Did I Miss Anything?

I was out of town last week. Did I miss anything?

I heard there was a bit of snow or something like that. While I missed the brunt of the storm, I did not escape unscathed. For one, I had to endure a couple of day’s worth of jokes about the ineptitude of Southerners in the snow. (My limp rebuttal was we were ill prepared since snow in the South is as rare as a BCS title is up north). My attempt to return home to The C was then impacted by the aftermath of the storm. The trip from DSM to CHA typically takes about five hours- this one started with a 6am flight (that was eventually cancelled), and ended at 11pm when my head finally hit the pillow. I have no complaints though- I was warm, had access to food, and most importantly, a variety of airport bars.

As an aside, I think there is a special place in hell reserved for the person who decided to co-mingle domestic and international flights on the same concourse. I'm just a simple businessman trying to make his way home and was forced to run a gauntlet of gates heading to such places as Rome, Amsterdam and London. This is patently unfair, and undeniably cruel. I was one overpriced Maker’s Mark and a missing passport away from waking up in Barcelona the next day.

I’ve since read a couple of pieces that trace last week’s dysfunction to our development patterns. They are, of course, right on the money. The gist is that the southern auto-dependent, sub-urban development patterns,  were the cause of stranded motorists, parents not being bale to reach their kids, and scores of unplanned upon overnight stays at the Home Depot. Always one to pile on, I offer my thoughts.

part of the problem was that employers and schools called the day off at the same time, resulting in massive numbers of people on the same treacherous roads at the same time. Truth be told, no street system can deal with that type of situation perfectly, but some are better than others. The road systems throughout our country are predominantly hierarchical. This is the typical suburban system you know: local roads feed collectors that feed arterials that feed freeways. Traffic engineers love the model, and in truth, it’s difficult to envision a system that can handle long-distance automobile traffic any better. The trouble with that system is that if one of the elements fails, then all of the elements of the hierarchy below it fail as well. The system does not allow much room for choice or alternate decisions- the route from A to B is often pretty well fixed.  Last week, we saw what happens to a hierarchical system when key elements fail.

The classic traffic engineer's diagram.
I wonder how many people stuck on the freeway in Atlanta

last week felt that their movement and speed was increased.

The alternative to a hierarchical system can be found in a grid network. In this system, the streets are more or less equal, and property in the area is more or less equally served. Individual users have multiple choices for how to get from A to B and can react to any congestion they find in the system. The problem is that it doesn’t scale well- the system is suited physically and financially to denser situations such as a downtown.

In any event, and in either system, the root of the problem is monoculture. If everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, there are bound to be problems. In every other facet of life this is something we grasp easily. We “don’t put all of our eggs in the same basket”, financial advisors tell us to diversify our portfolios, and we understand that “variety is the spice of life”. When we have diversity, we are less subject to catastrophic outcomes when various elements of systems break the wrong way.

The point is not to abolish the sub-urbs or outlaw the car. The object is to remove the very real barriers to choice. Not everyone wants to live in the ‘burbs on an acre and drive a big car – but some do. Not everyone wants to live in a loft downtown and bike to work- but some do. One of our challenges is that the current system subsidizes certain lifestyles and provides barriers to others. Our goal should be to level the playing field and allow people to make choices that suit their philosophy and budget. If living in the ‘burbs makes the most sense for you and your family, great- but know that there are costs associated with extending infrastructure and extensive auto usage. If you want to live downtown, excellent- there are inherent cost efficiencies in inhabiting a smaller footprint and traveling shorter distances. The good news is that across the country, people are returning to downtown in droves. The better news is that those people will likely outlive (and eventually outvote) those wed to the doomed policies of the past.

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