Wherever they’re built, new highways disrupt currently existing patterns, both of nature and human society. This is especially true in urban center because of the density of population, value of existing properties, and complexity of the infrastructure.
Recognizing this fact, Earl Swift (photo on the left) entitles the last section of his book “The Human Obstacle.” Although he describes the nationwide challenge of routing freeways through cities, he uses Baltimore as his principal example of inevitable conflict with many innocent people bearing the burden.
Regardless of the benefits that urban freeways bring to a city as a whole, these massive thoroughfares carry a heavy human price. It is not at all clear in Baltimore or any of the other cities discussed in The Big Roads that the benefits equal or outweigh the negatives.
Every time I drive along I-5 through Vancouver and Portland, I brood over this dilemma. And I find myself inclined to abandon this vehicular sewer (except for the interstate bridges over the Columbia River, which are the only way to get across) in favor of the old arterials: Interstate Avenue (once U. S. 99W) and Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard (U.S. 99E).
As he concludes his book, Swift offers additional observations to my dark meditations. One of them is the fact that this largest public work in American history is rapidly falling apart because of heavy use and old age. Just one aspect of the problem is that most bridges in the freeway system are less than a decade away from reaching their expected useful life of fifty years.
Swift cites estimates that it will take $225 billion a year for fifty years to renew the freeway system—and this at a time when for several reasons the revenue base is shrinking.
Throughout his book, Swift describes the way that these new highways cause old travel-oriented, once-thriving local communities to dry up. America is littered with the ghosts of these places of human habitation whose lifeblood the freeways have sucked up.
What do we get in return? Faster travel times and lower accident rates, both desirable factors. But we also get a uniform and bland experience in sameness. Travelers can get on the freeway in Connecticut and get off in California and nothing changes—the same gas stations, motels, and restaurants serve us all along the way.
“The interstates,” Swift tells us, “take a distillation of the broad American culture—a one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator reading of who we are and what we want—wherever they go.”
The pressures upon the freeway system actually make it possible to believe that segments of it may actually be abandoned, leaving the nation with a massive white elephant. More hopeful is the possibility that we will become more inventive in coming years with respect to transportation policy, highway design, and public financing.
It’s likely to be a long wait. In the meantime, I’m going to revel in the old ways, cycling through town and country on humankind’s “most benevolent of machines.”