Numtots Have Entirely Missed The Point Jane Jacobs Was Making


The Guardian introduces us to a grouping who have entirely missed the point being made. The Numtots are a group, Facebook community, a mistake of millennials perhaps, who argue for a heavily planned urban environment, one that bans cars and moves entirely by public transport and or bicycles and Shanks’ Pony. The argument itself, well, why not?

The year is 2025. There are no cars, only public transport and bicycles. Four-lane highways have been replaced by bike paths. Pedestrians share the pavements with cyclists. The air is clean (because the buses are electric), and the living is easy.

This is the future the Numtots want.

Predominantly millennials with a passion for public transport, urban planning and internet humour, Numtots’ interests intersect in New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, the Facebook group from which they derive their nickname. There, nearly 100,000 of them discuss and debate their perfect city, or transit lines in their area, or perpendicular traffic flow and improvisational vehicle pathing.

Well, because it’s a bloody stupid argument is one reason why not. They’re described as teenagers and just beyond – that is, those who haven’t yet learnt the lesson that detailed planning of the world just doesn’t work. Hayek dealt with this in his Nobel Lecture, The Pretence Of Knowledge. No, you don’t get to dismiss this as the frothings of some Austrian (and Austrian) crank, he’s right here. The world just is too complex and chaotic to be planned, the centre never can have the information to do it.

We’ve even practical experience to guide us, the Soviet Union in the past, North Korea today perhaps, are planned societies without those pesky privately owned cars in any volume and they were – or are – s**t places to live. Yes, I do have extensive and intensive experience of Moscow’s public transport, thank you.

It doesn’t work.

It also fails Chesterton’s Fence. We cannot decide that something is no longer needed until we answer the question of why it arose in the first place. So, why has every society either free enough or rich enough to have a form of privately owned, personal, transport had a form of privately owned, personal, transport? What bit of being human is it that leads to this outcome? Until that is answered – perhaps to deny it which would fly in the face of all observable evidence, perhaps to say that something really has changed – then we’d be damn idiots to ban it.

But here’s what amuses:

Numtots’ guiding principles are broadly summed up by the page’s URL: “What would Jane Jacobs do?”

Yes, they’re using Jane Jacobs to argue in favour of extensive and intensive urban planning. Numbnuts or what?

Jacob’s defining fight being against that extensive and intensive urban planning of Robert Moses. Sure, he was in favour of cars and expressways, she wasn’t. But it wasn’t because she was against cars and expressways, it was because she was against extensive and intensive urban planning. Liveable cities are organic constructions, they’re emergent from the repeated interactions of people over time. That is, they’re not planned.

Numtots – using the wrong justification for an impossible policy disagreeing with what we know about human nature. Well, yes, suppose that’s why the teenagers are there, not the adults.