|New York Parkway: Gently curving along the contour lines
Bridges and overpasses were designed where the terrain made it easiest to cross and clad in local materials. Interstates were moved a distance away from towns and villages to reduce noise impacts and to ensure a pleasant green buffer alongside the travel route. In those days travel was not only about the destination but also about the journey.
We still benefit from the thoughtfulness of these early route alignments and design principles, some parts of I-95 are still beautiful, especially at the Susquehanna crossing. New York parkways are famous for their aesthetics designed in part by Frederick Law Olmsted (1866, Eastern Parkway Brooklyn) and then later by Robert Moses who has since fallen into disgrace for his authoritarian style, his anti transit posture and his racism.
One of the most distinctive visual features of Long Island’s parkways is the extensive uses of ashlar granite, used to construct overpasses, gas stations and ancillary structures. Many of the parkway overpasses were landscaped with Dogwood, Azalea, and English Ivy. The influence of Moses’s Oxford experience and the English countryside was evident in the design of the gas stations, police and maintenance buildings that were located along the parkways. The majestic trees of the Long Island environment were echoed in the design of the wooden lamp posts that aligned the parkways. (Building the Roads to Greatness. in Joann P Krieg. Robert Moses: Single-Minded Genius).This isn't about glorifying the "good old days" (they weren't so good) nor an attempt of romanticizing travel in the age of congestion. But it is a warning about what we lose if we continue on the current path of blind highway widening obliterating any past sensibility for design and aesthetics.
|New Jersey Turnpike: a nightmare of concrete and aspahlt
For decades more tepid drivers approaching NYC or LA have become jittery from the endless numbers of lanes, toll lanes, truck lanes, local lanes, express lanes and complicated exit ramps winding this way and that. Do we really want to replicate this experience for the gateways to Baltimore, DC and Frederick, places that were until recently comparably quaint?
But boy, has that already changed! Entering the DC region on I-95 from the south can instill terror in the hearts of all but the most intrepid automobilists. The interchange between I-95 and the beltway can take it up with California's largest roadway spaghetti bowls. Is that progress? I am specifically not talking about how ineffective these billion dollar monsters are in terms of transportation policy or how destructive they are environmentally (for those points see my articles here). I am simply pointing to their hideous ugliness.
On certain levels of the American race, indeed, there seems to be a positive libido for the ugly, as on other and less Christian levels there is a libido for the beautiful. Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. ... There must be causes behind it; ..... What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than elsewhere? (H.L. Mencken, the Libido for the Ugly, 1927)Am I a hopeless romantic? If you think so and simply accept the recent pavement orgies as a the price of "progress" then consider that urban renewal and the mass bulldozing of city neighborhoods to adapt the city for the car was seen as progress as well. The single-purpose arteries cut through our downtowns, displacing residents and maiming whole neighborhoods in the name of progress, was a practice which is now considered a tragic mistake. Ironically, the urban atrocities occurred at the same time when parkways were guided by aesthetics and environmental concerns. In fact, that was the cynicism of people like Moses. Today cities are where the younger generations want to be, complete streets, place-making and a quality public roam are seen as valuable. What virtue is there in applying the destructive misguided ideas of progress of the past now to the landscapes in the outskirts of metropolises to mold them to fit the car?
|MDOT "rendering" of the ETL lanes in the center
All this comes to Baltimoreans with heightened urgency because of our pave-over-the-world governor who has never seen a road he doesn't want to build or widen. One of the Rahn-Hogan highway team projects are the I-95 Express Toll Lanes (ETL), a quarter billion dollars to cover the last blade of grass to extend those darn Lexus Lanes beyond MD 43 where they currently end all the way to Belair in Harford County.
|Graphic from MDOT website.
Anybody who has traveled I-95 northbound after all green medians and buffer strips have been sacrificed north of where I-895 merges so that an entirely new additional Interstate can be jammed in between the northbound and southbound lanes, can only be horrified by the expanse of concrete, Jersey barriers and overhead sign bridges. In its totality the result is such an assault on the eye that the ugliness alone can increase the Cortisol level of a driver. Not only I am concerned about the visual and environmental impact. The Harford Aegis editorialized:
|Walls, Jersey barriers as pavement: Not a blade of green left on I-95
The ETL extension will be approximately eight miles, but the project will encompass a whole lot more than just adding one northbound express lane in the middle of the highway, which already has four travel lanes in each direction.The benefit is even more dubious if one considers that car companies expect to have autonomous vehicles up and running in the next 3-10 years, i.e. potentially before this roadway widening may even be complete. Whatever the impacts of self driving cars will be, it is clear that AVs will run more efficiently and will, therefore, need less space.
According to the MDTA, “The proposed improvements will increase the quality of life for numerous communities with the addition of four new noise walls and will replace or rehabilitate five bridges that are more than 50 years old.”
The express toll lanes extension is expected to be open to traffic in December 2022, and while MDTA might have been optimistic in saying work could begin this summer, think about the disruption and likely congestion and confusion that will be caused with the removal and replacement of overpasses at Bradshaw and Old Joppa Roads.
Do such changes to the landscape and temporary construction inconvenience justify the so-called permanent “improvement?” That may well indeed be a dubious claim. (Editorial from The Aegis 2/26/18)
Nightmare on "the 5" in California: Is that what we are aiming for?
Certainly people in those cars will spend more time checking out the environment. To ruin it now seems really foolish.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA