The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Interstate Crime


Business-As-Usual interests are calling for bigger, wider Interstates to improve interregional mobility. The schemes won't work because they don't create Balanced Communities.


The Interstate Highway System is a primary cause of dysfunctional human settlement patterns-–the scatteration of urban land uses and thus congestion.  The pattern of trip origins and destinations facilitated by the Interstate Highway System plagues intraregional access and mobility in all New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions in the Commonwealth and in the Untied States. Urban area congestion is an unintended consequence of building Interstate Highways, but it is an impact that was predicted 30 years before construction started. 

Now it is clear that the Interstate System also is failing to provide the interregional mobility for which it was created. Look no farther than Interstate 81 and Interstate 95 for proof. The “official” discussion about the failure of the Interstate System up until now has been limited to funding more roadways. Of course, without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns, these roadways will only make intraregional congestion worse and will not provide sustainable interregional mobility either.

It is time to take a deep breath, understand the history and circumstances of the Interstate Highway System and come up with a new, sustainable mobility system for interregional and intraregional travel.  It is not just “reconnecting” that is needed, it is Fundamental Change.

The Original Crime Scene

The idea of an interregional superhighway system in the United States has roots in the 1890s at the dawn of the age of gasoline-powered private vehicles (aka, the Automobile Age). Interregional highways became an idea with a critical mass of interest following World War I. The War Department provided the hothouse for its propagation. 

Self-propelled armored vehicles were seen as the future of ground warfare, and it was clear that World War I tanks were no match for the hedgerows and narrow roads of Western Europe. Further, new armored vehicles that could master these barriers would be too heavy and too slow to meet the needs of rapid deployment across regional-scale battlefronts. In 1919, an army convoy took 62 days to go from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.  In 1919, trains traveled much faster and could carry much larger loads using a fraction of the energy. Rail was, however, susceptible to being bombed from the air, and self-propelled railroad cars are inflexible as combat vehicles. A new mobility system was needed for the projected parameters of warfare. 

The rail system served most of the nation-states economic needs for long distance mobility other than automobile joy riding and reaching widely dispersed destinations that would not support rail infrastructure. Commuter/touring parkways without frontage access or at-grade intersections in the United States and private toll roads in northern Italy provided working prototypes for a new defense highway system. 

All this was not lost on the German military. The National Socialist government moved from idea to implementation with an alacrity that reflected its aggressive intent. Autobahns started opening in the mid-1930s. Almost immediately, the thrill of driving fast “without regard for the terrain” on the Autobahn and the prospect of making money from more complex and more expensive private vehicles became a driving force as important in the United States as the military applications.  

Committees of military and resource planners chewed on the interregional limited access highway system idea for the better part of three decades. During World War II, a blue ribbon committee articulated a consensus plan for a nation-wide system of “interregional” limited access highways. [See End Note One.] 

While the federal establishment considered, some states acted. The first section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940. New Jersey, New York and other states followed on a grand scale, using tolls to pave the way. Short sections of limited-access roadway, such as the original part of the Shirley Highway serving the Pentagon, also were constructed.

It was 1956 before the nationwide interregional highway idea was put into law. I recall at the time being told by a BPR engineer (BPR, or the Bureau of Public Roads, became a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) that the design criteria were dictated by the need for a “defense” highway system with clearance to move truck-mounted Honest John missiles, and the ability to move evacuation traffic around A-bombed urban cores. With the prospect of billions of dollars in construction contracts, a way to weaken the power of railroads and left-leaning railroad and coal mining unions, and the support of auto, oil and rubber industries, the political will congealed to create what we know as the Interstate Defense Highway System. [See End Note Two.]

The potential detrimental impact of massive new highways on both the Urbanside and the Countryside was well articulated by opponents of mass application of the “highway solution” in the 20s. They offered many of the same “rail is more efficient,” “rail is faster” and “rail uses less energy per ton mile” arguments for both long-haul passengers and freight that are now being articulated by those opposed to the I-81 highway corridor “public/private partnership improvements.”  

Like canals (e.g. public contributions and loans) and railroads (e.g. Alternate Sections land grants) before them, Interstate systems enjoyed huge subsidies. The idea of a gasoline tax paying for a vast system of “freeways” was politically saleable. The details of location and design became a political playground that was not constrained by topography as the scramble for rail service had been. [See End Note Three.]

Joseph Passonneau, a gifted engineer, architect and author, has designed spectacular highways in the Urbanside (East Side Highway in New York City, The Route 29 Urban Corridor in Charlottesville/Albemarle) and in the Countryside (Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, Col.).  Joe has developed documentation confirming that if the trust fund that financed the Interstate Highway System were required to pay the full of the system’s impact, it could not have been built with gas tax revenue (unless these taxes had been raised to the level that has been and is charged in the European Union.)

