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Historic Sites
Economic Aspects


Federal Lands
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Division of Responsibility


Educational Opportunities

Recreational Use of Land in the United States

The automobile in the space of 30 years has evolved from an experimental curiosity into a vital element in our existence. Although there is today an elaborate system of highways and approximately 20 million automobiles to our 123 million Americans, approximately half of our families still do not own their own transportation. It has been but little more than a decade since a trip of 500 miles or more by automobile was an uncommon experience, and even today it is probable that comparatively few people have made more than a dozen trips of a thousand miles or more.

Such amazing expansion has meant rapid change and progress in the design of both automobile and highway. As a profession, the design of highways for motor vehicles has had difficulty in becoming what one might call a "stable science", because its problem has changed with the same rapidity as the change in automobile design.

In relatively few years normal touring speed of highway traffic jumped from 15 to 20 or 25 miles an hour, to 35 miles, to 45 miles, until one might be safe in saying that today's normal speed is 50 to 55 miles an hour. Each progressive acceleration in average speed has set up different requirements in highway design, as to grade, alinement (curvature), super-elevation or banking of curves, width of roadway, and type of surfacing material, and has caused vast increase in highway mileage.

In the face of constant economic change and inventive accomplishment, long range predictions as to future use and importance of the automobile in American life, even though based on the most careful study of past history and present trends, are almost certain to be inaccurate. Who can assert that in the span of a generation, the automobile may not show a decline in general use, or perhaps in special uses? The fact that we kill as many people by automobiles during a year as we lost soldiers during the year 1918 is ample and indicting evidence that mass use of the automobile is untested and unproved.

What will be the attitude of the average individual when he will have made a dozen motor trips of a thousand miles or more? What will be the outcome of a change in the economics of the several means of long distance travel? At present for one person, a transcontinental trip is less economical by automobile than by other transportation means; for two persons it is the reverse. Who can say with authority that this fact will long remain?

Whatever the unpredictable long range place of the automobile in American life, there are strong indications predicated on past record and current trend that at least the near future should certainly see the automobile used to a greater extent, the country with more automobiles per capita, and a continuing progress made in automotive design.

Present day statistics estimate that only 40 percent of all motor travel is for commercial and strictly transportation purposes. This indicates that 60 per cent of all motor travel is largely recreational. Eight thousand miles per year is the average use of each of the 20 million registered motor vehicles in the United States. This demonstrates the important place the automobile holds in our national recreation scheme. A large percentage of this travel is local, but while no exact figures are available to prove that long distance travel is increasing, figures covering out-of-State registrations are indicative of such increase.

City streets, no doubt, carry the largest percentage of private traffic, arterial routes in metropolitan areas are second in importance, and State highway systems third. The latter have been coordinated so that in the aggregate they tend to form a national highway system.

The city street has met the change from horse-drawn to motor traffic with little or no change in its design except for roadway surface and sporadic widening. Twenty-five years ago earth surface was the common type used on all city streets whereas today the paved surface is in general use. The city street has probably declined in its use for recreational traffic, and while it may carry a tremendous amount of traffic, it might be considered only as a means of access to and from one's residence rather than as a type of traffic artery for recreational use.

The arterial routes in metropolitan areas probably are the most used for recreational purposes since they provide routes of travel for trips of one day or less. This without doubt is the largest volume of present recreational traffic.

The State highway system provides the means for trips of one day or more. It handles traffic between points within the State, and for those taking extended trips provides the means for crossing a State. The principal arteries of a State highway system normally follow the most natural and direct route for the flow of traffic.

Streets and highways have been developed under a most liberal policy. Their legal status permits great freedom of use and there are practically no restrictions as to access. The advent and general use of the automobile and truck have necessitated some restriction. Certain residential streets prohibit truck traffic which has resulted in designation of truck routes through metropolitan areas. The State highway has provided practically no restrictions except those which might be considered in the cause of safety, or the restriction of types of vehicles which might destroy the highway surface. At the present time, taking the country at large, our general policy is in favor of unrestricted use of highways.

