The return of rails to New Bedford brings the chance to build homes for people, not spaces for cars

If you want to see how badly car-dependent policies have failed our community, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a zero-sum battle for scarce resources, look no further than the 1061 Pleasant Street condo proposal.

Listen to homeowners talk about the proposed modestly sized apartment building, with just under one parking space per unit, and you’d think the barbarians were at the gate, ready to rob their parking lot. It’s an understandable fear—our governments have cut transit to the bone and designed streets to literally marginalize people who walk and bike. If you need to get to work, school, or a doctor’s appointment, there is often no safe way to get around except in the car.

So we drive long distances alone in our cars, isolated from our neighbors in boxes of steel and glass, and come home to sit and stare at our phones loaded with apps that profit from stoking fear, anger, hatred , prejudice and division. Is it any wonder that some people now see the new homes and the new neighbors as Others coming to take?

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It doesn’t have to be – in fact it wasn’t just 100 years ago. Historic photos of Purchase and Union Streets show a time when New Bedford residents didn’t need to own, maintain and operate a multi-ton warehouse—they could just hop on an electric trolley that took them where they needed to go. In fact, transit historians tell us that Americans of that era could travel all the way from Waterville, Maine, to Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a 1,000-mile trip—exclusively by connecting from one electric trolley to another.

And unlike today’s commuters, they didn’t ride alone. They traveled with their neighbors, co-workers, bosses and elected officials from home to work to beaches, theaters and music halls and home again.

We traded places for people to live and work for places to store cars.

New Bedford looking north up Route 18. Credit: David Oliveira / The New Bedford Light

Go back even further, looking at maps from the 1800s, and you’ll see little cartoon people walking down the middle of Union Street, with horse-drawn carriages trotting down Water Street, where the JFK Expressway now sits. It’s horrifying to realize how many blocks of prime downtown real estate—whole neighborhoods filled with homes and businesses—were destroyed because of the JFK freeway (Route 18) and the sprawling Route 6 that cut off New Bedford’s priceless waterfront from the rest of the city. .

And that brings us to the most eye-opening difference between New Bedford then and now. Despite neighbors’ claims that we “physically cannot support” more apartments, New Bedford was actually home to many more people 100 years ago, with a population of 121,217 in 1920, compared to just over 100,000 now. Where did all those homes go?

We traded places for people to live and work for places to store cars. Huge swathes of our neighborhoods are now covered in parking lots and our streets are lined with taxpayer-subsidized car storage facilities. Mayor John Mitchell and his Office of Housing and Community Development have made strides in addressing our housing shortage, but we will never build enough homes if government restrictions require builders to set aside 320 square feet per parking space, regardless of whether residents whether they want it or not.

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Now let’s be clear about what we are and are not talking about here. No one is telling you to give up your car. But what about a couple where one partner works from home who can manage with one car — should our zoning advice force them to pay for a second parking space they don’t need?

Nobody wants to plow under the JFK Freeway. But what about making it a safe boulevard for people who walk and bike, as MassDOT has been discussing?

No one is talking about going back to car-free Union Street (although it’s great to watch hundreds of people enjoy the Summer Sound Series concerts on a closed street), but how about protected bike lanes so people can ride safely cycle from Buttonwood Park to the coast in less than 10 minutes or to the new train station in less than 15 minutes?

Opening up more avenues for less car-dependent living would benefit not only our community, but also our budgets. Between payments, insurance, repairs and fuel, it now costs an average of more than $1,000 a month to own a vehicle, according to AAA. Our government policies should make it easier for people to break free from this financial anchor, not shackle them to it.

All this is to say nothing of the huge benefits to our health, climate and wildlife from fewer car journeys.

The return of rail to New Bedford marks a golden opportunity to right some of the wrongs of 70 years of development focused on cars, not people. I hope our leaders take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to solve our housing crisis and build the community we deserve.

Miles Grant lives in Fairhaven.

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