where we’re going…

big_roads_coverIt’s strange that for as quickly as cars achieved popularity in the US, good roads on which to drive them lagged so far behind. Early roads were dirt or gravel, impassable in bad weather, and built ad-hoc without a larger plan, connecting point A to point B because someone needed to get there. In 1899, it took three months to travel from New York to Chicago by car, and even a decade later more than half the roads in the country were still gravel. In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower, then a young army officer, led a truck convoy on a cross-country acid test of America’s roads. The convoy was marooned for days in the desert, nearly had to be rescued, and the whole trip took two months. There had been precious little movement on the “let’s get our collective shit together” front.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the car population exploded, and with it: traffic congestion. Chicago outlawed left turns altogether; there were routine 8 mile backups on the Bay Bridge, and one jam produced an 84 mile backup. 84 miles! Tentative steps towards a more organized system of roads had been taken, but it wasn’t until 1956 (and a couple of legislative false starts) that the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed and work on the interstate system began in earnest. By that time, sociologist of cities and famed intellectual gadfly Lewis Mumford decried America’s haphazard road designs, suggesting that highway engineers had “dumped a whole orphanage on a bankrupt house” (roads are the orphans in this metaphor, I think).

Driving going nowhere


With increased importance of roads and cars came—oh boy—city planning. Historically, cities grew organically, guided by terrain, resources, and needs. Minneapolis built from the river and the flour mills outwards, San Francisco from the port, Chicago from the lake and river. But now city planners were laying down new roads on existing towns and communities. The roads weren’t being built as the community evolved, but instead would now guide and bound that growth: the tail was wagging the dog (another interstate book is aptly titled The Roads That Built America). Unfortunately for everyone, civil engineers and untrained paper-pushers trying to design roads and routes had few existing examples to look to, little concept of the consequences of new roads, and no knowledge of the major social/class issues they were wading into, exacerbating, or creating.

Ignorance and bad predictions did not make for good bedfellows. Noting that congestion occurred primarily in city centers, 1920s road planners thought to go around the city with a bypass road. However good they sound in theory, bypasses were not a panacea for at least two reasons: (1) most traffic was intra-city, and these drivers had no use for a bypass, and (2) businesses built up around the bypass, thus creating congestion on the bypass itself.

That planners failed to predict the specific consequences of the bypasses is understandable and at least partially unavoidable, but the larger underlying failure would be repeated many, many times in the ensuing decades: building a road creates a new reality that is adapted to. Designers assumed that the social architecture of the city wouldn’t be changed by a new road, that things would be the same as before, but with one more road to use. Bypasses work when cities remain static, but cities never remain static; bypasses create new traffic and roads designed to meet the “desire lines” of current drivers inevitably change those desires.* Thought to be the savior of road-weary citizens, bypasses only briefly eased congestion—one engineer lamented that they were good for about five years, at which time the bypass needs its own bypass. The red queen hypothesis is an idea from evolutionary biology, positing that species “run as fast as they can” just to keep up with one another, thus giving the outward appearance of stasis. A new road may initially seem to not have changed things, but it always does. The inability to recognize the “new reality” created by new roads plagued both freeway-precursor “superhighways” and interstates themselves.

*The red queen is also an apt analogy for why traffic/parking congestion never seems to improve: if they add another lane on the freeway, more people will drive. Why does the amount of time we spend housekeeping remain the same, even with “advances” like vacuums and dishwashers? Recall Yogi Berra’s claim that “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

original interstate map

In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed, putting financial and legislative support behind the creation of the national interstate freeway system. Planned for 12 years and $25 billion, it took 35 years (finally completed in 1992 (!!!)) and cost 20 times as much. Even by the time interstates were being planned, little progress had been made in predicting the consequences of major roads. In the late 1950s, for example, San Francisco planned a highway to connect the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate. The route ran along the waterfront, then mostly a non-residential area full of aging, decrepit industrial buildings. In an effort to minimize the horizontal footprint, they opted for a double deck road, and pristine bay views gave way to brutalist concrete structures. With only a mile built, the folly was realized and construction halted, though the already-built part remained for decades, ever ghastly:

double-decker freeway

The foibles of bypasses, superhighways, and San Francisco were mere precursor to the category-5 shitstorm that erupted as they planned routes through densely-populated urban centers. Getting to the cities themselves took awhile because the interstates were built from the outside-in: the pieces connecting or ringing cities were built before the routes through the cities themselves, like the reverse of those maps showing an epidemic spreading outwards in tendrils from city centers. Many people thought those “outer” freeways were good, because they provided something like a real, physical city limit. This positive outlook did not last.

The shitstorm hit when they got to the cities, and Baltimore was ground-zero. Over the course of 20+ years, there were no fewer than six designs for the path of the freeway through Baltimore. Earlier, I mentioned how most planners didn’t have the faintest understanding of the sociopolitical issues of urban population centers (others just had a bad understanding), and Baltimore is a cardinal example. One early proposal ran the freeway along the Inner Harbor, then a densely populated “slum” stricken with disease, poverty, and lack of basic infrastructure. Run the road right through there, they said, and the “slum” will be gone. Bam! Brand-new freeway and no more poor people! Two birds, one stone and all that. I’m often too quick to give the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to figure how they thought this would work. Did they expect the people to just…disappear? Freeways: probably not the best mechanism for social change.

freeway_protestA later proposal called for the freeway to run through a middle-class black community, and the mere threat of that plan had the same consequences as having done so: people expected to have to leave their homes, and so they did (much like the neocon argument that the government creates its own reality when it acts). The freeway was never built, yet the neighborhood was blighted nonetheless (the Baltimore freeway eventually ran UNDER the harbor, which pretty much solves the entire issue, I guess).

Baltimore was only one of many places that staged “freeway revolts” in the 1960s and 1970s (similar protests occurred in Canada, the UK, and Australia at different times). Proposed routes usually “just so happened” to displace or otherwise inconvenience entire neighborhoods of lower-class immigrants or people of color, and even for those they didn’t displace, carried noise pollution, environmental pollution, and could very literally divide communities. In most cases, the community won, and in that sense freeway revolts are a success story of community organizing. The remnants of these battles hide in plain sight: pieces of unconnected or unused freeways dot the US, legacies of plans never realized. To get an idea just how common these revolts were, see here.

• • •

So The Big Roads is a book about roads, which turns out to be more interesting than it has right to be. The story of interstates is intriguing because it’s a remarkable public works project (in scale and execution and planning) that’s inseparable from the social, political, and cultural issues it highlighted and/or created (Swift, for example, suggests a sociological link between the uniformity of freeways and the rise of franchising). Dwight Eisenhower’s 1919 convoy took 63 days to cross the continent, and almost didn’t make it at all; fifty years later it took three days. It’s a classic example of something so ubiquitous you don’t think about where it came from, which is at odds with how much effort went into it: the emphasis on safety and uniformity, the testing to develop the best fonts, letter spacing, and colors for signage, the most durable paving surfaces, the most effect safety measures—more than a half-century of planning, construction, time, and resources. The Hoover Dam looks grander, the interstate might be more impressive.


2 thoughts on “where we’re going…

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