Instead, the cost of the impact was absorbed by individuals, families, institutions, agencies, enterprises and neighborhoods that were displaced, devalued and bisected by the construction. It has been suggested that 50 years from now the Interstate System’s impact on United States urban fabric will be thought of in the same way as the impact of European colonists on Native American culture is now regarded.

The Interstate Highway System facilitated an astounding transfer, redistribution and concentration of wealth benefiting those able to take advantage of it. It had a devastating impact on those who could not. More important was the radically different configuration of human settlement pattern that Interstate Highway “automobility” facilitated.

In spite of over three decades of intellectual and academic attacks on the super highway idea, the first organized resistance came only when Interstate Highways started tearing up urban parks and walling off urban neighborhoods in the 60s. 

The Interstate Highway System’s negative impact on the existing the urban fabric inside the logical location for a Clear Edge, and dispersal of urban land uses outside the logical location for a Clear Edge is exhaustively documented and irrefutable.

Simply stated, the Interstate Highway System cannot handle the intraregional travel demand that the existence of these roadways generated. [See “The Commuting Problem, Jan. 17, 2005.)

It is, however, not just commuters who have a problem; it is all the intraregional trips that are generated by the dysfunctional distribution of origins and destinations of travel demand induced by the illusion that any highway system designed for large, fast private vehicles can provide ubiquitous mobility. (See “The Myths That Blind Us,” Oct. 20, 2003.)

Having failed to provide intraregional mobility and access, it turns out that the Interstate System now cannot carry interregional traffic generated by NAFTA and other interregional economic transfer catalysts. I-81 is an example; so are other corridors across the Untied States like I-35 between Dallas  and San Antonio noted below. 

Now that the system has started to fail as a way to move people and goods between the cores of New Urban Regions, as well as within New Urban Regions, the futility of building more limited-access highways should be obvious to all. [See “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels Sept. 20, 2004 and the series of five transport- related columns from “Self Delusion and Fraud” to “Media Myopia” from June 7 to August 9, 2004 .]

It should now be clear to all that the Interstate Highway System concept is, like the politics that spawned it, broken.

The question is: Where to from here? Because “transportation is the canary in the mine field of dysfunctional human settlement patterns” and because the limited-access Interstate Highway System is the default backbone of federal attempts to provide both interregional and intraregional mobility, “Where to from here?” is a question of critical national importance. 

Deep in the Heart of Texas

While the “Freeways” of the Los Angeles New Urban Region are legendary, it is the Interstates of Texas that best capture the true essence of the Interstate System. Who can forget the scenes from the movie “State Fair” with the happy family towing its double horse trailer rig while soaring over Dallas on elevated ramps on the way to the Texas State Fair? You forgot those scenes? Try almost every image of “modern mobility” from Futurama at the 1939 Worlds Fair to ... well, the latest TxDOT or VDOT brochure.     

The State of Texas has the largest highway system and the largest state transportation agency in the United States, with over 76,800 miles of roadway under its control. That is more than three times the distance around the earth. (VDOT has the third largest system.)  TxDOT has more workers, assets and a larger budget than the governments of many nation-states. The department has been a national leader in transportation research and construction for decades. As Texas A&M’s Transportation Research Institute documents in its annual urban congestion survey, all this highway research and construction has resulted in urban and interurban congestion and immobility in Texas just like the rest of the country. 

Because Texas is so big and has a lot of interstate highways that are failing, this is a place some would look for solutions to the Interstate Highway System problem. S/PI has watched with interest as Texas struggles with the inevitable need to come up with a new mobility system. The most innovative idea so far is to bury large tubes in the ground and move freight pallets in a partial vacuum. In energy consumption per ton mile, this strategy is a winner even with Texas’s vast expanse.  

Politicians, engineers, construction companies and land speculators have come up with their own winner. This is a 12-lane “Superhighway Corridor” (four sets of three lane roadways, one for trucks and one for cars in each direction) plus a rail/utility corridor. The “Superhighway Corridor” concept to move private motor vehicles, a rail line and utilities cuts a swath nearly five football fields wide. 

There are about 3,230 center line miles of Interstate Highways in Texas. That is over 200 miles more than the air miles between the Statue Of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge. The Superhighway Corridor proposal is for 4,000 miles of the new roadway system in Texas alone.

The Texas Superhighway Corridor from north of Dallas to south of San Antonio to relieve congestion on Interstate 35 is the first phase of the dreamed-of 4000 mile system. It is being flogged by Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the “solution” for interregional mobility. The scheme has emerged as the keystone of a 50-year strategy to provide mobility and access for Texans. 

