You are here

Manifest Congestion: Freeway Landscapes and Timescapes

Freeway time, as we see it, develops out of three currents: the historical narratives of which freeways are a contemporary expression, the physical isolation of being on a freeway, and the futures that freeway landscapes project.

Megan Shaw and Rick Prelinger

Issue #40, October 1998

The construction of the U.S. interstate highway system was the largest public works project in human history, and has altered our landscape more than any other project. Because Americans value mobility and live in urban sprawls, we spend a lot of time on freeways. Freeway environments invite people to experience landscape in a temporally alienated manner. As a result, people experience time on the freeway very differently than time spent on other highways and streets, as well as time not spent driving. Freeway time, as we see it, develops out of three currents: the historical narratives of which freeways are a contemporary expression, the physical isolation of being on a freeway, and the futures that freeway landscapes project.

Manifest Driving

The historical context that freeways inhabit is the American mythology of the freedom of the open road. Our national mythology of exploring, groundbreaking, and pathfinding is based on the doctrine of manifest destiny, which Europeans used to justify their conquest of North America. By the early twentieth century there wasn't much unexplored land remaining in the continental United States. But there was plenty of land that had been seen by only a few — land that the automobile gave the general population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, the freedom to explore on their own. The mass availability of the automobile that began in the first quarter of the twentieth century promised that each family would have the American woods and valleys at their feet for exploration, and that the exploration narratives that are central to our country's foundation mythology could be re-enacted by each family on a time scale that would allow those explorations to fit within a summer vacation.

The construction of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s was the ultimate public expression of this interpretation of manifest destiny. It was also an expression of the perceived need to decentralize productive resources and open up less-accessible areas in order to strengthen the U.S.'s ability to make war. The dominant relationship that freeways have to the landscape that they inhabit is an inheritance of manifest destiny. Concrete embodies the entitlement felt by the settlers to inhabit the North American landscape. Freeways are therefore a visible history of Americans' love affair with the freedom to explore.

But borrowing from a pre-twentieth-century paradigm for an understanding of the uniquely twentieth-century road-building technology that freeways represent has left us open to the dissonances that arise from the conflict between the lived experience of freeways in the late twentieth century and the remembered experience of free horizons that we were drawing on when we built them. This dissonance is most obvious in urban freeway environments where congestion, frequent reconstruction and re-planning, and mass synchronized work schedules create barriers that break the promises of speed and spontaneous freedom. Urban dwellers spend hundreds of hours a year behind the wheels of vehicles that are going slower than they wish. We navigate this gap between the vision and the reality of freeway driving by building new roads, making existing roads "smarter," and building and buying more commanding vehicles. These are ways that our present-day relationship with the American roadway is unfolding, leaving us ill-prepared to envision a future in which roadways will continue to satisfy the desires of new generations for speed and freedom.

Lost in a Blur of Speed

If, as J.B. Jackson says, "landscape is history made visible," then looking at freeways as expressions of manifest destiny is one aspect of that visible history. But Jackson's observation also suggests a parallel question: what histories do freeways conceal? This second question leads us to look at what freeways have interrupted, rather than what they have created.

Freeways are newer corridors that are carefully cordoned off by wide shoulders, guardrails, and soundwalls from the areas through which they pass. By being so spatially distinct from their environments, they bypass and conceal the accretion of preexisting historical traces within the landscape, and substitute a carefully limited set of sensory stimuli that has been edited to minimize distraction and surprise. While driving a two-lane highway with the windows open, we can hear the calls of animals and birds, feel different pavements under our tires, smell roadside restaurants and bodies of water, and see a vast and delightful panorama of nearby visual imagery that illuminates ongoing natural and cultural processes and offers infinite clues to the history of the place they occupy. Freeways, by contrast, shift our vision into extreme long shot and confuse the nearby sensory field with a blur of speed, wind, and noise, pushing us to seek refuge in the sounds of our car stereos or silences of our daydreams. Rather than enabling our contemplation, they drive us to distraction, and condense the richness of the landscape they traverse into a kind of transitional, liminal space. On freeways, people meet without ever quite meeting and interact anonymously, hidden within their vehicles.

Freeways are dramatic monuments to velocity, prosperity, and dispersal, but make poor memorials to the human and non-human communities they have displaced. Old city maps and photographs show once-thriving streets and neighborhoods that were traded in for highways and "redeveloped" zones, and freeways themselves sit silently where these communities often flourished, offering few clues as to what previously existed in the same place.

