Asinof: Not All Paved Roads Lead to Recovery

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Back in October of 1992, I won the first Red Alert challenge put out by John Hazen White, Sr., with five ideas to improve life in Rhode Island. No brag, just fact.

My winning idea was to create an Inspector General’s office. It would have been run under the auspices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. It would have been funded by a surcharge on all businesses doing more than $10,000 in contracts with the state. The entire entry was published in The Providence Journal. Naturally, the idea was promptly ignored or forgotten.

Another idea of mine was to create a system of light rail mass transit, with Providence as the hub. I envisioned it connecting the most heavily trafficked corridors by using the existing highway right of ways. It would have included one line to the East Bay, another to Cranston and Warwick, and a third to Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

Great Ideas

More than 25 years later, Rhode Island is still co-dependent on driving. We’re always a car accident or highway repair away from gridlock. The recent traffic snafu heading west on Route 195 is a great testament to that fact.

We might as well face it; we’re addicted to cars. We love the ability to jump in our vehicles and travel wherever we want. We tune into our favorite music. And we’re quick to complain bitterly when traffic slows to a crawl. More often than not, we engage in a form of road rage when the bad driving habits of our compatriots get the better of our, ah, Rhode Island zen composure.

Rhode Islanders love their cars, but hate traffic.

Here it is, 2018, and we still do not have an Inspector General.

And, we are still missing the vital investment in our future transportation infrastructure. This is not about connecting to commuter rail in and out of Boston. It is about building commuter rail to commute in and out of Providence.

Addicted to Cars

For all the cranes in the sky that are part of the new construction occurring on the former I-195 land, the big question is: why no one has commissioned a traffic study for what that will mean when hundreds of new employees try to enter and leave the congested street corridors?

The lack of an integrated light rail mass transit system is a major, major, major, major health problem [and economic development and education problem as well].

There was a recent gathering of education leaders in Providence to discuss how to improve the rates of chronic absenteeism by schoolchildren. What was missing from the discussion, if the reporting by The Providence Journal was accurate, was the direct connection between chronic absenteeism and the incidence of asthma–although the data has been known, collected, mapped and published for years.

What causes asthma? While there is a genetic component, the major triggers are to be found in poorly maintained housing and particulate contamination from air pollution.

Don’t Drink the Water, Don’t Breathe the Air

Simply put, if you want to improve the rates of chronic absenteeism, you need to first address the high prevalence of asthma in schoolchildren in Rhode Island, particularly in the neighborhoods surrounding highways.

When it comes to denying evidence of health consequences of our consumer habits, there is long history of such arrogance. You can look to the tobacco industry or the lead paint industry, or the folks who gave us radium-painted dials on our watches.

One of my favorite denial stories was when a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electrics in 1979 once claimed that plutonium was so safe you could put in on your breakfast cereal and eat it. Ploot loops, anyone?

Ignoring the Evidence

That kind of arrogance has a long history: When cholera afflicted London in the early 1800s, the tendency was to attribute the problem to bad air, or miasmata [created by the poor living in the slums], until the problem was pinpointed to a sewage-contaminated well.

Similarly, the cause of puerperal fever, which became rampant in the 1700s, killing thousands of women in Europe, was caused mostly by male doctors attending women in childbirth, who stubbornly refused to wash their hands.

As I write this, Wednesday’s weather threatens to be a scorcher: with the prospect of record temperatures, a heat index between 98 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit, and an air quality alert. A sewage spill has closed upper Narragansett Bay to shell fishing.

It seems ironic if not appropriate that Bob Flanders, running for the Republican nomination for Senate, chose this moment to launch his first TV ad, mocking his opponent, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, for allegedly answering every question with the response: climate change.

Denial seems to have become as contagious a disease as C. difficile.

Follow the Money

In New York, in Boston, and in Washington, D.C., reporting on the daily horrors and outrages of commuting are well-trodden pathways by the news media. So, too, here in Rhode Island.

It is not about the evidence; it is about the flow of money – and the politics married to the flow of money from Congress. The current Republican-controlled Congress is no fan of mass transit.

We can blame it on politicians; we can blame it on immigrants; we can blame it trade imbalances, but the truth is, as Pogo once said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Call it a different kind of substance use disorder: we might as well admit it; we are addicted to cars. Not all paved roads lead to treatment and recovery.

Richard Asinof
Richard Asinof is an award-winning journalist who frequently writes about health, innovation, science, technology and community in Rhode Island. He is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island. He can be reached at RichardAsinof@gmail.com.
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