Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

By Hess, Daniel Baldwin | The Journal of Transport History, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape


Hess, Daniel Baldwin, The Journal of Transport History


Owen D. Gutfreund, Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2004), 320 pp., $17.95.

Owen Gutfreund investigates past and present sprawl in the United States through the opportunities created by and the consequences of the toll-free interstate highway system. However, he frames his argument within a wider American penchant for expanding personal mobility that takes in the Good Roads and bicycle movements of the nineteenth century which, in turn, paved the way for future public road-building programmes.

Gutfreund's introductory chapter, tellingly entitled 'Highway federalism', provides an interpretive history of federal highway policy and the various actions of key individuals and organisations - undertaking separate and uncoordinated efforts - to quickly adapt US cities and road infrastructure to accommodate automobiles. The overview chapter focuses on the technical expertise of highway planners and the power of business interests in influencing transportation policy, and, unlike other highway history scholars, Gutfreund assigns less credit for road-building accomplishments to grass-roots movements and a private-sector 'highway lobby' and perhaps overstates that federal power led Americans along the wrong path.

To investigate how the federal highway programme - aimed at linking all states and cities with high-speed, gradeseparated highways to help settle undeveloped regions - profoundly affected communities both large and small, Gutfreund structures the bulk of the text around three in-depth case studies in diverse urban settings. The first case study (Denver CO) interweaves urban planning and transportation history to portray a legacy by which cities were disadvantaged and suburbs were favoured in metropolitan growth plans. Gutfreund argues that government investment in not only highway but other infrastructure (airports and military bases, for example) helped create and define places on the fringe, such as Aurora CO, to grow rapidly into 'megaburbs' connected by highways. As metropolitan areas grew in population and expanded in size, new highways allowed people to drive faster and farther and caused them to drive more, which in turn created demand for more roads. Throughout the interstate era, highways were continually built to higher standards, using better materials, driving costs up further.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was instrumental in creating decentralised, automobile-dependent metropolises; Gutfreund's second case study (Middlebury VT) demonstrates the consequences of overly ambitious statewide highway-building policies. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Vermont possessed more federal highways per square mile than any other state, which was perhaps more burden than opportunity, though, as demands to expand the highway network placed pressure on the state government to raise money for highway construction to match federal grants. State policies repeatedly passed over projects that would have made critical roadway linkages in Middlebury - and certainly small towns like it everywhere - in favour of developing a statewide network of roads. …

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