Monday, December 7

Dreaming about magic highways

This blog has been mostly irony-free since the very beginning, and now the storehouse of pent-up sarcasm and glibness is about to break out. Sorry in advance.

Commenter Andrew sent a link to this 1958 Disney promo video, the Magic Highway. I've watched the Futurama video (part 1 and part 2), made for the 1939 World's Fair by GM, but the Magic Highway is surely the reductio ad absurdum of American motoring idealism. It descends one more notch into self-parody every minute it goes on, but it's obviously dead serious and coincides closely with the start of our nation's real era of highway-building.

Watch the whole thing, but my favorite part is the family suburban commute around minute three. Once mother and son are safely transported to the shopping center, father drives into a highway elevator and is conveyed directly to his high-rise office.

"From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk."
Because having to walk is like eating molten lava.

Ok ... leaving aside the question of the possibilities of technological progress, this vision is not even internally logically consistent. There are no acres of parking lots, no roadway congestion whatsoever. People's muscles have not atrophied, and their waistlines are still oddly thin. The family unit is still intact, even though the entire world is oriented around hyper-individualized convenience. Nobody seems to drive right off the side of the guardrail-free elevated motorways. Energy is infinite and omnipresent, presumably transmitted through the air. Land and materials are infinite, having no pre-existing value. Unless, that is, we conquer cause and effect in the future ...

Why am I picking on a 1950's utopia? Surely only the most ardent highway enthusiast still hold on to this dream. The reason is that the utopias of culture matter, especially the most far-fetched. Even if they are not achieved, what we get is a landing somewhere along the trajectory toward this goal. The vision predicted,
"the shape of our cities will change as expanded highway transportation decentralizes our population centers into vast urban areas."
That's what happened.

In this vision, nature is depicted as exclusively an impediment to human flourishing and economic development.
"In one sweep a giant road-builder changes rough ground into a wide finished highway."
An atomic reactor "makes molehills out of mountains." That's the guiding principle that has stuck.

Finally, the good being pursued here is the fully privatized life, as compartmentalized as possible from messy and unpredictable interventions from other people.


Stephen Gross said...

A few observations:

1. There's lots of roads, cars, buildings.... but no people! In this futurist utopia, humans are barely a speck on the landscape.

2. They drive off in the end straight towards the setting sun. Have you ever driven due west when sun is setting? YOU CAN'T SEE!

3. Everybody apparently lives in a spacious suburban spread. Is there really enough land for everyone to have so much space?

4. An unquestioned assumption in this utopia: Why are office buildings necessary at all? As long as everything else can be individuated and separately, why not work? As well all well know, telecommuting is indeed a reality now.

Daniel said...

Great points, Stephan. Now that you mention it, same goes for the shopping mall. Why bother with automated "window shopping" if you can get your stuff delivered?

It's a curious mix of huge technological changes with no social changes at all.

Stephen Gross said...

Does transportation technology bring us together or pull us apart? Why is it that our first instinct is to always imagine how a new technology improves privacy, rather than community?

epar said...

Watching the clip made me think of the human's spaceship environment in Wall-E. On its face the vision is very similar - a culture of hyper-individualized convenience, as you put it - but Wall-E presents it as dystopia rather than utopia. Given that Wall-E was also made by Disney, does that mean that our vision of utopia is changing for the better? Just some clumsy and random thoughts...

Anonymous said...

Its mostly a commentary on the ability of anyone to accurately do long range planning. You mock the GM and Disney folks for the errors of there forecasts of the future.

But the payback time for large transit projects, streetcar systems etc is usually 30+ years into the future.

Do we have any reason to believe that these city plans drawm up by transit advocates will be any better than the GM, and Disney forecasts for the future?

Stephen Gross said...


It's a fair point. We shouldn't assume that all mass highway projects are bad, per se, nor should we assume that all mass transit projects are good.

To some extent, we can forgive the Disney futurists. They weren't urban planners; they were techno-enthusiasts. Whenever a new, exciting technology comes into existence, societies often fantasize about the technology's possibilities without the benefit of experience. Hence, Disney "planners" imagined that enormous highways could make possible a suburban vision with little negative consequence.

