Finding Marie Antoinette in Plainville

A Route 1 Bike Lane Puts 20th Century Policy in a 21st Century Lens

By Richard Fries, Executive Director

Like many cyclists, I'm also a motorist. Our family of five gets by fine with just a 2006 Subaru which comes in handy for hauling things about the suburbs. Whenever I find myself idling in traffic alongside one of those lifeless commercial strips I try to find those other signs of life. For there, amid the wrappers and bags and cups strewn from us engorged citizens in our cars, we see the dirt path.

These traffic patterns are always there. They are not laid down not by civil engineers, funded by the state, or given the approval of Boards of Selectmen. The foot traffic there pounds the earth into cement density that could never yield grass. The route may go over a guard rail designed only for the safety of the motorist. The line may continue through a peeled-back corner of fence, down an embankment, and behind a loading dock.

The user of this path is one of the suburban shadow people. This person is neither a conservationist nor a bird watcher nor an "avid" walker. This is a poor person trying to get to a job filling and emptying a Fryolator for the person that strews trash on that same path from the window of their Escalade. This is the shadow economy of the suburbs that receives no accommodation from the engineers, town officials and architects who devote all sorts of thought and resources to getting customers into the front door but give almost no consideration to getting their staff to the back door.

This path gets no ribbon cutting, no free buffet for reporters, no grand opening.

This shadow person is paid $9 per hour to do dishes for folks like me who don't want to pay more than $6.99 for a lunch. This person may also have a job earning tips at the Cheesecake Factory. For that the hourly pay may be as low as $3 per hour.

This shadow person also does not live in a vacuum. Like me, she needs to live near family, schools, medical care, super markets, and drug stores.

So working full time at this wage this person may make less than $19,000 per year. Given suburban design and policy, this shadow person is compelled to get a car. But the $10,000 in annual expenses to legally operate a car - fuel, car payments, insurances, registration, maintenance, etc. -  would cut that income in half. Read your local police log. A great number of arrests are folks driving without a license, suspended licenses, without insurance, and without registration.

Should they use the bus? You try the bus. In suburban areas they run infrequently, deposit passengers alongside unsafe retail strips without sidewalks, and they don't run very late for folks working in food service.

Circumstantial logic drives this shadow person to one solution: the bicycle.

Mind you, this shadow person is NOT an avid cyclist who wants to ride a bike; this shadow person is somebody who needs to ride a bike....with the intent of doing so only until they can get a car.

When I took this job in January I had grandiose notions of merging hipster urban bike advocacy with the powerful market of the suburban club riders. Sure I took in the importance of Safe Routes to School and childhood obesity. I understood the significance of rail trails and intermodality. And I could snuff out any delightful back-yard conversation to a stultifying halt with talk about peak oil, the diabetes epidemic, carbon footprints, diesel particulate counts, etc.

But in my work to date I have come to the sober reality that cycling's most important constituency does not even want to be on a bicycle. They don't give a crap about l'Alpe d'Huez or filet brazed frames or their lactic threshold. They just need to get a few miles down the road to work or a community college or a supermarket and back. So they ride bikes. Often the tires are under-inflated. The brakes barely work. And the chain is loud.

It ain't all that sexy. I don't have a whole lot in common with these folks. And if I found myself at a barbecue with such folks they likely would not care to hang out with me.

This situation came to light for me recently when The Attleboro Sun Chronicle called for a reaction to the Board of Selectmen in Plainville, Mass., howling about their town being forced to include a bike lane on Route 1 where the new Plainridge Park Casino had just opened. The MassDOT required certain traffic improvements along U.S. Route 1 when the casino went in. These included bike lanes.

Sounding a lot like a panel of Fox News commentators with all the typical logical fallacies, the board mocked the inclusion of the bike lanes noting that people should never ride a bike along Route 1 and such markings would somehow lead to somebody being killed. They ridiculed this as being "politically correct."

