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On the Straight & Narrow: A Response to Russell Moore

“Because straight is the way, and narrow is the road, that lead unto life, and few ever find it.”


--Matthew, 7:14


Olneyville: a "second downtown" that was destroyed by 6/10.
Russell Moore’s opinion piece in Go Local Prov states the case that removing the 6/10 Connector and replacing it with a boulevard as proposed by Moving Together Providence would be an attack on freedom. We as members of Moving Together PVD respect Moore’s sincerity and passion, but strongly disagree. We invite the public dialogue and hope even to eventually win skeptics like Moore to our position, as we already have done with some other notable Rhode Island conservatives. Removing 6/10 is the conservative option.


In this time of heightened partisanship, a conservative argument for removing the 6/10 Connector and replacing it with a boulevard should not be misinterpreted as being mutually exclusive with the many progressive reasons to do so. We believe the added housing, transit, biking, and walking options will help to hold at bay displacement of low income residents, will increase access to jobs for those residents, and will help the state to stand firm in its commitment to fight and adapt to climate change. Representative Aaron Regunberg deftly describes the ecological reasons, while an endorsement by the UNITE-HERE Local 217 hotel workers’ union explains the equity ones.


Conservatives value self-reliance, tradition, thrift, local control, private property, healthy business conditions, and freedom of choice. Conservatives also tend to value in-groups over out-groups. The 6/10 Boulevard will help each of these values to flourish.


In the election of 1965, William F. Buckley ran for NYC mayor
with a platform that included congestion charges and bike lanes.
Self-reliance It seems to make common sense that if drivers pay gas taxes and  other fees, the roads they use must be paid for. But this isn’t so: user fees cover only about half of road costs. It’s only partly that fees are too low. It’s also that policies have been set to emphasize expansion over maintenance of the existing system. But on top of that, urban freeways cost far more than normal highways, for reasons that we’ll address in “Thrift”.


Transit also receives a subsidy, but well-designed transit can carry many times as many people in a much smaller space than driving alone can. Bike riding, meanwhile, actually has a net negative cost. Even if a person plans to drive everywhere, it is in the best interest of that driver as both a person trying to get somewhere, as well as in their role as a taxpayer, to make sure as few people as possible make the same choice.


Tradition Because conservatives tend to support a course of action that pays close attention to original intent, we should understand what the beginnings of our highway system were meant to be, and how the actual outcome differed from that vision.


Ike did not support urban highways.
It’s absolutely vital to note that arguing for the removal of the 6/10 Connector is not an argument against highways, but rather one against urban highways. Highways are best conceived as fast, limited-access routes between two financially and socially productive places. Libertarian-leaning engineer Charles Marohn has articulated what happened to cause the breakdown of this traditional model, explaining how it became something much more costly, and much less useful. Marohn describes the way that core “streets” in business areas have been made speedier while highways have been allowed greater and greater direct adjacent access to previously fast “roads”: the “stroad”.  Marohn calls the stroad a design futon: an uncomfortable and ugly couch that turns into an uncomfortable and ugly bed.


Futon design was not a conservative dream. Dwight Eisenhower, who is credited as the presidential force behind completion of the federal Interstate system, did not believe (PDF of original memorandum) that highways belonged in cities. Quoting from the memorandum:


[Eisenhower] went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way . . . and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored.  He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes.


Moore points out, correctly, that many liberals pushed the United States in the direction of urban freeways. Drawn by the promise of union jobs and the expectation that cities would be left out if highways didn’t bisect their cities directly down the middle, Democratic mayors chased federal highway dollars and destroyed many great places. One of those great places was Olneyville, Providence’s once glorious “second downtown”. Beautification ideas by Moving Together member Art Eddy would help to reignite that.


Thrift Conservatives believe in an efficient and minimal use of public resources in order to achieve the highest possible potential for private entrepreneurial gain. The 6/10 boulevard is exactly that.


It’s important to note that highways as well as transit can be costly or wasteful. The city of Atlanta, Georgia, not well-known for its transit, has a surprisingly large amount of rail service—almost as much as Barcelona, Spain. The land use of Atlanta—a city with a similar population the same as Barcelona but 26.5 times bigger—means that that Atlanta’s rail corridors are accessible (defined as within 1/3 of a mile) for just 4% of its population. In Barcelona, the same public investment serves 60% of the population. Atlanta’s system simply is not a good investment.


