I just read an outstanding, succinct, and damning history of freeways and cities called Paved with Good Intentions: Fiscal Politics, Freeways, and the 20th Century American City. If you are appalled by Kemper Freeman’s efforts to scuttle light rail on Interstate 90 and the tunnel in Seattle, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, or any huge, spendy highway project that seems to completely undermine the principles of good urban planning, it is a must read. The article’s central theory is that our highway mess in the region began when control of highways was ceded to state and federal highway planners whose focus was on speeding traffic through rural communities, rather than good land use in cities.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of cars on the road started to explode. City streets became flooded with them. From 1900 to 1930, the number of cars in the city went from 8,000 to 22 million. This meant chronic congestion. Early city planners had some basically sensible ideas about how to deal with the influx, including dispersal of traffic using grid patterns over radial patterns rather than speeding it up with long stretches of road. In those earlier days, housing and transportation were planned together and to the extent that freeways were called for, they were intended to be multimodal, integrating mass transit.

  • But the costs for planning and paying for the new roads began to outpace the ability of local governments to pay for them with property taxes (the usual revenue source for local government). So the locals turned to help from federal and state transportation departments which used taxes on gas to raise money for highways, and soon the gas tax became the preferred revenue source. Even during the depression, when tax revenues were down for everything else (property tax revenues falling 72 percent, for example), gas tax revenues rose every year between 1930 and the beginning of World War Two. But while gas taxes were a reliable and steady revenue source, it also meant a loss of local control.

    And here is where we are today. Highway advocates—road builders, the automotive industry—pushed hard to get gas taxes dedicated to highway construction. In Washington, for example, the state constitution actually enshrines the position that gasoline tax revenue’s can only be used on highways, a provision that now forms the basis of efforts to stop light rail from running on highway lanes.

    So the need to accommodate cars led to greater dependence on gas tax revenue, and with the dependence on gas tax revenue came more control over design by state and federal governments. And from a design perspective that meant a need for speed and capacity:

    For the most part state highway engineers lacked a holistic view of freeways’ place within the larger urban organism. Context, land use, and multi-modalism were largely absent from their plans. For example, many early freeway plans called for frequent interchanges in order to alleviate the burden of traffic spillover on nearby streets, but state highway engineers sought to minimize the number of interchanges in order to speed traffic, discourage short trips, and reduce costs. This rural-centered focus on high-speed superhighways, even in cities, was gradually etched in stone and would become—for better or worse—a hallmark of the Interstate system.

    The obsessive focus of current state highway engineers to “replace existing capacity” is also rooted in this auto centric view. It’s why in the 21st century, when we are confronted with the growing effects of climate change and disasters associated with oil, that we are still building highways to accommodate more cars. In the case of replacing the 520 bridge over Lake Washington, it is deemed inexpedient to add light rail to the bridge, even though the state is mandating reductions in driving miles.  And on the Columbia River Crossing, light rail is being offered only as a Faustian pact for accepting massive spending on capacity replacement.

    So leaders in the region have their work cut out for them. First, they face the inevitable economic development worries often cited by highway advocates—“if we don’t build it, we will be committing municipal suicide.” And then there is almost 100 years of history, of “that’s the way we do things around here.” Closing the Sustainability Gap is going to require some serious changes in the thinking of a lot of people who grew up in an economy driven—literally—by accommodating growing numbers of cars. Politicians and highway advocates need to read the memo—reducing driving means putting fewer cars on the road, which means we shouldn’t be investing scarce resources in more highways.