I spoke to the reporter for about 10 minutes and about one-hundredth of what I said got in the the article, which is here.

But the reporter noted my comments on how such accommodations are going to be increasingly part of the 21st Century streetscape. He left out my comments regarding how the hired help - even if is just one person - often uses bicycles to get to their job at the casino or the Wendy's or the Best Buy.

One selectman, himself an "avid" bicyclist sent me a private e-mail incredulous that I would infer that cycling along Route 1 is safe. Whether it is safe or not is not germane to the discussion; folks are doing it any how. And giving them a bike lane - at no cost to the local taxpayers, thank you - makes it a tiny bit safer.

I welcome the interest - and opinions - of the local selectmen. The discussion is long overdue. They are right; the road they have is unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians and motorists, too. Pointing out problems is easy. We know, according the Brookings Institution, that less than 30 percent of American 18-year-olds even have a drivers license, let alone a car. This is the labor market behind that drive-thru window giving those selectmen their Big Macs.

The Sun Chronicle, in a follow-up editorial, cited the bike lane as "bureaucracy run amok" a week later. You can read it here.

My question to the reporter, which is how do you want young people and poor people to get to those jobs, never got a response. When I asked it of Selectman Robert Rose I also got no response.

Is this a problem? Yes. But the response of the locals is a parody of Marie Antoinette. "What? They have no car? Well let them drive trucks!"

To suggest that maybe people do not have access to a car is like suggesting the sun rises in the west. They are dumbfounded.

Here is Plainville, with a per capita annual income of just over $35,000, hosting a retail strip offering low-wage jobs to local residents. Nearby towns such as Attleboro and Woonsocket, R.I., have an even lower average income. But without a car, those residents are pretty much whistled out of the labor pool (and the customer base). The local bus service run by the Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority  - whose snappy slogan is "We'll Get You There" - offers one bus per hour to Plainville from Attleboro and it drops folks off a long, long way from the Casino. Not that there would be a sidewalk for that humiliating schlep to the job. And the last bus is gone after 6:30 p.m. so good luck with that job in the hospitality sector.

Political leadership is not supposed to whine about problems but to develop solutions. This MassDOT policy will continue to apply to all those strip malls where our youth and our college students and our poor citizens may need to use alternative means of transit. And whenever a big developer or a casino can foot the bill instead of the taxpayer they will require such places to include bike (and hopefully pedestrian) facilities.

The New York Times recently cited two independent studies that confirmed that the number one barrier to escaping  poverty is neither crime nor education nor addiction. The tallest barrier is the lack of transportation.

The article is here.

But my revelation on the need for bike advocacy to impact the lives of such poor folks did not come about entirely by the Plainville Board of Selectmen. Nor is it a story of "those people."

This is the story of an 18-year-old kid from a coal mining town who got into college in Tampa, Fla., arguably the worst example of strip mall hell long before anybody had seen a bike lane, a rail-trail or a "sharrow." And that kid lived by bike amid that high speed traffic chaos working first as a dishwasher and later as a cook while he got through college. That bicycle, which he rode through darkness and rain, helped him graduate debt free. And while his classmates gained weight and gathered up debt, he continued to live mostly by bicycle through a wide variety of jobs in a wide variety of locations for decades.

The money he saved living by bike enabled him to purchase a home in Lexington, Mass., and raise three college bound kids. And that crazy bicycle lifestyle kept his body in such good health that 35 years later he still wears the same size jeans he wore in high school, gets by with no medications, and out dances all of his nephews and nieces at weddings.

This is the ultimate example of how to abide by Republican fiscal values.

That kid is me.

Here we are in Massachusetts, the world's largest college town, where 17 percent of those young job creators we cherish live by bicycle. They are working in your restaurants, your stores, your cafes, your taverns, and your casinos. Perhaps making their commutes to and from those jobs a touch safer, even just a touch safer, is worth the pittance of an investment.

This endeavor, however nominal, is certainly not deserving of ridicule. We all deserve better leadership.

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