There are lots of so-called “childish questions” that I wish grown-ups would ask each other when discussing the built environment. Especially when discussing city streets.
Remember The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson?
Two weavers promise to give the emperor clothing that’s invisible to stupid or incompetent people. So of course the emperor wants these amazing clothes. The weavers were holed up designing their masterpiece. Enthusiasm builds. And in the end it turned out their magical clothing was no clothing at all.
All those elite and educated people surrounding the emperor were willing to go along with an outrageous lie. Social pressure immediately kicked in. Who would dare admit that they couldn’t see any clothing? They figured only an idiot would risk being ostracized for speaking truth to power.
No one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes. None of the self-respecting adults around the emperor wanted to be accused of having a simple mind. And of course the grand finale of the story – it took a young child to point out the obvious. The emperor was cavorting around town without a stitch of clothing!
Ridiculous pride is fun to mock when it’s so over-the-top. I would suggest that Anderson’s fable has direct application to how we plan transportation infrastructure, especially here in the United States.
Think of Hans Christian Anderson as a professional planner by breaking down his classic fable into this progression: sight — insight — action. Sight is the easy part. It’s making note of the conditions around you (the magical clothing).
Insight connects logical dots (in the fable, that would be realizing that there’s no such thing as invisible clothes; so there aren’t any clothes on the emperor).
Action is taken based on an individual’s convictions (going along with a lie or speaking truth to lies).
So here’s a fun experiment. Try repurposing The Emperor’s New Clothes for your dinnertime conversation with the kids. If you don’t have any kids, offer to watch your friends’ kids. If you don’t have any friends with kids, then you need more diverse friends!
Here’s one way it might play out. Suspend disbelief as you read the following paragraphs and imagine you’re one of my kids.
I’m going to tell you what The Emperor’s New Clothes has to do with making great city streets.
You know how all those grown-ups in the story could see that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes but they didn’t want to say anything? Funny, huh. They pretended that what they saw was fine.
Sight (the magical clothing)
Picture in your mind that street near our house with 6 lanes on it, but no traffic most of the day. Just cars whizzing by really fast. College books for engineers call this a triumph of modern planning and design. They even use letter grades like they do in school to make the road sound better. That empty highway is called Level of Service A. Sounds like the best, doesn’t it?
Believe it or not, there are a lot of grown-ups who insist this really is the best kind of street. But when they go visit it themselves to see if the street works well and if it’s safe, they wear helmets and shiny yellow vests. Why?
Probably because deep down inside, they know what you kids know. The street looks like a highway and is probably pretty dangerous to walk near.
It would have made good sense for the adults in The Emperor’s New Clothes to point out what they really saw instead of what they thought the emperor wanted them to see.
Even now, all across America, there are adults who can spot a dangerous street but they’re afraid to speak up. They’re afraid other grown-ups will make fun of them and call them crazy.
Insight (realizing the truth before you)
In science class, you’re going to learn about Francis Bacon. He came up with something we call “the scientific method”. It changed the way scientists thought about the world.
The most important part of the scientific method was observation. Even when scientists were observing some things with their own eyes, they didn’t believe it could possibly be true. They began learning incredible things about the earth, the human body, and space — things they thought were impossible.
Oddly enough, people still get shocked by discoveries made about streets.
In the early 1900s, families were told that fast-moving automobiles had to rule the streets, even in cities and towns.
But people who study streets and car crashes have been learning that cities get far more dangerous when you design streets just for cars.
More people speed, more cars get in crashes, and more people walking and bicycling are killed.
When a car moving at 20 mph hits a person, that person walking will almost always live. But when a car moving at 40 mph hits a person, that person walking is almost always going to die.
Think of how many times we walk or drive on streets with speed limit signs that are 45 mph.
Action (take a stand, speak truth)
Since I know that city streets are safer when cars are moving slowly and people can easily walk across them, I want to make sure I teach you kids about it. Otherwise, you might grow up to design some terrible streets!
At the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, one person took action. A child. They spoke up about what they knew to be true and then others followed.
Pretty soon all the grown-ups were laughing about the invisible clothes. It’s the same way with streets near home and near school. You can usually tell if a street is safe by looking at how many people walk and by listening to how fast the cars go by.
Anytime you have the chance, remind your friends that streets should be safe enough for kids to walk across. But I’m going to warn you: Not everyone will believe you.
So remember the fable.
Remember how all those grown-ups pretended the emperor was wearing amazing clothing. And remember how in the end it took one brave kid to point out the obvious.
I’m a grown-up, what about me?
Alright, snap out of it. You’re not one of my kids anymore.
So what’s the point of all this kid-centric talk?
Hopefully it will stir you to action. Or at least get you to start thinking critically about the infrastructure around you.
Point out the public nudity of the American infrastructure fable. Speak truth to the educated and elite around you: Our cities and towns have been devastated by ridiculous infrastructure that we don’t need, and as it turns out — is quite deadly.
We don’t speak truth for the sake of mocking engineers, but to inspire change. Ordinary people are provoking extraordinary change in cities around the world by asking so-called childish questions.
The result? Safer and more vibrant communities. Block by block, street by street.