Argument: individualistic political arguments don’t work in cities since they require contributing to the “public good”

After looking at the Democratic vote advantage in cities for the 2012 election, here is an argument about why individualistic political arguments don’t work in cities:

If Republicans are ever going to earn real votes in cities in the future, though, they’ll have to do more than just talk about them differently. The real problem seeps much deeper. As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, it has increasingly become the party of fierce individualism, of “I built that” and you take care of yourself. Cities, on the other hand, are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard?

In a good piece on the GOP’s problem with geography earlier this week, The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who made this point succinctly: “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.”

The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of “public good,” and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher (in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, in the sheer share of economic growth driven by our metropolises).

Density makes all of these things possible, and it requires its own kind of politics. There’s no reason why the Democratic Party should have an exclusive lock on this idea. Investing government money efficiently – as Republicans want to do – is also about focusing on how it’s spent in cities. While Republicans are mulling this over in the next four years, it may help to look at Howard’s map. What is going on in those dark blue dots? What does it mean to live in those places – and to live there and hear from politicians that “government should get out of the way?”

This reminds me of some of the observations of early sociologists about the transition from more rural village and farm life to urban life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cities aren’t just different because there are more people who are living and working closer together; this changes the social interactions (think of Simmel’s talk of the blase attitude in cities) as well as the social interdependence (think of Durkheim’s discussion of the division of labor).

One way Republicans could positively argue about cities: along with their surrounding metropolitan regions, cities are economic engines. A thriving economy needs thriving firms in these regions that encourage innovation, provide jobs, and interact with and operate in nearby communities.

Are there cities that are more individualistic than others? Can you have a global city that has a more individualistic ethos?

Why American road sign lettering will change: better readability

The Infrastructurist sums up the research behind the change to federal policies about road sign lettering. Road signs in coming years will need to be changed to move away from all CAPS in order to improve readability, particularly at night:

The shift reflects years of research into how drivers—particularly the elderly—react to road signs. In the late 1990s researchers at Penn State’s Pennsylvania Transportation Institute compared traditional highway signs to those with mixed-case Clearview lettering. They sat people age 65 to 83 in the front seat of a Ford Probe and approached a sign until the person could read it, repeating the tests with various fonts in both daytime and night.

The results, as the name Clearview suggests, were clear. Mixed-font Clearview was readable from roughly 440 feet away, whereas typical all-cap lettering was readable only at a distance of 384 feet. By expanding the interior spaces of certain letters, Clearview also reduced halanation—the process by which letters blur together late at night. In darkness Clearview became readable at 387 feet, against 331 for the standard highway font style.

All told the researchers found a 16 percent increase in readability with Clearview. On a typical 55 m.p.h. highway this translates into “two more seconds to read and respond to a sign,” they concluded in a 1998 report.

While this will cost money in the short term, it should lead to an improved driving experience. But it is also interesting how an issue like this can become fodder for political debates about how much money the government should be spending.