Weekend Ramble: Empathizing with the Fear of Urbanism

Last Thursday, I joined a panel discussion put on by the Seattle Times about "gridlock".  Mike Lindblom of the times summed it up here, and I previewed it here, but I'm thinking about the guy who came up to me afterward.  

At great length, he told me that Seattle's streets had been planned and designed for cars.  He began listing specific streets, why they were built as they were, with the number of car lanes that their designers had intended.  

He objected to what was happening to his city's streets: replacing 4 tight lanes with 2-3 lanes to add room for bikes, pedestrians, and transit stops.  Not because he hates those things, but because we were betraying the original intent of the design.  These were meant to be car streets, so they should always be car streets.

The conversation sticks with me because he wasn't angry.  (Angry people are boring and unmemorable.)  Instead, he seemed more offended and hurt.  The urbanists remodeling Seattle's streets were betraying a promise that someone had made to him.

I don't agree, but I can feel his feeling.  This kind of empathy, I contend, is a stance worth practicing.

Here's an example, or maybe a confession.   I'm one of those tech users who've been trained by experience to fear so-called upgrades.  Just now, Apple told me to upgrade to "El Capitan," and all about how it would be better.   None of the featured improvements are things I want, so my first reaction is that they're just adding complexity and thus increasing the risk of malfunction and confusion.  Based on my experience, I'm entitled to suspect that (a) they've probably introduced new bugs and (b) they've probably wrecked something that I do value about the current version.  

So I'm kind of person who upgrades at the last possible moment, only when the oldest version is collapsing into engineered rubble.

Computers are one of many spheres where I'm happy with what I have and would prefer it quit changing.  What's more, what I have and like is what I feel the tech companies promised me, in other marketing messages long ago, a promise that I can now see them as  betraying.

Maybe you don't have this feeling about computers, but I bet you have it about something. 

Another word for this feeling of betrayal might be invasion.  Because really, we're talking about home, and the fear of the invasion of home.

In my early fifties, I'm at home with with my hard disk and thumb drives, just as my mother, in her seventies, is at home with notebooks and manila file folders.   When Millennials tell me my stuff should be in the Cloud, it doesn't matter what the argument is.  The feeling is that Stalin plans to knock down my sturdy and ancient hovel, move me to a shoebox in a concrete modernist tower, and put all my stuff in some mysterious storage promising me that the System will take care of it.  

So yes, I'm conservative in this most primal sense of the word:  I get defensive about various kinds of home: physical and intellectual.  And at this primal level, I bet you are too.  You may be sold on the Cloud — and maybe you're right — but I bet you have a ferociously defended sense of home about something.  If you feel aversion about something changing, or anger about something having changed, that's it.  

And this kind of conservatism could be more compatible with advocating necessary change, but only if we who advocate change could hear it, and convey that we hear it.

Now and then I'm reminded that for a lot of people, "home" includes their car.  If that's the case, then of course "traffic" is as offensive as Stalin threatening to knock down your hovel.  And then I see this on a street in Portland today:


This is the universal fear-image of other people's cars: not your friends and family, and therefore something invading your neighborhood, your home.  (It's a night image because in the day you might recognize the driver, and be less fearful.)  And so the battle between homes, yours and that evil motorist's, is joined.

I think about these things on a rainy weekend to remind myself that conflict about changing the built environment is inevitable, because we are so deeply wired to fear for our homes.  What's more, our sense of home can be so extended into the world (as our cars, neighborhoods, or for environmentalists, our planet) that it will inevitably conflict with the "home" of others..  

But even if we can't agree with someone about an issue, we should practice empathizing with the feeling that something we rely on is under threat.  Because on some issue, I bet you have that feeling too.

30 Responses to Weekend Ramble: Empathizing with the Fear of Urbanism

  1. Eric Fischer October 31, 2015 at 6:54 pm #

    Change aversion is real. I write software for a living and I don’t ever want to upgrade software either. I fear transit projects because unless they are extraordinarily well done they will make streets worse for pedestrians.
    I think this is the value of pilot projects: if something is really terrible, at least you can undo it and don’t have to live with it forever.

