Circular behavior

The tragic, unintended consequences of Seattle's best intentions.
(City of Seattle)

(City of Seattle) None


Earlier this year, the libertarian magazine Reason picked Seattle as the second-biggest "nanny" city in America, a place eager to control what and where you smoke, drink, and eat and whom you have sex with. Citizens and politicians have crusaded against nightclubs, prostitution, smoking, trans fats, fast food, bottled water, and plastic grocery bags. Officials have tried to shut down strip clubs, crack down on noisy music venues, and have installed surveillance cameras in city parks. True to its Scando-Asian roots, Seattle has strong impulses to micromanage. Places like Las Vegas are for sinful vacations. Seattle is a place for being on your best behavior — like a secular church — even if your mind wanders during the sermons.

Nannyism is only part of the picture here. Much of what we do is morally charged, these days powered by the recycled, politically correct poop of pygmy goats.

In the name of saving the planet, a wide range of policies have been pursued with a moral component: Walking is not only a healthful activity, it "builds community" and fights the scourge of obesity. Planting a tree isn't simply a pleasure; it reduces our carbon footprint and cleans the air. Riding the bus isn't a convenience; it's a statement about whether or not you love the planet.

In our quest to shape our city into an ultra-politically correct environment, we've built a landscape full of trip wires. Grocery bags, water bottles, bicycles, and grass lawns have become moral and political statements. As such, they are booby-trapped.

Some of those booby traps have been going off in unexpected places. In the Rainier Beach neighborhood, a man known for his gardening and commitment to recycling was killed in July in a dispute triggered by his watering of a traffic circle. Is there anything more seemingly benign than a traffic circle designed for its "calming" effect?

Personally, I think many traffic circles are annoying hazards that worsen visibility and make some intersections less safe for both drivers and pedestrians. But most people seem to like them, and never did I imagine someone would be killed over tending a garden in one. The apparent cause of the assault was the fact that the man had blocked traffic so no one would drive over his watering hose.

No one should die for that, but on the other hand, blocking a public street to water plants is probably not the best idea. On that day, there was a clash of moral priorities and rights that got out of hand: people trying to get somewhere, and a man determined to improve the neighborhood whether others liked it or not.

Another clash occurred on Capitol Hill in July when members of the bicycle activist group Critical Mass blocked a driver from leaving his parking space. Taunted by the cyclists, the driver says he felt threatened and tried to move, knocking down cyclists in the process. The bikers then allegedly threatened the driver, smashed up his car, slashed his tires, and bashed him in the head. The terrorized man later apologized for his part and told The Stranger, "I sympathize with [cyclists'] cause. I ride bikes, too. I'm a liberal hippie Democrat. ... I'm gay, the person with me was a lesbian, and we were attacked by eco-terrorists. It's the most Seattle thing that could have happened."

He's right about that. It wasn't enough to simply turn the guy in to the cops for hitting cyclists — who were illegally blocking him in the first place. They had to mess him up, vigilante-style. But the image of Seattle bike anarchists beating down on a gay guy on Capitol Hill in the name of bike liberation could be used in a poster campaign of Seattle self-righteousness gone wild.

So, are we shaping a city filled with people fueled by moralistic fetishes about bikes, bags, and biodiesel? It seems to me Seattle is like a mini-utopian experiment where "right thinking" is a public virtue. Such communities have downsides, one being that they often turn on themselves. In historian Charles Pierce LeWarne's book on alternative communities in the region, Utopias on Puget Sound 1885-1915, he found that many of them failed because members of the communes turned on each other for not being pure enough. Let's be careful not to confuse building a modern city with forming a P.C. cult.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

A different conclusion: Hi Knute. I agree that PC attitudes can sometimes get out of hand, but I see no connection between that conclusion and the incidents you describe.

What these incidents show is that Seattle is full of anger and short tempers. The moral of these stories is simple - folks need to chill out. That includes the Vietnam vet who adopted the traffic circle, the teenager who punched him, the guy who lost his patience and mowed down a bunch of bikers with his car, and the critical massholes who regularly make a nuisance of themselves.

It also includes the columnist who incites populist anger by throwing around stereotypes of liberals.
Sean

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Blocking traffic: But the gardener did not really block traffic. He put up cones at one part of the traffic circle. Since it's a circle, the driver would have had no problem driving around it the other way. She had no excuse to complain (let alone having her thug friend come and kill the guy).

