Orderly, but dumb

We have decades of "orderly but dumb" projects to deal with, a burden that is insurmountable even in an expanding economy. Our economy is contracting, however, and so we are going to be forced to deal with all these low productivity investments with very limited funding. We won't be successful unless our "orderly but dumb" approach transforms into one that is "chaotic but smart".

Today we start our tour of Idaho. I'm writing from Boise at the moment. If you are from Idaho, please make plans to come out and hear a Curbside Chat. If you have a friend or family here, please let them know. We plan to see most of the state over the course of this week so there is plenty of opportunity for people. So excited to be here.

In the State of the Union address, the president promoted a "fix it first" approach to infrastructure, the logical notion that our money would best be spent fixing existing infrastructure than building new. While this sounds good and I'm not going to question the president's sincerity, how is such a philosophy likely to manifest at the local level? Will we truly stop building more infrastructure or will "fix it first", when put through the bureaucracies and political processes of a large, continental-scale government, look a lot more like our current policy?

How many new overpasses, expansions of lane capacity and miles of frontage road will continue to be built under the guise of "fixing" our current system? After all, doesn't every project allegedly "fix" something?

Two weeks ago I brought up the Safe Routes to School program and, in the process, referred to this quote known as Carlson's law:

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

Again, I'll reiterate that the Safe Routes to School program is well-intentioned, that it has done a lot of good and that -- despite my complaining -- many people deeply affiliated with the program are trying to address the root cause of school location, not just the symptoms. That being said, because of a Safe Routes to School project in my hometown, I have a specific opportunity here to explore the real world implications of Carlson's law.

The project in my hometown is a plan to build sidewalks in the vicinity of a neighborhood school. The cost is estimated to be $450,000 of which $300,000 is federal Safe Routes to School money and the remainder will be split evenly between the school district and the city. Today the neighborhood is fairly run down and, like most of the city, over the years the streets have been reconfigured with wide, highway-sized travel lanes that are now dominated by automobiles. It is clearly not a safe environment for adults to be walking, let alone children.

A sidewalk is not the only ingredient for making a place walkable. (Click on photo for Creative Commons attribution).The first gratuitous observation is that, but for a myriad of "orderly but dumb" federal policies, it is likely the Safe Routes to School money is not even necessary. Without programs that subsidize single family homes and penalize mixed-use neighborhoods, without federal transportation policies that tie roadway improvement money to the adoption of specific local (over-engineered) standards, without the federal subsidies of sewer and water systems, without artificially low interest rates the prompted the building of campus style schools outside of existing neighborhoods, and without a myriad of other programs too numerous to name, the transformation of this area from a walkable, mixed use, traditional neighborhood (1950's) to its current state of auto-centric decline would likely not have happened. 

The most logical response to the unintended consequences of "orderly but dumb" policies is to end said policies. The fact that those policies, over time, become sacrosanct to a new generation of voters (see home mortgage interest deduction as one easy example) is simply another dumb outcome. So instead of removing harmful policies, we layer new ones to address the unintended consequences of the old ones. Those new policies, of course, have a myriad of unintended, dumb consequences.

In the case of this particular project in my hometown, the goal of creating a walkable environment -- something critical to the economic health and well-being of the community -- manifests in some really dumb ways.

The first is that, because Safe Routes to Schools goes through official bureaucratic and professional channels, the project is (predictably) over-engineered and very expensive. It is also, therefore, limited in what it will accomplish; even the most aggressive option barely makes parts of the neighborhood more walkable. As a platform to facilitate walking -- the entire goal of the program and the project -- it is destined to fail. While it might make a physical connection and thus theoretically provide a place for people to walk, it fails on at least three of the four conditions that actually make a place walkable. (According to Jeff Speck, to be walkable, it must be useful, safe comfortable and interesting. For some, the sidewalks being proposed might be useful, but they will definitely not feel safe, comfortable or interesting, especially after the removal of so many trees.)

