“How We Might Regain Worthwhile,
Cherished Places and Neighborhoods”
A review of
Three new books related to
And the Destruction of Places.
Review by Brent Aldrich.
|The Big Roads:
The Untold Story
of the Engineers, Visionaries…
by Earl Swift
[ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
The Transcontinentals and the Making
of Modern America.
by Richard White.
[ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
The Buildings That Linked the Nation
[ Amazon ]
The first problem is by now a familiar one: the particularly American capacity for self-destruction of our cherished human and common realms in favor of the scale and privatization of the automobile, and its ensuing snare of roads, speed, and placeless suburbanized development.
The second problem – and I take this one personally – is that our 47,000 mile Interstate Highway System, the crowning legacy of the Auto Age, may be traced back to an Indianapolis cyclist.
So especially with that second point in mind, and a few new books about American transportation history, a few reflections seem to be in order. To begin with, Earl Swift’s The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways begins with Carl Fisher, builder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing, repairing, selling… bicycles: riding one on a tightrope between downtown buildings, building another that was two stories tall, shoving another off of a highrise as a promotional gimmick – whoever dragged the wreckage to his shop received a free new bike. (I love this pre-1900 bike propaganda, and could make a case that it’s this lack of delightful bike culture in Indianapolis now that most discourages more bicyclists).
Fisher, along with the local Zig-Zag Cycling Club (which I may need to reinstate), and the national League of American Wheelman and their publication Good Roads, begin advocating for improvements in (regional) roads before any automobile rolls out of the factory: “the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore. Yes, the demand for roads was pedal-powered… So it was that in October 1893, agriculture secretary J. Sterling Merton created the Office of Road Inquiry” (Big Roads, 15).
As I cross town on my bicycle, then, this should keep me from feeling too self-righteous about the intimate speed, the self-propulsion, and the flexibility of cycling, over and against the automobile. But of course, there’s much to be said for all of these attributes of the bicycle, and the story of the Interstates is proof in point. Continuing along with Fisher: it’s not difficult, as soon as cars are manufactured, for these bicycle men to scale up to racing, repairing, and selling cars, and advocating for cross-country highways, fit for the automobile. Fisher starts to work on the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast route, which is one of the many predecessors to our modern Interstates.
In the early 20th century, though, as these early highway men were dreaming of the open road, there were already decades-old precedents for cross-country transportation in the form of the transcontinental railroads. Living as we do in an age when regional trains are making a resurgence in use, a look at the first cross-country routes – distinctly not local or regional – were developed. Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America begins around the Civil War:
“A transcontinental railroad was, as reckoning went in as young a country as the United States, an old idea in 1862… There was no commercial reason for a transcontinental railroad and no set of investors willing to fund, as F.A. Pike of Maine said in Congress, ‘1800 miles of railroad through uninhabited wilderness’… Timothy Phelps of California succinctly gave the answer to critics like Pike. The immediate necessity was not commercial; it was ‘military necessity.’ And if there was no commercial demand for a railroad now, well, that made a railroad all the more necessary. It ‘was absolutely essential to our internal development’… The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was justified on the grounds of military necessity” (Railroaded, 17).
This justification of cross-country railroads sounds strikingly familiar to that of the Interstate Highway System: “Inadequate highways also retarded industry and, of great and growing concern in 1954, failed ‘to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come’” (BR, 164). That’s Richard Nixon delivering Dwight Eisenhower’s written address all of the US governors; and Eisenhower, despite being the figure we now associate most with the Interstates, is shown in The Big Roads to be a minor figure in the history of their development. Predating Eisenhower, and much more significant, are highway engineers Thomas MacDonald and Frank Turner, most responsible for creating the routes, standardizing materials, curves, gradients, speed, and construction.
Part of what makes The Big Roads such a good read is the characterizing and storytelling Swift employs around these mild-mannered highway engineers, and all of the other figures surrounding the Interstates, fleshing out the long genesis of these roads long before Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act. To summarize, though, James Howard Kunstler does an excellent job:
“The federal government got into the act of subsidizing auto use in 1916 with the $75 million Federal Road Act to improve post roads and to encourage states to organize their own highway departments by giving them money. A second Federal Road Act in 1921 sought to improve 200,000 miles of state highways with the idea of linking them up to form a national network… 1n 1956, Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act…
The package called for 41,000 miles of new expressways, with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the tab and the states 10 percent. It proposed to link up most cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, and included circumferential
‘beltways’ around the largest. The bill also heavily subsidized the improvement (read, widening) of innumerable ordinary local roads to facilitate further suburban sprawl” (Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, 90 – 107).
