The Motorcar vs. America


By the time it is completed the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it is called, will comprise 42,500 miles of high-speed freeways connecting the nation’s principal cities. It will have taken 1.5 million acres in new rights of way and 750,000 pieces of property. The cost will probably be half again as much as the forty billion dollars originally estimated.

For freeways built under the Interstate System, the federal government pays 90 per cent, the state 10. (This contrasts with the fifty-fifty split by which ordinary national highways have been built.) Funds for these come from revenues on the sale of gasoline (four cents a gallon), new trucks, buses and trailers, tires, lubricating oil, truck and bus parts and accessories, and a tax on heavy vehicles. The revenues go into a Highway Trust Fund administered by the Bureau of Public Roads, from which four to five billion dollars a year are paid out for new highways. The process is automatic; the funds flow without stop, year in, year out. Freeways lead to more use of cars, which lead to more freeways. The Asphalt Institute rhapsodizes: “We have a self-perpetuating cycle, the key element of which is new paved roads. The 45,000 new miles added to the road and street network each year accommodate automotive travel, generate fuel consumption, produce road-building revenue.” As A. Q. Mowbray comments in his illuminating and heartfelt Road to Ruin (1969): “It almost begins to sound like an argument for road-building as an end in itself.”


“This vast program has developed a life of its own, an inherent bureaucratic momentum that seems almost unstoppable,” says the New York Times . “The countryside is leveled and rolled and graded. The road-builders march—imperially, relentlessly, inexorably—across stream, meadow and woodland, through parks and nature preserves” as well as “through private homes, businesses and historic sites.” For the damage does not stop with the city. From the start the juggernaut has zeroed in on the countryside, too.

There is, of course, the argument, to which the moguls of the industry never tire of resorting, that highways enable the populace to enjoy the beauties of the country. Obviously there is a great deal to this. In overwhelming degree, however, the scenic splendor that the highways provide is purely incidental. The aim of conventional highways is to connect communities along their routes; of freeways, to shorten the driving time between cities. Neither seeks any but the most grudging accommodation to terrain. Only the older roads do better, and they only in default of modern power equipment and appropriations back when they were built. To drive the highways of America is undeniably to have a great and exhilarating adventure much of the time. It is also to be crushed with discouragement over and over again. The charm and grandeur of the continent, which the motorcar brings us, are on a scale that has so far defeated even our civilization’s assiduous efforts to destroy them, but they are conspicuously in retreat and in innumerable places in rout. The conventional highway brings with it a shoddy and clamorous commercialism that blights towns, villages, and countryside indiscriminately. Even “controlled-access” freeways are bordered by billboards in most states, thanks to the political influence of the outdoor advertising industry.

Federally aided highways were, of course, supposed to have been rescued from the blight of billboards and junkyards. That was one of the purposes of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. But, as the New York Times charged in 1969, the campaign “appears to stack up after four years as a failure.” There is not enough steam behind it. “Of some 1.2 million signs on Interstate and primary highways, 839,000 of which were invalidated by the act, the Bureau [of Public Roads] knows of only 750 having been removed, with removal rights obtained on another 371.” Progress in removing or concealing junkyards has been comparably poor. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1968 provides that no state may require the removal of a billboard unless federal funds are available to compensate the billboard owners and then authorizes a paltry two million dollars for the purpose to take care of all fifty, states! And now, even in states that prohibit billboards within 660 feet of the Interstates, industry is thumbing its nose at regulations by the erection of monster billboards outside the protected zone.

And what of the future? The Federal Highway Administration predicts that the annual national expenditure for highways and streets (now 8.5 billion dollars) will almost double after 1973. We can expect the mileage of new roads and streets (now 45,000 a year) to keep going up. Motorcars are even outmultiplying people in the United States. Ten years ago there were seventy million registered motor vehicles, or about one for every 2.4 Americans. Today there are one hundred million, or nearly one for every two of us. By the turn of the century more than 240,000,000 are expected, which will amount to one for every person and a quarter, or about one for every adult.