amazing facts about the origins of the U.S. highway system

Americans love their cars.  Our love of cars goes back more than 100 years. Americans fell in love with cars when they were first introduced. They embraced the automobile like nothing else and demanded that a transportation system be built to accommodate their wanderlust.

I learned this in a podcast with Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. In the podcast, Earl Swift discussed the origins about the U.S. highway system. I learned quite a few things about our highways.

The interstate system did not begin in the 1950s with Eisenhower, as I had always believed. It began in 1913, when the inevitable dominance of the automobile over other forms of transportation was certain. Early adopters of the cars drove on dirt roads that were incredibly muddy.  The roads resembled the tracks that farm equipment leave behind next to fields of corn and soybeans. Driving from coast to coast was impossible. A US FHWA cite describes the roads at the time:

Railroads dominated interstate transportation of people and goods. Roads were primarily of local interest. Outside cities, “market roads” were maintained, for better or worse, by counties or townships. Many States were prohibited by their constitution from paying for “internal improvements,” such as road projects. The Federal-aid highway program would not begin until 1916 and, because of structural problems and the advent of World War I in 1917, would not accomplish much until 1921. The country had approximately 2,199,600 miles of rural roads and only 190,476 miles (8.66 percent of the total) had improved surfaces of gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells, oiled earth, bituminous or, as a U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) bulletin put it, “etc.” Many people thought of interstate roads as “peacock alleys” intended for the enjoyment of wealthy travelers who had time to spend weeks riding around the country in their automobiles.

In 1913, private entrepreneurs led by Carl Fisher (of the Indianpolis 500 fame) established the Lincoln Highway Association to build the first paved highway in the United States: The Lincoln Highway (pictured below). The 3,398 mile Lincoln Highway eventually linked New York to San Francisco via Chicago (it follows the path near what is now I-80). This  “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” simply transformed the transportation system in the U.S. I included two pictures from 1920 and 1922 below to show how radically different the road looked from the dirt roads it replaced. I drove by the Lincoln Highway (now Route 30) every time I came home from college. I had no idea that it had such an interesting birth story.

The next major highway was the Dixie Highway (pictured below), which linked Chicago and Michigan to Miami. Not coincidentally, this is when Miami Beach was established (Carl Fisher was one of the developers). The Dixie Highway crossed the Appalachian Mountains, which was a big deal at the time. The highway looks like a ladder (see the picture below), because every city and municipality clamored to be along the route. These highways were a game-changer. The Dixie Highway still goes through Chicago. I knew of it was growing up, and as a result, I never associated the word “Dixie” with the South, even though it was originally intended to link Chicago to the South.

The later expressways (Eisenhower’s highways) were not originally designed to move around troops and missiles (at least Congress never seriously used that for justification). They were built and designed to support the many drivers in the U.S. Our economy depended on our transportation system. It still does.

It took some time to build the interstate system as we now know it. My grandfather grew up in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, where horse drawn carts delivered milk and other commodities. This was after the highway system began, but before cars completely replaced other modes of transportation. My grandfather remembers all of the horse manure that collected in the streets and alleyways. Most of the games he and the other kids played in the streets hard to be designed to work around the manure and the infectious diseases that could be transmitted from horse to human. This is yet another advantage of cars (Freakonomics covered the environmental trade-offs between car and horse transportation. Cars win).

Of course, the highway system has its problems. Despite the popular support for a highway system, there were many early critics who were ahead of their time in identifying the downsides to highways. For example, Lewis Mumford preached that congestion could not be cured by capacity. In 1955, Mumford wrote, “People, it seems, find it hard to believe that the cure for congestion is not more facilities for congestion.” (see this Atlantic Cities article by Eric Jaffe for more on this topic).

Amazing transportation systems in the United States and elsewhere provide a foundation for operations research. The highway system allows us to transport goods from one end of the country to another in mere days. The highway system inspired many OR problems that use the Traveling Salesman Problem, truck routing problems, facility location models, shortest path problems, and many other classic operations research problems. The Lincoln Highway is where much of it began.

Map of the Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway, 1920. It looks nothing like the dirt roads it replaced.

The Lincoln Highway, 1922

Map of the Dixie Highway

3 responses to “amazing facts about the origins of the U.S. highway system

  • prubin73

    Your comment about the “Eisenhower interstates” sadly dispelled one of my favorite myths: that one mile out of every five on interstates must be straight, to allow military transport aircraft to land. DOD did, however, have a bit of say in the construction of the interstates:

  • Laura McLay

    @parubin, that was one of my favorite myths, too )-: Your link was consistent with the information from the podcast:

    “Although the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 added the words “and defense” to the name of the Interstate System (now the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), the primary justification for the network was its civilian benefits, such as economic opportunity, safety, relief of congestion, and evacuation of cities.”

    Very interesting stuff!

  • Laura McLay

    My husband found this site about the interstates and defense:

    “[T]the following statement is false: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System requires that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections are usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.

    Under a provision of the Defense Highway Act of 1941, the Army Air Force and the Public Roads Administration (PRA), now the Federal Highway Administration, operated a flight strip program….Congress considered including a flight strip program in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 — the law that authorized designation of a “National System of Interstate Highways.” However, the 1944 act did not include the flight strip program.”

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