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Reviewed by:
  • Changing Lanes by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis
  • Bruce Hartman, PhD
Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-262-01858-6. Hardcover US$34.00

Like many of you, I have used interstate freeway systems all my driving life. I witnessed them under construction in the far west years ago, as they pushed connecting links through and around cities, and saw some struggles urban centers endured to solve dilemmas that they presented. Through the years I sat in construction traffic jams and bottlenecks (I still do today!) hoping the end would come. But I never got the picture until Joseph DiMento and Cliff Ellis presented the story.

Their account is an intellectual, technical, and social history of America’s affair with the motorcar, told through the evolution of our urban interstate freeway connections. Those “last miles” constitute less than 10 percent of the entire system, yet we learn that they were the most challenging and controversial, most expensive, and technically most complex.

I personally thought interstate highway systems were created by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. My own particular story was that they were made so that it would be easy to keep portable missiles moving around the country in case of nuclear war with the USSR, so they would be less vulnerable to attack. But then my family built a nuclear bunker below our home, stocked permanently with food and equipped with a fancy air-filtration system (worthless, we now know). I discovered much about the genesis and development of the interstates through the authors’ convincing research and presentation.

The interstates were actually conceived and designed by federal highway engineers in the 1930s and 1940s and, except for urban segments, [End Page 109] the routes are little changed since then. They were allied to the ascendancy of the auto; people found so many advantages to the auto in our economic and social life that, to many, having better and faster ways to travel in it seemed like a good idea.

But serious funding did not appear till the late 1950s and 1960s. Observable evidence of freeways’ effects on people and cities was lacking until some were actually constructed; early urban plans showing them were simply visions of the future. The authors chronicle decisions made with a dearth of research, not only in predicting future traffic patterns and how freeways would need to be engineered, but in urban decay and reconstruction, social fabric of cities, impact on nature and our lifestyles, and even how they would look in a cityscape. Those decisions resulted in unintended consequences, created laws and court decisions, and altered our notion of how public policy should reflect the views of real people.

They show us how professional views about the urban environment, of engineers, urban planners, landscape designers, architects, political and social activists, and residents, evolved from the 1920s and 1930s through the 1980s. We hear from those directly involved in the changes building the urban freeway segments wrought. It is a social history of the auto age, a keystone to other aspects of our social and political history of the period. The story resonates with much of what we know about our culture and history, and gives us a totally different and enjoyable insight into how people evolve their views.

The authors present short discussions of some urban freeway segment deployments—New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, and Baltimore. They then focus on three extended examples: Syracuse, NY; Memphis, TN, and the Los Angeles Century Freeway, the “most expensive segment ever built.” They highlight the evolution through time about how urban segments should relate to the people and city environment, and provide real insight into the dynamics of changing actions and policies. This section was for me a highlight.

As one would expect the book has numerous notes collected in 52 pages at the end, a treasure trove of material. There is an extensive bibliography of 64 pages, which I was thankful for, since some of the brief passages from major thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, Robert Moses, and Jane Jacobs led me to want...


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pp. 109-111
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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