Obligatory Bike-Related Post

If you know me, you know that I am a habitual bicycle user. In fact, bikes were what got me into urban planning to begin with. Back in 2003, I started working with a scrappy group of folks at the Hampshire College Yellow Bike Project. It was a community bike program that fixed up a fleet of bicycles and put them around campus. Anyone was free to pick one up, ride to class (if it worked), and leave it for the next person (hopefully). I’m the long-haired, overalls fellow on the right.

yellow bike

It really snow-balled from there. I ended up fabricating a frame and building my own bike at the Hampshire College Lemelson Center (which I guess is now called the Center for Design):


I went to grad school with the intention of eventually heading up a bicycle-related nonprofit. Once at the University of Oregon, I helped start the Bike Loan Program (now the UO Bike Program):

bike loan program
Pictured with Dave Villalobos (University of Oregon) and Briana Orr (Cascade Bicycle Club)

My interests zig-zagged in grad school, as they should, but I did end up becoming a manager at a bicycle nonprofit. Here I am during my time as Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike):


So it was only a matter of time until I started feeding my addiction (Or is it passion? Is there a difference?) and got involved in the bike scene in the Pioneer Valley. I went to my inaugural public meeting dealing with bikes on Monday night, the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. I even grabbed a shot of public participation in action!

From Left to Right: Rep. Aaron Vega, Dillon Sussman (PVPC), Marcos Marrero (City of Holyoke), Sean Condon, Elbert something, Colby something, Liz Budd

The hot topics in bicycle planning in the Pioneer Valley seem to be:

  1. How do communities access the $12.5 million that MassDOT set aside for Complete Streets projects?
  2. Should there be a regional bike share network?
  3. Can Northampton even further cement its position as the #1 Massachusetts city for biking outside of Route 128?*

Meanwhile, the topics in Holyoke in particular are:

  1. The city has no money for planning or preliminary design of any bicycle or pedestrian facilities. As the sage of our times Sean “Puffy” Combs said, it’s all about the Benjamins.
  2. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has generously allocated a very small budget toward putting together a strategic bicycle implementation plan. But we need to contribute sweat equity in order for it to really pay off.
  3. Meanwhile, there are only three streets with dedicated bike lanes on them and a short section of path along the canals. We can do better.

To put things in perspective, let’s compare Holyoke and Northampton. Here is the map of the two cities with some annotation:

holyoke_nton bike map

As you can see, Northampton has this amazing off-road network that Holyoke lacks. Indeed, there is a really big mountain in the way of connecting to it.

Now let’s look at commuting patterns. Here are the two communities in 2009:

2009 commute
Source: 2009 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

You can see that Holyokers are much more likely to drive (either alone or in a carpool) and Northamptonites are more likely to bike or walk.

The difference in bike rate is even more pronounced in 2014:

2014 commute
Source: 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

Of course, there are a lot of reasons people commute the way that they do, and whether or not there is a bike lane or a multiuse path may not make that big a difference by itself. For example, another major difference between the two cities is crime rate and, perhaps more importantly, perception of crime; conventional wisdom is that Northampton is a safe Bohemian “Cambridge in the country,” while Holyoke is a dark scary city with urban blight and gang violence. In that context, of course more people walk to work in Northampton than Holyoke.

However, infrastructure matters. In both communities, trends are (more or less) heading in a favorable direction for my line of work – more walking, biking, and using transit. But I want Holyoke to shift up into the big ring and really ratchet up the number of people using active transportation. The city has got to either connect up to that amazing off-road network just north of us, or build some of the best on-road facilities this side of Walden Pond. We can do it, and I’m looking forward to helping out.

*Northampton recently received a grant to put together a Bike/Ped/Complete Streets Equity Plan. I mean, come on already! We get it, you’re an active transportation advocate’s dream!


White People Like White People

Cards Against Humanity, for those who haven’t played, is a game that violates rules of social decorum for the purposes of being hilarious. A grown-up version of Apples to Apples, it pairs bawdy or scatological terms with fill-in-the-blank sentences (sort of like Mad Libs). Just click on the link above if you don’t understand.

I was playing Cards Against Humanity with some friends, and the prompt card read “White people like _______.” Of course, a flurry of potential things run through one’s mind when thinking about what funny card to put down for what white people like: “Panera Bread Company.” “Adam Sandler Movies.” “Colonialism.” As the judge flipped the cards, the clear winner was “White people like white people.”

As I have become more involved with issues surrounding equity, that round of Cards Against Humanity pops back into my mind now and again. How simple and unfortunately true it is.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has done a lot of work on segregation in Boston-area communities. One example of this is classroom makeup; the average white primary school student in the Boston region is in a classroom that is overwhelmingly white, whereas the average non-white student is in a much more diverse class.

classroom diversity

You can find the series of graphics that MAPC did here.

