A few weeks ago, while researching new titles about America which I could order for Stanfords, I came across a book titled Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life by Tom Lewis. I simply couldn’t resist and ordered myself a copy. Reading this fascinating book (more about which later) I realized that I wrote a lot about the US but never really much about one of the largest engineering projects in the world’s history, the Interstate Highway System. So, what is it?
Let’s start from its official name. “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” somewhat convoluted, bureaucratic sounding, and nowhere near as iconic and famous as the Autobahn. But the interstates are much longer and have much bigger influence on the spatial development of America than the autobahns have on Germany.
In short, the Interstate Highway System is a federally founded network of controlled-access highways (commonly called freeways in America or motorways in Britain). At 47,714 miles (76,788 km) it is the second longest such network in the world, after China’s. For a comparison, if we add the lengths of all the famous German autobahns, French autoroutes, Spanish autovias and autopistas, Italian autostradas, British motorways and even Dutch autosnelwegs we only reach a figure of less than 26,000 miles (about 42,000km).
What is striking about the interstates (apart from their length) is how much they have influenced America in the last 50 years. That is of course true about roads in many countries but to a much lesser degree. Motorways in Europe connected existing dense cities often constrained in their growth by green belts or other planning rules. Europe also invested massively in all sorts of public transport. In other regions (especially Asia) comprehensive road networks are much younger and didn’t yet have time to influence those countries as much as is the case in America.
In the US the interstates allowed a massive spread of suburbs and geographic growth of cities. Some say that interstates caused the whole process, others argue that it was a logical response to trends which started long before (the first suburbs were actually built along the railway lines). One way or another, with the lack of alternatives, freeways (most of them interstates) shaped the country.
Most people who travelled in America must have come into contact with the Interstates. Sometimes it is only a brief encounter while taking a bus or a taxi from the airport to downtown but if you travel more around the country you are bound to end up doing lots of miles along the interstates.
That is the case with me. Over the last few years I have driven more than 31,000 miles across 47 states and two Canadian provinces. Of course I try to travel along the scenic and interesting routes as much as possible (like the Pacific Coast Highway in California, the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachians or many many others), but let’s face it, I have also spent hours driving on the interstates. From the deserted stretches of I-15 in Utah to the busy urban I-10 in Houston or I-85 in Atlanta.
There is a trend among many travellers and travel writers to dismiss the interstates as boring, dull, somehow detached from the “real America”. Something to avoid at any cost, only accepted as a means of quick travel from one interesting place to another. I find it untrue and unfair. Because the interstates, along with all the commercial detritus along them, represent the real America nowadays. Not some trendy urban patches in NYC or San Fran, not even the small towns, often glorified as perfect images of America. Manhattan is great and lively but also full of tourists. Small towns which are not on the interstates are often depopulating and decaying. No, the real heartbeat of America you can only feel along the freeways. In the countless gas stations serving bad food and even worse coffee, in thousands of McDonalds and other fast food chains (often completely unknown outside America), in noisy motels, in shopping malls and generic suburbs, all connected by the interstates.
There you can see the real flow of humanity. Soccer mums driving children to school in their shiny SUVs (which never go off road), immigrants in old banged-up Fords, or Chevys or Hondas (often barely holding together), travelling salesmen and executives in the generic rental sedans, bearded truckers in their 18 wheelers, pensioners driving their enormous mobile homes towards the sun, college kids towing U-haul trailers full of their prized possessions, along with many, many others. Women are doing make-up, people are eating or speaking on the phone, children are fighting in the back seats, dogs are barking at the back of the pickup truck, all along the interstates. In the mountains of Colorado, deserts of Utah, marshes of Louisiana, farmlands of Iowa, forests of Michigan or the suburbs of Atlanta, interstates are everywhere and everyone drives on them. And they are also nowhere near as boring as some snobbish people picture them. There are some really scenic stretches, especially in the western states, but not only there.
