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intertwined for 50 years

By enelson
Friday, June 2nd, 2006 at 7:21 pm in Bay Bridge, Freeways, Planning, Transit vs. driving.

Happy birthday, U.S. Interstates!

This month, Caltrans will mark the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.

And because it’s the system’s birthday, I’ve decided to consult someone who, like the city he lives in, the City of Angels, has embraced the system.

Nimitz Freeway 1959.jpgI-880 in 1959

Joel Kotkin is the perfect emcee for Papa Freeway’s half-century celebration because he lives in a city that has, in the opinion of many, also been enslaved by the system. Angelenos spend more time on freeways than they do with their kids, or at least that was my story when I commuted three hours a day from the LA South Bay to The Valley, averaging 26 mph. No, I’m not exaggerating.

During that time, I had several conversations with Kotkin, an urban planning expert/author/guru, and he made me feel proud to be part of the autopolis.

“There’s no point in going back and saying, we should tear them all down, because people already live somewhere else,” Kotkin said.

Yes, they live in Livermore and Vacaville, in Simi Valley and San Clemente, and why? Because Ike gave birth to a transportation network like no other in the world, one that would spur the nation’s commerce and change the way we lived.

“It reshaped the landscape of the United States. It allowed for much more dispersion of population,” Kotkin told me.

“Cities became very dense during the Industrial Revolution, very dense,” and then came transit, which in New York gave birth to outlying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

In San Francisco, Gold Rush-era residents would first walk to the docks to go to work, then with cable cars and streetcars in the late 1800s, found they could live clustered around end-of-the line transit terminals. First ferries, then the Bay Bridge in 1936 allowed people to commute quickly across the Bay, but still, people could not really spread out until limited-access freeways came along in the latter part of the 20th Century.

With the Interstate System, Kotkin said, “even New York has dispersed work to a significant extent, but nothing like California.”

And the East Bay developed along those lines, he added, if you can swallow this without choking:

“Even Oakland looks a lot more like LA than San Francisco does, because Oakland has always been more of an automobile city than San Francisco.”

Gulp.

But I couldn’t help but agree. Looking at an aerial photo of the pre-natal I-880 on Caltrans’ Interstate System 50th Anniversary Website, I first thought, “that’s OAKLAND? It must be LA.”

Thanks, Ike.

Oakland freeway construction 1955.jpgYes. It’s Oakland.

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