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Correcting the Post-Dispatch on Interstates

June 26, 2006 Planning & Design, Suburban Sprawl, Transportation 11 Comments

Thursday marks the 50th Anniversary of the US highway system. Newspapers and television reports are all a flutter with how great highways have been. True, being able to get to California in a few days rather than weeks is a good thing. But, our highway system encouraged sprawl and ravaged our cities. We are sill paying for these mistakes today.

The main focus of a Post-Dispatch article from this weekend was which state could lay claim to being the first to have a new interstate highway following the passage of the authorization act in 1956. Basically Missouri let the first contract, Kansas opened the first section and Pennsylvania had a divided highway that became the model for our interstates. Thomas Gubbels, a MoDOT historian in Jefferson City, was quoted in the article as saying,

“Arguing over which state is first isn’t as important as the fact that interstates benefited everyone: all Missourians, all Kansans, everyone throughout the country.”

Everyone? Well, not exactly. Still, it doesn’t surprise me the MoDOT historian would turn a blind eye to the victims of the highway projects. First, we have all the people that lost their property through eminent domain. Their families were uprooted, their businesses relocated, their neighborhoods ripped apart. Massive quantities of the population in all our cities were disrupted for highway construction and slum clearance. Cities are great at managing natural change and evolution but this scale was simply too much.

I did learn something new in the article about Eisenhower’s plan for the highway, a distinction between a failed 1955 plan and the adopted plan of 1956:

The Clay Committee report, “A 10-Year National Highway Program,” suggested the project be paid for with bonds. Congress nixed the approach, and the president’s plan died in July 1955.

Eisenhower, though, was as driven as a Honda on the New Jersey turnpike. He campaigned for interstates the following year. Only this time, it included the addition of urban interstates and a new tax-based financing plan with the federal government picking up most of the construction costs. Congress went for it.

For a good 20 years prior to the passing of the highway act, officials debated by-passing cities or going through the dense core. Many references were made at the time how Germany’s Autobahn by-passed their major urban centers. Sadly, it was felt our cities needed to have interstate highways to help them get workers to the employment centers (keeping people working was a key issue during the depression era). In reality highways were a major contributing factor to the dismantling of cities. If the interstates had by-passed our cities development still would have left the center for the new outer areas but at least we would not have sliced through our effective street grid and destroyed so many homes, businesses, churches and schools in the process. Highways through cities were seen as an important adjunct to the slum clearance programs gaining traction as early as the 1930’s.

Earlier federal road programs helped create jobs during the depression. Still, these roads paled in comparison to the scale envisioned by the 1956 Act. Had congress approved original financing in 1955 without urban interstates our cities might have turned out quite different.

The Post-Dispatch included a short myth & fact section. The myth is shown in italics:

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

Eisenhower’s support was based largely on economic development and safety. Still, the system can evacuate people fast and efficiently.

Fast & efficient? I’m guessing the reporter missed the footage of people trying to evacuate Houston last fall. Interstates have led to more cars which led to more congestion which calls for more highways and so on. It is a never ending cycle. We know this yet we continue to feed the highway beast. Our highways cannot handle rush hour much less evacuating our urban areas.

And yes, defense was a big part of the original plan, the system is called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Defense highways! I guess you had to be there to fully understand the fear during the cold war.

When I take the interstate back to Oklahoma to visit family or up to Chicago for a fun weekend I am thankful for their existence. As I see them snake their way through once dense and thriving neighborhoods I get a feeling of sickness and anger. The interstate system could have avoided going through the middle of our old and established cities. The planners of the day hated cities and deliberately wanted to alter them in a big way. the interconnected street grid, so beloved by old & new urbanists, was viewed as archaic. They envisioned remaking cities around the automobile.

They succeeded alright, nearly every major city in North America followed the status quo and sought to remake themselves so they would easily accommodate the car. This plus the many urban renewal projects were intended to bring new life to cities by making them, well, no longer cities as the world had known them to be up to that point.

Our city’s Zoning, from the 1947 Comprehensive City Plan, is a relic of the time when society hated true urban cities yet it is still our model nearly 60 years later. Only time will tell if we have the wisdom and will power to undo the mistakes of the past. So much work remains to be done.