The Liminal Gap Widens, or, From New Gridlock

happy motoring The gap between the promise of speed as enabled by private vehicle ownership and the reality of gridlock has widened to crisis proportions four times in this century — at century's start, after World Wars I and II, and today — and its recurrence testifies to the ability of American drivers to naturalize dissonance. While actual driving speed has steadily increased during this century (except for the World War II national speed limit of 35 mph and the near-universally-ignored twenty-year-long rule of the 55 mph law), the ability to maintain this speed is decreasing with congestion.

Turn-of-the-century photographs reveal crowded urban streetscapes filled with largely unregulated traffic, an anarchic blend of horsedrawn vehicles, streetcars, trains and primitive automobiles dancing in a kind of random molecular motion. The official remedies for this condition were street improvements, especially paving, and the rapid marginalization of actual horsepower in favor of its motorized equivalent. In the late 'teens and early 1920s, most U.S. cities and towns experienced massive traffic jams, the direct consequence of heavy production of affordable automobiles. Authorities responded with a nationwide, though decentralized, campaign of construction and improvement of arterial streets and highways. Streetcar operating companies began to abandon fixed trolley lines in favor of more flexibly operable buses. Real estate developers, enabled by explosive growth in auto ownership, abetted residential decentralization and suburban expansion. In this era, the first significant divided highways and scenic parkways were also built, the better to handle interurban traffic.

During World War II, war production and unplanned population shifts caused localized traffic congestion in many areas, despite gasoline and tire rationing. This congestion grew into a major national problem after the war when the economy reverted to a pre-combat mode and civilian auto production resumed. Urban infrastructures were frequently inadequate to support postwar levels of population and economic activity, and circulation between and around cities could not be sustained by a highway network dating back to the 1920s. The highway lobby and automobile industry exploited this situation, agitating for the construction of the Interstate Highway system, which was first blueprinted in 1939 and finally funded in 1956. The Interstate system accelerated the trend towards decentralization and abandonment of central cities. These trends were assisted by racism, government housing policy and practice, and disinvestment. None of these trends and actions reduced the density of traffic, which has grown steadily to this day.

Squeezed for Time and Lost in Space

conoco The timeline of temporal and spatial consciousness that we can extrapolate from this and other histories suggests a progressive loss of control over more than just driving time. The ability to control and productively utilize personal time and space also seems to be slipping away for most people, though a small, conspicuously privileged class of individuals may appear to possess this abundantly. Freeways are partially responsible for this condition, although they are still popularly associated with speed and efficiency. Acute mass consciousness of this problem has so far been ineffective in forcing significant policy changes.

Decentralization has been a key developmental trend in the U.S. landscape since the 1850s, when wealthy people fleeing crowding, immigrants, pollution, and disease began moving from cities to luxury suburbs. The dramatic contrast between overcrowded urban centers and low density suburban communities expressed class differences, and suburban resettlement became an object of aspiration for the less affluent. Traffic between city and suburb was carried by streetcar and commuter railroad, and the highway network was geared to horsedrawn vehicles.

But highways quickly became inadequate to handle the dramatic increase of automobile traffic in the first decades of the century. The 8,000 private automobiles registered in 1900 jumped to 458,000 in 1910, and by 1920 over eight million cars were on the road. The transportation history of this era includes a series of struggles between automobile drivers seeking increased freedom of movement and governments seeking to regulate uncontrolled private locomotion. In 1902, drivers formed a powerful lobby, the American Automobile Association, which supported massive highway investment and loose regulation of autos; and in 1906, a commission was created to build the first auto-only road, the Bronx River Parkway. It was then trumped by the Long Island Motor Parkway, conceived as a private recreational drive for the rich, completed in 1911 and opened to the public the next year. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and 16.5 million of them sold over the next twenty years. Bearing a conceptual resemblance to today's SUVs, the Model T featured high axles and wide tires, and was designed to navigate areas of the rough American landscape not yet served by paved roads. By 1915 the transcontinental Lincoln Highway opened, serving the growing number of motorists who indulged in long road trips. Glenn H. Curtiss invented the first mobile home trailer in 1919. As cars began to roam over an increasingly large territory, the first speed bumps appeared in 1907, white lines first divided roads into two lanes in 1911, and electric lights and stop signs materialized in 1914. Auto registration and driver licensing became mandatory in the 'teens.

By the 1920s the landscape was being remade to accommodate the demands of motor vehicles. Passenger rail traffic decreased and rail lines were abandoned, unable to contend with highways. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 was enacted, providing for federal matching funds on 200,000 miles of "primary" roads. Country Club Plaza, the first auto-oriented shopping center, opened in 1922 in Kansas City, Mo. Ford offered the first family station wagon for sale in 1929. In 1932, Route 66 opened, a highway whose course will be remembered more than its destinations, linking Chicago with Los Angeles.

Freeways to the Future

Freeways as we know them today first emerged in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Merritt Parkway was partially opened in 1937 as a scenic motor route linking affluent Connecticut suburbs with New York City, and soon metamorphosed into a racetrack for speeding commuters. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in October 1940, two months before the first link in the Los Angeles freeway system, the Arroyo Seco Parkway (now the Pasadena Freeway). The Interstate system was blueprinted in a 1939 report by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, and its visionary equivalent was hyped in Norman Bel Geddes' "Highways and Horizons" or "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, General Motors pavilion. The Futurama depicted the "world of 1960," traversed by express highways up to fourteen lanes wide, upon which radio-controlled cars traveled at 50, 70, and 100 miles per hour, separated by high sidewalls for safety. Alone among the many corporate-sponsored utopian visions that came and went prior to World War II, Futurama approached the reality of what actually came to pass. Its vision was dramatically anti-communitarian: a landscape completely organized around facilitating the movement of individual motor vehicles, where freeways replaced "outmoded industrial sections" and "undesirable slum areas."

During World War II, the government stopped most highway construction, attempted to ban pleasure driving, and imposed a national 35 mph speed limit to conserve tires and gasoline. This temporary damper on drivers' freedom was quickly forgotten after the war. Suburbs dramatically expanded, meeting a pent-up demand for new, affordable housing. Demand for passenger cars did not abate: over 40 million were registered in 1950; 61.5 million in 1960; 87 million in 1969; 134 million in 1994. Turnpikes and thruways opened, mostly in the East, enabling rapid access to major cities. In 1956 the Interstate system was finally authorized, and freeways began to appear almost everywhere, enabling sprawl on a dramatically increased scale.

By 1980 the typical U.S. housing unit consisted of a single family living in a single dwelling surrounded by an ornamental yard (57 million out of a total of 86 million housing units). The 1990 census revealed that 73.2 percent of American workers reached their jobs by driving alone. Almost as many people walked (3.9%) as took public transportation (5.3%). Though the census indicated that half of all trips to work took under 22 minutes, many commuters in expensive metropolitan areas commuted two or more hours from remote communities where housing was affordable. In addition, everyday services (shops, child care centers, recreational facilities, schools and colleges, etc.) were also dispersed, and suburban residents found themselves spending more and more time behind the wheel.

Today's Traffic Jam

In the nineties many North Americans were surprised to find themselves regularly inhabiting freeway space. A new and very particular culture has begun to emerge around the roadscape. While it can't any longer be a culture of pure speed, it is beginning to resemble a culture of size, grandiosity and conspicuous consumption. In the late 1990s, sales figures for SUVs began to approach those for automobiles, and by 1997, almost 37 million "light trucks" (a category that includes SUVs) had been produced in the United States. It is also a culture where aggression and frustration with liminal time expresses itself in violent or threatening encounters that have become known and socially assimilated as "road rage." Though road rage has become a matter of official concern, there has been little, if any, attempt to change driver behavior or address the conditions that lead to violent behavior.

The latest development in freeway technology brings highways and vehicles together with computing and communications technologies. Since 1991, the government has sponsored research into "Intelligent Transportation Systems," known colloquially as "smart highways." In a growing number of cities, intelligent transport systems seek to manage and equalize traffic flow by expediting the transmission of personalized traffic information to drivers so that they can avoid bottlenecks, adjusting traffic signal sequences to manage congestion, and administering "demand pricing" (tolls that vary by time of day and traffic volume) on certain roads. Recently, an experimental smart highway section opened in California. Cars equipped with the proper equipment can navigate this stretch without relying on control by their drivers. What all of these strategies have in common is that none of them depend on changing driver behavior, or question the unchallenged primacy of the automobile in our society.

Today, relative prosperity, increased consumption and anti communitarianism combine to increase traffic congestion. As the number of consuming households and workers in each household increases, so does the number of vehicles: 200 million in all, driven by over 175 million drivers. By joining the fray, people act to create "negative externalities," economics jargon for an individual action whose costs are borne by others. The home remedies for congestion are many, but three seem most significant. Many opt for personal dissociation by acquiring more self contained, secure vehicles such as SUVs. The trend towards decentralization, which dates back to the 1850s, is in its highest gear ever. Finally, those whose position or skills permit them a high degree of autonomy are beginning to practice the highest form of decentralized living/working: telecommuting.