  2. Alon Levy November 1, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    First, as a Millennial, let me reassure you that I hate the Cloud and I hate mandatory updates.
    Second… there’s a point beyond which I stop sympathizing with “we were promised ___” arguments. The issue here is, “what do you mean by ‘we’?”. People who have lived their entire lives in a rich city like Seattle or San Francisco were promised a certain urban form, in laws that more recent arrivals had no control over; now that recent and prospective arrivals want more housing in order to be able to afford rent, the homeowners and the rent-controlled tenants are raising a ruckus. Something similar plays out with bike lanes and bus lanes.

  3. Matthew November 1, 2015 at 11:10 am #

    The Cloud is profoundly stupid for many purposes and I’ve always felt that my generation’s embrace of it, if it exists at all, just speaks to tech illiteracy. That’s definitely just an opinion, but I couldn’t see the word and not comment.
    As for empathy: sure, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind for tactical purposes – and it’s also a good way to keep one hand on the proverbial wheel of decency. However, it’s also worth noting that automobiles and their users are profoundly privileged in this society, and that privilege has a cost in money and blood. Basically, all feelings in these conversations are not equal: motorist feelings often count for more than maybe they should, and pointing out that those original designs were both an ideological project and profoundly neglectful to human life is worthwhile, isn’t it?

  4. Alexis November 1, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    This is something I’ve been contemplating since I became a homeowner last year. I live in one of those leafy (semi-, in my case) Portland neighborhoods that’s mostly single-family houses, with a few apartment buildings sprinkled in. Surprisingly to me, I feel different about my neighborhood than I used to when I rented. I worry more about bad neighbors and about things changing. I get weirdly cross when people park right in front of my house, despite the fact that I don’t even have a car! I was down on Division recently and was genuinely surprised by the speed of change down there. I can see why it generated so much screeching,even though fundamentally I continue to believe that it’s good, and that if similar things happened in my neighborhood, they would also be good. I still roll my eyes at people who panic about “skinny houses”, but I understand their feelings just a little more than I used to. Empathy is important, and helping people change their understanding of what’s happening in these situations – reframing – is also important.

  5. Mark November 1, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    Change is always hard, but it’s an important thing for other people to do.

  6. Jack Whisner November 1, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    The Thursday Seattle ranter was factually incorrect as well. Seattle, south of 85th Street was developed early enough that the streets were not designed for autos, but for pedestrians, streetcars, horse and wagon. Some streets were designed for bicycles. Cities evolve. Land cost and scarce space are key.

  7. Rob November 1, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    Jack, agreed. In addition, the street system was designed for the north-south travel patterns to and from downtown, not for the east-west freeway access patterns we see today. The east-west streets were never intended to carry those volumes and, with Greenlake in the way, are totally inadequate.

  8. Rob November 1, 2015 at 10:09 pm #

    I think there are a lot of legitimate reasons to fear some of the changes happening in Seattle. There’s more development now than at any time in Seattle’s history – and when there’s a gold rush a lot of corners get cut, mistakes are made, and people run over. All sorts of sloppy development is occurring and things and places people care about are being trampled. And when I see that my house has appreciated over the past month by three times what I make in wages, it’s becoming obvious that I will soon be surrounded by pretentious rich people and the businesses that cater to them. When you talk about fear of change, it’s not about how the streets are laid out, but whether one’s lifetime investment in making a home has been misplaced.
    I agree with you that empathy needs to be the first duty. In the online comment pages, people posing as urbanists stereotype people anyone who questions them as nimbys, car-lovers and change-haters. People throw stereotypes, rocks and abuses at each other without any better understanding of what motivates the real concerns people are raising with the way things are changing around them. No sensible solutions come from this type of non-dialogue. We can do better than that.