(Also, the gardener was not PC. If he was a true nanny-raised Seattleite, he would have planted all drought-tolerant plants!)
JvA 98108

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

This piece is disgusting.

You're really going to blame James Paroline's death on the traffic circle?! Are you serious? I suppose I shouldn't ever get in anyone's way, or it's my fault if they kill me. That'll show him for trying to spend some enjoyable time gardening.

//The apparent cause of the assault was the fact that the man had blocked traffic so no one would drive over his watering hose.// Nice journalism here. The cause was an unstable ass that solves his "problems" using his fists. In case you've never visited Seattle, turning circles are round. If you put up cones to block traffic from driving over your hose, "traffic" (um, the one car?) can drive the other way. I can't believe I have to defend the dead man in this scenario.

//I think many traffic circles are annoying hazards that worsen visibility and make some intersections less safe for both drivers and pedestrians.// Well why didn't you say so? Let's alert the mayor - Knute thinks they're unsafe!!! Let's ignore the studies that tell us that they result in 39% fewer crashes, 76% fewer injury-causing crashes, and 90% fewer fatal crashes, while at the same time improving traffic flow by 75% (since you don't have to stop). pdf here

You've already made your hatred for Seattle clear. But even you should be embarrassed by this piece.

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Hmmm... It looks like you've changed comment formats since I've posted here. I'll repost to make this easier to read.

This piece is disgusting.

You're really going to blame James Paroline's death on THE TRAFFIC CIRCLE?! Are you serious? I suppose I shouldn't ever get in anyone's way, or it's my fault if they kill me. That'll show him for trying to spend some enjoyable time gardening.

//The apparent cause of the assault was the fact that the man had blocked traffic so no one would drive over his watering hose.// Nice journalism here. The cause was an unstable ass that solves his "problems" using his fists. In case you've never visited Seattle, turning circles are round. If you put up cones to block traffic from driving over your hose, "traffic" (um, the one car?) can drive the other way. I can't believe I have to defend the dead man in this scenario.

//I think many traffic circles are annoying hazards that worsen visibility and make some intersections less safe for both drivers and pedestrians.// Well why didn't you say so? Let's alert the mayor - Knute thinks they're unsafe!!! Let's ignore the studies that tell us that they result in 39% fewer crashes, 76% fewer injury-causing crashes, and 90% fewer fatal crashes, while at the same time improving traffic flow by 75% (since you don't have to stop). pdf here: http://www.iihs.org/sr/pdfs/sr3505.pdf

You've already made your hatred for Seattle clear. But even you should be embarrassed by this piece.

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

(Grrr... is there really no way to make new paragraphs? This is going to make comments really hard to read)

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

We just switched technologies today and yes, the comments work a little differently. We'll be fine-tuning this. Thanks for your patience and do let us know if you encounter problems.

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Comments are now displayed correctly.

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the larger problem is the huge increase in new arrivals over the past two decades. Before all the Californians arrived (chasing then-cheap real estate), we had a rush HOUR, and the cultural norm was to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth.

Nowadays, our infrastructure is clotted with prestige vehicles and we have a real estate market that seems to strive for California prices (and architecture).

Bring back the bungalow!

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Matt, I really doubt if Knute hates Seattle. Then there are the statistics you cite (39% reduction in traffic accidents.. ): I wonder if the kind of "traffic circles" we have in Seattle have been around long enough to generate any meaningful statistics. A traffic circle melds traffic at an intersection in order to, theoretically, reduce stop-and-go; what we have in Seattle merely slows traffic and may increase safety but I think the jury is still out on that. I agree with Knute that they are annoying.

Calm down. Knute is a joker.

kieth

Posted Sat, Oct 11, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

until today, i had no personal salvation with regard to the bike mass idiots vs. the auto - but to learn that the thugs took their hate out on a gay and lesbie is just too perfect and to much to ask !

seattle, you deserve each other !

Posted Sun, Oct 12, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice try: the public policy agenda is not being driven by bike thugs and militant gardeners. A better critique would observe that these provocative policies are merely cosmetic and serve as a smokescreen for a more narrow agenda benefiting a minority. In other words, cynical politicians are guilty of emotional exploitation at a minimum. So why focus on self-righteous jerks on the fringe?

