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Public Roads - Sept/Oct 2000

The Genie in The Bottle: The Interstate System and Urban Problems, 1939-1957

by Richard F. Weingroff

If you wanted to know the 20th century's top songs, movies, novels, people, TV shows, news stories, or any other topic capable of being ranked by superlatives, 1999 was the year for you. Dozens of lists identified the "best," "greatest," "most influential," and "sexiest" activities, events, and people of the century and even the millennium.

Not surprisingly, the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways appeared on lists throughout the year. In March 1999, for example, CONEXPO-CON/AGC included the interstate system among the "Top 10 Construction Achievements of the 20th Century." The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) honored the interstate system as one of the "Top 10 Achievements of the 20th Century." U.S. News and World Report (Dec. 27, 1999) identified "25 Shapers of the Modern Era," including former Federal Highway Administrator Frank Turner, who was identified as the "The Superhighway Superman."

When Engineering News-Record published its 125th anniversary issue (July 26, 1999), it listed the "125 Top Projects" over the life of the magazine. The interstate system was listed for 1996, its 40th anniversary. The magazine could have been speaking for all the others who selected the interstate system for century honors when it noted that it earned its place on the list "based on sheer size and scale."

Because of its sheer size and scale, the interstate system became controversial as soon as the construction program began after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. And its impacts, particularly on our cities, remain controversial. This aspect of the interstate system can be seen in the results of a survey announced in 1999 by the Fannie Mae Foundation, a think tank that produces research, reports, and working papers on affordable housing. Professor Robert Fishman of Rutgers University surveyed leading urban historians, planners, and architects on the most powerful influences on the American metropolis in the past 50 years. With the results listed in order of importance, No. 1 is the 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the dominance of the automobile.

"More than any other single measure, the 1956 act created the decentralized, automobile-dependent metropolis we know today," said Fishman.

Excerpt From Robert Fishman's "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences"

Proclaimed the "largest public works program since the Pyramids," the 41,000-mile [actually 42,800 miles (68,878 kilometers)] interstate highway system transformed the American metropolis in ways its planners never anticipated. The system was supposed to save central cities by rescuing them from automobile congestion, and also to provide high-speed long-distance travel from city to city: "Coast-to-coast without a traffic light." But the massive new urban highways, intended to move traffic rapidly in and out of downtown, quickly became snarled in ever-growing congestion, and their construction devastated many urban neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the new peripheral "beltways," originally designed to enable long-distance travelers to bypass crowded central cities, turned into the "Main Streets" of postwar suburbia. Cheap rural land along the beltways became the favored sites for new suburban housing, shopping malls, industrial parks, and office parks that drew people and businesses out of the central cities. Finally, the interstate system was financed by a highway trust fund supported by the abundant revenue from federal gasoline taxes. Those funds were available only for highways and the federal government paid 90 percent of the cost of the new highways. By contrast, localities paid a much higher percentage for investment in mass transit. This was a powerful incentive to neglect mass transit and focus a region's transportation investments only on roads. More than any other measure, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act created the decentralized, automobile-dependent metropolis we know today.

The two men who conceived the interstate system in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- Thomas H. MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), and his top aide, Herbert S. Fairbank -- would not have been surprised at the No. 1 ranking because they expected the interstate system to have a major impact on metropolitan areas. They would, however, have been surprised by the criticism that the interstate system caused the very problems that MacDonald and Fairbank expected the urban interstates to solve.


(According to the Fannie Mae Foundation Survey)

  1. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the dominance of the automobile.
  2. Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing and subdivision regulation.
  3. De-industrialization of central cities.
  4. Urban renewal -- downtown redevelopment and public housing projects (1949 Housing Act).
  5. Levittown (planned communities and the mass-produced suburban tract house).
  6. Racial segregation and job discrimination in cities and suburbs.
  7. Enclosed shopping malls.
  8. Sunbelt-style sprawl.
  9. Air conditioning.
  10. Urban riots of the 1960s.



(According to the Fannie Mae Foundation Survey)

  1. Growing disparities of wealth.
  2. Suburban political majority.
  3. Aging of the baby boomers.
  4. Perpetual "underclass" in central cities and inner-ring suburbs.
  5. "Smart growth" -- environmental and planning initiatives to limit sprawl.
  6. Internet.
  7. Deterioration of the "first-ring" post-1945 suburbs.
  8. Shrinking household size.
  9. Expanded superhighway system of "outer beltways" to serve new edge cities.
  10. Racial integration as part of the increasing diversity in cities and suburbs.

