Sunday, January 30, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Ike's Highways

Yesterday I drove up to Austin for Cyn Smith's booklaunch party for Blessed. It was a good event and I bought lots of books at BookPeople, but by 4:00, when Cyn and Greg invited me to be part of the trek to Opal Divine's to relax afterward, I was already an hour into my afternoon crash despite fully caffeinating that morning. (I have the world's most anti-social body; it never lets me do things like this.) So I made my way back home down I-35 cranking up my highway music and fending off the post-event blues, which is all part of the crash, and it occurred to me that we don't have to have interstate highways.

The modern American public highway system is the result of post-World-War II politics, and the form it takes was influenced largely by President General Eisenhower's desire to have a transformation network which could function as a giant national runway in case of emergency. His experiences in Europe, shuffling troops and supplies all around a disrupted, devastated continent, gave him a clear idea of what he wanted for his own continent; and such was the bizarre state of politics during his administration, his plan was respected and used on the grounds that it was practical. It probably also helped that he wasn't trying to run the government without taxing the rich, and therefore the highways could actually get public funding. (If I wrote a biography of Ike, I'd probably call it The Last Real Republican.)

We all take well-maintained public highways for granted now, but they weren't inevitable. They might have been underfunded; they might have lost out to well-maintained public rail systems; we might have no cohesive public transportation grid at all. And I have to wonder - how would our culture have developed without them?

I envision I-35 replaced by a major rail line with a central terminal in each town, where one can rent street vehicles - small electric cars, Segways, bikes - and connect to local rail systems; maybe these terminals function as huge solar batteries to charge the electric cars. I'd get up to Austin more in such a situation, and might have even gone to Opal Divine's, if instead of driving I knew I could start reading Blessed on the way home. The trip would be faster, too. There'd be a lot less reason to cover the farm and ranchland along major transit corridors with outlet malls, strip centers, and ugly subdivisions. The rural brain drain might be worse, though; and entire communities might have been leveled for the construction of rail centers.

The Great American Vacation wouldn't consist of loading the entire family into the car and crowding the highways. "Are you there yet?" might not even be an instantly recognizable joke. If, instead of the cohesive rail system envisioned in the last paragraph, there's no public transportation infrastructure at all, just the organically grown old patchwork system of private and local jurisdictions, we might avoid the chaos of the roads by flying even short distances, or by vacationing close to home. Businesses might be less willing to transfer people from one branch to another, making families less mobile. Or telecommuting might have become a standard mode of work forty years ago.

Would music sound different? Car culture, teen culture, and rock culture became tightly associated in the 50s and it seems to me that the rhythms of the road were essential in developing the rhythms of pop music. It's possible that the reason 70s pop rock is so ideal for long drives is due to the subconscious influence of the tour bus on songwriters. Would Chuck Barry have ever heard "that highway sound" in "Maybelline" without Ike's highways? Which songs would need different lyrics without them? What would have replaced the 70s fad for truckers, CB radios, and trucking songs?

World building is fun, and alternate worlds make excellent settings. I don't, off the top of my head, know what story I would set in a highwayless America. It's just a setting, usable in any genre, with any character. Interstate highways are prominent in the history of crime, with a number of serial killers named after their highway hunting grounds; so you could plot a thriller or detective novel around the difference this setting would make to the career of, for example, the IH-35 Killer.

Or take the thought about Ike's highways in a different direction. What if they ever had to be used as he envisioned them? I can't recall a single paranoid 50s/60s movie in which Aliens, Reds, Giant Irradiated Monsters, or Zombie Hordes invaded America in which the highway system was used as runways. Why not? (And am I overlooking something?) Could it still be done, or has the modern tendency to build overpasses, underpasses, cloverleaves, and stacked ranks of traffic made it impractical? What if it needed to be done right now - what circumstances would require it? What difficulties would arise in implementing it? You could build a two-hour summer blockbuster movie out of those questions.

Something to think about next time you're stuck in traffic, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Kid Rock Tickets This was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.