Louisville has, on paper, a vile array of interstates. Spokes fold into concentric wheels radiating out from city center all the way to the edge of the world.
That’s right. Even if Google Maps tries to make its maps spherical, we all know the world is flat. Wake up sheeple.
Anywho, the city has what would appear to be a typically American problem: the division of neighborhoods along the arbitrary construction of highways. Massive multi-lane interstates carve up the urban area, make it unwalkable, spread out and hideous from a certain perspective.
However, what looks like a problem on paper, really isn’t. As I wrote recently, one of the city’s greatest assets is the waterfront park. What gives?
History of America and Roads
My understanding of American transportation stems from many inspirations, but probably originates when I used to stare at Lego catalogs and wanted to build a train throughout my parents’ house, boring tunnels from room to room. They never consented and thus an unrealized dream persisted.
I’d always been interested in transportation and infrastructure, like any young 10-year-old is. I used to drive I-91 like it was our main street. I would memorize the exits, wonder where it led, used to ponder “what exactly is Connecticut?” Those were the times.
But as I got older, I began to wonder deeper questions, like why can’t we have subways everywhere? Of course we can’t, so I began to ask that one word question that has no end to a line of further questioning. There is a singular word that manifests itself most potently in a Wikipedia rabbit hole – why?
Through a synthesis of my understanding of both New World and Old World histories, studying the interstate system from its birth as a replication of the Nazi autobahn (summarily delivered in this video) and researching on Robert Moses, the “master builder,” I developed my understanding of American transit.
Let’s start with one man. Robert Moses, simply, was a douche nozzle. I understand that’s a very scientific, utterly cryptic description of the man. Sorry. But it’s true.
Who was Robert Moses and Why Does He Suck?
Okay, so I will couch my unyielding, deep-seated hatred for the now-dead-for-thirty-seven-years man. History does not always look kindly on people. MLK cheated on his wife. Gandhi was a polarizing figure, for whom perhaps 200+ million Muslims don’t view so positively. Bill Clinton was/is a weasel.
Robert Moses doesn’t hold a flame to two of those people and easily stands shoulder to shoulder with one. I’ll let you pick who.
Essentially, Mr. Moses is the man who green-lighted infrastructure projects that now cut up many of our cities. His efforts are now being reversed in many American cities, trying to create the exact opposite of his designs.
To Moses, the car should be the primary mode of transportation. It was more liberating than train, cheaper than subway, more mobile than boats and more sanitary than a Greyhound (because obviously).
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, the effects led to many negative outcomes. Construction ensued, paving over city centers. It pushed out the non-wealthy to regions even further. Without money, they couldn’t buy cars. And without cars, they couldn’t partake in a society that increasingly required car usage.
Roads weren’t supplemented with rail. That was a thing of the past. We now had Henry Ford’s shiny new cars.
It led to roads dividing up neighborhoods, killing traditionally non-white places like the Bronx. He pushed the Dodgers and the Giants out of New York. He abused his power to push through projects he new would never have passed if all the details were known. It hindered the expansion of the subway, which very much affects New Yorkers today. He avoided wealthy neighborhoods and built through poor ones.
But the spirit of building like this continued into the 50s, 60s and 70s when the interstate system expanded. Lower Manhattan was spared a hideous highway, while the other boroughs became inundated with traffic.
Neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia and Chicago were divided equally so.
While there is loads of praise for Moses’ projects, there is little from me. History isn’t always kind. I know, and I don’t care. That’s how we learn. So thank you Moses?
Moses Was Not The Originator
While the 1930s-1970s saw an unprecedented love for highways, it didn’t begin or end there. In the 1990s, San Francisco voted to remove the Embarcadero Freeway, a double decker highway on the bay that was highly congested. Citizens assumed that the removal of such an obviously important artery would worsen traffic.
With all that was known at the time, of course it “should.” However, they went through with it, and lo and behold, traffic was gone.
Essentially modern urban planners realize that if you remove multilane interstates that flow through a city, the traffic will simply dissipate and move elsewhere. (Sorta. Should read their argument first.) Easy enough. Building interstates induces demand for vehicles and traffic. There’s even a way to measure this effect.
Only in recent times has the general public had strong desire for the removal of the highways in this way in favor of mixed-use space.
It goes way back, but the US is unique in this regard.
The United States is the only nation where the development of many of its major large and mid-sized cities coincided with the advent of the car, along with a relatively wealthy populace.
Therefore, many of our cities were designed with the car in mind, whereas they weren’t in virtually any other country in the world. The world was introduced to the car in 1886 and it became widely available with Ford’s Model-T in 1908.
Many American cities not named Boston, New York or Philadelphia are excluded in this theory, as they were developed much earlier, as a drive through Bostonian one-ways will quickly reveal.
Because European cities like Paris, London and Copenhagen had their urban cores develop centuries if not millennia ago, they were designed with walking in mind, or carts and buggies. The streets are much narrower, fitting in more pedestrians and fewer cars. Wide American boulevards fit in fewer people, fewer businesses and more metal and rubber. Not the best tradeoff.
The highway systems of major European cities go around the city, not through. The highway systems of major American cities go straight on through the core.
Quick Around the World in a Car
Side note: continental divisions aren’t always particularly useful, but I’ll use them here for continued brevity. Cities of Asia are often incredibly old, but have crisscrossing highways through them, added mostly in recent years. The cities themselves weren’t designed with cars themselves in mind. This came after. So Beijing actually is super spread out and the highways don’t penetrate the city as much as you’d think.
