A Conversation with Oscar Slotboom
'Freeways' author offers more direction
Following Columns’ review of his book Dallas-Fort Worth Freeways:Texas-Sized Ambition, we sat down with author Oscar Slotboom to explore transportation’s clash with community and convenience in the metroplex since World War II. Here is that interview. An online copy of the book can be downloaded for free from www.dfwfreeways.com.
Columns: Congratulations on your new book. What was it that called you to do this? How did you get interested in freeways in Texas?
Oscar: Well, it all goes back to my days growing up in Houston. I grew up very close to the Southwest Freeway, which was very equivalent to Dallas’ Central Expressway. I always wanted to know stories about it, why things were built, and the politics of it all. There really was no documentation for it and in the 1980s I came across a book called L.A. Freeway which had all the photographs and history for Los Angeles freeways and I thought “Hey, someone needs to do that for Houston.” Eventually I realized I was the person to do it.
I always had an interest in Dallas … coming up for visits as a child. I first moved here in the ‘80s, and it was just as intriguing. You know, the “Big D.” The interstate system here is so extensive and influential, and when I moved back here in 2004, I decided to do the book, and it took 10 years to do it. [laughs]
Freeways don’t seem to be something that people conscientiously think about. It seems one can hop into the seclusion and safety of his or her automobile and there’s comfort there, but it’s a fast-moving machine. Maybe that interpretation has changed over the course of 50 years, but this book is a conscious effort from outside the architectural profession to provide a solid, unbiased history, so thank you for those years of research.
In an early portion of the book, you set up a ranking of freeway controversies. Listed as number five is the Trinity Tollway, occurring from 1998 to the present. We also have new debates on whether or not to tear down I-345. Can you tell us a bit about how people approached interstates in the past? Was there much opposition at all?
That’s one of the amazing stories in the history of North Texas freeways: There was virtually no opposition until around 1970. People wanted their freeways and wanted them as fast as possible, and oftentimes they wanted them right through their neighborhoods. I came across one article from south Oak Cliff where they were upset the freeway didn’t go right through south Oak Cliff because it would have been more convenient for them. So yeah it was amazing. They were rolling out freeways, and it didn’t matter how many homes needed to be cleared, how much right-of-way clearance there was. It was build, build, build.
Everything changed in 1970. That was the first controversy in the city of Dallas: Interstate 45 just south of downtown. The pendulum swung very quickly, whereas the political establishment had previously been unanimously in favor of building just about anything TxDOT wanted. In the end almost all of the political officials in North Texas rallied together to propose a neighborhood, in opposition to the freeway, and ultimately did get some changes in the design and construction of it.
There were other controversies in the 1970s, but in the 1980s there were many more, most of them on the Bush Turnpike and the long litigation that occurred there. In the book I call it the 1980s “The Decade of Controversy.” But in North Texas, in just about every case, the freeway or tollway was built even with the opposing establishments. Historically the political system stands behind the construction of the freeway.
What is their reasoning for that? What is the end goal: to move people as efficiently as they possibly can? Growth?
I think here in North Texas it ties in with the title of the book, which I called “Texas-sized ambition.” Here in North Texas I think that’s a pro-growth ambition, so the freeways are viewed as empowering the growth or as RL Thornton used to say, “Keep the dirt flying.” If we want that next level of growth, we need that infrastructure. I think that’s more the driving force behind keeping these projects from being cancelled.
It’s interesting to think that we probably owe more credit to the interstate system than we really give it credit for, especially in the post-World War II DFW region. The difference in the opposition today, from in the past, is a broader knowledge base from blogs or social media. Does the freeway give some flexibility for this new culture and generation to keep up with other technologies?
We become so dependent on the highways that your removal of them could have dramatic and drastically negative consequences. For example, I-345 carries nearly 200,000 vehicles per day, and that cascades to the other freeways around downtown. Maybe there could be a new development there, but that’s just speculative. But, yes, the removal is a difficult question, and searching for a new walkable, freeway-less form for the city will pose as a difficult compromise as well, I think.
The opposition is usually tied to the interest of revitalizing the inner city or suburb. These new debates that believe that freeways are incompatible with the vitality of the city … in recent years we have seen much more of that kind of urban resurgence.
With that resurgence comes an outright negative ease of shoving away the car and interstate, and blaming it for all of the contemporary city’s problems. What do you think of that?
In many ways the freeways are made a scapegoat for many other problems. The negative impact of freeways is not as great as many people perceive it to be or say it is because we have seen a lot of development occur along the freeway. Look at the Woodall Rodgers Freeway corridor. If the freeways are so destructive, then how come those properties are so successful? Of course there are a lot of freeways that haven’t seen a development, but to say that interstates are immediately destructive is not consistent with what we’ve seen here.
What’s the future of interstate transportation with the new technologies emerging? I think we all have an image of the Jetsons in our head, and there’s a reality of drones.
I think the freeway is here to stay. I think technology will empower it even more to a certain extent. We will always have automobiles. Some may be self-driving, but that’s likely much further out than people think. There will be more efficient vehicles which will keep the automobile age going longer than most people believe, and here in Texas, one’s individual mobility is especially important. I think the freeways we have are here to stay—even I-345—and it will be a part of the daily life for the vast majority of North Texans for the indefinite future. That would be my prediction.
What is your big take away from this book? What is it that you can tell people what they might not know, or think they know already, about interstates in North Texas?
One thing that struck me was that North Texas, and particularly Dallas, really parties pretty hard for its freeways. If you go back in history and look at the huge parties and celebrations that have been held—most recently the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge celebration—Dallas’ celebrations are big. You never saw anything like that in Houston; they just cut a ribbon. And as far as I can tell, nothing like that ever happened in Los Angeles.
I think the other thing is how close everything in post-World War II Dallas is connected with the freeways. Once you think about it really, everything in Dallas and the suburbs is right alongside the freeway or closely associated to it, whether it’s the Telecom Corridor or the big malls like NorthPark or the Galleria. You have the Legacy Town Center, Las Colinas, Dallas Market Center, and even some things that predated the freeway like Dealey Plaza. Almost everything is near a freeway here and has been influenced by it. It makes you wonder what North Texas would be like without it. It’s hard to imagine.
What about nationally? Is there something unique about the freeways in DFW that separates them from say, Boston, or Indianapolis?
Well a distinguishing feature is the frontage road. Of course they exist in other places, but not quite to the same extent. We have quite a few here that further influence the effect of the freeway. It makes the freeway a commercial corridor as much as a transportation corridor. Dallas doesn’t have quite as many as Houston, so we can’t claim that, but we have a lot here in comparison to the rest of the country, like Los Angeles where there are few.
Another feature is that there are probably more aggressive plans for expanding the network here than anywhere else in the country. Of course most of it is through tolls. It’s a recipe that is very successful and empowering the growth here, which has been among the best since World War II and in recent years probably the best in the nation. I think policymakers who have their Texas-sized ambition for growth are sticking with their formula: keeping the freeways and tollways in the mix, as well as the transit.
Thanks again for your time we greatly appreciate it.
Ryan Flener, Assoc. AIA is an intern with Good Fulton & Farrell.