Furthermore, there is evidence that our communities nationally are becoming more segregated at the suburban level. As this article from The Atlantic reports, the spatial manifestation of segregation has shifted out to the suburbs, where certain communities become known as “Hispanic” or “Black” towns. As the MAPC graphic suggests, segregated communities show up as segregated classrooms.

This has gotten me to wondering: How do things look in the Pioneer Valley? In a subjective, abritrary-ish selection, I decided to compare a census tract in Holyoke to a census tract in Longmeadow. Holyoke, a low-income city with a large immigrant population, probably looks like the classroom in the lower left-hand corner of the graphic above. Longmeadow, a leafy affluent suburb of Springfield, I’m guessing, looks more like the upper left-hand corner.

I chose two census tracts in the communities that were roughly comparable in size and population.*

Census Tracts

Then I compared the race/ethnicity breakdowns between the 2000 census and the 2010 census. In 2000, the two tracts looked like this:

2000 census table

You can see that Holyoke looks a bit closer to Hampden County averages than Longmeadow. The census tract in Longmeadow has a substantially higher proportion of white people comprising their population, which becomes even more pronounced when looking at non-Hispanic whites.

By 2010, the breakdown looked like the following:

2010 census table

Hampden County as a whole, as well as Longmeadow and Holyoke in particular, saw the share of the non-white population increase. When looking at non-Hispanic whites, Longmeadow saw only a modest decrease (just over 4 percentage points), compared to the Holyoke which saw a 10 point decrease.

How do I interpret these findings?

On the question of whether there is segregation by community or “racial/ethnic clumping”: These two census tracts suggest that, indeed, “White people like white people.” Of the three geographies examined, the decrease in non-Hispanic whites was the smallest in Longmeadow. Hampden County, along with the nation as a whole, is becoming more diverse – Longmeadow is just taking a lot longer to do so.

But who cares?

That answer is complicated, but the issue for me has to do with the entanglement of race, class, and “The Opportunity Gap.” Longmeadow’s median household income is $108,835 according to the 2014 American Community Survey, while Holyoke’s is $35,550. This ends up being reflected in lower property values, which is then manifested as less money available for public schools (funded largely through local property taxes). The result: last April, Holyoke Public Schools were placed under state receivership.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike segregated communities, but the cycle of wealth and poverty ranks highest on my list. A fundamental aspect of the grand American experiment is social mobility. Separating people who are different from each other decreases access to new opportunities, and thus social mobility. MAPC has done a lot of work showing that this is a major problem in the Boston area. It looks like the Pioneer Valley has some work to do, too.

*The two census tracts examined in 2000 were split into four census tracts in 2010; the 2010 results represent summed counts corresponding to the original geographic extents.

Why Does I-391 Exist?

Before moving to Holyoke, I noticed that there was a short-haul urban highway, I-391. It is a 4.5-mile highway spur that runs on the east side of the Connecticut River through Chicopee, crossing the river into Holyoke where it abruptly terminates. I remembered thinking, this must be a highway planned and built during the Eisenhower era – back when Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee were just beginning to lose manufacturing employment, and transportation planners thought the best way to “save” these cities was to build modern highways right to/through their hearts.


I get an image of an old-timey post-war news reel of black-and-white footage showing cars zipping along freeways, aerial establishing shots of the skylines, and the narrator saying something like:

“Ah, the mighty Pioneer Valley. Home of Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke – titans of manufacturing, jewels of Massachusetts, and bustling metropolises in their own right. Together they make up a rang-a-clang citizenry of over a quarter million, but experts predict that by 1980 the population to more than double. Through efficient, ultra-modern ‘through-ways,’ high-capacity motorcar arteries will connect these three cities and ensure their bright futures.”

Here is what I imagine the roadmap of the future looked like to those planners:

1950 hwy plan

I’m not sure if it hits quite all of the low-income neighborhoods or leaves any shreds of undestroyed downtowns, but it’s a start.

As far as highways go, I-391 is baffling. It serves to connect Springfield and Holyoke, but Springfield and Holyoke are already connected via I-91. It seems like it was built to serve the residents of Chicopee, a city of just 55,000 people. It really should be called “The Chicopee Expressway.” But given how expensive highways are (around $30 million per mile in urban areas), it’s unbelievable that such a relatively small city would get its own highway.

When I did a little bit of research on The Chicopee Expressway, I discovered that it was, indeed, planned during the high-water mark of highway planning, the 1950s. It was included in the Master Highway Plan for the Springfield Metropolitan Area, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a digital copy of. But, as described by by Bostonroads.com:

By the 1960’s, it became clear that Chicopee and Holyoke, two old industrial towns facing decline, needed freeway access to improve traffic circulation and reinvigorate their economies. In 1965, these towns received their wish: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts received approval from the Federal government for a 4.5-mile-long spur from Interstate 91. The “Relocated Route 116” also received a new designation: I-391.

