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Shared Spaces

Jim Wasserman

WHEN YOU’RE STUCK in traffic, have you ever idly wished for another lane to ease the congestion?

Not long ago, I listened to a podcast about the eternal problem of highway congestion in Texas, especially in the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio triangle. The expert said that our fundamental problem is that planners think of traffic as a liquid, so their answer to flow problems is always to “build a bigger pipeline”—meaning more highways.

Traffic, however, behaves less like a liquid and more like a gas. It expands to fill whatever space is available. If you build more highways, more people will come to use them. More development will follow, and soon there will be even more congestion, not less. The expert advocated that we stop expanding highways and instead invest in shared infrastructure, such as high-speed trains.

The highway paradox (more gets you less) is similar to John Lim’s recent piece about wealth. Higher income and wealth often don’t lead to increased happiness. It’s because of hedonic adaptation—greater levels of consumption quickly become our new normal. No matter how big a house we buy, we soon crowd it with new possessions, and then wish we had an even bigger place.

One solution may lie in the sharing economy. When our sons were growing up, our family of four tried to share space and possessions rather than loading ourselves down with more stuff. We created one family workroom where I—a teacher—would grade and our sons would do their homework. This saved space, while also creating connections when we’d take a break to chat and laugh together. The best keepsakes were the collective memories of those shared experiences within the family rather than more stuff.

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Similarly, we should strive to make more use of shared public spaces that we already fund with our taxes. Municipal amenities provide us with better facilities at a lower cost than an individual family can obtain and with lower impact on the environment, plus using these facilities can trim a family’s discretionary expenses without cutting down on the fun.

As water is getting scarce, the cost of keeping up our swimming pool was rising. On top of that, pools don’t increase home value much and may, in the future, actually be a deterrent to buyers. We opted to fill in our pool and create a great new yard. Now we swim in city pools or creeks, or in the lakes and swimming holes in nearby state parks. There’s a free municipal fountain park less than a quarter mile away, and a full city waterpark—with three giant water slides—within two miles.

We’re also fans of the local municipal tennis center. It provides just as much playing time, and at a much lower cost, than the country club we once belonged to. The tennis center has pros, drills and leagues. Being a tennis fanatic, I found a great group of guys to play with, and we have been a competitive USTA team now for 15 years.

There are other shared municipal resources that are great for families—and their budgets—in our area. Consider:

  • Public libraries are a treasure trove of entertainment, with most of the treasure (books and videos) accessible online.
  • Hiking trails and nature preserves are a reliable and renewable source of family adventure and exercise.
  • A nearby park has become a gathering place for family cookouts, group exercise and just general hanging around. The cookout pavilion and surrounding grassy area is a popular birthday party site—and perfect for very junior Olympic games.

Of course, you don’t have to give up all private enjoyments for shared public ones. Just find a couple that work for you—like my tennis center and swim park examples—and start incorporating them into your life. We still have a car, but we take public transportation when we can. Sometimes that even allows us to zip past those infernal backups on the highway.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He has authored several educational children’s books, including “Summa,” a children’s story for multiracial, multi-ethnic and multicultural families. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they are currently working on a book, “Your Third Life: Reflections on Finding Our Way by Taking the Long Route.” Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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John Goodell
John Goodell
7 days ago

I think about this issue all the time, Jim, and I couldn’t agree more. I believe America is slowly changing for the better because of climate reasons, but I also acknowledge that our state is more part of the problem than the solution currently. I really enjoyed this article.

R Quinn
R Quinn
7 days ago

In large measure, what you describe is Europe, less stuff, smaller spaces, more public facilities of all types. I’ll never forget the 20,000 capacity garage in Amsterdam – for bikes.

Those differences are the root cause why Americans will find it increasingly difficult to fit in with the rest of the world climate and economic wise and maybe why surveys show happier populations outside the US. I know my European friends can’t understand a lot about the way we Americans live.

The only time I’ve been on public ground transportation in the last forty years was in Europe.

As you point out use of the highways and our vehicles may be our biggest challenge and changing our ways in that regard, our biggest shock. Our very existence as a country is based on getting in a wagon, on a horse or walking and going someplace.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
7 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I think you are right, Dick. A lot of it goes back to an overgeneralized comparison that, in Europe, people already lived together in shared cooperative groups and then the idea of nationality was superimposed (leading to push back from groups like the Basque or Catalonians). The US was largely formed by first declaring a country, having waves of individually-minded immigrants come over, and then trying to superimpose a collective feeling of cooperation. It’s almost in our DNA for Americans to think as individuals first!

R Quinn
R Quinn
7 days ago
Reply to  Jim Wasserman

From the 1600s forward it took a lot of individualism and risk taking just to get here and just as much for many to make a success of it. I think that escapes many people today whose major complaint is that their walk-in closet is too small to hold their 25 pair of shoes.

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