Friday, March 6, 2015

Reflections on Being a Nincompoop

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote about three key steps on my path to becoming an urbanist.   One of those was being exposed to pioneering baseball statistical analyst Bill James when still at an impressionable age.  (I was probably in my mid-20s.)

Baseball number-crunching may seem a long way from urbanism.  And it truly is.  But there’s a connection in the way of thinking, particularly in the upsetting of entrenched paradigms, at which James excelled.  As I wrote about James over three years ago, “his work provided the life lesson that conventional wisdom can be wrong and that we should be open to those who offer new ways of viewing reality.”  For me, that was a key step on the path to becoming an urbanist.

James continues to put forth baseball work, although it seems less ground-breaking than it did forty years, with many good young writers tackling the subjects into which James opened the doors.  Sometimes revolutionaries are overtaken by the forces they set loose.

But James still has moments of eye-opening insight.  To me, the best of those moments come when he digresses from baseball and applies his incisive and paradigm-rejecting mind to other areas of life.  I’m currently reading a book by James in which my favorite section is his rumination on the fallacy of assigning infinite value to any element of a decision.

The immediate target of James’ attention is the air safety program in the aftermath of 9/11.  He argues that, by assigning an infinite value to preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airliners, we effectively waste many more lifetimes, in ten, twenty, and thirty minute chunks, than we save by preventing the occasional attack.

James notes that there are many areas of life in which assigning infinite value to any single element can lead to flawed decision-making.  He particularly cites the criminal justice system.

The point struck home with me.  My favorite personal example is a utility that proclaims “Customer safety is our only concern.”  My immediate mental response is always “Nonsense.  You also need to put a value on energy delivery to customers, on turning a reasonable profit for stockholders, on providing a secure living for employees, and on many other factors.  Customer safety belongs on the list, but it can’t be the only factor.  And you trying to tell me that it is only undermines everything else that you say.”

Having taken a scenic route through baseball and federal flight safety rules, I’ll now pull these thoughts back into land use and urbanism.

In my last post, I wrote about a congested intersection in Petaluma.  The corner of E. Washington Street and S. McDowell Boulevard is a frequent subject of attention, with City staff continually working to make the intersection function better and the public questioning why good solutions can’t be found.

Adding my unhelpful voice to the discussion, I noted in my last post that any new intersection capacity that might be created would be soon be absorbed by induced demand, returning congestion to current levels and leaving the public still dissatisfied and irritated.

Given such a troublesome intersection, the reasonable expectation is the City would try to manage growth such that new sources of traffic, especially traffic that has little option to defer trips to another time, are minimized.  To give an example, a new sports complex, to which parents must deliver children for fixed gametimes, would be an unfortunate land-use choice near the intersection.

So, of course, a complex of three soccer fields, to which more than half of participants will pass through the problem intersection, is due to open in the next few weeks.  Furthermore, the three soccer fields are only the start, with three baseball diamonds to follow as funding allows.

Outside observers may splutter over this state of affairs, wondering what nincompoops would have located a sports complex in that location.  And I might be tempted to join them, except for one problem.  I’m one of the nincompoops.

About the time the construction decisions were being finalized, I was appointed to the Petaluma Park and Rec Commission.  (It’s actually the Recreation, Music, and Park Commission, but not a single music issue has come before us during my tenure as a Commissioner, so I’ll defer to Amy Poehler and go with Park and Rec Commission for today.)

In my time on the commission, several decisions related to the new sports complex have come before us.  In each case, I joined the others in voting unanimously to move the complex ahead.

Okay, let me insert three disclaimers.

First, by the time I assumed a decision-making role in the sports complex process, the decisions were largely made and the funding secured.  Waving my hands about traffic would have been like trying to stop a locomotive with a flyswatter.  I had no realistic chance to change the direction.

Second, I’m not suggesting that no one ever considered the traffic implications.  I suspect that sometime before my involvement, Planning and/or Public Works looked at the sports complex versus the traffic concern, sighed deeply, and agreed that the value to local athletics outweighed the traffic problems.

Third, I’m not arguing that the decision to proceed with the sports complex was wrong.  We should put a high value on local athletics and I’m willing to agree with Planning and/or Public Works in deciding that sports outweighs traffic in this situation.

No, my concern is that too many of us, including me for awhile, failed to understand that a balance had been made and that it was a balance that had significant implications to the community.  Since I’ve had my moment of enlightenment, I’ve spoken with numerous people, including fellow commissioners, about the siting decision and the resulting traffic issues.   To a person, all have dismissed my comments, noting that youth sports trumps all.

But we can’t think that way.  Because tomorrow, on some other issue, we’ll decide that traffic relief trumps all.  And maybe the next day, we’ll decide that affordable housing trumps all.  And eventually we work ourselves into a corner.  It’s a very suburban style of thinking, addressing each problem in a vacuum and ignoring the interrelationships that eventually govern the world.

Urbanism offers a couple of insights to our conundrum, one philosophical and one practical.

On the philosophical side, urbanism is all about compromises.  Do we want a wider sidewalk, do we want more parking, or do we want parklets?  Recognizing that cars remain an essential element of economic vitality, where do we put them so they serve us without governing us?  What is the right height for a building such that it houses enough people and economic activity that the street thrives without being overwhelmed?  Once we learn to make those careful balances, we’re better equipped to balance youth sports and traffic.

On the practical side, if we live in close enough proximity that we can be served by transit, then some of the traffic issues can be alleviated.  I’m intrigued by the idea of a city bus, in place of twenty cars, disgorging a passel of youth soccer players for a game.  (And as member of the Transit Advisory, I helped push, successfully, for a bus turnaround at the complex.)  Today, we’re nowhere near the ideal of transit serving youth sports, but urbanism can take us that direction.

In the real world, many problems are ultimately unsolvable.  Pretending they don’t exist, such as when we put infinite value on youth sports over traffic, isn’t a viable approach.  But urbanism gives us the tools to minimize the problems and to think about balancing competing objectives.

And so I’ve connected the dots, baseball to air safety to traffic to urbanism, using Bill James as a guide for most of the steps.  I think he’d be pleased.

Next time, I’ll write about a moment of clarity on urbanism and climate change.

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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