ALTERNATE FUTURES | Disney's Magic Highway

Walt Disney had some grand ideas for the interestate of the future. So why do our roads suck so much?

“Speed, safety and comfort will be the keynotes of tomorrows highways. A multicolored highway system may enable the motorist to reach his destination by following the correct color strip…Better visibility will be featured in new highway designs. As day dims into night, electric eyes automatically illuminate the way ahead. Radiant heat will keep the highway surfaces dry through rain, ice and snow.” - Walt Disney, 1958

At the tail end of a 1958 episode of the Disneyland TV show Magic Highway USA, Walt himself stepped in front of the camera and offered a remarkable series of predictions about the roads and cars of the future. Though he got remarkably close when it came to things like dashboard controls, backup cameras, HUDs, and GPS navigation, his ideas about the ways in which our roads would evolve were very, very optimistic.

Walt Disney loved infrastructure and big projects. He wrongly assumed his fellow Americans loved those things just as much. Not everyone wants to build a magic kingdom.

Disney thought our highways and interstates would be color-coded and many-laned in order to help us get where we were going easily and quickly — way faster than we currently do. He also thought that they’d light up at night, have radiant heat to thaw ice, and be designed for maximum efficiency and comfort. He thought that the interstate system would be one of the wonders of the modern world. And though the interstate system is wonderful in many ways, it has proven hard to modernize. The implementation of the technologies he trumpeted proved difficult.

Mostly, the problem proved to be size. Over 40 thousand miles of Interstate connect America’s many cities and states. It’s not overstating anything to say that interstates are part of the American fabric, allow for the speedy flow of goods and people from city to city and city to town and town to city and port to just about anywhere.

But the system is glitchy. There is congestion. There are too-low speed limits. There are trucks driven by tired truckers. What’s more, our roads are riddled with potholes, battered and uneven surfaces, and weeds that sprout through the cracks in the pavement in an enthusiastic and sun-baked attempt to reclaim the land that was so swiftly taken from them over half a century ago.

It’s not surprising that Disney thought we’d be living in a world of future highways in 1958, though. The decade between 1956-1966 was huge for the Interstate system. It was an exciting time, filled with possibility as the country found itself more connected than ever. Suddenly, it was going to be easy to get from Chicago to Nashville, from Denver to Los Angeles, from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Now, not only are our roads a far cry from the color-coded, efficiency-focused highways that Disney envisioned for us, but they’re totally shit.

Why? Well, a lot of it comes down to the fact that they grew up too fast. There was a lot to tackle in a relatively short period of time and, thanks to the trucking boom, demand skyrocketed. The government was eager to get things done and sort of botched the project, failing to update aging infrastructure in need of replacement. Sure, the Interstate system works, but its not anything like what Disney imagined for us.

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