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History of Boston Transportation, 1630"1990

02/12/2008 2:00 PM 8"404
Frederick P. Salvucci, '61, SM '62, Senior Lecturer, Center for Transportation and Logistics, MIT

Description: Fred Salvucci ponders the role of contingency in history, and in the evolution of Boston and its transportation system. He starts from the time the glaciers pulled back from Boston, leaving a soggy near"island and a river for the first white settlers to contend with. "The reason the city is here because of an accident of history," he says In the 1600s, "when the English first came, they made a mistake," Salvucci reports. Thinking that the Charles would run deep and wide for a thousand miles inland, offering vital trade routes, the English hunkered down.

Once they realized their mistake (the Charles is about a foot deep in Watertown, MA, six miles away), the settlers built on the resources at hand, which included enormous stocks of cod and good ship"building lumber. The "poverty of a place forces skills, which in turn makes the place not poor," says Salvucci. These Protestant settlers also set about, in near record time, establishing schools like Boston Latin and Harvard.

Boston's rapid expansion and prosperity led to innovations such as filling land, which in turn led to unexpected transportation developments. The first commercial use of rail in the New World, Salvucci tells us, was to haul in granite for the Bunker Hill monument, and to bring dirt from the suburbs for Boston builders. When people realized they could use the new technology to transport farm products, the Boston & Worcester Railroad was born. But the idea of moving people around didn't emerge until the 1800s, when the concept of living one place and working in another led to streetcars in Boston and elsewhere. Around 1900, Boston led the nation with the first subway ("a little dinky one") running just two blocks. In two decades, the guts of the city's subway system emerged, making Salvucci's own Big Dig project appear modest in comparison (adjusting for inflation).

Salvucci remarks on the numerous cases of "indirect causality" through human history, how things "built in ways that are unanticipated and probably unanticipatable." In 1865, there were no electric street cars. By 1900, U.S. East Coast cities were covered by them. In 1900, there were 2,000 autos in the U.S., and by 1920, there were so many cars that city rail networks began dying out. Don't be fooled into thinking you can "predict tomorrow based on yesterday plus a small delta," warns Salvucci.

About the Speaker(s): Frederick Salvucci served as transportation advisor to Boston Mayor Kevin White between 1970 and 1974, and then as Secretary of Transportation of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis between 1975 and 1978 and again from 1983 to 1990. In those roles he has participated in much of the transportation planning and policy formulation in the Boston urbanized area and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over the past 20 years.

More recently, he has participated in a restructuring of commuter and rapid transit services in Buenos Aires, Argentina; helped review the transportation planning process in US metropolitan areas; and worked on the development of a new transit system for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Salvucci received a B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering from MIT. He spent a year at the University of Naples as a Fulbright Scholar from 1964 to 1965, studying the use of transportation investment to stimulate economic development in high poverty regions of Southern Italy.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Materials Processing Center

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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