– Steve

Further Reading: Highway History from the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    The fifties were a different time and place. While you may not agree with the concept of needing interstates to get people downtown, at the time it made a lot of sense. Post WW II was the time of great growth in the single-occupant vehicle (and a time of great decline in public transit systems). Given the choice of driving one’s self or taking public transportation, the growing numbers of people who could afford to “voted with their feet (actually their butts) and bought into suburban shopping centers, suburban factories, suburban office “parks” and suburban tract housing. If the freeways had not gone downtown (along with those two other urban design sins, urban “renewal” and surface parking and parking garages), our downtowns would have suffered even greater declines than actually happened! The only reason many of our treasured architectural icons survived the fifties and sixties was either a company being able to stay downtown (because of freeways) or through simple benign neglect.

    Hindsight is truly 20/20. What makes little sense in retrospect, made a lot of sense when it was happening. We should learn from our mistakes, but to villify people for making them isn’t quite fair, either. Pruitt-Igoe had some good thinking behind it, but was poorly implemented and discredited and dismantled in the long haul. New Urbanism is one of the poster children of contemporary urban design. Whether it comes through on its predictions for idyllic living will only be proven over time – in the short term it seems to be a great way to make money in real estate, but will it be sustainable as the new greenfield sites (like New Town St. Charles) age and their demographics change?

    Bottom line, it’s both easy and a cliche to “kick” the decisions of previous generations. The interstate highway system is no more evil than Wal-Mart. They both suck from a purist design standpoint, but they also deliver on what they promise . . .

    [REPLY Much debate went into whether to by-pass or go through the city, it was not a concensus. They looked at Germany and how they didn’t go through the cities — a good model was possible. Much of this debate happened in the 1930s — twenty years prior to the time you are talking about.

    I completely disagree that our downtowns and cities would have fared worse if the highways had simply by-passed the city center. Widened roads such as Natural Bridge & Jefferson could still bring in suburban families. The highways disrupted so much of life in the city, that cannot be discounted.

    We are not learning from past mistakes which is why I and others must continue to remind people what happened and to offer the other perspective that is brushed under the rug. The highway building forces are still hard at work pushing for more money and selling society on the dream of no traffic congestion. We are not learning. – SLP]

  2. Jon says:

    I disagree that our cities would have been clearly better off had the highways bipassed the core. It is important to remember that while many homes and businesses would not have been taken, for the same reason that an intersection like 40 and 270 is a prime location, almost any intersection between an urban ring road (which would likely have been built to funnel all of the urban traffic out) and a tangential system of major interstates glancing off the edges of our major cities would still remain desiareable. Moreover, with the densit in the city, it may have been far easier to reach these locations than would have been possible for an interstate less central city.

    [REPLY Just as I cannot definatively say our cities would be better without interstates you or anyone else cannot definatively say cities turned out better with the interstates. It is entirely speculation on both sides.

    That having been said, we can look to cities in North America and abroad that chose not to cut through their cities with major highways. Again, circumstances are unique and we can’t be definative but I must say experiencing Vancouver the couple of times I’ve been there was a pleasure. The lack of highways in the central city did not seem to take away from their ability to conduct commerce and have a thriving business district. – SLP]

  3. Tom says:

    Any discussion of the Interstate systems should have included a recounting of the tremendous debate that went on in the region about I-44 cutting through the Hill and Webster Groves. Some of the players are still around and it would have been good to hear their perspective.

    The article also should have included a discussion of the impact of the publicly funded highways on the privately held other surface transportation modes such as the Public Service Company, Missouri Pacific RR, The Rock Island and other passenger rail companies.

  4. Tyson says:

    One of the most interesting parts of the article was where it mentioned how every 5th mile of the system had to be built in a straight line, so that it could double as a military aircraft landing-strip…it truly was a different time.

    And Jim, people may well have “voted with their butts”, but we can’t overlook the extent to which this supposedly free choice was underwritten by the federal government, distorting the free market. Federally backed mortgages were available to those who chose to live in single family dwellings in the suburbs, but not to anyone who wanted to invest in multi-family housing in the city. Of course, the only multi-family housing the government was interested in building were the “futuristic”, and segregated, high-rise projects like Pruitt-Igoe.

