Livability On the Other Side of the Tracks

Transportation should bring us together, not divide us

By Matt Carmichael on July 29, 2014 at 4:06 pm EDT

It comes down to this fundamental question: Where would you rather live?

This is a post about transportation, but first we have to talk about homicide. As a Chicagoan, I get asked about the murder rate here pretty often. The first thing I say is that it’s really not as bad as you might think from reading the Tribune or Sun-Times. Which isn’t to say it isn’t bad. It’s deplorable. And while it’s not as bad as it used to be, it’s still bad. I say that. I say that it’s complicated, and it’s not new. I will then give a laundry list of factors that play into it. I will rarely blame it on any particular mayor and I will never blame it on any particular police superintendent. It’s bigger and older than any one guy or Jane Byrne.

That was an inside joke. Mayor Byrne was the only female to ever serve in either of those roles. The city’s murder rate has a lot to do with race (80 percent of victims in 2013 were black and just 2 percent were white). It has a lot to do with poverty and gangs and drugs and the war on drugs and segregation and red-lining and three-strikes sentencing laws and failing public schools and failed public housing and urban planning that experiments on the poor and property taxes as the source of school funding and government corruption and gun control laws and the lack of gun control laws and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

The list is ad-libbed and changes a little each time I tell it. There are so many factors to choose from, these are just a few. But I always make sure to leave in the part about the Dan Ryan, because it’s unexpected. How can a highway impact the murder rate? The answer gets into an issue facing many communities these days as they look at choices made in the middle of the last century and whether to extend them or dial them back. The answer also gets into the area of metaphor. Think of the phrase: “The other side of the tracks.” The series of words is so over-used that it has almost lost its original meaning. You hear that and you just think it means “the bad part of town.” But taken literally it means that the tracks divide the community. They’re a very real barrier.

In cities and neighborhoods throughout the U.S., which side of the tracks you grew up on says a lot about your likelihood of succeeding. In Chicago in the 1950s and before, the tracks helped separate the white parts of town from the black parts of town. That divider was replaced, as it was in many cities, by a new form of transport-economic barrier: The Dan Ryan Expressway. Experts disagree over the degree of the Dan Ryan’s influence. A report on the subject by local public radio station WBEZ notes that the Dan Ryan might not have completely blocked the black population from expanding into new areas of the city but it certainly didn’t help and also exacerbated “white flight” to the suburbs. But let’s ignore the history and look at the present and the future.

I gave a talk recently in Syracuse, which is facing a major choice. Should they remove an elevated highway viaduct that cuts the downtown off from the vibrant Syracuse University campus, and if so, what should they replace it with? The best option, I’d argue, is a boulevard system at ground level. As of this writing, the powers that be are leaning toward a part-boulevard-part-tunnel compromise solution in which, frankly, they’d spend a ton of money and create something that didn’t necessarily solve everyone’s problems. That’s the issue with compromises. Sometimes they mean everyone loses a little and no one actually wins. Instead, it would be great if Syracuse learned from places as far-flung as San Francisco, Seoul and even Los Angeles.

Why the ground level choice? It comes down to this fundamental question: Where would you rather live? Would you rather have your city bisected by a roadway? That is great if you want people to blow through your town in little metal boxes at 65 mph. Or do you want them to linger? To shop and stroll? To have options for commuting beyond the little metal boxes? Do you want to have a connected city where people come together or a divided city where people are isolated?

Of course, there are political, economic, social and other considerations. It's not that highways cause murders, but they can certain help kill communities. As you frame these issues in a context of livability, I think the answers become much more clear. Are there highways in your community that could use rethinking? Share your thoughts.

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