Misplaced nostalgia in Cars for the pre-Interstate days

On a recent rewatching of the Pixar film Cars, I was reminded of something that bothered me at my first viewing soon after the movie came out in theaters. Here is the issue: one of the key points of the plot is that the small town of Radiator Springs suffered when Interstate 40 opened nearby. But, the film makes clear that the issue is the interstate, not driving in general.

This movie celebrates driving. The main character, Lighting McQueen, is an ascendent race car and he needs to rediscover his love of the road. He does this after getting stuck in Radiator Springs. The combination of relationships, the lanscape, and a reorganizing of priorities helps him see that driving should be fun and relaxed, not just about winning and being brash.

The Interstate represents all that is bad. McQueen gets into trouble when he is accidentally dumped off on the side of the Interstate and gets lost. Radiator Springs is just a shell of itself because all the traffic that used to come through town now just whizzes by on the Interstate. Route 66, the road of quirky local establishments, small towns, and vistas, gives way to the straight and multi-lane highway where people just want to go as fast as they can to get to the real destinations.

The movie says everything went wrong with the Interstate. Its emphasis on efficiency came at the cost of communities. It left places behind; not just urban neighborhoods where new highways bulldozed homes and establishments but also small towns in the middle of the desert. McQueen would have left it behind too if he wasn’t forced to stay.

Is the real problem the Interstate or an American way of life built around driving? Sure, the Interstate promotes faster driving but cars themselves promote a different kind of life, one lived at faster speeds. Small towns can force people to look a little more closely with reduced speed limits and speed traps. But, they cannot force them to stop or to care or not just stop at a fast food joint and filling station and get back to the road quickly.

Once Americans had cars in large numbers, they wanted to go places. The open road offered opportunities. Some will want to drive and take their time. Some will want to get places as quickly as possible. Others just need to get from Point A and Point B to do what they need to do on a daily basis. Some of the car commercials I see today make me laugh as they try to say that a sportier exterior or 50 more horsepower transform the daily commute; how many people today really love driving?

Or, how many Americans really like small towns? They may hold it out as an ideal but the population shifts in the last century – both shaped and echoed by the Interstates – have been to metropolitan areas, particularly suburbs. Radiator Springs might be nostalgic and an interesting place to visit. But, it is not the place many would choose as they prefer other amenities including the jobs present across metropolitan regions.

All together, Radiator Springs and its ilk would not likely spring back to life just because the Interstate disappears. Indeed, it is revived in part by the end of the movie because people can get to it via the Interstate and they are drawn initially by the celebrity of Lightning McQueen. Now, Radiator Springs can be a tourist destination and some residents may even rue the day when new residents want to move in and new development threatens what the community once was. Here, cars are both the problem and the answer and without a broader discussion about cars and driving, Americans may just be stuck between wanting places like Radiator Springs to survive and the need to drive quickly to the next opportunity in life.

Argument: solve Interstate issues by handing them back to the states

One writer suggests it is time for the federal government to get out of the business of funding interstate highways:

Assuming time travel is off the table, let’s learn from our mistakes. First, let’s get the federal government completely out of the business of maintaining the interstate highways crisscrossing our big metropolitan areas. Hand these roads over to state governments as soon as possible, and free state governments to finance these roads in any way they see fit, from higher state gas taxes to variable tolls they could use to reduce traffic congestion. Second, for interstate highways that connect cities across deserts and cornfields, let’s replace the federal gasoline tax with per-mile tolls. One of the many problems with the gas tax is that as gas mileage improves, and as a small but growing number of drivers turn to electric vehicles, gas tax revenue is not keeping up with the needs of the highway system. Per-mile tolls can solve that problem by charging drivers according to how much they actually use the highway system, regardless of the kind of vehicle they’re driving. And as Robert W. Poole Jr. explains, they can be pegged to the cost of each road and bridge, which will help ensure that roads and bridges are adequately financed.

After adopting this approach, we will see states investing in the infrastructure projects that best meet their needs, with some states, like California and New York, choosing to invest more heavily in urban mass transit while others, like Texas and Utah, build bigger and better highways. What remains of the federal highway system, meanwhile, will evolve over time, as the routes that attract the most traffic will grow in line with their per-mile toll revenue while those that attract the least will stay the same size, or perhaps even shrink. We’ll have an infrastructure worthy of a bigger, denser, more decentralized America—the kind of infrastructure that Ike, in his infinite wisdom, would be proud of.

An interesting argument that might have appeal for both liberals and conservatives. For conservatives, having more local control is generally good and states could innovate in a way that a larger bureaucracy might not. (At the same time, corporate interests cross state and national lines and they might not like a decentralized highway network.) For liberals, highways have often been used in redevelopment projects harming poorer neighborhoods and state control would theoretically give neighborhoods and communities more say over the fate of highways. Additionally, interstates encourage sprawl and liberals might want to reign in highway building and maintenance in many places.

