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Fun is good

The wind in your hair. The rush of motion. The breathtaking view of the landscape. These are some of the joys of riding in a machine invented right around the turn of the twentieth century. I'm talking about the Ferris wheel.

Photo by wallyg.

Riding in Ferris wheels is a lot of fun. Millions of people do it. They've appeared in countless American movies. And that's why, no matter what some "Smart Growth" advocates try to do to restrict Ferris wheels, the DC government should continue structuring its public policy around ensuring free and unlimited Ferris wheel rides.

Fun is watching the brightly colored gondolas spin around and around. Stopping at the top while people get on and off at the bottom may be much derided, but the time alone with your thoughts at the top of the wheel is incredibly relaxing. Ferris wheels may be just a wheel and a motor to some, but to most they provide the childlike joy and feeling of freedom they want. Teacups, Scramblers, and bumper cars may provide brief glimpses of fun, but are never loved like Ferris wheels.

Streets like 15th Street, NW used to have much wider front yards for the houses, but during the twentieth century DC took away much of this "public parking" area to construct Ferris wheels. After decades of designing the city around Ferris wheels, there is one on almost every block, but that's simply not enough. Residents of some denser neighborhoods complain about having to wait as much as a half hour to get on a Ferris wheel when they come home.

That's why we need zoning rules that require all new apartment buildings to construct Ferris wheels on their property. That's also why some Councilmembers have introduced legislation to spend public money on constructing new Ferris wheels, and some people have advocated tearing down buildings like the Reeves Center to put in Ferris wheels.

Some "Smart Growth" advocates suggest instead that we end the current policy of keeping all rides free and letting people ride as many times as they want in a row. They say this is unfair, because some people keep taking up Ferris wheel seats all evening, and propose "performance Ferris riding" to set a market price for rides. But that will hurt poor people. "Smart Growth" advocates may try to make Ferris wheels more inconvenient or more expensive, but people still want to enjoy the rush of riding high atop the city in Ferris wheels. Some residents feel that the Ferris wheels "tower over" their houses and the bright lights late into the night interfere with their sleep, but that's just part of the fun.

Obviously, the above is farcical. Yet it's the very argument Gary Imhoff made on Sunday with his ode to the private automobile. He derided the "Smart Growth" advocates for daring to suggest that cars ought not be king in all circumstances. After all, they're so much fun:

Fun isn't just sports cars and muscle cars going twenty or thirty miles over the speed limit. It's also the toy cars Volkswagen bugs in the 1960's and smart cars today that make everybody smile. ... Fun is also the comfy, cushy sedans associated with staid uncles and aunts. ... Fun is the pickups that let their owners feel they can do any job they need to do.
The point Imhoff and others miss is that we don't subsidize most other forms of fun. Just because something is fun doesn't mean our public policy should give that fun priority over other fun, or that we should devote substantial public land to that fun at great taxpayer expense, or require new buildings to spend millions of dollars to accommodate the fun, crowding out other uses. Imhoff's argument appears to boil down to this: either something is good, or bad. If it's good, then any policy that increases it is good, and any advocate for any policy that says otherwise must be trying to destroy the happiness that comes with it.

There's nothing wrong with finding cars to be fun. Of course, other people find walking, bicycling, and taking Metro fun. Imhoff writes, "Subways and buses are the appliances, conveniences that can be appreciated but are never loved." Many Greater Greater Washington readers, I suspect, beg to differ. Many commuters stuck in traffic, meanwhile, don't find cars much fun at all. Why are the desires of those who enjoy walking or bicycling insignificant, while those of the car enthusiast paramount? Nobody's advocating to outlaw auto shows or vintage car parades.

