The Paper Route: A Lesson In The Benefits Of Density

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I realize that at forty years old, I’m starting to say things that really date myself every day. Today I’m going to do so by telling you I had a paper route 28 years ago. I mean, do they even have these for kids anymore? Do kids still go off on their own and deliver 50 papers every day around suburban neighborhoods in all weather conditions making peanuts for their work?

In any event, yes I had an evening paper route in the small suburban town I lived in when I was 12 years old. Like most kids I would strap the big cloth bag to the handlebars of my bike and drop the load of papers in there, ready for distribution to the locals. And let’s quickly dispel a myth… you weren’t really allowed to simply “chuck” a paper from your bike to the front porch of each house. Every customer had a specific place they wanted me to “make the drop.” Under the welcome mat, rubber banded in the rungs below the mailbox, inside the storm door, around to the back door, etc.

So every day after school, I’d receive my bundle of papers to deliver and begin my regular route. Most of my deliveries were to single-family homes in the village. These homes were typically close to the sidewalk and were relatively close together on small lots. This represented a sort of “average” with regard to how far I had to travel between each customer. About every third house would receive a paper, so the distance I would have to travel between each customer was relatively low and manageable.

By far and away my favorite place to deliver, however, was to the Great Brook Apartments, a complex that was a step away from the village streets. In a greatly abbreviated distance, I could deliver the same number of papers in half the time, because the number square-feet per customer was significantly lower. While not as picturesque, the amount of time and energy it took to deliver each paper was decidedly less here.

In stark contrast to these apartments was the newly-built Jacob’s Landing, a stones throw away from Great Brook but a world away with regard to socioeconomic status and design. Now host to a world of of cul-de-sac style homes, I remember the first home that was built, because the owners quickly became a customer. I had to bike nearly a quarter mile out of my way along a twisting, nonsensical street design just to make the delivery, and the worst part was, I had to bike a quarter mile back… because there was only one entrance and exit. And to the person who wants to say “good, kids need to learn about hard work,” I challenge you to have the same attitude when you have to bike a half mile out of your way to service one customer in below-zero weather on a road that is seldom plowed.

This was the typical suburban neo-development pattern… a sea of large, modular, single-family homes on a new road designed specifically so that no one would ever enter the complex unless they lived there. Or in my case, delivered a paper there. My experience in Jacob’s Landing highlights the truest flaws of this style of development. Design built to exclude, taxing delivery systems from utilities to goods and services without any walkable connection to retail needs. It is the truest form of inefficient and exclusive living that betrays the benefits of social spontaneity and sustainable development.

Even as Jacob’s Landing filled in, I still had to travel twice as far for half the customers as I did for the Great Brook Apartments. In my lifetime, there is no clearer example of why density is more practical than sprawl. I was aware of it when I was twelve, I just didn’t have the language to describe it.

The striking contrast between the efficiency and convenience of meaningful density and the wasteful habits of sprawl manifest themselves in ways we may not be able to immediately articulate… but like my paper route, we experience this contrast in our every day American life.