05/25/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

How America Became an Automobile Nation

In the early 1950s, one of my grandfather's great pleasures was taking his Pontiac out for a spin on Sunday afternoons in New York City. Gas was less than 25 cents a gallon. Traffic was a breeze. And the air was (relatively) clean.

Today, such vehicular pleasures can rarely be duplicated in America, especially in its larger cities.

Upon whose shoulders can we lay blame -- at least much of it -- for the loss of these pleasures?

The answer is Othmar H. Ammann, chief engineer and designer of the George Washington Bridge. In designing the span, Ammann, in an historic decision, designed a solely vehicular span -- a decision that triggered a cascade of events that led to an automobile nation and altered the quality of our lives and how we live and conduct business, in New York City and across the country.

What followed was that Ammann's choice of a solely vehicular George Washington Bridge was admired and emulated by civil engineers and city planners. Ammann's decision also coincided with a period of great change in the nation as farms and wilderness were turned into auto-dependent suburbs and the desire for an Interstate highway system supplanted the need to maintain or build railroads.

Thus, the web of vehicular bridges, tunnels and highways multiplied, and what we have today is not just an automobile-dominated New York City, but an automobile nation.

A civil engineer, Ammann, at 25, had immigrated from Switzerland in 1904. Even at this early date, he pored over maps of the Hudson River and created plans for the bridge he hoped to build.

Outside of engineering circles, Ammann was not well known. Nor was he socially or politically connected. Nevertheless, he quickly demonstrated his skills, particularly as an associate of Gustave Lindenthal, who designed the much-admired Hell Gate Arch Bridge, a rail span opened in 1916, that crossed the East River at Hell Gate. Ammann would be chosen to design the George Washington Bridge and would become a premier molder of the modern city. He would be responsible for building many of New York's great 20th-century spans. To some, he would even eclipse John A. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Ammann's additional accomplishments included the Bayonne Bridge (1931), Triborough Bridge (1936, renamed the Robert F. Kennedy), Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (1939), Throgs Neck Bridge (1961) and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964). He also supervised the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel and consulted on other projects in New York and beyond, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Likely the reason most people have never heard of Ammann is that he eschewed publicity. He was, quite simply, a dedicated public servant, a meticulously organized executive, and a nose-to-the-grindstone genius. Widely respected and beloved by his colleagues, Ammann was the polar opposite of Robert Moses, New York City's cantankerous "Master Builder," who hired Ammann after his George Washington Bridge success. Ammann, like Moses and others, understood America's escalating love affair with the automobile. Still, he had a choice with the George Washington Bridge. He could have built a combination train and motor vehicle bridge. Consider that the four long-span bridges that cross the East River, beginning with the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and ending with the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 -- built before the onslaught of the automobile took hold -- were bridges that accommodated trains or trolleys, the main mass transit at the turn of the 20th century. A solely vehicular bridge would be a significant departure from the city's philosophy of providing mass transit for its citizens. Still, Ammann chose to make the George Washington Bridge a solely vehicular bridge. The need for vehicular bridges is made clear by author Sharon Reier in her book, The Bridges of New York:

Soon Tin Lizzies began swarming along the Hudson Valley, forming exasperating queues for the limited car space in ferries... The auto population of Bergen Country, New Jersey, went up 172% between 1923 and 1928. It was obvious to all... the internal combustion engine was going to need more facilities, and soon.

Similar exasperating scenes were also true for merchants wishing to ferry their goods across the Hudson River.

As a result of building a bridge for motor vehicles, regional travel, including commerce, could move seamlessly between New York and New Jersey and connect to the Bronx, Westchester County, and even New England. No longer would there be long lines at ferries to ship goods, people, and vehicles across the Hudson River. Moreover, the uptown site of the bridge, at 178th Street, avoided the bustle of midtown traffic.

The immediate success of the George Washington Bridge likely spurred Moses' building frenzy, a frenzy that ignored the needs of working stiffs by failing to support mass transit. Soon after the George Washington Bridge opened, Moses, then chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, hired Ammann to build the Triborough Bridge. Later Moses would hire Ammann to build the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge -- all exclusively motor vehicle bridges.

Ammann's fateful decision did not seem profoundly negative when the George Washington Bridge opened on Oct. 25, 1931.

Now, eighty years after the opening of the George Washington Bridge, one wonders if Ammann ever considered the magnitude of his decision. Did he think about how the blitz of automobiles would pollute the environment, create a dependence on oil, result in maddening traffic jams, and be a nail in the coffin of mass transit? If he had even an inkling of the future, would Ammann have added rails to his creations?

My guess is if Ammann had anticipated the evils of an automobile nation, he would have fought to make the George Washington Bridge (and his other bridges) combination rail and motor vehicle spans. By all reports, Ammann was a civil servant who wanted to do the right thing.

This Memorial Day weekend, as we take our automobiles out for a costly, gasping, traffic-clogged spin, it's instructive to remember that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

Historian Joan Marans Dim is co-author, with artist Antonio Masi, of New York's Golden Age of Bridges.