Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Imagine This Story Times Millions

It's never fun when eminent domain is used. But when I think of it, it always brings me back to the thought of how many people were displaced and how much tax revenue has been lost because of the Interstate Highway System ripping through cities. One need only go back and watch Robert Caro's speech at CNU last year to understand the price of automobiling. As I've said many times before, Eisenhower marveled at and wanted to emulate the freeways between cities, not through them.
The autobahn was a rural network, without segments into and through Germany's cities. This seemed appropriate to Eisenhower, but in Washington, Thomas H. MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank of the U.S. Public Roads Administration (the name of the Federal Highway Administration's predecessor during the 1940's) saw the absence of metropolitan segments as a flaw that made the autobahn a poor model for America's future. Unlike Germany, traffic volumes were high in America where car ownership was widespread. Congestion in America's cities had long been a serious complaint that MacDonald and Fairbank would address in their vision of the Interstate System.
We sure tackled that congestion problem...that wasn't really addressed because that wasn't the point.
...MacDonald acknowledged with surprising candor that the urban components of the system were not designed to alleviate urban congestion, except to the extent that they would provide relieve to those motorists for whom the city was an inconvenient obstruction...
We all know Lewis Mumford had it right though when arguing against the highway system slashing through cities.
The key to reviving our center cities, Mumford said, "rests on the restoring of the pedestrian scale of distances to the interior of the city, of making it possible for the pedestrian to exist." He added, "We are faced, it is fairly obvious to me, with the blunders of one-dimensional thinking, or thinking very expertly about a single characteristic, a single feature that we are interested in, and forgetting the realities that surround us."


Peter said...

Thank you so much for the link about Eisenhower. I'd heard of his thoughts on the subject second hand, but I'd never seen it written down until now. I've been looking for that for a long time. And on the FHWA site of all places!

Anonymous said...

Richard Daley I was a major force in getting the Interstates into the cities. IIEC the Dan Ryan Expwy was the first inner city Interstate. It was a typical Daley "Negro removal" project involving demolition of thousands of housing units. It also in the bargain seriously sabotaged public transit even though the median was reserved for the present L servic4e. A fine exposition of the social/political/economic results of the auto commute to downtown is Michael Harrington's The Other America

Rhywun said...

This is all interesting, but one should note that since Eisenhower's time, German Autobahns *were* constructed through numerous cities, just like here. They don't often reach the innermost, historic centers, but they do carve up cities, often sharing routes with existing railroads.

Nevertheless, German cities don't sprawl nearly as much as ours, and the main reason for that is probably lack of space rather than lack of transportation infrastructure.

Pedestrianist said...

"they would provide relieve to those motorists for whom the city was an inconvenient obstruction"

This is the canard we see over and over in LTEs in the Comical and the comments on Streetsblog

Thanks for bringing up the historical reference. Frankly, without underestimating the cult of the auto, it's surprising how honest they were about it then

Anonymous said...

one of the unlikliest supporters of rail transit was the late Paul Weyrich. There was at one time an essay on his Free Congress site extoling public support of transit to advance the conservative agenda. The point was that is Daddy took the train to work, Mom need not work to support a second family car and could stay where the essayist said she belonged. (home) Of course nothing was said about those who were not living in this anachronistic suburban paradise.