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Archive for March, 2008

Chinook Charter School, in the middle of nowhere

Edited 2 April 2008

My wife and I have been confronted with a choice — one that is available mostly to those in our privileged social condition, but a difficult one: where should we send our children to school?

Just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have had this difficulty. We’d have sent the kids to whatever the local school was. The alternative would have been (and still is) to homeschool them and cobble together an education by ourselves. This option has a lot going for it that I won’t get into here, and we used to feel sure that homeschooling would be the option for us.

But our older daughter, now approaching the age when children start kindergarten, is a tremendously social person. She loves to spend time with other kids, and I think she thrives more when she has frequent contact with lots of them. So we’re trying to find the right course to take for her: something that does not lock her into a world of standardized tests and a passive-learner mentality, yet does allow her regular social contact.

We see three options:

  • Send her to Denali Elementary School, which is our local school, about ten minutes’ walk away.
  • Send her to Barnette Magnet School, about fifteen minutes’ walk away, in the afternoon for elective, multi-age “exploration” classes in science, art, social studies, languages, mathematics, and technology. In the mornings and evenings, we would work on the core skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic — plus whatever else we felt like. Alternately, we could send her in the morning for the core subjects and have the afternoons free.
  • Send her to Chinook Charter School, about five minutes’ drive away, where they run a Montessori-style program for K-8 kids.

Until recently, I felt sure we would never send our kids to Denali. It has to do with my distaste for compulsory schooling; Denali would undoubtedly be as bad as any other elementary school about squashing my children’s interest in learning. (I’m saying this not to invite debate over the merits of the school system, but to give you an idea why I am in a dilemma.)

My wife, our older daughter, and I went to tour Chinook in the past week. Classes were opened up for visiting families to see what kind of education went on: we could walk from room to room, watch the class activities, and look at the educational materials (books and “toys”). My complete appraisal isn’t germane here, but I’ll say: there were things I liked and things I disliked, though it’s hard to put my finger on anything bad.

With one exception: the location. Chinook Charter School is in the middle of nowhere — an industrial area of Fairbanks that not only is outside my neighborhood, but is outside any neighborhood. If you’d been given directions there and were walking, you’d turn around before you saw it, sure that only warehouses and prisons awaited you. The nearest bus line passes two-thirds of a mile to the northeast and would require the rider to walk across an expressway to get to school. There is nothing for any pedestrian out here; the school is an island in a sea of roads, cars, and heavy industry.

This bothers me for a few reasons. (They are intertwined, and others might parse them differently.) The first is that our daughters would be entirely dependent on us for their transportation to and from school, five days a week, nine months of the year. While the parent volunteer who showed us around said that some of the kids ride their bikes to school, I’m sure that they don’t do it year-round, not with our climate. Let my girls walk ten minutes to school at forty below? Sure. Let them bike over two miles on icy streets, with no bike trails, and crossing the Mitchell Expressway? Nuh-unh, no way.

Where could they go after school, other than where we took them? I remember biking to and from school in the fifth grade. Often I’d stop at a convenience store to buy Mad magazine or play video games, or I’d pop into the video store for a movie, or occasionally I’d see a friend whose house was on my way home. None of that could have happened if my parents had been driving me to and from school each day. Such a distant location stunts children’s independence.

The second reason is that it normalizes environmental ugliness. While the inside of the school is attractive (and eerily tidy), the property’s surroundings teach children that it is only the building in isolation that matters, while surroundings are just obstacles on the path — disregarded at best, resented at worst, but never experienced and enjoyed.

Third, it reinforces the lesson — already taught by our inadequate city planning — that it’s normal for the most worthwhile destinations to be far away from anything else. This discourages children from making do with neighborhood resources, or even possibly creating neighborhood resources. It normalizes distance and disconnection.