Atlanta vs. Barcelona: land use matters
In Northeastern U.S. terms, Providence may not feel like a very dense city. It is, however, much closer to Barcelona in layout—even after decades of demolitions along its urban highways—than it is to Atlanta. At close to 10,000 people per square mile, Providence is four times as dense as Atlanta, and less than a fifth of its area. Of course, those statistics apply to Providence as one big mass, which includes sections of growth that are more suburb-like than its historic core. The neighborhoods along 6/10: Capitol Center, Smith Hill, Federal Hill, Valley, Olneyville, Manton, the West End, and the Upper and Lower South Sides, are some of the densest and most transit-oriented parts of the city, already with high transit-ridership. Olneyville—once a “second downtown” for Providence, has a population that is already close to 50% car-free, but surrounded on three sides by a highway that cuts it off from its neighbors. All of these neighborhoods have room to add more housing and business density, even before considering the 70 acres of surplus land that would be available from the boulevard—that’s more than three I-195 Districts. Fully connecting existing bikeways to Cranston and Johnston—bikeways that, though very nice, are hard to access due to the highway—would augment that transit-shed even further. And, of course, Olneyville could and should get an infill MBTA station.


Wickford Jct: a failure
The most recent failure of Rhode Island transit policy was the extension of rail to Wickford Junction. That project failed for a number of reasons. It was sited in a location with little density, walkability, or bike infrastructure to facilitate last-mile connections. Because the project’s conception was already an expensive outlay of resources, the MBTA has not been able to affordably add transit frequency to the route, a major factor in ridership. The cost of parking to facilitate park & ride use  was astronomical, and even when the state chose to given that valuable parking away free, it saw little occupancy. The 6/10 Boulevard contrasts in every possible way, just taken on the merits of its transit design.


But we owe ourselves a full picture of the costs of driving. The 6/10 Connector, if rebuilt as a destructive highway, would draw the majority of projected toll funding for a mere few miles of redundant road, during a time when truck tolls have drawn the ire of the right. As a boulevard, the fourteen bridges that make up the Connector could be eliminated or shortened—Moving Together member Jonathan Harris finds a reduction of as much as 85% in bridge length. Why build more when you can use less? Providence is, in fact, #8 in per capita lane-miles of highway, a distinction that no other city north of the Mason-Dixon Line or east of the Appalachians has. No wonder we can’t pay to maintain our highway system! Would we rather share a list with Baltimore and Cleveland—or set out for less money to become a more livable city?


Local Control & Private Property The Connector laid waste to the West Elmwood neighborhood, and to sections of several other neighborhoods, in order to create room for its giant on- and off-ramps. While regrowth should be expected to be slow and organic, the removal of the ramps to create a boulevard feel would allow private business the opportunity to reclaim the pieces of neighborhoods that were taken by eminent domain in the runaway period of “urban renewal”. Olneyville Square was also made a much less pleasant place to live because of the highway.
Portland's Harbor Drive, after the boulevard.

Moore’s piece presents the boulevard as social engineering, but what could be a crisper example of government overreach than eminent domain? Why double down on the same mistake, if it’s going to cost more than other options?


Business Climate In the 1980s, Portland, Oregon was a washed up lumber town, with a population a bit larger than Providence’s.  After Oregon Republicans led the fight to remove the Harbor Drive Freeway, the population in the next three decades doubled. Portland is now a city of Boston’s population size, with growing use of transit, biking, walking, and carpooling. The Harbor Drive-adjacent properties gained in value faster than other properties in the city. Portland may have a crunchy image, but it is a business success. Yet for all of Portland’s in-roads towards a transit- and bike-oriented design, it is still behind Providence in land use. A combined area of Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, East Providence, and Cranston would be just 60% of the land area of Portland proper, and the same  density (about 5,000 per square mile).  Not only can we match what Portland did, but we can also beat Portland at its own game. But don’t follow just Portland’s example: try cities like Memphis, Chattanooga, or Milwaukee.


A Flexible Labor Market Conservatives criticize government actions that create barriers to employment, and favor deregulated, “flexible” labor markets to allow for full employment. Yet, a car-centric society is one of the worst obstacles to a flexible labor market in existence. Mandatory rather than optional car ownership is the ultimate minimum wage: in order to enter the labor market for many jobs (including many low-wage jobs), one must have a car. American society has drifted into using more and more general funds to build and maintain roads and bridges, and the subsidy to driving through this and other means might seem like a liberal equity experiment. But because these subsidies act as matching grants for only those who are able to own a car, it’s akin to giving everyone with a job an extra raise but barring the unemployed from any job at all. Certainly, a system of roads based on user fees, with a strong emphasis on the more financially efficient modes of transit and biking, as well as land use that obviates the need to go anywhere far in the first place, are the answers. This is one reason conservatives who care about an open labor market should also support the boulevard.


Freedom of Choice The current configuration of the highway makes freedom of movement an impossibility for many people: the very old, the very young, the disabled, and those too poor to own a car come to mind easily. Yet urban highways fail even a fully able-bodied person who owns a car, because their design ensures that they will be clogged by traffic at the exact time when commuters need mobility most.
Embarcadero: before and after.


