Getting There in a Hurry
Why Springfield street improvements seldom were
August 13, 1992
I railed for decades that cities ought to be built for people, not cars, until I realized that most Americans live in their cars, not in their cities, which they only visit from time to time to work and shop, so a city built for cars is regarded as right and proper. I haven’t changed my mind about the awfulness of the car city but I don’t rail about it anymore.
Is there anything more exciting to Springfieldians than the announcement of a major street widening? People in other cities calibrate local history by the construction of fine civic buildings or by the momentous events that took place there. Neither has happened in Springfield since Abe left, so lifers calibrate time in terms of road improvements. I for example remember when Chatham Road looked like Koke Mill does today, and when Stevenson Drive was plain old Linn Avenue.
Barton-Aschman Associates, the Evanston traffic consultant, has just presented to the city its recommendations for street improvements that will make it possible for hungry bureaucrats to get home early for supper through 2010. Several of them were familiar to me, having been first proposed when I was a young man in the days when big men dreamed big dreams in Springfield. It was 1972, I believe, when people realized that if 11th Street was extended south from Stevenson to the new SSU campus (a $12.3 million project, according to the new B-A estimates) it would cut two minutes off that trip, with the result that their kids would stay home to go to college and they'd be a family again.
I did not then appreciate what street improvements mean to a city. I foolishly opposed in print a series of street widenings and extensions that threatened the expensive isolation of Springfield's newer subdivisions. I depicted as heroes the homeowners who opposed the extension of Iles Avenue ($1.3 million) by demanding that no one do to them what they just done to neighbors to their east.
I eventually learned that in the time it took me to research, write, and edit each such article, another three or four of these defenders of the hearth had moved up, cashed in, and got out. I did not then know that neighborhoods in this country are built for houses, not people. (This is why people know the resale value of houses belonging to neighbors whose names they do not know.) This insight made the politics of road improvements a lot simpler to understand.
I also argued in print against the still-unbuilt extension of South Grand Avenue across Illini Country Club land to Chatham Road ($1 million). (I felt more kindly toward the rich in those days; they were struggling to get by on only 70 percent of the nation's wealth rather than the 90 percent they hold today, and I felt a kind of solidarity with them.) A State Journal-Register reporter noted of the B-A plan that the South Grand proposal had "been around at least since the early 1980s." My own recollection is that the controversy goes back much farther than that. I believe Lincoln spoke against the extension as early as 1838, when he said in a speech, "Towering genius disdains a beaten path."
In that connection, I was dismayed to read the mayor's opinion that in some cases getting to one's destination one minute faster is less important than retaining the beauty of the community. This sort of thinking dangerously confuses the issues. Retaining the beauty of the community has never before been considered in Springfield traffic planning. That's one big reason why that little stretch of unpaved park at South Grand and Illini Road is precious even to people who don't live there, and thus why westbound drivers must still detour all the way to Laurel to get to—well, South Grand doesn't lead to anyplace in particular, but that's the whole point. People don't mind detouring on their way to someplace they want to get to, but to suffer a detour that has no destination at the end of it is the kind of thing that turns a person into a Perot supporter.
The nice thing about uglying up a city with roads is that drivers can't really see the ugly at 35 miles per hour; the only people who do are the people who live amidst it. Which is why people are fleeing west in search of comeliness; interrupt that process and development will screech to a halt. Ugly is economic.
South Grand will be extended eventually, if not in Ossie Langfelder's administration then during that of someone less sentimental. In another ten years, the unofficial border that the banks and real estate agents use to demark the "nice" part of town will have shifted further west to Chatham Road. The new city government shrunk the South Granders political influence to one ward, dooming them to being outvoted by aldermen who represent homeowners along Madison and Washington and Lawrence who were too dumb or too poor to realize that the way to retain the beauty of your neighborhood in Springfield is to sell out early, take the profits, and recreate it farther west.
Barton-Aschman detailed eight major projects as part of a package whose total cost might hit $100 million. Local officials don't have nearly that much money to spend, which is good; if government had lots of money there would be new roads all over town and people wouldn't be able to get anywhere. This is because new roads don't cure congestion, they cause it. Politicians won't approve spending for a road project unless traffic projects confirm that it will be close to capacity when it opens. And new roads make more land conveniently accessible, so it is developed more intensely, and development means even more cars which need wider streets.
In short, roads do more than move traffic. Because people live and shop and work by car, roads determine the direction and intensity of development. B-A did no computer calculations to rank the desirability of these larger changes, and just as well; a city council that can't cope with dead leaves is better off leaving land use policy to the experts like [developer] Leonard Sapp.
The secret of good traffic engineering is to limit your analysis to those alternatives that won't solve the problem, since solving traffic problems puts a lot of engineers out of work. Everybody knows that the solution to traffic jams is not more roads but stricter land use controls. (The really cost-effective solution to the car-clogged southwest side is to burn White Oaks Mall to the ground.)
Today you can drive farther and faster in Springfield than ever before, and if the old-timers believe that there are fewer places worth going to in the first place than there used to be, well, that's because they miss the point of driving, and thus of traffic engineering, and thus of urban planning, and thus of government development policy: Where you're going doesn't matter, as long as you get there in a hurry. ●
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