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The Transportation Metropolis

The fate of the transportation schemes outlined by the Plan of Chicago vividly illustrate the difficulties and predicting and planning for the urban future. Coming as it did at the very beginning of the automobile and air age, it was not possible for the Plan to anticipate fully the impact of the car and the airplane on urban America. The technology of both of these recent inventions was rapidly developing in 1909, and neither was capable of the speeds or carrying capacity that would later revolutionize the movement of passengers and freight between and within in cities. The Plan’s ambitions to widen and supplement Chicago’s thoroughfares and regional highways on a massive scale nevertheless anticipated the broad automobile boulevards that would develop in motor-oriented cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, and the principles of metropolitan superhighway development adopted throughout the country in the middle of the twentieth century. Similarly, its schemes for the movement of heavy freight handling away from the city center and for the centralized planning of the transfer of freight from one mode of transport to another anticipated the development of intermodal facilities that characterized the urban geography of freight in the later twentieth century. The Plan’s regard for the role of public transportation facilities, however, was anemic in comparison to the role they would come to play in the planning of central cities. Least of all did the Plan—how could it?--anticipate the role of the airplane (only six years old at the time) in collapsing the distance between cities and creating entirely new hubs of economic and suburban development in the American metropolis.

This section samples some images that grappled with the pressures to restructure the city to suit the rapid technological changes in transportation technologies Americans embraced over the course of the twentieth century. Most of these images are optimistic in their representation of new vehicles, infrastructure, and the social and economic benefits they would bring. Others, however, reflect both a growing awareness among urban commentators and policy makers that technological solutions and changes to the physical environment, alone, would not solve the problems of the modern metropolis—at least not for all urbanites. Indeed, the solution of one set of problems, such as the rapid movement of people and goods, often created new ones.