Egalitarianism in Word, Deed, and Parking

Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality among living entities. Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term has two distinct definitions in modern English.[3] It is defined either as a political doctrine that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social, and civil rights[4] or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people or the decentralization of power. 

We have been told that basically the world is coming to an end because of man’s inability to live in harmony with nature. Pollution is ruining the planet. Global Warming and Climate Change is upon us and in (pick a number 5, 10, 20 50 100 Years) the planet will be uninhabitable. In order to combat this menace, we have adopted a term that seems to pop up in virtually every planning conversation, sustainability.

Fair enough. It is important to be good stewards of our planet. The question, it seems to me, is how we go about that stewardship. The last generation has seen great strides in cleaning up the messes made by previous ones. London, which was uninhabitable in the 1700s, is a clean, beautiful city. Lake Erie which produced two headed fish a few decades ago is pristine. The Passiac River in New Jersey, although not perfect, is substantially cleaner than in the late 20th century. Who talks about acid rain anymore?  Air pollution in Los Angeles is orders of magnitude better than a quarter century ago, even with the advent of many more vehicles and population growth. The nearly extinct Brown Pelican flies in huge flocks over California beaches. Is everything perfect? Of course not. But we are going in the right direction and continue to do so.

Now we are told that to ‘save the planet’ we have to alter our lifestyle significantly. We need to live in dense cities with our work, shopping, play, and living quarters all within walking distance or so connected with rapid transit that vehicles will be unnecessary. The mantra that ‘cars pollute’ is beaten in to us to the point that planning for the future revolves around ridding us of those evil beasts. Sustainability is related to projects that are walking friendly and shun the automobile. Places where autos flourish are called “brown developments.”

I have two problems with all this. First, by planning environments that fit certain dense, walking, non vehicular living areas are we limiting freedom of choice. Maybe I like living in dense cheek by jowl neighborhoods and having everything within walking distance. But maybe I would prefer to live in an area with space between me and my neighbor.

The second problem is the hypocrisy of it all. Planners, professors, and government officials that seem to know what’s best for the ‘masses’ don’t live the lives they want us to lead. They often live in quaint college towns, or in gracious neighborhoods with no sidewalks and the nearest noisy light rail miles away. They fly in private jets, meet in tony resorts and plan our lives for us. They have “theirs” but are bent on restricting my ability to acquire “mine.”

A professor talks about removing surface parking around a silicon valley company and installing housing in place so employees at the company can live nearby and walk to work, while sitting in his Spanish style single family home in Los Angeles’ fancy west side. Surely, he notes, wouldn’t people rather live near their work? Frankly, doc, I don’t know. Has anyone asked them?

It goes to the definition I put at the beginning of this piece. Is the goal to save the planet, or to make everything ‘egalitarian.’ All of the ‘common man’ can live in densely populated central cities or around sustainable designed walk/play/work/cores while the designers don’t.

I note that many talk of designs and plans involving academia, government, planners, architects, engineers, working together to get to this sustainable model. So where do the people that have to live in this model fit in. In the end, they have to fit their lives around the designs, models, and schedules of the people who understand how things have to be. But I wonder…

What if private developers and private industry got together and decided to build a city, or better yet fix a city. What is the first thing companies who are out for a profit do? They ask consumers what they want. Then they fit their products into that mix.

I want to be able to get to where I want to go without traffic tie ups. I want to be able to park nearby. I don’t like pollution so I want to minimize it. I want traffic to flow freely on broad avenues without a lot of noise. I want to visit parts of town that fit the culture of the area. Bustling shops that smell like the exotic bazaars of the East, or tony stores with the top fashions. I want one night to eat at home, the next nite on a sidewalk cafe, the third in a leather covered steakhouse. Or maybe I don’t want to do anything.

I want flexibility. If I want to continue a conversation, I don’t want to have to rush to make the last train. If I’m having trouble deciding what to wear, I don’t want to be forced to select so I can be somewhere on ‘time.’ I eat at Burger King rather than McDonald’s because McDonald’s won’t serve a hamburger before 11 AM and Burger King will. Those are free market choices each company made, and a free market choice I made.

I’m not comfortable with planners that want to take away my flexibility, my ability to use my car, my myriad of choices.

If you look at ‘interim’ plans you will see that parking is there, but reduced.  However if you look at their sustainable goals, its to remove the automobile altogether. That little bit of freedom gone. If I wanted that, I could move to Manhattan, London, Paris, or Amsterdam. Do we want to recreate them here?

