The Highway System

by admin - November 13th, 2013

With the invention of automobiles in the early 20th century, and the rising popularity of them in the 1950s, people in America were on the move. Instead of staying in the cities where they worked, people began to move to neighboring towns. These suburban communities offered many things that city life did not, but convenience and proximity to work was not always one. Commutes to work became longer for the average American, and on slow-paced roads it was surely a hassle.

To remedy this growing issue, president Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill into place in 1956 that would create 41,000 miles of interstate highway all across America. This bill, which was then a law after Eisenhower signed, was proposed to take 10 years and cost 25 billion dollars to complete. This law was called the “Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956”. The point of this bill was not only to make it easier for the working man’s commute everyday, but also to make it so it was relatively easy for everyone with a car to travel across the country. The Interstate Highway System was influenced by the German Autobahn, their high-speed roadway system.

A picture of the construction of Interstate 95, which passes through the city of Richmond, Virginia

One big issue with this Interstate Highway System is the effect it had on the economy, especially smaller local economies in cities and towns across the country. Before this system of highway was created, the roads to get across the country were smaller, slower roads that often went straight through the center of each town it past. People driving these roads passed through the towns and stopped at local businesses including shops and restaurants. Unlike these small roads, the highways were built on the outskirts of these towns so they could be built in straighter and more efficient lines. People traveling across the country no longer passed through small towns and their businesses. These local economies lost a lot of business with the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

In America In The Fifties, Andrew Dunar talks about the impact the interstate had on small towns and roadways in the country. He says, “Towns and cities along these highways experienced an immediate drop in transport-related business, often their major source of revenue. Highways such as the famous Route 66 that crossed New Mexico and Arizona into California were used almost exclusively for local traffic and all but abandoned by interstate motorists” (171). He goes on to talk about how many of the businesses in these small towns had to close, and how stores and restaurants started opening up near highway exits instead. This article published by the University of Vermont documents many more historical and cultural impacts from the Interstate Highway System.

Because many of these small, and sometimes isolated towns started losing business, many of the residents of the town moved away. What was left by this movement is towns that are now deemed “ghost towns” because they have been almost completely abandoned. The town of Amboy, California is a good example of this. Although it was never a huge town, it did have some economic growth prior to the Interstate Highway System. But, when the highways in this area did actually open in 1973, the town was almost completely forgotten.

The Interstate Highways System that began production in the 1950s completely changed the life of Americans. For many, it may have seemed like a godsend. It made not only commutes to work easier, but also family road trips to different parts of the country. But for others, specifically the people who lived in small towns, the highways may have completely changed their lives, and not in a good way. Either way you look at it, the highway system is a big event in American history, as it changed life radically.

— Mike F.

One Response to “The Highway System”

  1. Erin Rice says:

    I think that Mike’s post brings up a good point that the interstate highway system was not completely positive. Usually, it is an event praised for its positive effect on economic growth as well as how it drastically increased the ease at which people could take road trips and commute to places farther away. However, many people forget how the highway adversely affected small towns, because it left little need for roads, such as route 66. This post encouraged me to think about how often I use the highway– it allows me to get to places farther away in a direct route. Yet, there is a lot of scenery and many towns that I do not even know exist because the highway shelters me, as well as many other travels, from side streets and small towns. Even today, the highway can still be viewed in a positive as well as negative perspective.