Divided Highways by Tom Lewis

Kenneth T. Jackson

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7: Conflicting Values


From the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607 until the present day, the American people have been on the move; the national temperament has emphasized mobility and change. Although the omnibus, the steam railroad, the subway, and the automobile were all developed in Europe, it was in the United States that they were most enthusiastically adopted and where they most immediately affected the lives of ordinary citizens. Before the First World War, all forms of public transportation in American cities were faster, more efficient, more frequent, and more cost-effective than similar options elsewhere in the world. In Great Britain, for instance, no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington, the victor over Napoleon at Waterloo, thought it a mistake to build railroads because they would “only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.” Similarly, at the turn of the century, when the horsecar had virtually disappeared from American streets, it remained the dominant type of transport in London. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the electric streetcar did not even appear until 1903, and in 1911 its minuscule system was only one-tenth the size of New York City’s.

By most measures, the transportation system of the U.S. remains in 1998 the best and cheapest in the developed world. This is partly because the real price of both motor vehicles and fuel in this country has fallen over the course of the century, and partly because the American pattern has been to subsidize private transportation, meaning the automobile, rather than public conveyances, meaning buses and subways. Although the popular perception is that motorists are paying for their roadways, in reality the general taxpayer picks up many of the expenses attributable to automobility (or truckability). The exact sum of such support is in dispute, with estimates ranging from $24 billion to $300 billion per year. The costs of snow removal, traffic control, street repair, accident investigations, air pollution, and uninsured victims, among others, are typically borne by society as a whole. In other words, automobile use creates external costs not charged to the motorist. In New York State, for example, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a coalition of environmental, planning, and transportation groups, reported in March 1994 that general revenues contributed $2.4 billion annually to road and bridge maintenance, traffic patrols, and related expenses, and that drivers paid only 65 percent of their expenses in the Empire State. In California, the state government concluded, even more dramatically, that car taxes and tolls paid only about 10 percent of vehicular costs. As Elliott D. Sclar and Walter Hook noted in 1993: “In recent years, some businesses have chosen to relocate to office parks or freestanding corporate headquarters in suburban and exurban locations accessible by interstate highways. This has not happened because these locations are inherently more efficient, but because the costs of the locations have been underwritten by public subsidies.”1

Compared to competitor nations, the United States levies negligible taxes on gasoline use. Although Americans paid about $50 billion in fuel levies in 1996, the twelve-nation European community, with fewer vehicles on the road than the U.S., took in about $250 billion, or five times the American sum. The total tax in most states in 1998 averages only forty cents per gallon. Germany, by contrast, raised gasoline taxes by forty-six cents just to pay for its Persian Gulf War obligations. Ross Perot’s plan for a fifty-cents-per-gallon tax died with his candidacy. In 1993, President Clinton aimed for a modest nine-cent rise in the levy; the compromise figure was 4.3 cents, a paltry number in world terms. Not surprisingly, the unit (gallon or liter) cost of petrol is about $5 in Italy, about $4 in France and Japan, and less than $1.50 in the United States.

One result of cheap energy is that a spread-out pattern of residence, work, and shopping has become a leading characteristic of American civilization, and the average citizen must use a car to perform most of life’s mundane tasks. By contrast, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Australia are encouraging concentration and discouraging deconcentration. They are doing so because sprawl erodes national competitiveness.

Automobile and trucking interests in the U.S. often argue the reverse, suggesting that low gasoline prices contribute to our international dominance. They claim that the price of moving goods from place to place is lower in North American than elsewhere, and that American businesses would be disadvantaged if it were otherwise. Unfortunately, however, a low per-mile cost does not translate into a low per-person cost. For example, the United States spends between 15 and 18 percent of its gross national product on transportation while the corresponding figure for Japan is 9 percent. Similarly, American families average between 15 and 22 percent of their annual income on transportation, whereas Japanese families spend only 9.4 percent for the same purpose.

Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life is the best and most important book yet published about how asphalt and concrete have changed the United States. Quite simply, the Interstate Highway System is the longest and largest engineered structure in the history of the world, and it has enormously influenced every aspect of American life. More than do skyscrapers, fast-food outlets, shopping malls, and football stadiums, it defines America at the millennium. One has only to consider that very few paved roads cross either Australia or Russia to realize the significance of the 44,000 miles of superhighway that penetrate almost every part of this vast nation, including remote parts of Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Nebraska, and Nevada. Equally significant are the beltways that encircle every large U.S. city. Indeed, these circumferential roads are so important that the typical American metropolis now resembles a donut, with much of its energy and vitality concentrated on the edges.

Tom Lewis, an English professor at Skidmore College in upstate New York, is an engaging prose stylist with a gift for the telling anecdote and appropriate example. Books about highway design and construction are not usually page-turners. But Lewis has wisely built his narrative around individuals, especially the colorful highwaymen who took on the challenge of blasting through mountains or crossing deserts. Some of his characters, like Senator John Sherman Cooper, who introduced an amendment to allow highway funds to be used for public transportation, or Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, who stopped construction of an expressway through New Orleans and persuaded President Richard Nixon to approve the creation of Amtrak, or President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew how to control a committee meeting, emerge as heroes. Others, such as John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, who advised Nixon to let passenger railroads die and who opposed Amtrak, fare less well.

