"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Expressway Isn’t The Only Way

My personal focus in urban studies is transportation, both intra and inter urban.  I am all about alternative transportation, particularly in towns and cities, as my research has led me to believe that there is a fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile.  Nonetheless, I can only promote alternative transportation within the Delaware Valley on a very occasional basis, largely because many localities within it simply have no alternatives; it’s either use a car or stay at home.

There are, however, locations where conditions actually favor alternative transportation, for reasons that range from cost through convenience to health.  One of them is the floodplain of the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia to its northwest.  The utilization of this stretch of land long predates the automobile, and thus the term “alternative transportation.”  People traveled along it in several different ways over the centuries before the invention of the gasoline engine.  In fact, from the dawn of the 20th century to about 1960, it was the automobile that was the alternative transportation along the Schuylkill corridor.  Travel by railroad dominated along this stretch, and had since the middle of the 19th century.

In 1960, the Schuylkill Expressway opened along its full length, connecting Philadelphia to communities along the river’s right bank.  In the same year, the Pennsylvania Railroad cancelled its parallel commuter rail service along the river’s left bank.  The two events are connected by more than a coincidence of dates.  The completion of a highway along the Schuylkill signaled the imminent end for the private railroad companies that used to dominate the route, as passenger use of both of the parallel railroad lines had been declining for years.

In the long run, however, this actually opened up a second inducement to alternative transportation, one that had not been previously considered for the corridor:  bicycles.  Thus, not only are there still two alternative routes to the Schuylkill Expressway, they are utilized today by two very different forms of alternative transportation.  One is the SEPTA Regional Rail line to Norristown, and the other is the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway.  They are very close neighbors, as unlikely as that seems in theory.

Whatever people may think about bicycles and commuter trains, few would consider them within the same concept, let alone link them.  They are about as different as means of transportation can be.  Bicycles are the ultimate in individualism; not only piloted under individual control, but also under individual propulsion.  One can leave according to one’s individual desire, travel at a speed that is individually determined, and go exactly as far as one wishes to go, all in the open air.  It’s great exercise, undertaken largely by people who don’t need it, and who don’t mind wearing distinctly unflattering clothes.

The train, in marked contrast, is group transportation; others decide its schedule and you have to accept it.  You simply sit within a steel cocoon whose course is fixed, traveling at a speed determined by someone else; individual participation is decidedly unwelcome.  Clothing is irrelevant, as is the weather outside, up to a point, although that point is distinctly further along than that for bicycles. 

Of course, contact between the two modes of transportation is to be avoided at all costs, for obvious reasons.  The need to avoid contact between bicycles and trains doesn’t mean they can’t travel close to one another, however, and if you travel along the lower Schuylkill via either means, you can see what I mean.  The route of the Norristown commuter line parallels the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bike Trail, sometimes coming with a few yards of it.  That closeness remains until Norristown, where the train tracks cease but the bike trail continues.

There is no small irony in how two such divergent means of transportation can coexist so well so closely together.  Today these two diametrically opposed means of transportation share their closeness with considerably more grace than did the occupants when both were trains.  The SEPTA Norristown Line follows the track of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown (P.G.&N.) railroad, an early railroad pioneer.  The P.G.&N.’s first runs were between Philadelphia and Germantown (then different locations) and were powered by horses.  A steam engine powered the first trip all the way to Norristown, in 1835.  The P.G.&N. was taken over by the newer, much better financed Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which dropped the Philadelphia part of its name to become the Reading Railroad of considerable memory, and a component of a game of Monopoly to this day.

That second, very close track bed occupied today by the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway is a legacy of the era of unregulated capitalism and the “robber barons.”  The Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad were two of the dominant corporations of the period, and intense competitors.  The “wars” between them were fundamentally financial and legal (well, sort of legal), but when they actually crossed paths—or, in this case, tracks—the ground often took on the look of a real war.  The Reading had dominated traffic along the Schuylkill corridor since taking over the P.G. & N. in 1870.  Then, in the early 1880s, the Pennsylvania decided to mount a direct and very close challenge.  It proposed to construct a line up the Schuylkill River floodplain directly adjacent to that of the Reading.  And so it did, its path hewing closely to the Reading's, with the parallel tracks on occasion coming quite close.  The Pennsylvania’s work was obstructed in every manner that Reading executives could dream up.  Much deception and skullduggery took place, and that was just using the law.  The close proximity of both rights of way led to frequent fights between groups of rival workers.  Eventually, the work was completed, with no actual loss of life recorded, as far as I am aware.

The two train lines could not get along, but today the train and the bicycle most definitely do.  I would even call them friends.   Why?  It’s one of the oldest—and one of the most consistently applied—rules of human behavior:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Advocates of the automobile consider both bicycles and trains to be the enemy, and rightly so.  That alone should make them friends, or at least allies.  Why the animosity?  Because, if you ride either a bicycle or a train to work, or just a portion of either route for recreation, you are not driving your car along the Schuylkill Expressway, consuming gasoline, wearing down tires and counting the days until the next required inspection.  In other words, you are not supporting the automobile companies, the automotive parts industry or the oil industry; you are not consuming at the rate desired by our current culture.  Oh, and you are also not polluting the air.  You are being downright un-American.  Good for you.  I encourage you to utilize either path and means whenever possible (and not just along the Schuylkill), and the next time you are riding along either one, give a silent salute to those traveling along the other.  By avoiding the Expressway you are both doing good, each in your own way.

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