Fourth, it gives children the chance — the inevitability, actually — of making friends from all over the Borough, at the expense of time to make friends who live nearby. Of course, the more gregarious children may seek out nearby peers in their non-school hours. But, by and large, they won’t, not in the same number as if they had gone to their local school and rubbed elbows with their neighbors. This impoverishes their social lives, condemns their parents to a life of chauffeuring to events with friends, and hampers their social independence.

Last, the student population is selected by the difficulty of access: only those children can attend whose parents (1) can afford to buy and maintain a car, and (2) have the leisure to drive the little ones to and from school every day. The location selects against poor and working-class families with neither the money nor the free time to ferry their kids around, and for middle- and upper-class families. The result of this is a socio-economic heterogeneity homogeneity that delays children’s learning how to deal with — even be friends with — people different from themselves. It makes school not a social leveler, but a stratifier.

I have to grant that Barnette, while downtown, has some of these faults. A magnet school by definition attracts children from all over town — and the more time my daughters spend making friends with kids in Spinach Creek or Goldstream, the less time they’ll have to make friends with those only a few minutes’ walk from our house. And those kids will very likely be from privileged families with the money and free time to make schooling outside their neighborhood possible.

Yet I suspect that homeschooling, with some accommodation for my girls’ need for regular society, will offer them the best education. It’s even possible that the Montessori-style program offered at Chinook — which has a lot to recommend it — would be best. But if you believe in the importance of locality, of neighborhoods, of school as a social leveler, and of children’s independence, what can you do?

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If you read the News-Miner on March 24, or their editorial the next day, you’ve probably found out that Ice Alaska is planning to move our beloved Ice Park south of town, to the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area.

Currently, I’m just close enough to walk to the Ice Park. It’s in the range of 30 or 45 minutes away — which is walkable on a not-too-cold day — and much closer to those who live near the pedestrian bridge outside Pioneer Park.

But will anybody — anybody AT ALL — be able to walk to the Ice Park when it’s at Tanana Lakes?

Has the Borough arranged for convenient public transit that will take people there and back? Currently, the closest bus to Tanana Lakes is the Purple Line, which reaches Cushman and Van Horn about 10 minutes after leaving the Transit Center. That puts the nearest stop over a mile away — about 20 minutes’ walk for a healthy adult on a decent path. While 20 minutes’ walk in the cold is acceptable occasionally and for some people, it is not a good way to ensure access for the elderly, the disabled, and families with children, or to ensure frequent access from anybody. Given that the Purple Line runs hourly at best, and that our buses are not exemplars of punctuality (which means a wait in the cold after the walk to the stop), this is hardly dignified treatment of the car-free.

To be fair, I should say that the Ice Park in its current location is served only by the Yellow Line, which stops at that location only four times a day (three on Saturdays). So, in terms of frequency of service, this seems to be an improvement. However, I hope that Ice Alaska and the Borough can do better than offer people half an hour of cold and discomfort both before and after their visit.

The Ice Park is one of the uniquely wonderful things about Fairbanks. It should be in a central location and easily accessible to all.

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(Corrected 21 April 2008.)

Hoorah! The FNSB Planning Commission voted unanimously last night (Tuesday) to endorse the Vision Fairbanks plan for downtown’s revitalization. While the Planning Commission doesn’t pass ordinances, their endorsement is key (as is that of the Fairbanks City Council) to getting the Assembly to adopt the plan.

Roughly a dozen citizens gave public testimony, some with concerns but nearly all supportive. Perhaps the most persuasive testimony came from Gerry Jerry Colp of the City Engineer’s office. He said, in essence, “The house my wife and I built years ago is located right where the plan calls for the development of a grocery store. And yet I think it’s a good plan.”

He’s right. Everybody who looks through the plan will find at least one thing to disagree with. (For example, I think that “bike boxes” painted on the intersections are futile in a place covered with snow so much of the year.) However, after the plan is adopted, there will be a thousand small details to iron out, and there is not a single detail that couldn’t be negotiated or fudged a little. The planning process for downtown will not be completed with the adoption of this plan; it will involve all the hearings — and probably legal wranglings — that planning involves now. But it is still a good direction for our community to go.