  9. Eric Orozco November 2, 2015 at 5:10 am #

    That’s a great image to begin thinking about the consequences of making driving programmable. 🙂

  10. Larry November 2, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    As a teenager, my high school was in the urbanized Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor of Arlington, VA. I loved it!
    Now that I’m older and settled, I don’t like the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor because it feels too young for me. If feels like a college campus or Disney World. I don’t want to see that happen to Alexandria where I live and work. I don’t want to be aged out of my community.
    This is probably how a lot of people in the DC Metro area feel about redevelopment, and about transit. Instead of increasing the usefulness of the transit we currently have, it often feels like politicians and developers are advocating expanding the poorly functioning system we have. That expansion is a catalyst for redevelopment, for tuning a quiet, safe, affordable community of families into a perpetual college campus.
    Empathy is critically important, because not only do our neighborhoods change, but we do too.

  11. Jim November 2, 2015 at 9:13 am #

    I think older generations were taught not to question authority as much, and they learned to trust their wisdom and just go along. They were taught to believe in America the great, Communism bad, cars wonderful, blacks inferior, gays bad, suburbs good, brand names good, foreign things bad, government good, hippies bad, drugs bad, etc, etc. I can understand and sympathize with them. I grew up being taught to question everything and everyone’s motives, and if everyone suddenly told me this was wrong, I’d be puzzled and distraught. But there comes a time in your life when you have to think for yourself and ask, why gays are bad, why cars are wonderful? Maybe they aren’t. It may be a daunting thing to question everything you were taught and leave the comfort of countless assumptions upon which you based your life. Some react with anger while others sadness as this guy expresses, like the seven stages of grief. But rest assured, when people discover that they can question everything, they realize, many things they learned were okay. Killing is still bad, eating your own poop is still bad, while the things they must relearn, they realize there is good reason to change their minds. Our job should not be to knee jerk condemn them for their misguided assumptions but offer the logic and proof that makes them slowly adopt a new way of thinking.

  12. RossB November 2, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

    Many, many moons ago I took a high school debate class. One of the arguments I learned was status quo. Basically, you can get a point in debate just for arguing that we shouldn’t change the current system.
    As a white kid attending a mostly black inner city school in the 1970s, my first thought was: “Say What?”
    I walked around an integrated school and knew quite well about all the changes that had recently occurred. Change in general sounded like a good idea. Hold on to the past? Sounds like a weak argument to me, teach, but if you say so.
    The bigger message is to empathize with people when they make an argument, no matter how ridiculous. It is very easy to dismiss a person’s argument. To point out the many ways in which that idea is stupid. Even in this case, when they are simply being nostalgic — making ridiculous claims to support the status quo — Jarrett listened with an empathetic ear, which is always a good thing.
    It is a bit tougher to do that on the internet. It is very easy to assume a confrontational tone. But the more you start with “I can understand what you are saying”, the more likely you are to get to a reasonable consensus (although in some cases you will have to agree to disagree).

  13. Marc November 2, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    I get the argument, but at least when it comes to managing the built world, don’t these conflicts essentially boil down to the question: Are we entitled to stasis?
    Outside the world of buildings, blocks, and streets, our ability to maintain a comfortable, familiar stasis is, if anything, getting weaker: as you indicated with Apple’s updates, there is practically no ‘zoning’ to “maintain the character” of an outdated computer. This is just wild and perhaps feeble conjecture, but perhaps our desire to clamp down on the built world is at least partially induced by our increasing inability to do the same in the other worlds out there, digital or otherwise.

