where we’re going…

big_roads_coverC in the US It’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 and gravel; impassable in bad weather and built ad-hoc without any larger plan. In 1899, it took three months to travel from New York to Chicago by car. Twenty years later, the army acid-tested America’s roads with a cross-country truck convoy. They were marooned for days in the desert, almost had to be rescued, and the whole trip took two months. Road quality and road planning did not equal car popularity.

The car population exploded in the 1920s and 1930s, bringing with it a new feature of American life: traffic congestion. Chicago outlawed left turns; the Bay Bridge would routinely back up more than eight miles; one traffic jam stretched for 84 miles. With the increasing Darwinian hellscape of driving, sociologist of cities and 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).

In response to traffic congestion came city planning. Most cities had grown organically, guided by terrain and resources: Minneapolis built from the river and mills outwards; San Francisco from the port; Chicago from the lake and river. But not central managers and city planners were laying down roads on cities that already existed, and those roads would guide and bound how the city evolved: the tail was now wagging the dog (another interstate book is aptly titled The Roads That Built America). Civil engineers and government functionaries designing roads and routes, though, had few existing examples to look to, little concept of the consequences of new roads, and no knowledge of the massive sociocultural issues they were wading into, creating, or exacerbating.

Driving going nowhere

Ignorance and bad predictions did not make good bedfellows. For example, noting that congestion occurred primary in city centers, 1920s road planners though to add bypass roads around the city. A bypass sounds perfect and reasonable in theory, but don’t work in practice. For one thing, since most traffic was intra-city, those drivers had no use for the bypass. Second, businesses inevitably built up on the bypass road, thus creating congestion.


That planners failed to predict the specific consequences of the bypasses is understandable and partially unavoidable, but the lesson of those failures would be ignored many times over: 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. Bypasses work if cities remain static, but they do not; bypasses inevitably create new traffic and roads designed to meet the “desire lines” of current drivers change those desires once built. Bypasses did not ease congestion, they just shifted the locus—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, giving an appearance of stasis while constantly changing. It’s an apt analogy for city planning: when the environment changes, so does the behavior of the drivers (it’s also a good analogy for why adding lanes to a freeway often doesn’t ease congestion: more people are encouraged to drive on it).

original interstate map

After year of legislative bickering and badly-designed roads, the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act put financial and legislative support behind a unified interstate freeway system. Planned for 12 years and $25 billion, it cost 20 times that much and wasn’t finished until 1992.

But even by the time interstates were planned, little progress had been made predicting the consequences of 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 follies of bypasses, superhighways, and San Francisco were mere precursor to the category-5 shitstorm of planning freeways through densely-populated urban centers. The interstate system was built from the outside-in: routes between and around cities were constructed first, and the last step was to connect the pieces to go through major cities. At first, many people saw the “outer” freeways as an unmitigated good, in that they acted like a physical barrier to city growth and prevented urban sprawl. Then they got to the cities themselves.

freeway_protestBaltimore was ground zero of the delusion and inhumanity of urban freeway planning. Over two decades, no fewer than six potential paths were laid out for the freeway through Baltimore. Most were unfathomably destructive and inevitably targeted people on the margins of society. An early proposal ran the freeway along the Inner Harbor, then a densely-populated “slum” stricken by disease, poverty, and lack of basic infrastructure. Run the road through there, they saidand the slum will be gone! It’s not clear exactly how this was expected to work, but freeways are probably not a good mechanism for social change. A later proposal called for the freeway to run through a middle-class black neighborhood, and the mere threat of it caused the neighborhood to be abandoned. Eventually the freeway ran under the harbor.

Baltimore was only one of many places that staged “freeway revolts” in the 1960s and 1970s, and not just in the US. Proposed freeway routes almost always would displace poor neighborhoods, or those of people of color. Even when the routes did not obliterate their homes, often the roads came close enough to bring noise pollution, environmental pollution, or simply put a physical barrier between two sides of a community. More often than not, the community won, making freeway revolts a success story of community organizing. But remnants of the battles hide in plain sight: bits 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.

•     •     •

The development of the interstate system is intriguing because it is a remarkable public works project—in scale, execution, and planning—that’s inseparable from the social and political issues it created or exacerbated. Those cultural issues aren’t just about displacement, but also some of the ubiquities of American life: Swift suggests a link between the uniformity of freeways and the rise of franchising, a practice dominated by demands for sameness. The banality of the freeway is at odds with its scope and the effort required to make it happen: the years of testing to develop the best road surfaces, the study of perception to determine the best colors, letter spacing, and fonts for maximally readable signs, the safety tests, the 50+ years of planning, construction, time, and resources. The 1919 army convoy took 63 days to cross the continent and almost didn’t make it. Fifty years later, it took three.


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