I’m glad the Planning Commission sees it that way, too.

Still ahead are the public hearing before the City Council, now slated for April 7, and the public hearing before the Borough Assembly, which will probably take place in June.

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Tonight (Tuesday, March 25), the FNSB Planning Commission will have a public hearing on the Vision Fairbanks plan for downtown’s revitalization. Below is my prepared testimony. (I’ll have to keep the pace up to deliver this in under three minutes.)

***

Good Commissioners,

I realize that matters of taxation fall outside your official purview, but you do have the power to reduce one unjust tax, through your recommendation to the Assembly: the Fairbanks Citizenship Tax. You may not have heard of it, since doesn’t appear in our Code of Ordinance, but it’s quite real. It is the monetary price a person or a family must pay for first-class citizenship in our Borough.

Our land use in the Fairbanks North Star Borough is essentially suburban. I don’t mean that Fairbanks is a suburb to some larger city, as Eagle River is to Anchorage. The essence of suburban development is that different kinds of land uses are kept separate: retail and commercial uses may be allowed in one place; civic uses like schools and government offices in another; recreational uses in still another; and residences kept separate from them all. In the Borough, there is some small overlap of uses, but, by and large, we have zoned them apart.

The result of this is that the various needs a person might have to meet throughout the day are kept far apart — farther than is reasonable to walk. The person who cannot afford to buy and maintain a car has a choice: spend all your free time walking, bicycling, or busing from one remote destination to another, or stay shut up at home.

And it will not do for us to shrug off car ownership as just part of the cost of living here. I have seen the price of car ownership estimated from 15 to 30 percent of annual household income. And, with all the extra idling we do in the winter, I wouldn’t be surprised if the figure for the Interior were much higher. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in the Borough was about $49,000. If we spend 25% of our household income on the care and feeding of cars, that amounts to over $1,000 a month — the equivalent of needing an extra 270 gallons of fuel oil — just to participate in society.

That is the price we are asking for first-class citizenship. That is our unwritten tax.

The Vision Fairbanks plan is a major first step in addressing this inequity. By combining residential, recreational, civic, and commercial uses tightly, it allows us at least one area of town where people may meet a wide variety of needs within only a few minutes’ walk. It is a plan for a complete traditional neighborhood and a true city center.

While not all people in Greater Fairbanks would like to live in such a neighborhood, they won’t need to in order to reap its benefits: under this plan, downtown will in time become a “one stop” destination that saves the time and money of those who come there. It will enlarge the world available not only to those who cannot afford a car, but to those too young, too old, and too infirm to drive.

So I urge you to say “no” to the Fairbanks Citizenship Tax, and to say “yes” to downtown planning that does justice to all our citizens.

Thank you for your time.

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My fellow Fairbanks blogger Discontinuous Permafrost recently reported that he was ordered by his doctor to “[incorporate] a ‘healthy diet and exercise’ or suffer the consequences down the road.” I felt so sorry for him. Little repulses me more than the prospect of having to “exercise”.

I don’t mean to say that I prefer sloth and reject physical activity. In fact, I prefer walking places to driving, when the places are within reasonable walking distance and when time and weather allow. For more distant destinations, I enjoy bicycling. I even enjoy a long, destination-free ride around Farmers Loop in the summer, when the sun is shining and the warm air can rush past my face. I’d play Ultimate Frisbee too, if I felt there were time.

At this point, those of rational mind may say, “But, Paul, those are exercise!”

Well, yes. But also no.

Walking is a means of reaching destinations. It lets me experience my surroundings at human speeds and to meet other people by chance. While walking, I am able to provide the public sphere with one more pair of eyes that look out for my fellow citizens’ safety, and I provide a human presence that tends to curb others’ public ill behavior.

Bicycling also is a way of reaching destinations. When biking for pleasure, I’m able to enjoy fresh air, the breeze on my face, the calm of my own thoughts, and the exhilaration of speed.

