Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Changing My Mind About Freeways

I'm always on the lookout for facts that make me rethink my preconceived notions. I think I might have found one regarding highways.

More than once, I've written about the "fact" that the Interstate Highway System was not originally intended to cut through cities. My thinking was influenced by articles such as one by Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic.
Eisenhower himself didn't realize the Interstate Highway System would cut through American cities until a few years after construction began. Ike had wanted a national road network like the one he'd seen in Germany during World War II. But he'd also wanted these roads to stop at the doorsteps of cities, not push right past.
Source: The Atlantic.

The conventional wisdom is that in order to get the interstate highway system built, Ike had to get the votes of urban congressmen, and to get those votes, he had to direct some of the construction their way, in the form of freeways in their urban districts. The argument has a certain logic.

After the jump, a contrarian opinion that deserves consideration.

In another story in The Atlantic, Earl Swift digs up a report by the federal Bureau of Public Roads, called Toll Roads and Free Roads, from 75 years ago, that is, predating the interstate highway system. Swift summarizes:
The report's central pitch is that the country needed superhighways more urgently to ease urban congestion than to link its far-flung cities. That bears repeating, because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom: the interstates were not conceived as long-haul roads that were then pushed into the cities, but as the reverse — they were prescribed as urban fixes first, and to venture into the countryside, second.
Source: The Atlantic.

So, which was it? Did Ike woo the urban vote by promising them they would get a lot of the highway funding? Or did he woo the rural vote by promising them that they would? Like most legislative log rolling, there's no way to answer that. Enough people got enough federal funding to win support of enough votes, urban and rural, to get the legislation passed. But this old federal study suggests that some urban planners of the day saw freeways more as the answer to growing automobile congestion inside cities than as an answer to a need for more efficient interstate travel.

As Swift describes it, by 1939 (when the report was written), Americans "were already abandoning public transit in droves, and were strangling America's cities with our traffic." Swift draws an unpleasant conclusion:
It might be a bitter pill for an urbanist to swallow, but the adversary here isn't officialdom, or the "automotive interests," or any other monolithic bogey man; it's the very people whose lives said urbanist seeks to improve. Americans don't drive because they lack an alternative. We drive because we love our cars, no matter the price — we cherish the individual freedom they offer over convenience, frugality, common sense.
Source: The Atlantic.

So, I am forced to at least consider the possibility that freeways through cities aren't some Frankenstein's monster, the unintended consequences of legislative sausage-making. I am forced to consider the possibility that freeways through cities were a deliberate attempt to solve a problem that was already apparent to urban planners of 1939 -- that America's cities were becoming clogged by automobile traffic. In other words, I just might have to change my mind about highways.

Tomorrow, what does all this have to do with Richardson? Or Dallas?

For a look back at some other things I've changed my mind about, read "Things
I Was Against Before I Was For

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