The Location Variance Board – a parable

By 2025 the City was stifled by its own success; as evidenced by seemingly unsolvable traffic congestion. It had freeways and mass transit, in the form of trains and busses; it had travel restrictions, and mandated work schedules; yet bumper-to-bumper ‘rush hours’ persisted. The name ‘rush hour’ was a misnomer on two counts. First because there was no element of ‘rush’ in the crawl of the traffic. Second because no one, in their right mind, could use the term ‘hour’ to describe the congestion in which the morning commuters’ slow movement mingled into the snarl of homebound evening travelers. This meant that, if asked, no driver could pin-point when the proverbial ‘rush hour’ began or ended. All agreed that, in 2025, traffic was a problem and, shaking their heads, announced,

“Something has to be done about it”.

In the 1980s and 1990s the City’s phenomenal growth had been a source of pride. Residents bragged to their out-of-town friends and relatives quoting the daily influx of new residents as proof of the desirability of their urban home. They waxed lyrical, and talked about the green belts and protected environmental features carefully blended into the urban fabric. The City Council managed to skillfully blend environmental protection with their invitations to new industries and employers so that the influx of new residents had meaningful jobs. They kept unemployment at less than 5%. The happy residents declared,

 “It’s the quiet blend of nature and City which makes our City quintessentially our City. It’s what we love about it. Some say that it is also weird, to which we reply, keep it weird!”

It is hard to imagine how the happy City of the twentieth century could have let itself evolve into the congested nightmare of the twenty-first. Outsiders asked why the elected City leaders hadn’t invested in more mass transit, more freeways, and more corridors for movement, of times called roads. The answer is, unfortunately, a criticism of the way the City functioned. It is an answer which, even in 2025, no resident wanted to accept. The answer is that the City had allowed itself to become compartmentalized into neighborhood groups.  Each group operated a small fiefdom and savagely protected, what they viewed as, their ’rights’. They objected to: the widening of roads, to the increase of density, to the loss of green space, to anything which, they felt, took away from their comfortable immediate environment. If challenged, by an outsider; we note here that only an outsider would dare to do this, no elected City official wanted to risk their electoral support. If challenged, each neighborhood group would have answered that they didn’t see why they had to give up their hard-won rights; they would say,

“Why can’t someone step in and solve the problems of the overall community; perhaps those fat-cats in the elite neighborhoods?”

One spring morning in early April 2020 the residents’ attention was grabbed by a twofold disaster. A fire in a semi-suburban apartment complex burned out of control because the fire engines from the nearest fire station were trapped inside by stalled traffic, while other nearby stations, which ought to have been able to send equipment to help, were unable to respond for the same reason.  The entire complex of several hundred apartments was burned to the ground. Fortunately there were only four fatalities as most of the residents were out in their cars in the traffic. The second disaster was equally sad; a City Council member fell on the City Hall steps and died before an ambulance could get to her aid, again because traffic was at a standstill.

After a time of mourning and fruitless soul-searching, which did nothing to solve the neighborhood stand-offs, Mary was elected to take the seat of the deceased council woman. Mary, a native of the City, now lived in one of the new high-rise condominiums in downtown and could walk to City Hall. Isolated, as she was, from the daily immediacy of the traffic congestion, she might have chosen to ignore the problem; however, the opposite was true, she was acutely aware that the boa constrictor of traffic was suffocating her beloved City.

Mary’s first proposal was a suggestion that the City mandate a four ten-hour day week. This passed quickly as many welcomed the idea of an extra day off. However, it had no impact because everyone merely added Friday to their weekends. Next Mary persuaded City Council to mandate that the extra day off rotate between employers. A complex set of rules were developed. Traffic got better. People complained, but were happy to spend less time on the roads. Their pleasure was short lived and, in a few years, traffic was as bad as ever. Mary stepped in again with the suggestion that the City mandate rotating business hours. This initiative received endorsement as it was what many were already doing in an attempt to circumvent the worst traffic; as a result it had moderate success.

Mass transit, you readers are mumbling, mass transit is the answer, and I, the writer, agree. But, and of course, there is a ’but’; but, you see, the neighborhoods were still looking out for themselves and wouldn’t allow transit intrusion into their sanctified confines. City Council launched mass transit initiatives at every election. Each time the proposal was defeated in deference to full-out attack by whichever neighborhoods felt threatened. Residents quoted the sanctity of their homes and environmental protection while each privately thought,

“Yes they should use mass transit. It’s the answer. They should use it. Yes indeed, they should, but, no, not me, not near my house. I need my private car. Always have, my needs are quite unique; not me!”

Mary’s initiatives had delayed the inevitable by almost ten years, but by 2030 the City traffic was unbearable and our lovely City was beginning to experience a modest population decline. This had never happened before. City Council worried about loss in revenue and the neighborhoods hated the ‘for sale’ signs along their streets. By now our enterprising Mary was mayor, and as the senior City leader she proposed a new initiative. She proposed that the City be divided into wards, which followed the neighborhood boundaries and that residents be mandated to work no more than a certain distance from their homes. She managed to get this initiative passed by giving it a sugar-coating. Those who complied with the rules paid slightly reduced property taxes, those who didn’t, paid on increasingly high percentages. To address the populaces’ objection to the, what they considered, privileged ‘fat cats, in expensive close-in neighborhoods, these residences were offered no tax breaks while being heavily penalized for travel. Workers in fields which demanded location changes, such as maintenance and construction were given automatic exemption.

The caveat, which Mary offered vociferous objectors, was that the City was to set up a ‘Location Variance Board, (LVB)” whose sole job was to evaluate resident’s requests for variances from the location mandate. Given this seeming loophole the neighborhoods accepted the new ordinance. All thought that they knew how to handle City Boards, for, hadn’t they ruled the Board of Adjustments (BOA) for years? They speculated that they would come behind any non-compliant resident and prevail over the LVB while penalizing those in rival neighborhoods. They were in for a big surprise for the LVB, true to its mandate, only cared about traffic, and evaluated each application on its own merit. Commentary from supporters was politely heard and summarily dismissed.

Slowly, over the next decades, the once powerful neighborhoods changed focus. The citizenry came to realize that they were part of a bigger whole in which the good of their individual domain was inextricably woven into the collective good of the entire city. They championed the neighborhoods to allow densities to increase, transit ways to be built and watched with satisfaction as their City, once again, became mobile and an exemplary beacon for others. Eventually there came a time, long after Mary had retired, when the LVB could be disbanded.

One thought on “The Location Variance Board – a parable

  1. Singapore would have to be the ideal city. Planning takes into account the environment and they have clever ways to use natural lighting and breeze. They make use of vegetation in and around their new buildings too. Great clean and safe city!

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