Why We Don’t Need Bigger Roads, Just More Engaged Drivers

A Friend Snaps a Photo of Our Reflections in the Window as We Wait for an Elevator on the Campus of Purdue University, 12/1/2010

A friend of mine snaps a photo of our reflections in the window as we wait for an elevator on the campus of Purdue University, 12/1/2010

I was once in a course on economic thinking, and the class was posed the following question:

“Workers in a high-rise office building are complaining about having to wait too long for elevators. The level of discontent seems to be rising. What might be done? Some suggestions are offered. These include:

  1. add more elevators;
  2. increase the size of the elevators;
  3. speed up the elevators;
  4. stagger the working hours of different groups in the building;
  5. make some of the elevators go non-stop to the higher floors, while others cover the lower floors stopping at each floor as needed; or,
  6. use a differential charge for using the elevator, with higher price at peak-use times.”

After being given time to argue the merits of these possible solutions and put forth alternative options, we were surprised to learn the often implemented real-world solution: leaving the elevators themselves the same, and simply putting mirrors in elevator lobbies. Even though we had all waited in elevator lobbies that were walled with mirrors (they were all over campus), this idea had not occurred to any of us because we were attacking an entirely different problem than the one mirrors address.

We don’t always need to move more quickly. If we experience each moment as meaningful, then the pace of our actions becomes insignificant and the idea of “waiting” vanishes altogether.

The first three solutions try to fix the problem through brute force, attempting to increase elevator capacity or capability in a single stroke. The next three start to get a little more creative, attempting to cut down on demand or increase the efficiency of the elevator set-up, but they still approach the problem as one of insufficient elevator space to meet the demands of all the workers wanting to use them. Continue reading

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Why (Good) Economic Development is about People: Exhibit B

Money doesn't grow on trees, but maybe if we cultivate our economies it can... By Frozuki, CC license

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but maybe if we cultivate our economies, it can… By Frozuki, CC license

In my previous post on economic development, I concluded that “Cities desiring economic development should prioritize people: both their current residents and those they wish to attract.”

I’d like to affirm but also move beyond that conclusion a bit today, asking the question: which economic development strategies are willing to appreciate and bring about the most good for the people already present in our cities and neighborhoods? I like this question because it removes the possibility for any sort of easy way out. Too often our leaders and economic developers are tempted or pressured into quick-fixes and shortcuts, providing solutions which address the symptoms but not the causes of the problems. Continue reading

Why Economic Development is about People: Exhibit A

Picture from Flickr user MCC_Indianapolis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcc_indianapolis/

Picture from Flickr user MCC_Indianapolis

In my initial post on this blog, “Why Honeycomb Commons,” I mentioned that “I… advocate for social systems which affirm people rather than control them and economies and technologies which are built with a human and local scale in mind.” I want to provide some evidence for this advocacy today, which will also serve as a nice follow-up to the most recent post on brownfields. As mentioned in that post, many Midwestern cities have seen a massive population decay in their central-city areas in the last half-century.  This decay has taken a toll on both their economies and their tax bases, as many employment dollars get paid to those commuting in from the suburbs, where they are taxed in different towns or counties. To remedy these issues, many economic development departments adopt the “chasing smokestacks” strategy, attempting to woo large firms to locate in prime locations they lay out for them.  As I will make clear over the course of this blog, I believe “chasing smokestacks” is one of the worst strategies a city can take. Instead of seeking companies, I’d like to assert, cities desiring economic development should prioritize people: both their current residents and those they wish to attract.

The first lens through which I’ll analyze this question is that of migration.  What follows is an attempt to explain why people might come to a city and where they might locate within it.

There are two perspectives from which to approach this issue: firstly, the question of whether “retail follows rooftops,” or more broadly, whether “people follow jobs” in migration patterns, and secondly, the question of how far folks are willing to commute from home to work.    While academic literature and public opinion on these topics seldom yield consensus, a picture of location patterns can nevertheless be painted:  It seems that while on an inter-state or inter-regional level people do migrate to follow jobs, at smaller spatial levels, residential location decisions are made based more on amenities than proximity to work, with people willing to commute on average approximately half an hour to and from work. Continue reading