This is called induced demand. It’s the most counterintuitive of the arguments for the boulevard, but the most conservative, because what it says is that people adjust their consumption of readily available free things until that consumption fills the container of availability. Many of the first highway-to-boulevard conversions happened by accident. The West Side Highway, in New York City, fell due to being in poor repair. Though it carried tens of thousands of vehicles a day, traffic engineers were surprised and befuddled when they could not located new traffic jams elsewhere as a result of the sudden loss of road capacity. The 1980s saw the earthquake collapse of the Embarcadero and Central Artery freeways in San Francisco, to a similar end. These urban highways, once blights, were redeveloped at less cost to be boulevards, and they now are healthy, growing neighborhoods.


The case for induced demand is strongest when looked at from the opposite vantage point: it’s easy to imagine dense cities like New York or San Francisco—or even Portland—lowering the amount of driving they do when a highway disappears. But what happens if an existing highway in a driving-centric metro gets even bigger?
The Katy Freeway: 23 "Lanes of Freedom".
Rick Perry called it 18 “lanes of freedom” (they weren’t actually free, they cost billions of dollars) Going from eight lanes to eighteen (and in places, to twenty-three) only modestly improved travel times. Within a few years, the Houston Chronicle reported that the expansion caused the Katy Freeway to become even more clogged than when it was a third the size. Why? In the universe of traffic, conservative truths rule the day: people drive up to the point of tolerance for traffic congestion. I wonder how Texans feel when they sit in the multi-billion-dollar traffic Rick Perry created?


In-Group/Out-Group Dynamics
All of us, liberal or conservative, value in-groups over out-groups in at least some part of our lives, though in-group affiliation is a more prominent part of many conservatives’ affiliations. The fact, in the outset of this article, that we had to list some liberals who support this project is an example of liberals employing the same tendency: some liberals, hearing that a project is “conservative” will react against it no matter what the merits. The claim that there is a liberal war-on-cars is an in-group tactic, meant to draw the solidarity of suburban or rural drivers who feel an effete liberal elite is attempting to oust them. This, though on its face conservative, is not.


We need to drive less. The environmental and social implications of continuing a completely car-centric lifestyle are too severe to ignore--the damage won’t just be to spotted owls, but to business investments in cities around the world. Yet driving is always going to be a part of the mix of transportation. A boulevard is not anti-car, but by using other modes as part of the mix of technologies, allows cars to be put to their best use. Already in this article we’ve explored some examples of transit that was mis-used. Two of the three members of Moving Together PVD are frequent drivers, but all three would like to see a Providence and Rhode Island that have more options not to drive.


Who is our in-group? Our young cannot drive until they are at least sixteen, and many of us worry about the implications for safety of teenagers on the road. Our elderly--all of us, eventually--reach a point when we cannot drive (or at least, should not). Any of us as parents who have to shuttle children hectically to school before rushing off to a traffic jam before work know that having to drive for every trip is exhausting. It takes what can at times be a convenience and makes it a chore.


Moving Together Driving is with us for good, but that doesn’t mean that the urban highways of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s must be.  They were a poor choice, made in earnest, but we know now that that choice did not work. We cannot continue unabated on this path. Let’s work together to create a Providence that is open for business, that has flexible labor markets and the ability to use resources efficiently. Let’s restore traditional neighborhoods that give strength to the family structure. This is what Moving Together PVD stands for. We invite liberals and conservatives to join us in tearing down this highway.

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3 comments:

  1. Very informative. I totally agree about getting a big picture, long term plan for real, walkable neighborhoods again. What highway isn't an eyesore? However, it seems like you considered every aspect of planning except one, which seems to be the biggest one yet, which is the rise of auto-driving cars, which is going to bring about a sea change in city traffic patterns.

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  2. We've considered it. :-) I think it'll have an effect. I don't think it's going to be a "sea change" in cities, so much as suburbs though.

    See this article, at Human Transit, for instance:

    http://humantransit.org/2012/08/bus-stigma-and-driverless-cars-email-of-the-month.html

    The real key is that self-driving cars will be more space efficient than regular cars, but still far less space efficient than transit, and in cities (and traditional New England-style towns, probably too) we'll need considerable amounts of fixed-route transit to keep up with transportation needs.

    But that said, nothing about self-driving cars should push back against the boulevard regardless. If they're one other tool that helps to lower people's reliance on regular cars, they'll also help to lower the need for car space. Certainly all the money being wasted to put more parking in in Providence is the thing people should call out as wasteful in the face of self-driving cars, because they won't need the parking spaces nearly as much.

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  3. Quite a comprehensive response to Moore, though I don't take nominal "conservative" (or liberal either) principles too seriously because they can be so inconsistent at times (e.g. opposition to "big government" but they force us to subsidize driving and are largely in favor of using government compulsion to force women to have kids they don't want and can't afford.)

    That said, in addition to responding to Moore, there is a need to watch what the Providence City government does about the 6/10, if anything, when submitting transportation requests to the State Planning Council for the upcoming 10 year TIP. Applications are due Jan 8 and there is supposed to be a public hearing on what they want to submit.
    Barry

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