When it comes to selling huge new road projects to the public, the highway lobby and their allies in government have many tools. Last week, we wrote about one of them: touting initial declines in congestion as success, without bothering to follow up as induced demand eliminates those gains in just a matter of years.

But that tactic, used by the American Highway Users Association with Houston’s effort to get rid of congestion bottleneck on the Katy Freeway, is hardly more honest than another used by the US Department of Transportation on the Katy project. The DOT features the $2.8 billion effort on the webpage of USDOT’s “Office of Innovative Program Delivery.”

Let's take a walk!
Let’s take a walk!


To show what a great project this is, they offer visitors to their website this photo of a green, people-friendly highway. As you can see, it features exactly as many pedestrians as it does cars. If the image had no caption, you might be forgiven for thinking that the project in question was a park or an open space, rather than a freeway. This particular view—which is probably seen by almost none of the freeway’s regular users—is very different from what most see. After all, the Katy Freeway carries roughly 300,000 vehicles per day; we don’t have pedestrian numbers for the roads alongside it, but we’re skeptical that it’s anywhere within several orders of magnitude.

Using distorted images to downplay the visual impact of massive freeways has a long tradition in US engineering practice. It was a tactic honed to perfection by the master builder himself, Robert Moses, in New York more than half a century ago.

Moses was trying to persuade the city to build an epic suspension bridge from Brooklyn to Battery Park, on the lower tip of Manhattan. The bridge would have alighted on a five-story-tall causeway, dominating most of the Battery. But Moses sold the project with an “artist’s conception” that made the bridge almost disappear. Let’s turn the microphone over to Robert Caro, in his epic biography, The Power Broker:

Moses’ announcement had been accompanied by an “artist’s rendering” of the bridge that created the impression that the mammoth span would have about as much impact on the lower Manhattan Landscape as an extra lamppost. This impression had been created by “rendering” the bridge from directly overhead—way overhead—as it might be seen by a high flying and myopic pigeon. From this bird’s eye view, the bridge and its approaches, their height minimized and only their flat roadways really visible, blended inconspicuously into the landscape. But in asking for Board of Estimate approval, Moses had to submit to the board the actual plans for the bridge. . . .

When the real impact of the proposed bridge became apparent, it provoked opposition among some of the most influential New Yorkers. The Brooklyn-Battery Bridge was one of the few projects that Moses failed to pull off. (He was instead forced to build a tunnel under the harbor). But while he lost this particular round, the Moses legacy lives on in the kind of visual puffery and misdirection favored by highway builders everywhere: distorted, false-perspective artist’s renderings that show projects in a way they’ll never be experienced by actual humans.

From the promise of congestion relief that is quickly erased by induced demand, or deceptive imagery designed to conceal a project’s scale and impacts, there are plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of the sales pitches used to sell automobile infrastructure.