A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Both Futures Were Possible

Years ago, elected officials and transportation bureaucrats drafted a plan. They titled it, perhaps not very imaginatively, A Time of Change: Portland Transportation Plan. But don't let the boring title fool you. This was one visionary transportation plan, certainly more visionary than the auto-centric Peninsula Traffic Study that came out several years later.

One thing that caught my attention in this plan was that the authors imagined two different futures for the city of Portland and its region. One was a transit-oriented utopia, the other a gridlocked and sprawling autotopia.

In the utopia, it is 15 years in the future and the fictional protagonists Mark and Barbara wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a world where their kids can either bike or walk to school, the adults have multiple commuting options, including commuter rail to Portsmouth, and local neighborhoods are packed to the gills with convenient amenities. Life is so good, they plan to take the kids out for ice cream after dinner, then sit on the front porch and catch up on neighborhood gossip until the sun goes down.

Meanwhile, the autotopia is also 15 years in the future and Mark and Barbara are still waking up. Only this time the both of them are groggy and cranky because the traffic on their street wouldn't let them get any sleep. Letting the kids make their way to school by themselves is out of the question in such conditions, so the adults negotiate who will drop them off and who will pick them up and take them to their respective after-school appointments, which are of course on opposite ends of town. The traffic may be a nightmare but at least parking at the mall is free. Mark and Barbara can't even crack open a window lest they be sickened by clouds of exhaust. The situation is so untenable that our protagonists are considering buying a house on a quite three acre lot way the hell out in Parsonsfield. It may be farther from the Maine Mall as the crow flies, but time-wise it's all a wash as far as the traffic is concerned.

The study concludes both scenarios with these words:

Both futures are possible. The first will come about only with some shifts in public policy and lifestyles. The second is a simple extrapolation of present policies and lifestyles. The choice is ours.
By the way, I neglected to mention when these cute attempts at speculative fiction by local politicians and bureaucrats first made its debut.


Fifteen years in 1993's future would be ... 2008. So where the hell is that commuter rail line to Portsmouth and other locales in the region? Oh yeah, I forgot - the transit oriented utopia never came to pass. We live in the autotopia. The choice was indeed ours and the status quo prevailed. Somehow, we failed to ignore our way out of a mess that was already blindingly obvious to the pre-Information Superhighway-era cavemen 1993. What was it the cavemen knew then that the neanderthals at the PACTS and MDOT apparently haven't a clue about today?

The cavemen of 1993 knew from experience that the already decades-old trend of more and more single occupancy vehicles crowding other modes of transit off of over-capacity traffic arteries was unsustainable. They were worried about global warming. They still remembered the energy crises of the 1970's. They deplored sprawl and suburbanized public buildings. They were well aware of the pitfalls of prioritizing the swift movement and easy storage of cars at the expense of walkers, bikers, and transit riders. They knew zoning laws that preclude density were well past their prime.

So instead of doing something daft like widening the Franklin Arterial to nine lanes or building yet another parking garage, the cavemen realized there had to be another way. The goals of these wise cro-magnons included such seemingly modern "fads" as sustainability and energy efficiency, inter-modal transit and plenty of transit choices, zoning reform, performance targets (such as returning to transport use ratios last seen in 1970), and high standards of design. They called for financial incentives that would push toward these goals, more comprehensive planning, compact and diverse development that would reduce the need for cars, regional transportation centers, local transit districts and centers with convenient amenities close at hand, aggressive funding for bike lanes and mass transit, commuter rail, comprehensive transportation planning, and real regional planning. These prehistoric ancestors of ours further declared that these changes needed to happen at neighborhood, city, and regional levels. What a glorious future it could have been.

Alas, the cavemen were ignored by the neanderthals who have staffed transportation bureaucracies since time immemorial. The neanderthals took one look at A Time of Change, grunted, and went on to draft the business-as-usual peninsula traffic study a decade later. Thankfully, just like the real neanderthals of the real stone age, they and their way of life is doomed to extinction. The same problems that prompted cavemen like Alan Caron and cavewomen like Anne Pringle to realize the need for real change still face us today, and they are more acute than ever. Yes, the looming budget crisis in Maine means funding for expanded mass transit is in dire straights, but highway projects are in the same boat. Time to throw that sand and gravel mentality overboard.

We also have fresh transit-friendly blood on the Portland City Council - including Kevin Donoghue, slayer of the Dread Peninsula Traffic Study. In it's place will rise a new transit study that will be more in line with the Spirit of '93. The members of that new transit study committee (including Christian McNeil of this very blog) will surely be kept busy these next few months, but they can be thankful that A Time of Change is one hell of a blueprint.

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