Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

As Population Rises,Civility Falls

Rudeness is a very rational adaptation to overcrowding.

By Andy Kerr

Some Oregonians are worrying that today's Oregon is not as civil as it once was. If Portland continues on its present course of population increase, it will eventually and inevitably be as uncivil as New York City.

Rudeness is a very rational adaptation to overcrowding. In New York, the very functioning of the metropolis requires its citizens to be overaggressive, excessively rude, and callously uncaring. To be otherwise, means being crushed.

A few years ago a colleague from the city of New York (pronounced "Manhattan") and I were going from Lloyd Center to downtown. We were going to be late if we didn't make the next MAX train, just coming into view. I broke into a jog and yelled "come on, we can make it." Though he was incredulous and doubting, his pace increased. As we sprinted into the open train doors, I gave a wave and a smile to the operator.

All my friend could do between gasps as the train pulled out of the station was to shake his head and repeat, "this would never happen in New York." If a New York bus or subway driver saw someone running, he said, they would close the doors and speed off all the earlier.

I always leave Manhattan with cramped shoulders from trying to ease by so many people on the streets and sitting in restaurants with tiny tables without enough room between to squeeze by without a rear end grazing your water glass.

During my latest visit to Washington, DC—where, as John F. Kennedy once observed, northern hospitality meets southern efficiency—I learned that Metro—that glorious, clean, friendly and efficient train system was straining at the increased ridership, due to increased population. The plan for making it more efficient was to have the train operators close the doors after 30 seconds, even if people were still waiting to get on. Efficiency experts think that this will save 8 seconds per stop. The effect will be that entering passengers will no longer wait for exiting passengers to leave the train first. More people will be carried, but at a cost of civility.

So, what does this have to do with civility in Oregon? I come from a small Willamette Valley town where if two cars were stopped in the road chatting and another approached, it was likely that the third driver would get out to visit with the others. Such is no longer the case in my hometown.

In Washington, DC, I used to wait for the Metro train to fully stop before I left my wide and padded seat. In New York, I've been so crowded on a subway that personal space is reduced to a few layers of clothing as one is sardined groin-to-buttock and with one's face in another's armpit (all the while not looking anyone in the eye).

Given enough time and growth, this is the future of MAX.

In Los Angeles, where citizens are as effectively crowded as New Yorkers because each one has a car wrapped around them, the decline of civility is manifest by road rage.

In the skies, air rage is attributable to overcrowded airplanes guided between overcrowded airports by an overtaxed air traffic control system—all because of population increase.

Yes, there are several other factors affecting civility, but as Oregon grows in population, it will inevitably become less civil. Yes, technology and planning can mitigate the many downsides of growth, but it cannot mitigate the loss of elbowroom. (On second thought, actually we do have ways to mitigate elbowroom loss—Prozac and cocaine.)

As elbowroom diminishes, so does civility. Our conversations will turn from the weather and the Trailblazers to the best way to get across the West Hills in rush hour. Portlanders will hotly debate the Sunset versus 217 just as New Yorkers argue the Queensboro Bridge versus the Midtown Tunnel. As we stand in line for our morning caffeine, pleasant conversations among the regulars will fade over time into someone—maybe even you—shouting their order over the shoulder of the customer who took a millisecond to pocket their change.
The only civil thing to do is to stop growing.

Andy Kerr is founder and president of Alternatives to Growth Oregon.