Thursday, June 29, 2006

The greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world

This year marks the 50th aniversary of the Interstate Highway system.

The short history of of this wonderful network of roads, clogged as thickly as a chulent-and-kugel eater's arteries, is as follows:

In America 100 years ago, it was pretty easy to get from town to town by train, but if you lived out of town you were on your own, and had to deal with "roads" that were basically mud sinkholes.

In 1919, the U.S. Army had a zillion surplus trucks left over from World War I, and nothing to do with them, because Pancho Villa wasn't cooperating in terms of cross-border raids, so someone at the War Department had a great idea: "Road trip!! Road Trip!!" Also, the auto and concrete lobbies were trying to encourage the novel concept of paved roads.

Thus was born the Transcontinental Motor Train, an Army convoy that was responding to a simulated attack on the west coast by the "Yellow Peril" with a truck convoy that took 62 days to drive from Washington DC to San Franscisco. (They could have taken the same trip by train in 4 days.)

On of the officers participating was an observer from the Tank Corps named Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower. He seems to have enjoyed the experience, and wrote rather detailed reports. However, his professional view was that the roads of the US were not yet suited for mass transportation by motor vehicles, which he thought was a problem, because his job in the military involved using motor vehciles as a military tool.

Some years later, Eisenhower, now a general (well, the General in charge of all the Allied Armies) found that the German autobahnen were a great way to move his army deep into the heart of Germany. (May it's just as well American roads were lousy mudholes. Imagine if the Yellow Peril has landed in San Fransisco and had been able to insinuate an army of Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans into the heart of America... )

A few years after that, Eisenhower got elected President of the United States, and in 1956 supported (along with Al Gore's father), the establishment and funding mechanism for creating Interstate highways. (Of course, by then, the raods in the US were better than what Eisenhower encountered in 1919, but they were mostly 2 lane, and thus not useful in moving large number of commuters desiring to flee from the riff-raff of the inner city, nor were they useful for the speculators who dealt in suburban farmland, which could be converted to housing for the commuters fleeing the urban riff-raff.)

The rest is history, and for the whole sorry tale, I reccomend surfing over to the James Howard Kunstler's web site. and his two books, The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. Mr. Kunstler can sometimes be repetetive, a bit of a nudnik, but when it comes to sprawl and architectural criticism, he's right on the mark. And criticism of mass motoring on the basis of pollution, global warming, national security due to dependence on fuel suppplies, etc. is right on the mark. Not to mention the hassle of spending your entire life in traffic, driving a car. Or having $20,000 of your capital tied up in a depreciating asset. Or the ~$6-8,000 a year it costs to mainatin a car.

Kunstler's basic thesis, with which I agree, is that the automobile is the transportation equivalent of crack cocaine. And the infrastucture built to accomodate our "drive-in utopia" is, I guess, our national crack house. JHK also originated the phrase that's the title of this post.

Now, I don't mean to insult or patronize. We all live in Kunstler's nightmare vision, and I'm as much of a "transportation crack" addict as anyone. I do find it ironic that Al Gore is now working so hard to sound the alarm about global warming, a problem that his father, Al Gore Sr. help cause by bringing the Interstate Highway system into being.

Want to do something about it? The best thing would be to move into the city, sell your car, take the bus to work, and live in an apartment in a walkable, mixed use neighborhood. But I know, nobody's going to do that. ("What?!! Live with the schv*[derogatory Yiddish term for African Americans deleted]**s!?? G-d forbid!!") But you can cut back the amount you drive. That's not to hard.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Interstate system, even if you are the greatest misallocation in the history of the world.

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