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Author Topic: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?  (Read 1205 times)

bugo

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Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« on: March 21, 2019, 03:57:57 AM »

I look at a highway like I-244 and wonder why the hell did they design this freeway like they did? Left exits and entrances everywhere, poor geometry, poor visibility, unnecessary curves and short on ramps. It's really a terrible road. Why did they design urban freeways like this? I can't think of a rational reason they would design it this way.
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Scott5114

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #1 on: March 21, 2019, 04:43:13 AM »

The answer is "Yes, basically". We simply didn't have the experience building freeways that we do now. When the idea of exit and entrance ramps is new to begin with, details like ramp length, placement, and the side they are on are not things you are likely to spend a lot of thought on.

Even the German autobahn sucked in the beginning—they had cobblestone offramps: https://www.aaroads.com/blog/the-last-reichsautobahn/
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abefroman329

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #2 on: March 21, 2019, 09:20:18 AM »

My feelings on urban expressways are mixed, but I think they did the best they could with what little space they had.  Most of the twists and turns were to avoid buildings that couldn't be demolished or moved.
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jeffandnicole

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #3 on: March 21, 2019, 09:46:13 AM »

I look at a highway like I-244 and wonder why the hell did they design this freeway like they did? Left exits and entrances everywhere, poor geometry, poor visibility, unnecessary curves and short on ramps. It's really a terrible road. Why did they design urban freeways like this? I can't think of a rational reason they would design it this way.

Do something today for the first time.  It's probably going to be improved upon 10, 20, 50 years down the road as well.  When you look back, you'll wonder why it was done the way it was done the first time also.

Also, it takes time for standards to evolve.  What if the standard became left entrances/exits, and everyone kept left except to pass?  Even today, standards that have existed for years change. 

A 100 years from now, when every car is self-driving, they'll look back and wonder why we even needed signs.
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bmorrill

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #4 on: March 21, 2019, 11:14:17 AM »

The answer is "Yes, basically". We simply didn't have the experience building freeways that we do now. When the idea of exit and entrance ramps is new to begin with, details like ramp length, placement, and the side they are on are not things you are likely to spend a lot of thought on.

Even the German autobahn sucked in the beginning—they had cobblestone offramps: https://www.aaroads.com/blog/the-last-reichsautobahn/

We lived in Darmstadt in the mid 60s, and our off-ramp was still cobblestone when we came back stateside.
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US71

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #5 on: March 21, 2019, 11:23:21 AM »

There was a similar discussion on one of the Route 66 Facebook pages regarding roads and bridges with little or no shoulder.  Safety standards continually improve and roads are upgraded or replaced.
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Henry

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #6 on: March 21, 2019, 01:30:15 PM »

While they were, in theory, a good idea, their execution was very poor indeed. Narrow ROWs and tight spacing of ramps are part of the reason why, but the newer ones are definitely an improvement.
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roadiejay

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #7 on: March 27, 2019, 07:26:45 AM »

Having lived in Arizona most of my life where the majority of freeways were designed and built after the 1980s, I can confirm this is the case when I visit other states.
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bing101

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #8 on: March 30, 2019, 10:24:58 AM »

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frankenroad

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #9 on: April 02, 2019, 12:58:36 PM »


Even the German autobahn sucked in the beginning—they had cobblestone offramps: https://www.aaroads.com/blog/the-last-reichsautobahn/

That may have been intentional to force drivers to drop their speed from autobahn speeds to surface street speeds.
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capt.ron

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2019, 02:09:39 PM »