And the story of building the transcontinental railroads, half a century earlier, is remarkably similar in terms of heavy government subsidies on less-than-warranted cross country routes:
“North and South Dakota can thus serve as a kind of historical laboratory for comparing two different approaches to railroad construction and their consequences. Subsidized transcontinentals built ahead of demand in what would become North Dakota, while unsubsidized regional roads built to meet demand in South Dakota. The result was two different settlement patterns and traffic patterns… In North Dakota, American settlement pushed farther west more quickly and created a far less dense agricultural landscape than in South Dakota. In the 1880s track controlled by the Northern Pacific [in ND] increased from 1,082 to 1,317, but the amount of wheat it hauled, which fluctuated, trended downward…
Taken together, the Dakotas seem to offer a compelling argument against land grants in general and the subsidized transcontinentals in particular. Not only did unsubsidized railroads built to meet demand, but they operated more efficiently.
Farmers paid less for land, settled the better lands more quickly, and avoided marginal arid lands. The government aided settlers, not railroads, while incurring a more efficient railroad network and denser settlement” (RR, 485 – 6).
And as if this wasn’t enough, the main thrust of Railroaded has to do with the corporations which built the transcontinentals, “largely speculative enterprises meant to make a profit through their financing” (213). Or, in describing Charles Francis Adams, a semi-reformer and manager of the Union Pacific Line as “[wanting] the Union Pacific to become a corporation that made money by providing efficient transportation at a profit. He did not engage in stock manipulation. He did not engage in townsite speculation. He did not create subsidiary companies to drain off resources from the railroad. He did not rack up huge corporate debts to create personal profits” (RR, 252), White neatly summarizes exactly what all the rest of the corporate railroad managers did do.
All of this to describe the processes by which the great transcontinental routes – offering mobility, progress, abandonment, freedom! – came to be. Explicit in the transcontinental railroads and implicit in the Interstate Highway System is the thrill of Manifest Destiny; as Jay Cooke, manager of the Northern Pacific Railroad claimed, “’Naught by Indians, buffalos etc. existed where now stand great cities & villages, and wherein reside over 6 mil of people with thousands of churches and schools & a constantly growing civilization’” (RR, 459). The tragedies wrought especially on rural places by the transcontinental railroads were replicated on cities by the Interstates, displacing the locals (“etc.”), dispersing the population into a thin smear across the land, and ultimately trading a human scale for an automobile scale. Lewis Mumford, one of the earliest highway critics takes this same comparison further in 1956: “‘The wide swathes of land devoted to cloverleaves and even more complicated multi-land interchanges, to expressways… butcher up precious urban space in exactly the same way the freight yards and marshalling yards did when the railroads dumped their passengers and freight inside the city.’ They devoured not only open land, but real estate already occupied by people and homes” (BR, 243).
This, then, pretty well brings us to our own day of sprawling ex-urbs, identical commercial strips hugging the Interstates, and a near-complete dominance and preference for the automobile over the human in nearly all our cities. By hiding the real costs of rail and auto use from the beginning, especially individual car ownership, we’ve created quite a mythology of individual mobility; as Matt Dellinger writes about one last un-built Interstate 69 (which would be a laughable joke if not for the pathetic sincerity of one Indiana governor in this myth), “the Highway Trust Fund helped create a uniquely American attitude about highways… Without tolls to pay, Americans grew to love ‘the open road.’ But the popular perception of the ‘freeway’ has impaired the driver’s appreciation for the direct and indirect costs of driving. It hastened the decline of ticketed rail and transit services and encouraged decentralized development across the landscape. It has led to congestion and has made it politically difficult to raise the gas tax – a move that would be an unwelcome reminder that driving costs money” (Dellinger, Interstate 69, 206).
Which brings me back to Carl Fisher, the bicyclist from Indianapolis.