  14. Rob November 3, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    You can feel like you’re more or less in control when change is happening, and that makes a difference. This is why I prefer driving to being a rider – things that are terrifying when you’re the rider and controllable and maybe even fun when you’re driving. Even when I’m flying and their’s turbulence I imagine myself being the pilot flying through it, and it seems to help a little bit. So ideally people manage change and direct it (they “ride the wave” rather than get swept away), especially in their home and personal lives – and in their neighborhood to some extent as well.
    To continue the strained personal technology analogy – people react very differently to their perceptions of control in their choice of platforms. People who prefer PC’s and android phones have, I think, more determination not to be in a closed platform because it gives them maximum ability to customize and control their device. People (like me) who prefer the Apple environment feel more in control because we believe *other* people have less control over our devices and data. In both cases we make choices because we want to be the driver and not the passenger.
    There’s a lot of buzz over disruption, and people who thrive in a disruption environment are the ones who learn to adapt and feel in control. But there are too many who feel that disruption itself is an objective in an innovative society, and that’s screwed up. The mobile phone was disruptive because it created value that caused ripple effects through our lives and communities. Even then we need to mitigate disruptive effects so people don’t wander transfixed through crosswalks and get killed.
    The car and the urban freeway was my generation’s biggest disruption, also based on the value it created in spontaneous and universal personal mobility, and many of us have been working to control or mitigate its disruptive effect ever since. And I’m sure the opponents back then made the same arguments about people fearing change being selfish and inflexible. Personally I think we have a societal responsibility to help people feel as though they have a share of control over their home and environment to the extent possible even as change washes over us.

  15. JJJJ November 3, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    I love the analogy. After an Andorid update made my Galaxy S2 go from perfect to a load of junk Ive always opted out of every single “update” even if it means dealing with the notification that it’s available.
    People have a bad experience with “government” and thus fear all change because “government” will screw it up again. It’s understandable, and it’s something maybe marketing can correct.

  16. Dexter Wong November 4, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    Having grown up in a large city, I have no fear of urbanism. However, after seeing the recent changes in my hometown and my old neighborhood, I do have some unease at the changes going on: my old apartment house has gone condo with prices of one million and and half dollars each. A close relative was evicted from that same building some years ago (but she did receive a settlement that allowed her to rent a small apartment in a nearby neighborhood). A number of local stores replaced by upscale ones that cater to the new wealthier residents. So I can empathize with how other feel about change.

  17. John Bailo November 5, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    You say you are emphasizing, but you are not really.
    You are merely labeling his opinions as another type of malady (change aversion).
    You are still assuming (like most Liberal Doctrinaires do) that ultimately you are pursuing an Absolute Good. And that those who do not share this mindset need change..everything from hand holding to out and out banishment.
    The part that you do not accept is that this persons observations, memory and data, may in fact be right. Or there may be was in which they are right.
    You assume that Population Growth is an Absolute Good, hence you then set about trying to find ways to accommodate it. So of course you fret about gridlock. But what if population growth and density is neither good, nor necessary.
    I lived in Seattle when it was quite nice to get about in car, in fact, at night, for entertainment, and even on weekends it was the best way possible. Parking spaces were available, and cost nothing, even near Broadway and Seattle Center.
    For a person living that life, how could they possibly think that what you’ve wrought in 2015 is any better? I know you want to destroy this memory because it contradicts all the edicts of your mindset. How can it be that these people lived a better life back then? They must be Old…or…Republicans!
    Empathy means walking in someone else’s shoes, whereas you and your Doctrinaires only want to crush non-believers under your bootheels.

