It turns out that the tradition of the muleteer made famous in Don Quijote was in many ways the consequence of logistical mistakes made by the Spanish crown at the start of its empire. Placing the court in such a far away city without connection to a navigable river meant that Spain was always dragged down economically by the constant burden of paying to transport all of the goods necessary for its constantly growing bureaucratic center to survive via an extremely inefficient modality. The best decision in terms of energy efficiency the Habsburg rulers could have made would have been to (re)relocate the capital to Seville or a coastal port city.
In the United States we’ve made a similar decision; we’ve made millions of little Madrids of our homes, our schools, our factories, and our commercial centers. The argument over infrastructure spending is mostly debating how to perpetuate the “mule” which is our sprawling auto-centric system.
In this region two heretofore disconnected conversations regarding infrastructure can be compared relative to their long terms costs and benefits to the economy, efficiency, and sustainability. One proposes to create an additional entrance/exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike between Westfield and Lee, a stretch of almost 30 miles which leaves many communities isolated from the type of growth interstate highway access provides. The other proposed transportation infrastructure improvement involves purchasing used “rolling stock” and running a commuter line on the newly improved railways from Springfield to Greenfield.
The first is unpopular with many people who live in the towns which would be opened up to interstate access because it will change the nature of their communities in ways the residents specifically selected their rural community to live in in order to avoid such as traffic and nuisance retail. For others, of course, it creates a tremendous opportunity to cash in on land values which will skyrocket at certain access points and other easily developable locations. Of interest here as well is the fact that many outer ring suburbs in the region are already declining at the same time they are obviously greying, with many schools closing and school districts struggling with “consolidation”. Giving potential new residents yet more options to choose from for locating their lily-white picket fences could accelerate the decline in school age populations today, and in overall populations tomorrow.
Beyond that, though, our government should keep the “mules” in mind. Every family housed another 15 miles further away from employment and 8 miles from the nearest existing school and 4 miles from the eventual new Wal-Mart represents the potential for decades of throwing energy and asphalt into maintaining an already inefficient and unsustainable system, and that will represent even more of a drag on the economy because the bottom line is every unit of energy spent moving people here and there just to start the process of engaging in social and economic activity isn’t there to spend on the activities themselves. Those 4 ramps in Blandford will necessitate hundreds of miles of new roads, expanded roads, road repairs, and other burdens which will only facilitate the movement of individuals and families to less efficient places and modes of life.
It’s fractally inefficient, fractally unsustainable, and fractally wrong.
Improving rail transport does exactly the opposite: It encourages and facilitates growth at already existing but underutilized nodes. Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield are communities built to be inhabited by many tens of thousands more people than are currently there. Instead of burdening communities with growth, growth would spread the burden of the same level of maintenance among more contributors. Instead of spreading thousands of children over hundreds of square miles and then trying to collect them into newly built schools, and redistribute them back to their homes 182 times a year via buses, those students can walk or bike to already existing schools. Instead of massive big box greenfield developments families can shop in stores their newly arrived demand can make materialize out of empty storefronts.
“The People” may “want” to all live spread out on the beautiful landscape of rural New England…and good for them, but that is an expensive proposition and if they’re going to do it those who choose to do it should shoulder the burden of doing so, but it’s the job of government to make reasonable and rational decisions about what can be reasonably sustained. I recommend watching the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes Sanitation Commissioner; everybody wants white glove trash service, but nobody wants the sanitation department to run out of cash in July.
To echo the great James Howard Kunstler: America’s suburban experiment is a living arrangement with no future, we shouldn’t be trying to sustain it and we damned well ought not to create any more of it. Sam Kinison famously said that we should stop sending starving people living in deserts food, we should start sending them luggage:
I can hardly think of a better metaphor for the current situation in suburbia.