Friday, August 19, 2011

Many Roads to Travel

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12

As some of you may know, my undergraduate degree was in English, and I like to deviate at times from the concrete realm of planning toward that of the rather esoteric. This week I’m going to look at how streets are portrayed in verse. Let’s start with a poem with which we’re all familiar, Robert Frost’s “A Road not Taken.” It contains one of the dominant themes in literature about roads: that they present opportunity and freedom. As Frost’s famous lines go:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

To extend the metaphor into 21st century New Jersey, what if the two roads that Frost’s character must choose between are route 95 and a quieter back road? As a pedestrian, he clearly would have to avoid the highway. He would only realistically have only one choice. It may seem like a silly metaphor, but it is representative of our transportation system. Our travel choices are limited mostly to cars because that is the type of road we design. By building roads that realistically only allow cars we eliminate choice – to bike or walk or ride a scooter – and therefore to see something new, to view the world from a different perspective, to have an adventure.  Driving is but one way to view our world. It looks very different on foot, and we limit the imagination and the excitement in our lives if the car is our only mirror.

Another theme is the danger and loneliness of roads. Here’s the last stanza of 19th century American poet Will Wallace Harney’s poem “The Stab”:

But the moon came out so broad and good,
The barn-fowl woke and crowed;
Then roughed his feathers in drowsy mood,
And the brown owl called to his mate in the wood,
That a dead man lay on the road.

Travel has always had an element of fear. Walking or biking or driving down a road, especially one with which you are not familiar, is to travel into the unknown. It’s what makes travel so exciting, and yet sometimes frightening.

In her poem “Uphill,” British poet Christina Rossetti (also writing in the 19th century) uses a question and answer conversation between two characters to explore this fear. “Does the road wind uphill all the way?” the questioner asks. “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?” The companion does his or her best to reassure the questioner that all will be well at the end of the day’s journey.

We look down a road, and we see fear, excitement, opportunity, exhaustion. Fear that we’ll run out of gas before the next gas station, or perhaps that the riots that are rocking our once peaceful city will turn deadly. And excitement – excitement at the opportunity to meet new people, or start a peaceful revolution, or to discover something beautiful and unexpected.

That is one of the wonders of roads – their metaphoric power yanks us awake, and asks us to look at our lives and our world differently. To imagine paralyzing fear, regime-changing revolutions, the thrill of writing a new page in our lives. If we restrict the real road to a place built only to maximize car use, the diversity of our experiences are less and our imaginations diminished – for the diversity that characterizes excitement and opportunity decreases substantially. To create – a poem, a new government, a transportation plan – we need to understand, and we need to imagine, that diversity of lives and ideas and experiences beyond our own. As these and so many other poets demonstrate, we have to be able to choose to take that step down the road less traveled – not only in our minds, but with our feet, as they surely did.

All poems courtesy of

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