Look at Bel Geddes' concept today and it's not hard to see how our interstate highway system developed and the genesis of our urban sprawl and suburbs came to be. Bel Geddes envisioned massive superhighways that connected large cities and ring roads that surround large metropolitan areas, allowing the heart of the city to be bypassed by cross-country travelers. His dioramas do not include the suburbs that grew up between those concentric rings, nor the congestion that would be created each day at rush hour when each commuter, traveling singly in his or her own car, traveled from the heart of the city to those outlying suburbs. The things missing in General Motor's Futurama were any transportation systems beyond automobiles and airplanes: gone are the buses, trains, trolley lines, and subways that efficiently served as transportation in the 1920s and '30s. There is some irony in this as in his 1932 book, Horizons, Bel Geddes had included rail and bus transportation in his vision for the future.

For millions of Americans, the Futurama exhibit was the future, but things were cruelly interrupted by the Second World War. In 1945, after the fighting ended, General Motors set about bringing that optimistic future to reality. The Depression was over and, flush with prosperity, every American needed a new car. Bus companies and trolley lines disappeared before the onslaught, railroad passenger service declined and freight locomotives didn't need to be stylish, while new roads, built to the overarching futuristic view demonstrated by Bel Geddes, spanned the nation.

For a time it worked. Interstates allowed people to cover distances easily, automobiles provided unprecedented freedom, and gasoline was cheap. By the mid-'60s, however, Bel Geddes' model began to fall apart. Too much traffic caused congestion, white flight from the inner cities to the suburbs changed downtown, spans of superhighways isolated portions of cities and communities, and ever-expanding cityscapes made his utopian vision into more of an urban nightmare. Pollution and energy issues would further hasten the decline of Bel Geddes' city of tomorrow. Unfortunately, although the car-centric vision had a good run, and although it was becoming clear that his model no longer fit our reality, nothing was proposed to take its place. Urban planners kept designing more freeways, adding lanes and off-ramps, pushing the suburbs further and further out and not really understanding why it didn't all work the way it was supposed to. They kept building and building until they built us into a corner.

Which brings us to today. We have to do something about congestion, pollution, energy, equitable access, and safety in practically every transportation system in the world. In the U.S., true to the Futurama vision, we have built our entire transportation system around the personal automobile. I like cars. I like the freedom that they offer. But if I had a chance to ride across town or even across the state on a train pulled by a modern, stylishly interpreted equivalent of a 1930s Art Deco locomotive, I'd do it. I could save my car for longer, more specialized trips, drives in the country, or going to those places not served by rail, light rail, bus, or trolley. In other words, I'd like to see a return to the transportation picture that existed before the 1939 Futurama and the fabulous world envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes.

Bel Geddes died of a heart attack in New York in 1958. His ability to persuade the masses through his dioramas had ended up overwhelming any competing ideas about how cities should look or the role the automobile would play in our transportation system. Perhaps what we need today is a new visionary like Bel Geddes, one who can build a persuasive and optimistic model to show us what the future could bring.

By Kevin Clemen
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