What the hell do you actually want?

27 Feb

Seriously, what do you want out of life?  How do you want to live?  Where do you want to live?

I get very frustrated when I read commentaries or hear people discussing ways to alleviate traffic or expand transit infrastructure as solutions to short-term problems.  People get into heated debates about HOW to go about “improving things”.  What the hell do we mean by that?  People are always coming up with solutions without ever stating what they are actually solving or explaining the desired effect.

As an example, consider this article from a  few years ago titled In Transportation and in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits (Part 2 here) by someone I greatly respect from Georgia Tech.  He is making an analogy of cars/transit to packet-switched/circuit-switched networks.  In this article Mr. Fleming concludes that cars are better than transit in Atlanta and similar cities.  He accepts that cars will dominate most cities  and we should “[d]eal with it, or move back to New York.”   He then proceeds to make many suggestions to help ease traffic. (Many of which are very good ideas).  However he never tells us why easing traffic is a good idea.  Easing traffic is not an end goal, it is a means to an end.  What kind of city is Mr. Fleming envisioning when he lays out his ideas?  One can only assume from his attitude towards transit that Mr. Fleming is attempting to realize some version of  Le Corbusier‘s Radiant City, a city built at the scale of the automobile with little need for walking.  Unfortunately the Radiant City utopia is even less likely to occur in Atlanta than improving walkability downtown.  Besides who wants to live in a place like that?  I actually like the idea of a walkable, person-oriented city and I’m just a country bumpkin from Rocky Face, GA.   The plan of traffic easing is short-sighted and does not consider long-term effects.  It is without vision.

A similarly flawed argument that we hear a lot in Atlanta, is that we should expand MARTA rail into the suburbs.  What will that accomplish?  How will spending billions of dollars on rail into the suburbs improve quality of life?  People who enjoy the suburban driving lifestyle sure aren’t going to be taking the train.  People who would prefer living in-town but have been priced out to the ‘burbs might take the train, but taking the train from the ‘burbs requires first driving to the train station.  Once I get in  my car, it’s just as easy (and a lot faster) to drive past the rail station and all the way into work.  Despite what people say about traffic, Atlanta’s highways are top notch.  15 lanes baby!!  All I’m saying is that we need some sort of  vision for how our city should look, and sending rail into the suburbs isn’t going to have any sort of big positive change.  Perhaps it would be better to improve the transit within the city first and add more affordable housing to get people moving back into town.  (This is actually happening via the Beltline and similar projects.)

Why do we need to fix traffic?  Do we need to fix traffic?  Why do we need to expand transit lines?  Do we need to expand transit lines? I’m going to spend a few minutes trying to explain the type of life that I would enjoy.  This is what the hell I want, not necessarily what others may want.  But when I discuss transportation planning and the effects of technology, this is the end goal that I have in mind.  You must begin with a destination in mind.

What the hell I want:

I want to know my neighbors.  I want to be able to walk to the grocery store. I want to be able to walk or bike to work.  I want to go to high school football games.  I want to be within 15 minutes of hiking in the woods.  I want good coffee.  I want to walk into my local pub and recognize the bar tender and meet up with friends unplanned. I want to be able to walk home after 3 pints.  I want some sort of night life until at least 3AM.  I want my future kids to be able to walk to school.  I want my future kids to be able to play in a park without needing me to drive them there.  I want to know that even though I haven’t tagged my kids with embedded GPS devices, that they will be safe, because my neighborhood/town/city is a safe place to be.  I want to go to the museum or symphony a few times a year.  I want a huge library with millions of books.  I want to eat at restaurants that are not chains.  But I like chains too.  I don’t want to stand in line for 20 minutes to buy groceries.  I want to get fresh bread/fruit/vegetables from the grocery store EVERY day.  I want public places to hang out that don’t require me to buy something.  I want to loiter.  I want to be able to meet up with friends without having to schedule a date.  I want a good mix of strangers and familiar faces.  It keeps things interesting yet familiar.

I want a little street life,

Charlottesville, VA

a little culture,

New York Public Library

and a little nature.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta

This is my wish list.  Others may want to live way out in the middle of God’s country and never see another living soul.  That’s cool by me.  Whatever you want, you need a goal in mind, otherwise how can you make “progress” towards it?

Notice in my rambling, I did not mention where to build a highway or a train stop.  I am not concerned here with the HOW, I am concerned with the WHAT.  What the hell do we actually want when we discuss expanding roads or transit?  What result are we trying to achieve?  Because simply making cars move faster or increasing population density are not goals, they are means to reach goals.  At least they should be.