While Ultimate Frisbee gets me nowhere, it is a chance to work (or play) cooperatively with others whom I might not meet otherwise, to laugh, and to make friends.

But exercise is an abstraction. It can take place in the confined solitude of your own home, the open solitude of the woods, or the more crowded solitude of the treadmill at a gym. In itself, exercise is unrelated to environment, to pleasure, or to community. The doctor who prescribes it does not care whether you are picking up trash, meeting neighbors, keeping an eye on the drug dealer down the street, doing your shopping, making friends, or performing a community service. He or she wants you to move your body enough to raise your heart rate by so much, for so long, so often.

Our ability to abstract the notion of exercise from any social utility that physical exertion might serve, and the need to prescribe this abstraction, testify to the fragmentation — the “dis-integration” — of our lives. Now is the time when we work. Now is the time when we socialize. Now is the time when we raise our heart rates. Now is the time when we ingest protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber.

To the perfectly rational mind (or the mind that thinks of itself thus), this dis-integrated life makes sense. It is acceptable to live in a single-family home where walking is never required and chance encounters are eliminated, and to work in a job that requires no exertion, provides no pleasure, and keeps the worker physically and socially isolated. The rational souls (they believe) will exercise rational choices to meet all their needs: Now I will drive to a friend’s house for society! Now I will buy nutritious foods online! Now I will raise my heart rate by jogging! And because they meet their needs by choice, they believe they will be happier than those who rely on the vagaries of irrational, unpredictable systems.

Well, maybe some are happier. But I think that, for the most part, this kind of dis-integration only only hurts our mental, physical, and social well-being. Even if possible at all, it’s tremendously difficult to lead a balanced life if you must take responsibility for every element in the balance. It is mentally taxing. There’s not enough time in the day to meet every need if it’s taken separately.

Look with suspicion on any activity that performs only one function, or very few. Take the risk of living in complex systems that leave you more whole. Live, not only with integrity, but with integration.

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The public hearing on Vision Fairbanks has been postponed.  The City Council will consider it in a “work session” at 6:00 on March 24, but it will not be an item on the agenda.  The tentative date for consideration is now April 7.

I apologize for putting out information that has turned out to be incorrect.  (It was correct when I wrote it.)  I will post an update when the date of April 7 becomes more firm.

In the meantime, you are welcome to see a few reasons why Vision Fairbanks is so worthy of our whole community’s support.

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[UPDATE, THURSDAY, MARCH 20: The public hearing has been postponed.  The City Council will consider Vision Fairbanks in a "work session" at 6:00 on March 24, but it will not be an item on the agenda.  The tentative date for consideration is now April 7.  I will post an update when this date becomes more firm.]

If you would like to see a revitalized, pedestrian-friendly downtown in Fairbanks — a true retail and cultural center that is a pleasure just to be in and where people can work, shop, play, and live — then show your support next Monday evening (March 24) at 7:00. It’s as easy as wearing a blue shirt.

On March 24, the Fairbanks City Council will take public testimony on their proposed endorsement of the Vision Fairbanks plan for downtown. While the legally binding vote will take place in April among the Borough Assembly, the endorsement of City Council is crucial. It is up to us — the citizens who seek a city where people want to spend time and build fond memories — to show the members of City Council that this vision of downtown has popular support.

The Downtown Association of Fairbanks, which with the Borough Planning Department has led the public re-visioning and planning process, asks that all supporters of the Vision Fairbanks plan attend the March 24th City Council meeting wearing a blue shirt. If you support the plan, you are also welcome to give up to five minutes of testimony. But the important thing is to show our numbers. If the Council chambers are full of supporters and some of us must stand outside in the hall to show support, that will not be too many. Let us overwhelm them with our enthusiasm!

