Are Goals to Reduce Car Use Racist?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a public meeting regarding a project to totally redo Cabot St. in Holyoke, between Race St. and the Willamansett Bridge. This is a major commercial strip with a grocery store, liquor store, and pizza place along it, in addition to numerous apartment buildings. On-street parking lines both sides of the street, and there are no bike lanes.

cabot st
Cabot St looking north; Capri Pizza on the left, C-Town grocery store on the right. Source: Google Maps.

The presentation showed that bike lanes were not going to be added, but rather “bike-accommodating shoulders,” and in other parts just sharrows. They were even narrowing the sidewalks to create more width for these “bike-accommodating shoulders,” but didn’t remove any of the on-street parking.

My blood started to boil, because I had seen it happen too many times before. A roadway improvement project is developed, and bike facilities are left out or inadequately provided for. If we are going to have true Complete Streets, then we must include separated bicycle facilities – all but the most fearless bicyclists refuse to ride in anything that mixes with car traffic.

cabot st vision
An alternative vision for Cabot St: Parking on one side, buffered bike lanes, and plenty of width for sidewalks. Source: Streetmix.net

I suggested that we could just eliminate one side of on-street parking to accommodate wider sidewalks and two buffered bike lanes. When I suggested there might be enough off-street parking, I was really surprised at the push-back. The mostly Latino neighborhood residents spoke at length about the importance of parking, and how scarce parking is in the project area. I was told that in other projects in the neighborhood, a furor was sparked when it was suggested that we remove on-street parking.

I stood my ground. I noted that these are the neighborhoods in Holyoke that have the lowest rates of car ownership (between a third and half of all households own zero vehicles), that this is exactly where we need to be steadfast in implementing our Complete Streets Policy.

holyoke_no_vehicles
Number of households with zero cars. Source: 2014 5-year American Community Survey

I noted that this street is never going to be redone in our lifetimes once this project is complete, and whatever decisions we make today will stick around for decades. And, importantly, I noted that ample car parking is not in the recipe for truly great urban spaces, and Holyoke could be a great urban space.

I don’t think I captivated any hearts or minds with my pleas.

“VMT Reduction Goals are Racist”

I remembered a talk that I attended at a transportation conference some years ago (don’t remember which one, but I think it was TRB). There was a panel of experts arguing for and against VMT goals. For those unfamiliar, VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled, and some states and cities have set goals for lowering the amount of driving as measured by VMT. Massachusetts has a goal of tripling biking, walking, and transit use by 2030, though not any explicit VMT reduction goal.

One of the panelists made a bold assertion against VMT reduction goals. He said something to the effect of, “We spent half a century building infrastructure that was too expensive for most minorities to use because they couldn’t afford a car. Now that minority car ownership is rising, we’re starting to tell people that, ‘Oh, no, actually, we need to drive less.’ VMT reduction goals are the very definition of racism!”

I was floored. There are so many negative impacts from the tremendous amount of driving we do as a society, ranging from 40,000 traffic fatalities per year, to feeding the obesity epidemic and asthma rates near highways, to contributing about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Less driving could only benefit humanity, couldn’t it? How in the world could it be racist?

Aspiring to Driving

I’m reminded of the conventional wisdom that poor people don’t like the idea of soaking the rich through taxes because they, too, could be rich some day (for a more nuanced article on that, see here). At the risk of making too broad an assumption, it makes sense that neighborhood residents at this meeting – even non-driving residents – would defend parking. After all, even if they don’t own a car, they sometimes get rides from people who do, and they hope to own a car as soon as possible.

So of course my pleas would fall on unreceptive ears. From my perspective, I grew up with cars as my primary means of transportation until I was about 18 years old. Cars are nothing special, taken for granted, and so it’s easy for me to eschew them. However, for a kid who grew up riding the bus and was “transportation poor” – always scrounging for a friend or relative to get her to places the bus didn’t go – a car could be an aspirational sign of having “made it” and a crucial part of a safety net.

Maybe some of these residents don’t drive, but they also don’t necessarily identify as “bicyclists” or “pedestrians.” Rather, I wonder if they think of themselves as people who are on foot or on bike until they get a car. And to hear some guy who they’ve never seen before say that not only do we not need more parking, but really they should just give up that goal of car ownership and keep biking and walking and using the bus even though it’s really inconvenient and maybe even embarrassing to boot… well, I can understand if that message might not resonate.

