The Interstate Highway System is a primary cause of
dysfunctional human settlement patterns-–the
scatteration of urban land uses and thus
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
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
“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
It is time to take a deep breath, understand the history and
circumstances of the
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.
Original Crime Scene
The idea of an interregional superhighway system in the
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
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
In 1919, an army convoy took 62 days to go
from Washington, D.C.,
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
parkways without frontage access or
at-grade intersections in the United
and private toll roads in northern Italy
provided working prototypes for a new defense
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
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
While the federal establishment considered, some states
first section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike
opened in 1940.
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
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
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
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,
Joe has developed documentation
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
urban fabric will be thought of in the same way as
the impact of European colonists on Native
American culture is now regarded.
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
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
Simply stated, the
System cannot handle the intraregional travel demand that the
existence of these roadways generated. [See “The Commuting Problem,”
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
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
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”
20, 2004 and the series of five transport- related columns from “Self
Delusion and Fraud” to “Media Myopia” from June
7 to August
It should now be clear to all that the
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.
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
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
forgot those scenes?
Try almost every image of “modern
mobility” from Futurama at the 1939 Worlds
Fair to ... well, the latest TxDOT or VDOT
The State of Texas
has the largest highway system and the largest
state transportation agency in the
with over 76,800 miles of roadway under its
is more than three times the distance around the
has the third largest system.)
TxDOT has more workers, assets and a
larger budget than the governments of many
department has been a national leader in
transportation research and construction for
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.
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
has watched with interest as
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
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
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
The Superhighway Corridor proposal is for
4,000 miles of the new roadway system in
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
Rick Perry as the “solution” for
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
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
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
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
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”
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
“National Road” motor courts along US
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
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.
Ever-Wider Highways a Solution?
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:
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
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
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.
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
starts with settlement patterns that minimize
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
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
The answer is “no.”
-- February 28, 2005
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
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.
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
have added in [brackets] after each paragraph a
note on the content.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
oversimplification that leads to uninformed
[The middle seven paragraphs focus on
dates, data, signs, etc.]
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.
noted in this column, the potential impacts were
clearly documented 30 years before construction
the damage produced by the Interstates be
reversed? A great deal of change would be needed
to bring it about.”
refers to this change as Fundamental Change.)
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.
Moreno, Sylvia, “Texans Are divided
Over Plan for Miles of Wide Toll Roads: Funding,
Property Issues Debated,” Feb. 8, 2005, page
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