It wasn't supposed to be this way. Sixty-plus years ago when President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act authorizing construction of 41,000 miles of expressway and upgrades for hundreds of thousands of miles of secondary roads, it was about building a road to a much better, more prosperous, more connected, more modern future. These were the glorious ribbons of highway connecting sea to shining sea.
For the General-turned-President, the Interstate system was also a matter of national security. WWII had ended a little over a decade earlier so the idea that the US could find itself under attack wasn't completely far-fetched. If needed, the Interstate system could be used to speed up deployment of troops and supplies across the country.
Despite its "Andy of Mayberry" meets "The Twilight Zone" aesthetic, the industry video at the top—"We'll Take the High Road"—commissioned by the American Road Builders Association, provides riveting insights into the thinking and the engineering that went into an enormously complex project. This was a technological tour de force. In order to map out the topography of vast areas quickly, for example, aerial photographs were taken with giant stereo cameras, then measurements from the 3D pictures were fed into computers—via punchcard—for analysis.
The film provides all sorts of other revealing insights as well. At a time when air-conditioning was a rare luxury, men wore suits and tie-clipped ties every day. Women were portrayed either as decorative or Aunt Bea-eccentric. As for people of color, there was only one in the film and he shined shoes.
Two of the supporting characters were farmers. In the mid-1950s, more than 25 million Americans lived on farms. Today the tally is closer to four million, maybe.
The obliviousness to cultural bias was matched only by the obliviousness to potential environmental impacts. To be fair, it wasn't until 1958 that Charles David Keeling started tracking atmospheric CO2 levels for what would become known as the Keeling Curve. There was no way to know all those those gas-guzzling, two-toned visions of the future driving off into the sunset were instead driving us all off a climate cliff.
Over the last sixty years atmospheric carbon levels have increased—and at an accelerating rate—by nearly a third, from 315 ppm to 412 ppm. In terms of climate change, 350 ppm is considered the top limit of safe. Above 400 ppm and all bets are off. Ironically extreme weather linked to climate change accelerates the deterioration of roads and bridges. Meanwhile the US population of cars and trucks now numbers in the hundreds of millions and expressways are anything but.
Of course, if we're all stuck in traffic on a crumbly roads, then we might as well burst into song.
All the road's a stage.