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