Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mistakes: regular, unleaded and high octane

Let’s say that you buy a house.

Let’s say that you want to change some things about the house.

Some things are easy to do and not terribly expensive. Almost as important, some decisions are easy to reverse. Some things are very expensive and once taken, would be very expensive to reverse –and in some cases, it would be impossible to reverse.

Let’s say that the lawn has been left to grow high and thick. You mow in down to a golfing green perfection. It is now shorter than a Brittany Spear commitment to soberity—and you hate it. You can wait a couple of weeks and it will be back to it higher glory and the mistake is a memory. Very little cost and no permanent problem.

Let’s say that you want a house the color of a Farwest cab but without the subtlety. You paint it a green not-found-in-nature with a red trim that clashes with it with the violence that you normally associate with some of the major battles of World War I. Now, you have shelled out at least several thousands of dollars and maybe more, and if you want to rectify the mistake, you have to bring that and more to the plate. But it is not the end of the world. It costs you money, time and you have to live with the hideous paint job but it can be undone.

Now let’s say that you come under the influence of an Evil Remodeler or worse, an average architect. They convince you that your Craftsman Bunglelow would be much better if it looked like something really cool. So you tear down the house and build something ultra modern with more glass than the sidewalk on the Aurora Bridge. This is not only expensive but nearly impossible to reverse. (You may inherit a bunch of money and rebuild the Craftsman but it will never look like an original house.)

Small stuff can be better signs (not the ones over the freeway—they’re ridiculously expensive). Even changing the timing of the traffic lights shouldn’t cost a fortune (and if it does, look into why it costs so much). If you make a mistake, it can be changed back

Stuff in the middle includes better-designed traffic circles and closing side streets that lead onto and off Aurora Avenue. It might include computerizing the whole traffic light system or putting footlights on the Burke Gilman bike trail.

I’m not sure where I would draw a line but maybe a million dollars a mile is a good number. Keep in mind that a sidewalk costs two million dollars a mile. I guess that we are looking at things that aren’t concrete.

But when you do get to the big ticket items you are talking concrete. And concrete is rarely cheap and almost never torn up and replaced with greenery. It is sometimes replaced with more concrete and more expensive concrete at that but mostly it stays there.

There are things that we can do cheaply and if they don’t work, work badly or turn out to be wrong, they can be changed back without too much pain.

There are things that we can do, pay for them with what we have in gas tax in hand and if they don’t work, we can reverse them or remove them and move on. It is never pleasant to make a mistake but it has been done and been done by better people than what we have now and we have survived. (Think of the Woodland Park Zoo: it was built in the Thirties and became one of the world’s worst zoos. The animals were in tiny, inhumane cages and miserable. It made the list of the World’s Ten Worst Zoos Then, in the Seventies, it was rebuilt and now it is one of the World’s Ten Best Zoos.)

If we build a bunch of roads, dig a bunch of tunnels, lay a bunch of track, we will spend every thing that we have—and more. If it is a mistake, we can’t undo it, we won’t have any money left to do the right thing. Worse of all, we will try to make it work.

Let’s try controlling the traffic rather than letting traffic control us.

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