The Autobahn Model


In the 1930s, the growing importance of highway transportation led to many visionary "superhighway" schemes. For example, T.E. Steiner of Wooster, Ohio, proposed a 6,500-kilometer (4,000-mile) Transcontinental Stream- Lined Super Highway stretching from Plymouth Rock on the Atlantic Ocean to San Francisco on the Pacific. It would be as straight as possible, except for a slight curve around Lake Erie. Right-of-way would be 138 meters (450 feet) wide, with 915-meter- (3,000-foot-) wide sections every 16 to 32 kilometers (10 to 20 miles) for recreation centers, hotels, restaurants, and gasoline stations. Four lanes of concrete pavement would carry automobiles, and on a separate track, four lanes paved with bricks would carry trucks. The $12 billion cost of construction would be self- liquidating; the federal government would issue superhighway bonds to be retired by the collection of tolls.

Steiner's idea received considerable press and congressional interest, as did other visionary superhighway proposals for carrying the nation's traffic across the country. But for those interested in seeing actual superhighways, there was only one place to go: Germany.

Thomas H. MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, (shown talking on the telephone) and his top aide Herbert S. Fairbank were the impetus for an interstate highway system. In 1957, when Fairbank received the Thomas H. MacDonald Award for lifetime achievement, he said of his mentor, "If ever a man deserved the name of prophet, it was he. If ever a public servant could truly boast of an administration of the people's business virtually without flaw, it was he. If ever in any man there can be combined just that conjunction of the qualities of the able engineer, the perceptive political economist, the skilled diplomat, and the sure and faithful administrator that it takes to make a great highway engineer, it was in Thomas H. MacDonald that these qualities found their rarest blending."

Everyone involved with roads wanted to see Adolph Hitler's autobahn road network. Although the 7,200- kilometer (4,500-mile) Reichsautobahnen (National Auto Roads) was conceived in the 1920s, Hitler adopted the concept after he came to power in 1933. The first section (Frankfurt to Darmstadt) opened in May 1935.

American engineers and politicians flocked to Germany to see the marvelous new superhighways in operation. Visitors drove the concrete roads and, if time permitted, chief engineer Fritz Todt took them on a zeppelin overview of the national network. Back in the United States, they debated whether Hitler was building the Reichsautobahnen for economic purposes, as he claimed, or for military reasons, as visitors feared.

The reaction of U.S. Rep. Wilburn Cartwright of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Committee on Roads, was typical. After touring the autobahn in 1938, he said: "When I think of super-highways, I think of Germany, for, regardless of what we think of him as a man, we must give Fuhrer Hitler credit for building a system of super- highways in his country which are second to none in the world today."

More importantly, Cartwright was convinced it was "not an idle boast for us to say that we can do better anything that Germany can do well." Most visitors shared Cartwright's vision of a network of superhighways crisscrossing the United States.

MacDonald and Fairbank came away from their visits to Germany with a different perspective. After viewing the autobahn network with Dr. Todt in 1936, MacDonald agreed that the roads were "wonderful examples of the best modern road building." However, he did not see them as a model for America. They were a rural network serving small amounts of traffic. The autobahn stayed out of the cities, which is where the United States was experiencing its greatest highway problems.

MacDonald told the ASCE in 1937: "The system of German roads is being built in advance of, and to promote the development of, highway transportation. In the United States, the situation is just the reverse [and] the building of superhighways must be limited to areas where the present and prospective traffic will justify it. ... From the developments abroad and in the United States, one can conclude that superhighways will be created, but only in the vicinity of metropolitan areas, for relieving traffic congestion within those areas and for connecting those that are separated by relatively short distances."

At the time, BPR was working with the state highway agencies to gather data that would provide the statistical backing for the next stage in American highway development. The most extensive statewide traffic surveys ever conducted demonstrated that transcontinental, even long-distance traffic, was light -- only about 300 vehicles a day moving over all major highways between the East and West coasts -- and could not justify the costly, visionary superhighways that Steiner and others imagined. In an era when long-distance passenger and freight traffic moved primarily by rail, the survey showed that the nation's rural interstate roads (mainly the U.S. numbered highways) were not congested.

A Blight Near Its Very Core

The primary problem, as confirmed by the statewide highway surveys, was in metropolitan areas. And that is where MacDonald and Fairbank turned their focus as they used the data to prepare the 1939 report to Congress on Toll Roads and Free Roads. Congress had asked BPR to study the feasibility of a limited network of toll superhighways, but the report explained that except in a few heavily traveled corridors, transcontinental and long-distance traffic could not support such a network, especially in view of "the traffic-repelling tendency" of toll roads.

