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That anybody would ever romanticize the days when America moved on rails would have stunned the highway boosters of the first half of the 20th century. In those days, highways meant progress, pure and simple. Railroads and streetcars did not. Both had been built with private capital, and the railroads in particular embodied capitalism at its most rapacious. To the Progressives who came to political power at the turn of the century, highways were the Main Street alternative to Wall Street-dominated rail. And for people who lived in rural areas, paved roads weren’t just an alternative; they were an escape from mud-imposed isolation during the rainy months.

Well if you read that extract above, which related trains to stock exchanges, and highway building to the new progressive people in power – I think that the internet and computing nowadays – is a highway too. One which is driven by consumer demand, and like the early days of the automotive industry, has had more than its fair share of cowboys too. You will notice, that like the automotive industry, the number of players in the computer industry are getting less and less.

But what was interesting was how, the dotcom bust proves, that unlike the old days, with the railroad building analogy for the internet – you cannot ‘corporatise’ the new highways – automotive or otherwise. Places like America have taken ‘the consumer oriented world’ to an extreme, with loads of motorway, loads of cheap web access, loads of mals,… all to do with consumer spending, and in turn keeping their economy booming.

In and around America’s big cities, the legacy of the Interstates is more complicated. When talk of an Interstate system first began in the 1930s, urban areas weren’t really part of the equation. The point was to link cities, not repave them. By the 1950s, though, big-city mayors and merchants were becoming alarmed by the car-enabled outflow of people and commerce to the suburbs. The solution, as they saw it, was to make it easier to get into, out of, and around cities by car. Highway planners listened and redrew their Interstate maps to wrap every big city with superhighways, high cost be damned.

The backlash came remarkably quickly. It’s easy enough to trace in the pages of FORTUNE: Through 1956 the magazine depicted urban superhighways in a positive light. But in 1957 and 1958, as the bulldozers came out in force, a series of articles on “The Exploding Metropolis” called the automobile’s urban role into question, wondering at one point whether the highways needed to get cars downtown might “carve so much space out of the city that little worthwhile will remain.”

The notion that big highways and big cities don’t mix spread. In 1959, San Franciscans staged the “freeway revolt” that halted the building of the Embarcadero Freeway along the city’s waterfront. In the 1960s, successful anti-freeway protests followed in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York, Boston, and other cities.

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