Post #416: Vienna’s too bougie for a bus.

Posted on October 13, 2019

This was my college-age daughter’s summary judgement about the potential for public transit in Vienna.

I had to look it up.

Bougie (also spelled bourgie), pronounced BOO-zhee, is a slang shortening of “bourgeoisie”.  The Urban Dictionary offers several definitions.  I’ll stick with “upper middle class” for this posting, although it typically has a more negative connotation when used.

Unprompted, she went on to say “They’d ride a trolley, but they’d never ride a bus.”  Which left me scratching my head a bit, as, mechanically, a trolley is literally the same vehicle as a bus.  It’s just a cute, somewhat dysfunctional bus.

My daughter grew up in modern Vienna, so she has a more intuitive grasp of the culture of Vienna than I do.   But I was a little taken aback because  she didn’t even have to think about it.  I described a couple of my recent posts (i.e., microtransit).

And the response was: Eye roll, followed by two short declarative sentences.

So, just to finish up:

First, maybe the cultural barriers are so strong that no local bus system will be viable in Vienna.  Duly noted, the existing Fairfax Connector buses are a delight (Post #225), but largely empty.

I’ve been thinking about this as an economist.  But maybe we need an anthropologist.  One can plausibly dismiss low Vienna  ridership of the Connector buses to lack of convenience.  (What economists would term the “time cost” of use.)  But would more convenient public transport would lead to greater ridership?  Not if the true barrier is cultural.  If Vienna is too bougie for a bus, you can make public transit as convenient as you want, make it free, heck, make it pay you to ride it (Post #414).  And it will still fail.

Second, this dovetails with what I’ve called the Mcleanification of Vienna (Post #308).  When I moved here in 1993, much of southwest Vienna was “workers’ housing”, for want of a better term.  My immediate neighbors were, by profession:  Nurse, retired military, tile setter, school teacher, insurance salesman.   But with the tear-down boom, the price of admission to Vienna has gone up.  People with those professions may still live here, but it’s a fair bet that they would not be able to move here, given that the median new-house sales price looks to be somewhere around $1.5M.  For sure, I would not have been able to move here, given the (inflation-adjusted level of) my salary at the time.

As with any stereotype, I don’t mean that this applies across-the-board.  I don’t mean to say that every new home buyer in Vienna is “bougie”.  But I would say that it’s a fair bet that with the current high price of admission, Vienna is probably shifting in a “bougie-er” direction.

That certainly seemed apparent in the last election.  Typically — though not universally — the bigger the new house, the less likely you were to get traction on the MAC issue.

Third, and looking inward, maybe I don’t quite get the drive for Maple Avenue redevelopment because I’m insufficiently bougie.  I grew up in a culture where (e.g.) people were prideful about how many miles they had on their car, not how new it was.  And maybe I find the Vienna downtown to be OK as-is because of that.  But that puts me out-of-step with some portion of Vienna, and as the Mcleanification continues, that probably puts me out-of-step with an increasingly large portion of Vienna.

Finally, if that analysis is correct, then we should neither build a downtown that displeases the current majority, nor lock in a downtown that will displease a future, bougie-er majority.  Which argues for one of two types of strategy, if, in fact, the Town is becoming increasing bougie under the relentless pressure of high new home prices.

One, it argues for proceeding slowly, so that more of the open (that is, under-developed) space on Maple is preserved for the next generation to deal with.  You don’t want to set off a land rush, and lock in the preferences of the current generation of residents, if there is a reasonable expectation that this will not be viewed as optimal by future generations.  You don’t want your successors, in Vienna, to look at MAC buildings, shake their heads, and say “what were they thinking”.

Second, it argues for something we have never seen here in Vienna (or possibly elsewhere), an explicit phase-in of redevelopment strategy.  It sounds kind of fringe, but maybe the right thing to say is, for the first generation of MAC, the limit is three floors.  For the second generation, the limit is four.  And for the third generation, the limit is negotiable.  Where, just to pull something out of a hat, each generation might last a biblical seven years.  Or, alternatively, where each successive Town Council would have to vote in the next phase of MAC, based on their perception of average voter sentiment.   At some not-to-exceed pace.  That is, create a phased-in set of increasing opportunities for redevelopment.

You wouldn’t do something like that without a lot of forethought, because a strategy like that could easily prove to be destructive.  It could (e.g.) retard redevelopment as land owners held out for the more lucrative future development rights.  (Which may be happening now, with MAC, for all we know.)  But based on the wake-up call that I got from my daughter yesterday,  maybe this is the best way to reconcile the preferences of the existing and projected future Vienna populations.