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A feat of (social) engineering

 May 9, 2023 at 9:01 AM PDT

S1: Speed , safety and comfort will be the keynotes of tomorrow's highways. A multi-colored highway system may enable the motorist to reach his destination by following the correct color strip.

S2: This is from a 1958 episode of Disneyland , a TV show , not the theme park. The episode is called Magic Highway USA.

S1: Radiant Heat will keep the highway surfaces dry for rain.

S2: Ice and snow. It's got that classic Jetsons style animation typical of the mid-century. Technology was advancing rapidly , and Americans were imagining just how far the age of the automobile could take them. Some of the ideas in the show were not all that far off from what we have today , like video conferencing in cars or rearview cameras. But most of it is pretty silly , like giant escalators that carry your car over mountains.

S1: There will be miles of tubular highways. Air conditioned routes across hot desert wastelands.

S2: These ideas were not meant to be fantastical. They were a sincere prediction made by the experts of the day of how the freeways of the future would look. It's a beautiful reflection of the mid-century zeitgeist unbridled optimism. It ends with freeways bypassing the great Sphinx of Giza and other world landmarks before disappearing into the sunset.

S1: These giant arteries will link together all nations and help create a better understanding among the peoples of the world. It will be our magic carpet to new hopes , new dreams , and a better way of life for the future.

S2: It's been 65 years since this episode of Disneyland first aired. So how much have freeways improved our quality of life ? Americans are definitely more mobile. Our economy has grown immensely. A smaller percentage of the country lives in poverty , and all of that is thanks in part to the freeway. But in hindsight , it's easy to see the blind spots in Magic Highway USA. From KPBS in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit. In this series , we're looking at how our relationship with the freeway has changed over time and how it'll have to change in the future. We have more freeways now than ever before and they've never been more congested. Things like air pollution and noise appear nowhere in this film. Nor do the division and displacement that freeways inflicted on neighborhoods. And of course , climate change was not on the minds of 1958 America. But here we are today facing an existential crisis , and the decisions we make today about freeways will determine what kind of planet the next generation will inherit. More after the break. Stay with us. To help me understand how we came to invest so much in the freeway. Bruce , how are you ? Good. Good to see you. Good to see you , too. Thanks. Yeah. I turned to a freeway expert.

S3: I'm Bruce Appleyard. I'm an associate professor of city planning and urban design at San Diego State University. I focus on the intersection between transportation , housing and urban design.

S2: Bruce wears a silver beard and black horn rimmed glasses. If you live near SDSU , you might see him riding his e-bike to campus.

S4: I get a little.

S3: Exercise , but it's not a really arduous experience.

S2: And if you attend one of his classes , you'll learn a lot about the interstate highway system. And when talking about that system , it's easy to get lost in superlatives. It's considered the biggest and most expensive public works project in American history by a long shot. Here are a few more fun freeway facts. The amount of land the government seized for freeways would equal the size of Delaware. If you took all the concrete poured for the interstates , you could build a sidewalk the length of the earth to the moon five times. And this isn't even counting the thousands of miles of state highways that supplement the interstate system. Bruce says this project was more than just a feat of civil engineering. It was social engineering to.

S3: The reality is the building of the interstate highway system , the development of the suburbs , the movement towards auto ownership , are all part of a bigger social engineering experiment. Probably one of the biggest ones that this country has ever taken to move us towards automobile dependence. If I were to tell the story of the interstate highway system , the freeways and highways have been built , I would go to Eisenhower's experience in crossing the US with his battalion as a young lieutenant back in 1919.

S2: World War One had just ended eight months prior. And the importance of a good road network for military readiness had never been clearer. So the Army organized the transcontinental motor convoy. More than 80 vehicles and nearly 300 soldiers and officers departed Washington , DC on July 7th , 1919. They were headed for San Francisco , and the purpose wasn't to move people or equipment. It was to test the Army's mobility and to showcase to the country the sorry state of its roads.

S3: And it was a hard , hard trip. There was they got bogged down in the Great Salt Flats. They had trouble getting up and down the mountains. In some cases , they had to pull the trucks by hand through the mire.

S2: The trip took 62 days. Excluding rest periods , the convoy averaged just five miles per hour. Eisenhower's memoir has a chapter about this journey. It's called Through Darkest America with Truck and Tank.

S3: Basically , I think that really left an impression with him , probably scarred him to some extent about the need for better roads in this country.

S2: Eisenhower became president in 1953. It's not hard to imagine what was at the top of his list of priorities. The following year , he kicked off his campaign for a massive increase in federal highway spending. Here he is in a speech in Detroit in October 1954.

S5: We are pushing ahead with a great road program , a road program that will take this nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads all over this country and give us places. I give us the types of highways that we need for this great mass of what it is.

