No Plane, No gain

The Apple, the Cat and the Barometer


The Freeway to Prosperity


Suppose this year the tomato crop turns out miserable. Suppose I am a farmer who had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year. What does that mean? Does it mean I am going to get rich quick? Maybe, but there is a catch. I have to get the tomatoes to markets far and wide, quickly. As long as the tomatoes sit on the vines, they are worth nothing. When they get to the supermarkets in the big cities far away, still fresh, they are worth a lot.


Getting things to market is the backbone of transportation. In the case of my tomatoes, I have several choices. I can have them shipped by truck, or by rail, or by air or by boat. Air transport is the fastest, but by far the most expensive. That makes it not a good choice for tomatoes. Water transport can be the cheapest, but depends on a natural waterway connecting my farm to the markets of interest. For most people waterways are not viable. Rail and road are the real competitors for tomato transport, even though they are tuned for different shipment types.


Transportation is one of the most important infrastructures for economic gains and productivity. Business is based in movement. Movement of people, goods, services, information and money quickly, over large distances is crucial to a vibrant economy. Money and information and some services can be moved via the digital cyberways, the rest needs actual physical motion, by air, road, water or rails.


Henry Ford sparked the revolution in transportation, in 1913. The Ford Motor Company Ford started rolling off mass produced automobiles from an “assembly line”. These autos were targeted to the middle class and were priced attractively. As the population of cars and subsequently trucks on the American roads skyrocketed, the country faced the problem of managing traffic. Roads that were built for horse-drawn buggies had to be widened. Then came the idea of the “limited access highway” meant for cars only where travel was possible without stopping.


In the late 1930’s the US grappled with an idea of building transcontinental superhighways. There were successful regional highways in the US and Germany. However a nationwide interconnected system did not exist.  Franklin D. Roosevelt liked the idea and found it appealing for many reasons, including economics. However, World War II derailed the prospects temporarily. In 1944 the matter resurfaced and a nationwide plan was approved, but money was not available. Finally in 1956 under Dwight Eisenhower, work started on the massive plan of spending $1.1 billion on a network of 40,000 miles of highway from coast to coast to coast.


Today, the US highway system, or the “freeways” as it is commonly called is quite similar to the original concept. The freeway consists of two separate roads, one for each direction of traffic. Each of these roads has about two to three well marked lanes. Since there are no intersections, no traffic lights and no stopping, the freeway is essentially uncrossable. The entire thing is designed to keep cars moving safely at over 80 mph (128 kmph). The legal speed limits on freeways range from 55 mph to 65 mph (rarely 75mph) but cars regularly travel between 70 and 80 mph.


Freeways have “interchanges” where they meet other roadways and traffic needs to get off and on the freeway into other streets. Roads that intersect the freeway pass over or under the freeway using bridges. An interchange with a regular road can be as simple, as four ramps leading on and off the freeway, or as complex as eight ramps for handling separate directions. Traffic entering the freeway uses an entrance ramp that merges into the roadway from the right. Traffic leaving the freeway use exit ramps. A freeway meeting a freeway results in a more complex ramp pattern, often called the “cloverleaf”. A cloverleaf allows a car from traveling in any direction, on one freeway to switch over to any direction on the other freeway without crossing any roadway.


The freeway interchanges get very complex and somewhat spectacular when multiple colossal freeways come together. A common scenario is three freeways, each carrying four lanes of traffic in each direction, meeting at a point. The “interchange” at the location must allow for cars traveling in any direction on any freeway to change over to any direction on another freeway without slowing down. Hence a 3-freeway intersection necessitates 12 interconnections, snaking in and over the roadways at various levels. It is a 3-dimensional masterpiece of engineering and concrete.


Today the freeway system in the US makes it theoretically possible to drive from any city to another without stopping and without making much of a detour. It meanders and meshes through the entire country. Small towns on the freeway routes provide services to travelers. At cities, a circular freeway rings the city, and spokes lead to the central area. In some cities the freeways go underground, to cross under rivers and channels to avoid interfering with shipping traffic. Traffic is incessant at all times of the day or night. Rush hour traffic is when the rush causes the freeways to resemble parking lots.


Road transport has many advantages over its other competitors the railways and the airways. Road transport is essentially door-to-door. A vehicle can load passengers and cargo at a house, office or warehouse and carry them without any unloading to the destination. An individual can drive the vehicle at his or her pace, scheduling the transportation at will or whim. The same roadway carries tiny econoboxes, or heavy-duty tractor-trailers. Commercial traffic and personal traffic intermixes and traverses from source to destination at high rates of speed.


A study by a pro-freeway group claims massive benefits of the US highway system to the overall well-being and quality of life in the country over the past 40 years. They study says, the highway system has benefited and enriched virtually everyone living in the US. Due to the efficient and safe transport medium is provides, an estimated 187,000 lives and 12 million injuries has been avoided. For every $1 put into the construction and maintenance of the system, the economy has reaped $6 in productivity gains. The system has been instrumental in escalating America’s international competitiveness, played a part in national security. The greatest benefit of all is that it provides easy access to personal transportation for all the residents of the nation.


The dependence on personal transport also extracts a severe price from society in terms of accidents. In less than two months, in the United States, more people die from traffic fatalities than all the people who died in the World Trade Tower terrorist tragedy. At the rate of about 40,000 dead and 3 million injured per year, it is a shameful national disaster. In spite of enormous strides in roadway safety, car safety, curbs on intoxicated driving and constant media pounding on the dangers of driving, the number of deaths has not declined significantly.


Part of the success story of personal and commercial transportation in the US is due to the low price of fuel. The average price of gasoline is about $1.50 per gallon. Gasoline prices are about the same all over the world, but the price paid at the pump depends upon the taxes imposed by the government. In some part of the world gasoline is not taxed, and sells for about $0.50/gallon (Venezuela and Indonesia). The highest price of gasoline is in the United Kingdom, at over $5/gallon. Most western European countries try to limit consumption through taxes and the price varies around $3 to $4/gallon. (Gasoline prices in India are about average, at about $2.50/gallon).


As freeways become prolific, there are plans to make them even more efficient. The major problem with freeways is that traffic comes to a crawl when the number of cars on them increases beyond a point. Then the freeway becomes counter-productive, as the number of cars that pass through it actually decreases as traffic rises. Technological solutions have been proposed as some are being harnessed today. Sensors on the freeway judge the traffic volume and speed at regular intervals. Stop lights on the entrance ramps control the inflow of cars, to control the volume and to make the flow keep going smoothly. Futuristic plans include cars that drive by themselves guided by instruments buried under the roads, and maintaining inter-car separation using radar.


Road transportation via “superhighways” as they are known outside the US (the preferred term in the US is freeway) is vital to a country’s economic might. Today, all countries in Western Europe have prolific networks of freeways. They are however not so common in Eastern Europe, which is in the process of building them. The Pacific Rim nations also have good networks, or are in the process of building them.


 The freeways have come under attack by many urban development pundits who claim they are a source of pollution and accidents. Transport needs are better solved by railways rather then big ugly concrete superhighways. The reality however tells quite a different story.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at



Partha Dasgupta