Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Yesterday's Freeway Network of Tomorrow

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Yesterday's Freeway Network of Tomorrow

Article excerpt

It is often said that the future is not what it used to be, and perhaps for no topic is this truer than for transportation (Corn and Horrigan 1984; Benford 2010). Movies, comic books, and television promised gyrocopters, flying cars, and jetpacks among the many technological marvels of mobility promised in the last century. Yet today we are concerned with traffic congestion, pollution, sustainability, and crumbling infrastructure. Blame for much of this disappointing reality is often placed on the Interstate Highway System and the dispersed urban geography it helped create. It is tempting to consider other possibilities. In fact, an alternate vision of the future was put forth in 1939 with tremendous theatrical flourish. This was the Futurama model at the New York World's Fair, which was subsequently developed into an actual proposal for a national highway system by its designer, Norman Bel Geddes. Does the interstate system match Bel Geddes's design? How might Bel Geddes's National Motorway System have functioned as a national freeway system? How does its design hold up seventy-five years later? How might its impacts have been different from the interstate system?

Examining the geography and impacts of transport networks not built has been approached in a variety of ways. Carter Goodrich compared the roads and canals called for in the unrealized 1808 Gallatin Plan for a national transport system with those routes actually constructed (1958). Crossing the Appalachian Mountains was a primary concern at the time, and geography provided only a few places where that was feasible. Most of these routes were later used, but not due to a coordinated building project by the federal government, and over five decades or more rather than the ten years called for. Only a few existing routes differed considerably from those laid out in the Gallatin Plan, though the economic geography of the country in the late nineteenth century differed enormously from that of 1808.

Another way of examining unbuilt networks is with counterfactuals, or the examination of events that did not happen or might have happened, with the goal of understanding how processes may have played out differently (Hawthorne 1991; Bunzl 2004). One of the earliest academic examples of this approach involved transportation systems. Robert Fogel compared the existing U.S. railroad network of 1890 with an alternate hypothetical national transport network consisting of lakes, navigable rivers, canals, and wagon roads (1964). He examined how the country's economy might have functioned with this alternate network and estimated that the absence of railroads would have had surprisingly little difference. More recently Colin Pooley discussed how Britain might have developed without private motor vehicles (2010). The absence of a national freeway network and a thriving passenger railroad system would be the major differences at the national level. Although the evidence that cars were responsible for sprawl is quite limited, it is likely there would be less centralization of services and activities in large shopping centers. Personal mobility under this system would likely be quite similar to that existing with cars, though for women and the elderly the situation is complicated by other social patterns.

Counterfactuals can be tightly constrained to the point of comparing two alternatives, one built and one not built. John Brown examined the design and construction of the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis with an unsuccessful competing design (2014). Though this alternate design has often been considered inferior to Eads's design, a detailed comparison shows that it would have been less expensive, finished sooner, and worked as well. Although not usually thought of this way, a similar approach is common in studies of transport networks using network analysis methods. This approach views networks as comprised of nodes or vertices, representing junctions, and links or edges, representing the routes between junctions (Garrison 1960). …

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