If you are not already enthusiastic about Vision Fairbanks, here are a few things to be enthusiastic about:

  • The plan calls for a major grocery store near the corner of Barnette and Airport. Throughout the public process, this has been people’s loudest cry: let us buy groceries in the heart of town!
  • The plan calls for a public park square that will be lined on all sides with retail, including restaurants. When there are scads of people shopping, there will be a lot more opportunities to run into friends and acquaintances.
  • Sidewalks along Cushman Street will be widened from a meager 6 feet to at least 10 feet, and in some places 12 feet. The Cushman Street Bridge will have a 20-foot sidewalk on one side.
  • Most of the one-way streets — most notably, Cushman and Barnette — will be made two-way. This will increase businesses’ opportunities for customers, decrease wasteful and irritating out-of-direction travel, and slow down traffic (which is essential to creating pedestrian-friendly places).
  • The plan calls for a mix of retail, commercial, civic, and residential uses, mixed closely together. This means that people will not have to drive to several locations to do their errands, since downtown will be a “one-stop” destination, as some of our big-box retail stores are now
  • An off-street pedestrian/bike path will be built close to the Chena River, from Wendell Street to a new bridge at Cowles Street. Also, pedestrian-bike improvements will be made along Lacey, 8th, Cowles, and the north side of the Chena.
  • A hotel and convention center combination will be built on Cushman north of Airport Way. This will make Fairbanks an attractive destination for state, national, and even international conventions. (I’ve commented before on the folly of holding our conventions away from town.)
  • The convention center will be only one part of a “cultural anchor” that also includes a community/skate center, a performing arts center, and a winter garden. Downtown needs cultural destinations.

The Vision Fairbanks plan is an attempt to make a downtown that is (1) attractive, (2) safe for pedestrians, and (3) rich with worthwhile destinations. In short, it is a plan for an economic, civic, and social town center where people really want to spend time. That is what a downtown should be.

For me, there is another reason to support the revitalization plan, more important than mere widened sidewalks or grocery stores:

  • Vision Fairbanks is an example of city planning for social justice. The ownership of cars eats up a tremendous part of a family’s income: I have seen estimates ranging from 15% to 30%, or more. This is an unfair burden on people, especially the poor. When the various functions of a city are spread far and wide, there is no one place where a person can go to meet his or her daily needs (home, work, and shopping), and a car is needed just to participate in society. (Walking and public transit will take too long.) This amounts to a citizenship tax — an idea which should offend any citizen. If land uses are mixed instead, then it is possible for people to enjoy basic civic life without devoting a sixth (or a third, or more) of their income to the care and feeding of automobiles, since they will be able to work, shop, play, and live with nothing more than two healthy legs.

So join us for the City Council meeting on March 24th. Wear a blue shirt. Show your support. Help us make a downtown to be proud of!

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As readers of Dermot Cole’s column may have heard, Prevention Magazine, in association with the American Podiatric Medical Association, named Fairbanks the best city in Alaska for walkers. The APMA developed the Best Walking Cities Competition in part “to educate the public on the health benefits of walking.” However, as an educational tool, their ranking leaves something to be desired.

While there are criteria, the end product is merely a ranked listing of 501 “cities” (more on that in a moment) – the ten most populous from each state, plus the District of Columbia. There seems to be no way to view a city’s score for any individual criterion, so a city wishing to improve its walkability has nothing to work with.

How would the end-user of the list use the rankings? If I were moving and weren’t tied to a job in a particular place, I would make walkability a strong criterion in my choice. But, if I were an Outsider choosing to move to Fairbanks on the basis of its ranking in Alaska, I might be disappointed. I don’t know where in Fairbanks you can live and have easy walking access to your work and to retail, commercial, civic, and recreational activities. It’s quite possible that the walkability within the City of Fairbanks exceeds that of the Municipality of Anchorage as a whole — but at least in Anchorage, as I remember from growing up there, you can find a neighborhood in which people reside, work, play, and shop. That’s awfully hard in Fairbanks. (Though I shouldn’t imply that such neighborhoods are common or cheap in Anchorage.)

