Highways of the Future (May, 1938)

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Highways of the Future

By E. W. MURTFELDT

PICTURE a 15,000-mile network of twelve-lane motor speedways spanning the nation—three of them linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, six more crisscrossing the country north and south —and you will have an idea of the vastness of a spectacular highway plan proposed by Senator Robert J. Bulkley of Ohio. Requiring twenty-five years for completion, the mammoth gridiron of superhighways would change long-distance driving from a motorist’s nightmare of snarled traffic into a reality of fast, safe transportation. It would represent an impressive start toward an era of scientifically constructed speedways, and crashproof cars of radical new design to run upon them, foreseen by leading experts for the not-too-distant future.

What will transcontinental touring be like, say, fifty years from now? Recently Dr. Miller McClintock, director of the Harvard University Bureau for Street Traffic Research—the man who is recognized as the nation’s foremost authority on traffic problems—gave a startling preview of the momentous changes he sees ahead.

Rear-end collisions, he foresees, will be made impossible by a new expedient. Pushing down the brake pedal on a car of the future will operate a stop light that emits infra-red rays. These invisible light rays, picked up and distinguished from ordinary light by a photo-electric cell on the front of a following car, will energize an electric circuit and apply its brakes automatically.

Electric cables, buried beneath the pavements of superhighways, will govern the movement of cars. One set of electromagnetic impulses will control the car’s speed. Another set will lock its steering gear against any attempt to make a dangerous turn from one lane to another. Eventually, the cable system may even be adapted to take over steering altogether—allowing the driver to release the wheel, sit back, and make himself comfortable until he chooses to switch back again to manual control.

At night, the superhighways will light up of their own accord, section by section, as a car travels over them. “Electric eyes” spaced along the road will turn on the glareless illumination whenever a car passes, shutting it off at other times to conserve electricity.

Imagine a typical section of this superhighway of the future. Straight as a shaft of light, ten or more broad lanes of concrete stretch across the countryside, passing around cities and towns, bridging railroads, canals, and crossroads. Streamline busses roar along a center strip that splits the speedway, separating streams of private cars traveling in both directions. For cars moving at different speeds, each one-way pavement is divided into separate safety, accelerating, cruising, and express lanes.

Hop into a 1988-model car and take an imaginary spin down one of these amazing foolproof roads. Perhaps you arrived at the transcontinental artery by plane, swooping down on one of the concrete flight strips lining the boulevard, or settling to an automatic, radio-controlled landing on a spacious airport built close to a major highway intersection.

Driving up the clover-leaf approach onto the elevated highway, you glide first into the slow-speed safety lane, edge over into the accelerating strip, and turn the steering wheel to swing into the cruising lane. But nothing happens. Your car refuses to respond to the wheel, and suddenly you learn why as another automobile whips by on your left at sixty miles an hour. Suspended in service tunnels below the pavement, cables operating on an electromagnetic principle control a mechanism attached to the steering gear to prevent the car from turning left until the adjacent cruising lane is free from traffic for a safe distance.

You try the wheel again. This time the car swings over into the cruising lane and immediately picks up speed. You haven’t stepped on the gas, but the speedometer needle creeps steadily upward and freezes on the sixty mark. A second set of buried electromagnetic cables is taking over control of your speed, since cars in the cruising lane must go no more and no less than sixty miles an hour.

But other automobiles are still flying past you on the express lane to your left. Now you swing the wheel over, confident that the car will respond only if turning is safe. In the express lane, your speed automatically steps up to the 100-mile-an-hour limit. Fifty yards of special nonskid pavement flies by underneath your car every second.

Unless you switch back to a slower lane, you can maintain that pace hour after hour, for you’ll never see a traffic light, a railroad crossing, a street intersection, or even a curve sharp enough to slow you down. At twilight, overhead lamps will bathe the road in light. Sleet cannot form on the chemically coated windshield of the car. If you run into fog, chemical vapor escaping from tiny jets in the roadway will clear a lane of visibility. So your top speed of 100 miles an hour is also your average speed—fast enough to let you have breakfast in New York, lunch in Ohio, dinner in Iowa, and a midnight snack not far from the Colorado state line.

As your car eats up the miles in the express lane, you notice on your left a steel barrier that divides you from the broad two-way center lane reserved for express bus traffic. Built into the middle of this bus roadway at the outskirts of cities and towns, and at railroad and route junctions, are station platforms, served by moving stairways from waiting rooms below. Here passengers change from interstate busses to local lines to be whisked into cities and towns adjacent to the main highway.

Still farther to the left, traffic is speeding along at a controlled pace in the duplicate one-way road section for cars traveling in the opposite direction. But as you marvel at the efficient handling, safety, and speed of this 1988 traffic, it suddenly dawns on you that this superhighway has no roadside markers, no painted warnings on the pavement, not even a signpost to direct you along the route. You search in vain for any of the familiar signs that in 1938 were almost as much a part of the highway as the paving— “Sharp Curve,” “Winding Road,” “Steep Hill”—these signs, and the necessity for them, have disappeared from main routes years ago.