I look at a highway like I-244 and wonder why the hell did they design this freeway like they did? Left exits and entrances everywhere, poor geometry, poor visibility, unnecessary curves and short on ramps. It's really a terrible road. Why did they design urban freeways like this? I can't think of a rational reason they would design it this way.
More than likely a learning curve involved. "Interstate standards" were looser up until the late 1960's. I'm looking at I-40 for a good example. Some of the on-ramps lack "proper" acceleration areas and are marked with a yield sign at the end of the on ramp (seen in Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma). I-40 has a few "left exits", in particular west of Elk City.
Former CA 11 (CA 110) north of I-110 has the shortest on-off ramps I have ever seen.
Cloverleaf interchanges can be tricky, especially older ones without CD roads.
Another "design flaw" left over from the olden days are 2 way frontage roads with short on-off ramps. Texas has lots of them and the stretch of I-55 in Arkansas has them too.
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J N Winkler

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #11 on: April 10, 2019, 04:24:04 PM »

There is indeed a large gulf in terms of geometric design standards between 1950's/early 1960's facilities and the ones currently being built today, but I would not characterize this as a result of the designers being stupid.  They were working, as others have pointed out, with a limited knowledge base.

*  Traffic planning in the 1950's used the 1950 edition of the Highway Capacity Manual, which talked about "practical" versus "theoretical" capacity.  The modern concept of LOS and the idea of building to given LOS standards (e.g. upper LOS B in rural areas, middling LOS D in urban areas) did not come until the 1965 edition.

*  There was no granular understanding of ramp operations and their effects on capacity.  The use of motion picture and video cameras to carry out capacity and operational studies (famously to establish 2200 VPLPH as the maximum empirically observed per-lane throughput, on a slight downgrade on US 101 in Hollywood) did not come until the mid-1950's.

*  For economic planning purposes, it was assumed that each highway had a useful life of 20 to 25 years.  Longer horizons (with design standards appropriate for such) are now used pretty much everywhere, it having been universally recognized that it is the exception rather than the rule that there is money to transition to an improved facility right at the 20- to 25-year mark.

*  A lot of safety research--establishing, e.g., that stabilized vegetated shoulders are next to useless, or Texas turndowns are actually quite dangerous--was not carried out until well past the mid-1960's.

*  Understanding of design consistency was nowhere near what it is now.  (In Europe, notably Germany and the UK, there was work on "flowing line" alignments that trended in the same direction, but it gained very little traction in the US.)  It was therefore not uncommon for urban thoroughfare plans to commit urban planners and state DOT engineers to freeway alignments that involved, e.g., 30 MPH mainline bends.  (This helped set the stage for freeway revolts later on as engineers pressed to build to better standards even at the cost of added destruction of neighborhoods.)

The general rule of thumb, not just in the US but also in various western European countries and China, is that design standards change rapidly in the first few years or decades of freeway construction before they stabilize in such a way that they change very little in ensuing decades.  In the US standards set in this way roughly in the late 1960's.



As for the use of stone setts (Kleinpflaster) on the Autobahn in the 1930's, I am not aware that the engineers at the time claimed any special advantages in terms of enhanced strength or durability of the running surface, signalling a need to slow down for off-ramps, etc.  It was, however, politically driven.  In the mid-1930's, the SS, which ran the concentration camps (though not yet as part of a systematic program for eliminating the Jews), was charged with operating quarries with a view toward producing stone for the Nazis' ambitious building program.  This was found to require a level of skill that the typical concentration camp prisoner did not possess, and the SS was left with a glut of unsuitable stone.  It was turned over to Fritz Todt (head of the Autobahn program) essentially to get rid of it by using it as a surfacing material.  Besides ramps, it was also used on the mainline, representing a small percentage (IIRC under 5%) of the total centerline mileage.

