Booming along the great American interstate highway network
By KEVIN A. WILSON
AutoWeek | Published 06/30/06, 1:52 pm et
There were no parades or festivities June 29, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 launching the greatest public works project in history: construction of the National Interstate and Defense Highway System. This network of more than 46,000 miles of limited-access highways linking America’s population centers coast to coast is often taken for granted today, but that stroke of a pen forever changed the nation, just as Eisenhower predicted it would.
It was an accident of history the interstate system was born in the middle of a demographic phenomenon known as the postwar baby boom. The highways would grow alongside those babies born from 1946 to 1964—so you might call it our Brother Road. It rhymes with Mother Road, the label John Steinbeck gave U.S. Route 66 in his landmark 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. And it reflects our less-reverent relationship.
Steinbeck also wrote, in 1962, that the great highway project would make it possible to travel “from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” He said this in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, describing I-90 from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Chicago. It was part of Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile journey around the country with his poodle Charley, and while he appreciated the highway’s expedience—allowing him to reach his westward destinations before winter set in—he also swore off the interstates.
Few driving enthusiasts would have shared Steinbeck’s principal complaint, that it took too much concentration on driving to go as fast as the interstate demanded. But among the many criticisms of the highway system—its uniformity, its cultural homogenization—it is the deterioration of regional distinction that is the most enduring. Steinbeck’s complaint formed the thesis behind William Least Heat Moon’s 1983 book Blue Highways, and is echoed most recently in Pixar’s Cars.
Many baby boomers have seen much more of America than our parents did, because the interstates brought it within reach. The network had been in the planning stages since 1939 and the routes were pretty much established by 1944, so states had started construction before the 1956 highway act put up 90 percent federal funding. Half the system was completed in the first decade, and the highways had become so much a part of the country that President Lyndon Johnson created the Cabinet-level Department of Transportation in 1966. Our Brother Road was growing almost as fast as were the boomers.
From the perspective of a kid growing up in suburban Detroit, we quickly found that I-75, for instance, put Florida within easy reach. Chicago, which had once required most of a week’s vacation time for travel along Michigan Avenue (the same road in Detroit and Chicago), was suddenly available for weekend adventures thanks to I-94.
I most remember 1967 for a family vacation from the Detroit area to Gettysburg, Annapolis, Washington, D.C., Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and more. Only a couple of years earlier Buffalo, New York, seemed a long trip. Mom and dad spent hours with the highway atlas, and with AAA’s help found the interstates that took us into the heart of our nation’s history.
I remember the Pennsylvania Turnpike in its older, narrow-tunnel guise (dating to 1940, its access ramps were precursors of the interstate system.), but what I don’t much remember are the interstates themselves. This might be read as condemnation, but I was grateful when we could be on them, even when they turned out to be still under construction.
One reason for gratitude: I was an almost-12-year-old riding in back of a 1965 Rambler Classic Cross Country (i.e., station wagon) towing a homemade trailer full of camping gear. The trailer had wooden-spoke wheels off a 1930s Chevrolet. On two-lane roads in the Pennsylvania mountains, dad was driving this rig up a long grade when we found ourselves between two trucks. It was hot and humid, so all our windows were open (no air conditioning), and it was soon evident both trucks were carrying pigs. Lots of pigs: Pigs in front of us, pigs behind. And there was oncoming traffic in the left lane, a steep drop-off to the right and no real shoulder. It was 25 minutes or more before we got out of that joy ride.
On the interstate you could probably hold your breath long enough to get away. Interstate standards required two lanes in each direction, a 10-foot-wide right-side shoulder, and a four-foot shoulder on the left. The uniformity is boring, but like many Americans I’ll accept some interstate monotony as a tradeoff against the adventure of traveling in forced proximity to pigs.
Slop played a role in the founding of the interstates. The story goes Eisenhower perceived the need for a national network of highways when assigned to a truck convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919 along the route of the Lincoln Highway. The latter was the first transcontinental highway, six years old and still half dirt, often mud-bogged. Photos show lots of slop.
A reverse re-creation of that journey—starting in California and ending in D.C.—is part of the celebration planned for the highway system’s 50th anniversary. The modern convoy, moving relatively slowly and pausing for celebratory events along the way, planned to take 13 days to move 3250 miles, mostly along I-80. Driving in shifts, two people could cover that ground in three days working hard, four days without trouble. It took Lt. Col. Eisenhower’s convoy 62 days.
Later, as commander in chief of Allied Forces in Germany during World War II, Eisenhower encountered the German autobahn, built in the mid-1930s by the Nazi regime, and this reportedly encouraged his belief in high-speed roads. It is a myth the system was primarily devised for defense—its value to military and security needs was recognized in the system’s title, but the public debate centered on the system’s public and commercial advantages.
The interstates have generated unpleasant and unintended consequences of course, some of which critics recognized almost immediately. Among these were the deterioration of railroads, which lost passenger and freight traffic to the highways, and the erosion of public transit systems.
A distinguishing characteristic of the U.S. system is that the highways ran right into and through urban centers. Author and social scientist Lewis Mumford said at the time that in passing the 1956 act Congress “hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing,” particularly with respect to the cities.
Interstates did not initiate the shift of America’s population from rural to urban areas, but certainly played a role in the change. Only 56 percent of our population lived in metropolitan areas in 1950, vs. 80 percent today. Similarly, there was an ongoing shift of our population to the west and the south, which the interstate network did not cause but enabled.
