Deconstructing Busytown

My first understanding of how places work probably came from the book What Do People Do All Day? by children’s author Richard Scarry. The Busytown in which this book (and others) are set faded from my consciousness until my son was born, and we decided to go shopping for books again. Rereading the book from an adult (and planning and transportation professional’s) point-of-view provides a new perspective on the Scarry memes that have shaped the neural networks of millions of young minds. How many youth are inculcated in the idealized place of Scarry? Estimates suggest that over 300 million copies of Scarry books are out there, no small set of infected brains.


I was raised on the 1968 version, and have acquired the abridged (and apparently censored) 1976 version for my son. A number of people have critiqued Scarry for his implicit sexism, a large number of women work at home or other traditionally female occupations (teacher, nurse). The Scarry world-view is traditional, and I won’t pile on in that regard. But the world is traditional in other ways as well, and that is its view of the city.
Scarry moved to Switzerland in 1968, and Swiss architecture permeates the old town center of What Do People Do All Day. The Town Hall of Busytown on the cover is nothing if not Tudor. There is a small gate through which a small car is driving. Something to note about the vehicles in Busytown is that they are all just the right size for the number of passengers they carry. The Bus on the cover is full, with a hanger-on. The taxi holds one driver in the front and one passenger in the rear. The police officer (Seargant Murphy) is riding a motorcycle. When he has a passenger, the motorcycle always has a sidecar. Similarly, each window in town has someone in it, sometimes more than one person. Of course, this is a busy town, so the activity makes sense. The cover this includes the grocery store, butcher, and baker (no supermarkets in 1968 Busytown), one block in front of Town Hall. One thing to note about the Butcher is that he is a pig, and clearly butchering sausages. Anthropomorphism is a standard feature of children’s books, so that shouldn’t disturb us. The cannibalistic autophagia: a pig serving one of his own (presumably sometimes to other pigs, though on the cover the customer is a mouse), does disturb. It is a common feature of American restaurant signs to feature a smiling animal (e.g. the happy pig chowing down at a rib shack) encouraging you to come in and eat. One is somehow more comforted with ads of cows holding signs saying “Eat mor chikin!? (remarkable more not for the misspelling, but for the fact that cows can write at all with their hooves).
On the cover, the post office is just behind Town Hall, a hotel next to that is shown inside on detailed pages. The police station is located next door to the Town Hall (separated by the town gate and a newsstand), a detective agency on the second floor, and a watch-repairman upstairs from that. If the police don’t give you satisfaction, you can go upstairs and hire your own private investigator. So public buildings seem to share space with private businesses. Just left of the town hall is a residential building (perhaps medically oriented). Left of that (on the back cover, which is continuous with the front), and across the street are the public library and school.
The building to the right of the police station, separated by a small plaza, includes a café, printer, newspaper, and bookstore on the ground floor, a photographer, secretary, and telephone operator on the second floor, and an artist studio, story-writer, and poet above that. A very high density mixed use collection of small businesses all themed around communication.
Page 4 shows another picture of the town center area, though not obviously connected to the first picture. There is a building with a music teacher and dance studio. To the right of that across the street is a building with a bank and drug store on the ground floor, and upstairs includes a dressmaker, beauty parlor, and realtor, and on the top floor, the medical complex including dentist, doctor, and optometrist. Even in Busytown, the medical professionals co-locate. Perhaps they are sharing a receptionist, it is hard to say.
Next door and across an alley is a barber, and upstairs (up a hill, so the second floor has ground access as well) is a hardware store. Home Depot has yet to arrive. The top two floors are residential, the “Ritz Apartments?. Across the street is an automobile showroom, in the style found outside North America where it features only one car in the window and there are other uses in the building. Behind that is the fire station.
We learn on later pages that some businesses appear more than once. Grocer cat seems to have at least two small food stands, the stand on the cover is clearly different than the one on page six. There is also more than one bank, the downtown bank on page four (run by a raccoon) is in a large building, but there is another bank on page seven, with a different (this time pig) banker.
We discover that town includes a tailor and a blacksmith shop (who fixes tractors). There are construction workers in town, who work in the field at construction sites. The infrastructure of the house they are building is surprisingly accurate, including water and sewer, and forced air heating. The electrical is governed by a fuse box, while the telecommunications wires each room with a fixed-line telephone (this was 1968 after all).
We follow a letter from Betsy Bear (in Busytown) to Grandma Bear (in Workville) The postmaster in Busytown sorts letters by hand into cubbyholes sorting them by destination; all letters to Workville are put in a bag and on a plane. Though there are no apparent zip codes, one letter carrier in Workville is named Zip. After some confusion, Zip delivers the letter to Grandma’s house. Grandma is delighted to have received the felicitous missive from her granddaughter. The post office still sells airmail stamps for only 8 (cents?), and postmarks are applied by hand, but the post office today works remarkably like that of 1968.
The firefighting system differs from today through the use of fire-alarm boxes, rather than 911. The advantage of boxes of course is the built in locational information, which was not available until recently with land-line phones, and still is not available on many mobile phones (For that matter, my phone company does not even have effective caller-id, especially after they transfer me seven times). If someone pulls the level of fire-alarm box number 3, that helps send the firefighters on their way. The firefighting equipment is similar to that of today, the trucks are the iconic red, though there is a lot of equipment deployed for a small house fire (at least five vehicles)
The medical system we learn about through Abby’s visit to the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Doctor Lion, who has both a practice and hospital visiting rights, performs the surgery. However Abby’s mom can’t stay, it turns out she is about to give birth to a baby brother for Abby. Mom came to the hospital in an ambulance, the old station-wagon style ambulance. I hope they have good insurance, still they will see bills and statements for months.
The Pig family takes a train trip to visit relatives. The day of the trip Daddy buys tickets at the train station. Note that there are no advanced purchases required, and there must be space on the train. The train looks quite crowded in the picture, so maybe daddy lucked out and got the last available seats. The station has a newsstand, and porters help passengers with their luggage. A vendor sells snacks on the platform. The trip requires a transfer (not only are they taking a train, they are taking two trains). The second train is much more modern, and has a sleeping car, dining car, and mail car, and is powered by a diesel-electric locomotive. The train has a conductor who collects the tickets. The mail is thrown off the train at the local train station without having to stop. There are at-grade crossing, protected by gates, but the gates are not machine controlled. The amount of labor involved in this trip must make it expensive. Eventually the pig family’s overnight trip ends when they arrive at the Wiener Schnitzel station.
… to be continued …
— dml

What is a transportationist?

From my book with Bill Garrison The Transportation Experience:
An important thing we did learn was not to think of ourselves as transportation geographers, or transportation engineers, or transportation planners, or transportation policy analysts, or transportation economists, but rather, to coin a term, “transportationists”. The study of transportation is sufficiently interdisciplinary to warrant a discipline of its own. The movement of people and goods across networks over time and space is the unifying object of study. The central research questions in transportation concern what moves, why and how people and goods move, how networks operate, how the interaction of travelers and shippers and carriers and networks shape behaviors, how networks are (or should be) built and paid for and so on.
While in our forthcoming book Place and Plexus Kevin Krizek and I write:
We are transportationists. This means we are interested in understanding the transportation system holistically. While we both have training as transportation planners, transportation policy analysts, transportation engineers, and transportation economists, it is the subject of transportation (and in this book, its inter-relationship with location or land use) that is of interest.
The key is thus what has traditionally been called “interdisciplinarity” in transportation, but may alternatively be viewed as redefining the discipline to be transportation-centered.
— dml