I offer two plausible explanations: 1) you practice a similar sleight of hand by exploiting emotionally charged issues under the pretense of some hazy form of journalism; I label this the "cynical journalist" 2)It takes one to know one; I'll label this the "self-righteous journalist."

Posted Sun, Oct 12, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

//Calm down. Knute is a joker.// Yeah. I sure hope if my loved ones are tragically killed he'll joke about them too. Whee!

Posted Sun, Oct 12, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I am active in my neighborhood community group and we spend the majority of our time responding to planning proposals by the City that seem founded in ideological planning principles (focusing on increasing density and discouraging cars and parking)for new urbanism environment.

The ideals are fine except for the fact that it completely ignores the way people circulate in the neighborhood and that it rains here 9 months a year. The city needs to recognize that we do not have an infrastructure like NYC and therefore, transitionary planning should be looked at instead of authoritatively planning space that doesn't work with a lot of existing users. This doesn't incentivize them to start walking and biking; it just incentivizes them to stop going there. And while they do not seem interested in creating parking at light rail stations (in fact, are adamantly against it), they will not spend resources or money on making sure the feeder routes to stations encourage walking and biking and making the neighborhood safe to do this. Station planning is focused on making it really walkable and bikable at the station, but ignore any efforts to get people there in the first place. It's totally retarded.

Just recently, our community debated over SDOT's proposal to change Rainier Ave. into a 2-lane road (w/ 1 center lane). An advocate of the change was for the idea because it "forced people to change their habits and move them to bikes and walking".

This is just authoritative liberalism; forcing a decision because of the righteousness of the idealism involved. There does seem to be a disconnect right now on how to execute these ideas. Many are turning to an authoritative style of "building it and they will come" but it tragically ends up pissing off a lot of people and forcing their hand. This is not a democratic method and we should be looking instead at cleverer solutions that get us from this reality to a future ideal scenario that is desirable.

jegusa

Posted Sun, Oct 12, 1:06 p.m. Inappropriate

//we should be looking instead at cleverer solutions that get us from this reality to a future ideal scenario that is desirable//

I completely agree. But I think you miss the point of light rail. It's a backbone to a transit system - it relies on other forms of transit to bring people to the station (say, buses), unless dense enough areas can be created that people can simply walk to the stations. Driving to a station would be great, except parking and high capacity roads take up so much space that it will kill both the so-dense-you-can-walk concept and, frankly, any character in the area. You can take a trip down to California and see this at any BART station with parking - you get a busy street that goes to a freeway, blocks of parking lots, then sprawl.

One solution to this? Kiss-and-ride short-term parking. You still get the busy street, but you remove the parking mess. Another is to rely on our excellent bus service.

(wow, that was a change of topic)

Posted Sun, Oct 12, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

We are the dictionary definition of Nanny State. I people have right to push back against it.

ABM

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Hey Knute, just because you put two things in the same paragraph, doesn't mean that one causes the other. How about looking at actual about traffic circles and their effects rather than citing a couple of seemingly unrelated incidents and using them to support your prejudicial conclusion. Journalists have an obligation to inform the public. So if you've got information to share, share away, but this is simply ignorance masquerading as propaganda.

jk

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I'd like to look at this silly "nanny state" argument in the context of the above piece.

Turning circles: nanny state? That's a very odd debate to have, but I'll bite. I'd say that forcing us to stop when we see red octagons is more of a nanny-state than a turning circle. Turning circles liberate a little piece of the road and give it back to the people to do with as they wish. There's no authoritarian "STOP", just the shape of the road that a driver deals with as they wish.

Critical mass: nanny state? That's ridiculous. Critical mass is as close to anarchy as our society ever gets. There are no rules and no laws, and it's certainly not controlled by the government.

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Matt & Jegusa - thanks I like your logic, the way you think, and your commitment to looking uncovering the frames of the debate.

Knute this is a fascinating article. I would love to hear more about the history of utopias in this region.

The premise of this article is that free market capitalism and oligarchy are somehow un-nanny. I think that is disingenuous and pretty irresponsible. In order to promote extreme conservatism, one has to be willing to ignore the history of slave labor and land grabs that this country and its ruling class has built on. Within this historical context, to act like supporting free market capitalism and oligarchy is somehow not a moral stance itself is just crappy.

Democratically-adopted land use policies seems like a nice start in grabbing some of the land back, especially to meet the needs of non-land-owning residents. More power to them.

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 12:53 p.m. Inappropriate

To me, this sort of decline is reflective of diversity - albeit the down side - and a decline in "common" cultural expectations about behavior, engagement, etc. The old guy who put up the traffic cones never expected to encounter people whose values were so different than his that a relatively minor altercation over his traffic cones became a grounds for his beating and death. The other thing, well...I do regard Critical Mass as the anarchists of the bike world. (I found the driver's statement in The Stranger so funny that when it appeared I e-mailed it to almost everyone I knew.) Face it, gone is the civic politeness of our previous generations. Things have changed. "Don't spit on the sidewalk" has evolved into hacking up luggies everywhere, not caring who steps in your sputum...and it isn't particular to Seattle.

debbalee

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle has long been the Land of Should. That last word gets thrown around all the time, so much so I don't think it occurs to the speakers that its just them scrabbling for moral high ground.

jjisafool

Posted Tue, Oct 14, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate


The problem is too many obnoxious idiots moved to Seattle.

In days of old (the 80s), a person could cross Broadway on Capital Hill in the middle of the street without a crosswalk, and the "traffic" (ie, one or two cars) would halt to let you pass.

Now 45th Street to Ballard is a "major thoroughfare".

The best thing for all the over the top loudmouth Californians who think that every street is a highway is to find an old Swedish person who has lived here for 80 years or more and sit down with them for about a year to learn how to live with people in an urban setting.

jabailo

Posted Tue, Oct 14, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think the writer meant to say that the circle 'caused' the murder to take place, so let's not stuff words into his mouth. It was the occasion of sin, so to speak. If a guy gets shot outside a hiphop club, hiphop did not commit the murder, else we would be able to jail a hiphop artist for it. But it was the occasion of sin

The design of roadways here is generally god-awful, and traffic circles are an example. I agree especially that they impair visibility, especially the one's that have tall, bushy plants on them. We've got 2/3rds/yr of dark rainy nights here. Let's see, how can we make things a little worse? I know let's put tall bushy plants in the middle of intersections! Genius!

rasul

Posted Wed, Oct 15, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Mossback discussed the Singaporization of Seattle already back during his Weekly days.
I take his word for having been in Singapore itself, I myself have no inclinations to visit that city.
However, a visit to a big dirty port such as Calcutta where "schoolgirls" meet eager young sailors
is another matter to make one look forward to revisiting one's youth. One can put it quite
simply with respect to Singapore on Pudgy Sound: in the 50s they shut down the after hours jazz clubs on South Jackson Street; now you have Kenny G all over and inside the elevator. In the 60s what was left of Seattle jazz still went to Fairbanks for the summer where the living was easy during the time of the ...
Funny thing is that those clubs never shut down the neutering women who shut down the clubs.
Seattle is a city of neutered women both male and female who will henpeck you to death. Is that the old time Seattle that
Mossback is so sentimental about? No surprise that nothing of great note derives from Seattle. The two incidents, though that Mossbacks mentions don't seem an apt illustration of his thesis, random expressions of urban rage,
absurd coincidences as they can happen anywhere anytime. The traffic circle killer was ready to beat whoever annoyed him. So was the group of fairy bicyclists. Rage seems to know no gender or class or mix thereof.

mikerol

Posted Wed, Oct 15, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

[rasul], let me quote again "The apparent cause of the assault was the fact that the man had blocked traffic so no one would drive over his watering hose." So what exactly did the writer mean to say here? What could this murder possibly have to do with the general "nanny state" point except if he's blaming the traffic circles?

Oh, and take a look at my earlier link regarding traffic circles and safety. They slow people down and make them more alert, which results in far fewer accidents. I'd love to see someone site to a study that's said otherwise.

Posted Fri, Oct 17, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

jabailo: In days of old (the 80s), a person could cross Broadway on Capital Hill in the middle of the street without a crosswalk, and the "traffic" (ie, one or two cars) would halt to let you pass... Now 45th Street to Ballard is a "major thoroughfare".

One probably could have: but why not simply cross at the crosswalks? Traffic expects to perhaps have to stop at crosswalks. Traffic does not expect to have to stop in the middle of a block. You might think it's fine to brake for a pedestrian, but the people behind you won't be expecting it.

And 45th/46th/Market from Laurelhurst through the U-District to Wallingford and Ballard has been a major thoroughfare for as long as I can remember, which is the late '70s...

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