Whatever the consequences, the nation was committed. As boomers raced through their adolescence, the highway system grew apace: Ronny Hartl of the Federal Highway Administration’s North Dakota Division comments on the FHWA website that paving a mile of two-lane interstate roadway per day was at first a headline maker but eventually became expected.
Travel averaging at least a mile a minute became a national expectation as well. I was in elementary school when my folks moved to the suburbs. That was before the interstates got there, but by the time I was in high school there was an interstate under construction within two miles of our home.
When I first went to college the drive was 12 hours one way—about half the distance of it was on interstate, though that was only one-third of the time spent. The drive would have easily been a couple of hours longer, perhaps requiring an overnight stay without I-75, and my choice was influenced by the notion I was “only” a day’s drive away (600 miles though it was). This was the early ’70s, when boomers and their Brother Road were entering their 20s.
It was 1987 when I first made good use of the system to travel far and relatively quickly. Conveying a then-new Jaguar XJ6 from Tucson, Arizona, to Detroit, my wife and I made an ill-advised decision to try coming up through Denver; ill-advised, because it was March. It still snows in March.
I-80 and I-90 were closed for days. We had a schedule to meet, children staying with grandparents who needed to go to work on Monday. There was nothing to do but head back south on I-25 (cutting the corner across northeastern New Mexico on two-lanes) and across I-40 to Tulsa. It was just over 1000 miles by the odometer. Then onto I-44, I-70, I-69, I-94 and home, which lay another 990 miles beyond.
One ticket for 25 mph over the limit (on the interstate in New Mexico; it cost $10), two days and we were home... the bed didn’t stop moving for hours and no, we didn’t see much of America outside of truck stops. But we made our schedule, which couldn’t have happened on the old Mother Road.
By the late 1980s the interstate network was moving from its construction phase into an era of maintenance and minor expansion. The original 40,000-mile network plus most of the additional, subsequently authorized 6000 miles had been completed.
Into the 1990s a younger generation of drivers was taking to the road, having never known a world without the interstates, but also having grown up with the notion that going faster than 55 mph was somehow socially irresponsible.
They also drove cars equipped with airbags and other safety equipment. This equipment, more often than the interstate, gets the credit when people discuss safety improvements over the years. In fact, the interstates are the safest roads we have by a wide margin as measured by fatalities and injuries per 100 million miles of travel.
There have been improvements in road safety, too, but the basic design of a divided highway with limited access points accounts for the generally safer environment of the interstates as compared with even the better highways outside the interstate system. Every year drivers clock more than 700 billion miles on the interstates, and the fatality rate is 0.8 per 100 million miles. The rate is nearly twice that on non-interstates, 1.47 fatalities per 100 million miles (2004 figures). In 1956 the nationwide rate was 6.05 per 100 million miles traveled. Romantic nostalgia notwithstanding, the Mother Road did not take good care of her children.
The road network was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1996, commemorating its 40th anniversary by honoring a man who did not invent the interstate but did champion it and get it through a Congress that had twice before rejected funding. Modeling the Highway Trust Fund on Social Security may not look so clever today, but at the time it was a breakthrough idea.
Over the years the feds have used the leverage of highway funding to squeeze the states into compliance on numerous fronts—that 55-mph speed limit for one, seatbelt laws for another—and that has spurred other debates about the ways in which the interstate network has really changed America, not just geographically and demographically, but in its very nature.
Many such changes, however, are matters of choice, and how we use the highway system is also a matter of choice. In 1997, almost 10 years after making that 2000-mile/two-day trip, I again traveled Michigan to Arizona, only with an entirely different approach. This time I used the interstate to go fast so I could slow down and enjoy the trip.
I had a schedule to meet, again, to generate a TV segment for AutoWeek on Speedvision (both the show and the network in its original form are sadly no longer with us). But with Mrs. Wilson again riding shotgun in a Jaguar convertible, we wanted some downtime to relax. So each morning we would start early and move as quickly as the spanking new speed limit signs would let us, until lunchtime. Then we would go adventuring.
We took in Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri. We had a great lunch at the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma, an old stone building where buses once carried soldiers on their way to and from World War II duties.
We toured the Route 66 museum, sought out the original Steak ’n Shake, enjoyed the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Tucumcari. Yes, many of these tourist destinations were on the old Route 66. But that was slow, slow, slow. This was interstate-enabled.
One moment we were zing-ing along, making miles of I-40 disappear in the XK8’s rearview mirror at an outrageous rate of knots, the air conditioning turned up to “frosty” while we hummed along with Willie Nelson and Leon Russell.
Ten minutes later the top was down and we were creeping through the Painted Desert, content to follow the Winnebagos at a walking pace while we swivel-necked to gape at yet another of Arizona’s natural wonders. Oohing and aahing the whole way, we stopped at most of the scenic turnouts, crawled over stone logs in the Petrified Forest, chased a lizard, examined the visitor center, stopped in the parking lot to answer questions about the beautiful car. Then we headed back to the interstate and dropped the hammer; we were running a little late for dinner.
That is how it went for an entire 4500-mile trip... Detroit-Phoenix-Detroit, taking full advantage of this slick Jaguar grand touring car and the equally fresh speed limit signs to go quickly whenever we could so that we could afford to go slowly whenever we wanted. Thanks for the option, Ike.Sources for this story include the 50th anniversary web pages of the Federal Highway Administration, www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/homepage.cfm;
and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, www.interstate50th.org/