Worse yet, the approach is framing the entire conversation of walkable neighborhoods in terms of federal dollars, not in terms of community design, providing options for people, increasing the economic viability of the city and a myriad of other topics essential to the community' future. Without federal dollars there is no support for the project and, worse yet, the desire to secure federal money is the central reason to actually do the project, to the exclusion of other options that may not involve myriads of professionals and federal greasing of the skids.

Council President Bonnie Cumberland said she still has a hard time understanding the money argument as federal dollars are there to help sidewalks or other safety projects.

“You’ve been telling us your money in that pot should go to a different community, that befuddles me a little bit,” Cumberland said. “It’s just an unusual thought process for me.”

Council member Dave Pritschet said it wasn’t like taxpayers were going to be refunded, adding the sidewalks instead will be built in another community and the jobs to build it will go there as well.

“To just say no to the money doesn’t make sense to me,” said council member Chip Borkenhagen said.

So this is orderly, but dumb. Many national advocates would be satisfied with this outcome, despite the low return on our dollars. There is an incremental improvement here, something that can subsequently be built upon. Maybe it doesn't solve the problem, but it moves us in the right direction. Perhaps in the future another round of grant funding could be made to expand the sidewalks.

This overlooks the fact that we are totally broke and there is no chance we can continue, let alone expand, this approach. It is painful to listen to a conversation about installing $450,000 worth of sidewalks in a city that, financially, has no chance of being able to maintain them. There is no recognition of this cognitive dissonance -- it is federal money and so, if we don't get it now, we just lose it -- and no understanding that the same mentality decades ago has given us millions of dollars of infrastructure we can't maintain today. Worse, there is not even a hint of a strategy -- from the cadre of professionals through the corps of elected and appointed officials -- on how to grow the tax base commensurate with the liability the city is assuming. We just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over and over. Orderly, but dumb.

So what would a "chaotic but smart" approach look like?

Here is what I would do (and I've said it before -- way before this current project became part of the local conversation): I would take paint and I would redo the surface striping thoughout the entire neighborhood. To facilitate a safe walking environment, I would stripe a nice walking lane on one side, then a strip for cars parked in parallel that would "protect" that lane from traffic, then two narrow driving lanes. For some of the streets that are really obnoxiously wide, two parking lanes could actually be striped. 

This approach has a number of advantages. First, we can immediately do the entire neighborhood -- something that will make a difference -- not just a few blocks right next to the school. In fact, if the city is willing to spend $75,000, it can probably do every neighborhood in the city. While it won't be a nice as a sidewalk (even if it were not over-engineered to create a despotic, hostile environment), it will probably be 80% there. Certainly as functional. Getting 80% there for 100% of the city is better than getting 100% there for a few blocks and then nothing everywhere else.

Second, what you have with paint is a low cost experiment with high upside and limited downside. The downside is that nobody walks or bikes and that the entire $75,000 is wasted. The upside is that some places in the city start to flourish as another mobility option is presented. Now those places are key target areas for other improvements -- even sidewalks, which could now be justified if additional growth and development could be induced. This is an incremental approach that we can build on over time.

Third, it allows the city to do a lot now to establish a productive local economy without needing to wait for federal money to proceed. Why would we wait until 2014 when the school district and the Safe Routes to School program have their money? Why don't we take what we have and make our city better today? Right now?

Of course there is so much more that needs to be done -- all of it at no additional cost and without the need for state and federal guidance or support. I wrote an entire series last year titled From the Mayor's Office that detailed exactly how to change a local economy and bring back a neighborhood like this. 

So this "chaotic but smart" approach makes so much sense, why is it not likely to happen? One of the unintended consequences of our decades of "orderly but dumb" policies is that we've completely changed the relationship between people, the public realm in front of their homes and the value they perceive in it.

“A sidewalk is a burden,” [Council member Mary] Koep said. “As you get older that burden gets heavier.”

We have decades of "orderly but dumb" projects to deal with, a burden that is insurmountable even in an expanding economy. Our economy is contracting, however, and so we are going to be forced to deal with all these low productivity investments with very limited funding. We won't be successful unless our "orderly but dumb" approach transforms into one that is "chaotic but smart".

That is the way we will build a nation of strong towns.


If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.