Latin American cities are often huge animals that swallow suburbs whole, and highways are the only way to connect this piecemeal construction. Mexico City and Buenos Aires are good examples of urban expansion without too much urban planning. As for Oceanian cities, I’m less familiar.
In the case of African cities today though, the oldest ones like Cairo, Mombasa or Zanzibar were certainly created during a time of no cars. Many cities on the continent today, however, are being flooded with Chinese money and engineering, resulting in multi-modal systems, where brilliant high-speed trains are laid down alongside wide highways, a sign of Chinese newfound love for the gas pedal.
This is meant to be a quick aside. A comprehensive assessment of every major city in the world organized by most influential vehicle is not possible in this space.
American Love for Cars
In any case, with the introduction of the Model-T, much of the traditional, nineteenth-century American way of life began to change. Middle class families could afford transportation, immediately broadening their horizons.
This coincided with the wonderful decision to designate Yellowstone a “national park” in 1872 and Roosevelt’s, Taft’s and Wilsons’ creation of national monuments and the National Park Service. Manifest Destiny came alive again in a way, as Americans, with newfound wealth, opportunity and pioneer spirit had new parks to explore.
Cities, like Chicago, began to design cities around the car. Though renowned today for having one of the US’ greatest urban park systems, the wide highways still carve up the city, very much racially. Though Lake Shore Drive is beautiful and the beach is mostly accessible, many would prefer not to have this lane run down the coastline.
A growing middle class and cheapening of cars through mass production lines meant the love for cars wouldn’t end there. Moses’ designs would be replicated in newer cities from the old “American Northwest,” or Ohio, down to the South and furthest regions of the West. Today you can see urban sprawl at its finest in Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and Nashville. Thank you interstates.
Only today are we trying to remedy this.
Are Cars Bad?
I’m not saying cars are bad. They are, in fact, necessary in the US, precisely because of our history. Living in London or Beijing or Montreal, you don’t really need a vehicle. You can walk or take a subway.
This is the point. Society bears a cost for its decisions, and in the case of automobiles, there are obvious side effects. Cities are divided. Americans spend time alone in a car, rather than interacting with one another on the streets. Long drives in traffic affect our moods and personalities. Haze, while no longer visible, still hurts the lungs of our youth.
While tax dollars go to roads, they could be used for housing or mass transit. It could still affect the same number of people, but in different ways. Many cities are re-evaluating these decisions. Houston rerouted its existing bus system, injecting zero cents but plenty of sense. Seattle designated lanes for buses in city center, eliminating cars and hastening the morning commute. Providence, RI moved its interstates away from city center, opening up the central river and connecting the two sides of the city.
How Louisville Ends up As a Hub
The city got its start as a natural crossroads and continues to do so today, with UPS world hub located at the Louisville airport no less.
Originally, due to the falls of the Ohio River, people need to stop off and move down river before continuing. This organically created a way point.
Later, as Kentucky and West Virginia began to export coal and railways popped up as early as the 1830s, the city of Louisville became a crossroads for all this traffic. While time has passed and railways have changed from war and natural disaster, the two major players (Norfolk Southern and CSX) still cross east-west through the River City.
Boats and railways brought people into the area, as did slavery. While Indiana remained a free state, Kentucky was not, and enslaved African-Americans made their way through Louisville to freedom.
As the aforementioned interstate system developed, many denizens used the new highways to commute from the suburbs into the city in the 70s and 80s. As has happened in dozens of cities nationwide in recent years, millennials have moved back into denser urban cores, and Louisville has facilitated this.
The star of all this, however, is how the city manages to take its web of highways and get them mostly out of the way.
While the major ones (I-64, I-65, I-71, I-264, I-265…I’m out of breath), all make their way through and around city center, they don’t seem to clog up the city. Cities with unsightly interstates feel as if they’re being intruded on while walking around downtown. I want to walk in parks, among people, near buildings. I don’t want overpasses galore, a la Los Angeles.
While there are four huge bridges spanning the Ohio River, from Louisville, KY to Jeffersonville, IN, it doesn’t feel like they’re in the way. They’re high enough and spread out enough, that you can walk underneath and feel as if you’re in a park, albeit an urban one. They aren’t so close to one another that you feel the heat of rubber zooming over pavement 70 MPH from millions of cars in stifling heat.
It’s easy to close off a space with congestion. Too much furniture makes a room feel small, and too many roads makes a city feel cramped. Louisville makes all its large furniture seem manageable, which is admirable.
The United States has a long history with the car, perhaps unlike any other nations. Cities that developed around 100-150 years ago, the urban design centered around a personal automobile, unlike older, colonial-era Eastern cities.
Therefore, places that came to be as a crossroads, like Louisville, in conjunction with the history of the car, means that they can become concrete jungles, car wastelands.
Louisville is not. The city does an amazing job of having interstates drive right through the city, but keeping its urban core walkable and free.
I don’t advocate for highways through cities; I prefer for them to go around. However, Louisville is incredible for having its cake and eating it too.
Let me know what you think in the comments below, whether you agree, disagree or otherwise.
This is a multi-part series on a road trip to West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Check out the other pieces here.
Like what you’re reading on the US? Check out some other related articles in: The US Chronicles!!