The irony of Imhoff's argument becomes most clear at the end of his love letter, when he writes,

Drive the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, and if your timing is right you can see a thrilling sight. On the bridge will be cars, bicycles, and pedestrians; on the next two bridges will be a train and a subway car; underneath will be boats on the Potomac; and above will be airplanes coming in for a landing at Reagan National Airport. It's the history of transportation, of the twentieth century, in one spot.
That spot is indeed thrilling. But, as Imhoff noted, your timing has to be perfect to catch a fleeting glimpse of the walkers, bikers, boats, trains and planes on 14th as you speed across the bridge and keep your attention on the road. But there's a much easier way to take in the glory of the bridges over the Potomac: walk or bike there. It's too bad Imhoff doesn't consider that much fun.
David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Wow. That was just awful.

by Fritz on Jul 28, 2009 12:23 pm • linkreport

So you're suggesting that cars should be regulated as amusement park rides and only available in small carnival lots as amusements?

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 28, 2009 12:36 pm • linkreport

Imhoff is definitely wrong about one thing: plenty of people love streetcars and trains as much as others love cars.

by rg on Jul 28, 2009 1:01 pm • linkreport

"This is not a Ferris Wheel, it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again."

by Anderkoo on Jul 28, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

I liked it David. This Imhoff is almost as bad as that other Imhofe.

by NikolasM on Jul 28, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

Who is that fool? He clearly doesn't know why societies invest in infrastructure. And it's not for fun, although it may indirectly facilitate fun.

by Cavan on Jul 28, 2009 2:12 pm • linkreport

have you had a chance to meet mr. imhoff in person? he quite dislikes the "newbies" who advocate for smart growth. in private (and apparently in public as well now) they're derided as pie-in-the-sky types who don't understand the reality on the ground, of "how washington works."

sounds a lot like marion barry in a way, doesn't it?

by IMGoph on Jul 28, 2009 2:16 pm • linkreport

Apparently he's just another dinosaur who can't seem to understand that it's 2009 and not 1962. We have environmental issues and are well into diminishing returns for car infrastructure. Just frustrating.

by Cavan on Jul 28, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

Oh FUN! haha... what a great way to put it...

by Justin from ReadysetDC on Jul 28, 2009 3:21 pm • linkreport

I don't get the analogies. I just read the Imhoff article in question, and he makes a lot of sense. And he seems to be pro-smart growth in the 'smart' sense of smart growth. For example, he says that those who think the day of the personal vehicle is over aren't noticing the Smart Cars in the driveways of today (like those back in the '60s didn't notice the Volkswagen Bugs ... which, while gone unsaid in his article, but obvious to anyone who's been around long enough, turned out to be the prototypes of the highly efficient personal vehicles to come in the 70s, 80s, and beyond.)

What I got out of his well written article had nothing at all to do with 'fun' and everything in the world to do with 'progress'.

Perhaps some folks who call themselves 'smart growthers' don't realize that returning to the age of trains, horses, and bicycles is neither 'smart', advisable, environmental, or possible?

by Lance on Jul 28, 2009 3:55 pm • linkreport

Gary Imhoff is a bit of a DC institution, for those who just moved here in the last few years (ahem). Doesn't mean he's always right, in fact I disagree with a lot of his commentary.

By the way, bikes are fun. Fun is feeling the breeze on my face while gently pedaling past a line of idling cars waiting in traffic. Fun is knowing I can get from midtown to downtown in five minutes any time of day or night. Fun is not just the fancy road bikes but the clunkers that ride smooth after 20 years despite no maintenance and the Smartbikes that make everyone smile.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 28, 2009 4:36 pm • linkreport

A thread of thought in the Imhoff article is of ownership. When you have a car, you own the vehicle, and you can do whatever the hell you want with it. It gives you a feeling of freedom and capacity that's totally your own.