As for transit planning... Well, these days most transit planning is informed by past experience. Certainly, there have been boondoggles (Seattle's monorail, Detroit's people-mover). But there have also been marked successes (NYC metro, DC metro). Transit planners can draw from these experiences when planning new transit projects; their promises are more reliable because they are informed by case history.

Daniel said...

I agree with Stephen's answer. It's worth noting that even the most extravagant high-speed rail plans really amount to getting rail back to where we were in the 1920s, in terms of speed and convenience. We're not even thinking yet about catching up with, say, what China is already doing. All of this seems pretty realistic in comparison with the highway utopians from the 1950's. There are plenty of lessons from history and other places to learn from.

Eric Orozco said...

To draw on Epar's observation, I found Disney's critical self-references in Wall-E quite remarkable. One of my favorite movies of all time, Bladerunner, is reflective about this in a post-modern way, but...I still love what utopia did to create LA. Even Bladerunner's LA. We can be a patient friend to utopia. It gets warts in old age, but it teaches.

I for one love the untrammeled spirit of this video... Yes, part of me really appreciates technotopian camp. Still, let me point out a few things about this utopia. Notice how well the insta-road building consciously makes love to the landscape? "Preserve/conserve" would be too little a word for it. Maybe this film teaches how we failed. I love the low impact approach to construction and pneumatic transport. The instant-setting bridges, and all.

Of course, there is no society in this piece...Nor any religion (but shopping), nor civil society (a fetish for isolation), nor missiles with military objectives, etc. But...lighten up snarkbuckets.

We can embrace progress, with a Calvinistic pessimism that makes us reflective ...and American-style utopians. We are post-modern enough now. We just need to bring in a broader set of goals to our infrastructure. Maybe some that this utopian cartoon takes for granted ...instructively.

Anonymous said...

The problem with arguing that planners can draw from history is that its more of an art than science to figure out which lessons to draw from any point in history.

In 1960, jobs housing and the tax base were moving out to the burbs. The suburbs were usually the fastest growing parts of a region and the regions that were the most suburban were growing the fastest (LA, Dallas, Phx and Houston were among the fastest growing region of that era).

At the same time the big dense mixed use cities of that era were stagnating, losing population and there tax base (Detroit, Saint Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland, etc).

The reason the cities were bulldozing there inner core was on the advice of the urban planners of there day. There are still planners arguing that solution to Detroit's problems is to bulldoze more of Detroit.

I am not sure modernly that they are doing any better. There still isn't much post build out evaluation of urban plans.

Peter Calthrope won several awards for his then proclaimed landmark Laguna West plan, but the area never really supported transit (1.8% of all trips by transit according to US census).,_Elk_Grove,_California

and see a partial list of awards for Laguna West here.

Was the success of the NYC metro a function of successful city planning or an historical accident? Manhattan was already mostly built out before the auto age. Throughout the 1970's it was on the verge of bankruptcy limiting the ability of anyone to "fix it". Financial deregulation came along and the finance industry was one of the few industries to stay and flourish in large cities.

Was the comparative success of the DC metro vs the Cleveland Metro a function of smart urban planning or a fortuitous accident of history in that the Feds didn't depart the district for the suburbs of DC the way that private employers departed in Cleveland for suburban office parks? (despite Cleveland having one of the oldest subways in the country)

In 1970 who would have predicted that Detroit would do so poorly and that another region with a huge African American population (Washington DC) would flourish so much? Remember both cities had completely failing inner city school districts.

Remember Detroit had the union jobs in the auto industry and Detroit was the then world center of the auto industry.

Daniel said...

No arguments from me that planners have made mistakes, but doctors used to let blood from patients with leeches. Planning is a relatively young discipline, and it takes a certain degree of trial and error to figure out how cities actually work. I'm sure we're still making mistakes, but hopefully less of them than before (and less disruptive ones).

Looking into the future long-range is certainly fraught with difficulties, because of the huge number of factors that could change the whole system with one small shift, but I don't think pleading chaos theory and giving up on projections entirely is the way to go either. We need more sophisticated models, a chastened perspective on the accuracy of predictions, and the creation of systems that are more adaptable to unforseeable future changes.

