A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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“Keep your eyes on the road” is familiar advice, but almost no one does it. We may be alert to traffic, or we may take in the scenery along the roadside, but we seldom pay much attention to the road itself. And what’s to see anyway? It’s just a paved-over path, isn’t it, a featureless strip of concrete, a way of getting somewhere else—and the quicker the better, please.

Learning a little something about the design of highways has given me a new perspective when I sit behind the wheel. Road building is an engineering profession, hemmed in both by codes of practice and by economic constraints, but there is also a strong tradition of aesthetic sensibility among highway designers. They pay a lot of attention to the visual experience of the driver. The placement of turns and grades is partly prescribed by the terrain, but highway engineers still have a lot of latitude in working out the details of how the road will unfold before you as you follow the dotted line at 60 miles an hour.

Of course, this aesthetic judgment is based mainly on what the road looks like from the driver’s seat. To critics of highway policy, that’s just the problem: road builders consider only the needs of motorists, and the remedy for any problem is always to build another road or else to widen one—until the countryside is sliced to ribbons by multilane highways, the cities are choked with cars, and we all choke on the fumes.

There’s no question that the automobile has altered our landscape and our lifestyle more than any other technology of modern times. It’s not just a matter of the acreage paved for roads and parking lots, or the number of hours per day we spend in the car. Even more important, the automobile has transformed where we live and work. For more than a century, cities have been sucking people out of the rural countryside, but the cities themselves have also been sprawling beyond their boundaries. Especially in North America, many cities have become hollow at the core while they grow concentric rings of suburban housing developments and shopping malls. It’s as if everyone wants to be near the central city, but nobody wants to live in it. We value the amenities of city life—the restaurants, the shopping, the big-league sports and museums—but we prefer a house set on a woodsy acre or two. Strategies for reconciling these conflicting urges tend to rely heavily on the automobile. The house on the woodsy acre has a two-car garage.

Still, the image of the automotive juggernaut is sometimes exaggerated. It’s true that we’re continually surrounded by cars and car culture, but that’s partly a result of our own choices. If you go everywhere by road, then you’ll find roads everywhere you go. A few unpaved patches of the planet still exist, but you have to get out of the car to see them. It’s also worth noting that the exodus from the central cities was not initiated by the automobile. It began well before World War I, when few families had cars. The first suburbs were streetcar developments—in many cases designed, financed, and promoted by the owners of trolley lines.

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