Of course, much of that is illusory. You're tied by laws, other drivers, and physical limitations. I suppose from his position, you can't own the stations of Metro or the trains, so you can't enjoy the mode itself. But he's wrong about smart growth trapping people, because people who live in subdivisions are forced to use cars, and I find that it's less easy to enjoy something that you have to use. From my apartment, I can reasonably bike, ride a bus, ride a train, or drive a car to my job. He can't say the same for most people in White Oak.

by цarьchitect on Jul 28, 2009 4:38 pm • linkreport

Oh, we notice the Smart Cars. We notice they are expensive. We notice they don't gain much in mileage. We also notice that they are delicate. Crash one of them and you will walk away most likely. But you'll need a new one because they do not take much to get totaled. We also notice that the roads they drive on are deteriorating. How long into this economy before municipalities decide it is not worth the expense to keep resurfacing every road? Once we get to that stage, you better be ready to use bicycles and trains, because your only other option would be an off-road-ready vehicle you will not have to money to fill up.

by Omri on Jul 28, 2009 4:49 pm • linkreport

Omri ... I wish I could put you in a time machine ... Back to a generation coming of age in the '70s ... when the exact same things were said ... but never happened. Could this be a generational thing? Could the children of the hippy generation somehow have picked up on their parents' youthful fears? ... Those that never came to be ... ?

by Lance on Jul 28, 2009 7:01 pm • linkreport

Now I really want Ferris Wheels... everywhere... with the height limit on everything else, the views would be spectacular.

by Bossi on Jul 28, 2009 8:47 pm • linkreport

Omri, I just googled Smartcars and they start at $11,990! Not exactly expensive ...

by Lance on Jul 28, 2009 9:36 pm • linkreport

So now are you going to go with the Wendell Cox argument that we should just buy poor people Smart Cars and all of our mobility issues will magically disappear, Lance?

Because I've seen these incredibly essentialist arguments about cars before, and they're kind of trite. I like cars, too, and I think driving can be fun. But congestion isn't fun, and a multimodal system is as necessary for drivers as it is for everyone else.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 28, 2009 9:48 pm • linkreport

So now are you going to go with the Wendell Cox argument that we should just buy poor people Smart Cars and all of our mobility issues will magically disappear, Lance?

Because I've seen these incredibly essentialist arguments about cars before, and they're kind of trite. I like cars, too, and I think driving can be fun. But congestion isn't fun, and there's not a lot of getting away from it, so a multimodal system is as necessary for drivers as it is for everyone else.

Romanticism just isn't a very good argument.

by J.D. Hammond on Jul 28, 2009 9:50 pm • linkreport

I totally am anti-car and congestion but insulting Gary Imhoff personally in some of these comments is counter-productive to smart growth. Gary and his spouse Dorothy Brazille have done more investigating corruption in DC government than everyone else combined. They caused the downfall of many in the Barry and the Tony Williams clans. No one has done more to get political corruption exposed than them.

Gary and Dorothy are important allies as they help expose how much DC spending is really political graft. Spending that would otherwise be available for better projects. (They were especially critical of the DCUSA project and know where the skeletons are buried there).

(Personally I think the reason DC is the 2nd most congested and 14th most polluted city is precisely this romanticizing of cars and our incredibly spoiled metro population that insists on two SUV's in each family and the ability to drive 5-block trips or from one Metro stop to another).

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 29, 2009 10:06 am • linkreport

I couldn't agree more strongly with Tom Coumaris' plaudits for Gary Imhoff's role as part of a dynamic duo against corruption.

But that is precisely why Imhoff's inane blather is all the more disappointing: he's just another established and rapidly aging civic activist without a clue as how to connect with newer residents who wish to continue the more important elements of his, and his wife's, work. Putting them off with sour snips, whether it's about cars or the gay marriage debate, is a recipe for rejection. Maybe he and Dorothy couldn't be comfortable with any other result, given how deep their ruts run.

I've seen new involved residents chat with Imhoff, and you could use a stopwatch to mark the usually-less-than-30-seconds realization on their faces that this is going to feel a lot like arguing with your parents, if you ever, ever, deal with this guy again.

by Doesn't Like Andy Rooney Either on Jul 30, 2009 8:14 am • linkreport

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