Monday, October 12, 2015

Sometimes Life Requires Compromises, Especially for Urbanists

With a few variations, I’ve recently heard several comments along the lines of “I’d love to be an urbanist, but can’t afford to live in a walkable location.  I also expect that living without a car in my current home would be too inconvenient.”

I understand the concerns.  Heck, I live many of the same apparent contradictions in my life.  But the speakers are confusing “urbanist” with “urban resident”.  Let me explain with examples of the compromises I make in my own life.

Compromise #1 - I’d love to live in a walkable location.  However, the plan that my wife and I made for a move downtown was derailed when the mixed-use building we’d targeted for our new home fell victim to the recession and wasn’t built.  Since then, family health issues have made a downtown move unlikely in the near term, but I continue to look forward to a day when I can live in a walkable setting.

Compromise #2 - I’d like to use transit on a regular basis, as I did at a couple of stops in my early adult life.  But we live in a part of town where the buses run only at the start and end of the school day, so the bus doesn’t work for anyone except students.  I continue to monitor the possibility of bus route changes, but for now don’t have a transit option.

Compromise #3 - One of the frills in my life is season tickets to Cal basketball.  I would love to enjoy the newspaper or a good book while riding transit to the Berkeley campus.  But that trip would require a Golden Gate Transit bus to San Francisco followed by a BART ride under the bay, with a reverse trip that would be excessively burdensome if not impossible after an evening game.  So I drive to Berkeley, carpooling when I can.

Compromise #4 - I have family in another California city who I visit a half-dozen times a year.  I’d love to take public transit for my visits.  But there’s only one Amtrak arrival per day at my destination.  And that arrival is at 3:00am.  Also, none of family lives within walkable distance of the train station, especially in the middle of the night, so taxis would be my local transit option.  Given those facts, I instead make the three-hour drive.

Compromise #5 - We have three household dogs.  Yes, they would have been a burden in a downtown location, but they spend most of their days inside anyway, so we could have made it work.

I wish I could buy dog food at a store within a walkable distance of my house.  But the dogs have a combined weight of 200 pounds, so go through a lot of food.  Although our home is considered to have good walkability, that is mostly because of convenient schools.  The only grocery store within the typical walkability limit of a half-mile is a tiny convenience store.  They probably carry dog food, but in such small packages that they aren’t an option.

So instead, I use my car to buy kibble at a big box, the only big box I patronize.   But if home delivery became an option, I’d be interested.

The bottom line is that a world constructed around the drivable suburban paradigm makes an urbanist lifestyle impossible for most people, especially in smaller towns.  And even within some cities, it can be difficult.

I chatted with the niece of long-time friends at an event a few days back (an event impossible to reach except by car).  She had spent a portion of her life as an urban resident and reported that she found it convenient to live without a car in Chicago and Boston.  Indeed, she said that a car would have been an inconvenience in those cities.  But she said that never found the same sweet spot in San Francisco, so continued to own a car during her time in that city.

But difficulty of living an urbanist life doesn’t mean we can’t be urbanists, any more than a vegetarian living on a cattle ranch can’t continue to espouse the benefits of vegetarianism.

At the bottom line, being an urbanist isn’t about living in a walkable urban setting.  It’s about advocating for urbanist solutions while also looking for ways to live a more urbanist life, with recognition that compromises are often necessary.  Under this definition, I think I keep the faith with urbanism.

Of course, it’s up to every urbanist’s personal conscience about which compromises are truly essential and which are inconsistent with urbanism.  Many years ago, in another state, I crossed swords with a proponent of compact development who eagerly injected himself into many local land use decisions.

In retrospect, I concur with many of the land-use directions that he was endorsing, although I was tardy in reaching that understanding.  Part of my slowness may have been disappointment with the man’s hypocrisy.  He lived on 20 acres at the end of a long dirt road and periodically called the Fish and Game Department to complain about the wild animals which were encroaching on his land.  It’s hard to have much creditability as an urbanist while living that lifestyle.  I suspect it undermined his message, with me and with others.

Earlier this year, I played with my personal definition for urbanism.  Thinking that I could now append a definition for urbanist based on my earlier work, I pulled up my previous efforts.  However, I find that my thinking has continued to evolve.  So, I’ll instead tweak my earlier effort and then do the intended appending.

Urbanism: (1) The study of alternative forms of congregated human settlement, with particular attention to the patterns and details of land use that yield the greater economic productivity, environmental sustainability, and individual happiness.  (2) The advocacy of concepts for congregated human settlement that best meet the goals of productivity, sustainability, and happiness.

Urbanist: Someone who embraces the advocacy described in definition (2) of urbanism and, as far as practical under individual circumstances, lives a life consistent with that advocacy.

As least for today, I’m happy with those definitions and think I’ve kept myself within the circle of urbanism.  I hope I’ve also assuaged some self-doubts among readers.

My next post will revisit several recent topics.  I’ve come across bits of pertinent follow-up information on the topics of recent posts and will share.

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


  1. Bicycles are perfect for increasing the pedestrian's range and carrying a larger load of groceries, or kibble. Saves time, too. Urbanist improvements would include better and safer bike routes and paths.

    1. Bill, thanks for the comment. I agree what bikes can be an effective tool and that many current bike routes don't facilitate travel by less confident riders. (If you haven't seen it, you might want to look at this presentation recently made to a couple of Petaluma committees on how the current bike network works, You'll need to cut and paste the link.) So there is a need to buttress the bike routes option, although as another reader commented on a recent post, separating cars from bikes from peds is a non-trivial task.

  2. Hi Dave, I have similar issues. Thanks for spelling them out. I'd like a bus that runs from Sonoma to Santa Rosa at least during commute times every 15 or 30 minutes. Right now the bus system doesn't support people with 9 to 5 jobs.

    1. Teri, thanks for the comment. Your observation is fully on target. Although most transit managers detest the term, the reality is that much local transit service is targeted toward the "transit-dependent", students, seniors, and others. It is only by targeting those folks that the fare box recovery standard of the state can be me. The reality is that if someone has a job and doesn't work in San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose, they will almost always travel by car, so offering transit services for those folks isn't effective.