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When the highway came to Hilldale: A look at how the interstate system was sold to America

Published in blog.hemmings.com

There’s a lot to glean from this half-hour film that the American Roadbuilders Association produced in 1957 to help smooth the road, so to say, for the coming Interstate Highway System. While the traffic scenes early on would make for good carspotting images and the explanation of how the interstates would be laid out–particularly the use of computers to help plan it all–was interesting, it’s what we now know about the highways that reveals the real obstacles the American Roadbuilders Association envisioned in the way of the interstate system’s construction and how it derived Americans’ consent to build the highways.

As the Route 66 Alliance—which linked to the video this week—noted, “the video directly addresses the concerns of towns afraid of being bypassed and the negative impact to their vitality. It refers to these fears as ‘dark suspicions.’ Of course, over sixty years later, we know that those suspicions turned out to be prophecy for a great many towns.” Indeed, dismissing those concerns with stiff talking points amounts to gaslighting.

Consider also the suggestion that the highway planners were objectively pursuing the best paths for the highway system and that everything would turn out just fine for those living in the highway’s path, both of which we know not to be true after extensive research over the decades showed that highway planners favored trajectories that cut through low-income and minority neighborhoods (Mr. Harper would most likely never have been confronted with having to sell his house.) Today’s movement to tear down some urban interstates is largely an attempt to right those wrongs, however delayed that might be.

(As for the claim in the video that adding more roads would reduce traffic, we’ll give the American Roadbuilders Association a pass, considering that Braess’s Paradox wasn’t first articulated for another 11 years.)

It’s also worth noting the association’s talking point regarding safety and how it aligns with the auto industry’s assertion at the time that safety was less its problem and more the problem of road design and driver ability.

Did the pitch work? In a way, yes, we have an Interstate Highway System that functions more or less as articulated in the video. But also, in a way, no, because 62 years later it’s not entirely complete (part of Interstate 70 in Pennsylvania is non-contiguous), and the original plan has not kept up with a shifting and growing population. Some planned portions have also been abandoned due to local opposition, some of which looked a lot like the points raised by the townspeople of Hilldale.