May 17, 2021
Beddinginn

The Corruption Behind America’s Highway System, Explained

I-5 collapsed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake in SoCal. This is the interchange where a motorcycle cop fell to his death in the early morning darkness, perhaps not realizing that the road was out ahead.

Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

We spend some time talking about the racism built into American infrastructure, but we should spend a bit more talking about the corruption behind it, too. Here’s a video explainer on how the auto industry conspired to make it first illegal and then impossible to get around without a car here.

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Americans like to think of corruption as something that happens in other countries. Corruption as we imagine it is a police officer shaking you down as a tourist, or some foreign politician in the news for accepting bribes. I myself often think of the one unnamed Chinese official who used a police helicopter to take pictures of swans. That’s some obvious — and, if I’m honest, cool — corruption right there.

What we tend not to think of as corruption is revolving door politics, where business executives rotate into politics to shape business-friendly legislation and then rotate right back into that business when all that hard work is done, collecting fat checks all along the way.

It’s this kind of corruption that’s at the heart of modern America, because it’s corruption that gave way to the Interstate Highway System as we know it.

The myth of the highways as we have them is that Eisenhower, back when he was General and not yet President, saw how wonderful Germany’s Autobahn system was while invading in WWII and brought the idea back to America in case we got into a ground war with the Soviets or something. This is a bit of a misremembering of history though. The Autobahn was mostly constructed after WWII, and by the time Eisenhower made it into the Third Reich, the starved Nazis were moving more troops by horse than by car or truck. Even before then, Nazi Germany primarily shipped things around with its healthy rail network, still healthy today.

That's President-elect Eisenhower in the middle of his cabinet in 1953. Directly to his right is Nixon, and all the way on his left is Charlie Wilson, sitting closest to camera. He seems chuffed.

Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

Did Eisenhower return to America to reinvigorate our train lines? No, he did not, in part because the guy in charge of this kind of civil-military infrastructure was Charlie Wilson. Wilson was Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower, and Wilson’s job before that was running General Motors. Wilson is literally the “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa” guy. His time in office saw GM rise to become a near-monopoly over the America car market, in part because everyone in America wanted a car, in part because the only good way to get around was on the freshly-constructed Interstate Highway system.

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After his stint in office making America hospitable to cars and cars alone, Wilson went right back to working for GM, hopping onto Board of Directors in 1957. Quite the public servant.

That’s all detailed in a new video from Rollie Williams of Climate Town. It is a fun tour of New York City during this past winter, and it is a good timeline of how the auto industry conspired first to make freely walking around illegal (the auto industry renamed this “jaywalking” and backed the laws against it), then conspired to destroy transportation alternatives (in the famous case of buying up streetcar companies in secret and tearing them up), then building up an America in which cars are the only way to get around (by setting up the Interstate Highway System). There’s a lot in there that I’ve glossed over, and a lot of good yuks. There’s also a nicely modded Nissan 240SX in the background of one shot, if you think you can spot it, too.

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It’s a useful video to explain that America didn’t just naturally fall in love with cars. We hated them when they started taking streets away from us. We had good reason to. As Rollie points out in the video, more Americans were killed by cars in the years after WWI than died fighting in WWI. And most of the people cars killed were children.

You have to wonder how many Americans would choose to get around only by cars if they had good alternatives to them. Sadly, we hardly have a chance to know.

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