Half a century after its heyday, the Alden StaRRcar clearly wasn’t made for its world. It looks like a white flatiron with wheels or a sleek, plastic bullet, dwarfed by the regal sedans of 1960s Detroit. It belongs in one of Buckminster Fuller’s domed cities, a vehicle for traveling under the geodesics of a bubble-topped Manhattan. Its future wasn’t one of highways, but of narrow cement tracks looping gracefully between city and suburb, connecting increasingly alienated parts of the American landscape.
Once considered a key to solving urban blight, the StaRRcar was part of a public transit revolution that never was — but one that would help launch one of the weirdest and most politicized public infrastructure experiments of the 20th century. It’s an old idea that today, in an age of self-driving cars, seems by turns impractically retro and remarkably prescient.
And it all started with a pile of mail.
It was the 1950s, and William Alden’s job was teaching machines to act more like humans. A Harvard Business School graduate with an industrial engineering background, Alden had been recently fired from the family’s electrical equipment business — his father, he recalls, urged him to “get out into the world and learn the hard way.” After using his severance pay to start a small consulting company, he’d gotten a contract debugging Mail-Flo, a promising Detroit pilot program for automated mail sorting. Mail-Flo replaced manual labor with conveyor belts that pushed letters into piles based on which mail truck they’d be put on. While figuring out how to route letters to their destinations, Alden imagined using the same system for something bigger. “I said, well, if you can do that with trays of mail, why can’t you do it with people?”
His epiphany had come near the peak of the American automotive renaissance. In the years following World War II, car ownership climbed rapidly: there were roughly 40 million automobile registrations in 1950, and 60 million — or one car for every three people — a decade later. Much of it was thanks to a federal government that had thrown its weight behind the auto industry. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, putting $25 billion ($218 billion today) towards linking roads across the country into one massive interstate system. Mass transit funding, by comparison, languished.