Instead, the report outlined "A Master Plan for Free Highway Development" that called for a toll-free system of direct interregional highways. The term "interregional" emphasized that the bulk of traffic was regional rather than transcontinental. For rural sections, the idea was to upgrade existing roads to provide a higher standard of traffic service. In many areas, the roads would remain two lanes; grade separation would not be needed where traffic was light. This component of the plan is described in detail in the report, but when Fairbank, the primary author, turned to the metropolitan areas, the true vision behind the Master Plan became clear.

The shift of population to the suburbs had begun taking its toll on cities. The automobile had made possible "the outward transfer of the homes of citizens with adequate income from the inner city to the suburbs," with narrow city roads used to convey "these citizens daily back and forth to their city offices and places of business."

"The former homes of the transferred population have descended by stages to lower and lower income groups, and some of them ... have now run the entire gamut. Almost untenable, occupied by the humblest citizens, they fringe the business district and form the city's slums -- a blight near its very core!" wrote Fairbank.

The once proud tenements were in collapse, were taken over by the cities for unpaid taxes, and were sometimes replaced by parking lots. "And now, the Federal Government is beginning to acquire them in batches in connection with its slum-clearance projects."

Construction of new trans-city highway connections and express highways was urgent, if only to ensure that the government's slum-clearance projects would not block the logical projection of the needed new arteries. There was another reason to avoid delay in providing city expressways.

"It is that in the business district itself -- in most cities, but particularly in the older ones -- there is a slow decay that will not be arrested until there is a radical revision of the city plan."

Toll Roads and Free Roads stressed that what was needed was not simply a highway network. "Such a revision will have to provide the greater space now needed for the unfettered circulation of traffic and will have to permit a reintegration of facilities for the various forms of transportation -- railway terminals, docks, airports, and the highway approaches to such -- more consistent with their modern relationships." No other work "would be so likely to supply the impetus."

In the larger cities, "only a major operation will suffice." Fairbank would later describe the concept as a wheel with a hub, spokes, and rim. Depressed or elevated freeways, preferably depressed, would carry traffic into and through the heart of the city, with grade separations to avoid conflicts with cross traffic. The rim, a circumferential beltway around the city would allow through traffic to bypass the business section of the city, but its main purpose would be to link the radial expressways for local traffic. In addition, the report recommended a distributing belt line, or hub, around the central business district. It would link the radial roads, which would terminate at the inner belt line. Traffic bound for other destinations could bypass the congested heart of the city.

Because the states often lacked the authority to acquire right-of-way, Toll Roads and Free Roads proposed a Federal Land Authority that would issue bonds to acquire, hold, sell, and lease land -- especially "decadent property" -- for highways and other federal public works projects. The authority would promote coordination among public works projects, such as federal slum-clearance projects and federal-aid street improvements.

On April 27, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transmitted BPR's report to Congress. Roosevelt loved the extravagant superhighway concepts that the report rejected, but he said the special system of direct interregional highways would meet national defense requirements and "the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range." As a former governor, Roosevelt believed the cities should be responsible for their own roads, so he almost grudgingly noted that the improved facilities would be important "in the general replanning of the cities."

The Plight of the Cities

The passion for using transportation to revitalize metropolitan areas became even clearer in the next major report on the future interstate system: Interregional Highways. President Roosevelt established the National Interregional Highway Committee in 1941 to elaborate on the master plan outlined in Toll Roads and Free Roads.

The committee included former governor Bibb Graves of Alabama and two state highway leaders, G. Donald Kennedy of Michigan and C.H. Purcell of California -- both from states facing urban traffic problems. The other members gave the committee a decidedly urban tilt. Harland Bartholomew of St. Louis was one of the nation's leading city planners. Rex Tugwell, a close political associate of the president, had been responsible for the government's "Greenbelt" new cities program and was serving as chairman of the New York City Planning Commission at the time of the appointment. And Frederic A. Delano, the president's uncle, was chairman of the National Resources Planning Board, which had studied urban problems extensively.

Bibb (who died in early 1942), Tugwell (appointed governor of Puerto Rico in 1941), and Delano (who withdrew from an active role) played little part in preparing the committee's report. Instead, the report reflected to a large extent the views of MacDonald, who chaired the committee, and Fairbank, who served as secretary and chief author. Furthermore, staff of the BPR, which was now called the Public Roads Administration (PRA), provided research, statistical, and clerical services to the committee, thus ensuring that the conclusions reflected the positions advocated by MacDonald and Fairbank.

