History and cultural impact of the Interstate Highway system

The Interstate Highway system, the seeds of which were planted in 1944, blossomed in 1956 with the passage of the Federal Highway Act. The bill was lobbied for heavily by a coalition of vehicle, oil, tire, cement, steel, and union interests and ironically, given its carbon footprint, championed by the elder Senator Albert Gore (Lewis 1997). This national system included over 46,000 miles of limited access highway - the largest and most expensive public works project ever undertaken (Kunstler 1993; Kaszynski 2000). The construction process was greatly expedited by the use of standardized designs and advance condemnation of properties along the Interstate right of way (Rose 1979; Kaszynski 2000). Although states participated in the construction of these roads, coordination, oversight, and funding were largely Federal (Vale and Vale 1983). The first sections of the Interstate Highway system were opened less than a year after the bill's passage. The target date for finishing the system was 1969 (Kaszynski 2000) but it took a more than a decade longer before the entire Interstate Highway system was complete. In Vermont, Interstate Highway construction spanned four decades, the late '50s, '60s, '70s and early '80s.

The Interstate Highway system was designed to replace a mix of different road types with a network of multi-lane, limited-access roadways built to a uniform design specification (Kunstler 1993; Hayes 2005). The system was birthed of the Cold War, as the word "defense" in its title, The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, reveals. Many suspect that Eisenhower's support for the road system was influenced by his war-time experiences with the German autobahn (Dicum 2004) and his difficult, two-month journey across America's primitive two-lane highways in 1919 as part of the War Department's Transcontinental Motor Convoy (Eisenhower 1967). By the late 1920s, a national network of paved two-lane roads was substantially complete (Liebs 1995) providing the first a real alternative to rail and water-based means of travel (Kaszynski 2000). The 1956 launch of the Interstate Highway system was the realization of a planning process for a national, limited-access road system that had begun in 1944, more than a decade earlier (Liebs 1995; Hayes 2005).

Interstate Highways were and are critical to the American economy. Construction of the Interstates followed a protracted period of debate in the post-WWII era (Rose 1979), spawned by increasingly costly traffic jams in urban and suburban areas (Kunstler 1993) caused at least in part by the increasing reliance on trucks for carrying heavy cargo (Rose 1979). Some argued that the automobile culture was the economy and that construction of the Interstate Highway system was a thinly disguised public works program designed to prevent a severe post-war recession or worse, the return of economic depression that characterized the pre-war decade (Rose 1979; Kunstler 1993). Core to the road-building philosophy was the belief that a prosperous society must be a mobile society and that the construction of roads, specifically Interstate Highways, could be a means to remove urban decay and promote prosperity (Rose 1979). The Interstate Highway system, and associated feeder routes, were both heavily subsidized by the Federal government, with 90% of Interstate construction costs picked up by Washington (Rose 1979; Kunstler 1993). With urban roads being the costliest to build, cities received proportionally more Federal funds (Rose 1979). Cars and highways are now a critical part of our economy and our culture. More than 85% of Americans take some form of motorized vehicular transportation back and forth to work (Lewis 1997).

Interstate Highways were designed specifically for efficient and safe travel at high speed. Evolving from the first "modern" roads, the Turnpikes of the 1920s and 1930s, Interstate Highways took this design up a notch in scale and continued the progression of new, highly efficient road networks connecting the largest cities while bypassing rather than accessing smaller towns (Lewis 1997). In contrast to the Parkways of earlier decades, most Interstates were designed with no concern for the adjoining scenery as a means of elevating the traveler's experience. Right of ways grew larger, lanes were wider, slopes and curves were limited, and medians and road-side ditches were extensive and gradually sloped, a safety feature should vehicles leave the road at high speed (Kaszynski 2000; Hayes 2005). With modern mechanized construction and engineering, Interstate Highways are less bound by physical landscape constraints in comparison to routes of the past such as paths, canals, railroads, and smaller, more local roads (Vale and Vale 1983; Lewis 1997). Cut and fill road design, as well as tunneling and deep road cuts into rock allowed Interstate Highways to be built in places where roads could never have gone before (Lewis 1997).