So there are at least two ways of looking at walkability: (1) How is the walkability of the city or town overall? or, (2) Can a person who wishes not to own a car find a place in the city or town to live comfortably — where his or her time for leisure or civic life is not eaten up by over-long walks or circuitous bus rides? I have a feeling that the criteria favor walkability in the first sense.

Here is a list of the ten most populous “cities” from Alaska used in the competition, with their rankings:

  • 110 Fairbanks city
  • 118 Juneau city and borough
  • 208 Sitka city and borough
  • 306 College CDP [Census-designated place, I believe]
  • 426 Meadow Lakes CDP
  • 427 Madison city
  • 429 Anchorage municipality
  • 469 Knik-Fairview CDP
  • 470 Lakes CDP
  • 471 Tanaina CDP

I notice a few things about the list: First, the types of jurisdictions vary: city, city and borough, CDP, and municipality. This makes comparison difficult.

Second, some of the place names are unfamiliar to me. For example, where is the city Madison? The U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn’t recognize it. And wouldn’t the cities of Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, Soldotna, or Kodiak have greater populations, and make for better comparisons, than some of the CDPs selected? This lowers the credibility and the utility of the ranking.

Third — and most relevant to our topping the Alaska list — the part of Fairbanks surveyed seems to have been the city, not the greater Borough. A person might move to “Fairbanks” on the basis of its walkability, then find that the only affordable property was in University West or on Badger Road. Where would the walkability be then?

Fourth, the criteria could use a little scrutiny. The most heavily-weighted criterion is a “Walking Expert Panel”. I do not know who is on the panel or what their expertise is in. Have any of them ever been to Fairbanks (or the 500 other “cities”)? I wrote Friday (five days ago) to the contact people but have not heard back from them yet.

Another criterion is the Walkscore.com Index — which lost a bit of credibility with me when it listed eight grocery stores within a mile of my house and claimed the George C. Thomas library as one of the assets in my neighborhood.

Had I set the criteria, I might have included multi-use zoning as a criterion: does the city actually allow neighborhoods where people can work, play, shop, and gather without getting in a car? Rather than Total Cars Per Household, I might have used Total Annual Miles Driven Per Household.

But, no matter what statistical measures you use, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: as you move between home and work, between school and shopping, between public meetings and private parties — how many people do you see walking? how many driving? and which are you?

***

Addendum: The expert panel of seven people is listed, not on the APMA’s Best Walking Cities Competition pages, but on the website of Prevention magazine.  Between the seven people, could they have visited all 500 cities?  It’s a stretch, but I suppose it’s possible.

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My wife and I host a monthly “soup night” to which twenty or thirty of our friends, plus their partners and children, have a standing invitation. They know that, on such-and-such a day, every month, they’re welcome to stop in for as long as they like.

Besides cleaning the house and trying to prepare ample soup and bread for everyone, we don’t do anything special for Soup Night. There are no activities planned. Nobody is expected to bring anything. Sending an RSVP is not required: some people show up often, some rarely, some not at all. We’ve had over twenty guests come; we’ve also had no guests come.

I love playing host. It makes me happy to see people in my house, having a good time. When we have a good-sized crowd, I usually keep busy filling glasses, washing bowls, and making sure no guests are being ignored. (I occasionally suspect that I was not meant to be a librarian at all, but an events planner.)

I confess, though, I really like the times when enough bowls are washed, everybody has something to eat and drink, and all the adults and children are engaged in conversation or play. Then I can take off my host hat and just relax.

I’d love to hang out for a while nearly every day with a crowd of friends, or just congenial acquaintances. But — the cost of feeding that many aside — hosting so often would just be too much work. There has to be some other way to meet up.

***

I’ve just begun reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Oldenburg introduces the term “third places” to describe public places that are welcoming to all and that give people a chance to be somewhere other than home (your first place) or work (your second). Third places play many social functions. Of the purely social “meeting of friends” function, he writes:

The “neutral ground” (space upon which one is not burdened by the role of host or guest) of third places offers the great ease of association so important to community life. People may come and go just when they please and are beholden to no one….

