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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is Conshohocken Coming Back, Or Just Being Taken Over?

Part IV: How To Be More Of An Exit AND More Of A Community

I have been sounding the alarm these past few weeks about the downside to what is happening near the Conshohocken exit of the Interstates in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  I have suggested that the Borough faces—right now—decisions that will determine its future, and have phrased that future as a choice: either a community, or just an exit off the Interstates.  Nothing is quite so simple, of course, and to give an example, I am going to clarify my stance on the all-important issue of transportation by making the apparently counterintuitive argument that Conshohocken can be more of a of a community if it becomes more of an exit.  This does not apply to the automobile; the choice it presents is both stark and clear, and is as I have expressed it.  The more that Conshohocken structures itself to accommodate the automobile the more it mortgages its future as a community.  It most definitely applies to what we today call “alternative transportation.”  Conshohocken is doubly blessed in this regard, and should work to take greater advantage of that fortuitous fact.  The Borough as a community can only benefit.

I have previously made the point that “A livable town is a walkable town.”  Today, walking counts as alternative transportation, along with bicycling and public transit.  This is but one of the many 180 degree turns that history has made along the Schuylkill River.  What had been the primary means of transportation during the glory days of the Schuylkill River towns has all but disappeared, but its remnants constitute the core of what we today call “alternative.”  In the old days, the railroad delivered everything, from raw materials into the towns and factories to finished products from them to the world.  Its lighter cousins, in turn, knit Conshohocken into a regional network.  They delivered the better off to their jobs during the week and all classes of workers to the countryside for recreation on the weekends.  The bicycle fad preceded the automobile fad, and even a few adventurous women joined in.  Still, when all is said and done, walking was the primary means of transportation for the vast majority of Conshohocken residents.  They walked to work, they walked to shop and they walked to visit friends in the neighborhood.  The result?  The proud, tightly-knit, community-centered population of Conshohocken, Pa.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  The rail era is over.  Light rail is gone, and isn’t coming back anytime soon.  But a survivor, the Norristown Regional Rail Line (I still want to call it the R6), still delivers people to and from the Borough.  This is a means of transportation to which Conshohocken should want to be even more of an exit than it is today.  Every new rider is one less driver congesting the roads.  I would like to think that a portion of The New coming to the Conshohockens to either live or to work will arrive and leave on it.  It’s a limited connection, but only Norristown has anything better, and it’s just upriver on the same Regional Rail Line that passes through Conshohocken.   

The railroad has also delivered to Conshohocken two other form of alternative transportation, albeit rather indirectly.  I speak of the old mainstay and one not nearly so old but experiencing quite a comeback, i.e., walking and bicycling.  Back in the old days, two railroads ran through Conshohocken.  The trackbed of the Reading is now the Norristown line, but that of the long-gone Pennsylvania Railroad now hosts The Schuylkill River Trail.  Conshohocken was an early beneficiary, and as the trail has been extended, improved and connected, the number of people employing “alternative transportation” through town has steadily increased.  Businesses that cater to trail users are beginning to find Conshohocken a potentially profitable location.  The current campaign to bring a bicycle shop to the Borough is an early sign of what will happen.

The New that will reside along the riverbank will find the Schuylkill Valley Trail to be convenient, perhaps even enticing, as they are expected to be a younger demographic.  Few will likely use it to commute to and from work, but weekends will be another story.  Those who reside elsewhere and utilize the Trail (not all of whom ride bicycles) will likely find Conshohocken attractive, if just for a brief refreshment stop.  The Borough’s scenic location will draw a great many people who will not arrive in motor vehicles.  That’s all good; for them, and for the town.

In marked contrast to my previous comments about an becoming an exit for automobiles, Conshohocken’s future as an exit on alternative transportation should actually be encouraged, for the general good of all.  Whether you are riding on the train or moving yourself along the Trail, you are not contributing to traffic congestion, oil prices and environmental degradation, to name but three of many bad things.  The latter two may be somewhat ephemeral for Conshohocken residents, but the first is emphatically real, and getting worse.  Thus, the more who employ “alternative transportation” (this phrase sounds so strange to a historian) to or from their residences on weekdays or weekends, the better.

But there is much more to the story, and additional reasons for promoting these old-but-back-to-being-popular means of getting around.  “Alternative transportation” is also closely associated with improving urban livability.  If anything should be obvious from a study of American history, this should be.  Communities actually existed back when today’s alternative means of getting around was the primary one.  It follows that while becoming more of an exit for alternative transportation will be a good thing, promoting alternative transportation within the Borough will be even better.  It will be great to have riverfront businesses and residents benefitting from those who come and go, but it will be even better if Borough residents find it easy to get around town, and the riverfront benefits are shared. 

Let’s be realistic, of course.  Old railroad trackbeds are perfect sites for bike and walking paths because trains could only surmount low grades.  Much the same is true of the new users.  Much of Conshohocken, in considerable contrast, sits on a steep hillside.  Still, a great deal can be done for the area in which a considerable portion of the population are coming to reside, and decisions concerning roads in that area should take into account the transit needs of the residents of the whole town.  This is where transportation becomes subsumed into a larger issue, that of community access to the riverfront.  That issue most definitely needs to be addressed and I will do so in my next post.

But for now, let’s accept two concepts: First, it will be a good thing if the new Conshohocken becomes as much an exit off the Schuylkill River Trail as it is off two Interstate highways.  Second, it will be an even better thing if the new Conshohocken is structured to allow some old-fashioned ideas to demonstrate their current relevance.  The first is going to happen regardless.  The second will require action by the Borough Council, supported by the population, because it will be opposed by the developers.  That makes it much less likely to happen.

Conshohocken can only benefit by becoming friendlier to its readily available means of alternative transportation.  It would be not just ironic but tragic if the community-building aspects of alternative transportation are shortchanged.  If it only become much easier to leave or enter Conshohocken on foot or by bicycle than to get to other parts of town, then the full benefits of alternative transportation will not be realized.  The age of the automobile and the Internet works against the human instinct for community.  An emphasis on "alternative transportation" is a proven antidote to these decentralizing forces because it promotes both inter-personal and intra-community connections.  Building both is essential if the new Conshohocken wants to call itself what the old Conshohocken certainly could: A COMMUNITY.