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Friday, March 10, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant
Cc: Voice of San Diego
Dear President Eisenhower:
We haven’t met, but I must begin by thanking you. Because of the massive interstate highway system that you fathered, I was able to drive from downtown San Diego to my university in the suburbs in under fifteen minutes this morning!
That’s quite a luxury for a snooze-button junkie like me (do you know about snooze buttons?)
I have no doubt that, had you lived to see 2006, you would totally dig the amazingly comfortable and convenient transportation your interstate highway system brought to the United States. Those endless ribbons of straight, smooth pavement really making steering with one hand easy, which is good because these days we have lots of other devices to manipulate while driving.
And it’s pretty cool that I could hop on the onramp down the street from where I live and drive straight until I reached Chicago, Mexico or even Washington – especially now that our society has ascended to the stately luxury of drive-thru Starbucks. You do like coffee, don’t you?
But Ike, what I really wanted to talk to you about is the other side of the transportation revolution that your $25 billion Interstate Highway Act kicked off. The massive construction of freeways had an incredible, unforeseeable effect on not only the American landscape, but on American culture and politics as well.
In 2006, it’s pretty much impossible for most Americans to think of getting around any other way – because we basically can’t get around our cities any other way. While you may have thought interstates would be important for national security, most of us today use them to get to work. That should be good – and for some of us it really is – but unfortunately, the freeways have also harmed American cities in a few ways.
I know people told you that they’d provide excellent access to downtown, helping to revitalize struggling urban centers and clear slum areas. Part of this is true: like I said earlier, it’s just a quick burn to get from downtown San Diego even to the far-flung hamlet of La Jolla.
Those other benefits, though, didn’t quite materialize. Rather than making it easier for people to go to urban centers, through most of the 20th century people used freeways to get away from them. Developers built housing developments huge distances from urban centers, and many people moved there and used the freeways just to go back and forth to work.
Since developers knew that the new suburbanites had to have a car to get to work, they didn’t plan the new neighborhoods for people to easily walk in. As time went on, these outlying residential centers became cities themselves – and since everyone who lived there had a car, the planning of the towns was nonexistent. Instead of worrying about where exactly we built a shopping center or an office park, we just built a road to it and let people figure out how to get there themselves.
Meanwhile, when all the wealthier people moved to the suburbs, American cities staggered and fell into a trap. While the highways were supposed to clear slums, they really just helped them along. See, poorer neighborhoods usually provided the cheapest rights of way, so that’s where the freeways were built. Rather than clear, or enhance them, the freeways cut a huge line right through the middle, making them less appealing aesthetically and economically.
Where I live, San Diego, the story of freeway construction is rather sad. The city used to have an old-fashioned community of Italian-Americans along the waterfront that thrived on the tuna-fishing trade. But when they put Interstate 5 through the middle of the neighborhood, something about Little Italy died.
Other interstates in the area did the same thing to ethnic neighborhoods. When they cut I-805 through the eastern side of San Diego, they had to divide up some of the city’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. Nowadays the communities float like islands in between the snakes of concrete – they may technically be the same city or neighborhood, but they sure don’t feel like it.
Remember, Ike, that when you gave California money for interstates, you left it up to us to plan where they would go. Nobody ever asked the residents of the now-divided neighborhoods how they felt about a freeway. The state just hired a powerful engineer and let him figure out the most cost-effective route. If it went through someone’s bedroom, that was just too bad.
You didn’t get to see it, but eventually that early coarseness bit your freeway program in the butt. After a few vibrant communities around the country were irreparably severed, people started getting angry.
They called it a “freeway revolt” – neighborhoods like San Ysidro in San Diego told the state that they didn’t want the freeway that had been planned decades earlier. Residents asked to move it somewhere else, but by the time governments had figured out that they had to listen to everyone, it was usually already too late. The cities got their freeways, whether they had a better suggestion or not.
Of course, everybody has to make some sacrifice for useful public infrastructure like freeways. The freeway revolt just helped governments realize that there were a lot more factors to consider in the planning of freeways than people thought in your day.
Now, though, our problems with the freeway are much larger than single neighborhoods. Over the half-century that’s passed since you died, people have to come to rely on freeways for essential, day-to-day transportation. Unplanned cities have sprung up in places you never would have believed – but they’re always along the freeway. Since you have to own a car to use the freeway (and thus to get anywhere), we just build roads and let cities pop up around them however they feel like.
Consequently, it’s more or less impossible to get anywhere without a car. Your highway program pretty much killed public interest in streetcars and other mass transit – though, to be fair, you didn’t think of transit as a public good in your day – and buses are subject to the same circuitous routes and heinous traffic our cars are.
Since cars became the standard form of transportation, we’ve become addicted to the oil that fuels them, which flows out of countries whose ideals we Americans don’t really agree with. Also, the tailpipe emissions from automobiles have compounded to a significance you never would have believed (indeed, a few people today still refuse to believe it.) Scientists tell us that because of gases that come out our cars, planet Earth is getting warmer – changing the climate, melting the icecaps and intensifying the effect and frequency of storms to a frightening degree.
So, Ike, while the convenience of your freeway system is essential to our lives these days, we’ve got some pretty big problems to deal with as a result of it – problems you never would have believed back in 1956.
Despite those difficulties, I have to thank you for summoning the vision to invest in massive public infrastructure. Politicians these days just don’t have the same foresight – even though their problems are on a planet-wide scale.
Your freeways changed our lives in the twentieth century. What we need today is someone of your vision to change our lives again.
The Municipal Itinerant
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