An individual can have many friends and engage them often only if there is a place he or she can visit daily and which plays host to their meetings…. Interaction is relatively easy as one is required to contribute only his or her “share” of the time.

What I’m looking for, I realize, is a third place: somewhere outside of home where I can (and want to) spend free time, run into acquaintances, be a part of the “scene”, and not have to spend too much money. (No grocery or department stores! At the risk of sounding catty, I ask: would you ever spend time at Fred Meyer if you didn’t need to shop there?)

More central to easy sociability than I ever realized is the need for some other place to play host. Until a few days ago, I had never thought of the role of host or guest as a burden. But think about socializing in the home, whether yours or somebody else’s: isn’t there usually a tension, or a stress? If you’re the host, you have to make your house clean enough for company, buy and prepare enough food, commit several hours of your time, and focus your attention and energy on your guests. If you’re the guest, you have to show up with some punctuality (especially if you are the sole guest), commit to more than a perfunctory visit, focus your attention and energy on your hosts, worry about not overstaying your welcome, and possibly bring a dish — not to mention learn new (if similar) rules of conduct for every new home you visit.

One of my favorite Soup Night visits happened when a married couple stopped in, hurried and practically out of breath. “Tonight’s Soup Night, right?” the husband asked, “Because we really need some dinner. We have to be somewhere in” — he looked at his watch — “half an hour.” They were the kind of friends who didn’t have to worry about the appearance of being “good” guests. They knew that their presence, how ever much they could give, was payment enough. We didn’t feel snubbed or used; in fact, it was a relief not to have to play the attentive host for them.

I’m not sure where the good third places are in Fairbanks. When you just need to get out of the house awhile, and you don’t want to make a special event of it, where do you go?

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Model of compact, nesting carA family member just sent me an article titled “MIT tackles urban gridlock with foldable car idea“. Apparently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a compact two-seater (about the size of a golf cart) capable of finding other cars like itself to stack up with, folding in half, and parking itself. This, they suggest, would relieve automotive congestion and allow more space in cities for parks and walkways.

I suspect that this is nonsense.

It is known among traffic researchers that the addition of new roads, and of lanes to existing roads, only increases traffic congestion. This seems like a paradox to most people. Any relief that a widened road provides is only temporary: it lasts until people figure out that there is a less-trafficked, more-convenient road to drive.

At any moment, there is a “traffic equilibrium” struck between people’s desire to drive to their locations on one hand, and their willingness to put up with the inconvenience of driving (be it speed, distance, or crowding) on the other. When driving conditions are made easier — that is, faster because of decreased crowding — it allows the fulfillment of people’s “latent demand” for driving. Their behavior changes to meet this new capacity: they drive to more destinations and choose to live farther away from those destinations. In time, the new road capacity is filled. As the authors of Suburban Nation write,

The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved right: “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”

While they haven’t widened the roads, these MIT scientists have done two things to increase traffic capacity: they’ve made the cars smaller (apparently, roughly the size of a golf cart), which will allow more of them on the road at once, and they’ve made it easier to find parking. If this folding, nesting, compact car catches on, I predict that the results will be similar to those of increasing our road-space: more people will find it convenient to drive, so people will live still farther away from town and make more trips by car.

As someone who advocates the re-establishment of downtown as Fairbanks’s center of commerce and culture, I am of two minds about the possibility of more traffic heading here. Naturally, I want more people coming downtown for their shopping and socializing. But I also think that making it easier for Fairbanksans to drive will only disperse us farther, and that is bad for neighborhoods, public spaces, and civic life.

I appreciate that the nice folks at MIT want to reduce urban traffic congestion and to create a less eco-hazardous car. But I wish they’d focus their efforts on technologies that can bring people closer together and improve the civic life of cities. I suspect that the tools for that are not high-tech, but have been with us for centuries.

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