Elected officials envision the future 4-years out until their cycle is over. The private sector, depending on the investment, probably is not thinking beyond 6 years or so. I think there is a niche to fill in casting a vision 20 years out or more and using this as one more piece of information to help decisions. Who else is going to do this?

As far as Laguna West goes, I don't know enough to comment about the specifics (you've made me curious to learn more though), but I think these New Urbanist projects need to be compared against real alternatives that may have formed otherwise, and not necessarily against their aspirations. People like Calthorpe are often swimming against the tide, having to vie with unfavorable polices at various levels of government, risk-adverse funders who lean toward the status quo, and decades worth of car-dependent growth surrounding them. I seem them as one incremental step forward.

Anonymous said...

But I also wonder how accurate planners assumptions are. Activists cite Washington DC and Portland to argue that if you build transit first, the growth will grow up along the transit lines. But Atlanta was building out MARTA roughly the same time DC was building out its system.

Today the Atlanta MSA is one of the least dense regions in the country. The growth in Atlanta followed the freeways, not Marta.So I am not at all convinced that if you build transit first the riders and the development patterns will follow it.

Modernly employment is very footloose. In DC the decision to keep DC as major employment center was a political decision, neither party decided to relocate employment to Virginia or Maryland.

But private employers are much more footloose motivated more by economic considerations than political ones. Employers may want to access large employment bases in population centers but employers themselves have few compelling reasons to stay in central business districts.

Employers are moving to the burbs to save money and lower costs. It saves employees on commuting costs and it saves the employer on office rents. If gas prices go up, employers will probably do what they did in the seventies when confronting higher gas prices, move faster to suburban office parks.

Former major employers like Chevron have departed the City of San Francisco for the suburbs. Other major employers like Google and Intel in the bay area never bothered to move to SF at all, preferring to locate in the very suburban Silicon Valley. The older fortune 500 companies are abandoning SF, the newer ones feel no need to relocate to it.

The investment bankers in the bay area departed SF for Sand Hill Road. The largest law, accounting and consulting offices in the bay area are all in the Silicon Valley, no longer in SF, because that is where most of the corporations in the bay area are now located.

Economically the City of San Francisco functions as a high end bedroom community of the Silicon Valley.

Employers want to be on the Pennisula or in the Silicon Valley because that gives them access to SFO or the San Jose Airport. But they see no reason to actually be in SF proper.

I have serious doubts about building all of these rail lines to central cities because there is very little evidence that employers still have many reasons to still be located in central business districts. The factories and the heavy industry left central cities 30 years ago, now it looks like the finance, insurance and real estate industries are departing too.

If downtown SF wasn't surrounded on three sides by ocean and if the climate wasn't really nice, I suspect downtown SF would look a lot like downtown Detroit or downtown Cleveland.

The reason I am skeptical of planners ability to forecast out 30 to 50 years in to the future is that I suspect there projections are based upon assumptions that probably aren't that valid right now.

I see today's transit activists as technology enthusiasts much the way Stephen Gross views Disney Futurists as technology enthusiasts, subject to the same limitations.

Its awfully hard to accurately forecast the future.

If you look at the new plans, smart growth advocates say its to early to judge our work. We won't know for another 20 or 30 years. Yet when we look at their older projects (like Calthrope's Laguna West), they again argue that we can't judge them on the results of those projects either because we have learned so much since that period.

The net result is that there is no way to emperically evaluate there claims of expertise.

Smart growth advocates love to bash Robert Moses for destroying NYC. But these same folks who are so distrustful of planners from an earlier age are the first to defend modern planners for having all of the tools to fix urban ills.

I have my doubts.

Its very difficult to forecast the future.

Daniel said...

You seem to be implying that smart growth advocates are the only ones looking into the future, but everyone thinking about infrastructure has to do this. Highways are all justified based on Level of Service predictions decades out. Jurisdictions decide how much parking to force developers to build based on trip generation models supposedly looking at the whole design life of the building.

This is true whether we're talking about the private sector or the public sector. Power plants and cell phone towers are massive investments that need decades to pay off.