Next time you hear some people arguing for traffic easing or expanded transit, ask them what the hell they really want.  Will that new highway really make your life better?  Will it help you achieve the dream life that you imagine for yourself? Will that new train stop help? If they can’t define a goal and draw a line between whatever they are proposing and reaching that goal, then they don’t deserve our attention.  Enough with the band-aid, temporary, short-sighted solutions.  Before we get into arguments over where to build the next exit ramp, lets step back and consider what we really want out of life, and will this change help us get there.

If anyone actually reads this, I would love to hear what the hell you really want.


28 Responses to “What the hell do you actually want?”

  1. donnergurgel February 27, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    You are SO right about the quick fixes never achieving any actual goals. I live in Brisbane, Australia, and the gridlock is being fought with toll roads and tunnels (cars only), as if that’s ever produced any lasting results in … – yes, results in what? Creating useless jobs and fortunes for developers? …I love your wishlist, too, really pretty basic stuff on that list that should be (and one day will be!) a given for every human being on Earth!!!

  2. Anastasia February 27, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    LOVE and agree with your (What the Hell I Want) paragraph. So true.

  3. donnergurgel February 27, 2012 at 6:21 am #

    Just found this nice little clip on Holland’s cycling culture: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/01/09/how-the-dutch-got-their-bike-paths/

  4. Nerd-faced Girl February 27, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    I think maybe you mean short-sighted, not short-sided, unless you’re talking about golf, in which case I must not understand what you mean.

    • dedwards8 February 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

      I guess that’s what I get for posting in the middle of the night. Thanks!

  5. MIke February 27, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Man, great post, I want the same things you do. My only question is where can I find places like this?

    • dedwards8 February 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      There are a few around. The problem is that they are few and far between. We (as a generation, as Americans, and as global citizens) need to build more places that match our desires with reality.

    • chunter February 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

      I think Boston describes that fairly well. The streets are hell for cars, but on foot it’s a dream come true. I miss it often.

      When my family would pick me up from college I’d accidentally give directions that ignored which directions cars are allowed to travel… once I realized this I’d ask my relatives to “park in Prudential Center and I’ll come for you” or I’d meet them at their hotels.

      This was a very important post, because I agree- it is important to expose the goal of the changes you want at the very least so people know that there is no backhanded ulterior motive behind the changes. Politicians would do well to consider this advice in… just about anything.

      Best wishes

    • thelyniezian March 9, 2012 at 1:38 pm #


      But then, it shouldn’t be too hard for you Americans to imagine. You probably have enough space left to create new such places, or at least refine what you have.

  6. Jessica Owen Sheard February 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I want exactly what you want – except with maybe more visits to museums, shopping, etc. Great post.

  7. Sarah February 27, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    I’d probably switch it to Nature, Street Life, Culture, but I agree! I have been trying to find a place that matches up with what I want, somewhere that I can walk to anything I need on a regular basis (grocery, drugstore, work), where I’m not in the middle of a city (expensive and not for me), and it seems like any place that is small enough to be walkable has no jobs. Boo. That’s a lot of why I consider moving to Europe… but there has GOT to be somewhere in the U.S.

    • Solminore February 28, 2012 at 4:38 am #

      “it seems like any place that is small enough to be walkable has no jobs”
      That’s the crux for millions of people, and certainly a global problem, too. Forget about Europe — it’s the same over here.

  8. f-stop mama February 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    I want very much the same things you want. I currently live 6 miles from work and 7 from downtown Indianapolis and am looking to move even closer. I want to ride my bike or walk to most everything. I want to leave my car parked most of the time. For 10 years I lived 45 minutes to over an hour away from work. After sitting in traffic I would end up at home stressed and really pissed off. I now enjoy my lifestyle and my close proximity to work and really look forward to living even closer and changing my lifestyle even more to match what I want.

  9. stephenfleming February 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Well, since I wrote the original post that apparently triggered this (via @aarjav), let me take some time to answer your question.

    “What the heck do I want?” Pretty much what I’ve got, and it sounds pretty much like what you want. I live in Midtown Atlanta (about six blocks from where your photograph of Piedmont Park was taken). I bike to work. My wife and I walk to the movies or to the Fox Theatre or to a dozen different restaurants. I take MARTA rail to the airport. I have a detached home on a teensy 1/6th acre without a blade of grass, and I love it. My pharmacist calls me by name when I walk into the store (can’t say the same about any bartenders, because I don’t go to bars much). I know waitresses by name at four different places within a mile from here, and I can get a meal from any of them by saying “the usual.” When I drive, I drive a MINI Cooper, which only racks up about 3000 miles a year; I only buy a tank of gas every six weeks or so. I’ve done the suburban-mansion thing, and decided it wasn’t for me.

    So… that’s what the heck I want. And I have it. Big green checkmark in the book of life.

