Three books that will ruin your life

Reading these books will frustrate you to no end. But that's exactly why they need reading.

By Matt Carmichael on July 21, 2015 at 7:45 am CDT

Shopping used to just bore me. Now it fills me with rage.

The best defense against life’s everyday annoyances is not paying attention to them. How much do you think about crosswalks as you’re passing through them? How much do you think about store lay-out when you’re shopping? And while you probably think about traffic a lot when you’re stuck in it, you probably aren’t thinking about simple solutions to it are you? Because if you knew how simple life’s everyday annoyances are to fix you’d go out of your mind.

Trust me. I know. It’s happened to me. And it’s all because I read these three books. They deconstruct one facet of the everyday giving you a complete understanding of how the system works, when it’s broken (often!) and how simple fixes often are. If you read them, you will find yourself suddenly aware of the flaws around you. You might go mad. The ironic thing is if everyone read them – especially those in decision-making roles – we’d all be better off.

The first book is Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. I used to just walk around my city without a care in the world. I mean sure, I looked out for cars and other hazards but that was about it. As I watched people stand around waiting for a “walk” sign at a crosswalk that never seemed to come, I didn’t rage against the fact that they had to push a button in order to request that the red hand be replaced with the white walking guy. Now I see those buttons and I know how they are messing up my life and the lives of others. As Speck writes:

“Push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile dominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent. Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.”

Point by point he runs through the factors that impact walkability such as lane width, signage, the length of city blocks, the surrounding scenery and shows how easy it is for cities to make them better and make our streets safer and more pleasant. He doesn’t just talk about walking, but biking and driving, too. He chapter on parking alone is enough to cause blood pressure to boil as he discusses how much we all pay for parking through all the goods and services we buy and how vastly inefficient it is. “Nobody can opt out of paying for parking. People who walk, bike or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking and transit.”

Seeing red yet? Then don’t by no means read “Traffic,” by Tom Vanderbilt. As the title says, this is a book about the time you spend in your car. This state already has a condition associated with it: road rage. Reading this book will make it that much worse. You’ll learn about experiments like Bill Beaty’s who drove at a consistent 35-miles-per-hour and created an orderly stream of traffic out of a stop-and-go mess. Or you’ll learn why efforts to speed roadways often lead, ironically, to more congestion and slower speeds. You’ll also blame your fellow drivers for unavoidable aspects of human nature that cause traffic problems during the shift from Daylight savings to Standard time. You’ll think you’re better than they are, because you understand what’s happening, but in truth you’re messing things up, too. And god forbid you spend anytime listening to your community debate whether to build new freeways after learning about the horrid concept of “induced demand.” Man, you’ll want your tax dollars used for anything else.

Finally, whether we’ve walked through perilous crosswalk-free sprawl, or sat through interminable left-hand turn lights, or walked pleasantly to our corner store once we’re in the retail destination all bets are off.

As you stand in the middle of the store with your hands full of items, wishing that someone would have put some baskets here instead of right by the door where your momentum of entering the store carried you right by them, think of the work of Paco Underhill and his seminal book “Why we Buy.” Because Mr. Underhill had this figured out decades ago. It’s not rocket science, retail, but it is a science. He and his team have spent tens of thousands of hours observing shoppers in their natural habitat. He’s figured out how wide aisles should be so you don’t “butt bump” people when bending over for a low-hanging item. He knows where the shopping baskets should be. He knows how to design a drink machine at a restaurant so that the lids and cups are in the right place while you’re pouring your drink. And he knows to put a small trash can nearby for your straw wrappers.

As you move through life, trying to avoid life’s little frustrations, you’d be best to avoid these books as well. Reading them will only cause you to fully understand how to fix life’s problems. You might want to save yourself the aggrevation, but maybe knowing more about these issues will help you help your leaders make better decisions for your communities. So do what you will for yourself, but please, please please buy them for every decision maker you can.

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