Although the report was written mainly in 1941, President Roosevelt held it until 1944 when planners were beginning to focus on post-war programs to employ returning veterans and avoid a return of the Depression of the 1930s. In transmitting the report to Congress on Jan. 12, 1944, President Roosevelt stated that the proposed interregional highway network "when fully improved will meet to an optimum degree the needs of interregional and intercity highway transportation." Although the president mentioned urban connections, they clearly were not his passion. He gave no hint of MacDonald and Fairbank's vision of highways as the key to urban revitalization.

The report made the vision clear.

"The plight of the cities," the report states, "is due to the most rapid urbanization ever known, without sufficient plan or control." The focal point of all cities, the central business district, was "cramped, crowded, and depreciated."

Beyond the center, a secondary business area merged almost imperceptibly with a large area of mixed land uses and rundown buildings. "This is the slum area where living conditions are poor."

The slums were surrounded by an even larger area of depreciated residential property. This is the widely discussed "blighted area." Without the application of effective rehabilitation measures, it will become part of the city's slums.

The automobile and the improvement of highways allowed some of the population to flee "this undesirable state of affairs." The report warned: "So long, however, as the central areas of the cities are poor places in which to live and rear children, people will continue to move to the outskirts."

Suburban development was on the increase within the city limits and beyond them. "Beyond this blighted area lie the new residential areas. They extend far out beyond the city limits, in the form of widely scattered subdivisions, merging almost imperceptibly into the farm lands." But the subdivisions were joined by "inadequate highways and streets."

Suburban business centers had followed the clustering of suburban homes. The parking problem in the central business district "has to a limited extent induced an outward movement of some large emporiums and a more numerous establishment of branch and chain stores in suburban communities." Even industry was showing a preference for outer locations where land was more plentiful and less expensive. Of course, the most favorable location for industry was along transportation facilities, including highways.

This unbalanced condition was "fraught with great economic difficulties." This "outward movement of residence, business, and industry" caused the "depreciation in value of city-contained land and property available by taxation for the financial support of the city government and the various services it must supply to its residents." Few cities had been able to grapple successfully with the situation, but in nearly all cities, "great efforts are being made today to restrain excessive decentralization, and to rehabilitate slum and blighted areas."

"Blighted areas in the large cities average 20 percent of the total area; but in that 20 percent is concentrated 33 percent of the city population; and that 33 percent of the population is responsible for 45 percent of the major crimes, for 60 percent of the juvenile delinquency, for 50 percent of the arrests, for 60 percent of the tuberculosis, for 50 percent of the disease, for 35 percent of the fires, for 45 percent of the city service costs with tax revenues on real estate of 6 percent. That is, in blighted areas, you have a spread between city costs and revenues from real estate of 39 percent."

-- Thomas H. MacDonald, April 28, 1944, before the U.S. House Committee on Roads

Logical Future City Development

The urban freeways described in Interregional Highways would exert "a powerful force tending to shape the future development of the city," but only if they are planned "to promote a desirable urban development." Because metropolitan areas consisted of several political jurisdictions, the report recommended that an overall authority be created to cooperate with the state highway agency in developing an overall thoroughfare plan.

Interregional Highways elaborated on the hub/spokes/rim concept described in Toll Roads and Free Roads. The hub around the central business district was particularly important. At the interchanges on the hub, parking garages would be provided to keep most vehicles out of the central business district. Other off-street parking would be provided at well-chosen central points within the business district.

With the hub/spokes/rim concept in place, the danger of expanded suburban "ribbon" development, which had often occurred along the main highways, could be avoided through special preventive measures. "One of these measures, applicable at the appropriate stages of city growth, would be to provide additional circumferential routes ... and then, as the interradial spaces widen, to add branches to the radial arteries, thus encouraging uniform development of the whole area rather than ribbon-like settlement along the radials. [Also] the denial of access to the new arterial highways for a substantial outward distance beyond any desired points on these highways would probably discourage the creeping of settlement along them much beyond the selected points."

Metropolitan segments should be located so they "will best and most conveniently serve to promote their use in proper coordination with other transportation means." Therefore, freeway location should be coordinated with housing and city planning authorities; railroad, bus, and truck interests; air transportation and airport officials; and any other agencies, groups, and interests that may affect the future shape of the city. The location of interregional routes in cities should also be considered along with the projected location of new housing developments, city centers, parks, greenbelts, and other changes affecting large tracts of land.