    But — and this is where I part company with every urban planner I’ve ever met — I don’t believe that what *I* want is *right*, or even that it’s *better* than other choices, or that anybody else should be encouraged/coerced/required to live this way. I like my urban environment, but others will make different choices. And I passionately defend their freedom to do so, even though I might find their choices incomprehensible.

    (One of my staff drives 120 miles round trip to the office every day. That’s 2.5 hours *if* traffic cooperates. I think he’s nuts, but he values a rural environment for his kids and grandkids. Freedom. His choice.)

    The other driving force (if you’ll pardon the pun) behind my support of traffic-reduction measures is a hatred of waste. Not in a crunchy-granola hug-the-fuzzy-bunnies sense, but as an engineer. Time spent in traffic is wasted time. Fuel burned in traffic is wasted fuel. And the waste products (human stress, NOx particulates) are bad for the driver as well as for me on my bike. Engineers hate waste (at least, the good ones do).

    So the solutions I suggest at aren’t taken from a vision of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. They’re meant to minimize waste for those individuals who choose to live in the suburbs in car-centered lifestyles. And taking away their freedom to make that choice is a slippery slope that ends in Stalinist apartment blocks fed by fleets of Maoist bicycles. No, thanks.

    • dedwards8 February 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      Yes Midtown Atlanta is a good place. I work there and live as near there as I can. I don’t quite earn enough to live there yet, but I hope to soon.

      I don’t think anyone (especially Stalin or Mao) are trying to force people in the suburbs onto bicycles. I know that I am not. There are however, people who live far from the city because they have been priced out of the city. Midtown is not a cheap place to be. Walkable neighborhoods are so rare that they have become prohibitively expensive.

      If people who would rather live IN the city and near work are being priced out and forced to drive longer distances than they otherwise would, wouldn’t you consider that wasteful?

      I am intensely interested in hearing what people want. I am NOT interested in forcing other’s lifestyle choices onto others.

      By the way, thanks for commenting here. I appreciate that you took the time to respond. And I really do like many of your ideas especially those relating to passing along the true cost of driving to the driver. I don’t however like your conclusion that ALL of Atlanta should be and forever will be an automobile paradise. I believe that we can expand and improve upon the walkable areas that we currently have without encroaching on other’s lifestyle choices.

  10. Michael Mealling February 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    I’m going to be the burb representative here and say I don’t want a lot of those things. I like visiting them but I never feel at home there. I’m a suburban Republican/Libertarian who grew up in south Georgia. I like having room between myself and my neighbors. And I don’t feel bad if I don’t know them. I like my car and I like driving to places instead of walking. If I want to walk I’ll go hiking on the AT or up Kennesaw Mountain (which is less than a mile from my house but I still drive to it). If I could buy about five acres and put a fence up I would…

    I don’t mind you wanting your little in town neighborhood thing but the pretentious and condescending attitudes most people in those neighborhoods have toward those of us who choose to live OTP just turns me off to the whole vibe. I’ll enjoy your restaurants from time to time but I definitely don’t want to live that way.

    • dedwards8 February 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

      Thank You! I was hoping for someone with this perspective to make it here. I don’t believe that our ways of life have to encroach on one another. There is definitively a strife between ITP/OTP (Inside the Perimeter/Outside the Perimeter for you non Atlanta folks). OTP people often feel that ITP people are condescending jerks (often for good reason). ITP people such as myself hate the damned interstate, smog, and pavement jungle that has been created to cater to the OTP folks in much of Atlanta. I do realize that Atlanta could not exist without the OTP people, but I do feel that ITP people pull more than our own weight when it comes to maintaining city infrastructure (Perhaps incorrectly so).

  11. tmfroh February 27, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    I’m glad Michael posted when he did because I almost couldn’t comprehend this statement: “People who enjoy the suburban driving lifestyle sure aren’t going to be taking the train.” I know very few people who actually enjoy either their commutes or the suburban/urban driving experience. People want the independence that a car provides, but they don’t actually like driving their cars. Great to read another, very different perspective.

    There was a wonderful quote in Wired’s recent cover story on autonomous vehicles: “Maybe the problem is not that texting and Facebook are distracting us from driving. Maybe the problem is that driving distracts us from our digital lives.” I left the States for Africa in 2009. When I returned two months ago, drivers seemed more aggressive and less conscientious (i.e. continuing to text and use their cell phones in a state that has banned cell phone use in the car) than when I left. It almost seems like driving is a painful necessity for most people, as if they can’t wait to get back to their digital activities.