The Washington Post recently provided a summary of the concept and the debate it has generated. (See End Note Four.) There are a growing number of detractors including farm, ranch and property rights groups, as well as municipal (tax base) and commercial interests.

Ironically, the Interstate corridors which are in many cases a few miles away and parallel to the proposed Superhighway Corridors have created a settlement pattern which may be an Achilles heel for the new corridors. 

While it is the elevated directional ramps of “Texas Interchanges” that get the photo credits (think of the I-95/I-395 Interchange to access the Baltimore Inner Harbor or the new I-95/I-395/I-495 directional ramps of the Springfield Interchange), there is another interchange configuration that has caused much of the land use dysfunction in Texas. Each multi-level directional ramp interchange eats up a lot of land at the site of the interchange, but the cheap, small-footprint diamond interchange with endless frontage roads (e.g. from Houston to Dallas-Fort Worth) have greater impact. These diamond interchanges have spawned thousands of miles of “freeway frontage” commercial areas. These area have sucked billions of dollars of investments away from potentially viable settlement patterns.

The Superhighway Corridors would make these billions of dollars of investment as worthless as the Interstate Highway System did the 1920s, '30s and '40s “National Road” motor courts along US highways nationwide. 

To get a handle on the land-use/transportation relationship, an important number is the 4,511 miles of “frontage roads” in the TxDOT system. These roadways are lined with strip centers on one side and the main line of an Interstate or other limited-access highway on the other. If just one-half of this “freeway frontage” were developed at normal “strip center/big box center/discount center/outlet center/power center” patterns and densities, this land would accommodate 7.8-billion sq. ft. of commercial development. That is enough land for 62,880 +/- of these centers -- or one for every 400 residents of Texas. It takes, on average, about 10,000 residents to support such a center. This obscene 25 times excess capacity for shopping areas is a good reason why Texas is a congestion capital in spite of the fact they it has been building as many roads as it can fund since the end of World War II. 

Are Ever-Wider Highways a Solution?

Before anyone seriously considers the Texas "solution"-- or any other program to build a new generation of limited access roadways--as anything but a sick joke, there are several realities to note:

  • New Superhighway Corridors gobble up vast amounts of land. [See End Note Five.]

  • New Superhighway Corridors separate urban and non-urban land uses that rely on synergy-generating proximity for their value and function.

  • Most important however a “Superhighway” will not provide the mobility and access any more than the less-than-super Interstates and the less-than-free freeways were an answer.

Citizens must be on the alert not just for grandiose Superhighway Corridors schemes but for sneaky special, priority projects. New highways parading as “congestion relief” are really the first step of a grand scheme. In Virginia, the lack of money has been a prophylactic that has protected citizens from the spread of bad projects. However, with no one in power or running for office admitting that more money will only make matters worse, the pressure is building for new finance schemes.  

As the critics of the “solutions” that VDOT is considering for the I-81 corridor document, there are better alternatives than a wider roadway corridor from economic, social and physical perspectives. As noted by the references cited in End Note Four, the “public-private” investment scheme touted to fund this project and others to widen, extend or build new corridors is a trap, not an the answer.

Citizens need to evolve settlement patterns that require less travel, not infrastructure that facilitates more movement. New transport infrastructure almost always induces settlement patterns that cannot be provided with mobility, regardless of the cost.

In summary, future sustainability of both democracy and civilization requires that citizens reduce the amount of movement and thus time, energy and facilities required to support a quality life. We will address the issue of consumption, including energy consumption for transport and the myth of a hydrogen economy cure in future columns, but for now it is enough to understand that less travel demand is better.

Back to Balanced Communities

In the long term, less demand, not wider paths to move more vehicles longer distances, must be the goal. Reducing future mobility demand starts with settlement patterns that minimize travel demand.

This means Balanced Communities inside the Clear Edge around the urbanized portions of New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions, and Balanced Disaggregated Communities in the Countryside.

Human settlement pattern in the United States is shaped primarily by private land speculation, municipal land-use controls and state and federal transport policy. As noted by David Riesman, the United States in the only major nation-state in the world where the settlement pattern is not a matter of nation-state policy. Access and mobility has been a federal and state responsibility since the establishment of the country.  Mobility by canal, rail and more recently roads and highways has been the focus of federal action to foster mobility and support commerce and the general welfare, but it has shaped settlement patterns to the determent of the marketplace and the vast majority of citizens.

It is not exotic transportation corridors but Balanced Communities that will create a sustainable future.