Balancing Fairness and the Public Good

So is it racist to try to reduce driving in a mostly minority neighborhood where residents put cultural and aspirational value on car ownership? Is it projecting my values onto a neighborhood that doesn’t share them? Is it fair?

I’m reminded of a common argument about international climate change agreements (I’m restraining myself from going into a long tirade about the US pulling out of the Paris Accord). Now that industrialized nations have been contributing to climate change for 150 years, we want developing nations to just cut out all the fossil fuel use pronto. We’ve done our polluting, now it’s your turn to pay the price for it.

In the end, though, as with climate change, we all pay the price for our love affair with the car. Hampden County is the least healthy county in Massachusetts, and lack of exercise is one of the reasons why. Economic development does not spring from ubiquitous parking, but rather a vibrant streetscape with pedestrians and businesses and greenery and mixed land uses. And Cabot Street has seen a number of crashes over the years, some of them fatal, some of them with pedestrians and some with bicyclists.

My hope is that as this project rolls forward, we can balance the public good with the values of the neighborhood residents. Ultimately, they must live with the project in a much more immediate way than I (however, I should note that I take Cabot Street every day on my bike trip to/from work). I’m hopeful that as the projects gels, we can find a solution that the neighborhood can embrace, while at the same time creates a vibrant public space conducive to healthy living and solid economic development.

 

**Author’s Note: I realize I’m diving into a lot of charged issues here, and welcome feedback!

Visiting the Towns That Boston’s Thirst Wiped Off the Map

If you’ve seen the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, you might remember the scene at the end of the movie where the valley is flooded, and a torrent of water comes rushing in to save the day in a flurry of water and banjos and Dapper Dan hair tonic.

I vaguely knew of Massachusetts’ own intentional inundation of some towns thanks to my alma mater; at Hampshire College, the three on-campus housing villages were named after towns that were lost to the Quabbin Reservoir. I lived in Prescott House, though I had friends living in Greenwich and Enfield. The fourth town, Dana, didn’t get a housing village named after it, making its disincorporation and erasure that much more tragic.

(By the way, I learned that “Greenwich” is pronounced “Green-witch”, unlike the town in Connecticut.)

 

quabbin-map
A very official map I found of the four towns overlaid onto the Quabbin. Source: bikemass351.com

 

These four small towns were erased and the residents relocated to quench Boston’s ever-growing thirst. In this time of never-ending public meetings, Environmental Impact Statements, and process, the notion that four whole towns were removed from the map is actually inconceivable – you can barely remove a tree these days without a protest and/or series of public forums.

So I thought I would devote this post to remembering these four towns, and why the Quabbin Reservoir was built right on top of them.

A Very Brief History

The quick run-down is that the population of Boston was exploding during the industrial revolution up through the 1920s, when the state legislature finally decided to create the Quabbin.

boston-population

All during the 1930s, workers cleared trees, deconstructed homes and churches, moved cemeteries, and dismantled factories. The whole area, some 25,000 acres, had to be totally cleared before it could be flooded with over 400,000,000,000 gallons of water. They spent weeks burning brush, which I imagine was great for the local air quality.

Another good bit of work was constructing the aqueduct which piped the water to Boston. It took years of boring through bedrock to pipe the water to all those parched Bostonians.

2014watermap
Source: MWRA.com

I imagined that, just like in O Brother, there was a wall of water rushing through the river valley once the Swift River was dammed. But it actually took 7 years for the valley to slowly fill up, covering up the remaining roadways, well heads, and building foundations. Today, you can walk along the dam in Belchertown, and it’s also a great place for a picnic. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed in the reservoir for swimming or other water sports.

For anyone interested in more information, there’s a nice documentary by WGBY about the demolition of these towns here.

The Four Towns Today

Today, the towns are all but gone, with the exception of Dana Town Common. It’s somewhat hard to find the road turnoff to get to there, but it’s a lovely 2-mile walk to the common and pretty eerie to see the leftovers from Dana.

We shot a couple of pictures, though you don’t really get a sense of common from them. Oh well, selfies are just as good, right?

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There are some nice displays showing the buildings that were on the common, and you can find the building foundations still there. Dana Town Common is unique among the four towns because it wasn’t flooded; you have to put on SCUBA gear to find the others.

