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July 01, 2007

Introduction: A View from the Bridge: Transportation and Social Context

by Nicholas Targ

Earlier this summer the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during the evening rush hour traffic. In an instant, thirteen people lost their lives, and more than one hundred were injured. The stories of loss and heroism and the dramatic pictures of the crumpled bridge riveted us as a nation.

What transfixed and shocked us, in a very real and human way, may have been the contrast between what is familiar—the bridge, the rush hour commute—and the extraordinary event of the bridge’s collapse, as much as the sheer magnitude of the loss itself. Perhaps it was this stark contrast, more than anything, that focused our attention on transportation issues—what it takes to get from here to there—which is the theme of this edition of Human Rights.

In the days and weeks following the bridge’s failure, there was much discussion of engineering and structural integrity, addressing whether the disaster was a harbinger of things to come or a tragic but improbably remote event. As one who regularly traverses a span with the same design as the Minneapolis bridge, I admit that the question is personal to me. On more than one occasion, as I cross the on ramp, I further admit to thinking, “Here go I by the grace of God.”

The more we learn about the process of making transportation decisions, however, the less issues of engineering and God seem central. Transportation decisions reflect the fundamental wisdom and ills of our social, economic, and legal history and values, and they are intrinsically political in nature. This is true, whether the issue is (1) which neighborhoods receive the benefits and burdens of transportation; (2) who is allowed to get on a plane and under what circumstances; (3) how accessible transportation will be and for whom; and (4) whether, or how well, local pollution or global greenhouse gas effects from transportation will be addressed.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the history of the civil rights movement can be charted through the lens of transportation law and policy, from Plessy v. Ferguson and Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat, to contemporary issues of paratransit service and environmental justice.

Transportation decisions should be viewed in a personal manner and within a social context—when transportation is not accessible, jobs, health care, schools, and participation in society are limited. Indeed, transportation investment decisions are less about steel and concrete than about the creation and distribution of life’s opportunities.

Nicholas Targ

Nicholas Targ practices environmental and land use law in San Francisco with the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP.