If you are growing tired of my recent obsession with transportation then I’m afraid I have horrible news for you. While I am easily 10 essays behind in terms of ideas on my list of blogposts to inflict upon you I feel compelled to focus my attention this week on Springfield being listed as the third best mid sized metro in which to be car-free. The results apart from the inclusion of my hometown seem to check out with reality and so the methodology seems solid, but the essay written to accompany the study left me amused and has caused me to ponder some much more ephemeral things.
In that essay Richard Florida opines that on that list of mid sized metros Honolulu is an outlier, hard to argue given the unique nature of its location and the impact that alone would have on car use, but he goes on to say that “most” of the remaining top five being “college towns” demonstrates the impact of higher education as a cultural driver for people being car-free. He then lists every other city in the top 5 except Springfield. Of course, what is funny about that is that a case could be made for metro Springfield being among the most higher education intensive mid sized metro areas in the United States; what differentiates Springfield from, say, Madison or New Haven is that of the largest and/or most highly regarded colleges in greater Springfield, none of them are in the city.
Amherst, Smith, and Mt Holyoke have the strongest academic reputations, and they are in Amherst, Northampton, and South Hadley, and the enormous flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts is, of course, also in Amherst. Of the other 8 colleges and Universities clustered in this relatively tiny metro area, only 4 are in the city of Springfield. None of those are household names, unless you are obsessed enough with the history of basketball to know that the YMCA college where the sport was invented is now Springfield College, or you’re into politics enough to know that the current Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee went to American International College, or if you want to know what law school does a better job of preparing students for the Massachusetts Bar Exam than any other; that would be the Western New England University School of Law.
All kidding aside, the final decision to locate what became the University of Massachusetts came down to Springfield and Amherst; it would be interesting to see how the city and the region would be different had Springfield been selected. My guess is at the time it was an afterthought given the wealth and industrial prowess the city then possessed. As with so many things, the fact that Springfield doesn’t exist as a more powerful and prosperous central node of the region seems to diminish the luster of the region as a whole.
Returning to the theme of auto-dependence or lack thereof, I can’t help but think that the aforementioned study is indicative of some real strength in the area. The beautiful clusters of walkable neighborhoods in each of the larger cities in greater Springfield, with people oriented downtowns like Easthampton, and West Springfield, and Holyoke create a healthy network of nodes which can be stitched together fairly easily into a coherent network of public transportation.
And it is with that idea that I return again to the north south rail corridor as a spine. Not once have I heard a single commentator or politician who advocates for improved rail service in the valley highlight how it can be used WITHIN the valley itself; all of the cheerleading is for better connecting us to Boston, or to New Haven and New York City.
It needs to be viewed as a way to better connect us to ourselves! Going car-free can be such a relief, and not just in terms of finances. Not just while I lived in Spain, but when I worked downtown, and took the bus to college I relished the fact that I didn’t need to think about oil changes, or alternatives to the car if it needed repairs. My feet got me where I needed to be without fail and traffic was never an issue, and I loved taking the bus not least for the people watching and the time it afforded me to unwind in a schedule which at the time saw me out the door by 7 a.m., and not back home until 11 or 12 at night.
I’m surprised, but not shocked, at the fact that Springfield is among the least car dependent places in the United States. I continue to marvel at how little impact that has on the region’s popularity. I read at least three articles just this week on how (to me) horrible, unwalkable places, places without even enough water to sustain life, and with no jobs to offer residents anywhere within a 100 mile radius are in the process of building literally tens of thousands of homes “to meet the demand for housing”!
“So, this place has no infrastructure, no available water, no jobs unless I drive for over an hour and the shitty new homes you’re building will cost, at a minimum, $500,000? Fuck, at least it’s not western Massachusetts! Where do I sign?”
To say “I don’t get it” is the understatement of all time, but I do get that I’m an outlier. I’m like there was just one guy to whom cilantro tastes like the fucking magic that is cilantro and everyone else just tastes soap. I’ve thought about the places I’d live if I had to leave Springfield: Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Albany, or Troy, New York, Middletown, or Winsted, Connecticut and a whole host of other places, and who knows how many places I’ve heard about but never really gotten to know like Rochester, Portland, Maine, Providence, Worcester and the like. None of them are in the desert, or would require a car, or be exclusively White (except maybe Portland!), or be devoid of seasonal changes in the weather; but those really do seem to be the common denominators/driving forces behind the population growth and shifts in the United States apart from the economic powerhouse Super Cities.
I’ve said many times, and it continues to hold true, that people will alter their behavior only when obligated to do so by circumstances. Maybe, but I reserve the right to complain about it. Repeatedly. Probably again next week.