Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Two Tyres on the Verge

In the midst of a holiday week, I’ll defer the immediate continuation of the new housing location topic.  I’m eager to continue, but it can wait a few days.

Instead, I’ll circle back to the philosophy behind this blog.  It seems a holiday-type topic.

A fact of life about writing a blog, especially one with a thrice-weekly publishing schedule, is that I’m forced to closely monitor the philosophy behind the blog.  When writing almost three thousand words per week, it could be easy to be sloppy in my word choice.  To state something that I don’t quite truly believe because it come wrapped in an enticing phrase that transfers effortlessly from my fingertips to my keyboard.

Words can dangerous mistresses.  They’re fun to hold, but without constant vigilance, they can lead one astray.

Not that I’m adamantly opposed to adjusting my philosophy.  I believe in constantly questioning and adjusting my beliefs when justified.  I’d rather be around people who can learn from new information rather than those who run scared of being accused of a “flip-flop”.  But if my philosophy evolves, I want it to a considered change, not an editing oversight in a rush to publish a post.

With that said, below is a summary of where my philosophy stands after seven months of writing this blog.  It has probably evolved slightly, but not as much as it might have.  I’ll present my philosophy as a set of facts, two proposed actions, and a result.

The Facts: In the depth of the Depression, federal policy began to offer beneficial treatment of a form of land use that today we call “drivable suburban”.  It wasn’t a considered action.  It was a reaction to the economic crisis.  In the 1930s, drivable suburban development seemed the easiest way to jumpstart the economy.

Once the federal government took the path, other levels of government began to follow.  By the 1960s, drivable suburban was so engrained in our laws and our daily life that we forgot that it was the product of government action, not the marketplace.

(I recently listened to a chat about the origins of drivable suburban in the politics of 1919 through 1938.  It was fascinating information that I’ll organize and share one day soon.)

Proposed Action #1: We need to identify and to rectify the biases that we codified into our land-use world.  Early in the history of this blog, I listed some of those biases.  Since then, I’ve learned of others.  Just to mention one, drivable suburban development often has a shorter depreciation period, which makes it easier to justify financially.  A stand-alone pizza parlor in a shopping center has a shorter deprecation period than a pizza parlor in a mixed-use building.  That’s nuts.

Identifying and rectifying the biases won’t be easy.  It’s nearly a century of misdirection to exorcise, but it’s needed.

Proposed Action #2: To avoid waiting nearly a century for the market to rebalance itself, we need to provide a few advantages to walkable urban development.  The incentives should be carefully crafted and metered to avoid marketplace overreaction.  California redevelopment was intended to provide the needed type of incentive, but it was co-opted by drivable suburban before it was dissolved, which illustrates the problem.

Result: Like vaccination, the expected result is a non-event.  Life goes on smoothly, we lead lives with good opportunities for contentment, and we wonder what the fuss was about.

The result is better seen if we compare it to what may happen if we continue on our current path.  We’d continue to sprawl, using more and more transportation energy to live the same lives.  And the increased energy use would bring climatic and geopolitical issues that may threaten our way of life.  And the inefficiency of sprawl would make the economy more unstable.  Plus we’d miss the social interactions that come with walkable urban.

And there you have it.  The philosophy of this blog.  If you think I’m distracted, deluded, or otherwise dangerously wrong, I’d like to hear from you.  But you’d better come armed with facts.

I’ve been told that I can be too fond of analogies.  It’s likely a fair criticism.  But this situation seems so apt for an analogy that I’ll ignore the amber light.

The land-use policies in the United States are like a car traveling down a roadway.  Moving smoothly and efficiently.  (If we ignore the past five years.)  But we haven’t been attentive to the steering and have drifted from the center of the lane.  Instead of holding a steady path between the two stripes, we’ve gradually slipped to the side.

It wasn’t intentional.  It was solely the result of inattention.  But it happened so gradually and felt so comfortable that we barely noticed.

As our wheels got onto the paved shoulder, some began to call attention to the drift.  But their concerns were largely dismissed as alarmist.

Now, the wheels have reached the soft, unpaved shoulder.  Two tires are digging troughs in loose gravel.  The front bumper is beginning to slap against tall grasses.  Shrubs and a fence are getting close.

As motorists know, driving on loose gravel is dangerous.  Brake and the car could lose traction and roll.  Steer too abruptly back toward the road and the car may shoot across the freeway toward the center median.

The only good driving response is to ease off the gas and to steer gradually, very gradually, back toward the driving lane.  Luckily, there are plenty voices arguing for exactly that action.  I’m pleased to be one of the lesser, far lesser, voices in that chorus.

Using the British lexicon (an admitted non sequitur during the week of Independence Day, but I’m a closet Anglophile), I call this analogy “Two Tyres on the Verge”.   (Those of you who kept waiting for this post to be about bicycling, sorry.)

I like the analogy.  I like it a lot.  Enough that, if I ever move this blog to another site, I may very well rechristen it “Two Tyres on the Verge”.  For now, no such move is imminent.  Instead, two tyres on the verge, spewing loose gravel and heading toward a fence, will remain the image in my head whenever I sit down to write a post.

Have a great holiday week.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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