The Eisenhower Interstate program was brilliant for its day — it created a national system of freeways that crisscrossed the United States, and has done much to provide the infrastructural backbone to today’s booming service industry. But the interstate has in turn caused other problems, including suburban sprawl, funding and mode dependence, and a lack of vision.
One of the things the interstate created was easy access corridors into cities. Developers realized they could build developments along the interstate, where land was cheap to buy compared to being in town, and bill it as a place where you could live out of the city yet still commute to work, and you got your own house to boot. Does the American dream not include owning your own castle, or at least a small house? Thus, the flight to the suburbs began. Downtowns often suffered because were under served by the new interstates, and one no longer had to be downtown to be close to everything. Today, the problem faced by many American cities is that of urban renewal — how to breathe life into their ignored and dilapidated cores.
As many areas continued to develop, the interstate became the backbone to a line of suburbs. In some areas, this is so prevalent that the whole string of suburbs is known by the interstate number. Consider, for example, the I-15 corridor in Utah that runs from Ogden, past Salt Lake City, and south to Provo, sometimes referred to as the Wasatch Front. Today, that 80 miles (130 km) of interstate is boarded on both sides by suburbs, and is home to some 2 million people. When you have one road, even if it is six or eight lanes wide, as the commuting road of choice for that many people, you quickly run into capacity issues.
As bulk of funding for the interstate comes from the federal government, there has been no necessity to develop a source of sustainable local funding for interregional infrastructure in many places. Furthermore, the suburbs surrounding many American cities have never developed a sustainable regional development plan, with the money and political will to give it teeth. Thus, the interstate becomes the only freeway around, and the only regional high capacity road. The short commute that once was a selling feature of the suburbs has become longer and longer, and there are few ways to get around it.
When the interstate system was developed in the late 1950’s, it represented a pronouncement of the bias that American cities have to roads and personal automobiles. The “American love affair with the automobile” is very real, and so this is understandable, but other modes (methods) of transportation have suffered as a result. Railroads have been resigned to second class, as more and more families could afford a car, and more and more freight is moved by truck and passenger rail almost entirely disappeared. In the industry, this has afforded retailers greater control over their inventory, and has evolved into “just-in-time” inventory systems, which have reduced costs for businesses, as they no longer need a large regional warehouse. A high precision form of this operating model a large part of the genius behind Wal-Mart and their ability to offer such low prices.
However, as traffic volumes have grown, the interstates have become increasing congested and the ability for trucks to move efficient through many cities is gone. Railways are experiencing a renaissance in some areas, aided by the introduction of intermodal freight containers, but many spurs find themselves either abandoned or in sad repair. Public transportation in many American cities is in sad shape, or simply non-existent, with New York City being a notable exception. Most European cities have impressive public transportation systems, especially compared to their American counterparts, but one of the big factors in favour of the Europeans is density. Most American suburbs are, by definition, low-density housing. Low-density simply does not support the critical mass needed to bring efficient public transportation, and thus many American suburbs are lucky to get a city bus route.
A Vision; What Future?
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
— Albert Einstein
All is not doom and gloom; rather the first step in improving any system is to recognize the problems in the current implementation. The interstate is an important element of the economic backbone of the United States of American, and will continue to be useful for many years to come; I, for one, do not see Americans giving up their automobiles any time soon. Yet there are problems before us, and they will not go away on their own. What is required is someone to look beyond the current mindset, and bring us a vision like the one that brought us the interstate system some fifty years ago. Is commuter rail the answer? High-density suburbs? Downtown residential? I think each of these, and several others have a place, but none of them alone will prove a solve-all solution. In short, we need a paradigm shift in how we view, organize, fund, and run transportation in America. Transportation, and cities in general, need to be built for people, and no longer for cars. If someone can offer us such a vision, and the courage to act on it, the generation yet to come of age will thank us from many, many years in the future.