The Motorcar vs. America

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Moreover, the faster cars become, the more destructive are the highways needed to accommodate them. Every mile of today’s Interstate freeway consumes about twenty-four acres; every interchange, about eighty. And for the extent of countryside this same freeway dominates without actually consuming, the figures could be multiplied by five or ten. Even at the lower figure the Interstate freeways will dominate an area equal to that of Maryland and Rhode Island combined. (The area paved over thus far for the nation’s roads equals that of West Virginia.)

The Bureau of Public Roads’ statement that the excavations required for the Interstate System “will move enough material to bury Connecticut kneedeep in dirt” gives a suggestion of the damage to the country—and that is for a network of freeways considered sufficient only until 1975. Where the terrain is steep and apt to be most scenic the havoc is greatest. Whole mountainsides are sheared off and valleys filled with rubble. This is how the trucking industry, prime mover behind the Interstate System, likes it—since trucks find steep grades troublesome. Putting Interstate 61 around Clifton Forge, Virginia, for example, has involved destruction on such a scale that some two hundred officials, engineers, and contractors from a dozen countries came to admire it, some from as far away as Australia and Indonesia. They were guests of International Harvester, which was showing how its big machines could gouge out a mountainside. For less than four miles of highway the government was spending 10.4 million dollars. But bad as that may sound, one mile of proposed freeway through Washington’s Potomac Park, with tunnels, will cost seventy million dollars.

Thirty years from now there will be three hundred million of us in those more than 240,000,000 motor vehicles. Our disposable real incomes will probably be at least 50 per cent greater than at present, and we shall probably have 50 per cent more leisure time. To help us spend both, all kinds of recreational facilities will doubtless have grown up with the new highways, ranging from snack bars and bowling alleys to supermarinas and the kind of resort the Walt Disney organization has in mind for Mineral King, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—a 35.5-million-dollar alpine village with twenty-two ski lifts, skating rinks, heated swimming pools, and five acres of underground parking. In thirty years the country should be pretty well given over to man and his works, with little chance for anyone to get away from either.

While the motorcar eats up the countryside and guts the city, it is creating an amalgam of the two that seems to combine their attractions and advantages but in fact offers neither. Modern suburbia, the endless spread of houses on individual lots served by shopping centers behind vast parking plazas, is the product of the motorcar and could not exist without it. And suburbia is not a phenomenon of the city’s environs alone. Not only the two- and three-car family but the two-house family is becoming commonplace. Summer suburbs of cottages, mean or grand, are overspreading our seashores, lakesides, riversides, and mountains, impairing if not eradicating their character as well, parcelling up and enclosing what should be the national commons. Finally there is nomadic suburbia; according to Business Week one new single-family dwelling in two this year will be a mobile home.

Suburbia is the disintegration of the human community. As Christopher Alexander, architect and city planner, writes, its inhabitants, moved by a “pathological belief in individual families as self-sufficient units,” occupy “a collection of isolated, disconnected islands.” They build their lives on that which sets the family apart, on the little private grass patch with outdoor grill, the television set, the motorcar, and, increasingly, the powerboat. To the minimum degree are their lives shared with others and refreshed and fortified by intimate contacts with others—the loss of which, Alexander warns, “may break down human nature altogether.”

That we have been witnessing the unravelling of civilization in America is hard to doubt. Surely if the process is to be reversed the city must be redeemed and restored. We may well give equal importance to saving the countryside, but evidently we need not weigh the claims of one against the other; they are clearly but two sides of a single coin. Rehabilitating the city and saving the countryside both require a halt to the hybridizing of the two. The word must be: let that which is city be city and that which is country be country. Let them interpenetrate (as in Washington, D.C., with its green corridors of Rock Creek and Glover-Archbold parks), but let them be real city and real country, not a characterless fusion of the two that is neither. It may be just possible to slow the advance of suburbia. What that depends on is dethroning the motorcar as the power that establishes the pattern of American life.

Admittedly, that alone will not return the cities to health. If the cities are to be livable, we shall have to arrest the growth of population. We shall have to enhance the attractiveness of the smaller communities so that they can hold onto their inhabitants and even win some back. We shall have to resolve the multiplicity of jurisdictions that hamstring metropolitan government. The races must be reconciled to one another on one basis or another. But without drastic control of the motorcar nothing else seems likely to serve.