    The interstates should have bypassed dense urban cores, and federal help should have been given to city neighborhoods to help them rebuild and grow, instead of the wholesale clearance and dispersal that occurred. Sure, you can say hindsight is 20/20…but even after the first few mistakes were made slum clearance for highway building continued to occur in this country in a way not seen elsewhere. And it seems that in St. Louis and Missouri, hindsight is far from 20/20.

  5. Sam Snelling says:

    I think it is really unfair to compare the US with other much smaller countries like Germany. While I completely agree about the highways, and wish we had an intact street grid much like cities in Germany…the truth of the matter is that our country is in a completely different place, and have a different set up that Germany.

    We need to look at things on a case by case basis, instead of going with what works in other places. It’s the same reason why I get frustrated with people who talk about how St. Louis should try to do ‘x’ because it’s that way in Chicago.

    America is new, when compared to other European cities. The economic center of Germany isn’t going to move very far, if at all, because the city has been the same for a lot longer than the US cities.

    I’m not advocating highways by any means, I’m just pointing out that we are under a different set of circumstances. When the USA was building it’s highway system, it was probably in one of the greatest economic eras we’ve seen. Without the highways, we might have seen an even greater decimation of downtown economic centers. Sprawl has happened since then, because of our ability to finance low cost personal transportation to anywhere you want to go. From a common sense stand point, it’s clear. Doesn’t mean its right, but that’s what happened.

    We need to get to a point where our development can keep growing up, to prevent the growing out. But the fact is that our population is increasing at such rapid rates that it’s hard to curb it. Highways have facilitated a lifestyle that was very economically feasible for over 50 years. Now, it’s becoming less feasible to live in St. Peters or Lake St. Louis and work downtown.

    [REPLY It was our highest officials, including Ike, that looked to Germany for the highway vision. History shows US officials making such comparisons themselves in the 1930s when trying to decide what would work for the US.

    And without the highways we might have seen far less destruction. Some people still would have gone to the suburbs but had our federal loan policies allowed a GI to rehab one of those old houses in the “slums” he might have stayed in the old family neighborhood rather than buy that new place on the edge.

    Any one thing may not have made a huge difference. Taken as a whole it is very easy to see how we may have avoided much of our urban decay. – SLP]

  6. StL_Stadtroller says:

    “One of the most interesting parts of the article was where it mentioned how every 5th mile of the system had to be built in a straight line, so that it could double as a military aircraft landing-strip”

    This is an Urban Legend. And often-repaeted one (like water draining anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere), but an Urban Legend nonetheless.

    Did the Post really print that?? There are MANY refference sources to disprove that, but I shall only provide the most accessible to me at the moment:

    If they printed that, then I shall continue to only refer to them as the “Post-Disgrace” until they shape up! 😉

    [REPLY – They printed that is was part myth, that it was discussed to have landing strips adjacent to the highway but that it was quickly dropped. – SLP]

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    Life is full of choices. The federally-backed mortgages could (and can still) be used to buy “old” housing in the or a new tract home in the ‘burbs. Suburban housing gets built because there’s a market for it! I’m no fan of suburban sprawl – that’s why every home I’ve owned has been inside the city limits of Denver or St. Louis. Yes, the freeways make it easier for people to live further out since you can travel farther in the same amount of time. But that’s not the only reason suburban sprawl continues to gobble up farmland. Look around here – more people live AND work outside of the city than inside it. They live in Fenton and work in Clayton. They live in U City and work in St. Peters. Heck, they live in south city and work at Barnes!

    Downtown has become more and more irrelevent to more and more people. The only way to grow transit is to increase density. But without physical (and corresponding economic) constraints (as in Vancouver, San Francisco, NYC, Seattle, etc.), it will continue to be the preference of many people to support (by spending their hard-earned dollars) lower densities for many probably misguided reasons. We’re “preaching the choir” here, gang. We all want to see a more urban environment. But we need more-compelling reasons than “we’re right” or “we know what’s best (or better) for you”. Bottom line, money talks, followed by schools, followed by where the jobs are or are going.

