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Highway History

Edward M. Bassett The Man Who Gave us "Freeway"

by Richard F. Weingroff

The parkway concept, intended for recreational driving, embodied many design concepts that would be integral to expressways, including wide right-of-way, control of access, elimination of grade crossings with other highways, and separated highway lanes that were blended into the contours of the land. Taking the parkway concept a step further, a New York City lawyer named Edward M. Bassett is credited with coining the term "freeway" to describe a controlled access urban facility based on the parkway concept but open to commercial traffic.

Bassett was born in Brooklyn, graduated from Amherst College in 1884, and worked as a teacher while attending Columbia University Law School. He graduated in 1886, and began practicing law in 1892.

In 1916, Bassett developed the first comprehensive zoning ordinance in the United States to regulate the use, height, and area of buildings. As a result, he was sometimes called "The Father of American Zoning." His public service included a brief stint in the House of Representatives (1903-1905), appointment by Governor Charles Evans Hughes to the Public Service Commission (1907-1911), and the posts of counsel to the Zoning Committee of New York, the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, and the City Planning Commission. A member of the Advisory Committee on City Planning and Zoning, Bassett was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to serve as president of the National Conference on City Planning.

Bassett saw "freeways"--i.e., highways for the free flow of traffic--as adapting many of the parkway design concepts to serve transportation instead of recreation. Where parkways were dedicated to recreation, the freeway was dedicated to movement. To make the distinction, he delineated three kinds of thoroughfares:

  • A "highway" is a strip of public land devoted to movement over which the abutting property owners have the right of light, air and access.
  • A "parkway" is a strip of public land devoted to recreation over which the abutting property owners have no right of light, air or access.
  • A "freeway" is a strip of public land devoted to movement over which the abutting property owners have no right of light, air or access.

Bassett, writing as President of the National Conference on City Planning, explained his concept in an article in the February 1930 issue of The American City:

Every one knows that new streets and highways that are intended to increase through vehicle capacity gradually become cluttered up at spots so as to make a limitation. This is caused by increase of cross streets, private driveways, new garages, gasoline stations, business places and parked automobiles. As traffic becomes more intense, the obstacles increase, with the result that the highway intended to accommodate a fast traffic flow is slowed down to much less than its original capacity. Even if important grade crossings are eliminated, the driveways, gasoline stations, garages, stores and parked cars cause a great limitation.

A parkway allows a freer flow of traffic, because side streets and private driveways cannot enter it, and gasoline stations, garages, and stores cannot front upon it. The abutting owner has no right of light, air and access over the parkway. To make this clear, one should think of a parkway as an elongated park. It is well known that the authorities can erect a fence or wall around a park, leaving appropriate public entrances. A parkway, however, is not for general use. As it is an elongated park, it must be used for recreational purposes, and consequently traffic is limited to pleasure vehicles.

We are more and more feeling the need of a new kind of thoroughfare-one which will be like a highway for both pleasure and business vehicles, but which will be like a parkway in preventing the cluttering-up of its edges. We have no name for such a thoroughfare. No law in this country provides for such a novel trafficway. If a name could be given to this new sort of thoroughfare, it would immediately enter into the practice as well as the terminology of city planning. I suggest the name of freeway. This word is short and good Anglo-Saxon. It connotes freedom from grade intersections and from private entrance ways, stores and factories. It will have no sidewalks and will be free from pedestrians. In general, it will allow a free flow of vehicular traffic. It can be adapted to the intensive parts of great cities for the uninterrupted passage of vast numbers of vehicles.[1]

Bassett's son and law partner, Howard M. Bassett, and City Planning Consultant Latham C. Squire explained the concept further in a 1932 article in The American City.[2] The freeway, they explained, would be immediately practical for bridge approaches "where concentrated traffic should be freed from disturbances of unnecessary and parasitic uses." Freeways also would be practical for bypass routes allowing through traffic to circle shopping and business districts to relieve local congestion. The article summarized the advantages of the freeway concept:

  1. The free flow of traffic is permanently guaranteed because no local access is permitted except at certain well-located points. Three or four traffic lanes would probably be provided in each direction, except where an extra lane is added at entrances and exits of freeway business centers and at highway intersections . . . . The freeway business center does away with the delay necessitated by driving off the roadway into a community business district to get food, supplies, etc.
  2. The freeway is the safest possible kind of thoroughfare. Interference from local traffic is done away with entirely. The freeway business center in the middle of the roadway is not accessible to local traffic and is planned with the idea of safety, convenience and beauty.
  3. The freeway enhances property values. The screen of trees and shrubs provided on both sides of the roadway provides the best possible medium for diffusing the noise of the traffic and hides the roadway entirely from view. In this way the bordering property is made very desirable for residence use. Close proximity to a freeway is a decided advantage.
  4. Motorists on the freeway will, of course, need supplies of all kinds, as gasoline, oil, automotive parts, lunches, drugs, etc. [These] may be obtained in freeway business centers placed in the middle of the freeway on small streets at intervals ranging from three to ten miles along the route. They will be so designed that the stores and filling stations are made invisible from the freeway by proper landscaping, and arranged so that access from the freeway will in no way interfere with the free flow of the traffic. No local access is provided for these business centers. They are for the exclusive use of the freeway traveler.

Safety could be enhanced in several ways. Most lanes would be 10 feet wide, but the outside lane would be 12 feet. This would help the "timid driver" who might otherwise be afraid of running off the road. On curves (1,000 foot radii), a 10 or 20-foot "parked strip" would prevent "cutting in" on the wrong side of the roadway around the curve. Small trees in the parked strips would prevent the glare of headlights from interfering with oncoming traffic. For the straight-of-ways, a narrow strip of trees, 6 feet wide, with low, sloping curves could be placed in the middle to prevent "side-swiping" and head-on collisions. The article also suggested use of a wall or fence along the outside edges of the right-of-way to prevent people and animals from trespassing on the roadway.

The freeway would also solve the problems caused by commercial activities along the roadside. The regulation of roadsides in rural and suburban communities had been debated "for the past eight or ten years." The article explained:

The borders of most busy state and county highways today are not desirable for residence use, for two reasons: first, because of the noise and confusion caused by the continual flow of traffic; second, because almost invariably, particularly in suburban and rural communities, sporadic occurrences of commercial uses, such as billboards,"hot-dog" stands, filling stations, repair garages, and the like have made it even more undesirable. In rural communities the demand for these business uses is not great enough to fill more than a small proportion of the abutting frontage. Therefore, as the remaining abutting property is not desirable for residence use and cannot be sold for business use, many times there is no market whatever for it. The result usually is what has been called a "motor slum."

The article quoted Benton MacKaye, the forester and regional planner who is considered the "Father of the Appalachian Trail":

The motor slum in the open country is today as massive a piece of defilement as the worst of the old-fashioned urban industrial slums.[3]

The article stated that to avoid creating "a ribbon, miles long, of motor slums," the freeway is "a more businesslike" approach.

In closing, the article summarized the value of the freeway:

The freeway would develop an express way of the most ideal type; one that would serve as a permanent free-flowing traffic artery, would be economically sound, and would have beauty and charm--a most ideal combination.

[1]Bassett, Edward M., "The Freeway-A New Kind of Thoroughfare," The American City, February 1930, p. 95. [return to text]

[2]Bassett, Howard M., and Squire, Latham C., "A New Type of Thoroughfare: The 'Freeway'," The American City, November 1932, p. 66. [return to text]

[3]MacKaye, Benton, "The Townless Highway," The New Republic, March 12, 1930. [return to text]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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