Modern Mobility Aloft

Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America

Amy D. Finstein
Book Cover

PB: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1918-7
Publication: Nov 20

HC: $115.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1917-0
Publication: Nov 20

Ebook: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1919-4
Publication: Nov 20

304 pages
7 x 10
103 halftones, 12 maps

How American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization before 1956

Read the Introduction (pdf).


In the first half of the twentieth century, urban elevated highways were much more than utilitarian infrastructure, lifting traffic above the streets; they were statements of civic pride, asserting boldly modern visions for a city’s architecture, economy, and transportation network. Yet three of the most ambitious projects, launched in Chicago, New York, and Boston in the spirit of utopian models by architects such as Le Corbusier and Hugh Ferriss, ultimately fell short of their ideals.

Modern Mobility Aloft is the first study to focus on pre-Interstate urban elevated highways within American architectural and urban history. Amy Finstein traces the idealistic roots of these superstructures, their contrasting realities once built, their impacts on successive development patterns, and the recent challenges they have posed to contemporary urban designers.

Filled with more than 100 historic photographs and illustrations of beaux arts and art deco architecture, Modern Mobility Aloft provides a critical understanding of urban landscapes, transportation, and technological change as cities moved into the modern era.


"Like the elevated railroads before them, elevated highways have generally been viewed in negative terms by urban dwellers. Yet the elevated highway represents an important, if not altogether welcome, phase in the daunting challenges to reconcile the demands of accommodating motor vehicles to city fabric on a large scale. Amy Finstein’s beautifully researched and written book examines the seminal early stages of implementing this complex and costly infrastructure in Chicago, New York, and Boston during the first half of the twentieth century. Modern Mobility Aloft is an important analysis of the visionary schemes first devised to address the issue and the myriad factors involved in conceiving and implementing actual projects. Economic considerations, local politics, architectural design values, and changes in building and transportation technology are all addressed in a seamless, engaging narrative.
Richard Longstreth, Professor of American Studies Emeritus, George Washington University

“In Modern Mobility Aloft, Finstein looks deeply at the historical intersection of civil engineering, technology, and urbanism and comes up with a major topic that no one has seen before. She is exactly right in her assertion that the elevated highway as a specific mode of technological response to the problem of automobile congestion has not been treated systematically. More importantly, she sees the connection between the elevated highway and elements of modernist urbanism and culture. Her extensive, original archival work and case studies of downtown congestion and early highway design point to a new integration of the history of technology and urban history.
Robert Fishman, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning, Taubman College, University of Michigan

"This handsomely produced, well-written book is about how three cities—New York, Chicago, and Boston—used elevated roadways well into the 20th century to alleviate the growing crush of traffic on surface roadways. Finstein chronicles the reconciliation of competing interests of political, engineering, and architectural remedies in the solutions offered and in what was either not built, built and later rebuilt, or demolished. Notable is Finstein's attention to issues of architectural style in projects thought of as mere engineering.... Well-illustrated with charts, plans, and photos, and supported by lots of endnotes and bibliographic information, this is an important scholarly resource. Summing Up: Recommended."— Choice

Table of Contents


1. A Recipe for Dystopia: Technology, Speed, and Privatization in the Nineteenth-Century City
2. Road-Colored Glasses: Dreaming and Engineering Urban Futures 39

3. Beaux Arts Chicago
4. Art Deco New York
5. Streamlined Boston

6. The Realities and Consequences of Construction
7. Aftershocks: Interstates and Interventions


About the Author(s)

Amy D. Finstein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.


In the Series

  • Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin

    The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational.