Monday, July 18, 2011

Big Roads

A book review for the New York times of Earl Swift's Big Roads, which lays out the history of the American Freeway and begins with a cross-country road trip, Tom Vanderbilt of Traffic fame writes (and quotes):

In place of poetry we had standardized efficiency, not just the new Esperanto of green highway signs speaking to us at 65-mile-per-hour Highway Gothic — the same tongue from Maine to Montana — but the whole experience of travel itself. “With the modern car on the modern freeway,” Earl Swift writes in “The Big Roads,” “the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another.” Or, in John Steinbeck’s famous remark, one could now drive from “New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

Swift, a former journalist with The Virginian-Pilot and the author of “Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers,” among other books, knows the feeling. “Big Roads” begins, appropriately, with a cross-country road trip, Swift at the wheel, his young daughter and one of her friends in tow. Later, flipping through digital pictures from the journey, Swift finds he has images mostly from days he didn’t travel on the Interstate. Whole states had been relegated to vague blurs of asphalt. “The minivan’s windshield became a proscenium through which we watched the countryside pass without actually experiencing it; we were in it, but not of it.” Yet Swift had made the bargain we all do: the Interstate highways “carried us without incident, without drama. They offered up food and lodging with minimal fuss. They carved the shortest path all the way home.” And, most important, “we made very good time.”

I find two particular statements within this prose particularly relevant. First, the erasure of poetry for the sake of efficiency is quite the analogy for the entire modern American cityscape, devoid of all/any character where everything is mass produced for some supposed cost savings, when factoring in life cycle costs, rarely are any costs actually saved, more often completely lost. And that really points to what and how we build cities these days, with equations in mind. Equations that are incomplete, that have no way of calculating the incalculable or the subjective. Eventually, they get externalized. Things like meaning.

The other statement is the author of the book, Swift's statement that while on the road they knew they were in a certain place, but not actually a part of the abstract blur whizzing by the windshield. This gets at the appropriate place of the freeway and its functionality, which it does have some, ie moving things that can't be moved long distances utilizing efficiencies of scale brought by bundling things, ie shipping or riding on planes or trains, freight or passenger. Highways are only viable (and sustainable) as interregional linkages between disparate economies, as trains and planes allow, and when all are maintained as viable forms, they're able to keep costs for all down. However, when those highways are introduced within cities and apart of neighborhoods, suddenly there is dislocation. As if nobody belongs anywhere and what is left is a place nobody wants to be anyhow.

Regional transportation disrupts the integral, complex local connectivity that is necessary for complete neighborhoods and proper, sustainable, lovable cities. Regional connectivity is also necessary in a global world, however since the infrastructure is so large and dislocative, it must only intersect with cities tangentially so to minimize said disruptions, intentionally NOT being apart of a place, because they never can be by nature.