Eisenhower's 'autobahn' at 50

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to build the Interstate Highway System – a dream of his since he crossed the US in 1919 and, later, after he saw Hitler's autobahn. Little did he know what 46,876 miles of expressways would do.

Fifty years on, the nation is still taking stock of the impact of high-speed roads connecting big cities. The system was finished only last year with the completion of Boston's "Big Dig" project. Instead of taking 10 years and $50 billion to build as envisioned, the 62 routes took nearly a halfcentury to finish and, in today's dollars, cost $425 billion.

Just as the "information superhighway" (the Internet) is now taken for granted as essential to daily life, so, too, is the Interstate Highway System. Both require amazing levels of cooperation to build and maintain. Both have helped unify the country. And yet both are bearers of good and bad effects. In fact, lessons from the Interstate are worth applying to the Internet, which is still in relative infancy.

As the world's largest public-works project, the Interstate fully transformed Americans into a car-centric, oil-guzzling, and pollution-spewing people. Soon after the system's first cross-country link (I-80) was completed in 1986, Al Gore declared, hyperbolically, that the automobile's environmental effects is "more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront." That warning is quite a contrast from an original reason for the Interstate, which was to allow quick movement of military forces and, possibly, mass evacuations of cities during the cold war. (The exodus of 1.5 million people before hurricane Katrina proved the worth of big highways.)

The Internet, too, originated as a useful tool for sharing military research, and while serving the public immensely, it also serves as a vehicle for terrorist communications and forfor other vice from porn to gambling.

Some say it has adversely altered community life, creating new forms of isolation, much the way Interstates tore up cities and helped create sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly suburbs. More communities now want sound-barriers along Interstates and to limit the highways' impact on downtown life, while many people want to limit the Internet's effects and return to face-to-face talking.

What really pushed both the Interstate and the Internet into full blossom was business. (Both systems greatly boosted economic productivity.) The trucking industry lobbied heavily for new highways, while Internet-dependent businesses today are fighting to expand (or control) the Web.

Both these people-connectors are suffering from congestion and inadequate maintenance. To keep up with repairs of the Interstate, some states are turning to private ownership and mileage fees. To expand the Internet, cable and telephone companies want to charge for high-speed access.

Indeed, both systems allow Americans to speed up their lives. But the Interstate's effects show society must humbly, carefully adopt the Internet.

At the 1939 New York World's Fair, a General Motors exhibit called Futurama predicted fast highways by 1960, with speeds up to 100 m.p.h. A narrator's voice carried both hope and caution: "Who can say what new horizons lie before us?"

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