Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Tomorrow, June 29, is the 50th anniversary of founding of the federal interstate highway system. The freeway web transformed how Americans moved, and thus how we constructed our communities, and thus how we shaped our societies. One telling of the story is that advocates (which included contractors and certain local governments, of course) were having difficulty persuading the fiscally conservative members of Congress in the early '50s, until they came upon the idea of calling it a "defense" plan to facilitate the movement of troops and materiel in case of war with the Communists. Once packaged as a feature of national security, Congress authorized billions. (Plus ça change.)
On the benefit side of the ledger, the interstates have given Americans mobility to travel freely across the nation (imagine the delays of a cross-country road trip back in 1940!) and made trucking an extraordinarily efficient means of transporting goods, thus contributing mightily to American prosperity. (I recently read that nearly all major automotive parts facilities locate within minutes of I-65 and I-75, from Michigan south to Alabama.)
As for drawbacks, critics point out that subsidized highways harmed the railroads (which, to be sure, got their own subsidies back in their heyday). Federally funded interstates have often served suburbanites more than interstate travelers (just try getting around Atlanta on I-285 at rush hour, or try going west from Denver on I-70 on a skiing weekend.) Perhaps most significantly, they have facilitated suburban sprawl (imagine the drive from Winnetka to downtown Chicago or from Garland to Fort Worth without freeways). First houses, and then shopping malls, and then jobs, have followed the routes of interstates out of the city. Should we wonder why sociologists say that today's Americans, isolated in suburban subdivisions, office parks, and interstates, have fewer friends than they used to have?