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The Motorcar vs. America
Had it been specifically designed for the purpose, says the author, the motorcar could not be doing a better job of destroying our cities and countryside
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
For the ordinary citizen who can afford one, as most Americans can, the motorcar probably means more than any other single gift of the machine age. It is the magic carpet that makes us master of the world’s domains: it is wings; it is speed, it is drama, it is adventure. It is also nirvana in a capsule. Enclosed in its luxurious appointments, in a body-contoured seat, air-conditioned, removed from reality by power brakes and power steering, lulled by the blandishments of various worlds of make-believe piped in by the dashboard radio, we know ourselves cherished and safeguarded as we could hardly expect to be elsewhere this side of the womb.
The motorcar is the fulfillment of pride, an embodiment of rakish elegance specially designed by platoons of experts to put its possessor ahead of the Joneses. It is self-assertion. It is an arrogant chromed and lacquered torpedo with the throbbing power of three hundred champing horses, the apotheosis of humdrum man, the transformation of the put-upon adolescent into a figure to be reckoned with. Svelte and racy for the female of the species, it is sexual drive incarnate for the male. It is symbolism, and it is sin itself—an ever-available mobile bedroom in which more chastity goes by the board every week than has been undermined by all the erotic books in history.
But the price: that messy business of a price …
Perhaps too much should not be made of those fifty-odd thousand lives destroyed and the hundreds of thousands of injured the dreamboat leaves in its wake every year. The subject has become banal. We have lived so long with the slaughter that the victims have become mere statistics, mere repeated statistics.
Well, not entirely. There is that scene none of us is spared for long: the red light flashing atop the police cruiser, the crumpled cars askew, the splintered glass, the dark stains on the concrete you pray are only gasoline or oil, and—oh no!—the two figures prone on the grass. It is a vivid scene, and no less so in retrospect when your wife is late in getting home or your daughter is out in a motorized missile (the term is an insurance-company president’s) with a youth charged by an adolescent’s flood of hormones and an impulsive and reckless exhibitionism. (On the test track, says a writer who tried one, the new Ford Torino “loafed around the banked turns at over 115 m.p.h.”) Try not to think of it. Just hope that the wives and children slaughtered will once again be someone else’s. The mathematical chances are that they will be, and that probability satisfies the public.
But if the public can go along with highway deaths the equal of seven Gettysburgs a year—and I have little doubt that it can and will in time take those of ten or a dozen in its stride—so can civilization. Whether civilization can survive the other costs of the motorcar is the real question.
It is not by mere chance that “civilization” and “city” are inseparably linked etymologically. From the beginning the city has been civilization, and the history of civilization is the history of great cities. And what stirring and exalting things great cities are!—Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence with a few tens of thousands, as well as, I am certain, London, Paris, and Rome with millions. Surely the great city is the outstanding work of man, synthesizing all his other works in an organic whole with a life, vitality, and personality of its own. Historically, human achievements in the arts and in the arts of civilization are clustered in cities; it is in the interaction of those to whom perceptions, ideas, and cultivation of the mind are important that civilization flourishes.
But we need cities for humbler purposes, too. We need frequent and intimate encounters with others to bring out what is latent in us and to draw us out of ourselves. “All the evidence of psychiatry,” says sociologist George C. Homans, “shows that membership in a group sustains a man, enables him to bring up children who will in turn be happy and resilient.” We are both comforted and kindled by the throng and variety of human beings bent upon their pursuits in the living city. We need that, at least much of the time, as we need the human sounds of the city, the laughter and shouts, the scents of bakeries—all that goes with human lives being lived together, interwoven and juxtaposed.
But the city, as we all know, is now faced with bankruptcy and is hard pressed to provide even the essential services. Life has been withdrawing from its streets, which are increasingly unsafe. Increasingly, we discuss as a real question whether the city can be saved. But what we resist acknowledging is that in the demise of the city the automobile is playing a key role. Indeed the automobile could hardly do a better job of wrecking the city if it had been designed for that specific purpose.
Last summer I returned to my alma mater for the first time in thirty-seven years. The girls with skirts up to their bottoms and the young men made up for an opera with a cast of Balkan banditti or for the Last Supper were novel, decidedly. But what stunned me was the revolution the motorcar had wrought. Gone was the repose, gone the quiet in which reflection takes place, gone any feeling in the air that thought might be important, gone the sense of human community. The Harvard of old was now a collection of diminished and somehow shabby fragments separated by rivers of vehicular traffic. Bumper to bumper, flank to flank, the cars filled the streets, exhausts panting, motors roaring on the change of lights, horns blaring. Trucks and buses yowled and rumbled. Everything seemed incidental to the motorcar, to its racket and din, to its acrid stench, to the tempo of its acceleration, to the tension it engendered, to its power to crush flesh and bone. Which were the drivers and which the driven? If the students, obscurely but profoundly aware of the denigration of human values in the society they saw around them, were difficult to keep in order, we had no right to be surprised.
But of course Cambridge, Massachusetts, was no different from any other segment of urban America. It was simply that on returning I had been transported in minutes from 1932 to 1969. And the juxtaposition was too much. “Let me out of here,” I said to myself, “and don’t let me ever come back!”
But I have not been alone in this urge, which is the real point. By the millions the city dwellers have been getting out—to the suburbs. The congested streets on which traffic is slower than half a century ago; the danger to life in crossing them, especially to the lives of children; the pall of hydrocarbons; the torrent of noise (the truck routes through Manhattan at three A.M. sound like Panzer divisions on the move); the lack of a sense of space; the loss of peace of mind; the sheer oppression of the spirit under the weight of the endless spectacle of cars—all that and more have been behind the exodus. And the emigrants have been the people of substance who pay taxes and who, having a stake in the proprietorship of the city, could have been expected to fight to preserve it, had they stayed.
The damage the emigrants do by their departure they compound by the manner of their return. For as most of them are wage earners, return they must, every morning. And as far as feasible, or in the absence of choice, they come by the means that offers door-to-door convenience—the motorcar. Because they pour back into the city by the hundreds of thousands, giant freeways are called for. Picture a bulldozer a hundred feet wide levelling everything in its path through the city’s outskirts and the city itself and you have the coming of an autobahn—Herr Hitler’s one durable legacy. The city suffers a further shrinkage of its tax base as residences and businesses are shovelled out of the way. (In Washington, D.C., for example, where streets and highways already pre-empt 30 per cent of the land, it was estimated a few years ago that additional freeway projects on the drawing boards would cost the city six million dollars a year in lost revenues.)
For an urban freeway the toll of those displaced from their homes can run into the thousands, and since these are generally the poorer inhabitants, who have difficulty relocating, the result can be mass tragedy. (A stretch of freeway but little over a mile long proposed for lower Manhattan would destroy two thousand homes and ten thousand jobs, Jane Jacobs has charged.) The fabric of neighborhoods is torn, the city dismembered by raceways on which the roar of traffic is never stilled; four million cars a day race along the freeways of Los Angeles County, pouring enough fumes into the atmosphere to kill more than a million trees in San Bernardino National Forest sixty miles away. Parks that help make a city livable offer the highway engineer tempting rights of way: Juneau Park in Milwaukee, Overton Park in Memphis, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, a park along Brandywine Creek in Wilmington, a whole system of green areas in San Antonio, including Brackenridge and Olmos Basin parks, have been or are evidently going to be gutted by freeways, while many others are under threat, including Washington’s Glover-Archbold Park and Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park.
To accommodate the commuters’ cars, the city’s less profitable structures, and especially those centrally located, are turned over to the wrecker, and these are likely to include buildings that have been around longest and speak of the city’s continuity and give it personality. (See, for example, the story on the destruction of the historic Amoskeag mills in Manchester, New Hampshire, in AMERICAN HERITAGE , April, 1970.) Where they stood, the light glints on acres of enamelled car tops ; Los Angeles, where an estimated two thirds of the downtown area is already devoted to the transit and parking of automobiles, gives a taste of what is in store for all cities. More than ever it is clear who is boss.
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.
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.
Creating new cities from scratch in the open spaces may be called for; our urban conglomerations are certainly growing far too large. But unless the forces that wrecked the historic cities are restrained, the fiat cities will be wrecked just as surely. So will the urban-renewed cities. Apart from this, the prospect is that the cities will deteriorate faster than money will be appropriated for renewing them unless the middle classes, with their disposable and taxable incomes and their habit of responsibility, can be brought back. This is the key. But the way to do it—and I am persuaded the only way—is to rein in the agency that spoiled the city’s attractiveness and facilitated their flight. The first step to this end would be ceasing to abet it: no more building of freeways and of their tributary arteries that propagate swarms of commutermotorists; no more thoroughfares carrying traffic through settled areas at sixty miles an hour.
So much for phase one. Phase two would be to ease the great majority of private cars and all internal-combustion engines off the city streets. That would be to make the city healthful and enjoyable once more, to restore the charm of open, car-free vistas, to clear the avenues for expeditious public transportation, to rebuild self-contained, vital neighborhoods, to bring life and people and warmth and color back to the streets, and children on roller skates and bicycles; to re-create a human city. The automobile industry talks glowingly of producing a pollution-free gasoline engine by 1980, but that is not soon enough. In the meantime a graduated increase in taxation of cars registered in the city and in tolls on those entering would do the trick. If it left a scattering of private cars on the city streets along with electric taxicabs, good enough.
Phase three, to be concurrent, calls for swift, capacious agencies of mass transit: steam-driven buses and electric trains below, at, or above ground level. Maybe even streetcars! The city’s nowclotted blood vessels would flow once more. A bus will carry up to eighty passengers in the space occupied by two conventional cars with 1.7 occupants each (the average number per commuter car in the nation’s capital). And on unencumbered streets it will move them fast. It is estimated that trains of eight cars can comfortably carry thirty to forty thousand persons per hour past a given point; the New York subways have achieved sixty thousand. By contrast a lane of a freeway with maximum carrying capacity of two thousand cars per hour moves only 3.4 thousand persons per hour. In other words one rail line will do the work that ten lanes of freeway do. And if it is adequately equipped, it will deliver its passengers at their destinations unexhausted, unfrayed of nerves, and with newspapers read.
Mass transit does more than move people expeditiously and, on their part, effortlessly. The more the role of the private motorcar is circumscribed and the greater the public dependence on mass transit, the closer to mass-transit routes the public will domicile itself and employers locate themselves. That is how density of population is achieved. And density is the objective. It is only through bringing people close together, as opposed to dispersing them, that the city and the country can be saved.
But would the measures proposed result in the return of the middle classes?
Few persons who value their time will without good reason spend the equivalent of one full working day a week commuting. But beyond that, if the choice were between a car-free city with miles of diverse and lively streets to explore, with parkland compact or vast accessible by foot or fast public transportation, with an endless variety of cultural and commercial offerings—between that and the monotonous, car-ridden suburbs, then yes. For such a city—which is entirely possible—would be the place for the good life and for rearing children. The middle classes would come swarming back.
What would go for urban freeways under the plan would go for cross-country freeways as well. We would stop building them. With the 42,500-mile Interstate System we would quit. When it became clogged we could let the diehard motorists and shippers stay with it and fight the traffic battle. Others would have an alternative at hand: railroads. Travellers who needed a car where they were going (and most would not) could rent one at the other end or take one with them (a practice that just might cure us of our addiction to cars the size of gunboats). When it comes to moving people —or freight—the railroads, like urban trains, are line for lane far more efficient than the highways. And could anyone with the interests of a livable America at heart fail to rejoice if the railroads won back much of the business they have lost to cars and trucks?
… But back to reality. In one of cartoonist Al Capp’s weird realms the ruler adopts a cute little animal that the wise man at court warns in vain is a kingaroo. The beast grows mightily and in doing so develops a fearsome appetite, which at maturity it satisfies by making a meal of its benefactor. The beguiling little kingaroo that America adopted was the tin lizzie. Today, as Marquis Childs observes, the motor manufacturers and big oil companies, standing together, comprise “probably the most powerful economic-political bloc in the nation, and with the highway lobby a force that can move mountains, literally or figuratively.” Represented in the lobby are the rubber companies, the producers of cement and asphalt, manufacturers of construction machinery, building contractors, and assorted interests that reap the uncounted billions that annually go into motor traffic and its infrastructure. (In 1968 cars and car parts alone took 6.21 dollars out of every one hundred spent by the American people. With motorcar sales running at about ten million a year, or well over thirty billion dollars, and an annual repair bill of 8.8 billion dollars, Americans are spending more directly on their cars—leaving out gasoline, oil, insurance, parking fees, etc., not to mention highway construction and repair—than on public education.) The lobby has vigorous spokesmen in state highway commissioners and in the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the Federal Highway Administration, and powerful friends in the House Public Works Committee, which, as a prime source of pork, congressmen are not eager to antagonize.
Twice in the past several years the “road gang” has conspicuously demonstrated its might. When in November, 1966, as a means of reducing federal expenses and inflationary pressures, the Johnson administration announced that l.l billion dollars of the Highway Trust Fund would be held back, the outrage of the road gang was such that within seven months the administration had backed down all the way and released the entire amount withheld. In 1968 the Federal Aid Highway Bill showed the House of Representatives to be securely in the pocket of the highway men. (Key congressman had received seventy-five thousand dollars from the trucking lobby, according to Drew Pearson.)
The House bill, said Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper of the Senate Public Works Committee, “was more anti-conservationist than any other bill I have seen come before this body. In at least three major sections, it attempted to strike down legislation which had been enacted by Congress in an effort to protect the natural resources and beauty of this country”—one specifically to protect public parks. The retrogressive measures were largely eliminated by Senator Cooper’s committee but not the highhanded provision commanding the District of Columbia, as if it were a felon before the bar, to commence work within thirty days on four new components of the freeway system “notwithstanding any other provisions of law, or any court decision or administration action to the contrary.” The package includes the North Central Freeway, which will plough through the Negro section of Washington with ten lanes, and the Three Sisters Bridge, which will destroy irreplaceable parkland and desolate one of the loveliest vistas of the Potomac while aiming straight up Glover-Archbold Park.
