It's the highways, stupid!

Oct. 7, 2004
Before we had Interstate Highways, virtually the only limited-access roads were turnpikes.
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A mere handful of states had them, and the two that I drove most frequently were in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I never thought about it until recently, but most early turnpikes, and certainly those in Pennsylvania and Ohio, scrupulously steered clear of large cities. Today, cities have grown outward to envelop these two turnpikes, but at the time they were constructed, they generally didn't even come close to major urban areas.

I don't know whether it was prescient wisdom or just happenstance, but people who planned the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes did cities a great favor in a somewhat perverse way. You could use the turnpikes to travel rapidly between distant cities. But once you got off the turnpike, you were bogged down in ordinary city and county roads. As you neared your destination, especially if it was in an urban area, your progress got slower and slower the closer you got to your goal.

If you worked downtown or in a close-in suburb, you tended to live near to where you worked. Commuting long distances was just too much trouble. As a consequence, cities were able to sustain viable middle-class neighborhoods as well as ones that were upscale. Then human nature came into play. Having experienced smooth sailing on turnpikes, people increasingly became aggravated by traffic congestion as they slogged along local roads. So when the Interstate Highway system was set up, most highways headed straight through the centers of large urban areas along their routes. You are probably thinking this was a great improvement. But Interstate Highways headed straight toward the centers of cities have become daggers aimed at their hearts.

When you travel Interstates today, you see more and more lanes dedicated to High Occupancy Vehicles, or the so-called HOV lanes. That means cars carrying at least two people get to drive in lanes less crowded than the others. The idea is that people who carpool should get the benefit of a speedier ride.

A characteristic of HOV lanes is that they usually are in force only during certain times of the day. In the morning, lanes headed toward a city are normally the only ones active. In the evening, lanes aimed away from town are usually the only ones active. And that speaks volumes about the effect Interstates are having on American cities. Increasingly, Interstate Highways aren't for interstate travel at all. They are primarily designed for people commuting to work.

That is how Interstate Highways drain cities of their vitality. The highways make it easy for people to flee first to the suburbs, then to the far-distant suburbs, and finally to the remote countryside 60 miles or more from where they work in town. In fact, it is not uncommon for people today to commute 100 miles or more each way to their jobs in cities.

That, of course, has given people more freedom. Regardless of where they work, they can live where they choose. The guys and gals who grind out their workday downtown or in a close-in suburb can flee every evening to an idyllic retreat in the remote countryside or a distant community.

The downside is that this freedom has had devastating effects on many urban areas. Upper-income residents are fleeing, leaving behind primarily low-income households, retirees, and the underclass. This leads to a cascading effect where more and more businesses, having lost their customers, also flee. Then housing deteriorates, and even essential services such as hospitals and schools begin closing.

Still, urban-highway building goes on unabated, causing cities to sink farther into an abyss. Meanwhile, politicians and activists claim to be concerned about the deterioration of cities as well as the gasoline cars consume and the pollution they cause. But nobody points a finger at the primary culprit. Hey!

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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