In metropolitan areas there has been some progress made in the direction of designing certain traffic arteries for a specific purpose. It is quite natural that this does not occur until the traffic over a given route for a particular distance becomes too great for one roadway. It then becomes logical to consider the design of a second or even third trafficway between two given points using each route for a particular purpose. Some cities distribute traffic on the basis of speed, others on the basis of use.

The parkway is a new type of traffic artery that has been developed in metropolitan areas because it is in these areas that traffic has first increased to such volume as to force the construction of more than one type of roadway. The parkway, as the name implies, is built for passenger car traffic and largely for recreational use. It is defined as a special type of trafficway based on the following principles:

1. A right-of-way of sufficient width to provide a shielding strip of land on both sides of a paved motorway, thereby excluding privately owned abutting property from direct contact with the traveled roadway.

2. The elimination of grade crossings at main intersecting highways.

3. Access roadways spaced at infrequent intervals to reduce friction between entering and departing vehicles and the main traffic streams.

To summarize, it is a roadway within an elongated park.

The wide right-of-way which permits the restrictions as to frontage and access is the fundamental principle behind the parkway idea. Legally, a highway cannot restrict frontage or access rights. A park area is the only type of public land which can legally provide restrictions as to use. The wide right-of-way provides means by which abutting property on the trafficway is made public land, with the only frontage rights. The procedure then is to construct the highway in an elongated park. The park land provides insulation for the highway, giving it restrictions as to frontage and access rights, or to express it another way, provides "publicly controlled access."

Since there is no abutting private frontage, access need be provided only at long intervals; cross traffic can be separated, and need for parking of cars along the curb is eliminated. The insulation provided by the flanking strips of park brings to the trafficway, from the traffic standpoint, much of that freedom from interference and from impedimen that is the advantage of the subway and the elevated, while from the recreation and aesthetic standpoint it provides unlimited opportunity for an attractive roadside that is denied to the subway and the elevated.

The parkway is essentially a traffic artery designed exclusively for passenger car use, largely recreational. It is the most recent type of travel route development for the motor vehicle. It has come into use in metropolitan areas where traffic between given points has necessitated more than one traffic artery. It provides an easy and pleasant access to and egress from congested metropolitan areas, as well as a pleasant route for recreational motor travel in and about a metropolitan district. Because of its recent inception both as trafficway and factor in recreation, the mileage of existing parkways is an exceedingly small percentage of our national highway system. It has, however, already justified and proved its use in metropolitan areas, and gives promise of an increasingly important place in our national highway system and our national recreational plan.

The State highway departments have to date been pressed to the limit of their capacity to build normal traffic routes. Because of this there has been practically no opportunity to build a parkway unit of the State highway system primarily for recreational purposes.

However, the highway systems within National parks and State parks are planned primarily for recreational use. The fact that they are built on park land gives the necessary roadside control. Since most National and State parks are happily not located on normal commercial traffic routes, highways and their commercial traffic are eliminated naturally from the parks largely because a use of the park roadways would lead commercial traffic out of its way.

The location of the National parks and State parks has frequently required that the State highway system provide approach roads to the parks from the main highway system. There are a few cases where parks are located on both sides of a principal highway artery, but in most instances the park areas are reached by spur roads from the main trafficway. The approach roads may then be considered the only roads that have been built by State highway departments primarily for recreational use. The roads within the parks have been built and financed by the park authorities. The approach roads have been largely a problem of the State highway departments, although there have been a few instances of Federal participation in the case of approach roads to national parks where the land is 90 percent federally owned for a distance of 60 miles from the park boundary. This has been done as a means of financing the approach roads to national parks in such States as have a large percentage of federally owned land and where traffic is largely national traffic enroute to a national park.

The parkway idea on a large scale might logically come as a development in the progress of the design of State highway systems. In the first place, both the parkway and the highway would naturally follow the normal route for the traffic between two given points. It would be unsound to build parkways of great length on State or National scale until the traffic warrants it.