As the New York Times declared, “Apart from this proposed desecration of the capital, these bridge and freeway provisions set a most dangerous precedent for every city in the nation. If Congress can pick routes and choose bridge sites in Washington, D.C., and get away with it, there is nothing to prevent Congress from dictating similar decisions in other cities.”
That Congress is getting away with it is owing primarily to a lawgiver from Bowling Green, Kentucky, William H. Natcher, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia and errand boy of the highway lobby, as the New York Times describes him. Natcher ruled that until work on the extended freeway program had proceeded “beyond recall” no funds would be released for the city’s long-discussed subway, the only possible cure for its transportation ills. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said on the floor of the Senate that “there is one issue on which almost every resident of the District agrees: opposition to more freeways,” and he thought it “inconceivable” that the proposed rapid-transit system “could be held hostage to more unwanted freeways.” It was, though. The city council, with two members in tears, finally knuckled under in a session marked by near riot.
But does it matter what decisions we come to about the motorcar? With the motor-age interests able to bend newspapers, governors, congressmen, and the United States government like pipe cleaners, has anyone a chance against them? And if anyone had, could the national economy afford a retreat from the motorcar in view of all the productive capacity and jobs that have been created to supply it and its wants?
Were it left to me, I should answer in a statement to the motorcar and highway interests. “Gentlemen, you have been turning out toys for chicken feed,” I should say. “Incidentally, you have been pushing your country toward ruin. We offer you a chance to do a man’s job for real money and, incidentally, take on the most exciting piece of work man has ever set hand to. We call on you to rebuild the nation .” Addressing Detroit, architect Philip Johnson has said, “Now look, turn your aims around. You now want to build great cities, not make automobiles. As in World War II, when you served public ends so efficiently and built no pleasure cars, adapt your incredible know-how, your great management abilities, to this new task. Do it efficiently and beautifully. Here is 100 billion or so for the first two years. Give us an accounting when you have used it up.”
Asking why we do not live in good cities, Philip Johnson replies that “it can only be that we do not wish to. … Everyone seems to like other things more. It is my thesis that we shall not get cities designed closer to our hearts’ desire until the values of people change. … If I am right, we face a dismal future. Popular faiths change slowly, slowly.” And popular faith in the motorcar seems to remain a consuming one.
Yet there are signs of a burgeoning resistance to the “tyranny of the motorcar”—the currency of that expression being one of them. Because “the resentment is so deep,” Mayor John V. Lindsay has overruled the projected Lower Manhattan and Cross-Brooklyn expressways. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, opponents of the Inner Beltway around Boston are still managing to hold the line. So are opponents of the proposed freeway along San Francisco Bay. Citizens’ groups are still fighting hard to kill Three Sisters Bridge. Most spectacularly, a prolonged battle to save New Orleans’ historic Vieux Carré district from an elevated freeway has finally been won, with the freeway’s coup de grâce having been delivered by a former road contractor, John A. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation.
The Nixon administration has sponsored legislation providing for the expenditure of ten billion dollars over the next twelve years to help cities build mass-transit systems. This would represent a very great advance over the annual pittance the federal government is at present putting out ($175,000,000 to pay only half the costs of mass-transit systems) but hosannahs are being reserved until it is known how much is actually to be committed.
In the contest with the motorcar we may be able to count on the assistance of one force that is strong enough to dethrone it. This the Washington Post anticipated when, after charging automobiles with killing passenger trains and urban transit systems, it predicted that “In time, automobiles will kill themselves since the nation’s fleet is now large enough to fill the 41,000-mile Interstate highway system bumper to bumper and is growing each year by enough to fill a two-lane highway bumper to bumper from Washington to Los Angeles.” Before that auto-da-fé takes place, however—if the expression may be forgiven—irreparable damage may have been done to society. The basic decisions may have to be made much sooner; within five years, if the forecast of a traffic expert in the nation’s capital is sound, “every single city-center area of every big city will be absolutely choked with automobiles.”
Meanwhile nature conservationists and urban redemptionists may recognize that a common foe gives them a common cause. Every additional dollar of tax on motor vehicles and their requisites (a fifty-cent-a-mile levy would be proportionate to the damage the motorcar does, a pharmacologist at Stanford, Robert H. Dreisbach, suggests), every additional dollar of appropriations for public transportation, every dollar withheld from highway construction—is a step toward a supportable and rewarding way of life in the future.