  18. Mark Dublin November 5, 2015 at 11:57 am #

    Wouldn’t claim that present situation, where chief and only criterion for residence is ability not only to pay current housing costs, but also to afford speed-of-light increases, is anywhere near “Liberal”.
    Fact that so many people who think they’re liberal are ok with Seattle’s price of admission is reason “liberal” is a swear-word to very people who everything they have to the truly liberal programs of decades past.
    But this problem completely unites the world, no matter what political system each country claims. Would bet that even though there’s a death penalty for saying it, same for North Korea.
    However, in some other places, resulting urban neighborhoods are pretty, safe, pleasant, and a huge amount freer than average US suburb.
    Which is really a cause for hope, because it means the problem actually can be solved by making it possible for whole population to earn enough money for same life.
    Millionaires past, like the van Sweringen brothers in Cleveland, built their very large themselves built their suburban tenants a streetcar line that still exists.
    Does Shaker Heights Station still have those great corned-beef sandwiches in the cafe? US Department of Transportation should make this standard mandatory.
    And as I’ve mentioned- this country’s most effective streetcar advocate, the late Paul Weyrich of the (late) “The New Electric Railway Journal” thought streetcars were best way to fight the (really-Government-wasteful) private car system.
    A generation of self-described liberals with same quality as Weyrich’s transit conservatism will rip lot of Future-Donald-Trump stickers will come off work-dented bumpers.
    Though whatever the ideology of five year old kids, doubt that traffic jams get same decibel squeals of a ride down from Tukila to Rainer Beach. The future is ours!

  19. JJJJ November 5, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    @John B
    “I lived in Seattle when it was quite nice to get about in car, in fact, at night, for entertainment, and even on weekends it was the best way possible. Parking spaces were available, and cost nothing, even near Broadway and Seattle Center.
    For a person living that life, how could they possibly think that what you’ve wrought in 2015 is any better?
    Empathy means walking in someone else’s shoes, whereas you and your Doctrinaires only want to crush non-believers under your bootheels.”
    You should take your own advice about empathy. For you, the elite with a car, life was good. For people that cant drive, due to age, budget, illness, disability, whatever….screw them right?
    Maybe think about walking in someone else s shoes, someone who cant drive, but can now get around due to better transit and walking options

  20. Jack Whisner November 5, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

    It is not clear that there is more development now than at any time in Seattle’s history, certainly not in percentage terms. Seattle grew rapidly during the gold rush, and both world wars. Imagine the disruption of the regrades of Denny Hill or Jackson Street or of constructing I-5; I saw the last first hand. In Shoreline, it was largely empty land; but in Seattle whole swaths of houses and apartments were demolished.

  21. Nathanael November 5, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    Even if you cut population (as we should) suburban living is unsustainable.
    Rural living is great — for those who actually work a farm or a ranch or harvest from a forest — but suburban living, with its commutes and roads, is killing rural living.

  22. Rob November 5, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Jack, see recent article on Seattle population growth. The only faster growth period was due to annexation.

  23. Jon November 5, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

    I’m so glad Jarrett right out of the gate brought up the spatial aspect of cars and other modes, that is absolutely the elephant in the room. This is so critical to any conversation about traffic, transportation and cities. Its all about physical space. Ironically on the way there I was stuck on a bus in bumper to bumper traffic consisting almost entirely of single occupant vehicles clogging up every street in South Lake Union.
    I thought another great point Jarrett made was how people were cheering for sides (cars vs. non car modes) like it was a sporting event. I was sitting around a lot of gray haired people (see my next point below) talking amongst themselves saying they liked the “car guy” (Kirkland data guy on panel) and were visibly cheering or visibly getting angry. I certainly admit to favoring those I agreed with too.
    Also cant help but notice the generational perspective on transportation, be it this event, the demographics of support for Move Seattle, etc. I don’t think its JUST older people more adverse to change and younger less, it I think also is how different generations grew up and came of age. Additionally look back oh 25-35 years ago and the older people then remember the great old transit systems (also the era of the new vintage trolley systems) and were among the biggest supporters. Now, generally the older people came of age in the mid century when absolutely car and suburbs were king and transit was absolutely out. Perhaps Millennials grew up trapped in the suburbs where the bike, rare sidewalk and infrequent bus was the way out to the exciting city. Its also a generational perspective on the world, that an expensive new car and big house in the suburbs is the meaning of life, or doesn’t have much meaning which is common of younger people.

