While the modern age of Motordom in America began in 1956 with the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act that funded the interstate freeway system, one of the seminal documents that preceded it, this from 1939, can be found here: Tolls Roads and Free Roads.
Alex Marshall in Atlantic Cities notes its significance in his article on how “Tearing Down an Urban Highway Can Give Rise to a Whole New City.”
My favorite illustration from that report shows a multi-level set of roads, including a sunken highway, plowing through Parisian-looking blocks of an old-style urban city. The series of surface and sunk lanes are probably a thousand feet wide. But only a few cars roll on them, (hey, traffic’s no problem!) and there is not a parking lot in site. Walking across this moat is inconceivable.
Marshall’s observation that the image shows only a few freely-flowing cars is critical: This car-dominant transportation system is typically portrayed as one where vehicles should always be able to travel at the maximum speed limit (and cars are built to drive much faster). In other words, vehicles should never be caught in congestion, and congestion is anything less than the posted speed limit.
To build this kind of system destroys the pre-Motordom city, and requires urban regions designed in ways that destroy the very idea of the city itself: as places that facilitate human-to-human exchange.
The man who signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act understood that, even if, apparently, he didn’t understand the consequences of the Act itself. Marshall references what may be an apocryphal story, but is one of those ‘what-if’ moments in history:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to stop the apple-corer highways (roads that would run through downtown districts) once he realized they were in the plan that flew under his name. Eisenhower’s Commerce Secretary, Frederick H. Mueller, suspended work on the city highways while Eisenhower’s public works coordinator, General John S. Bragdon, attempted to redirect highways around or beside cities. This effort was for naught, but it remains telling.