    Slivers of the “old” city are bouncing back (loft district, CWE, Benton Park, etc.) partly because of the freeways, either beacuse the reverse commute ain’t so bad or because people are sick and tired of battling them. In addition, freeways add a sense of security, especially going through “the bad parts of town” that you just don’t get on surface streets like Natural Bridge.

    The freeways are here to stay, for better or for worse. The real challenge for government to throw money at won’t be the highways but the aging inner-ring suburbs that are facing the same challenges the core cities faced in the middle of the last century – aging population, aging infrastructure, no longer “cool”, and more competition from both the resurgent inner city and the new, outer edges of suburbia!

  8. Joe Frank says:

    The FHA was created by the Housing Act of 1934. To limit the government’s risk, the original regulations stipulated that only certain kinds of houses could get loans. While some ideas are certainly disputable, the fact is the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps that were color-coded, with the ‘least desireable’ areas colored red. Hence, the term ‘redlining.’

    Most areas colored red on such maps were African-American or ethnic minority areas, and lacked indoor plumbing and sanitary facilities. Those areas received almost no FHA loans.

    You pretty much had to have indoor plumbing to get an FHA loan. In the 1930s and 40s, that meant most loans went for new houses.

    Those regs were modified in the 1970s to comply with fair housing laws and the Community Reinvestment Act. But only in 1999 did the FHA up its maximum purchase price in the City of St. Louis; it had been, I think, $120,000 or so.

  9. Tyson says:

    Sam brings up an interesting point about the relative ages of central cities in Europe vs. America…perhaps if our historic cores were 400 years old instead of 80 when the highways were built, they may have been shown a little more respect. Luckily for Canada, they were able to see many of the mistakes that were made in the U.S. in the post-war period and halt many of their urban renewal schemes.

    Slivers of the old city may be bouncing back Jim, but I don’t think they would have to climb out of such a hole if it weren’t for the highways slicing and dicing them. And I don’t buy the argument that highways are justified because they make you feel safer going through bad neighborhoods, when I think the highway does so much to make the neighborhood an undesirable place to live in the first place.

    If interstates had bypassed central cities, sure some business would certainly still have relocated to the periphery to be near them. But without the free intra-urban highways to get people out there, I donÂ’t see how this wouldÂ’ve led to the kind of mass suburbanization we saw; certainly it wouldnÂ’t have been any worseÂ…and many neighborhoods would still be intact. With the money left over from not punching freeways through neighborhoods, money couldÂ’ve been put towards a workable mass-transit system.

    Some people might not have a taste for this second-guessing, but I think itÂ’s important to recognize what was a mistake and what wasnÂ’t, and what worked and what didnÂ’t, so the same thing doesnÂ’t happen again under a different guise..

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    And for some really interesting reading, check out Steve’s link to the 1947 Comprehensive City Plan . . . 900,000 residents by 1970, a need for 15 airports in the region and a major road bisecting Tower Grove Park, connecting Boyle on the north with Morganford on the south.

    And for a different twist on interstates and urban design, look at Los Angeles, the poster child for both interstates and urban sprawl . . . it’s also one of the most dense cities in the country (a goal of urban design), with more people per square mile than Chicago, Washington, Boston, etc., etc. And because of that, its public transit system is growing with effective light rail, heavy rail and multiple types of bus routes!

    Like I’ve said, freeways and Wal-Marts are a lot alike – crude but effective. As designers, we don’t want to admit that many people have little or no “good taste” and/or aren’t willing (or able) to pay a premium for better design. And yes, in nearly every case, better-looking design does cost more. Bottom line, is “good enough” good enough? Or should we keep pushing for “better” at the expense of doing nothing / living with already here (and overloaded and/or falling apart) / “closing the door” after I’ve moved in?

  11. john says:

    Autocentrism is alive and continues to grow in our area at great costs. Typically underappreciated (and even unrecognized) in urban planners’ formulas are noise, pollution, higher insurance rates, road rage, sirens from emergency vehicles, broken cities, too little space left for alternatives, etc.

    The highways were designed for many various goals. To learn more, including many myths, go to: Federal Highway AdministrationÂ’s Interstate 50 Anniversary Web site: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/homepage.cfm


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