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Stuff We Built in Less Than Thirty Years


biking in Providence brought up a brief discussion of just how long it might take to get us to be a biking mecca.  It took Amsterdam and Portland, Oregon three decades to achieve what they have, but in my opinion there's no reason we can't accomplish the same in a much shorter period of time.  The cities that tried bike-friendly design in the '70s didn't have any models to work from, and had to rely on trial-and-error experimentation.  We, on the other hand, know exactly what works, and should be able to get 'er done with less effort.

Here are some things that human beings have engineered, along with the times that it took to complete them.  You can decide whether making us the Amsterdam of the East Coast is more or less difficult than these human achievements.

Interstate 80

Approximately Thirty Years--from June 1956* to August 1986

I-80 goes through twelve states, from one ocean to another, and across the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada to connect San Francisco with New York City.  It was the longest contiguous freeway in the world at the time of its completion--in other words, something that legitimately takes thirty years to complete.


*Because I couldn't find an exact starting date for construction, I went with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act as the starting date, in order to be conservative with my data.

And in fact, while we're at it, it took us less time to complete. . . 

The Transcontinental Railroad

Six Years--1863 to 1869

Although talks about the railroad began in the 1830s, the actual construction took only six years, from 1863 to 1869, in the midst of The American Civil War and several serious "Indian wars".  And with 19th Century technology (okay, in fairness, it helps if you treat your workforce like expendable pack-animals, but still. . . ).

Okay, not impressed?  How about. . . 

The Hoover Dam 

Five Years--September 1931 to March 1936

Now, keep in mind that this was built during the Great Depression.  And the summer daytime high was 119 degrees--with people pouring concrete, which gives off even more heat when it sets.  Do we mean to say that getting a majority of Providence residents to feel comfortable biking on a regular basis is six times as hard as building the Hoover Dam?

The Eiffel Tower 

Two Years--January 1887 to March 1889

I think it's more than safe to say that the Eiffel Tower was built with less technology than we have today, mais oui?  And in two years' time, one-fifteenth of the time we're told it will take to make us serious contenders in the bike-world.


The Empire State Building 

One Year--from January 1930 to May 1931

Again, this was done during the Great Depression.  Could we seriously mean to say that we think it will take thirty times as long to get our modest goals complete compared to this?

Okay, you say, but that's New York.  We can't do that in New England.  Well, how about. . . 

The Canton Viaduct

One Year--April 1834 to July 1835

The last surviving viaduct of its kind, it has stood for 177 years.  It's what makes train connections from Providence to Boston possible.  Due to its superb, straight, level construction, it is one of the fastest portions of the Northeast Corridor of AMTRAK, one of the few places where the Acela can actually get up to full speed, the other being in South County, Rhode Island.

Okay, look, I'm not saying it couldn't take thirty years to get us to Amsterdam level.  But why should it?  As someone with (a mostly useless) history degree, let me impart the biggest piece of useful information my education has ever brought me:  don't use the passive voice, ever.  If bike infrastructure "wasn't completed", then someone didn't complete it.  In other words, there is an actor, and something being acted upon.  Bike infrastructure can and will be completed quickly and efficiently when we make ourselves a nuisance enough that it has to take front-and-center as an issue.  We should stop talking about the extraordinarily inefficient governance we experience as if it's been bequeathed to us by the tooth fairy.

Meet you all on Memorial Boulevard?

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