Unbuilt Highways

Washington, D.C.: The 1956 Freeway Plan
How we get from here to there.
Dec. 23 2010 2:58 PM

Unbuilt Highways

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Harland Bartholomew, National Capitol Planning Commission. Photographed April, 1959, in Washington, D.C. 

Among the many monuments found in the nation's capital is one marked primarily by its absence: The invisible traces of the 450 or so miles of interstate highway that were supposed to transect the greater Washington, D.C., area: the missing 10-lane Northeast Freeway through Takoma Park, for example, or the never-built "inner loop" a half mile from the White House. And yet, as Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey wrote in the Washington Post, "today, Washington has fewer miles of freeways within its borders than any other major city on the East Coast." Thirty-eight of the planned 450 miles would have routed through D.C. proper; today, there are just 10. Instead, after a wrenching and protracted political battle, they write, "the Washington area got Metro—all $5 billion and 103 miles of it."

The highway plan, proposed in 1956, was the product of Harland Bartholomew, one of the most influential planners of the 20th century (whose work can be seen in cities ranging from St. Louis to Atlanta). In the 1940s and '50s, in contrast to Robert Moses, notes historian Jeffrey Brown, "Bartholomew believed that traffic service was an important function of a freeway but he emphasized that this was to be balanced against other community needs." As Bartholomew declared, "neighborhoods, in so far as conditions permit, must be preserved and protected from the annoyances of heavy traffic movements. Major thoroughfares should follow the borders of new neighborhoods rather than splitting them into several parts."

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 But Bartholomew's D.C. plan doesn't embody these principles. Whether he was derailed by the restrictive vision (and conditions for funding) of federal highway engineers—who, even more than state engineers, as Brown notes, wanted expressways placed where they could move the most traffic the most cheaply, regardless of local context—or he simply "gave in to the desire of most Americans to pour concrete as quickly as possible to 'solve' the problem of urban traffic congestion," Bartholomew's "society first" approach gradually eroded, and as Brown observes, his work from the mid-1950s on "reflects the victory of the traffic-service orientation of the state highway engineers in the struggle to design and build urban freeways." As Bartholomew wrote in 1954: "The element of rapid and uninterrupted travel is the objective." That those "interruptions" were populous communities was a reality not reflected on bold blueprints nor captured in traffic projections.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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