I, too, am a bicyclist from Indianapolis and certainly have some ideas about preferable modes of transportation and ideal models of development to create neighborhoods and cities that are worth caring about; as I said at the start, though, I want to not be coy about the necessities and limits of all these forms and be honest about how bikes and pedestrians and trains and buses and even cars might work in complex ways for healthy places. In doing this, I’ll admit a preference for walking and biking, but I’ll suggest a few parameters that seem helpful in weighing these, centered on two basic ideas:
1. Human scale
2. Common spaces
If you’ve ever commuted primarily by walking or biking, you’ll be familiar with the strange inhospitable landscape of the parking lot. Perhaps more so than any other experience that resists the human scale (like walking in a ditch because a road lacks sidewalks, or riding a bike through a drive-through window), parking lots require taking your life in your hands if not inside a car; it’s a space built for the efficient free storage of cars, with wide driveways and curbs that act as physical barriers. If you do not drive, every square foot of these spaces to the nth degree are useless, dangerous spaces.
While parking lots are an easy example, there’s perhaps helpful considerations of speed and distance to consider for a healthy human scale. Swift describes this gradient in The Big Roads:
“A pilgrim of centuries past, on completing a day’s walk across roadless terrain, would have had much to report about the country he’d traversed – the details of flora and fauna, the land’s shape and character, the sounds and smells of village and field. He would have noticed the moss of tree bark, the conversation of a fast-moving stream, the lacework of afternoon light on the forest floor. He might have startled deer and bear, unaltered by his soft approach, or reveled in bird song.
A later traveler, riding horseback, might have spoken of the views he’d enjoyed, but they would have been limited views, next to the walker’s. He would have moved at a faster clip, and thus missed the tiny details of his surroundings that only a leisurely pace
revealed. Further on, a stagecoach passenger had an even tighter range of experience; he beheld landscape not only from a road’s fixed path, but as a moving picture framed by his window, and his description of a long trip would likely dwell… [on] the passage itself. Trains erected a pane of glass between traveler and country, and further insulated him by boosting his speed.
But with the modern car on the modern freeway, the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another. He was sequestered not only from his setting, but from fellow passengers, if he so wished; he met strangers only when he pulled off the highway to gas up or grab a bite” (BR, 257-8).
Which leads into my second recommendation, that of common spaces. The individual automobile is the most private mode of transportation, affording no encounters with other human beings. One good argument for public transit – be it buses, trains, or trolleys – is that these remain public spaces, where humans can encounter other humans, have conversation, meet strangers. One striking reminder of this is simply the architecture that has resulted from train travel as opposed to car travel. Railroad Stations: The Buildings that Linked the Nation compiles hundreds of photographs of railroad stations from along dozens of routes and across the country in a sort of Bernd and Hilla Becher typology of forms. The huge Union Stations are truly beautiful structures, designed to bring together thousands of people; even small western depots remain beautifully crafted, common spaces. Although styles and forms very greatly regionally and on the size of the terminal, railroad stations operate as civic places. In a telling 1970 aerial photograph in this collection, though, of the Queen City Hotel and Station in Maryland, a raised four-lane divided highway, with additional lanes for on/off ramps passes within ten feet of the station, separates it from the urban fabric, as a few lonely cars cruise past. Swift writes about Interstate Highway places:
“Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With the rare exception, a sense of place, of
uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp… Interchanges have more in common with each other than any one of them has with wherever it happens to be. The twain have met; exit a California interstate and you’ll find what you left in Connecticut – and very little that you didn’t leave in Connecticut” (BR, 315-6).
One of the consequences of the extreme privatization of the automobile, and the ensuing dominance of said auto, is the privatization of all spaces – whether owned by private corporations (modeled by the transcontinental railroad corporations, but as true of McDonald’s), or that of the government-owned roadways. As Kunstler asks, “where, then, are you going to have your public assembly? On the median strip of Interstate 87?” (Geography of Nowhere, 120).
To assess how we might regain worthwhile, cherished places and neighborhoods, I would suggest considering something of a measure in which Human Scale and Common Spaces come together. Ideally, buildings, streets, neighborhood blocks, and parks would develop with the greatest social form of the human-sized commons as the starting place – this finds its best manifestation in the walker, the pedestrian. From there, bicyclists would probably be next, then forms of mass transit, and, at the end, automobiles, which are both private and lacking in human scale. While this is by no means a rule to live by, it might suggest a small step in a direction that is oriented towards humans, moves next to a local and then regional scale, and finally transcontinental. The Interstate Highways, like the transcontinental railroads before them, grossly misjudged this scale, reversing its order to begin on the huge, broad, and general, and letting those assumptions impose themselves downwards, so that our particulars – our neighborhoods, homes, streets, and cities – all conformed to the generalities made possible at 70 miles per hour, with gentle gradients, windows rolled up.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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