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In 1960, Great Britain still had no urban freeways. But with the ownership of private cars becoming ever more common, the problem of congestion in British cities was unavoidable. Investigating the possibilities of freeways as alleviators of big-city traffic jams, the government-sponsored Buchanan Report was pessimistic:
… the study shows the very formidable potential build-up of traffic as vehicular ownership and usage increase to the maximum. The accommodation of the full potential is almost certainly beyond any practical possibility of being realized. There is thus no escaping the need to consider to what extent and by what means the full potential is to be curtailed.1.
In the decades preceding this study, Americans faced much the same problem with transportation in their cities. But the American plan for dealing with urban congestion in the automobile age was very different. In 1954, President Eisenhower suggested that “metropolitan area congestion” be “solved” by “a grand plan for a properly articulated highway system.” In 1956, the House Committee on Public Works urged “drastic steps,” warning that otherwise “traffic jams will soon stagnate our growing economy.”2.
Confronting the same problem–urban traffic congestion–the British and the American governments responded with radically different solutions. In Britain, congestion in cities was understood to mean an excess of automobiles entering cities. The problem, to British planners, was to reduce relative reliance on the private car in order to allow better movement of traffic. But in the U.S., planners interpreted congestion as a sign that roads were inadequate and in need of improvement. In the face of traffic jams, the British tended to say, “too many cars!” while the Americans would say, “insufficient roads!”
U.S. urban transportation policy was shaped by this tendency, from its origins in the 1940s until the mid 1960s. This essay makes a twin argument. First, the way in which U.S. urban transportation policy was formulated in the 1940s and 1950s precluded the British solution. Regardless of the relative merits of the British and American approaches, discouraging the use of the automobile was not an option American policy makers could consider. The American political culture could consider large scale domestic projects only with the cooperation of the private sector, and in the U.S. this meant largely automotive interest groups.
The second point is that American urban transportation policy retreated from this position in the 1960s. By the 1970s U.S. policy was much more like Great Britain’s. In 1975, official Department of Transportation policy recognized the automobile as “a major contributor to . . . congestion,” and it urged “State and local communities to rethink some of the highway planning already done so as to determine if a particular highway still offers the best transportation alternative.”3. But American cities had already been depending on a freeway-based transportation system by the mid 1960s, and the well established automotive trend was irreversable. The volume of motor vehicle traffic in U.S. cities in 1970 was more than two and a half times what it had been in 1950, while the number of passengers carried on urban rail systems had fallen by two thirds. City bus ridership was down by half over the same period. The establishment of the freeway as the principal transportation system in American cities–and of the private automobile as the primary mode–was an accomplished fact by the late 1960s.4.
The policy changes begun in the mid 1960s came too late to change the overwhelmingly automobile-based urban transportation system. One can deny the significance of the change on the grounds of its tardiness. But an important question remains unanswered: why did federal transportation policy reverse itself and urge a “rethinking” of planned freeway projects? How did planners get from the “insuf-ficient roads” interpretation of congestion to the “too many cars” perspective?
This essay suggests some explanations. In part, the “insufficient roads” view, once implemented, entailed its own demise. Promoters of urban highways acknowledged that “drastic steps” were necessary to allow relatively free movement of automobiles in cities. These steps, to be drastic enough to work, also had to be drastic enough to create controversy and opposition where little or none had existed before. If, as New York’s great road builder, Robert Moses, suggested, planners would have to “hack” their way with a “meat ax” to build highways in cities, then they could expect highway opponents to become equally uncompromising in their opposition.5. After a great deal of hacking, local opposition, legal restrictions, and court decisions dulled the ax’s edge.
Second, the decentralized organization of the U.S. political system allowed many points of access to policy-making forums for groups opposing specific highway projects, groups opposing the freeway-based urban transportation policy, and groups promoting other forms of urban transit. As early as 1959, San Francisco’s city government, under pressure from its citizens, banned freeway projects within its city limits. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, other cities followed San Francisco’s lead, fighting projects that were politically threatening.6.
There is little record of state-level opposition to projects, though this is understandable in view of the high level of state control over highway planning. At the federal level, from which most urban highway money came, divergent agendas (such as aid to mass transit, highway beautification, and increased relocation assistance to residents displaced by highway projects) as well as outright opposition to highways on the part of a number of prominent congressmen and senators, served to weaken the original highways-only federal urban transportation policy of the 1950s.
Also important to the change was the increasing insulation of federal transportation policymaking in the 1960s from the interest groups which had virtually controlled it in the 1950s. When Eisenhower and Congress teamed up to create a well funded federal urban transportation policy, they asked private road-building interests to work out the details. Eisenhower’s reluctance to expand the federal bureaucracy necessitated such a move. There was no federal agency concerned specifically with urban transportation. The government’s highway agency–the Bureau of Public Roads–historically concerned itself with rural roads, leaving urban routes to municipal governments. The BPR was underfunded and so it too resorted to the advice of industry. Highway industries therefore had a claim to expertise that no government agency could dispute.7.
Over the course of the 1960s this situation changed considerably. With the end of executive-branch reluctance to expand the bureaucracy, the federal government began to create its own instruments of transportation policymaking, independent of industry. In 1966, the recently created federal transportation agencies were brought together in the new Department of Transportation. With its administrators responsible to the president and with its own in-house expertise, the Department was insulated from the influence of highway industry.
The demise of the highways-only policy stemmed also from serious flaws in the policy itself. From the end of World War Two, the federal government began a significant intervention in urban transportation, one which had increased to enormous proportions by 1960. But the funds were provided exclusively for the construction of urban highways. Thus, urban transportation systems necessarily became imbalanced in favor of automotive transport, regardless of the relative merits of the various modes under various conditions. Even the automotive transport systems themselves were out of balance, because of the ways in which federal dollars were allocated. For example, while new freeways were providing automobiles unprecedented ease of access to cities, substantially less federal money was provided for the downtown streets that had to bear the increased load, and no money at all was available to provide the record numbers of cars with parking.
Even more basic, highway planners operated on the erroneous assumption that potential demand for highways could be sated if only the supply were sufficiently expanded. Eisenhower’s stated goal was to build a system that would meet demand projections ten years after completion. But demand does not exist in a vacuum: By building a road to meet the demand of ten years later, one hastens the arrival of that projected demand, so that it might appear in three years instead of ten. This is not a speculative point. A Bureau of Public Roads document from 1953 estimated that “by 1990, it is possible that the number of motor vehicles will be almost double the present total.” In fact the BPR’s liberal estimate was overwhelmingly short of the true rate of increase: 336 percent. This is despite the fact that actual 1990 population was less than the agency had predicted. The harder road builders tried to increase supply (road capacity), the more they increased demand (the number of motorists). This fact may seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, but pro-highway documents from before the mid 1960s–both governmental and private–routinely urged a policy that would provide enough roads to exceed demand. “We can lick congestion,” Robert Moses promised, if only enough highways could be built.8.
Finally, the highways-only policy, by massing federal transportation dollars in roads only, gave road transport a net subsidy over rail, the other important surface mode.9. An English planner commenting in 1961 on the advisability of American-style urban freeways in Britain put it simply: “the cause of excessive congestion in cities is the failure to charge road users the full urban freeways were not going to “lick congestion.” Eventually, cost of their journeys.” If he was right, then America’s new urban transportation policy would have to adjust to that.10. If he was right, then America’s new U.S. urban transportation policy would have to adjust to that.