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« Theatre, Cinema, Roles and ... Race | Main | Movielinks »

June 21, 2006

The Interstate Turns 50

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Going somewhere?

A remarkable anniversary is upon us: The US Interstate Highway System was signed into existence by Dwight Eisenhower 50 years ago, on June 29, 1956. Dull and dry as the Interstate may sound, it holds a firm place on my personal list of the Key Factors That Have Made America What It Is Today. Some of the others: the mechanization of cotton-picking; the Civil Rights movement; urban renewal; the corporate/government embrace of modernism; the mortgage-interest deduction; the Vietnam disaster; the GI Bill; the 1965 Immigration act; the birth of pop culture; and the embrace of adolescent values ...

Partly inspired by Germany's Autobahns, partly out of a conviction that the country needed an efficient way to move its military around, President Eisenhower made the the Interstate one of his top political priorities. In his vision, it was key that the system should include no intersections and no traffic signals. Construction began soon after Ike signed the Bill in 1956. The System was officially declared completed in 1991.

Some fun facts:

  • For a long time, the US Interstate system was considered history's largest public-works project ever.

  • The Interstate was enthusiastically supported by the automobile industry.

  • Interstate lanes are as wide as they are and Interstate overpasses are set at the height they are to enable passage of trucks carrying missiles.

  • All those in love with ambitious government initiatives please take note: The initial cost-and-time estimate for the system was $25 billion over twelve years. It ended up costing $114 billion, and took 35 years to complete. If that isn't a vivid illustration of one of my favorite general principles -- namely, "we oughta be wary of excessive ambition where government programs are concerned" -- then I don't know what is.

One widely-acknowleged mistake was made: Interstates were often run right through the centers of urban areas. It was a disastrous move. When cities are chopped up, they never recover. I remember discussing the future of St. Louis with one of the city's planners. According to him, although there is much that can be done to improve the attractiveness of downtown St. Louis, the city will never come back very far. The main reason: In the '50s and '60s, downtown St. Louis had been sliced up into isolated islands by Interstates and other highways.

Generally speaking, the Interstate system gets high marks for convenience and for enabling trade. It's also often believed to have contributed to anonymity and ugliness. "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing," wrote John Steinbeck.

Artery of trade? Un-scenic view?

It can sometimes seem as though America's post-WWII elites were determined to wage merciless war on the country's cities. The building of awful office shoeboxes and housing projects ... Disastrous and ambitious "urban renewal" schemes ... The creation of the Interstates ... It's hard not to read this pattern of action like this: First, let's make our downtowns inhuman and ugly. Next, let's provide a lot of easy ways out of them. Were our elites serving the general will, or were they catering to the car, banking, and real-estate industries? And was there any real reason any of these programs should have been initiated in the first place?

Wikipedia's entry includes a good collection of links. Donald wrote a posting about the Autobahns here. A while back, I wrote a blog posting about the Interstate. To indulge in some self-quotation, here's my own favorite line:

Artsies will and do talk about the supposedly-immense importance of this art movement or that art style. But how many art styles can compare in terms of aesthetic impact on the country to the creation of the Interstate Highway System?

I was sorry to see in an issue of Car & Travel that New York State's beautiful Route 17 (aka the Southern Tier Expressway) is being "upgraded" to Interstate standards. As you'd imagine, politicians and businesspeople are enthusiastic. But for those of us who are fond of a beautiful and eccentric stretch of road, this is ominous news.



posted by Michael at June 21, 2006


One persistent rumor is that every Interstate has to have at designated intervals a perfectly straight stretch of specified length, without overpasses or overhead signs, intended to serve as an emergency military landing strip in wartime. It's just an urban legend, however.

Posted by: Peter on June 21, 2006 1:40 PM

OK, maybe they took 3 times as long to build and went %400 over budget, but at least we have our High-Speed roads when we need them most, and with out any noticeable side-effects.

And, Michael, remember, they are free.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on June 21, 2006 2:31 PM

Something struck me as unusual about that photo of I-530... it's the yellow dividing line rather than a median strip or barrier.

Posted by: hugh on June 21, 2006 2:47 PM

I think the Interstates generally get a bad a rap. Some points:

1) The Interstates were originally meant to allow the mass exodus of cities in case of nuclear war. ICBM's made this idea obsolete though. Also, they were supposed to allow the easy movements of troops and suppies into and out of the cities. Most of our troops fighting wars are stationed overseas. Nobody in their right minds would invade a country of hundreds of millions of people to fight a conventional war. The nuclear age made this obsolete too.

