Durable Growth

Another New Year is upon us

An urban setting in downtown Napa, California

An urban setting in downtown Napa, California

When I was about five, my parents left my sister and me with my grandparents for part of a weekend.  I’ve long forgotten what my parents were doing, whether it was a short vacation or perhaps a family function at which children weren’t welcome.  I don’t even recall whether the stay with my grandparents was for the entire weekend or only for Sunday.

But the reason for and duration of the stay really didn’t matter.  Even at age five, spending time with Grandpa Cy and Grandma Hortense was easy duty.  Hortense was a roly-poly woman who always made special meals and treats for my sister and I visited we when.  Even if she occasionally seemed like a glass half-empty kind of person, my sister and I could look the other way.  Cy had lived an eventful life and always had stories to share, including exploits on the athletic fields of his youth.  Within a few years, I would eagerly await visits by Grandpa Cy because he would play catch with me for hours on end.

Like most grandparents, Cy and Hortense kept a supply of toys with which the grandchildren could play when they visited.  Thus, as the sun set on Sunday evening and the return of my parents was expected at any minute, I found myself on the living room floor, playing with a toy car.

As far as toy cars go, it wasn’t very sophisticated.  It predated most of the Tonka and Matchbox toys.  It was a simple pressed metal shape, without verisimilitude to any known car brand, with a pair of thin wire axles and four tiny rubber tires.  But it rolled surprisingly well.  And on the tight pile carpeting of my grandparents’ living room floor, I could give it a good shove and it would roll several feet before coming to rest.

As I played, I noted that the car would always turn to the right before it stopped.  The turn puzzled me.  After each push, I would carefully check the car, trying to understand why it bent right.  Despite not being able to discern a reason, the next push would again result in a bend to the right.

Grandpa Cy noted my puzzlement and joined me on the floor.  After watching my befuddlement for several more pushes, he suggested a small bet on the next push.  (In addition to having been a successful athlete in his youth, he was also a bit of a sportsman, claiming to have seen both Man o’ War and Seabiscuit during his Saturdays at the track.)  If the car turned right, he would collect a small wager, perhaps a nickel.  If it turned left, I would collect the nickel.

Despite numerous previous trials that had all gone right, I remained convinced that it was a fair bet at even money, so took the bet.  The car went right.

Grandpa Cy then introduced me to double or nothing.  (I told you he was a bit of a sportsman.)  He kept right, I kept left, and the car again went right.  And again went right.  And again went right.  I remained convinced that a turn to the left was imminent, so continued to accept his double or nothing propositions.

After six decades, the arithmetic has become fuzzy.  But I remember that when my parents finally returned, I advised my father in a matter-of-fact tone that he needed to write Grandpa Cy a check for a million dollars because I’d had an inexplicable spell of bad luck.

Of course, everyone, with the exception of me, laughed and no checks were written.  And even though I was the butt of the joke, I don’t retain any ill will.  Except for one point.  I wish someone, whether Grandpa Cy or my engineer father has taken a moment to explain why the darned car always went right.

After all this time, I suspect that the toy has been assembled with the front axle turned just a bit clockwise relative to the rear axle, a deviation that was well within tolerances for an inexpensive toy, but made it unsuitable for gambling.  But I sure wish someone could have given me a leg-up on that insight those many years ago.

And that, having taken a circuitous route through my grandparents Southern California living room circa 1958, leads me to my urbanist resolution for the coming New Year.

Urbanists tend to point at the failures of suburbia in broad empirical terms.  “After seventy years of the suburban experiment, our streets are crumbling and our municipals coffers dwindling.”  “The last three street projects that were promised to end congestion have only added to congestion.”  Or “We keep allowing more shopping centers, but all that happens is the older shopping centers become derelict.”  It’s the land-use planning equivalent of noting that the toy car always turns right.

But the suburban advocates aren’t swayed by empirical evidence.  Because their worldview demands it, they believe that the next road project will truly end congestion, that the next shopping center will balance the municipal ledger, and that the next sprawling housing project will put their community on the path to permanent prosperity.  They aren’t easily dissuaded by a history of failure.  They can’t see any reason why the toy car won’t turn left at the next push.

So my resolution for 2015 is to dig deeper, to find more evidence, and to share what I find, explaining the reasons behind the failure of suburbia.

To be fair, others are already making these efforts; StrongTowns with their analysis of property taxes per acre for downtowns versus suburban fringes and traffic engineers with their analysis of imputed traffic.  But skeptics abound, so more must be done.  My resolution is to cover those efforts, to share them with you, and to add my voice.

The toy car isn’t ever going to turn left.  And the sooner we act on that knowledge, the better off will be the generations that follow.

I had planned to review my resolutions of years past and to share the New Year’s thoughts of others in this post.  But I spent too many words on Grandpa Cy and a rightward-turning toy car, so those topics will be deferred to my next post.  In the meantime, have a great New Year’s Eve.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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