Properly placed roads "will become more and more useful as time passes," but improperly located roads "will become more and more of an encumbrance to the city's functions and an all too durable reminder of planning that was bad."


Campaign for Urban Renewal -- By Highway

Rep. Wilburn Cartwright of Oklahoma was the chairman of the House Committee on Roads in the late 1930s

A few days after President Roosevelt transmitted Interregional Highways to Congress, MacDonald addressed ASCE on how the interregional system would affect cities. He listed the problems that the cities faced: traffic congestion, sectional decadence of property values, blight, menacing tax delinquency, inadequate public transport facilities, a growing deficit between cost of city government and revenues, high tax rates, and a loss of confidence of investment capital in desirable housing ventures. He noted that cities had tried, unsuccessfully, to use zoning and city planning to address the problems, but both proved inadequate and may have contributed to the problems. He proposed the interregional system as a new possibility.

Acknowledging that decentralization was the "storm center of the urban problem," he noted, "While the motor vehicle and the improvement of some city streets and connecting rural highways in the recent past have been decentralizing influences, there are many other organic centrifugal tendencies inherent in residential and commercial activities tendencies which had manifested themselves long before the era of the automobile."

He described the current situation in stark terms. "Sporadic urban expansion left largely to the operations of the subdivider creates ribbon developments along the transportation corridors, with large undeveloped interstices between them, greatly increasing the cost and difficulties of providing essential public facilities and services."

MacDonald, like Fairbank, saw express highways as a way of reversing, or at least slowing, these trends. The new program was "the most plausible solution" for restoring decadent areas and preserving the central business districts in view of "the dynamic forces that have made decentralization of the original city inevitable."

Planning was the key. In essence, he was warning city officials that the genie was only granting them one wish. Choose wisely. They would have to live with the consequences of their choice for many years to come.

The Plight of Our Cities Worsens

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which President Roosevelt signed on Dec. 20, advanced the concept of a national network of express highways. The legislation changed the name of PRA's National System of Interregional Highways to the National System of Interstate Highways. It authorized PRA to designate a 65,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) network "so located as to connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers to serve the national defense and to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico."

"Apparently everybody in the United States is waiting for the close of the war to get in a car to go some place."

-- Thomas H. MacDonald, April 27, 1944, before the U.S. House Committee on Roads

What was noticeably absent was any commitment to the planning and coordination of highway development with other public and private facilities in metropolitan areas, as called for in Toll Roads and Free Roads. and Interregional Highways. Also, the 1944 act did not authorize special funding for the new system. The routes were to be included in the federal-aid primary (FAP) system and would be eligible for FAP funding made available to the state highway agencies each year by statutory formula. The federal-to-state matching ratio would be the same as for the other FAP projects: 50-to-50.

After the end of World War II in 1945, the trends that MacDonald and Fairbank had described accelerated. As the post-war economy surged, Americans, who had adjusted to the privations of the Depression and World War II, enjoyed the unfamiliar luxury of cash in hand. The shift of America's baby-booming population and businesses to the suburbs increased, particularly after the first Levittown opened in 1947.

In creating this new community on Long Island, New York, developer William Levitt used the mass production concepts that had transformed the auto industry in the 1910s to build low-priced houses (initially selling for $7,990 with easy monthly payments for veterans) arranged in a community that included village greens, shopping centers, playgrounds, bowling alleys, swimming pools, and a town hall. The first Levittown would be duplicated in one form or another around the country.

Automobile sales did more than keep pace with the boom; the sales spurred the boom. In 1945, about 31 million motor vehicles were registered. By 1950, registrations totaled more than 49 million vehicles, including 8.6 million trucks.

Throughout the post-war 1940s, the federal-aid highway program remained at a steady level. Federal funds were needed for other pressing needs, such as housing. Construction contractors worked at capacity on housing and other projects generated by the booming inflationary economy.

During this interim period, MacDonald and Fairbank worked with the state highway agencies to select routes for the National System of Interstate Highways. On Aug. 2, 1947, MacDonald and Maj. Gen. Philip B. Fleming, administrator of the Federal Works Agency (which included PRA), announced the designation of the initial 60,640 kilometers (37,681 miles) of the interstate system. The designation included the nation's principal highways, as well as 4,638 kilometers (2,882 miles) of urban thoroughfares. An additional 3,732 kilometers (2,319 miles) were reserved for urban circumferential and distributed routes that would be designated after coordination with city, state, and federal authorities (in 1955, as it turned out).

