from Discovering Urbanism: Dreaming About Magic Highways

This blog has been mostly irony-free since the very beginning, and now the storehouse of pent-up sarcasm and glibness is about to break out. Sorry in advance.

Commenter Andrew sent a link to this 1958 Disney promo video, the Magic Highway. I’ve watched the Futurama video (part 1and part 2), made for the 1939 World’s Fair by GM, but the Magic Highway is surely the reductio ad absurdum of American motoring idealism. It descends one more notch into self-parody every minute it goes on, but it’s obviously dead serious and coincides closely with the start of our nation’s real era of highway-building.

Watch the whole thing, but my favorite part is the family suburban commute around minute three. Once mother and son are safely transported to the shopping center, father drives into a highway elevator and is conveyed directly to his high-rise office.

“From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk.”

Because having to walk is like eating molten lava.

Ok … leaving aside the question of the possibilities of technological progress, this vision is not even internally logically consistent. There are no acres of parking lots, no roadway congestion whatsoever. People’s muscles have not atrophied, and their waistlines are still oddly thin. The family unit is still intact, even though the entire world is oriented around hyper-individualized convenience. Nobody seems to drive right off the side of the guardrail-free elevated motorways. Energy is infinite and omnipresent, presumably transmitted through the air. Land and materials are infinite, having no pre-existing value. Unless, that is, we conquer cause and effect in the future …

Why am I picking on a 1950’s utopia? Surely only the most ardent highway enthusiast still hold on to this dream. The reason is that the utopias of culture matter, especially the most far-fetched. Even if they are not achieved, what we get is a landing somewhere along the trajectory toward this goal. The vision predicted,

“the shape of our cities will change as expanded highway transportation decentralizes our population centers into vast urban areas.”

That’s what happened.

In this vision, nature is depicted as exclusively an impediment to human flourishing and economic development.

“In one sweep a giant road-builder changes rough ground into a wide finished highway.”

An atomic reactor “makes molehills out of mountains.” That’s the guiding principle that has stuck.

Finally, the good being pursued here is the fully privatized life, as compartmentalized as possible from messy and unpredictable interventions from other people.


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