Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The People's Republic . . .

of Massachusetts is once again in the glorious vanguard of the line of march toward the final victory of socialism. Specifically, I refer to a little-noticed element of our recent transportation reform legislation. Our revolution will put you in the driver's seat.

The reform act got a lot of attention because it abolishes the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, an independent agency which has been a major irritant to successive governors, otherwise consolidates transportation agencies in a single department, and creates an umbrella office of transportation planning that covers all modes. That's supposed to save money and be efficient and all that, but the socialist part -- to the extent that roads, bridges and mass transit aren't socialist already, which according to the true patriots who protested something or other in Washington last week they evidently are not -- is the part that says transportation planning has to take into account the public interest.

The planning office has to make programs "sustainable," expand people's mobility, reduce congestion, save fuel, and improve air quality. Transportation policy must promote bicycling and walking, which means "equitable" bicycle and pedestrian access has to be designed into all transportation facilities. Best of all, the Department of Transportation has to form a working "compact" with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Energy and Environmental Affairs, and the Department of Public Health to develop a mechanism for conducting Health Impact Assessments in relation to all transportation policy and projects.

Whoa. Now that is a thing of beauty. With all the health care reform hoo hah going on lately, I've strayed a bit from our core mission here, which is in part to remind everyone that health is not, for the most part, about health care. We have a cultural proclivity in this country to conflate the two, and to assume that the answer to poor health and health inequity is more and better and more equitable doctoring and drugging and surgery. In fact, health care is mostly what happens after we've already screwed up.

The transportation infrastructure is one of the most essential determinants of the structure of communities, cities, regions, the nation and the world. Transportation can connect, or it can divide. It can heal and it can sicken. It's not just air pollution, which certainly matters. Yes, poor and working class people are more likely to live near highways and bus yards and diesel trains and truck terminals and to breathe invisible, poisonous particles. But poor people in this country also very often can't get to decent grocery stores, to jobs, to educational opportunities, to cultural events and institutions. They live in food deserts, job deserts, cultural deserts, and affordable mass transit is the only way out.

Here in Massachusetts, back in the 60s, they bulldozed an interstate highway through Somerville. It cut East Somerville in half, destroying communities and isolating neighborhoods that used to be connected. Then they built low income housing projects right next to it, where the people breathe the fumes and listen to the roar all day and all night, but they don't own cars and they can't ride on that big ribbon of asphalt to go anywhere.

Then they tried to do the same thing to Jamaica Plain but the people stopped them. Instead we got a rail corridor with a subway that takes us right into town, right to Amtrak, right to the airport, right to work, right to two community colleges plus all of our universities, right to the Stop & Shop, everywhere in the world. On top of it is a beautiful linear park where every year we have a big wonderful festival. All the side streets are intact. Instead of splitting us apart, it brings us together. Instead of poisoning us, it detoxifies and purifies us.

Now that's revolutionary.


C. Corax said...

I have to say, I'm cynical. I do hope hope that promoting bicycling extends to making the roads safer for cyclists. We had another fatality this month when two people riding in a bike lane were plowed down by a car. Only one survived.

It's hard to retrofit bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly design, but if there was a sincere effort to pair useful, safe routes for non-motorized traffic with the most heavily-traveled commuter routes, it really could make a difference.

Damn, socialism is awesome!

kathy a. said...

i'm all for user-friendly public transit. we moved to our town in 1989 because it has 2 stops on the BART route, and the area has lots of kinda-connecting transit options. there is a long linear park with pedestrian and bike lanes under the BART tracks.

nearby berkeley isn't the easiest city to drive through. many of the narrow roads were re-made decades ago into one-way streets, and there are barriers diverting traffic here and there. there are also streets designated "bicycle boulevards," meant to accomodate bike traffic with a generous lane. it all works pretty well for the city's goals of reducing vehicular traffic, honoring the many pedestrians, and encouraging bikes.