Monday, November 13, 2006

Paved with good intentions

I did two years or so in the Tampa City Clerk's office, and the experience was an eye opener. One of the biggest shocks to my personal system was learning that the central necessity of any urban planning is to map out the parking first. It is the primary consideration, the thing you tackle before all else. After all, if there is no place for people to park, then there's no point in development. People, it is implicitely understood, will never take the BUS to your new mini mall, much less frickin' walk. They will die first. Or worse, drive their cars and their money to someone else's mini mall. Can't have that.

Simple economics points the way to sanity. As IOZ has noted, and I can attest from typing out endless city budget meeting minutes, the cost of one major highway on or off ramp would be enough to fund a good twenty miles of light rail. And the idea that we could get a great deal more mass transportation bang for our tax payer funded transportation buck with mass transit than by feeding our individual motoring monkey is certainly food for thought. Unfortunately, it's sugar free, fat free, low carb diet food. By which I mean, sure it's healthy, but hardly anyone is willing to buy it, much less eat it.

People like cars. I know you all know that, but, well, it's the kind of simple truth that cannot be overstated. It goes to eleven. People like cars. They like what they perceive as the freedom and the flexibility implicit within the sleek lines of their driveway ornament.

They don't have to look up train schedules, they don't have to walk in the rain to a bus stop, they don't have to sit there in a large vehicle with a bunch of strangers whose appearances, body odors, or vacuous blatting noises they may find unpleasant. They need not conform their destinations with the inconveniences of a planning board's transit routes. Freedom from all of this is what they like, and what they will never, never, never give up. Forget about their guns. It's their steering wheels you will have to pry from their cold, dead hands.

Another of the things I noticed during my two years typing up a backlog of City Council minutes was this: you can always get votes for improved mass transit systems. Always. There are always city council members willing to make, second, and overwhelmingly approve the motion; there are always urban denizens willing to vote in heavy volume for candidates that propose such.

But this doesn't mean all these people are willing to actually use the subway, the improved bus lines, the light rail, oh no. The vision that dances like sugarplums in all of their heads is that everyone else gets on the frickin' George Jetson atomic hover-bus, leaving each of them to speed down John F. Kennedy Boulevard (there's always a John F. Kennedy Boulevard, just as, running at right angles to it, there's always a Martin Luther King Avenue, too) in solitary splendor behind the wheel of their huge honkin' SUV.

It's the same impulse behind why, when politicians promise us alternate energy, what we all envision is, you know, somebody from NASA coming around to our garage Real Soon Now and rejiggering our car engines to run on water. Or cold fusion. Or lawn sweepings. Now that's what we pay taxes for, dammit!

Always remember, never forget: the American way of life is non-negotiable. Unfortunately, what most people don't understand about that quote is that the lifestyle Mr. Cheney was talking about is, we pay them, they stay rich. There's much less profit in teaching a nation of consumers to only shop within walking distance, or on the bus route, and there's no profit at all in providing us with anything free, especially energy.

Or, you know, in teaching us to actually live within our means, and do without all this crap we really don't need.

So, y'know, fuck that noise.

Mind you, I'm a product of decadence myself, and while I fully realize that I don't need the third season of Hill Street Blues on DVD, I'm still damned well going to buy it if I get a chance. And I don't mind somebody else making an honest profit on the transaction. Still, even I can see that our insane consumer-consciousness culture has gotten wildly out of hand. I just don't know what we can do about it at this point except buckle in and enjoy the ride.

We'd be much better off enjoying the ride on an electric street car, or a magrail, or a methane powered bus... as a society, I mean. It would all be much healthier. But it wouldn't be anywhere near as comfortable for us as individuals... and here in America, as elsewhere in the civilized, industrialized nations, individual comfort is all that really matters.


At 12:09 PM, Blogger AaA said...

You know me. I work in the energy-management (IE energy waste-avoidance) industry. I depsise the oil companies, the energy companies, all of them. I heartily wish them all dead, preferably of terminal acne.

There's a few people like me that couldn't make effective use of mass-transit, but we're in the minority. However, since I am one of those people who wouldn't be affected by its limitations, I suppose it's at least mildly hypocritical of me to endorse semi-mandatory mass-transit.

But yeah, it would solve a lot of problems.

People need to get realistic real quick about living 60 miles from work in the friggin' 'burbs. That shit's just crazy.

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Always Esteemed Scott said...

People need to get realistic real quick about living 60 miles from work in the friggin' 'burbs. That shit's just crazy.

I agree, but often the 'burbs are the only places that people can afford to live, unless you're wealthy. In my city, it costs <500k to buy a house in the city center, half that to live in the suburbs.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Handsome said...

I can't say for certain, having no facts or figures to back me up, but it seems to me that a significant percentage of the work force is employed doing things that could be done just as easily at home from a remote monitor of some sort.

I have no real idea just how many jobs could be fairly easily converted to 'work at home' positions, but if it's even 20%, well... ask any traffic engineer you happen to see whether or not a 20% decrease in rush hour traffic would be a good thing. I suspect you'd get a very vocal "hell YEAH".

So why aren't all the jobs that could be done at home, done at home? Well, for one thing, the people who build new office developments wouldn't be very happy if no one was renting the space. And I imagine those people are well connected and could form a powerful lobby if they needed to.

I think the greatest reason, though, is summed up by something my most successful brother told me once years ago, when we were talking about this issue. As the then branch manager of one of a very large insurance company's local offices, he advised me that he needed to be able to see what his people were doing at all times. He just didn't trust them to get their work done if they weren't where he could keep his eye on them.

Couple things about this. First, my brother was supervising field personnel -- basically, adjusters. He couldn't keep his eye on them all the time; they were out in the field. The office was a place for him to go to deal with paperwork, for them to call in, and for them to come back to in between assignments to do their own paperwork. There were people in the office all the time, yeah, but most of the work was done out of the office, and my brother couldn't supervise it. Yet the work got done.

Beyond that, any remote location can be monitored. If I'm taking calls or processing claims at home, it's not hard to set stuff up so a supervisor can keep tabs on my productivity. If suddenly I stop producing claims for an hour at a time, my boss can always call me and ask me what the hell I'm doing. And they would.

Supervision wouldn't be needed, though, if instead of paying people an hourly rate, they got paid by their production... which is a much fairer way to remunerate people for their work. But it's also more intrusive into corporate profit margins, because if people actually get paid for all the work they do, they'll do more work, and that's less money for the bosses to take home. But never mind that for now.

The most significant reason we don't have more 'work from home' jobs -- certainly, we don't have anywhere near as many as we could and probably should have -- is that, essentially, the people who would initiate the conversion are in management, and management doesn't want to let their office drones out from under their thumb. My brother advised that he "doesn't trust" his people, which is sad, but, I think, also untrue.

I think what it is, is, if you're working at home, sure, you can be monitored, but you will not have to be anywhere near as deferential to your supervisor as you do when you're interacting with him/her in person. Management may not be analytical enough to fully articulate this to themselves, and certainly, they aren't honest enough to articulate it to anyone else, but the simple fact is, the thought of everybody who works for them working at a distance, where they can't actually be seen, fills supervisors with a vague, existential panic... because they won't be getting their asses kissed any more.

Why be in management at all, if you can't get your ass kissed all day every day, Monday through Friday?

I should probably break this off into its own post.


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