I may be selfish, but I want to be in control. Strangely the automobile gives one that control to go wherever, whenever on wants. Its the freedom that only the very wealthy had just a century ago. Then, egalitarian meant a few had whatever they wanted and the rest lived a life of the lowest common denominator.  Now it means that a few live lives of the rich and famous and the rest live in community cores, planned and designed by someone else.

I know that its selfish to want to drive my car a little faster and feel that control. I know it is becoming more difficult as the population increases. But there are alternatives. Shouldn’t we at least consider those, too.





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4 Responses to Egalitarianism in Word, Deed, and Parking

  1. Paul Barter says:

    Hi John. I want to take issue with your portrayal of this as the free market versus planning, with the auto-oriented lifestyle on the free market side and reform of car-dominated systems as all about planning.

    For parking at least, the status quo in American metropolitan areas is NOT a market outcome. The oversupply that exists almost everywhere is the result of government regulations not market desires. Shoup and other parking reformers like Jeff Tumlin et al want to introduce more market discipline and choice.

    On the density question, America’s very low suburban population densities are also a case of government regulation NOT a market phenomenon (see the writings of Michael Lewyn – who writes at Planetizen but describes himself as a Republican I believe – or Prof Jonathan Levine for example). Market-oriented redevelopment and infill opportunities by commercial developers are prevented (often even near good transit) by low-density zoning and by excessive parking requirements. Just ask Mott Smith. Low population density is also enabled by hugely subsidized transportation systems (both road and transit – neither of which are remotely markets).

    Now these zoning and parking regulations emerged democratically. But they are unfunded mandates. “What people want” is very important of course! But desires have to be balanced against costs. A (slightly) more market-oriented approach to both zoning and parking would help people face the costs of their choices. Car-oriented development and low-density living are valid choices for sure. But currently local government hides the costs by forcing developers to provide more parking and lower density than the market wants.

    I would have thought reform of all that interference with the market would fit your world view, John. Maybe you should try exploring the Market Urbanism blog for example.

  2. JVH says:

    Paul: There is a strong movement in planning in the US to move toward density and in doing so, get rid of the automobile. Whether we are the way we are because of government interference or not, one needs to look at the underlying reasons for what some of the design work is about.
    I believe in Shoup’s approach in general, and certainly in the reduction of parking requirements and the use of the marketplace to set parking pricing. Let the chips fall where they may. However if the goal is not to let the market function, but to ‘adjust’ the market so certain underlying agendas are met, then we need to take a long look.
    SF Park was put in place to assist in the removal of vehicles from San Francisco. The agenda is clear. Its run by the rapid transit folks and its a first step to replacing cars with bicycles. Most like parking programs have different agendas — lowering congestion, making parking more available, etc. However when the goals are zero pollution buildings and buzz words like “brown developments” are used, then I think that care must be taken.
    Are you seriously saying that when planning decisions are made that the general public’s desires are taken into consideration. Most people don’t have a clue when a planning decision is made nor what it means when it is.
    Nowhere in my post above do I mention any ‘reforms’ that are going on, but tendency toward certain ‘anti-auto’ planning and designs that are creeping into our conversations.

  3. Alex Light says:

    John, I really don’t think you should be criticising people trying to make the world a little better, or at least twisting it to make them seem like the bad guys. Do you own a bicycle? How often have you taken the bus this year? There’s no greater feeling of control than being able to go faster than the people in the cars because of bus lanes or bicycle lanes. Why don’t you spend the half an hour you spent writing this article taking a bus to work instead or driving? You could even write it on your smartphone.

  4. JVH says:

    Alex: Heh — I have ridden the bus to work. It takes me 12 minutes to drive, and an hour and 15 minutes to take the bus, plus I will walk a mile from where it drops me off (That’s ok). I just don’t have the two hours a day to invest. I have to change three times. and if I miss, it will take even longer. Not every solution is as elegant as one might like. I’m sure the bus is a good alternative for some, but that’s a choice we all can make. As we should. See that’s what its all about…choice. If we invested just 25% of the billions slated for rapid transit in Los Angeles and started a PR program for car pooling, the freeways would be freed up, pollution would be reduced, and all would be right with the world. Instead folks would rather force people out of their cars and select places for them to live and ways for them to live. It may be perfect for you, but perhaps not so much for me. JVH

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