I could also imagine several objections to this argument:

1. How many states would be willing to take this on right now given budget issues? This would have to be phased in over time. Which government officials want to take responsibility for raising tolls for driving?

2. Uniformity in the system could be a good thing ranging from common road signs to expectations regarding levels of maintenance and service across states.

New bill would allow states to turn interstates into toll roads

With funding for highway repairs harder to find, the new transportation bill from the White House would give states more room to add tolls to interstates:

With pressure mounting to avert a transportation funding crisis this summer, the Obama administration Tuesday opened the door for states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs.

The proposal, contained in a four-year, $302 billion White House transportation bill, would reverse a long-standing federal prohibition on most interstate tolling…

“We believe that this is an area where the states have to make their own decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We want to open the aperture, if you will, to allow more states to choose to make broader use of tolling, to have that option available.”…

Foxx said the highway trust fund would face a $63 billion shortfall over the next four years.

One expert suggests otherwise in this story but I imagine there are a lot of drivers who will not like this. Yet, roads are not free; they are a public service that have to be paid for. And the all-around costs of driving are not cheap: gas, insurance, car repairs, car purchases, road construction and maintenance, and then the host of other industries and business that exists on top of an automobile-driven culture.

While there will be a lot of debate over how roads can be funded (raising the gas tax which hasn’t changed since 1993, finding new revenue sources for roads like corporate taxes, or charging drivers per mile driven), this all hints at a larger issue: driving in America could change quite a bit in the coming decades. Some of the impetus is economic; who is going to pay for these roads which are expensive to maintain and repair? Some of the impetus is on the technology side: driverless cars may not be that far away since such vehicles could be much safer and more efficient on the road and other innovations could make cars and roads more efficient. Some of it may be cultural: Americans may be interested in driving less and living in sorts of places that require fewer individual trips by car. Some of it is environmental: improving the efficiency of cars and advocating for development that limits single-person car trips. This doesn’t mean the car will disappear from American life; it is an engrained part of American culture. Yet, how Americans view cars and driving might look different several decades from now.

Interstate highways are not intended to be military airfields in times of crisis

This story about a plane landing on a North Carolina highway reminded me of a myth about the U.S. Interstate system: the idea that they could be used by military aircraft in times of crisis.

Numerous folks swear Interstate highways in the United States must be designed so that one mile in every five is perfectly straight and flat. According to this whispered bit of facetious lore, if the U.S. ever comes under attack, those straight, flat stretches will be used as landing strips.

Belief in this crazy idea should fail anyone’s logic test. It makes no sense to render inoperable the Interstate highway system during times of domestic crisis — moving troops and supplies on the ground would be too important an activity to curtail just to land planes. The U.S. is riddled with any number of small, private airfields that could be pressed into service if the need arose, with that need being dependent on some foreign power having first knocked out an almost uncountable number of major airports plus those airstrips on military bases, not to mention the American fleet of aircraft carriers. Folks who commit to believing this crazy notion of highways doubling by design as airstrips are letting the romance of a “cool fact” blind them to what their common sense should be blinking at them in bright neon letters.

Richard Weingroff, information liaison specialist for the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Infrastructure and the FHA’s unofficial historian, says the closest any of this came to touching base with reality was in 1944, when Congress briefly considered the possibility of including funding for emergency landing strips in the Federal Highway-Aid Act (the law that authorized designation of a “National System of Interstate Highways”). At no point was the idea kited of using highways or other roads to land planes on; the proposed landing strips would have been built alongside major highways, with the highways serving to handle ground transportation access to and from these strips. The proposal was quickly dropped, and no more was ever heard of it. (A few countries do use some of their roads as military air strips, however.)

Some references to the one-mile-in-five assertion claim it’s part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This piece of legislation committed the federal government to build what became the 42,800-mile Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, which makes it the logical item to cite concerning regulations about how the interstate highway system was to be laid out. The act did not, however, contain any “one-in-five” requirement, nor did it even suggest the use of stretches of the interstate system as emergency landing strips. The one-out-of-five rule was not part of any later legislation either.

This myth could be countered without suggesting that this is such a crazy idea. Small, private airfields would not likely have the length for modern jets nor be able to stand the weight of larger aircraft, particularly bombers. Additionally, the federal government spent large sums of money on interstate highways; wouldn’t they have wanted to get more out of their outlay?

Another way to counter this myth would be to make a larger argument that yes, Americans considered driving so important that the government was willing to subsidize the construction of interstates. In other words, the highways are more about our love for and reliance on cars and trucks than a nefarious Eisenhowerian plan benefiting the military-industrial complex.

