Recent History of Boston Transportation

author: Frederick P. Salvucci, Center for Transportation and Logistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 12, 2014,   recorded: March 2008,   views: 30
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Description

Frederick Salvucci’s perspective on transportation development is an amalgam of civil engineering, history, economics, policy, and not least, the direct impact on people’s lives. Here he surveys the evolution of transportation in Boston and beyond from the 1830s to the present.

Salvucci covers significant junctures in transportation history, beginning in the 1830s with horses pulling streetcars on wagon wheels, then steel wheels. In the 1870s, electrification of streetcars alleviated the phenomenon of overworked horses succumbing in the streets, causing both traffic jams and a public health hazard. “It was a really messy affair,” Salvucci says.

By World War I, automobiles increasingly crowded Boston streets, competing with streetcars and encouraging the growth of suburbs. Salvucci acknowledges urban planner Sam Bass Warner, Jr.’s book Streetcar Suburbs for telling this story. Not only the location of housing was affected. On the outskirts of Boston, at the ends of the radial subway lines, amusement parks and dance halls arose, luring city dwellers.

With the Eisenhower administration came the interstate highway system, inspired by the model of the German Autobahn. Salvucci characterizes this period as a time when people held “an unprecedentedly high belief that the government is capable of doing things; not exactly where the government reputation is today!” This roadway network forms the basis of the trucking industry, the "way the American economy moves today," says Salvucci. He commends Eisenhower for accomplishing “something impressive…a whole different economy out of this major investment of the public sector.”

But highway construction also eliminated jobs and razed neighborhoods. An automobile- dependent society rediscovered the virtues of public transportation. Salvucci credits Massachusetts GOP governors John Volpe (1960s) and Frank Sargent (1970s) with enlightened views promoting mass transit, though he admits “I don’t usually say good things about Republicans” unless they’re dead.

Salvucci also pays homage to activist Catholic priests fighting for the interests of residents in Boston neighborhoods threatened by destructive road construction plans. He singles out Richard Cardinal Cushing as “a rough justice guy.”

The lecture concludes with the nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife, whose complementary tastes Salvucci borrows as a parable for the necessity of balancing and integrating priorities. Land use planning, transportation development, economic growth, and the welfare of individuals are inextricably intertwined.

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