Was It Worth It?

The question that inevitably comes up is whether flooding the Swift River Valley was worth it. This is one of those questions that people debated at the time and will continue debating long after this blog post is published, as persuasively written and definitive as it might be.

The four towns combined had about 2,700 residents, whereas Boston alone (not counting neighboring suburbs) had nearly 800,000. The city had struggled for decades to provide adequate clean drinking water to this booming metropolis. As the political and economic engine of the state and the region, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the state was able to push through this massive public works project – especially during the Great Depression when large public works projects were being pushed.

But still, people today from the area are bitter. My former boss from New Salem once said to me, “I get why the Quabbin Reservoir was important. I still don’t think it was the right thing to do.”

In the end, residents in the area were compensated $108/acre for their land, or about $1,600/acre today. According to one article:

“For the rest of his life after we left, my father said he could never go home,” said Linda Smith, 73, who was a toddler when her family left Greenwich and her father closed his auto repair business in Dana.

People struggled both emotionally and financially after they were forced out. It was the Great Depression, and even $108 couldn’t take a person very far in those conditions.

So was it worth it? For Boston, certainly – it has enough water to last it into the low-growth distant future. For the Swift River Valley residents? Not so much. I’ll let historians and economists keep the debate going while Bostonians slake their thirst with some of the best drinking water in the world.

Rail Options Suck, But I’m Not Sure They’re Worth Improving

Politicians in the Pioneer Valley really want more intercity rail coming through the region. At an MPO meeting that I wrote about several months back, Mayor Sarno of Springfield commented that building an east-west rail link to Boston would open up the city’s affordable housing stock to Boston, which has a housing affordability crisis. Meanwhile, north-south rail improvements would improve access to Hartford, New York City, and Montreal, better integrating Springfield into an interior northeastern route. These same sentiments were described more fully in a recently released report, Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) Study

northern new england rail
Proposed NNEIRI route. Source: NNEIRI study.

And it’s true, right now rail options suck in the Pioneer Valley. We have the Lake Shore Limited, which goes east-west one time per day, and the Vermonter which goes north-south one time per day. Even though both these routes could serve commuters traveling between Worcester and Springfield, or Hartford and Springfield, the schedule makes them useless to anyone other than an intercity traveler.

Writing about rail transportation in Springfield, I am reminded of a few years ago when Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert, came to visit Springfield and provide thoughts about how to improve the economic performance of the city. A point he hit a couple of times was that we have got to build a streetcar; the city would be transformed by it. Score another endorsement for rail! 

What’s amazing to me is the persistent dedication people have to rail transportation, despite the fact that it has so many apparent disadvantages relative to rubber-tire service. In brief:

  1.  It is really expensive. The proposed track upgrades to connect Boston to New Haven via Springfield would be at least $554 million, not counting operating costs (see table below); this route would need to be subsidized at $145 per trip, which doesn’t include capital costs. As for streetcars, the most celebrated American streetcar in Portland, Oregon cost several hundred million dollars to construct and carried 3.9 million riders last year. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line bus rapid transit line in Cleveland cost only $50 million,  and boasts 5 million trips per year
  2. Also, it’s really expensive. The cost of riding the train from Springfield to New York, for example, is $47 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on freight traffic). The cost of taking a bus is $27 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on highway traffic). So it gets you there no faster, though is nearly twice as expensive. 
  3. Did I mention that it’s expensive? It’s usually more expensive than we expect. Planning studies for rail projects tend to have ridership projections that are too high and capital cost estimates too low (also known as The Pickerell Effect). A good example is Albuquerque’s Rail Runner commuter rail, which has continued to underperform in ridership since it started service in 2007.
estimated costs table
Estimated costs of rail upgrades in New England. Source: NNEIRI Study.