2) People left the cities for a variety of reasons. Many people forget that the population boom at the end of WWII made a housing boom necessary. It just developed in the suburbs rather than the cities. Why? Bigger spaces. A garage for the car, and parking space a few feet from the front door, a yard for the kids to play in, rather than alleys and the street. Green space for a garden or pool of your own, not the city pool (polio). Clean(er) air (don't forget that cities then were heavily industrial and dirty places, far more so than today. people forget that). Less traffic. Easier to go shopping. Less crime. A way out of racially integrated schools and neighborhoods. I could go on.

2) The cost of the Interstate you cite is probably too low. Now, in many places, they are rebuilding them. They have also been adding lanes, interchanges, and making repairs for 50 years.

3)Urban planners/architects blame a lot of things on infrastructure, which is how they came up with the housing project high rises, ugly schools, etc. I think the problems are a lot deeper though.

4) You can always choose to take the back roads if you like. And live in the city. We just have more choices now.

Posted by: High Drive on June 21, 2006 3:07 PM

Last time I checked, I've driven across the USA 20 times, many of those trips when the Interstate system had many gaps. And I've had a blog post or two about this at the back of my mind.

Here are a few thoughts your timely piece brought to the fore.

Wide lanes are a good thing, regardless of the Politacal Correctness status of their origin. Wide lanes reduce the chance for high-speed sideswiping. They also reduce stress and tension that can bring on fatigue. Italy's Autostrada have narrower lanes than France's Autoroutes and Germany's Autobahnen -- and the driving experience is much hairier, especially when big-rig trucks are in the traffic mix.

Are the cost data inflation-adjusted?

As for the Steinbeck quote, the man couldn't have been thinking very clearly when he made his statement. Just because an Interstate exists, drivers aren't forced to take it: there are alternative roads. Moreover, Interstates are where big trucks tend to travel, along with a lot of other inter-city traffic. This leaves the old two-lane roads uncongested much of the time, and thereby more pleasurable to drive when sightseeing is the goal.

Back around 1937 industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes (working with Shell Oil at the time) proposed a national system of superhighways. What I find interesting is that both the highways and their nodal points were set off a ways from large cities. As we now know, nodal points and (especially) on/off ramps serve as attractors for commerce and residential development.

German Autobahnen tend to avoid cities. Plus, zoning is such that there isn't a lot of commerce/settlement near entry and exit points in the countryside (though this might be changing). Autobahn construction was underway (and some Autostrada existed) when Geddes did his highway thing. Offhand, I don't know if he or his staff did detailed research on the European highway scene.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 21, 2006 3:22 PM

The interstate highway system strikes me as one logical outcome of the two huge changes that occurred during FDR's presidency--one, a truly momumental centralization of power (and money) in the Federal government and two, the profound militarization of U.S. society. I would christen these two changes, collectively, as the Second American Revolution.

In fact, I would argue that the Second American Revolution actually represents a bigger change than the First American revolution. It certainly was in terms of the change in day-to-day life before and after the revolution.

The interstates are of a piece with the whole tenor of Post-Revolutionary American life. May God have mercy on our souls.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 21, 2006 3:24 PM

FYI, my wife's grandfather was on President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Commission. He was the one they chose to come up with the numbering system. Love it or loathe it, now you know where it came from. So the next time you're driving north on I-81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, please note that you are on the General James A. Anderson Highway.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 21, 2006 3:45 PM

Gosh--if there is one thing I'm not gonna complain about its interstates---God bless 'em. Have you ever tried to travel on two-lane roads for any length of time? Ang gotten caught behind the inevitable combine? Or retiree in their 10-year-old Chevy who just ain't in a hurry? Talk about fertile ground for frustration, crazy passing in the lane of oncoming traffic, and accidents!! Interstates give Americans a sense of freedom and empowerment. Without them, we would still be in the world where nobody travelled much past 100 miles from where they were born! And talk about a limitation on economic growth---the world just doesn't move as slowly anymore as it used to when trucks could rumble along two-lane roads at 55 mph to deliver goods.

I think what people are complaining about is everything that came along with interstates---the endless McDonald's and Denny's and Day's Inns, cluttering the landscape.

