty of time for impression management), I am stirred from my focus. This will likely lead to a more generic greeting from me.

Will all this lead to the downfall of sociability on our campus? Probably not. Will it lead to more accidents as people walk into other and things? This has already happened. If anything, we will probably see more of his as time goes on and campus norms may continue to adjust to changing sociability.

Mutant statistic: marketing, health, and 10,000 steps a day

A recent study suggests the 10,000 steps a day for better health advice may not be based in research:

I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the lead author of a new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, began looking into the step rule because she was curious about where it came from. “It turns out the original basis for this 10,000-step guideline was really a marketing strategy,” she explains. “In 1965, a Japanese company was selling pedometers, and they gave it a name that, in Japanese, means ‘the 10,000-step meter.’”

Based on conversations she’s had with Japanese researchers, Lee believes that name was chosen for the product because the character for “10,000” looks sort of like a man walking. As far as she knows, the actual health merits of that number have never been validated by research.

Scientific or not, this bit of branding ingenuity transmogrified into a pearl of wisdom that traveled around the globe over the next half century, and eventually found its way onto the wrists and into the pockets of millions of Americans. In her research, Lee put it to the test by observing the step totals and mortality rates of more than 16,000 elderly American women. The study’s results paint a more nuanced picture of the value of physical activity.

“The basic finding was that at 4,400 steps per day, these women had significantly lower mortality rates compared to the least active women,” Lee explains. If they did more, their mortality rates continued to drop, until they reached about 7,500 steps, at which point the rates leveled out. Ultimately, increasing daily physical activity by as little as 2,000 steps—less than a mile of walking—was associated with positive health outcomes for the elderly women.

This sounds like a “mutant statistic” like sociologist Joel Best describes. The study suggests the figure originally arose for marketing purposes and was less about the actual numeric quantity and more about a particular cultural reference. From there, the figure spread until it became a normal part of cultural life and organizational behavior as people and groups aimed to walk 10,000 steps. Few people likely stopped to think about whether 10,000 was an accurate figure or an empirical finding. As a marketing ploy, it seems to have worked.

This should raise larger questions about how many other publicly known figures are more fabrication than empirically based. Do these figures tend to pop up in health statistics more than in other fields? Does countering the figures with an academic study stem the tide of their usage?

 

What I can learn through regular walks in my suburban neighborhood

Echoing earlier posts about how to learn about a suburb and next steps in learning about a suburb, I recently gave a talk that included what I learned through regular walks in my suburban neighborhood. With several walks a week, here is what I could learn:

-Marking the changing of seasons through different signs in nature (from flowers blooming to lawns mowed frequently to changing leaves) as well as seasonal decorations.

-Inspecting how yards are maintained (weeds, landscaping, leaves, and all) throughout the year as well as homes (lawnmowing, home repairs, taking out the garbage, etc.).

-Finding out where water collects after a rain.

-Attending to the various children playing on the playground.

-Hearing birds and seeing animals.

-Viewing the front foyers and rooms of numerous homes.

-Recognizing the neighborhood dogs and joggers.

-Watching various sports teams (mainly baseball and tennis) and individuals practice in the park.

-Observing numerous small interactions between families and friends.

-Noting the growth of several gardens of various sizes.

-Tracking the angle of the sun at different points in the year.

-Wondering at the limited number of children outdoors.

-Having some sense of what people or vehicles are regular in the neighborhood.

All of this would be hard to learn through public records, Google Street View, or driving through the neighborhood.

(Missing from the above list? Encounters with humans is limited as a pedestrian, even though I live on the street. An occasional greeting might be passed but it does not often go past that.)