Last week I was the lead car on a drive to a place that some friends/relatives of mine had never visited, and as we were crossing the bridge into Washington a rather strange thing happened in that a wheelbarrow from the cab of a landscaper fell off of his car in the stiff wind and blew around along the road right into my car. A group of people tried to get the driver’s attention about his lost and smashed items but he blissfully continued on ignorant that he had sprayed a fair amount of his belongings on a bridge and was probably going to be out a fair amount of money for it. In the meantime, I have an interesting story to tell about the dangers of driving across the Columbia River and dealing with the not always competent drivers of the Pacific Northwest, who can add to their other numerous sins as drivers the problem of not being able to keep their belongings in their vehicle while driving. It is yet more adventures in logistics, I suppose.
I often wonder as a driver if I am just a bit more violent than most people are or what when it comes to the thought experiments I engage in while driving. Since I was a child I would routinely joke about how many points various pedestrians were worth while in car, wondering how many points could be racked up by taking out a group of children waiting a bus stop or clueless joggers demanding right of way while crossing a road, or bicyclists who complacently hung out in one’s blind spot while one was making a right hand turn, only to panic when one attempted said turn. And this is even without the sort of thought experiments about imagining how many of my neighbors in the Portland area would have to disappear for me to enjoy a pleasant drive to church or to visit friends in other parts of the area. As someone who does not tend to like being crowded by other people but continually has to deal with the effects of increased population density, I know that there are plenty of people who have worse traffic to deal with more often (since I live close to where I work and vice versa, traffic most of the time is fairly meaningless) both in the Portland area and outside of it. But I don’t hear anyone else engaging in thought experiments about how small an area would have to be with Portland’s roads for traffic to be nice.
When it comes to development there is a high degree of ambivalence that one has to deal with. We appreciate having a high degree of convenience but do not always appreciate what comes with it in terms of heavy traffic. Those people who live in the boondocks and enjoy living somewhat far removed from civilization have made a conscious choice that it is preferable to live in an isolated fashion than to deal with having too many people around. Such a choice is commendable and respectable. Despite the inconvenience of reaching such places I enjoy traveling to them myself simply because there is a not very small part of me that is somewhat misanthropic and likes to be left alone by other people whose ways I do not tend to understand or agree with and whose presence is generally irksome to me. I don’t see it as a troublesome matter to stock up on food and be able to hunker down for extended periods of time in places that are off the beaten path, or to have recourse to hunting and fishing and growing one’s own food despite having a distinct lack of known abilities in hunting, fishing, and farming/gardening.
Most people, though, have not made the conscious choice to live far from the maddening crowd and accept the inevitable tradeoffs that result from such a deliberate isolation. On the contrary, a great deal of development involves a high degree of denial. People move to suburbs in denial that such areas will become as crowded as the more heavily urbanized areas that they are escaping, or that the companies that follow them in order to profit from the rising population densities will not encourage still more people to fill in the rural space that is still left around them. Cities and towns and counties live in denial that more dispersed areas will prove to be profitable while struggling to provide and maintain infrastructure for more dispersed suburban development. Developers live in denial that highways that served small numbers of people in outlying areas can serve far more people living in developments and traveling in fairly stereotypical office schedule fashion without leading to maddening traffic. And so it goes. If jobs are concentrated in the same few areas, then traffic will be concentrated in those areas. If new housing is concentrated in areas with limited throughways, those roads will in turn be crowded with the traffic that comes from such concentration. And aside from fostering fantasies of mowing down slow-driving vehicles or irritating pedestrians and cyclists, it is unclear what anyone is doing about such matters that will make the complex tangle of problems relating to where people live and work any easier.