As far as slicing St. Louis into bits---(a) they've already done a great deal to pretty up St. Louis from its nadir 10 years ago (b) the theory doesn't seem to entirely hold water, given the dynamic state of Chicago--Or LA, for that matter---and the slicing up of those cities also with interstates (St. Louis' bigger problem is that its coolest stuff--Forest Park and the Art Museum and the Zoo,etc.--aren't "downtown")and (c) but you're right---they have a huge interstate which has no pedestrian crossway across it cutting off St. Louis' most famous landmark, the Arch, from the rest of downtown, and the Arch might was well be in Arkansas.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2006 4:03 PM

Interesting that all of Michael's "Big Things that Made Modern America" occurred at least 30 years ago. An artifact of his age (we are always most impressionable when young), or is it just that it takes a couple of decades to see impacts? Or was the four decades between 1935-75 a time of much more rapid cultural change than the 1975-2005 period (my vote: yes, definitely).

Anyway, I do agree with everything on his list, and am hard pressed to come up with more recent examples. Some candidates since 1970 might include the near-universal entry of married women into the workforce and widespread cable television.

Also, Friedrich: don't tag FDR with the militarization of American society. The military wasn't built up at all during the 30s, and immediately post-WW2 there was pressure to downsize it again. I think the advent of the cold war was really the moment when previous centralizing tendencies linked up with militarized global committments and the cult of "national security" to form what you call the "second American revolution". Starting perhaps with Korea in the late 40s.

Posted by: MQ on June 21, 2006 5:43 PM

Because the interstate highways are numbered systematically, the possibility arises that a freeway can be given a "wrong" number. Some people are quite exercised about this topic; I confess having lost a few nanoseconds of sleep over the issue myself. For more details on the history of the convention-defying I-238 and I-99, start here.

Posted by: Fredosphere on June 21, 2006 10:35 PM

Gaps there are, all right. While I was growing up in NE Arkansas, the eternal argument was over how to complete I-40 through Memphis. The original plan had it running smack through Overton Park, which would have been really unforgiveable. All sorts of insane schemes were proposed (like a huge tunnel, which idea Boston later embraced), but eventually they just declared one of the I-240 ring roads to be the connection and had done with it.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 21, 2006 10:37 PM

There was a stretch of unfinished interstate in Northen Idaho for as long as I remember (well into the eighties I think): Kellogg, Wallace, and Mullen, all mining towns and notable as a place where prostitution still carried on (how, I don't know).

I usually take the train nowadays and train right-of-ways don't seem to have the disruptive and development effects of highways. Here in Minnesota the unused ones are being converted into biking trails, and they do get you away from it all in a way that roads don't.

I've been told that in the long flat stretches they put in gentle curves so people didn't fall asleep.

Posted by: John Emerson on June 22, 2006 7:47 AM

I am unalterably opposed to the Interstate system. It is criminal that the proles should be able to cross the country in less than 62 days.

(Sorry the link only peripherally addresses the road march. Best I could do in a couple of minutes.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 22, 2006 11:04 AM

So a big, one-size-fits-all, Federal Interstate program was the only way our roads and highways might have improved? Without it, we'd still be wading through 2-lane mud ruts?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 22, 2006 11:19 AM


I'm not sure what the alternative would be. There was such a boom in automobile ownership after WW II, and of course, the Baby Boomers' population surge. Now we have an immigrant population surge. A lot of times, its not the government leading the way--its the government trying to keep up.

Posted by: High Drive on June 23, 2006 1:17 AM

The alternative would be deregulated personal aircraft.

Instead of cities and suburbs, we would have had houses and businesses scattered across the landscape with miles of wilderness between them, and maybe a few surviving cities surrounded by airstrips and heavily dependent on mass-transit.

Posted by: Ken on June 23, 2006 4:48 PM

Ken -- is this really financially practical? I've often thought it would be a fantastic idea, but as I understand it small personal aircraft are still too expensive for mass use. Plus airport fees are very high. Am I wrong (don't know much about the issue)?

Posted by: MQ on June 23, 2006 5:33 PM

High unit costs result in part because they're not mass-produced like cars. The potential market is too small because it's difficult and expensive to become a licensed pilot.

Posted by: Ken on June 26, 2006 9:10 AM

I love the interstate...
It is a beautiful place to be. I drive it often:

Posted by: Bill Klingensmith on July 18, 2006 12:11 PM

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