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No. 1116:
An Attack on Superhighways

Today, let's look at an old attack on the Interstate Highway System. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I worked for the Bureau of Public Roads in the summer of 1949 -- laying out a gravel forest-access road in the Cascade Mountains, practically in Canada. But the Bureau was also developing a much grander project back then -- our 40,000 mile Interstate Highway System. The Eisenhower administration finally backed the system in 1956. It was to be finished by 1971.

As it neared completion, author Helen Leavitt published a scathing indictment of the project: Superhighway -- Super Hoax. I had no recollection of the book until I found it in the New York Public Library's list of 150 major books of the 20th century.

So was Leavitt the greatest Luddite of this century, or did she have a case? Who would condemn this magnificent system of superhighways today? It's a primary and accepted part of our lives.

The system was surely helped along by Eisenhower's recollections of WW-II. Germany's autobahn supply system had been a thorn in his side. He wanted as much for America. Indeed, we called our project, "The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."

So what were Leavitt's objections? Cost was certainly one. Once congress began considering the undertaking, oil, automobile, and concrete lobbyists flocked to Washington to support the 50-billion-dollar project. A new car cost $2000 back then. Once you had it, you were committed to spending three times its cost on gasoline, insurance, maintenance, and highway-related taxes.

The highways also ate real estate without mercy. Homes, buildings, and farms were plowed under. Today, that damage is largely forgotten. And we've long since built the costs into our budgets. But another Leavitt objection is still with us.

Our whole way of life was being built around the automobile to the exclusion of every kind of rail service. By 1980, half the surface area of Los Angeles was cast in highway concrete. Our neglected rail system was falling apart -- so were city transit systems. Hydrocarbon emissions had become a major health threat.

So, was Leavitt a Luddite or visionary? Well, when I worked on roads in 1949, our marriage to the automobile was already complete. The Interstate System was no fork in our road. We'd made our decision long before. As we tore across America at 80 miles an hour, on 18-cents-per-gallon gasoline, only a crank could have seen the dark side of those excesses.

Even now we must squint our eyes to see the wreckage created by a total automobile economy. Leavitt offers pictures of comfortable new buses and railroad coaches -- of the high-speed trains that Japan and Germany went on to make a reality.

Leavitt surely was a Luddite in 1970. But her premature book is worth a second look -- now we can see what it really meant.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Leavitt, H., Super Highway -- Super Hoax. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.