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Transportation must connect communities to opportunity

Stuart Bradford for the boston globe

Fenway Park is Major League Baseball’s oldest ballpark. Even with its age-old quirks and idiosyncrasies, Fenway represents the best of baseball’s august traditions, from the red seat that marks the longest home run ever hit there (502 feet, by Ted Williams, on June 9, 1946) to its verdant wall high above left field. However, in all its unintended points of fascination, architect James McLaughlin was duly thoughtful in his design of the ballpark.

Most notably, McLaughlin had to consider carefully the location of home plate. Rule 1.04 of Major League Baseball recommends that home plate should face northeast, because in any other direction the sun would fall into the batter’s eyes. Consequently, if you’re lucky enough to grab a seat behind the batter’s box, you likely will not have to squint through the sunlight to catch a glimpse of David Ortiz up to bat. You will also enjoy the product of intentional design by McLaughlin.

Intentional design has been a hallmark of human progress, from such essentials as plumbing and housing, to the novel — like the placement of the keys on our keyboards. However, if we look at the history of the construction and planning of much of our transportation infrastructure — take our highways as one example — we see that it also has a disquieting side. Instead of connecting us all together, too much of our infrastructure — our roads, trains, transit, airports — has become a physical line of demarcation between wealthy and poor, majority and minorities, thriving communities and struggling neighborhoods.

Boston is certainly no exception. Throughout the 1960s, for example, hundreds of acres in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain were razed to make way for a new section of Interstate 95. Although protest by community activists halted its construction, it was too late for many families who saw their homes demolished in these African-American neighborhoods. This was not just specific to Boston — similar actions across the country intentionally divided and destroyed communities in places like Baltimore, Miami, and even my hometown of Charlotte, N.C.


My grandparents bought a house, in 1961, where the combination of federal money and state decision-making eventually led to the construction of two highways surrounding the neighborhood, giving us only one way in and one way out to the world. The highways became an economic and psychological wall.


I grew up in that house, and it became clear to me as an adult that those freeways were built with little consideration for the people affected by them. Later, when I was on the City Council, and as mayor, I made decisions about new roads, new transit lines, and rezonings. And I came to realize that people in elected office have an incredible ability to shape communities — either positively or negatively — when making transportation planning decisions.

While we cannot change this past, we should aspire to close these vestiges of structural discrimination to create greater spatial connections between people, and more opportunity for all. The same federal, state, and local governments that created these problems also have an equally powerful ability to solve them. This is why one of the top priorities of the US Department of Transportation is to focus on fixing the broken links that have prevented communities from reaching their full promise of opportunity.

So how do we connect communities that have previously been on the losing side of these transportation decisions? By working hard, block by block, space by space, to reform our standards so that they promote inclusion and help transportation officials serve everyone in town, not just a select few. The Big Dig is an example of communities working together to develop creative solutions to old infrastructure problems.

We can do even more as we all work to repair and replace America’s aging infrastructure. I have asked governors and mayors around the country to commit to three principles that we can use to bridge the divide left by the ugly side of intentional design in our nation’s transportation infrastructure choices. First, we must understand that transportation is essential to opportunity; second, we have to acknowledge that past wrongs were committed and must not be repeated; and third, so that we are always inclusive, transportation decisions must be made by, with, and for the people impacted by them. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has signed his name in support of these principles.


America is at its best when it recognizes the right moment in history to fix what’s broken. Resurfacing roads and strengthening our bridges is critical. But it is equally important to rethink placement, and focus on design to maximize opportunity and interconnectedness. In that sense, every project is potentially a bridge to real opportunity, and, if designed with care, will create home runs in every neighborhood.

Anthony Foxx is the US secretary of transportation.