No single act of congress has so drastically changed the American landscape like the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Eisenhower. Originally expected to cost $25 billion and take 12 years to create the Interstate System, it was not completed until 1992 at a cost of $114 billion. It is easy to look back now and see the glaring problems of the system and criticize the engineers of the 1950's and 1960's, but they were just trying to solve the transportation system lying in front of them. Their failure came when they ignored the socioeconomic and environmental problems created by the system.
In Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life, author Tom Lewis examines the history of the highway system dating back to the early days of communities working together to build and maintain dirt and gravel roads. Significant leaders in the advancement of highways and the interstate program grew out of these early road conditions. Seeing the impassible roads during spring rains and the detrimental effect they had on getting food to market, Thomas Harris MacDonald turned to engineering to help solve the problem. He was instrumental in the early highway development connecting county seats with dependable roads.
Roads were not always a public endeavor. In 1913 Carl Graham Fisher proposed a transcontinental road from San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to New York City's Times Square. He solicited funding from wealthy residents and hoped the excitement generated from small sections of road would spur the government to complete the rest of the road. Other car enthusiasts built their own private roads to race cars on, realizing early on that they were expensive to maintain. Local engineers had a difficult time maintaining public roads during wartime shortages causing many to fall quickly into disrepair.
Construction of the national road campaign achieved early success because most road construction was done in rural areas with little resistance. The residents did not realize that when the interstate bypassed their small cities, they would soon lose business and the town would dry up. The interstate system was also discriminatory to minority and low income populations, sending roads through neighborhoods slated for slum clearance or those that would put up little to no fight.
Despite early proponents of sending the roads near the city centers but not through, many engineers felt the only way to relieve congestion was to construct the roads through the heart of the cities. Citizens did start to fight back though. One example the author discusses is the Vieux Carre Expressway in New Orleans. It would have cut the city off from the water and threatened the historic district if it was not defeated in the 1960's. Forward thinking ideas like the Futurama exhibit by General Motors, designed by Bel Geddes for the 1939 World's Fair was scoffed at by engineers like Robert Moses. He said sending the highway underground in the city was created a "great tiled bathroom." This idea has come to light almost 50 years later with projects like the Big Dig in Boston, MA or the highways in Dallas, TX.
The book discusses some of the indirect issues of the interstate system such as the rise of the suburbs, emptying of downtown's, and the creation of shopping centers. Levittown was an early suburb built in 1947 with 2,000 at the start. It grew to 17,447 by 1953. The only problem was the opinion of the master builder. “We can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem but we cannot combine the two." This single statement captures the social and racial issues caused by the suburbs, which are a direct result of the interstate system.
The book is a deep dive into the history of the highway system in America up until about the 1990's. It is not a technical read and therefore is good for anyone interested in how we ended up with the system of roads we have today. It did not grow overnight, but took decades to complete.