There may be instances in certain sections where the nature of the country is scenic rather than agricultural or commercial, and the bulk of traffic over a given highway is of the recreational type. In such instances it might be necessary to acquire a roadside protection in order to maintain the scenic or recreational values of the route and still not restrict or prohibit commercial use, since the volume of traffic might not warrant a construction of two routes. As traffic increases over a given area it is quite natural to believe that the same development as began in the metropolitan areas might take place beyond the metropolitan area; that where the traffic is sufficient for two arteries, one might be planned for through and largely recreational traffic while the other would carry local and commercial traffic.

The economics, the purposes, and the objectives of a parkway and a highway are fundamentally different. The highway will come into use as a way between two points because of traffic demands, regardless of the availability of construction funds. It is graded, surfaced, and generally improved from time to time, to meet the requirements of traffic but with little or no attention to recreation standards. The parkway on the other hand is conceived, designed, and built for specific and limited purposes. While it may be considered for the relief of a crowded highway, at the same time it is set aside for the exclusive use of passenger traffic. It is considered as a completed project built to specific high standards at the outset, whereas the highway must accept the best available. The parkway will include a paved surface, permanent bridges, grade separations, and roadside planting, to make a completed project conforming with the highest standards of the art of the road builder. In contrast, the highway might reach this goal by gradual improvement, as it must be content with such economic support as it can get.

The parkway will be conceived on an aesthetic basis, whereas in the case of the highway, these qualities are incidental, or at least follow other considerations. Artistic opportunities are at once considered in the design of a parkway. It is considered and justified on the premise that it gives a pleasant and comfortable trip to the traveler, a premise that calls for the artistic and inspirational qualities of the art of road building. The parkway may depart from the most direct route in order to provide excellent scenery. It may reasonably seek more irregular topography to provide a more pleasant roadside. It will include architectural design as a necessary part of its bridges and other structures. It will include landscape design in the treatment of the roadside development.

The metropolitan parkway as above discussed may be chosen as a proved means of relieving an overcrowded highway, a preferable alternate to building a second highway.

The George Washington Memorial Highway from Washington to Mount Vernon is a development in the use of the parkway. Although it serves a metropolitan area, the name "Memorial Highway" distinguishes it. It was considered primarily for its inspirational and artistic qualities. It was built to lead to a national shrine. It was built for recreational purposes. The traffic over it was in a large measure developed because of itself. It was not built to relieve a crowded trafficway to Mount Vernon.

The Colonial National Monument Parkway is being constructed in Tidewater Virginia by the National Park Service through the Bureau of Public Roads to connect physically three important areas—Jamestown Island, the first permanent English settlement in America; Williamsburg, the Colonial capital of Virginia; and Yorktown Battlefield, which saw the final defeat of the British Army, and the beginning of our national life. This parkway is being built on a 500-foot right-of-way with structures and incidental construction in adaptations of the eighteenth century brick styles.

"Scenic parkways" built through areas of natural beauty solely for the purpose of the recreational and inspirational values of motoring over them, are being discussed as the next development in the use of the parkway. Such projects would seek to bring the recreational values of a road within a national park to an area of natural scenic beauty by applying the parkway right-of-way principle. Such parkways at the present time are without precedent.

The Federal Government in the emergency program has authorized as a Public Works project the construction of a parkway connecting the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. It has also provided for the survey of a parkway through the Green Mountains of Vermont and, as a third project, the Natchez Trace from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn. These are the first attempts toward the design of a traffic artery on a large scale for which the first purpose is recreational type of traffic. These are in the main experimental projects, and are pioneering in a new field.

Going-to-the-Sun Highway
PHOTO 31.—Going-to-the-Sun Highway, a recreational road in Glacier National Park. Photo by George Grant.
Mount Vernon Memorial Boulevard
PHOTO 32.—The Mount Vernon Memorial Boulevard, a parkway connecting the Capitol City with the Washington plantation. The generous right-of-way protects the roadway from undesirable views inland and affords some fine views of the Potomac River.

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Last Modified: Fri, Sep. 5, 2003 10:32:22 am PDT

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