Albert Speer mentions the building-stone debacle in Inside the Third Reich.  Nikolaus Wachsmann's KL:  a history of the Nazi concentration camps describes it in detail, including the horrendous working conditions in the quarries.
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sparker

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #12 on: April 10, 2019, 04:25:57 PM »

^^^^^^^^
Regarding CA 110 between L.A. and Pasadena -- there's a reason why the facility reverted to being called the Arroyo Seco Parkway from its 50+ year stint as the Pasadena Freeway -- many of the on/off ramps, particularly those down in the arroyo itself -- are exceptionally short -- functionally RIRO's, seeing as how many onramps have a stop sign at the parkway.   And that's what it was designed as back in the late '30's; most of the land along its southeast flank is actually a L.A. city park along the Arroyo Seco channel.  But it carried mainline US 66 traffic for two dozen years -- even though most through truck traffic had long since shifted to the parallel US 60/70/99 to the south simply to avoid the downtown areas of the foothill cities arrayed along US 66.  When I was young and still living in the L.A. area, I used to take out-of-town visitors on a trip along the Arroyo Seco just to show them how the first L.A. "freeway" was configured vs. more recent designs.  Reactions were mixed -- some enjoyed the bucolic and "vintage" feel of the Parkway; others treated the ride as one would a roller coaster -- it can be a bit unnerving, particularly in regards to traffic!   
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Beltway

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #13 on: April 10, 2019, 06:02:05 PM »

*  For economic planning purposes, it was assumed that each highway had a useful life of 20 to 25 years.  Longer horizons (with design standards appropriate for such) are now used pretty much everywhere, it having been universally recognized that it is the exception rather than the rule that there is money to transition to an improved facility right at the 20- to 25-year mark.

The whole 41,000 mile Interstate Highway System project was originally projected to be completed in 1969, which would be a 13-year construction period.  We see how much longer it took mainly due to cost inflation but also due to increasing design standards and increasing environmental standards.

So they really weren't looking at any timespan in the 20- to 25-year range in 1956, other than a general lifespan for a new superhighway. 

The early turnpikes were still young back then, with some segments not yet opened. So they really didn't yet have knowledge as to just how long a new superhighway would last, other than asphalt pavements needing resurfacing every 8 years or so.  Concrete pavements hadn't yet started wearing out, nor bridges.
 
« Last Edit: April 10, 2019, 06:06:39 PM by Beltway »
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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #14 on: April 12, 2019, 11:44:31 AM »

Also keep in mind that modern design standards are a lot more expensive to execute than the earlier more experimental designs.  Especially with older urban highways using 45mph or similar design speeds, whereas today it's pretty much all 80mph.  While there was a big jump in road/highway funding in the 1950s, it pales in comparison to what we're spending today, but for rather marginal additional gains. 
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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #15 on: April 12, 2019, 12:15:26 PM »

Also keep in mind that modern design standards are a lot more expensive to execute than the earlier more experimental designs.  Especially with older urban highways using 45mph or similar design speeds, whereas today it's pretty much all 80mph.  While there was a big jump in road/highway funding in the 1950s, it pales in comparison to what we're spending today, but for rather marginal additional gains.

Are 80 mph design speeds really that common for dense urban freeways? NYSDOT uses 50–60 mph (depending on 85th percentile) design speeds for "urban core" interstates and 50–70 mph for other urban interstates.
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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #16 on: April 12, 2019, 03:28:57 PM »

A 100 years from now, when every car is self-driving, they'll look back and wonder why we even needed signs.

Or roundabouts.
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kphoger

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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #17 on: April 12, 2019, 03:53:16 PM »


A 100 years from now, when every car is self-driving, they'll look back and wonder why we even needed signs.

Or roundabouts.

Or stoplights.
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Re: Were urban freeway designers in the 1950s and 1960s stupid?
« Reply #18 on: April 12, 2019, 04:50:30 PM »

I was a kid in the 1960s. I was a highway nerd even then, designing new highway overlays over the free maps I'd pick up from gas stations and state welcome centers. I have some vague memories of my early plans. I didn't worry about existing buildings, or I'd twist a route/ramp around an obstacle with no consideration of speed or ease as long as there was no full stop. My planning at times was practically FritzOwlish; yes, it was that bad. The freeway was a new concept back then. Robert Moses was doing the same thing to New York.
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