The Federal Highway Administration has an official myth-busting page. Here is their answer to two questions of whether interstates were built with defense purposes in mind:

President Eisenhower supported the Interstate System because he wanted a way of evacuating cities if the United States was attacked by an atomic bomb.

President Eisenhower’s support was based largely on civilian needs—support for economic development, improved highway safety, and congestion relief, as well as reduction of motor vehicle-related lawsuits.  He understood the military value of the Interstate System, as well as its use in evacuations, but they were only part of the reason for his support.

Defense was the primary reason for the Interstate System.

The primary justifications for the Interstate System were civilian in nature.  In the midst of the Cold War, the Department of Defense supported the Interstate System and Congress added the words “and Defense” to its official name in 1956 (“National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”).  However, the program was so popular for its civilian benefits that the legislation would have passed even if defense had not been a factor.

Interesting that the federal government hosts such a page…

Further details on proposed Illinois toll hike; Illinois tolls rather low

The Chicago Tribune reports today that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority wants to raise toll rates in order to raise money for several new projects, including a reconstruction of I-90 (the Jane Addams), adding an interchange between I-294 and I-57 (one of the few places in the US where two interstates do not have an interchange), extending the Elgin-O’Hare, and undertaking several studies for possible new roads (extending Route 53, the Illiana Expressway).

But there is more to this story. While the Authority wants money to undertake these projects, there is another defense for raising rates: Illinois toll rates are lower than other states.

The council urged that tolls on the existing tollway system be raised to levels “consistent with national averages” to generate revenue for the EOWB [Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass]. Currently, Illinois Tollway users pay the equivalent of 3 cents per mile, while the national average is 7 cents per mile, officials say. Using that model could result in a systemwide doubling of the current rate, to 80 cents from 40 cents for passenger vehicles using I-PASS, and to $1.60 from 80 cents for cash customers…

The report also said tolls on the EOWB itself should be “consistent with the level of other new toll projects nationwide,” or about 20 cents a mile. This suggests that tolls on the new highway could be as much as seven times the current rate, or $2.80 for passenger vehicles using I-PASS and $5.60 for cash customers…

In addition, the council’s report recommends that future toll increases be indexed to inflation. The last time the tollway hiked car tolls was 2005, but that was the cash rate. Cars with I-PASS pay the same rate as they did in 1983, the tollway says…
The report also urges consideration of so-called congestion pricing strategies, in which vehicles pay higher tolls during peak hours or for express lanes; extending the tollway’s bond maturity term up to 40 years; and giving further study to tolling adjacent freeways. That could mean imposing tolls on I-290.

I’m guessing Chicago area residents will not like this as it makes driving more expensive (particularly with the price of gas) and there will general grumbling about how the tolls were supposed to disappear at some point. But, roads have to be paid for somehow and whether motorists pay through tolls or gas taxes, they will pay for the privilege of using roads. If anything, perhaps Chicago area residents should be surprised that tolls have stayed so low when other states have raised them. Since we can probably assume that the cost of road building has gone up like everything else, it sounds like tolls should increase.

If there is a larger issue to be concerned about, we could ask about the planning undertaken by the state. A road like the Illiana Expressway has been discussed for decades and waiting this long to undergo a major study and then go through with the construction will cost more now than it would have years ago. The Elgin-O’Hare has been a running joke for a while. Additionally, it would be interesting to see how close or far planners were in estimating the number of vehicles that would use the highways each day. The early expressways in the area, I-294 and I-290 are two examples, have seen much more traffic than was initially anticipated, driving up costs. Overall, more foresight could have saved money.

The history of the American Interstate before President Eisenhower

An excerpt from a new book, The Big Roads by Earl Swift, suggests the link between President Dwight Eisenhower and the American Interstate System is limited as the plans had been laid during the FDR administration and Eisenhower simply helped put together the Federal financing.

There is little doubt that the Interstate Act of 1956 was important as the Federal government promised a large percentage of the funding for new roads that would connect metropolitan areas. But students of American highways already know that highway planning and construction had already taken place before Eisenhower signed this bill:

-The Long Island Motor Parkway was a private highway opened in 1908 and later transferred to the State of New York.

-Robert Moses is renowned for his efforts to introduce highways to the New York City area.

-The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built across the state (with the first part opening in 1940) and other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, built roads to connect to this.

-In the Chicago area, highway planning had begun in the 1930s and several of the major highways, including the Congress Expressway (now I-290), the East-West Tollway (now I-88),  and the Tri-State Tollway (now I-294), were primarily built by the state and completed before 1960.

-There was a motorways commission formed in 1930 that that produced a framework for American highways.

Regarding highways, there was a lot that took place before Eisenhower became President and I may have to check out this book to see how it tells this story.