Divided Highways is organized into three major sections. The first deals with events between 1900 and 1956, when the pattern of low taxes and easy access to good roads was set. This is probably the most important period in American transportation history. Appropriately, Lewis focuses on Thomas Harris MacDonald, an Iowa engineer who in 1919 became chief of the federal Bureau of Public Roads. So formal that he wore a coat and tie even when fishing or horseback riding, he insisted that his closest colleagues and even his brothers and sisters call him “Mr. MacDonald” or “Sir.” The “Chief,” as he was also called, was honest and efficient, and always followed two cardinal principles: cooperation and technical expertise. MacDonald believed that “next to the education of a child,” building free thoroughfares was “the greatest public responsibility,” and by the time he retired at age seventy-two in 1953, after six decades of highway designing and seven presidents, he had done more than anyone anywhere to build the nation’s roads. Only Henry Ford, the popularizer of the automobile, Alfred Sloan, the creator of General Motors, and Robert Moses, the great builder of the nation’s greatest city, could approach his influence.

As MacDonald saw it, highways served four purposes—agriculture, recreation, commerce, and defense. The latter need became apparent in 1919, when a young Army officer named Eisenhower volunteered for a complicated military expedition by road across the United States. It was the Army’s first transcontinental trip by motor vehicle. The three-mile-long convoy of motorcycles, cars, and trucks set out from Washington for San Francisco, three thousand hard miles away. Highways, where they existed at all, were terrible; the trip took sixty-two days, with the soldiers averaging only five miles per hour. Breakdowns, accidents, and natural obstacles conspired on some days to limit their progress to three miles. Some battlefields were easier to traverse. Eisenhower never forgot the trip and resolved at the time to convince Americans to become “interested in producing better roads.”

Lewis’s human portraits sometime obscure the historical record. Congressional legislation in 1916 and 1921, for example, set a precedent for how Americans paid for their roadways. Essentially, highways were considered a public responsibility, and the public treasury was opened to pay for them. But Lewis does not reveal the other options then available or the other ways that competitor nations were dealing with transportation issues. Similarly, he mentions that the United States early on adopted a system of numbered highways, but he does not alert the reader to the fact that other countries made such changes long after the Second World War. Finally, his discussion of Moses does not engage the work of Robert A. Caro, Moses’s biographer, or other authors. Lewis is better at discussing Henry Ford and the Model T, the 1939 World’s Fair, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Levittown.

The second section concerns the immediate background of the critical 1956 legislation that established the Interstate Highway System. Here Lewis demonstrates that Eisenhower is the real father of the interstate system. He shows how Ike (with help from General Lucius Clay and Representative George Hyde Fallon) masterfully manipulated disparate interests—such as the American Trucking Association, which wanted new roads but was not willing to accept new taxes to build them, and the Association of General Contractors, which criticized the payment of prevailing wages to workers—to agree on a complicated financial package. Lewis also conveys some sense of the enormous lobbying power and influence of the American Automobile Association, the American Association of State Highway Officials, the American Road Builders Association, and the American Petroleum Institute, all of which, in consort with the automobile manufacturers, the trucking industry, the oil interests, and organized labor, successfully committed Congress to the greatest public works project in history. As Bernard De Voto, historian of the American West, wrote at the time: “We must now solve the problem of giving our culture the highways that its abundance demands.”

Finally, the third section deals with the way a few far-sighted and fortunate entrepreneurs, such as Ray Kroc of McDonald’s and Kemmons Wilson of Holiday Inn, recognized that the interstates would transform the nation; they saw their opportunities and they took them. Kroc, for example, put his hamburger businesses adjacent to giant highways and in places accessible only to the automobile. Wilson was the first to systematically locate motels adjacent to the interstates.

While recognizing the great achievements of the highway builders, Lewis remains critical of them. He shows how civil engineers from the Midwest, mindful of the need to move vehicles quickly and efficiently, clashed with activists who worried that neighborhoods and little stores, front porches and street life, would be destroyed by the new roads. At first, the highwaymen just pushed aside anyone who blocked their way. But opposition to big roads mounted in San Francisco, lower Manhattan, Memphis, and a dozen other places. One of the best sections of Divided Highways is about what Lewis calls the Second Battle of New Orleans, the fight over an elevated riverfront expressway intended to relieve congestion in the French Quarter. Opponents, however, saw the gargantuan highway as a threat to the very survival of the Quarter and the human scale of the old downtown. In the end the preservationists won, and the expressway was never built. The gods of speed and vehicular convenience began to lose as many contests as they won. In criticizing the interstate system, Lewis is following in the tradition of Mark H. Rose’s Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1941–1956 (1979), of Helen Leavitt’s Superhighway—Superhoax (1970), and of Stephen B. Goddard’s Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century (1994). But Lewis is more comprehensive, more balanced, and more interesting than his predecessors.

One can only hope that Lewis’s skepticism toward the highways will influence Washington. In 1996, the United States imported about 55 percent of its oil—a figure projected to rise to 70 percent by 2010. In the Second World War, the Allied powers won largely because the Axis powers had not a drop of oil. At the Battle of the Bulge, German tanks literally ran out of gas, while the Japanese Navy was unable to train its pilots properly after 1942 because its oil supply was shut off. Yet half a century later, the United States depends more upon foreign oil than the Axis nations ever did. This nation now imports about ten million barrels of oil per day, more than the Imperial Japanese Navy used per year from 1939 to 1945. In 1975, when the country still produced most of its oil, the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor country. By 1990 it had become the largest debtor country, and the cost of America’s imported oil today approaches $50 billion per year—a substantial portion of the annual trade deficit. The interstate highways, by making it so easy for cars and trucks to cruise thousands of miles across America, have only encouraged this profligacy.

1 Elliott D. Sclar and Walter Hook, “The Importance of Cities to the National Economy,” in Interwoven Destinies: Cities and the Nation, Henry G. Cisneros, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 49.

Kenneth T. Jackson is the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University. He is author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City.