The reality is that bus transportation, while not as efficient at moving people as rail, tends to be much more flexible and affordable. So why are elected officials stuck on rail? I have a few theories:

  1. It’s undeniably sexy. Even Ayn Rand made the main character of her celebration of fierce individualism and greed, Atlas Shrugged, a railroad tycoon. There’s something about the iron horse which connotes power, industry, and sophistication (while a bus brings up images of people coughing, yelling, and spilling Big Gulps on you).
  2. It’s expensive. Yes, I realize that I listed that as a drawback. But one person’s expense is another’s income. I wonder if the high price tag does not in fact invigorate elected officials to embrace rail because it will do what every elected official wants  – it will create jobs! Just this past week, Massachusetts mucky mucks were in Springfield to celebrate the completion of the factory that is going to manufacture new $2 million subway cars for the MBTA.
  3. It’s perceived to be an economic development engine, probably for two reasons. First, it attracts higher-income riders, and in so doing funnels these high-earners into a narrow corridor that businesses want to occupy. Second, it cements the route to a particular corridor, whereas bus routes could change at any point. Although, in the case of the DC streetcar, the economic development transformation took root well before the streetcar was finished – suggesting that we should just announce streetcars and then never actually build them. Hmm… developers might eventually catch on.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out that I’m not necessarily anti-rail. I would love to be able to hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in 90 minutes, or down to Washington in four hours. But I am a strong proponent of using tax dollars wisely. And for the most part, rail just doesn’t seem to pencil out when driving is so cheap and easy.

So who knows, maybe someday I’ll take one of the added trains on the Inland Route to get to Boston or New York City from Springfield. Honestly, I’d be happy to do so. Until then I’m content hopping a Peter Pan bus and working my crosswords as the road passes by my window. At $27, that’s not too bad.

Sewage of the Pioneer Valley

Often thought of as the Number 2 issue in urban planning, where we put human waste is usually a subject that most people don’t want to think about. But it’s a topic that has potentially epidemic consequences if bungled. Fortunately, we’re pretty good at disposing of our waste water, with billions of dollars of infrastructure dedicated to that purpose alone.

Crappier Times

As sophisticated as our systems are today, the field has not always been so flush with effective sewage infrastructure. Public roads up until the 20th century were really disgusting places. All kinds of animal poop (primarily horse manure, but also human, dog, and livestock waste) littered the street. Super-Freakonomics noted that in New York City the horse manure piled up so high that when there was heavy rain, there would be a literal wave of feces washing down the street.

horse manure
Source: The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

To further demonstrate the importance of modern sanitation, consider Chicago. As an interesting article put it, “The city was literally shaped by excrement.” As the city grew explosively in the 19th century, it had to constantly adjust where it evacuated its waste vis-à-vis where it drew its freshwater. This was an imprecise science at best (there were frequent cholera epidemics when human waste drifted to the drinking-water intake location, in one instance killing off 6% of the city’s population).

Chicago ended up having to jack up the entire city by three feet to improve drainage; reversed the flow of the Chicago River to pipe its sewage away (and into the Mississippi River); and eventually built the largest sewage treatment plant in the world.
In short, it took a lot of engineering, money, and effort to make Chicago the Windy City, and not the Stinky City.

Where Pioneer Valley Waste Water Goes

Fortunately, we no longer live in such crappy times.

I was curious one day, and looked up exactly what the end-point of that flush-initiated journey is. So here is the list you’ve been waiting for: the sewage treatment plants of the Pioneer Valley.

  1. Bondi’s Island – This sewage treatment plant is located in Agawam, and serves Springfield and surrounding suburbs. It was built in the late 1930s and has been expanded over the years to comply with the Clean Water Act, add service to surrounding communities, and even hosts the area’s landfill.

    Also, it’s not an island…

    Bondi_Island

  2. Holyoke Sewage Treatment Plant – Like a lot of old cities, Holyoke has a system that combines its sewage and storm water. This system worked fine back when it all went directly into the Connecticut River. Today, it puts a terrible strain on waste water treatment plants when there is heavy rain. This is why some areas have “high bacteria days.” The treatment plants can’t handle all the rainwater coming in with the sewage, and so release the untreated overflow directly into the river, or lake, or bay. Holyoke’s plant has been working to reduce those overflow events, and treats about 500 million gallons of waste water per year.

    holyoke sewage

  3. Northampton Wastewater Treatment Plant – Northampton, like Holyoke and Springfield, dumps its effluent into the Connecticut River. There is a pretty interesting report on the system here. There is even a nice little diagram included of all the parts of the plant:

    Northampton Treatment Plant

    And I also found a cool video of how the plant works:

So where does our “waste” go? The bottom line is that most of it winds up in the Connecticut River, hopefully after going through several cycles of treatment. It may seem gross, but modern sanitation is really what makes urban living possible. Next time you don’t get cholera (which should be always), remember to thank your toilet.