Deconstructing Busytown

This is a “best of The Transportationist” from back in 2006, reprinted here for my new fans:

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 if nothing else,

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 of 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 (like in the Bob Newhart Show), 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.

As a professor who teaches transportation engineering and planning, I took a special interest in the chapter “Building a new road”. It begins “Good roads are very important to all of us.” And of course, they are. The problem it seems is that Busytown and Workville are connected by a bumpy, crooked, dirt road, which becomes a mud pit when it rains. The towns are not that far apart (despite the fact that Betsy in Busytown needed airmail to send a letter to her grandmother in Workville, but perhaps the planes are needed because the road was so bad). The mayors of the two towns talk to the Chief Road Engineer and agree to pay him to build the road. So road construction seems to be private, or at least on a contract basis with some other agency (a state department of transportation?). A great deal of modern construction equipment is used to build an asphalt road with an aggregate base. The bridge though is stone construction, and seems very labor intensive. The road itself rides smoother and is paved, though it still seems crooked, perhaps there were difficulties in right-of-way acquisition – this could have been a problem if the road were privately owned, though one might think that a public agency would have acquired the right-of-way first through eminent domain. The road, a two-lane, signal controlled, undivided highway, with streetlights, signs, and guard rails, provides a rest area with a snack bar (managed by a mouse or rabbit serving pork, at least there is no cannibalism) and gas station. The signs are non-standard (for either the US or Europe), and this might create some confusion and be the cause of future incidents.

As is true of all Richard Scarry stories, the dividing line painter truck manages to run off the road. In the end, there proves to be a great deal of induced demand, as there is a rush to use the road when it opens, and the police are required to keep order.

In other chapters we learn about agriculture and forestry (including a water-powered saw mill), as well as ocean travel. Not content with just one book, Scarry, like many fantasy and science fiction writers, milks his universe with multiple titles. These may give insight into the evolution of urban form since 1968.
Busiest People Ever, released in 1976, gives us further scenes about town. We see a street with a bakery, watch shop, toy store, dress shop, and a one-screen movie theater. The architecture appears American from the early twentieth century, a lot of “taxpayer” blocks with single story construction. Another street scene has a church, across the street from a TV shop and bookstore. The next block has a police station, delicatessen, and candy shop. This street ends on a block with a sporting goods store and optician. The road line painter is of course drawing crooked lines. The final two blocks of this shopping district feature a drugstore next to a hardware store, hat shop, and florist, and a building with a shoemaker, electric supplies, and groceries. These are apparently different buildings than found in 1968, or are in a different business district (since we no longer see the Tudor Town Hall).

Another area has a fishmonger across the street from a two story building with jeweler, sign painter, umbrella, ice cream, antiques, and tailor on the ground floor, and artist, sculptor, lawyer, dancing school, singing lessons, and window washing upstairs. One gets the feeling this is a low rent area, after all, does the window washer need a high-rent location? Well, no comic books stores or karate studios.
The train station has gotten much bigger, there was clearly a growth spurt in town. In another business district there is now a drive-in bank, a second school, another post office, which takes up two storefronts, music shop, and a restaurant. The people of Busytown may be eating out more. Across from the restaurant there is also a coffee shop, next to a bike shop. Lest you think the residents are health nuts though, this is next to another auto dealership. On the next block is an office of another local newspaper; Busytown c. 1976 can support two papers. We speculate these two papers will eventually merge.

Another road is under construction; the interstate era is upon us. The road includes a gas station with two pumps now, and the road features a roadside emergency telephone. The port still does not have container ships though. The airport gets flights from Swissair (RIP) as well as air cargo flights, and seems much busier.
The book Busy, Busy Town, published in 1994, reworks many of the same themes. In our world 26 years after the creation of Busytown, and 18 years after Busiest People Ever, the library now shares a building with the bank, some offices, a writer and a painter. We discover that “The best writers write children’s books”, though I think the best writers write about children’s books.

On Main Street (which is clearly marked), the drug store, hardware store, shoe repair and grocery store share one block. A laundry, candyshop, bookstore, and barber share a second. These buildings are only one story though. Maybe suburbanization has struck, this could be Main Street Extended, it clearly illustrates a different urban landscape from the old Tudor town center area. We explore the post office, school, home, the hospital (we find Dr. Lion still practicing). The people who keep Busytown clean now include now include a
recycling crew, as well as junkman. We learn that “Someday the garbage dump will be a lovely picnic ground.” \

Again, there is a fire, there are home fixer-uppers. The interesting thing is that first, they all showed up for work the day that Mother Cat called them, and second they are all coordinated, so that the as the plasterer is finishing, a painter can follow up within no-time, and then a paperhanger puts on wall-paper, all without stepping on each other’s toes. We learn about lumber, wood-working, farming, and the streets of Busytown. The streets have many street cleaners, but still the infrastructure is in disrepair. There are water pipes and electric wires under the street needing fixing, a worker breaking the street with his jackhammer, and another worker using asphalt to repair potholes. On the surface, there is a hotdog vendor and ice-cream man in his truck.

A large variety of trucks and cars populate the streets of the city. Just like their infrastructure, the people of Busytown have difficulty maintaining their fleet. (Perhaps it is the lack of opposable thumbs afflicting the populace). Many cars are broken-down and found at a service station that both sells gas and services cars, which is definitely a throwback to an earlier era. The railroad operates coal-powered locomotives on a single-track system that uses signal controls. The harbor is also a busy place, however containerization does not seem to have hit, items are off-loaded with an on-boat crane, and they are not in large containers. There is inter-modalism, as the machines are loaded directly onto flatbed rail cars.
The past 26 years saw a major upgrade to the Busytown Airport, including a jet pilot wearing a space-helmet. Unconcerned, the pilot allows Lowly Worm into the cockpit, a security breech that would no longer be tolerated.

Apparently there is a supermarket now in addition to the grocery stores. The butcher at the market (maybe the same pig, maybe a different one) is grinding hamburger. At least it isn’t pork. The baker is also a pig, but the other workers seem to include both cats and rabbits. Maybe the supermarket is really just a cooperative of local merchants, rather than a national chain. Evidence for this includes a cash register that is the old-fashioned style: it does not include a UPC scanner.

Busytown requires police in town to help give order to their chaotic lives. The police in town direct traffic (the traffic signal infrastructure is inadequate or broken), find lost children, give parking tickets, chase speeders, and tend to auto accidents. Four out of five of their daily jobs are related to highways.
The world of Busytown is indeed busy. The port and airport indicate a city of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, though clearly a town that large would have more stores, perhaps we only see a glimpse into the retail activity. Scarry creates other less well defined places in his other books. They are more American in style, but less coherent somehow than his Busytown books. Raised on Scarry, I came to associate place with having a certain set of activities. The local shopping area should have a butcher, a bakery, a hardware store, etc. Busytown is however stressful. While no one is murdered, there is a fire in almost every book, lots of traffic crashes among well-known members of the community, and many hospital visits.

Is Busytown a Spontaneous City? One could argue it is. Clearly there is a dynamic evolution of Busytown’s urban form over the period from 1968 to 1994. New businesses are opened, a supermarket seems to replace some older food vendors (butcher, baker, grocer). Forms not known at the time the town was founded (and judging from the architecture, the old town is at least 19th century, and possibly earlier) rise to prominence. While the town is slow to take up some technologies (computing, containerization), air travel is advanced. The town is also slow to abandon some older forms (passenger rail service with coal powered trains). The physical network also changes, roads are being built, the newer ones better than the old ones. Roads can be built quickly it seems, the mayors go to the road engineer and one page later, construction has begun. If someone has a whim, they can probably find a store or service that will meet it, so they can spontaneously choose to undertake an activity. Daddy buys train tickets the same day of the trip. In order to accommodate spontaneity, of course, the railroad had to be there. The town is created and recreated in a spontaneous way, yet it feels very ordered, the town is the right size for its population. The people act in a spontaneous way, which may get them in trouble, but the police are available to restore order when necessary. In short, it feels balanced, options are available, but only as many as the town can support. Ideas, like new roads, can be quickly implemented, though one wonders why it took until 1968 to pave a major road to a nearby town and 1976 to get a freeway.

Table of businesses:

Category What Do People Do All Day? (1968) Busiest People Ever (1976) Busy, Busy Town (1994)
Grocery store/Supermarket 2 1 2
Bank 2 1 1
Airport 1 1 1
Artist studio 1 1 1
Bookstore 1 1 1
Drug store 1 1 1
Gas station 1 1 1
Hardware store 1 1 1
Police 1 1 1
Port 1 1 1
Post office 1 1 1
Restaurant 1 1 1
School 1 1 1
Train Station 1 1 1
Autos 1 1 0
Baker 1 1 0
Barber/Beauty Shop 1 0 1
Café/CoffeeShop 1 1 0
Candy Shop 0 1 1
Dance studio (school) 1 1 0
Dresses 1 1 0
Hospital 1 0 1
Library 1 0 1
Music teacher 1 1 0
Newspaper 1 1 0
Optician/Optometrist 1 1 0
Shoemaker (repairs) 0 1 1
Tailor 1 1 0
Watches (sales, repair) 1 1 0
Writer 1 0 1
Antiques 0 1 0
Bike shop 0 1 0
Blacksmith 1 0 0
Butcher 1 0 0
Church 0 1 0
Delicatessen 0 1 0
Dentist 1 0 0
Doctor 1 0 0
Electric supplies 0 1 0
Fire station 1 0 0
Fishmonger 0 1 0
Florist 0 1 0
Hat shop 0 1 0
Hotel 1 0 0
Ice cream 0 1 0
Jeweler 0 1 0
Laundry 0 0 1
Lawyer 0 1 0
Movie theatre 0 1 0
Music shop 0 1 0
Photographer 1 0 0
Poet 1 0 0
Printer 1 0 0
Private Investigator 1 0 0
Realtor 1 0 0
Sculptor 0 1 0
Secretary 1 0 0
Sign painter 0 1 0
Sporting goods 0 1 0
Telephone Operator 1 0 0
Toy Shop 0 1 0
TV Shop (Electronics) 0 1 0
Umbrella 0 1 0
Window washing 0 1 0