Converse's Reviews > The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways
by Earl Swift
bookshelves: travel, technology, politics, non-fiction, engineering
I was surprised to learn that the idea of a interstate highway system, and much of the route planning, long pre-dated the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, during which the act of Congress that funded the project. Probably the most influential person behind the details of the project was Thomas Harris MacDonald, an engineer who spent decades working for the federal government. President Franklin Roosevelt had requested a plan for interstates in the late 1930s. MacDonald's plan, given in response to this proposal and a request from Congress, differed in that it placed much more emphasis on freeways in and around cities rather than the routes crossing the countryside, because most of the traffic is around cities. Another government enginner, Frank Turner, oversaw much of the actual construction from the Eisenhower administration into Nixon's first term.
The interstate program has a pre-history. Carl Fisher, an Indianapolis businessman and one of the builders of the Indianoplis speedway, created the Lincoln Highway Association, a group of businessman with an interest in better roads (makers of automobiles and tires for example) who would purchase materials for those state and local governments who would contractually agree to provide the labor to build or improve roads, in order to provide a road from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This group appeared shortly before World War One and persisted into the late 1920s, at which time it was wrapped up due to increased government construction and funding. The increased funding resulted from the Federal Highway Act of 1921. What we would recognize as restricted access freeways were increasing advocated by a number of people in the late 1920s, including such unlikely people as Brenton MacKaye, one of the people behind the Appalachian Trail, and the architectual critic Lewis Mumford. Mumford later forcefull recanted his views and became a noted freeway critic in the late 1950s and 1960s.
The attempts to build interstates into built-up areas resulted in considerable opposition in the 1960s, opposition which gained some support in federal legislation in the 1960s. The author, Earl Swift, uses Baltimore as an extended example of the racial, ethnic, greenspace, and historical preservation aspects of this opposition. These issues, combined with increased environmental issues, made Frank Turner's last years in office more difficult. Turner, who appears to have had many admirable qualities, was perhaps too much of an engineer and technocrat to be the best person to cope with this new social landscape. Ironically, Turner could speak from personal experience of the unpleasantness of having freeways located near one's property, as his house lot was nicked by a freeway and his parents had to move because of state funded highway project in Fort Worth. Turner generally took the bus to work.
I think the main problem with the highway project is that it assumed that traffic patterns would remain static as these freeways were built. It assumed that commuting from the edge of the city to its center would remain the dominant commuting pattern. In fact, building these freeways reduced the cost, at least in terms of time, of locating outside the city center and encouraged a dispersed pattern of housing, commerce, and industry.