The article goes on to explain how the planning and construction of this highway took a full 15 years, beginning in 1967 and finally being completed in 1983. Finishing it seems to have been a real force of will, overcoming construction material miscalculations, labor disputes, and ” the theft of 40 tons of steel from a construction site.”

It is interesting to note a few things about this highway and its intended goals:

  1. If the intention was to revitalize the economies of the three communities served by the highway, then it seems to have failed. The 1980s and 90s were particularly hard on these cities, as evidenced by the continued loss in population (I’ll look at the numbers in a follow-up post).
  2. If the intention was to relieve traffic congestion, then I would anecdotally say it has succeeded tremendously. Though I don’t know if that was through added capacity, or destroying the businesses and neighborhoods around it, or a combination of both.
  3. The through lanes, viaducts and bridges constructed for this highway are going to reach the end of their useful lives in the next 15 or 20 years. We should think hard about what to do once that happens.

I’ll finish this post with a suggestion: Tear it down.

The Chicopee Expressway might have made sense in 1953, but it makes no sense today. We should just get rid of it and work on stitching back together the neighborhoods in Chicopee that have for so long been cut off from the rest of the city. As I’ll demonstrate in future posts, the negative impacts from urban highways are no less severe in the Pioneer Valley, and this highway is low-hanging fruit for removal.

The Tofu Curtain

Hampshire County is in the northern part of the Pioneer Valley, and Hampden County is in the more populous southern area. I have become intrigued by the division between Hampshire and Hampden Counties for several reasons:

  1. In eastern Mass, no one really cares about county boundaries, but they are still somehow relevant here in the PV;
  2. Artificial political-geographic divisions are tenacious, creating perceived boundaries that almost seem like real physical walls. But the boundaries are largely arbitrary (see Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson for more on that);
  3. There really are stark differences between Hampshire and Hampden Counties, which I’ll explore below.

The boundary between Hampshire and Hampden Counties is often referred to as “The Tofu Curtain.” This term is pervasive enough to have made it into the Urban Dictionary, which furnishes this definition:

The Holyoke Range, a relatively small mountain range in western Massachusetts, USA, which separates the Pioneer Valley from the Springfield metropolitan area.

This name reflects the juxtaposition of the areas to the north and south of the range. The relative wealth, educational level, smugness and quality of life of Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts to the north – and the urban decay, teen pregnancy, street violence, drug use, and poverty of Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield Massachusetts, a mere ten miles to the south.

A Tofu Curtain may exist in other areas, such as Princeton, New Jersey and New Haven, Connecticut (home to Princeton and Yale Universities, respectively). However, this is the most dramatic example of a physical barrier which approximates the socioeconomic divide.

E.g.: Northampton is a happy liberal utopia. If you want a teen hooker and an 8 ball, you should cross the Tofu Curtain and go to Holyoke.


In case you want a precise map of the division generated from ArcMap, here you go:

Tofu Curtain

The Census Bureau confirms the differences between the two counties. I pulled this information from the 2014 5-year American Community Survey estimates:

Tofu Curtain table


As usual, Urban Dictionary was right. Hampshire County is significantly wealthier, better educated, and less diverse than Hampden County (though I didn’t search for the numbers on drug use, prostitution or smugness). This leads me to two questions:

  1. Why is that?
  2. Why should I care?

My gut tells me the answer to question 1 lies with the five colleges located in Hampshire County, and the answer to question 2 has to do with fundamental issues of equity, social and environmental justice, and an un-American generational opportunity gap. More on that later.

Anyway, the Tofu Curtain does exist, and it is a mighty curtain indeed. We just need David Hasselhof to play at the old Mount Tom Amusement Park, and maybe it will inspire us all to lift the Tofu Curtain.

Hello Pioneer Valley!

I recently moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts from the Boston area to start a new job as a transit analyst. I went to school in Amherst, but I’ve been shocked to discover that I spent virtually no time in Hampden County (Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, Westfield). Now that I’m living in Holyoke, I’m realizing what a crying shame that was.


Holyoke, also known as The Paper City, is like a lot of post-industrial, non-college towns in Massachusetts – struggling. There is a lot of poverty in the downtown area, which mostly obviously manifests as blighted buildings and lack of amenities (restaurants, drug stores, movie theaters, art galleries, etc.). I bike to work most mornings, and am greeted by the crumbling brick edifices all along the way.

However, Holyoke is also a city with a lot of potential. It is remarkably compact for a city of 40,000, with riverside mill buildings, brick row houses, neighborhoods of Victorian homes, Mount Tom gazing down, a progressive mayor, a diverse population (though, to be fair, the neighborhoods themselves tend to be rather segregated), and a hydro-electric dam that makes Holyoke one of the most environmentally-friendly cities in the nation.

At least, that’s what it seems like at first blush. I’ve only been here for three months, so what do I know? An urban planner by trade, I want to use this blog as a platform to explore what makes the Pioneer Valley great, what’s holding it back, and how I can help. How we can all help.