Building the Interstate Highway system caused significant changes to the physical, cultural, and historical landscapes of America (Lewis 1995). Wide right- of-ways consumed thousands of acres of land, led to the demolition of historical structures, and in some locations, replaced existing roadways (Kaszynski 2000). Most significantly, the coming of the Interstate Highway dramatically affected older, general- access roads with similar alignments (Hayes 2005). Traveled at lower speeds and lined by businesses with direct access to the roadway, such roads were characterized by distinct vernacular architecture (think roadside cottage colonies) that connected travelers to the communities through which they passed (Liebs 1995). The construction of Interstate Highways fundamentally altered this pattern of commercial development as long-distance travelers abandoned those former routes leaving once-vibrant towns fading into obscurity and busy roadside stores and restaurants struggling to make ends meet (Vale and Vale 1983; Liebs 1995; Kaszynski 2000). With the coming of Interstate, whole architectural genres were driven to extinction by abandonment (Liebs 1995). Fast Interstate travel also sounded the death knell for short-haul train travel (Kaszynski 2000) and completed the process of intimately linking Americans to the personal auto for local and regional transportation (Hayden 2004).

New roadside development near Interstate Highways was focused at interchanges because design of these limited access highways prohibits businesses from having direct access to the highway itself (Lewis 1995; Liebs 1995). Such interchanges are unique to highways and have evolved into three-dimensional engineered structures quite distinct from the grade-level junctions of traditional roadways (Hayes 2005); the goal is to keep traffic moving and with cloverleaf designs no-one ever needs to make a left turn across traffic (Hayes 2005). With so little space available around the interchanges, land there became extremely valuable limiting the diversity of business to only those with deep pockets: oil company gas stations, shopping malls, national and regional chains (Liebs 1995). The result - uniform, cookie-cutter architecture replaced regionally distinctive vernacular designs (Kunstler 1993). Perhaps it's no coincidence that the rise of the destination shopping mall (usually located at a highway interchange), the demise of Main Street, and the construction of the Interstate Highway system all occurred in the same 25 year period (Kunstler 1993; Lewis 1995). The automobile and the roads it required, clearly shaped the built environment of 20th century America (Liebs 1995; Hayes 2005). The "Galactic City" of Lewis (1995).

Over the last century, American society has reorganized its culture around the highways and byways and its vehicles need (Vale and Vale 1983; Liebs 1995; Hayden 2004). Some would argue that the Interstate Highways both encouraged and were the result of the commuting lifestyle, the loss of a land ethic, and the divorce of the workplace from the home (Kauffman 2004). What would once have been an intolerably long commute on winding country roads became doable on the Interstate, psychologically opening up huge tracts of agricultural land, now within driving distance of American cities, for development (Kunstler 1993; Lewis 1995; Boynton 2004). In urban areas, Interstate Highway construction destroyed entire neighborhoods (Kaszynski 2000) and isolated others, creating physical ghettos (Kunstler 1993). Installation of continuous sound barriers protected neighborhoods from the roar of thousands of cars passing at high speed but completely blinded drivers to the local visual geography; they might as well have been driving through tunnels (Hayes 2005). In less developed areas, the impact was different. Over time, Interstate Highways have become connectors of suburbs (Lewis 1997) and rural small towns. Wherever they may be, highway travelers are isolated from local landscapes and cultures on many Interstate Highways even the services motorists need are provided only at limited access service areas.

Interstate Highways changed people's perceptions of the landscape. With uniformity of road design allowing for long-distance travel between major cities at high speeds (Vale and Vale 1983), travel on an Interstate Highway is a landscape-blurring experience, far less intimate and more homogeneous than travel on secondary roads. On the Interstate, the driver's focus is on the road and distant, sweeping views; details are lost and the landscape passes as a kaleidoscope of images allowing only broad comparison (Vale and Vale 1983). Clearly, the function of most Interstate Highways is not to entertain the traveler but to get people as quickly as possible from point A to point B (Kaszynski 2000). These are roads to serve motorists and traffic (Rose 1979). Some blame America's loss of historical and geographical perspective directly on construction of the Interstate Highway system because it distanced people from the landscape both by speed and limited access (Liebs 1995). The Interstate's standardized, homogenized design (and the homogeneity of development that followed the roads) have been implicated directly in the "blanding of America" (Kaszynski 2000).

For a complete list of references down the compressed Endnote library (.enlx) file or pdf.

***Note*** To download the .enlx file use Mozilla Firefox or a web-browser other than Safari.

Landscape Change Menu New Breed Marketing New Breed Marketing University of Vermont University of Vermont The National Endowment for the Humanities National Science Foundation Linthilac Foundation