Images From A Car

August 20, 2009

IMG_1806We leave at 5.30 knowing that traffic will slow us down, yet hoping not too much, in order to make it on time to our 6 o’clock  appointment. Valencia (in Venezuela) is a little town of  900,000 people that sits in a valley, and has only one freeway that resembles Allen Parkway more than it does 610. But instead of finding the hellish traffic overwhelming, I discovered a few gems for the drivers’ eyes only. As we reach the highway entrance cars approach from all directions. The left turn we need to make seems impossible, given the abundance of cars coming from ahead. The intersecting vehicles come from the right and the left and seem to think the red light is merely decoration, while honks become the perennial soundtrack of the trip. We swerved through the cluster of cars and made it to the 20 mph traffic on the highway. The highway’s 3 lanes have been converted into 5 since here we use the shoulders as the other fast lanes.

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It is hard to imagine a Houston without highways. How you can’t go anywhere without coming in contact with the highway. No matter where you are you have to be aware of your position as it relates to the highway. This reality  though shows the dependency that the city has developed towards its concrete arteries. They are the only mode of transportation for long distances and some would say even for short distances. So in Houston the relevance of the highway is that they are essential for the ability of the city to live.

It could be argued that the highway is essential to the survival of any city, to take it further to the survival of any country. This is true, but the difference is that the highway is essential both to the workings and to the identity of Houston. Let’s take a much older city, Munich, Germany, which I recently visited. It is one of the largest cities in Germany and one constantly filled with travelers from all over the world. The highway in Germany is treated much differently than it is in Houston. The beginnings of the highway can be said to be very similar: both were made to transport the military quickly across the country. The difference comes in the way that the highway meets and interacts with the city. In Houston the highway seems to pierce through the city dividing anything that comes in its path. The city then grows out from the highway. In Munich the highway appears to be much less important. The highway is subservient to the city, it is defined by the city not the other way around. The highway also seems to dissolve as it nears the city center. It goes from four or five lanes into a large boulevard until it becomes part of the normal city street grid. Also the highways seem to have no problem disappearing under the city for a while and then reappear where it is appropriate. There is a real sense of hierarchy in the way the highway meets the city.  In the end what all of this means for the city is that the highway plays a supportive role as opposed to a dominant role. The highway doesn’t dictate development, as it does in Houston. So as you enjoy a stroll in Marien Platz one of the last things on your mind is: “how do I get back to 59 from here?”.