The press release described the type of urban thoroughfare that city dwellers could expect. "In many large cities, depressed or elevated expressways will be built, making possible city travel at an average speed of 35 to 45 miles [56 to 72 kilometers] an hour, without stops for traffic signals and free of interference by cross-traffic. Depressed portions of expressways will be supplemented by parallel frontage roads for 'local' traffic, and bridges will be constructed at intersections to serve cross-traffic."

A month later, MacDonald addressed the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials in New York City. He told the nation's leading highway officials, most of whom had devoted their careers to rural highway development, that understanding "the interrelation and interdependence of the various forms of transport" was essential for our cities. Highway transportation was the common denominator because it "correlates, assists, and implements all other types of movements." But highway, rail, water, and air must be considered in developing plans.

In metropolitan areas, commuter traffic was the most prominent feature of highway traffic. MacDonald told his colleagues that the need for improved arteries would grow "as the inevitable outward trend of urban home location continues." He added, "In a large and unfortunately increasing measure, the great tidal movements are inefficiently accomplished in private motor cars. In large but undesirably decreasing part, they are served by mass transit facilities."

At the time, mass transit was provided mainly by private companies. According to transit historian George M. Smerk, of the more than 1,000 transit properties in 1948, only 36 were publicly owned. Public subsidies for profit-oriented transit companies were unthinkable. Nevertheless, MacDonald urged the state highway officials to do whatever they could to reverse the trend. "Unless this reversal can be accomplished, indeed, the traffic problems of the larger cities may become well nigh insoluble."

The End of a Dream

City planners generally agreed with PRA's theory that expressways, coupled with off-street parking, could address not only traffic congestion but the problems of urban blight. In devising ways of revitalizing cities, and especially their central business districts, planners realized that mass transit and rail had a role in city development but an expressway system was the key to reorienting urban regions.

Although the nation's cities were ready for the interstate freeways that MacDonald and Fairbank believed would revitalize the metropolitan areas, President Harry S. Truman and his advisors had other plans. As described by historian Mark Rose in Interstate Express Highway Politics 1941-1989, Fleming wrote to the president on Dec. 21, 1948, to express his concerns about contemplated housing legislation that was limited to slum removal and replatting. Saying that such a limited program would "defeat the basic purposes of the program," Fleming proposed a coordinated approach within his agency.

Rose described the MacDonald-Fleming plan: "MacDonald could continue his urban road-building program, thus quickly eliminating 'thousands of substandard houses.' Leaders of the Public Buildings Administration, another of Fleming's subagencies, would plan federal buildings as part of the civic center redevelopments taking place in many cities. Executives in the Bureau of Community Facilities, still another Federal Works subagency, would loan funds for planning additional public buildings in redeveloped sections. New express highways, in the final picture, 'will be the framework of the redeveloped city.'"

On April 20, 1949, President Truman denied Fleming's request. Although the housing bill was not as comprehensive as might be wished, Truman replied, it was better than anything accomplished thus far. After discussing the matter with his aides, he felt it was wisest to "hold to the provisions [of the pending legislation] ... for the present."

On April 20, 1949, MacDonald and Fairbank's vision of expressways as the centerpiece of urban revitalization came to an end for all practical purposes. MacDonald and Fairbank held to their vision, but it would not be enacted into law and would never be a reality.

But what of the housing bill that was enacted? The Fannie Mae Foundation's survey identified the 1949 Housing Act as the fourth of the "Top Ten Influences on the American Metropolis." Of the legislation Truman chose over the MacDonald plan, Professor Fishman said: "The landmark 1949 Housing Act ... funded large-scale clearances of 'blighted' urban areas, which were bought up by local development agencies and then leveled. These areas were then typically rebuilt according to the then-fashionable theories of modern architecture as high-rise towers set in massive 'superblocks,' or maybe worse, remained vacant for decades. Urban renewal helped rid the cities of some of their worst slums, but the 'federal bulldozer' also leveled many close-knit neighborhoods. The superblocks invariably lacked the vibrant streetlife of the older districts, and the high-rise towers proved to be especially ill-suited to meet the needs of poor families living in public housing."

This photograph was used as an example of a "decadent area fringing a city business section" in the report Toll Roads and Free Roads.

To Make Our Cities Sparkle Brightly

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the legislation that launched the Interstate Highway Program. It established a financing mechanism for the program (dedication of highway user tax revenue in the Highway Trust Fund), increased the federal share of the cost to 90 percent, called for high design standards throughout the interstate system, and authorized funds to complete the job (which was expected to take 10 to 15 years, but would ultimately take more than 40 years). Although estimates demonstrated that about 50 percent of the cost of the interstate system would be in the cities, the 1956 act contained no special provisions for the urban interstates.

