National Geographic : 1969 Sep
National Geographic, September 1969 The average cost of a surface freeway in an urban area runs about four million dollars a mile.* Deep-tunnel mileage costs are now av eraging about seven million. But improved technology will make tunneling cheaper, while land costs climb. As the two opposing trends continue, tunnels will become increasingly attractive to highway planners. The U. S. Department of Transportation, through its Office of High-Speed Ground Transportation, is investigating new tunnel ing methods. Tunnels of the future may be bored by jets of flame or hyper-velocity jets of water. Chemicals, laser beams,t or plastic encased pellets of water fired from powerful gas guns may be used to cut through or break up the rock. Underground highways are not affected by weather. Another point: Underground free ways will avoid the bitter debates that have erupted in many cities over the displacement of people by surface construction. Remember the people capsules that, a few pages ago, were going to thread the maze of tunnels beneath the city and take you to your destination? More than 30 such systems are in the development stage. Most of them have common characteristics. They are controlled externally by a central computer. Vehicles move at high speed and at close intervals through a network of one way passageways. Most are designed to carry small groups of people, affording privacy equal to that of a taxi. Computer Eliminates the Reckless Driver Consider the system under study by re searchers at the Docutel Corporation, just outside Dallas, Texas. Electrically powered cars, each seating as many as four persons, travel on aluminum tracks suspended from graceful arches over the city or threading through tunnels under the ground. Passengers board their waiting car in a spur tunnel, insert a destination card in a slot, and relax. The car, electronically controlled, merges smoothly into the traffic speeding through the main tube and travels to its destination by the most direct route. No, it hasn't happened yet. As I write this, no city has begun construction of such a system. But it can be built. You may have reservations about surren dering control of your vehicle to a faceless computer. I did-until I remembered that the computer will be controlling the other vehicles as well. There will be no reckless driver to swerve into my lane, or thunder past on the wrong side of the road. Traffic experts and life-insurance agents will be happy to see the unpredictable human element taken out of our transportation system. The experts agree on another point, more disheartening: The path to a safe, efficient transportation system will be a rocky one. I sat one day in the book-lined office of Dr. Paul Cherington, at that time Professor of Transportation at Harvard and since then named Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Policy and International Affairs. He gave me some rather startling statistics: "In the United States, we have enough car seats on the road for every man, woman, and child-with enough seats left over to hold the entire population of continental Europe." "People Go Where Transportation Is" Dr. Cherington paused for a moment, and the muted noise of city traffic drifted in through the open window as if to under score his point. "In New York City a truck moves at a slower pace today than a horse-drawn cart did 60 years ago. A fourth of downtown Los Angeles is paved for the use of automobiles. "Actually," he said, "we have been operat ing on a mistaken principle-that the trans portation routes should go where the people are. It's wrong. People tend to go where the transportation is!" As an example, he named a road close to my home-Shirley Highway, feeding cars into downtown Washington and into the vast parking lots of the Pentagon. "Shirley Highway was a terrible old road, with traffic jams every day." And then Dr. Cherington gave me a quizzical smile. "So what did you do? You widened it into six lanes. Then what happened? Developers con structed high-rise apartments all along the new highway, and now five times as many people use the road. And what do you have today? A six-lane traffic jam instead of a two-lane traffic jam. People go where the transportation is." There are two basic approaches to the trans portation problem: Increase the capacity of the system, or reduce the requirements. Many *Robert Paul Jordan wrote of "Our Growing Inter state Highway System" in the February 1968 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. tSee "The Laser's Bright Magic," by Thomas Meloy, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December 1966.