Nearly 60 years and roughly half a trillion inflation-adjusted dollars after President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956, most of us spend a significant chunk of our lives on Uncle Ike’s interstates.
Few imagined how the highway system would transform our lives and our nation. One who did was sociologist and critic Lewis Mumford, who wrote the New Yorker column “The Sky Line.” In addition to attacking highways as destroyers of city neighborhoods (and, in the long run, cities themselves), he deplored the overreliance on the private automobile that would result from such a massive investment:
“Now that motorcars are becoming universal, many people take for granted that pedestrian movement will disappear and that the railroad system will in time be abandoned; in fact, many of the proponents of highway building talk as if that day were already here, or if not, they have every intention of making it dawn quickly.”
Any Beltway commuter would recognize Mumford’s 1958 description of the self-defeating process by which the automobile’s promise of freedom leads to gridlock. Washingtonians – and other Americans in densely populated regions – have embraced a culture of traffic.
Twenty years after the highway act, the first segment of D.C.’s Metrorail system opened (Farragut North to Rhode Island Avenue). Probably the country’s greatest transit initiative of the second half of the 20th century, Metrorail went from a standing start to the second-busiest rapid transit system in the United States. It’s hard to imagine Washington without it or remember what the city was like before it.
Yet even as Metrorail continues to expand, what was once a world-class system has been allowed to deteriorate and, in certain respects, become obsolete – sometimes (as recently as this past January) with fatal consequences.
The same process is consuming our national rail system, even as ridership increases. Last week’s derailment in Philadelphia – which resulted in eight passenger deaths – is only the most tragic of numerous warning signals. Even if the investigation ends up calling it a case of human error, the incident is a tangle of contributing factors and if-onlys.
To what extent the deficiencies of Metrorail, Amtrak and other rail (and bus) systems are due to inadequate funding, inept management, insufficiently qualified and trained staff and bureaucratic snafus is debatable. However, all of these conditions are made worse by the absence of a culture of transit: a widely held belief that public transportation is of social and economic value.
Despite the multiplication of services that reduce the reliance on privately owned automobiles, such as Zipcar, Car2Go, Uber, Lyft and Capital Bikeshare; the implementation of bike lanes; and the lower rate of car-ownership among millennials associated with these trends, our obsession with personal vehicles continues to leave public transportation in the dust.
Just how destructive of our time and sanity, not to mention the environment does America’s culture of traffic need to become before a culture of transit – supporting the kind of reliable, efficient and affordable service taken for granted in Europe, Japan and elsewhere – gains traction?