By 1956, MacDonald and Fairbank were gone from their leadership roles. Their successors launched "The Greatest Public Works Project in History" with great optimism that they would remake America for the better and that their fellow citizens would applaud their efforts. That image was shattered in Hartford, Conn., in September 1957.

The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, having moved out of Hartford to a suburban location, tried to atone for its decentralizing impact by sponsoring a symposium on "The New Highways: Challenge to the Metropolitan Region." The highway community saw the Hartford Conference as an opportunity to humbly accept praise for what it was about to give America's cities. As Federal Highway Administrator Bertram Tallamy told the assembly, this was "the chance of a century to make our cities sparkle brightly."

Instead of being hailed as heroes, the highway engineers were shocked by the harsh criticism they received from the urban planners and officials in attendance. And no one was more critical than Lewis Mumford, journalist, urban theoretician, and visionary. In his Sept. 11 presentation, he took the highway officials to task for what they were about to do.

It was emblematic of the problem, Mumford said, that Tallamy had never met Federal Housing Administrator Albert M. Cole prior to the conference. Mumford commented, "The two people most concerned in a public program for highways were meeting under this roof for the first time." And he responded to their optimistic speeches by saying, "If they had any notion of what they were doing, they would not appear as blithe and cocky over the way they were doing it."

The 1956 act, he said, "was based on a very insufficient study ... a study of highways, not a study of the real problems, the study of transportation in our country." It had been "jammed through Congress so blithely and lightly" because of America's "almost automatic inclination to favor anything that seems to give added attraction to the second mistress that exists in every household right alongside the wife -- the motor car." What will happen to the land, with its pristine glory, after it has been "covered by the suburban fall-out ... that comes from the metropolitan explosion that has been taking place in our towns?"

The key to reviving our center cities, Mumford said, "rests on the restoring of the pedestrian scale of distances to the interior of the city, of making it possible for the pedestrian to exist." He added, "We are faced, it is fairly obvious to me, with the blunders of one-dimensional thinking, or thinking very expertly about a single characteristic, a single feature that we are interested in, and forgetting the realities that surround us."

A typical evening on Washington Street in Boston in 1949

In closing, he explained that the goal of improving our cities could be achieved only if "we are prepared to apply our intelligence to the purposes of life instead of applying them merely to the means of life. That means eventually we will put the motor car in its place. We will cast off the mistress and live with our wives instead."

Without realizing it was doing so, the highway community would spend the next 40 years of interstate construction trying to respond to Mumford. Even as the nation's highway engineers embraced urban planning in the 1960s, environmental reviews and highway funding for mass transit in the 1970s, innovative ways of blending interstate highways into communities and the environment in the 1980s, and intermodalism and livability in the 1990s, they could never quite erase Mumford's accusation that they were "undoubtedly of high character and great ability in their own narrow line of thinking and of acting."


The problem, and the pleasure, of the "what ifs" of history is that they cannot be answered. We can never know what might have happened if President Truman, on April 20, 1949, had accepted the proposal from Fleming and MacDonald. We can say, safely, that MacDonald and Fairbank had meticulously defined the trends they had observed. However, even as MacDonald and Fairbank proselytized in speech and article for their vision, even as it came to a crashing halt on April 20, 1949, forces beyond their control were tearing at the social fabric of our cities.

No one could predict the trends that would dramatically alter our urban areas. They had not foreseen the post-war baby boom that would transform our cities, economy, and transportation needs as this unprecedented population "bulge" moved through its lifespan. They could not foresee women going to work instead of staying home, the shift of industrial capacity to other countries, the evolution of enclosed shopping malls and "edge cities," the growth of the environmental movement, the increasing distrust of government and its leaders, the crack cocaine invasion of the 1970s that would ravage the will of our inner cities, and the explosion of two- and three-vehicle families that would crowd our urban roads to cite a few of the trends that developed while the interstate system was under construction.

And in their optimism, they could not have foreseen that their idea of moving the city's "humblest citizens" to make way for the new urban interstates would be transformed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s into the bitter denunciation of urban interstate construction: "Building white men's roads through black men's homes."

The interstate system would exaggerate some of these trends and contribute to others. It would become so popular in urban areas that its critics would turn to thoughts of harsh disincentives as the only way to try to dislodge motorists from their commutes along the crowded, urban interstate highways and to encourage mass transit. But the interstate system would not reverse the urban problems that had inspired MacDonald and Fairbank to create it.


