Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Prying the Overton Window Further Open

An intersection in Calistoga
that lacks pedestrian accommodation
A few weeks back, I noted a Petaluma post on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social media site, arguing for increased pedestrian awareness by drivers.  It was cleverly written and I agreed with the thrust.  However, I disagreed with the implicit suggestion that awareness/education was the right approach for achieving a goal, pedestrian safety, for which 100 percent compliance should be the target.

So I wrote a post arguing that education isn’t a strong enough tool when universal compliance is needed.  Instead, I suggested alternative thinking about street design, specifically proffering street configurations that would result in lower travel speeds.

It was topic that many people found worthy of further discussion.  Tweets and retweets to over 20,000 followers followed the publishing of the post on my own and the Vibrant Bay Area websites.  Also, a link was included in a national blog on street design.  

But it seems likely that few of the readers I attracted were local.

I posted a link on Nextdoor comment thread that triggered the post.  Before the thread died, there were 42 comments total.  Of those, how many do you think agreed with my suggestion for alternative thinking about street design?  Zero.  How many even acknowledged my contribution to the discussion?  Still zero.  Every other comment remained, in one way or another, on the theme of better educating drivers and/or pedestrians.

I don’t report this to ridicule the other commenters or to complain about the lack of attention.  I’m accustomed to the response.  Silence, followed by a wandering away of the audience, has been the typical reaction to similar calls I’ve made elsewhere for street design changes that would reduce travel speeds and promote pedestrian safety.  The lesson I’ve garnered is that I must be persistent, with the hope that someday folks will begin paying attention.

I’ve now learned that there is a developed philosophy on the subject of acceptable and unacceptable topics for public discourse.  The Overton Window was named after the late Joseph Overton, an official with a public policy think tank.  Initially formulated to describe the rhetorical limits for public officials, the Overton Window has been described as the “range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.” 

The Overton Window models argues that, radiating outward from current policy, are ideas that progress through decreasing levels of public acceptance from popular to sensible to acceptable to radical to unthinkable.

Applying the Overton Window to the current presidential campaign, I think we’ve found that xenophobic police states, as long as described in temperate language, are somewhere between acceptable and radical, as are universal healthcare and reduced costs for secondary education.   But when the last two are described as “socialist” they become unthinkable, an interesting case of a label changing perceptions.

Moving to the world of urbanism, I’d suggest that mixed-use development is in the acceptable range.  Having a mixed-use district, along with transit and other accoutrements, to create walkable urban development is in the radical range.  But alternative street designs to promote pedestrian safety are unthinkable.  I find it an odd place to draw that line, but I’m not a member of the general public, at least on this topic.

So, what can be done to bring some of these ideas inside the Overton Window?  Increasing discourse.  I don’t see an alternative path to making topics become more acceptable than to continually talk about them as being reasonable and appropriate.  By writing this blog, I’m doing what I can, while acknowledging that there is always more that I could be doing, but what is truly needed is for readers to further the spread of urbanist ideas.

Obviously, I hope that readers agree with much of what I write.  But even if they disagree, or have alternative perspectives that differ in the details, they need to be participating in their communities and talking about ideas like walkable neighborhoods and improved pedestrian safety through different road design standards.

And lest someone think that the task is impossible, I’ll point out that Edinburgh recently set the speed limits on 80 percent of its streets at 20 mph, becoming the most recent city in Great Britain to take a similar step.  Ponder that for a moment.  A capital city, a functioning, vibrant city, set the most of its speed limits below the minimum speed limit allowed on California streets.

The problem isn’t that urbanists don’t have good ideas.  It’s that we haven’t been successful at getting those ideas into general circulation on this side of the pond.

Let’s work together to shove the Overton Window further open.

The earlier post on changed street designs also triggered comments on vertical traffic calming.  I have a further insight on the subject to offer in my next post.

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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