“But how do I find my way around?” you ask your guide. “How do I know where to turn off for Middletown or Cen-terville? Is every motorist a mind reader these days?”

Your guide smiles and suggests that you swing off the traveled lanes and nose into one of the parking bays that line the shoulder of the road. “Take a look at that dashboard,” he advises as you pull up to a stop out of the stream of traffic.

At first glance you spot a few of the familiar dials and instruments—speedometer, fuel gauge, ammeter. After a little study you figure out a few of the others—tachometer, tire-pressure gauge, engine-temperature meter. But what is that row of colored lights, and what is that white screen just over the windshield?

“Since the old days when all cars had gear-shifts and burned gasoline for fuel,” he explains, “science has stripped the welter of directional and warning signs off the highway and put the essential ones right on the dashboard of each car. At 100 miles an hour, roadside markers would be no more legible than hen tracks, anyway. The law now requires every automobile to be equipped with standard, pretuned, ul-trashort-wave radio and television units. On small four-lane side roads, traffic signals are indicated by the colored lights here on the panel.

“Miles before you reach any superhighway junction,” your guide continues, “your television set picks up the junction transmitter. All you have to do is glance at the viewing screen to find out where the crossroads will take you and how far it is to the next turn-off. And in case you get confused somehow, it’s simply a matter of throwing that switch lever to put you in two-way radio communication with highway-patrol headquarters. They’ll tell you where you are, how far it is in hours and minutes to your destination, and where to make the correct turn off the highway.”

IN CONGESTED areas, you find out, I highways are built on elevated structures over railroad lines. The top deck is reserved for private cars, while busses run on a lower level, and streamline trains race along on the tracks beneath. Train passengers transfer at metropolitan terminals to bus platforms for transportation to local stations in city suburbs and villages.

Traffic experts realize that a superhighway similar to the one just described must eventually be constructed —not only to handle an ever-increasing volume of vehicular traffic, but also to end the highway slaughter that in the last fifteen years has taken almost twice as many lives as the total lost in all the wars the United States has fought since the founding of the Republic. Accident statistics show that in many cases the driver is at fault, but the great majority of crashes can be traced ultimately to the roads over which we drive. Better, safer highways are a vital necessity, and extensive road-development programs, now being pushed by state as well as Federal authorities, may lead toward the highspeed superhighways of the future.

Already the State of Pennsylvania is pointing the way by authorizing the construction of what has been called the greatest road engineering project ever undertaken in the United States— a 164-mile, $80,000,000 toll boulevard stretching through the Allegheny Mountains from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.

THE proposed route will follow a $10,-000,000 railroad right of way, hacked out of the forests in the 1880′s, and on which not one length of track has ever been laid. Built during a bitter feud between rival railroad interests, and abandoned after they concluded a truce, the unused roadbed runs through nine rock tunnels along its route for a total tunnel length of more than seven miles. Engineers’ reports indicate the startling advantages the toll road will have over present traffic routes through the mountains and suggest some of the features that may be expected in future superhighways. From Harrisburg west to Pittsburgh, cars now have to climb nine-percent grades for a total of 13,880 feet. Over the new boulevard, cars will ascend a total of only 3,940 feet up grades that never exceed three percent. The route will eliminate four railroad and twenty-six highway grade crossings. Three quarters of its length will be entirely free from curves. On one straightaway, motorists will drive for forty miles without meeting a single bend in the road.

ULTIMATELY, the Pennsylvania toll road may serve as one link in the transcontinental chain of highways proposed by Senator Bulkley and now being studied by a committee. This whole Federal network would also operate under a toll system, scaled to the rate of about one tenth of a cent a passenger mile, in addition to a flat fee of twenty-five cents for each car entering the highway. Thus you would pay a quarter to get on the boulevard at New York and ninety cents to drive the 900 miles to Chicago, if you were alone in the car.

Federal police would man the toll gates and patrol the road. Since every car would be required to stop at toll stations, authorities could bar intoxicated drivers, check licenses, halt automobiles considered unsafe to drive, and enforce uniform traffic regulations—a procedure that might result in one nationwide code of traffic laws and regulations that would apply in every state in the Union.

These road-building developments indicate that the superhighway of the future is definitely on the way. No one can predict exactly what it will be like, but experts are confident that a modern Rip Van Winkle would wake up twenty years from now rubbing his eyes in amazement at the sight of streamline cars racing along broad, divided highways of concrete with a speed and a margin of safety far beyond his wildest dreams.

1 comment
  1. Thoughts: Cars and Technology « City Forward says: February 20, 20101:06 pm

    [...] with optimism evident in two articles entitled “Highway of the Future,” published in 1938 [6] and 2006 [7]. Self-driving cars, for example, would increase road capacity by allowing cars to [...]

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