  24. Rob November 5, 2015 at 10:11 pm #

    It’s absolutely true that people have different transportation needs at different life stages, so you can expect their perspectives to change over time. It’s not just because they get old and inflexible or conservative; we have families, soccer games, friends not nearby, and fear of falling as we no longer feel infallible.
    But it’s also true that ideological planners try to put their favorite solutions everywhere and fail to understand what’s rational for their customers. Most of us make transportation decisions because it’s rational, not because we’re ideologically committed to a mode. There are really few good reasons to commute regularly downtown, but getting around the city with one’s family at night is just rarely rational on our bus system. Transportation planners need to get a lot less ideological and strive to make walking and transit the rational choice, and to put each solution in the places it works best.

  25. Onika K Morris-Alleyne November 6, 2015 at 9:50 am #

    And Rob, that’s what the best of us do. This idea that transportation planners are doctrinaire or mode junkies is really just not accurate.

  26. Larry November 6, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    In my city, the planners are fairly indifferent to the transportation mode. It’s the city politicians who want to force fit a transportation mode.
    In my area I’ve heard planners and advocates regurgitate the phony promise that “it’ll be better if we built it”, whenever someone has a concern. They completely lack any empathy.
    But empathy can help bring people aboard, because it helps alter perspective which can provide solutions. The Spanish rail infrastructure agency when building Spain’s AVE high speed rail lines started contacting farmers from the beginning, working with them to identify what land they needed and how to address the farmer’s concerns about noise, access to their fields, etc. In some instances they created underpasses sufficient for the farmer’s equipment to move between fields under the rail line, in other instances, they compensated the farmer for their land on the opposite side of the line, sometimes paying more than fair market value. The result was minimal resistance and opposition to the new rail system.

  27. Rob November 6, 2015 at 10:07 pm #

    Onika, sorry for my sloppy wording. I didn’t mean to imply that planners are ideological as a group. And Larry I also didn’t mean that planners (rather than elected officials) are responsible for mode biases. I wrote that too quickly. I was thinking of some specific planners and decision-makers in Seattle who take an advocacy approach to planning, and those people I’m thinking of seem to me to put ideology ahead of analysis and empathy. It wasn’t my intent to generalize beyond that.

  28. d.p. November 7, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    It’s not even close (city or region) by percentage change, as the very first comment on your linked article ably points out.
    So by any comparative metric that remotely captures the rate of physical, economic, or cultural transformation as actually experienced, this current boom falls shy of the first Boeing boom, and doesn’t hold a candle to the Gold Rush era.

  29. Rob November 7, 2015 at 9:33 pm #

    OK, fine, although I’m not sure why percentage matters in this context. Once the city’s built out, smaller percentage increases have larger impacts. In any case, there’s been no growth like it here since the 1950’s when suburban decentralization began, and people are feeling it. When I moved here in the 1980s they were closing schools wholesale for lack of students. This city has been desperate to attract developers back from the suburbs to do some infill development, knowing it was always cheaper to clearcut 20 acres and drop mass-produced houses from helicopters. Now that equation and climate has changed, all off a sudden. All the growth is exciting, but whenever there’s a lot of money being made in a hurry, corners are cut and people are impacted – and it makes people nervous that they’ll still be able to afford to live here when all it’s over.

  30. Mike November 10, 2015 at 2:27 am #

    Jarrett a great post, a pleasure to read and thought provoking. Insightful comments also. I have experienced this in London where I live. Work is proceeding in a number of areas to increase cycle friendliness. I don’t cycle, I’m a pedestrian and transit user ( no car ) and I have been worried how some of the schemes have had a negative impact on bus running times. I want to see the city safer for cycles but I don’t want my bus to run slower – it is slowing enough already and it will never attract car users at the speeds currently averaged. Plus the buses carry far more people than the cycles do. I feel exactly as you describe that a more empathetic approach from the current pro cycle lobby in city hall would have alleviated some of my concerns and make me less angry at what I perceive to be a white middle class project spending disproportionate amounts of my money to help a few hipsters get along the Mile End Road. Google Walthamstow mini Holland for more perspective.