S2: Eisenhower's pitch worked. In 1956 , Congress passed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The law established the Federal Highway Trust Fund , which paid for 90% of a highway's construction costs. States had to cover only 10%. Perhaps it goes without saying , but public transit got no such subsidy. So the vision for the interstate highway system clearly had military motivations. Bruce says that's probably one reason why San Diego , with its enormous military presence , got so much freeway money. But Eisenhower's vision for the interstate system wasn't what we ended up with.

S3: I think he might be rolling over in his grave somewhat to see the level of suburbanization that was caused by the freeways , the number of commuters. I think he saw it more as a system to move freight , to move troops if necessary , but not something to be exploited for the personal gain of developers in the suburbs. And and also sort of the kind of concentrated melee that we see in suburban commuting.

S2: This isn't just Bruce's conjecture. Eisenhower said as much himself. In 1959 , three years into the building of the interstates , Eisenhower held a meeting with urban planners who were showing him their plans for Washington DC's freeway network. And like the plans for pretty much every major city in the country. The lines on the maps were drawn right through neighborhoods. People would be evicted , homes and businesses would be demolished. This was not what Eisenhower expected. He wanted the interstates to bypass the center of cities so you could still drive from San Diego to Seattle without ever once hitting a stoplight or a crosswalk. But the freeway would never take you right through downtown or any other densely populated neighborhoods. Others in the Eisenhower administration were also unhappy with the freeway program , but for a different reason. Money building freeways through cities was extraordinarily expensive. And remember , the federal government was covering 90% of the bill. So the planners responsible for implementing the freeway network were mostly insulated from those costs. Eisenhower commissioned a study of the interstate program , and it made several recommendations Delete or reroute the freeways that went right through urban areas and make some of the freeways toll roads to offset the cost to taxpayers. This report was presented to the president on April 6th , 1960. According to the meeting's minutes. Eisenhower said running freeways through the congested parts of cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes. But he also said Congress seemed to want the urban freeways. They had been lobbied heavily by contractors who were making a killing off of all these freeway construction projects. And at this point , it wasn't even clear whether the White House had the legal authority to unilaterally reroute freeways or delete them from the network. Eisenhower had less than a year in office. He decided his hands were tied. Coming up , we'll hear from the father of San Diego's freeway network and why he thought it didn't go far enough. Stay tuned. After Congress passed the Interstate Highways Act , the federal government had no interest in telling states exactly where to build freeways. Its role was mostly just to give money to state transportation departments. And with that money , those departments got very powerful. In San Diego , the man who wielded that power was named Jacob Deshmukh.

S6: This is an interview conducted by Dr. Helen Robson with Mr. J. December of 225 , Bird Rock.

S2: In 1955 , Deshmukh was appointed district engineer for the State Division of Highways , the precursor to Caltrans. He died in 2017 at the age of 101. This is from an oral history interview with him from 1981 , one year after he retired San Diego.

S7: And I came here in 55. There were no freeways except for a little short piece in Balboa Park. But during my career here in San Diego , I've built rebuilt every mile of freeway in the area except for a mile or two in Balboa Park. We just didn't dare touch the trees.

S2: Those two miles stigmas referring to are the 163 through Balboa Park where we started in episode one. We'll talk more about why I didn't touch this freeway in the next episode. For now , though , I'll just say he isn't being entirely honest anyway. In the history of San Diego freeways , Jacob Dickerman is everywhere. He was the longest serving Caltrans district director in the region's history. He was nicknamed Mr. Caltrans. His crowning achievement , Interstate 805 , is named the Jacob Dickerman Freeway. At Christmas , he would go around the office and shake all of his employees hands. By all accounts , he was a likable guy and a dedicated public servant. He was also a firm believer in the old boy network.

S7: Used to be in the mid 50 seconds and early 60 seconds. You could go talk to the mayor in the city manager or the president of the Chamber of Commerce and a few other individuals explain the program to them , get their general approval , and then go out and roll the public hearing and everybody go along and you'd go in and do whatever was necessary. It's not so simple anymore. And today , as I say , all these organizations and bureaucracies have been established and they all can say no , and none of them has any responsibility for accomplishing anything. They don't gain anything by saying , yes , they do by obstructionist tactics.

S2: I get where dicamba is coming from here it's a lot harder and more expensive to build infrastructure nowadays. And it's true. The checks and balances that he found so frustrating have been weaponized to block not just freeways , but public transit and affordable housing too. What's not clear to me is how much dicamba grappled with the social costs of his freeway building , the long term public health impacts , or how his choices for where to build freeways hurt people of color a lot more than they hurt whites. The interviewer asks him why more freeways don't have linear parks along them. Like the kinds that we talked about in the last episode that Caltrans is building in Barrio Logan along I-5.

S7: We never had enough money to do what was absolutely essential , let alone put on the go fight and develop linear parks along with the freeway. The funds for linear parks would have had to come from some other source because we were saving too many lives with the money we were spending on freeways to justify diverting that money from saving lives into putting in greenery and shrubbery.

