Monday, April 12, 2010

What people want

In my last post, I critiqued the grandiosity inherent in Joel Kotkin and friends' insistence that the Will of the People must be observed. People want big houses and they want to drive to them, Kotkin repeats. Anyone who suggests that "you can't have everything" is an out-of-touch elitist, forcing the People into their mold.

As I wrote, I believe that people really do want big houses and cars, and the roads to drive the cars to those houses. I do too. But I want all kinds of other things, many of which conflict with those desires. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. We all do.

The survey and market data that Kotkin relies on for his assertions unquestionably show a strong desire for big houses and cars. But there is no effort to figure out whether a given person wants a big house for the extra room, or as a status symbol, or to reduce their stress. If they want a car, do they want it to pick up chicks, or to get to work, or to get to remote trailheads?

These questions are critical. If someone wants a house for the extra room, they won't be happy unless they get the extra room, but they might be satisfied with a really big apartment. If they want it for a status symbol, they might be satisfied with a high-rise apartment. If they want it to reduce their stress, they might be satisfied renting a storage unit, getting a massage, or adopting a voluntary simplicity ethic. Similarly, if they want a car to get chicks, they might be satisfied with a nice suit or some jewelry. If they want it to get to work, adequate transit should be plenty. If they want to go hiking, a Zipcar or even a bus might work.

Kotkin and friends also don't give people credit for contradictory desires. If someone wants both a big house and a position at the center of the urban gallery scene, wouldn't they be just as happy with a big loft in Bushwick as with a big house in Cold Spring Harbor? If they want to drive, but also want to be able to pick up groceries near their home, wouldn't they be happy living above a supermarket? It all depends on the relative strength of those desires.

We get none of this discussion from Kotkin, Cox, Stossel or any of the others. Their world is divided into the Elites, some of whom want to live in apartments and take transit or ride bikes, and the People, who never want anything other than bigger and bigger houses, properties and cars. They want these things because it is natural to want them, and the Elites don't want them because - well, we must be unnatural.

There is no consideration for the possibility that the desires for bigger houses, properties and cars may stem from some other underlying desires and be satisfied in some other way. There is no acknowledgment of the fact that a single person may simultaneously want a country house and an urban apartment, a long driveway and a short walk to the pub, and that everyone makes trade-offs in life.

Here's one of the many things that I probably didn't come up with myself, but I can't remember who I heard it from. Superficial compromise, like King Solomon's proposal to split the baby in half, will often satisfy nobody. The art of true compromise requires looking beyond people's stated wants and needs and discerning their underlying desires. By doing that it is much easier to find a solution that will satisfy everyone.


Silli said...

Here's the one that gets me: "I want transit-- but I want to live in a low-density community that developed during the automobile age. And I want to be able to take transit to the office park located off the highway, and to New York City. And don't raise my gas taxes to pay for it."

Anonymous said...

Great post. What about the idea that you can have automobiles and auto-ways without traffic, that we can just continue to widen the BQE and Koszciuszko Bridge until that nirvana state is reached?

I don't think there's anything particularly abhorrent about auto ownership; what I find abhorrent is the sense of complete entitlement to the streets, that Marty Markowitz thinks there's something wrong if the land under Brooklyn's streets isn't 100% consecrated to the automobile.

Unknown said...

Those are excellent points. I definitely want a big capacity truck that I can haul my camping gear in and pull a boat with...but not enough to pay to drive one every day, or have one sitting around for those summer weekends that I can use it. We all makes these tradeoffs. It's just that I wonder how many people are conscious of them? In my town, people react with shock if you mention that you don't have a car. In their minds, there is NO alternative. Some of this mindset has got to stem from ignorance of the alternatives.

Helen Bushnell said...

A couple of points.

There are actually fewer good apartment buildings/row houses in the US than people who would like to live in them. As a society we could help those people get what they want, and it would actually help people who want to live in a single-family home.

Also, there are a lot of people who want more space because they don't have any. Back when I had my first apartment, one of my acquaintances said that she had never known anyone before who had had a whole apartment to themselves before. There are one bedroom apartments in my city with as many as ten people living in them.

Most of these people cannot afford a car or they cannot afford decent housing because of the money they have to spend on their cars.

Barb Chamberlain said...

I find myself wondering about the inherent bias toward owning rather than renting or sharing.

It's built into the tax code--I get to deduct my property taxes and mortgage interest. There are policy reasons stated for this--for example I hear the idea of greater stability and attention to external maintenance if you own rather than rent.

As new models emerge like Zipcar that enable the convenience of car USE without the ongoing expenses of car OWNERSHIP, maybe we'll see some shifts in this. Or to take it a step further, the Zimride model of ride-share matching through Facebook--all private owners willingly exchanging uses and needs.

I wish my neighborhood (small houses close together within walking/biking distance of downtown and on a transit line) had a "big tool exchange" system whereby we don't all individually have to own a lawn mower, edger, hedge trimmer and all the other big, noisy accoutrements of lawn maintenance. 99% of the time we're not using these things so why couldn't someone else? But someone has to create, manage and fund such a system, as well as get everyone to change the psychological orientation toward ownership. That's a big job.

This co-op mentality is probably practically communism to some, and American individualism gets in the way. Perhaps the up side of the economic downturn is that people won't be able to afford all the ownership they want and will have to look for other models.


George K said...

I was walking in a neighborhood near mine yesterday (unfortunately, my neighborhood is a little more sprawly, though still reasonably walkable), and I noticed the style of the houses of the street I was on (Union Avenue).

This was the approximate location of where I was walking:,+Staten+Island,+NY&qe=MzAwIFVuaW9uIEF2ZW51ZSwgU3RhdGVuIElzbGFuZCwgTlk&qesig=fwVSGgGz00Gpk2LLxP1Abg&pkc=AFgZ2tkBUR7l-0zuQONG6HFhk1XR8VxdBgaOFoH11HCty8_jWES-SJbxAhLGfJhKlXGhx4nignHAg1pYvTe4iIvbTmOFiCkCqA&biw=1280&bih=619&gs_sm=&gs_upl=&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&wrapid=tljp1316224277328052&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl

If you notice, a lot of the older homes in that area don't have any parking next to the home, and street parking isn't too easy in the area. But you notice that those older homes are still reasonably large (they're not small like the rowhouses in Philly). Look at the street: It has a reasonable amount of trees and seems fairly quiet, but it's still possible to live there without a car.

So this is one example of how you can give people what they want. Somebody might say "I want a bigger place to live, and I want a quiet, tree-lined street". They might think that they need to get a car and move out to the suburbs, but they could move to an area like this one and get that same environment without a car (this particular area has an undeserved bad reputation but the general layout of the area is what I'm showing)