If these predictions are hard (and I agree that they are) they are hard for everyone to make. Still we have to do it.

My critique of the Magic Highway is not so much that they tried to think about the future, but that their vision was so lop-sided in its myopic focus on personal convenience and the privatized lifestyle (good things when taken in balance with everything else). And that it failed to consider realistic constraints in energy and land that they should have known about at the time.

Anonymous said...

First I am not convinced that the increased build out of transit systems leads to energy usage reductions. Right now the average transit rider (3393 btus per passenger mile) consumes about as much energy as the average person in a passenger car (3585 btus per passenger mile).

Higher gas prices seem to work, but there isn't much evidence that building out transit systems leads to more energy efficiency. Most of the day and most of the night most bus and transit lines are running mostly empty. Raising gas taxes increases carpooling and induces more people to switch from cars to transit increasing the utilization of transit, but just building more transit by itself mostly means just running additional mostly empty buses and trains most of the day.

Both John Kain of Harvard and Richard Green of USC endorse the argument that the build out of light rail systems generally leads to lower levels of transit usage as light rail cannibalizes the bus network.

Since 1970, we have spent more money on transit, but fewer people are using it. In the cities with rail in 1970, transit usage fell from 30% in 1970 to 23% in 2000 and in cities that built rail out rail between 1970 and 2000 the share of people commuting by transit fell from 8% to 6%. In the cities with no transit in 2000, transit usage fell from 5% in 1970 to 2% in 2000. Overall in all MSAs between 1970 and 2000 transit fell from 12% to 6% of all riders. See table 2 here.

The latest fetish of smart growth advocates is the build out of elaborate streetcar networks. Streetcars have the high capital costs of rail plus the high operating expenses of buses yet yield no mobility improvement over buses for all of the additional expenses.

To fund the build out of the street car network we are going to further cannibalize the bus networks. Because street cars are more expensive the net result will be less transit access overall.

If the goal is more transit and less energy usage, I am not convinced that smart growth really is getting us anywhere.

From what I have seen mostly smart growth is an excuse to redirect transit spending into politically powerful communities. Downtown neighborhoods gets the streetcars and the light rail stations, but the older inner suburban neighborhoods where the poor are now moving see there bus routes cut.

In both Sacramento and Portland, smart growth was the excuse for using redevelopment funds to subsidize high end lofts for yuppies downtown instead of using redevelopment funds to pay for housing for the poor.

In Los Angeles and Atlanta organizers responded by setting up bus riders unions. I expect more of these types of groups in the future because I see smart growth mostly not working for a large part of the population.

Daniel said...

You've thrown lots of different points out, and I think they are worth addressing. I'll try to keep these in mind as I write future posts.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

Stephen Gross said...

Hi folks! Really great discussion. A few random thoughts...

Transit alone isn't enough. If transit leads to denser development, promotes a carless or car free lifestyle, encourages walkability, decreases average trip distances, then i'm a happier citizen. Will this happen? I suppose it depends on whether transit planning is accompanied by regional political cooperation, smart zoning decisions, and civic engagement. It's not clear to me if this combination of necessary ingredients exists anywhere in the US right now. Any ideas?

Christophe Bruchansky said...

Great post and comments! You might be interested in the exhibition I did few months ago and called "Dreams of Progress":

Looking at utopias of today, such as "Future of Cities" (, I wonder if there is not a contradiction between a desire of anarchic community-based living and the necessity of large-scale transport infrastructures. How to resolve flexibility in urban habits and long-term infrastructures? The utopias from the 40s - 60s have all in common the assumption that people will be guided by the same goal of efficiency and will remain consistent in their pursue. But as you point out, the formated unique family-based lifestyle is not so true anymore and each person has its own urban aspirations. Would information technology be the solution to accommodate divergent, ever changing appropriations of the city with a relatively static urban infrastructure?

kiramatali shah said...

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drive off in the end straight towards the setting sun. Have you ever driven due west when sun is setting? YOU CAN'T SEE!

Everybody apparently lives in a spacious suburban spread. Is there really enough land for everyone to have so much space.

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