The overarching concept of creating Balanced Communities is simple and straight forward. This is especially true for those who are not mired in and beholden to the myths that have guided human settlement pattern agglomeration for the last 80 years. [See “The Myths That Blind Us,” Oct. 20, 2003.]

The details, however, are complex and apparently beyond the grasp of some, especially those looking for sound bites that fit on a campaign brochure. S/PI is frequently asked if there is not a more simple solution than Balanced Communities to achieve a sustainable future that preserves a democracy with a market economy and the elements of the settlement pattern that citizens cherish most, including a functional Urbanside and a viable Countryside. 

The answer is “no.”

-- February 28, 2005




1. See Interregional Highways: Message from the President of the United States transmitting a report of the National interregional Highway Committee, Outlining and Recommending a National System of Interregional Highways.  12 January 1944, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington.  The report contains maps from the '20s, '30s and '40s that look a lot like the current Interstate Highway map.


2.   This is a two-fer end note. One, it indicates the level of information which is readily available and second, the need for better instruction materials for educating students, a topic related to our last two columns. We have reproduced here the first four and last two paragraphs of a thirteen-paragraph white paper on Interstate Highways from the popular web site About.Com. This is the material that school students have access to if they are asked to write about the Interstate Highway System. Because of the volume of hits, this material is on the top of the first page of a Google search on the topics of Interstate Highways.  We have added in [brackets] after each paragraph a note on the content.


On July 7, 1919 a young army captain named Dwight David Eisenhower joined 294 other members of the army and departed from Washington, D.C., in the military's first automobile caravan across the country. Due to poor roads and highways, the caravan averaged five miles per hour and took 62 days to reach Union Square in San Francisco.


(While correct in the details this is like starting the history of gasoline powered vehicles with the Model T.  It also puts Ike in the drivers seat and makes a nice story.)


At the end of World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower surveyed the war damage to Germany and was impressed by the durability of the Autobahn. While a single bomb could make a train route useless, Germany's wide and modern highways could often be used immediately after being bombed because it was difficult to destroy such a wide swath of concrete or asphalt.


(This omits 25 years of history and that President Roosevelt had already started the process.  See End Note One.  It also is made irrelevant by the smart bombs used in Iraq War I and Iraq War II.)


These two experiences helped show President Eisenhower the importance of efficient highways. In the 1950s, America was frightened of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union (people were even building bomb shelters at home). It was thought that a modern interstate highway system could provide citizens with evacuation routes from the cities and would also allow the rapid movement of military equipment across the country.


(This demonstrates the problem with use of the word “cities” instead of “regions” which is what is meant.  S/PI has long suggested the use of  “Interstate” instead of “Interregional” for the highway system name was a big mistake.


Within a year after Eisenhower became President in 1953, he began to push for a system of interstate highways across the United States. Although federal highways covered many areas of the country, the interstate highway plan would create 42,000 miles of limited-access and very modern highways. Eisenhower and his staff worked for two years to get the world's largest public works project approved by Congress. On June 29, 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act (FAHA) of 1956 was signed and the Interstates, as they would be known, began to spread across the landscape.


(An oversimplification that leads to uninformed conclusions.)

.... [The middle seven paragraphs focus on dates, data, signs, etc.] ...

The Interstate Highways that were created to help protect and defend the United States of America were also to be used for commerce and travel. Though no one could have predicted it, the Interstate Highway was a major impetus for in the development of suburbanization and sprawl of U.S. cities. While Eisenhower never desired the Interstates to pass through or reach into the major cities of the U.S., it happened, and along with the Interstates came the problems of congestion, smog, automobile dependency, drop in densities of urban areas, the decline of mass transit, and others.  

(As noted in this column, the potential impacts were clearly documented 30 years before construction started.

Can the damage produced by the Interstates be reversed? A great deal of change would be needed to bring it about.”

(S/PI refers to this change as Fundamental Change.)

3. For a summary of the pitfalls of the public/private partnership funding strategies see Trip Pollard’s column “Reality Check” Jan. 31, 2005 and Patrick McSweeney’s column “The Public Private Trap” Feb. 14, 2005.  

4. Moreno, Sylvia, “Texans Are divided Over Plan for Miles of Wide Toll Roads: Funding, Property Issues Debated,” Feb. 8, 2005, page A-3

5.  If wide new highway corridors will work anywhere, they will work in Texas. There is plenty of room in Texas and a lot of it is flat. The current population is 25 million, with another 25 million projected in the next 50 years in current immigration patterns continue.  Even with 50 million citizens (seven times the population of Virginia) at minimum urban density there would still be almost 170 million acres of non-urban land through which to run superhighway corridors.  All of Virginia contains only 27 million acres, and almost all of it is less suitable to wide highway corridors.























Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.