Follow Narrow Roads, Not the Narrow-minded
About a week ago, Farmington residents could have been present at a rare treat—an official (and supposedly genuine) examination of road planning issues. What made it rare was the presence, at the invitation of the selectmen, of municipal law expert Bernie Waugh, municipal planner Steve Whitman, engineer Paul Brown, and concerned residents. All in one room.
The result? We were treated to a clear characterization of how four elements are combining to destroy our own best interests and degrade our community and our neighborhoods. Don't be shocked . . . but half of it is your fault. What's the problem?
- Your apparently bottomless lust for convenience
- Your short-sighted, poorly-informed willingness to drive public policy to ever-greater development of municipal infrastructure to the detriment of all taxpayers
- The narrow view taken by engineers the world over
- The failure of selectmen, department heads, planners, and especially engineers to see our community as a system rather than a collection of separate issues.
If you had been watching channel 26, you would have heard some interesting stuff:
- You would have heard that people don't like "bad" roads. But you also would have heard that they don't like people speeding past their front yards (which is what happens on "better" roads).
- You would have heard that we can compare the cost of unpaved vs. paved roads. But in his comparison, you would also have listened to the engineer ignore all the predictable costs that the town absorbs when roads are improved. Costs such as the development attracted by "improved" roads (which increases taxes for everyone), the more devastating auto accidents that occur when people speed on improved roads, and the loss of residents who move out of town when traffic speeds and volume on local roads becomes unbearable.
- You would have heard that engineers and policy makers often misunderstand resident concern about road planning issues to be about aesthetics rather than function.
- You would have been led to believe that the cost-benefit analysis of road improvement is a straight-forward question of engineering costs. But you also would have learned that there are dozens of misunderstood—but basic—factors in thinking about roads that have been instrumental in the screwing up of town after town—and their budgets.
Look: this isn't easy. There is a lot to it. But when we plan on the basis of what would be easiest, we end up allowing engineers to design our town to be "easy to plow" instead of good to live in.
What we should have learned that night is that planning for a prosperous future will take a view of our town as a complex interaction of dozens of factors instead of a series of isolated and simple acts. Create an inconvenient new intersection on Route 11, and you will drive traffic to the Chestnut Hill Road. Make a road more comfortable to commute over, and more people will drive faster on it. So-called road improvement is like squeezing a balloon—an ugly bulge always pops out somewhere.
Think about your youth. Remember when you were ignorant of the complexities of living in the world, and thinking only of how perfect life would be if you could only eat all the candy at the drugstore? Good thing you got smarter. Good thing you learned that if you ate all the candy, you would get deathly sick. Good thing you paid attention to your experience and learned to look ahead.
I have to wonder . . . won't we ever grow up? THINK! If you get all the things that you think will make your personal world perfect, we will all be worse off than you could ever imagine. The only problem is, you keep thinking of yourself. You rely on narrow-minded engineers. You lean on our selectmen and department heads to make your personal experience more convenient.
Smarten up. You moved to or choose to remain in a town with gravel roads. Narrow roads that keep speeds and serious accidents down. Roads with features that make people think there are hazards—features that are only dangerous if you drive too fast. Don't like rural living anymore? Then move to New Jersey.
Or . . . you could choose to slow down for a livable town. To be content with roads that take a little longer to commute over. To slow down in your advocacy of changes that will mess up our neighborhoods. To slow down our selectmen when they choose to ignore the good advice of planners and experts that rightly see our town as a complex system.
But something keeps going wrong here. Residents of the Meaderboro Road just got official letters announcing that the most rural parts of that road are going to be widened and straightened and made more attractive to speeders and additional commuters. Who is making these decisions? Do they not get it? Do you?
A whole series of bad choices become creeping stupidity that simply adds up to a crummy place to live. It's hard to undo stupidity—but we can avoid it. Look past your own nose. Yankees used to deal with a little hardship—hell, they were proud of it.