Telecommuters occupy a highly privileged position, free of vexingly close supervision, close to their families and presumably to nature. Perhaps their greatest privilege is the freedom to withdraw from involuntary participation in the public environment, such as freeways. Presently, the telecommuting model is being dangled tantalizingly in front of all of us, presented as a prototype of the future shape of work. We can't yet know whether this model is sustainable or whether it is adaptable to economic changes, but it's fair to say that the rest of us will have a hard time avoiding backups on the freeway.

A Roadless Future?

future The landscape photography that reaches the greatest number of Americans most frequently is doubtless the photography of television commercials for automobiles. Since the 1950s, when television and freeways concurrently began to affect public consciousness, there has been a transformation in the way urban and suburban Americans receive information about the "natural landscape." Television advertisements for sport utility vehicles (SUVs) portray a landscape that is reachable by cars, yet unmarred by them. In such advertisements, the landscape is identifiably north American, usually western, depicting either desert or mountain locations. The natural environment is pristine; it is photographed at sunset or sunrise, with alabaster glosses coating windswept rocks that unfold between stands of soft cliffs or whistling pines. The landscape is born from the camera, virginal, and then — just as we are wondering which state tourism department created the ad — the vast and sleek red silhouette of an SUV slices through the center of the calendar-ready picture and comes to leaden rest upon the rocky breast of the earth.

Conspicuous in their absence from these commercials are roadways. These landscapes contain no streets or freeways, and the SUV is united with wilderness in a manner reminiscent of pre-roadway horse-and-wagon exploration. The vision that is being sold in these commercials ignores all implications of the environmental impact of millions of two-ton vehicles let loose on roadless spaces, and instead invites the viewer to imagine a personal freedom to explore uncharted territories — a freedom that doesn't exist anymore in well-mapped north America.

This advertising works well, and SUVs are purchased right and left by suburban and urban dwellers. But the roadless vision of a utopian driving experience invites the question of what has happened to the American love affair with the promised freedom of the open road. That this promise should be foregone for a roadless auto-utopia is a startling disavowal of the particularly American freedom of which the interstate highway system was an idealized expression. SUVs are marked by their internal contradictions as creatures that inhabit the same gap between vision and reality that has produced this disavowal. They are supposedly about access to nature, but are environmentally unsustainable machines. Their functions and accessories have constantly increased in the past ten years, but are largely unused. They are perceived as safer than small cars because of their ability to dominate other vehicles, but they are rife with dangerous design flaws of their own. They are conceived and designed as "free range" vehicles, but mostly navigate our overcrowded streets and highways. They are marketed as status symbols but have become a fad. Their roots lie in trucks, "working vehicles," but they are rarely (at least in urban areas) used for work: "sport" has replaced "utility." To think of it another way, "utility" has come to mean "sport." And it's doubtful that they would be as effective status symbols as they are if their suspensions were lowered closer to the ground. People like to look down on their neighbors.

Most SUV owners experience a kind of driving time that is very different from the radical freedom promised by the advertised roadless frontier. Rather than exploring limitless landscapes, the average SUV owner spends hundreds of hours a year on suburban and urban freeways; caught in traffic, looking at concrete soundwalls, and otherwise disengaged from any activity resembling freedom or exploration. These freeway dwellers are navigating the gap between the millennial promise of the freedom to cruise and the cement-chute reality of urban commuting. Given this gap, a disavowal of freeway mythos is not such a surprise.

Or a Newly Roaded Frontier?

It is not clear what new kinds of relationships will emerge between North Americans and the landscapes they inhabit. The envisioning of a roadless future may say something about our disavowal of the historical weight carried by contemporary freeway sprawl. But it is an imagined future, one that has little to do with the real future of the time commitment that our way of life has made to driving time. As "natural landscapes" become increasingly elusive and scarce, and as sprawl consumes greater territory, there may be more attempts to create "wilderness infills" in the midst of urbanized areas: highly-constructed recreational or meditative environments that stand in for what is no longer so accessible. At the same time it also seems likely that authorities in some regions will pioneer the idea of redesigning freeways so that they no longer look like they do today. In the future we may not have a roadless landscape, but instead the next best thing: the well-engineered experience of riding through town in our SUVs along a "smart highway" that has been landscaped to look like a woodland glade.

Megan Shaw is a writer interested in cultural histories and futures. Rick Prelinger is a film archivist interested in the history of the cultural landscape.

Copyright © 1998 by Megan Shaw and Rick Prelinger. Illustrations courtesy of Prelinger Archives. All rights reserved.