The important step taken toward American interstates on May 7, 1930

I am a few days behind in celebrating anniversaries in American transportation history but this post from The Infrastructurist highlights an important highway commission that was founded on May 7, 1930:

This past Saturday marked a little-known anniversary in the long-running contest between American highway and train establishments. On May 7, 1930, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to form the United States Motorways Commission, a twelve-person group — two Senators, two Congressmen, and eight presidential appointees — whose job was to consider a proposal for a national road network strikingly similar to the Interstate Highway System that emerged decades later.

The concept of a truly national road system was, at this point in American history, truly novel. The particular idea to be considered by the motorways commission sprang from the mercurial mind of an engineer named Lester Barlow. The Union Highway, as Barlow first called his system, would be a four-track expressway stretching from Boston to San Francisco. It would have fast lanes and slow lanes, access ramps to eliminate grade crossings, a partition between traffic flows to prevent U-turns, special sections devoted to gas stations and food stands — in short, all the definitive markers of expressways as we know them…

All seemed to be going well after the Senate voted to create the motorways commission on May 7, 1930. Then suddenly the legislation ran into problems. The House of Representatives trapped its version of the bill in a committee, and New York lawmakers did the same. Attempts to revive the plan in subsequent sessions, both federal and local, failed again and again, until the idea faded away.

Tilson later revealed to Barlow the real reason for legislative inaction on the proposal for a national highway system: it had been blocked by the mighty railroad lobby, which feared the loss of passengers and freight to road travel. This reason was confirmed to Barlow at a gathering of New Haven Railroad officials in the fall of 1930. As Barlow later recalled, John J. Pelley, then president of the New Haven, told those in attendance that a poor highway system was in the railroad’s best interest, and that it should do whatever it “practically” could to prevent the development of expressways in America.

This is an important story as it sounds like this commission laid the framework for the Federal Interstate system that began in the mid 1950s. As sociologists, historians, and others would tell you, this Federal shift toward highway construction had a profound impact on suburban development after World War II.

It would be interesting to hear more about the gap between this commission and the Federal Interstate Act of 1956. Of course, there was a Depression and a massive war. But during this time period, a number of government agencies started planning and building roads. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built in this gap and the states of Ohio and Indiana started constructing connections to this Turnpike. In the Chicago region, a number of highways were under construction by the mid 1950s as the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago recognized the need for such roads. Beyond historical circumstances, was it primarily the railroad lobby that held up Federal support of interstate construction prior to 1956? If so, what was the state of the railroad industry in 1956 and was the Federal government actually behind the times in funding the Interstate system?

The diverging diamond interchange

American interchanges can take many forms – see this field guide to highway interchanges from The Infrastructurist – including one called “the diverging diamond.” The goal is to provide better traffic flow from a road onto a highway through switching the lanes of traffic through the interchange area. That is, traffic entering on the right side of the road are then driving on the left through the interchange and vice versa.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials are considering this design, primarily being touted by Missouri officials, for an interchange in Naperville. See the design here and the background to the interchange here.

54 years ago: Federal interstates are born

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This legislation, though immediately about infrastructure, had a tremendous impact on American life. Many of the interstate highways of today were built with this money.

These roads have produced a number of changes:

-Suburbanization. People could now easily travel from suburbs to the city center. By the 1960s, many businesses were also locating headquarters along suburban highway exits.

-The American love of the car. This already existed before Federal Interstates but it was enhanced by these well-maintained roads. Now, the average American could drive farther and more safely. From this point on, money for public transportation would always be limited compared to funds for roads.

-Shipping. Many goods today are carried by trucks. Cheap roads coupled with cheap gasoline helps keep Wal-Marts and McDonald’s stocked and cheap.

-Urban renewal. A number of big city neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for new highways. Recently, some cities have reversed these trends by removing highways and establishing parks and public spaces. Two notable and beautiful examples: the Big Dig in Boston and the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

-Aesthetics. Many of these roads are about brute efficiency: moving the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. To many, these highways scar the landscape. But they can often take on a beauty of their own, particularly in complicated interchanges.

-Small town life all but disappeared. With the rise of suburbs and highways rerouting traffic around small communities, rural populations dwindled.

-A fast-food approach to life. Not only does food have to be obtained quickly so one can get back on the road, signs need to be larger to be legible at 65 MPH, cars need to be larger to survive the occasional highway accident, travelers need built-in DVD players to be entertained, and so on.

Prior to the signing of this act, local governments and states had begun to cobble together a highway system. The City of Chicago had been planning for a local highway system for years but did not begin construction until after World War II. Pennsylvania had a turnpike (now I-76) and Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois had started roads that would create an interstate toll road. Robert Moses had begun a system in New York City.

But this law helped build and codify a system that is still going strong today.