Interstates are all designed to the same standards and with the same signage. Some see it as a problem, something which makes them bland and boring. But I actually like this aspect of the Interstates. There is some reassuring feeling every time I take the slip road and join the network. It is like walking a familiar street or meeting an old friend. Besides, I’m always fascinated by ruthlessly efficient engineering and as roads go the Interstate Highway System is damn efficient.
Now, you can understand why I simply couldn’t resist the book. As soon as it arrived I dropped all the other bits of reading I was doing at the time and indulged myself in the history and politics behind the building of the Interstate Highway System.
Tom Lewis is not a highway engineer, nor a planner, not even a historian. No, he is in fact a professor of English. That’s probably a reason why this book has very little about the engineering and much more about the history and politics behind the whole system. In the first few chapters Lewis describes the general history of road building and improvement in America. From the first turnpikes in the 19th century to improvement of the muddy farm lanes in Iowa and other Midwestern states at the beginning of the 20th century.
But of course the core of the book is about the Interstates. It is fascinating how much effort it took to create the modern roads, a thing which most Americans take for granted. Initially every state did things on its own, there was no general strategy and no standards. Good roads could turn into farm tracks at the states’ boundaries. There was chaos and little money. It was only under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower raised in rural Kansas, that construction of the interstates was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Lewis describes in detail all the political manoeuvring and back room dealings to get the legislation passed as well as battles and debates between the engineers and politicians.
There are a few theories why Eisenhower pushed for building a federal network of freeways. In 1919, as a young soldier, he joined the army’s first transcontinental trip by car and truck. It took the convoy 62 days to cross the country. In some places they couldn’t travel faster than 3mph. Later as a general in Europe during World War II Eisenhower learned the importance of the fast modern roads for moving large armies efficiently. He was especially impressed by the network of autobahns in Germany. Some people join these two stories and quote them as the main reasons why he pushed for the construction of the interstates.
Lewis argues that it was rather a case of economic development which could be spurred by a large construction project. Eisenhower simply wanted to avoid recession and also wanted to genuinely develop the country (a rare thing among modern politicians). One way or another it was this war hero turned politician who started the whole thing.
In the later chapters Lewis describes how the system was build and how it changed over the years. Initially mostly the rural stretches were built but eventually the interstates reached the cities. There the ruthless engineers pushed them across, often razing whole neighbourhoods on the way. Initially they were unstoppable but eventually local citizens pushed back. In San Francisco, NYC and New Orleans the local coalitions managed to stop construction of potentially massively disruptive roads. It is amazing how quickly the modern freeways were relegated from an amazing new thing that everyone wanted to a nuisance that everyone now wants to avoid.
The last chapter was only written for the 2010 edition of the book and in it Lewis describes the fascinating project of burying of the elevated freeways in Boston ( the, so called, “Big Dig”). There the elevated structure carrying I-93, and popularly referred to as the Green Monster, was replaced by a number of underground and underwater tunnels.
Apart from the history of the interstate highways’ construction Lewis also describes how they changed the country. For example businesses like McDonalds, Holiday Inn and many other chains, often based on a franchise model, were massively helped by the interstates. Every exit was a new business opportunity. Suburbs and shopping centres grew while population got more mobile and transport easier and faster.
In general I found Divided Highways a thoroughly absorbing book. Of course it helps that I am a road geek but I think it could be fascinating for anyone interested in American culture. The author is not some maniac road enthusiast, nor a hippy road hater, and he has managed to produce quite a balanced book.
At the end a bit of myth busting and a few facts.
Some say that one in five miles of the Interstate System is straight so airplanes can land in emergencies. Not true. This myth is widespread on the Internet and in reference sources, but has no basis in law, regulation, design manual—or fact.
The longest east – west interstate is I-90 from Seattle to Boston and it is 3020 miles long (4860 km) while the longest north – south interstate is I-95 from Miami to Canadian border in Maine which runs for 1920 miles (3088 km).
The highest point of any of the interstates is I-70 in the Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide in Colorado (3401m above the sea level) while the lowest is I-95 in the Fort McHenry Tunnel under the Baltimore Inner Harbor (31m below the sea level).