After being sent this image of a monster highway in an email, I became rather obsessed with finding out where on earth this could be and devoted quite some time to searching for any hints about where the widest highways in the world were, but to no avail! Every time I thought I might be onto it, satellite imagery would show the reputed “widest” were rarely even close to this behemoth. Examining the photo closely, I noticed some strange discrepancies that began to make me suspect that it might have been manipulated – there are a couple of groups of vehicles that seem to be repeated, in the distance there are two green highway signs which felt like they might be clones, and something about it felt a little fake, like it was just too good (or maybe that’s bad) to be true.
Finally after some rather more random image searches, I came across the answer: this image is a very good fake based on a photo of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles taken from the Getty Center. First I found some similar views of the I-405 which clearly showed it was only half the width of the fake but the landscape and adjacent buildings matched. The key was the strange shed-like building on the left which is actually the station for the tram that takes people up to the Getty Center from the parking structure beside the highway. Then I managed to find the original photo itself (by a guy called Philip Greenspun, who ironically is rather serious about protecting his photo copyright). The photo was heavily manipulated (apparently without Greenspun’s knowledge) to create this poster-child of Photoshop creativity. Even though the I-405 is one of the busiest highways in America, strangely enough the original photo shows quite light traffic in comparison to the imaginings of the photo manipulator.
While this case might seem rather amusing because the use of image manipulation helps to demonize our highway obsession, the skill with which the image has been manipulated leads to some serious bending of reality and potential (dare I say, deliberate?) misunderstandings. If an image of a highway had been manipulated to make it look like it was less wide than it really was, and that image found its way into a presentation on whether or not to widen that highway, all of a sudden the whole business doesn’t seem so funny and harmless. This is why reputable news agencies are having to take a strong stand against image manipulation by photojournalists, as sometimes, adjusting light levels and contrast isn’t all that they’re up to.
In any case, rest easy Toronto, the 401 can still claim its place as more or less the widest and busiest highway in the world!