    • Michael Mealling February 28, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      I live off of Barrett Parkway in Marietta. On a typical day if I leave at 7:00 I’ll be in the office at 7:30. If I stupidly leave at 8:00 it’ll probably take me 15 more minutes. Outside of rush hour if I’m 24 minutes from starting my car to pulling into a parking spot in downtown. I can live with those numbers very well. Half an hour to sip my coffee, listen to Pandora for a bit and kind of chill out.
      Before that we lived in Gwinnett just off of Sugarloaf and 316. It really took about twice the amount of time to get downtown. That was unbearable. So we moved some place that was more to our liking. Gwinnett had better ethnic food than Cobb but I can drive over there if I really need it (and we do: the best sushi in town is Haru Ichiban on Pleasant Hill Rd).
      So do I like driving? For about a half hour or so, yea. For that half hour I get 6600 sq ft house on a large lot next to a state park full of deer and wild turkeys. I’m 30 minutes from the North Georgia mountains and 15 minutes from Lake Allatoona. There’s a gun range a few miles away and no body looks at me funny when I pull my meagre gun collection out of the car.

      As far as taxation and who pays for what infrastructure, that’s why I prefer consumption as opposed to income taxes. Raise the sales tax in the city and lower the property taxes a little? I but you could lower both if the city of Atlanta adopted more of the Sandy Springs model of government services.

  12. fesiyo February 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    – I want nice, wide sidewalks.
    – I want to be able to walk leisurely from a festival in the park back to my apartment without a legitimate fear that an impatient driver will nearly run me over in his/her car as I cross the street.
    – (I would like the cashiers at the grocery stores to stop insisting on giving me plastic bags after putting a total of THREE items in my reusable bag and just FILL IT UP! But I digress.)
    – I would like to not always have to get a ride every dang where because
    (a) everything – stores, theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, museums, salsa clubs, exercise class – is so spread out or inaccessible on foot or public transit and
    (b) walking or taking transit where I want to go is unpleasant (ever try to stroll next to a 4+ lane road?), takes FOREVER, or is outright dangerous (getting hit by a car, etc.).
    – I would like getting together with my friends and family to be easier because we aren’t so far flung from each other in the same metro area.
    – It seems like I would have to be part of the 1% in order to afford to live like this. I find this strange, considering that I’m not looking for private yachts and haute couture clothes, just the freedom to live a reasonably decent quality of life.

  13. Roxi March 4, 2012 at 4:18 am #

    I want the same things! but with as much green and tress as possible! 🙂 and biking routes!

  14. matt March 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    My wishes largely coincide with yours, thanks for articulating it. I have one extra wish:

    Turn out the lights at night so we can see the stars and the occasional borealis.

  15. maryhomesswithanaddress March 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    I am so glad that I ended up getting this in my e-mail, even though I don’t remember registering to get anything like this. I too want a much stronger sense of community and am in agreement with the views of the OP. I have actually been looking for like-minded people and with no prior blogging experience and little knowledge of how to conduct a blog started one in hopes that the people whom I was not finding would find me. Perhaps they have.

  16. andrewcagle April 27, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    I want to live in a world where I don’t have to own an automobile out of necessity. I want a walkable, self-contained, community.

    • mmealling June 26, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      Up here we call that a gated subdivision….

  17. thelyniezian July 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I was going to post a major comment here some time ago but never quite got round to it. But here goes.

    Firstly I’ll point out that what we want might not necessarily be achievable in the long term, if we want to keep going the way we have been hitherto. The pressure of declining oil resources and the environmental pressures from climate change may foce us to reonsider, unless the skeptics are right and/or we manage to go for electric/hydrogen cars with energy from renewable resources (or maybe methane hydrates and carbon capture?) It’s not simply what we want, but what is sustainable?

    Anyway, here’s what I want, much of which but not all of which I have:

    1. Fundamentally, to be able to get pretty much anywhere without being absolutely forced to use a car (as driver or passenger), and to be able to do this at any socialble hour of the day or night, which I define as at least up to 10pm. Whether this be to the shops, work, college, whatever.

    2. I do not want to have to be forced to shop at big-box stores and supermarkets all the time. I would like stores to be part of the local neighbourhood, with staff/owners who know the locals personally, or to have some sort of town centre where I can move between one shop and another easily. I would also rather see butchers and greengrocers than beauty salons, nail bars and so on. I would like to see a few more independent bookstores.

    3. I would also like to have community resources or meeting places within reasonable walking distance- community centres, churches, pubs, schools, libraries.

    4. I would like to be able to step outside of my front door and take a walk for exercise and leisure without having to drive for miles first- which should be enjoyable and have a certain amount of nature, but not so much that suburban sprawl eats up the countryside. So, I would like some green spaces and parks, but also for the edge of town to be not too far off. I would also like to not have to wait half a zilllion years before I can cross the road.


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