Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life
© Tom Lewis 2007, 2013
No engineering project in the United States is more impressive than the interstate system; dense with the connections of a street grid, it serves not blocks but an entire continent. In Divided Highways, Tom Lewis tells the story of that system’s creation, inside a broader history of how motoring in general transformed American life. Lewis principally concerns himself with the political rise of the highways, and the problems that followed once the ideal became a reality and people realized that reality comes with smells, noises, shadows, and bills. Lewis connects the drama of the highways with ever-changing American society as a whole. though, integrating their story in which whatever else was happening (the oil crises of the 1970s, for instance) and commenting on the morphing nature of urbanism as downtowns bled out into the broad puddles of edge cities. Though Lewis is enamored of the interstate, motoring, and the American dedication to constant motion, he doesn’t shy away from giving critics a voice.
The story of the highways begins with the automobile, of course, since before then road building wasn’t a priority: given the distances involved. water transportation dominated until the train made overland transit more competitive. The rising popularity of automobiles and bicycles — an individualistic alternative to crowded trolleys and trains controlled by some of the more powerful corporations of the day– led to a demand for places to use them, and no road is worth much if it doesn’t connect you to other roads going other places. Enter Thomas Harris MacDonald, an intensely thorough, dedicated, and prudent fellow who would dominate the Bureau of Public Roads from the Wilson administration to that of Eisenhower’s. MacDonald’s prudence was such that he only built roads when they were deemed immediately necessary — much different from today’s build-it-and-they-will-come-and-pay-taxes attitude. Although not aggressive, his thoroughness did produce sketches of what a national highway system might look like, and how it might be ordered. Such a system was well underway when he died in retirement, his own fledging highways being supplanted by the limited access freeways that now create a massive asphalt circulatory system for the nation.
Building interstates involved a bit of juggling of responsibility between the state governments and D.C, and this became particularly thorny in regards to cities. The interstate system didn’t just connect cities; from the beginning, many cut through cities themselves, becoming a kind of rapid transit system. When President Eisenhower became entangled in freeway construction enroute to Camp David, he made a few terse inquiries as to who was responsible for plowing this great road into the city, whereupon some Nathan-like figure informed him…Mr. President, thou art the man. (Apparently, the interstate bill he signed was one of the ‘we have to pass it to see what’s in it’ variety….) Running interstates through cities proved the source of most of the system’s political problems, as the city spans became quickly congested, occupied large swathes of formerly tax-paying real estate, and functioned as a massive wall running through the cheapest real estate that could be found…that of the poor, who became poorer still when industry began following the interstate out of the city. In New Orleans, the destruction of the French Quarter’s charm by an interstate was narrowly avoided by citizen protests, and in our own time other cities (San Francisco, for instance) have gone to the mattresses to get rid of view-obstructing spurs.
As mentioned, Lewis also comments on the ongoing transformation of American society, the rise of franchise chain stores and the like. This was done with far more detail in Asphalt Nation, but presumably he wanted to write on something more than the exciting world of transportation finance. The connections made to broader US history — the anti-interstate reaction concurring with the civil rights movement and youth rebellion — not only make the history more ‘personable’, but provide welcome context. The subtitle of ‘transforming American society’ isn’t a big component of the book, though, and he doesn’t mention influences of the freeway on other transportation infrastructure in general, like the worrisome tendency of larger roads to mimic interstates even though it’s dangerous to encourage higher speeds in areas with pedestrians, buildings, and cross traffic.
Useful as a history of how the interstates happened, Divided Highways deserves praise for hailing the interstate system while simultaneously delivering the stories of people disrupted by it and rebelling against it.
“We could do anything, then, and do it to excess; our Interstates boldly proclaimed the triumph of engineering. Like our cars, whose fins could not be too high, they made a statement with adolescent vigor. We thought little of the Interstate’s ability to rend the landscape, to divide communities, and to alienate citizens. The roads were a concrete snapshot of ourselves when we believed nothing was beyond our reach.”
- Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
- Getting There: the Epic Battle Between Road and Rails, Stephen Goddard
- The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler