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Three Ways the Interstate System Changed America

The idea of a national highway system stretches back to the 1930s but wasn’t put into place until the midcentury

Traffic on Interstate 405, Los Angeles, California, 2012. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, the piece of legislation that led to the creation of America’s current highway system.

Governments had talked about building a network of highways stretching across the country as far back as the 1930s, when FDR wondered about making an interstate network part of his New Deal. “The resulting legislation was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, which directed the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads... to study the feasibility of a six-route toll network,” writes the Our Documents Initiative. “But with America on the verge of joining the war in Europe, the time for a massive highway program had not arrived.”

Eisenhower was a leader in promoting the interstate system, having seen what could be accomplished by a national system of highways during his career in the military, which took him to Germany. It was one of the biggest public works projects in American history, and it changed the country forever.  Here are three key places that happened:

Towns and Cities
“Because of the 1956 law, and the subsequent Highway Act of 1958, the pattern of community development in America was fundamentally altered and was henceforth based on the automobile,” writes the Our Documents project.  

America was reorganized around a system of highways that had their own language–for example, odd-numbered interstates run north-south, counting up from west to east.

“Small towns that were bypassed by the highways withered and died,” writes Brandon Keim for Wired. “New towns flourished around exits. Fast food and motel franchises replaced small businesses.”

At the same time, the interstates made travel in and out of American cities simpler, speeding the growth of the suburbs.

Shipping Corridors
Driving down many interstate highways, particularly at night, comes with a familiar sight: a cavalcade of eighteen-wheelers pulling food and goods across the country.

The interstate system, along with the shipping container, which was also invented in the 1950s, helped produce this reality, writes Justin Fox for Fortune. “Thanks to the new road network and containers that could easily be moved from ship to train to truck, overseas manufacturers and domestic upstarts were able to get their products to market in the U.S. more quickly than ever before,” Fox writes. “New distribution networks arose that were vastly more efficient and flexible than the old.”

American Culture
“By making roads more reliable and by making Americans more reliant on them, they took away most of the adventure and romance associated with driving,” writes Fox.

America’s love affair with the car, which begun in the very early 1900s, became a marriage of convenience, he writes. While earlier in American history, driving was portrayed as an excursion that involved skill and might have some degree of unpredictability, the interstates imposed a system of standardized landscape across the country–same wide roads, same rules, for the most part even the same signs.

The ambivalence people felt about this new system is visible in the protests that sprang up to the interstate: "in the 1960s, activists stopped construction on highways in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans," writes Emily Becker for Mental Floss, "which resulted in several urban interstates becoming roads to nowhere." 

But it wasn't just protest: the interstates changed how American lived, provoking a fierce nostalgia from writers and those who loved pre-interstate American car culture.

“When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must,” wrote John Steinbeck in 1962, “it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

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