To make a clear contrast with the visionary transcontinental superhighway schemes that received publicity in the 1930s and early 1940s, MacDonald and Fairbank called their master plan "The National System of Interregional Highways." When Congress began considering the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, the MacDonald/Fairbank name was included in Section 7, which authorized the Public Roads Administration to designate the network. "Interregional" died during MacDonald's testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Roads on April 28, 1944.

We have to understand the context of the times. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, inspired great admiration, but equally great hatred, during his time. Many critics, especially in the Republican Party, despised the Roosevelt "planners" who were supposedly leading the country on the path to socialism. For example, when Roosevelt announced he liked the 1939 proposal for toll roads, the Republican National Committee released a statement by Rep. Dudley A. White of Ohio, who called the idea "another descent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics" and "the first major step" in making the United States "a totalitarian nation."

During testimony on April 28 about the bill, MacDonald used a series of charts. The first showed the regions of the nation as outlined by the Department of Commerce on the basis of common interests. When MacDonald displayed a map showing the general location of the interregional system, Rep. Hugh Peterson (D-Ga.) interrupted to point out that the highways "cut right straight across your regions." Since the bill called on states within each region to confer on designation, Peterson thought MacDonald was creating "possibilities for friction" on routes that crossed regional lines.

MacDonald said the term "interregional" was only meant as a contrast to the popular terms "transcontinental" and "superhighway." He assured Rep. Peterson, "We are perfectly willing to leave that out" and suggested "areas" might be better than "regions."

Trying to get back on track, MacDonald displayed a chart of the recommended network in relation to cities of varying population. Rep. Peterson interrupted again to point out that "the major portion of those main highways there cut right square across your regions." MacDonald conceded the regions "are purely arbitrary."

Rep. Leon H. Gavin (R-Pa.) asked, "On this interregional setup, when did that originate?" He said he heard that Rex Tugwell one of the most despised of the Roosevelt "planners" had something to do with it. Rep. Nat Patton (D-Texas) added, "He is hooked up with it now. That is what is wrong with it."

MacDonald explained the work of the National Interregional Highway Committee, noting that Tugwell attended only two meetings. He began listing the other members, including "Mr. Delano." Rep Gavin wanted to know if that was the same Mr. Delano who headed the National Resources Planning Board one of Roosevelt's despised planning agencies. Rep. Peterson asked if they recommended "this interregional setup." When MacDonald tried to explain that the Public Roads Administration was responsible for the report, Rep. Peterson inquired, "But it incorporates this interregional idea that they had initiated?"

"Yes," MacDonald responded, adding, "There is absolutely no significance to this interregional term." His frustration was evident in the hearing transcript as he tried to extricate himself from the discussion and get back to explaining the importance of the interregional system.

Chairman James W. Robinson (D-Utah) tried to help MacDonald. "Why couldn't we delete this word 'interregional'?"

Rep. Gavin responded, perhaps sarcastically, "Well, this committee isn't inflicting its ideas on you now as to interregional highways."

MacDonald replied, "No." When he assured the Committee that the selection of roads was "absolutely a matter of state engineers and our technicians sitting down," Rep. Peterson returned to his concern, "But this interregional idea was originally introduced by this group he is referring to." Rep. Gavin suggested, "Then why not take it out."

Chairman Robinson suggested they delete "interregional" so Section 7 would read, "There shall be designated within the continental United States a highway system not exceeding 40,000 miles [65,000 kilometers]."

MacDonald, eager to get his testimony back on track, said, "That's all right."

He gestured at one of his charts. "This shows the system. May I call them express highways from now on?"

Rep. Gavin told him, "That would be satisfactory."

On May 16, 1944, Rep. James Mott (R-Ore.), one of those who despised the Roosevelt "planners," introduced H.R. 4811, the latest version of the 1944 act. Section 7 authorized designation of a 40,000-mile "National System of Interstate Highways." Who suggested "interstate" is unknown although it conveyed the contrast MacDonald and Fairbank wanted with "transcontinental" and "superhighway." But it was a hatred of Roosevelt and his planners that killed the "interregional system" on April 28, 1944.


  1. Robert Fishman. "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences," Housing Facts and Findings, Winter 1999. (This article contains the results of the Fannie Mae Foundation's survey.)
  2. Mark H. Rose. Interstate Express Highway Politics 1941-1989, University of Tennessee Press, 1990 (Revised Edition). (This book provides insight into the urban aspects of interstate development.)


Richard F. Weingroff is an information liaison specialist with FHWA's Office of Infrastructure.