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

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 On some roads the surface is obsolete, and roads today are too narrow, too crooked and too rambling.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to permit an average speed of 47 m.p.h. But when roads approach cities it is easy to see that they have long been out of date.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.

"Undoubtedly, there is a need to provide better public transportation, including the development of new modes of transport such as the overhead monorail or helicopter buses."

Gov. George Deukmejian might well have run across the same book at his local library's used book sale, too, judging from his 1989 "State of the State" address:

"I want to unlock gridlock in our state with a two-track approach: build more roads where needed, and make better use of the transportation system that we already have.

"We must not underestimate the impact that ride-sharing, mass transit, and better transit management can have on congestion," the governor said on Jan. 10. "I also believe that it is time to seriously consider restricting commercial truck traffic on our freeways during peak hours in urban areas. We must also finance and build more highways in California."

My favorite future, however, is depicted in a children's book, "From Footpaths to Freeways: The Story of Roads" by Solveig Paulson Russell, published in 1971.

"What kind of roads will the future bring? This is a question that people wonder and worry about. Now many people are crowded into cities. Growing numbers of cars add impurities to the air through their exhaust pipes, and roads are so congested at times that cars move bumper-to-bumper.

"There are too many cars now for the roads we have . . . we need to have fewer people. We need to have transportation that will not increase the number of cars, but lessen them--perhaps ways that many people can use at the same time, such as speed trains between cities, or some kind of local air travel. New roadways are using up space that needs to be saved for farming and for recreation, or pleasure. How can we cut down the number of cars, and keep the air fit to breathe and live in? How can people move about in better, less-crowded ways?

"Many solutions and plans are being thought about and considered for these problems. Among them is, of course, having cars run by some power other than gasoline, such as electricity. . . . Another thought is to have cars move by radar or some other kind of electronic device built into the highways. . . .

"New ideas for safety include lighting the road surface itself so that cars would always travel on a lighted ribbon of roadway at night, and making high, curved edges at each side of roads to force cars back to the road if they go out of control.

"To help crowded conditions, people are thinking of putting elevated sidewalks in cities and towns, high above the streets; making two-deck roadways for cars; building highways on bridges above the land so that the land under them could be used; having highways tunnel underground; and making main motorways across the country that would avoid all cities, but have roads leading into them. Some of these things are already being done, but in a very small way. How many of these ideas, and others, will be carried out remains to be seen."

Maybe these future visions aren't so out of date after all. I wonder if the library would like them back.

Looking Like New

Do you wash your car often? Or do you wait until the kids can write graffiti in the dust? We'd like to know about your car-cleaning habits, inside and out. Do you wash it yourself? What kind of cleaner works best? Do you insist on a chamois or will paper towels and rags do just as well? Maybe you go to a carwash. Or do you prefer having your car detailed?

A Little Road Music

What's the sound track for your daily commute? Do you prefer rock to get you going or easy-listening to calm your nerves? Maybe you keep it on the all-news channel. Tell us what you like to listen to when you drive and why.

Life on (Two) Wheels

Hey, you out there, zipping between lanes. Are you crazy, brave or what? If you travel the freeways and surface streets of the county on a motorcycle, we'd like to hear from you. Why do you prefer that mode of transportation? How often are your brushes with death? And how do you feel about helmets?

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents' last names when the subject is sensitive.

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