Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

Four steps for city dwellers to improve winter

The Danish concept of hygge may have the four part secret for surviving winters in dense settings:

Hygge principle: Warmth. Unlike some American cities, where snow seems like a shocker year after year, Scandinavian cities acknowledge and build for their cold climate, with higher energy standards for walls and doors, vestibules that prevent drafts, coat racks for winter gear, and public plazas that block wind and capitalize on southern sun. Then there’s the ritual of the sauna…

Hygge principle: Light and color. With far fewer hours of sunlight, wintertime contentment relies on literal or metaphorical brightness—hence the typical Danish scenes of candle-bedecked dinner tables and windows laced with twinkle lights, or Copenhagen’s streets with their famous Crayola-colored buildings…

Hygge principle: Access to nature. While hygge’s overarching style seems to be an indoorsy, “cocoa by the fire” feel, Pia Edberg, author of The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge, points out that experiencing nature is elemental to hygge. “As the old saying goes: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.’”…

Hygge principle: Gathering places. Perhaps the most important antidote to winter’s isolation is hygge’s emphasis on communal gathering and social connection. In Copenhagen, privately owned third places—restaurants, bars, cafes, bookstores—are as central to the wintery social life as public squares are in the summertime.

The American way of rugged individualism may lead to many long cold winter nights…

Really, though, these adaptations to climate are interesting to consider. Every so often, you will find people making arguments that places like the Sunbelt in the United States are attractive because of their warmer weather. But, how much is this a factor versus other possible factors? Or, how is it that many countries along the equator and in tropical zones are outside of the first world? Would New York be the leading global city in the world if it had a climate like Miami or Cairo? In this case of Denmark, is it more about a different kind of society – the Scandinavian way of life that seems to make it to the top of a number of rankings for best places to live – rather than an approach to winter?

At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to have more fun during the winter months. The weather and lack of sun from Thanksgiving to New Year’s doesn’t seem to prompt the same kind of despondency prompted by January and February.

Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.

Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.

Financially troubled Chicago has to pay out more to reimburse drivers for pothole damage

Chicago doesn’t have much money these days but it will have even less after reimbursing drivers for potholes:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Department of Transportation to assign all 30 of its pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the cash-strapped city has been hit with a blizzard of damage to vehicle claims thanks to a relentless barrage of snow, cold and wild temperature swings that has turned city streets into the surface of the moon.

Since the New Year’s Eve storm that buried Chicago in 23 inches of snow before a record-setting cold snap, CDOT crews have filled roughly 240,000 potholes…

At last week’s City Council meeting alone, there were 543 pothole claims introduced, nearly double the 280 claims introduced last month. During the March City Council meeting last year, there were just 61 pothole claims introduced.

Between paying more to patch potholes plus pay out claims, the cold and snowing weather is costing Chicago more money. It’s too bad this story doesn’t have any monetary figures about the pothole claims. Plus, how much is budgeted each year to pay out these claims and what happens if there is an outlier year (like this year)? Mayor Emanuel is quoted in this story saying this is why the city is trying to pave more streets during warmer months – indeed, constructing streets in certain ways in the first place and maintaining them adequately will cut down on pothole problems down the road. In this case, paying more upfront for the infrastructure of good roads in Chicago could save the city money later.

File Chicago pothole claims here.

Does the South beat out Chicago because of better weather?

Here is a quick summary of research looking at how weather might affect population changes in Chicago and similarly cold-weather places versus the warmer weather of the South:

Renn pointed me towards the work of Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist and U. of C. grad who’s become one of the most prominent analysts of the American city in the 21st century. And he thinks there’s a strong correlation. He’s got a whole paper on it, in fact: “Smart Growth: Education, Skilled Workers, & the Future of Cold Weather Cities.”

Cities with average January temperatures under 30 degrees Fahrenheit grew in population only one-third as quickly from 1960 to 1990 as did cities with average January temperatures above 50 degrees. The shift of population toward the Sun Belt can also be seen at the state level: while population in the colder 25 states grew 95 percent between 1920 and 1980, the warmer 25 states saw their average population grow 309 percent…

In short, there’s something of a chicken-and-egg question with the air-conditioning solution that Glaeser cites. Adoption of air conditioning, across the South, was slower than you might expect from the weather. Its availability is a well-established boon to the South, but so is being able to power and afford air conditioning.

It’s significant that Enrico Moretti, like Glaeser an economist interested in how knowledge workers cluster in cities and regions, has most recently turned his focus back to the Tennessee Valley Authority. That’s a government project so ingrained in Southern culture that, as a kid, I thought that the Tennessee River was just called the TVA (emphasis mine):

We find that the TVA’s direct productivity effects were substantial. The investments in productive infrastructure resulted in a large increase in local manufacturing productivity, which in turn led to a 0.3% increase in national manufacturing productivity. By contrast, the indirect effects of the TVA on manufacturing productivity were limited. While we do find strong evidence of localized agglomeration economies in the manufacturing sector, our empirical analysis clearly points to a constant agglomeration elasticity. When the elasticity of agglomeration is the same everywhere in the country, spatially reallocating economic activity has no aggregate effects, as the benefits in the areas that gain activity are identical to the costs in areas that lose it. Thus, we estimate that the spillovers in the TVA region were fully offset by the losses in the rest of the country.

The intensely regressive economic (and cultural) practices of the South damned up potential across its old borders; once they began to fall, it created a flood, draining Yankee knowledge, technology, and workers.

While everyone wants to talk about the weather, it isn’t the only factor nor the most important factor in population and economic growth. To suggest this is the case is to rely on strong ecological arguments, perhaps like those made by Jared Diamond in his more popular books. Yes, air conditioning matters but humans were able to live in both the warmer South and colder North before air conditioning or central heating. More broadly, factors like electricity and water (see the recent troubles in the Southwest) matter more and are essential to even having air conditioning in the first place. Thus, the twist of invoking the TVA, an important adaptation to nature, makes the matter all the much more complex: essential infrastructure makes all sorts of other things possible.

Limit power outages by burying power lines

An editorial from USA Today argues for burying power lines in order to limit the effect of storms:

People served by buried lines have dramatically fewer outages, according to two studies by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utility companies.The idea is good enough that many American cities put most lines underground years ago, and lines for most new subdivisions are buried. Overall, though, roughly 80% of lines in the USA still hang overhead.

Such “undergrounding” of power lines can be pricey. But the figure opponents commonly cite — 10 times as expensive as stringing lines overhead — is misleading. The actual cost can be half that, or less, depending on local conditions and whether lines are buried when developments are built or when roads are being torn up anyway.

The best idea is to identify the lines most likely to get knocked down and begin by burying those. A study for Pepco, the underperforming Washington-area utility, found that while burying all lines would cost $5.8 billion and add a ridiculous $107 a month to customer bills for 30 years, burying just the most vulnerable lines would cost about one-sixth as much and prevent 65% of outages, a more reasonable tradeoff.

Even with a reduced figure for burying the power lines now, this serves as a reminder that the best time to bury the power lines would have been years ago when the developments were first built. Doing so after the fact costs more money and mars a lot of property while the burying is taking place. Putting the money into burying the lines in the first place saves a lot of hassle down the road (hence, different rules for newer developments).

An added bonus: having fewer overhead lines looks better. Imagine pristine residential or commercial streets without power lines and poles all over the place.