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Windshield to the Future: Visions of Highways Pass Test of Time

September 07, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

I've got some futures to share with you today. They're not soybean or pork belly or crude oil futures, but highway futures.

Please, don't send money--now or ever. These aren't exactly investments. They were once speculations. Now they're only futures from the past.

I picked them up cheap at library used-book sales in various parts of the county. They'd been stamped "Discard" and left on tables in the hot sun, banished from the shelves forever. But I figured they might still have some value, so I dug out a few quarters and brought them home.

The oldest of the bunch is "The Story of American Roads" by Val Hart, published in 1950. Hart spends most of the book on the history of roads.

After taking the reader along El Camino Real, the Santa Fe Trail and the Alaskan Highway, Hart describes the situation at press time:

"In 1950, nearly 2 billion dollars was allotted for highway construction, and another billion and a half for highway maintenance. Still, the roads are not good enough. Many are obsolete, and nearly all suffer from the creaking infirmities of a too-active old age. On some roads the surface is obsolete, and roads today are too narrow, too crooked and too rambling. Seldom are cities connected by the most direct route. Today, as always in the past, vehicles are far ahead of roads.

"Long stretches out in the country are good enough to permit an average speed of 47 m.p.h. But when roads approach cities it is easy to see that they have long been out of date. Motorists who have inched and crawled through endless miles of slow-moving cars, trying to enter or leave a city, know how inadequate our roads are. . . ."

From there, Hart heads into uncharted territory--the "highway of tomorrow":

"Today our roads are at a turning point; but at least we know now what is needed and what we have to do. The federal government has appropriated vast sums for road building, and long-range planning gives some assurance that when we do have these expressways, they will not become obsolete before they wear out.

" . . . The roads we are planning and building in the United States today are far better than any the Romans ever built--and should last as long. We cannot say how long they will be adequate, because we cannot anticipate the vehicle of the distant future. . . .

"We can see the beginning of future changes right now. . . . People (will be able to) live anywhere, and with all the comforts of city dwelling, since fuel, food, and everything necessary to living can be brought to them by truck over highways. Automobiles can take them back and forth to work, school buses can take their children to and from good schools. Factories built on any highway in the United States are now connected with every other factory, because of highway transportation. Thus industries are able to decentralize . . . in this atomic age it seems a good thing to do, for industrial as well as military reasons. . . ."

But Hart counsels us to be patient: "Perhaps as many as 10, 15, or even 20 years will pass before we actually have under our wheels all the completed mileage planned for our expressways and other roads."

Then there's the college textbook "Politics and Government in California," published in 1961. In a chapter called "The Challenges to Government in California," authors Bernard L. Hyink, Seyom Brown and Ernest W. Thacker address the problem of traffic congestion:

"The state's principal answer to its traffic congestion problem has been the huge freeway construction program, financed by taxes on motorists. Although a substantial improvement, both in terms of commuter time saved and diminished accident rates, the freeways thus far constructed provide only a small opening in the traffic bottleneck. . . . Often between the start of construction of a freeway and the cutting of the ribbon at its dedication the increase in the volume of traffic of the locality has made the new facility inadequate. . . .

"There is general agreement that more freeways will ease the traffic problem. Accordingly . . . the state department of public works . . . in 1958 . . . published a report recommending a comprehensive system of freeways which by 1980 would connect every section of the state, with 12,000 miles of concrete ribbon touching almost every town with a population of 5,000 or more. . . .

"There is also continuous research . . . on how to improve the design and use of freeways. Suggestions include: more adequate on-and-off ramps, special control devices such as radar, roadside telephones, helicopter 'air-watch' and appropriate signals and signs, controlling traffic flow at rush periods by limiting freeways to through traffic, or making freeways one-way into town in the morning and out of town in the evenings. Governments could also participate in the establishment of systematized car pooling. And it has been urged that trucks, buses and other slow-moving vehicles be restricted in their use of freeways.

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