Infrastructure & Environment

Back Up On the Interstate

The national highway system is marking its Golden Anniversary, but that's not much cause for celebration.
by | July 2007
 

the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Interstate Highway System, it is appropriate to revisit an essay called "The Highway and the City," written by the famed urbanist Lewis Mumford shortly after passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.

Mumford saw how pouring so much money into a single mode of transportation, combined with the insensitive design and location of the highways themselves, would lead to the ruin of center cities. He foresaw endless, inflexible sprawl and less livable communities overall.

He starts his essay with these lines: "When the American people, through their Congress, voted a little while ago for a $26 billion highway program, the most charitable thing to assume about this action is that they hadn't the faintest notion of what they were doing." He was concerned that soon it would be "too late to correct the damage to our cities and our countryside, not least to the efficient organization of industry and transportation, that this ill-conceived and preposterously unbalanced program will have wrought."

Mumford goes on to detail all the ways that traditional urban planners and engineers had mistaken the simple application of more concrete for a well-balanced transportation program. At one point, he calls it a "fatal mistake" to sacrifice all other forms of transportation to the automobile--the only exception being the airplane. "There is no one ideal mode or speed," he wrote. "Human purpose should govern the choice of the means of transportation. That is why we need a better transportation system, not just more highways."

Of course, the past is past, so what good does it do to resurrect an old critique of the Interstate system on its Golden Anniversary? It's not very polite. But Mumford's words are worth reviewing because he displays the type of thinking we need if we are to have a better transportation policy.

The Interstate system isn't all bad. It is comprehensive, even if it is monolithic. It's hard to overstate the importance of those fat lines on a map with their distinctive royal-blue, shield-like symbols. They emit an almost irresistible pull on the driver holding a map on his lap or contemplating a trip on a computer screen. It may be more fun to take some back roads--it might even occasionally be faster. But it's mentally so much easier to follow those fat lines.

We shouldn't let this obscure the fact that we would have better towns and cities if we had pursued a more balanced transportation policy. Sure the Interstates are heavily used, but that's no surprise given that use of them is free, and there are usually few alternatives.

Moreover, they are imperfect in and of themselves. One problem is simply the lack of subtlety in their physical design. The roadways were designed with nuclear war and civil defense in mind, and they look it. They are the highway equivalent of the Brutalist school of architecture. They have none of the subtle beauty of earlier parkways, such as the 1930s-era Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, with its graceful bridges and natural setting.

Another issue is the misguided decision to allow the Interstates to run through cities rather than beside or around them. This was not a foregone conclusion. The original plans discussed in the 1920s and '30s had highways going around urban centers. There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, of President Dwight D. Eisenhower being driven through Washington, D.C., and noticing the bulldozers tearing down sections of the city to make way for Interstate 95. He supposedly commented to his driver or aide, "I thought we decided not to put the Interstates through the cities." But the plans had been changed in part because of lobbying by big-city mayors who thought highways would bring new blood to their cities--not drain away the little blood they had.

The Interstate system was simply too much of a good thing. Things would work better if we put more public money into a variety of transportation modes.

Driving through Montana a few years ago, on a wide and smooth stretch of Interstate that stretched across a vast plain, it occurred to me that the Interstate Highway System was the greatest "public transportation system" in the United States--and possibly the world. Of course, usually we talk of "public transportation" as meaning trains and buses, but in reality anything underwritten by tax dollars is public. And the more than 45,000 miles of Interstates were built with tax dollars.

So on its 50th anniversary, here's a toast to the Interstate, our greatest public transportation system--even if it's not a very good one.

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