(Second in the “Making the Connection” Series. This article focuses on the movement to create sensible infrastructure in Massachusetts.)
Reading Time: 5 Minutes
We rely on concepts when we plan and execute work. Were it not for abstract ideas about things, it would not be possible to mobilize cooperation for any project beyond the most rudimentary. Transportation is a concept: it is used to communicate the general need for a system of conveyance from one place to another. Cooperation necessary to construct roads and bridges is possible because a general need for transportation can be easily appreciated.
Yet conceptual thinking can also limit us. When we envision the concept of a path, for example, appreciation of its utility as a means of conveyance may obscure awareness of other critically important functions that it might serve. A screwdriver can be used effectively to open a can of paint, for example, but the first screwdriver was probably not constructed with that purpose in mind. Similarly, while active transportation paths were originally envisioned as a means of facilitating enjoyable conveyance, their value resides in their ability to serve a range of critically important functions (1):
Conservation involves protection of our life support system. It allows our species
to persist for future generations by ensuring the survival of a diversity of species and ecosystems.
One of the most dispiriting aspects of our existing transportation systems is the extent to which they are incompatible with the survival of ecosystems of which we are apart and upon which our survival depends. 2 Greenways and the active forms of transportation that they encourage offer a tantalizing alternative because they harmoniously interface with the natural world and reflect our potential to create systems and landscapes commensurate with our deepest values. Survival constitutes one such value. While conventional roads and highways are typically constructed in a manner that is indifferent to natural landmarks and the biosphere, linear parks that feature a path for active transportation allow for harmonious interaction with the lands through which they travel.
Historic preservation seeks to preserve and protect historically significant aspects of the built environment. While conservation relates to our place in the natural world, preservation connects us to our cultural heritage. It can help address the increasing normlessness, social isolation, and ideological tribalism that lie at the source of many of the ills that plague American culture. Just as the path along the Erie Canal in New York recapitulates our history of ingenuity and cooperation by reconstructing and repurposing an old transportation corridor, the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail reconstitutes a historically significant rail line that once stretched from North Station in downtown Boston to Northampton. The line was used by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge for his daily commute from Northampton to the State House in 1918 and 1919, prior to his election to the Vice-Presidency in 1920. Once a vital means of transport within the commonwealth, the corridor has faded from memory since it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1938.
Complexity and Opportunity
Our inability to work together would not be as dangerous as it is if we were not confronted with dangerous threats. But the fact is that the work that needs to be done is indifferent to our level of readiness to do it. The ecological havoc being wrought by climate change, to give just one example, does not stop and wait because we have yet to figure out how to achieve the levels of cooperation and creativity that necessary to address it. (3)
The complexity of the Massachusetts project is partially attributable to the highly localized township-based governmental organization of the commonwealth: its construction necessarily requires active cooperation among no less than 26 distinct municipal governments. Craig Della Penna, Executive Director of the Norwottuck Network, observed that people who regularly use rail trails find it difficult to believe that one still finds opposition to the creation of such paths (4). The intransigence that persists among voters in a small number of townships is perplexing, but nevertheless constitutes a continuing obstacle: Because completion of the path will require the
participation of no less than 26 municipalities, sufficient political support must be mobilized not only on a state-wide level but in each community through which the path travels. Active and consistent participation of a sufficiently large and vocal group in each community through which the MCRT will pass is necessary if the MCRT is to be realized.
On the other hand, Massachusetts is uniquely positioned relative to the availability of abandoned rail corridors that can be repurposed. Peter Harnik, former Vice President of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and author of a recent book on the history of the rails-to-trails movement, observed that with its 870 miles of abandoned rail corridor owned by the state, Massachusetts is ranked first among states in terms of the sheer quantity of rail bed it has at its disposal. (5)
Freedom, Facts, and Functionality
We need to build a culture that is conducive to what used to be called “sanity”. In a sane culture a consensus is achieved around core principles and objectives that one would expect to be universally embraced. We need a culture that, at a bare minimum, is compatible with our long-term survival. We need to figure out what we should all be doing to make life better for everyone, and to operationalize those ideas that have consequences for people’s lives.(6)
“Active transportation” uses human energy. It is unique in its ability to simultaneously and cost-effectively address several social challenges. Communities that prioritize active transportation tend to be healthier because they encourage residents to be more physically active in their daily routines (7). They have cleaner air to breathe. They foster economic health by creating dynamic, connected communities with a high quality of life that catalyzes small business development, sparks tourism, and encourages investment that attracts a talented and highly educated workforce. Such communities promote mental health because they contribute to a sense of social connectedness by reducing the amount of time people spend isolated in their cars. By allowing people to enjoy the freedom to get where they need to go without being forced to drive a car, greenways can transform commuting and regular errands into a form of recreation.
But facts and values are often difficult to disentangle: While it is a fact that communities without active transportation networks do not function as well as those that have them, apprehension of this fact entails rendering a judgment. Claims that we should create active transportation networks may be based on facts that pertain to health, survival, culture, and community, but the selection and apprehension of relevant facts involves values. Yet the values that drive apprehension of such facts are non-trivial, for they are those that are necessary to build a culture that is “conducive to what used to be called ‘sanity’.”
- The diagram was inspired by remarks made by Peter Harnik at the Golden Spike Conference on July 30, 2022, in Gilbertville Massachusetts.
- See also: https://workosophy.org/2021/07/06/making-the-connection-amillion-americans-work-together-to-create-a-joyful-inter-urban-transitsystem/
- Paraphrased observation of Sam Harris on his Making Sense podcast.
- From Craig Della Pena’s remarks at the Golden Spike Conference on July 30, 2022, in Gilbertville Massachusetts.
- Remarks made by Peter Harnik at the Golden Spike Conference on July 30, 2022, in Gilbertville Massachusetts.
- Paraphrase of observations made by Sam Harris on his Making Sense podcast.
This is essential reading for rail-trail builders who think!
It beautifully contextualizes our project in both human culture and our interdependence with the natural world. And it reflects why, when I welcomed folks to GS2022, I also to drew attention to the vast network of prehistoric trails in Massachusetts — paths which predate railroads, stagecoaches and “first-contact”— paths that have been beaten for nearly 15 millennia by humans (and even longer by other large mammals).
I hope it will serve as the beginning of a thoughtfully transformative process – thanks for sharing this,
Thank you Rob for your thoughtful comments and the kind words! Yes, I imagine the history of prehistoric trails is an interesting one and learning about such such paths can only enhance one’s appreciation for our contemporary landscape. Thanks so much for drawing attention to that vitally important part of our history.