S2: Dima was an engineer to his core. He saw his job as building infrastructure , building neighborhoods with somebody else's job. And as you can hear , he saw freeways not just as conveniences , but life savers. When he started his career in the 30 seconds , cars were getting more powerful and faster. Safety features like airbags and seatbelts were still a long way off. Traffic laws also weren't very sophisticated , and people just weren't very good at driving. Crashes were more frequent and a lot deadlier. So the design of the freeway where you never deal with intersections and there's a barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Those were major safety improvements. There's another interview with Death from a TV show in 1999. The host asks him why , after building so many freeways , San Diego's still struggles with congestion.

S8: For one thing , the freeway system was never completed. Very significant pieces have been left out. So that makes the rest of the system break down.

S2: If only San Diego had built more freeways , right ? Susan. Andre. So nice to meet you.

S9: Yeah , nice to meet you too.

S2: Thanks for this idea that adding more capacity to our freeways will solve our traffic problems is one of the main areas of study for UC Davis. Professor Susan Handy.

S10: Yeah , I'm the director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation , which is a part of the Federal University Transportation Centers Program.

S2: Susan can trace her interest in freeways and the environment all the way back to childhood. She grew up south of San Francisco in the 60s and 70s and spent a lot of time driving with her family to visit her grandparents in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge.

S10: When 280 opened up , that was a really big deal because it was a faster , nicer way to get to where we needed to go. So , you know , sitting in the back of the station wagon , I watched a lot of freeway building happen and watched California transform as that freeway building happened.

S2: At the time , the transformation Susan was watching seemed pretty great. People were moving to California in droves , and freeways made it easier to get around , especially across long distances. But as she got older , she started to see the freeways. Dark side.

S10: Freeways have meant more dispersed and lower density development , which is problematic from a sustainability standpoint because it makes it hard for any modes of transportation other than cars to really work.

S2: There was something else Susan noticed when a new freeway opened or an existing one was widened with more lanes. Traffic moved faster at first , but the effect didn't last. Congestion always came back , sometimes worse than it was before. This phenomenon has a few names latent demand induced demand , or , as Susan calls it in her research , I.

S10: Use the term induced travel , and that's the phenomenon where if we add more highway capacity , we will induce additional driving. If we increase the supply of freeways , we're essentially lowering the cost of driving because we're speeding up driving and time is money. So the faster you're going , the less it costs you. So we widen the freeways , we lower the cost of driving. And what do people do when the price of something they like goes down ? They consume more of it. If we widen the freeway and traffic speeds up , then people may shift their modes. They may shift from transit back to driving , they may shift their destinations. They may decide that , oh , well , you know , it won't take me that much longer to get to that store in the next town. And I like that story so much better than the one in my town. So I'm going to drive farther to be able to shop at that store. And they may make trips that they wouldn't have otherwise made now that it's gotten easier to drive.

S2: The concept of induced travel has been around since the 1920s , but it wasn't until the 90s that academics actually proved its existence with empirical research. Susan says it's been both amusing and frustrating watching engineers and politicians , Republicans and Democrats , ignore the effects of induced travel over and over again and continue to push freeway widening as a solution to congestion. At a time when California's official policy is to reduce driving , not to encourage it. Just a few miles from Susan's home in Davis , there's a project to widen Interstate 80 , and her congressman , John Garamendi , a progressive Democrat and a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal , is a big supporter.

S10: I've gotten several of his email newsletters that talk about , Oh , look , we got all this funding for widening I-80. This is going to be wonderful. This is going to fix the traffic problem and on the surface , yeah , it kind of makes sense. I think most of the public probably believes that. But we know better by now.

S2: As I've been looking into the history of the mid-century freeway boom , something has become very clear. There have always been people who knew better. People who were never fooled by the futuristic autopia envisioned in that Disney episode , or the promises that new or wider freeways would fix our traffic problems. Next time on freeway exit. We'll talk about what happened when those people fought back.

S11: They had did everything they were supposed to do , but they were losing their homes and they were losing their memories. I go and.

S12: Talk with them and try to convince them you have rights. Stand up for yourself.

S13: It was pretty bruising , I have to say. But I got up day after day and went in there and fought the battles , so to speak.

S2: Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Clare Treasure and Elizabeth Hames. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski. If you like this podcast and want to spread the word , tell your friends about it. You can also help more people find it by leaving us a rating and review. And you can support this work by making a donation at Thanks for listening.

The American freeway is born during a time of boundless optimism for the automobile … how did we not see the dark side?

The American freeway is born in a time of intense optimism around the promise of the automobile. President Eisenhower sees the country's dilapidated road network as a barrier to economic growth and national defense. Jacob Dekema, the father of San Diego's freeway network, sees freeways as lifesavers. How did our optimism blind us to the freeway's dark side?

Magic Highway USA: