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October 17, 2012

Little Boxes

Dear Generationalists:

In the last issue of themail, Karl Jeremy asked, “Why David Alpert?” Jeremy, a longtime civic activist in DC, wondered why Alpert, the founder and editor of the Greater Greater Washington blog, should have been given prominent positions by city councilmembers and bureaucrats who are creating policy regulating cars and drivers. Alpert and his followers want to promote public transportation, walking, and bicycling, so they advocate making it more expensive and difficult for the city’s residents to own and drive cars. In their view, cars are a blight on society that should be cut back substantially if they cannot be completely eliminated. This coincides with the views of Councilmembers Wells and Cheh and Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, and with the current fads and trendy anti-suburban prejudices in urban planning.

Jeremy’s message didn’t cause any stir among readers of themail, but it did elsewhere. David Alpert himself replied in “Gen Xers and Millennials Are Not Going Away,”, and Will Sommer covered the exchange in the City Paper, “Millennials Will Suck DC Dry, Says Grumpy Old Man,” Alpert not only acknowledged that he didn’t know who Jeremy was; he parlayed his lack of knowledge into the speculation that “Karl Jeremy” was probably a pseudonym. Alpert isn’t alone in being unfamiliar with and contemptuous of civic activists who aren’t in his circle; most of the Greater Greater Washington crowd share his attitude. Among the “smart growth” circles, the most common criticism of civic activists is that they are old and therefore out of it. This is an ironic payback for the liberals and radicals of the baby boomer generation that in the 1960’s invented the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”

Youth is important to the Greater Greater Washington crowd. But many of the commentators on Alpert’s article are anxious to clarify that they’re not all twenty-somethings. They are in their forties and even fifties, they insist, but they are bicyclists and think young; they’re just younger in attitude than others in their generation. Yet other commentators to Alpert’s article take a smug satisfaction in the thought that their anti-car values will triumph eventually, since their opponents are old and will die off (unlike themselves, apparently).

The real argument is not between generations, but between those who want a city that will accommodate all generations at all states of their lives — people when they are young and in school and all their wants and needs can be satisfied with a tiny, cramped dorm room and a bicycle and nearby bars; people when they are young adults and starting families; and people when they are older — and those who want a city that is designed just for those who are in the first stage of their lives or who want to prolong that first stage for decades longer than usual. Our city’s urban planners are now encouraging the construction of “microunits,” tiny apartments as small as 330 square feet, without dedicated parking spaces, These units can be understood as dorm rooms for people in a prolonged adolescence, people not part of a couple and certainly not part of a family, who live their lives in coffee shops and bars and who retreat to their cells only to sleep. This is the logical conclusion of “smart growth”; cramped spaces in crowded neighborhoods for singles. This development reminds me of nothing so much as Malvina Reynolds’ contempt for the suburbs in her song “Little Boxes”: “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky tacky/Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes all the same./There’s a green one and a pink one/And a blue one and a yellow one,/And they’re all made out of ticky tacky/And they all look just the same.” What an irony — a generation raised on contempt for the ticky tacky little boxes in the suburb grows up to promote ticky tacky microunits in the city.

I’ll give the last word to one commentator on Alpert’s article, “Crin,” who writes: “The letter writer [Karl Jeremy] would have been on firmer ground if he/she had simply asked: why are elected officials and professional policy makers deferring to David Alpert as if he’s some sort of policy expert? He’s not. He’s a technology expert who started a blog. The blog is a helpful and productive forum, so kudos to Alpert for that, but his opinion is no more insightful, helpful, or analytical than one of the commenters on GGW. Elected officials see him as a political king-maker that they have to kowtow to. Politics should never be mistaken as expertise.”


Must reading: Alan Suderman, “The Catania Conundrum,”, about Councilmember David Catania and his employer, M.C. Dean: “Should DC really have a system where councilmembers vote on bills that affect how their employers, their employers’ partners, and their employers’ competitors do business here?”

Gary Imhoff 


Does Photo Traffic Enforcement Save Lives, Continued
Jack McKay,

In the October 10 issue of themail I noted that the MPD claim that their speed and red-light cameras were saving lives is nonsense. If these devices were causing drivers to slow down and drive more carefully, then pedestrian fatalities ought to be down. They’re not. If the behavior of DC drivers were better, thanks to these Big Brother machines, then traffic collisions ought to be down. They may be down a bit, but not by much. The decrease in traffic fatalities during this same period is ten times greater than the decrease in collisions. The most plausible explanation for the 50-60 percent decrease in traffic fatalities is that the safety measures built into cars to protect their occupants, e.g., air bags, are reducing car occupant fatalities in collisions, while doing nothing for pedestrians. The MPD can’t take credit for safer cars.

I was dismayed to see that Councilmember Tommy Wells, leading the task force on traffic fines, has been taken in by the MPD propaganda: “research provided to the task force clearly demonstrated that traffic cameras are doing their job. DC traffic fatality rates have dropped about 75 percent over the past eleven years — the period during which DC has used fixed speed cameras,” ( So, the speed cameras must have brought about the decrease in traffic fatalities, right? There’s an expression for this bogus logic: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. “Research,” it is not.

I might note that, in my thirty-eight years of driving a car in the District, I have never gotten a moving violation ticket, and I’m not personally concerned about any photo enforcement machines. I simply prefer to see District policy based on actual facts, not on naïve, wishful thinking.


DC Accessibility Camp and DC Mini Maker Unfaire
Phil Shapiro,

Last Saturday I attended a very interesting free, day-long event at MLK library on the topic of assistive technologies. I’m proud to say the DC Public Library is very forward thinking in this regard. People came all the way from Chicago to attend this event. On Sunday I used Google Hangouts on Air to interview Patrick Timony, the DC library staff person who served as a host for the event. Interested persons can view our twenty-two-minute video at

Patrick Timony and I are also organizing a free weekend long event, the DC Mini Maker Unfaire, at MLK library on November 17 and 18. This event is loosely modeled on the “Maker Faire” gatherings organized by MAKE magazine, Details about our DC event can be found at Thanks for passing along word about this event to anyone you know who’d enjoy attending.


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