The Interstate: What it has meant

Howard Rosen, Ph.D.
Program Director
Department of Engineering Professional Development
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Immediate Past President, Public Works Historical Society

The planning, design, financing and construction of the Interstate Highway System represented an unprecedented commitment of state and federal transportation resources. No domestic program, before or since, has had as profound a direct impact on the way we live and work. While the complete history of the Interstate has yet to be written, there are some things that we can now say were important results.

  Truck traffic on the Interstate

With the construction of the Interstate, the truck, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the passenger automobile, replaced the railroad as the primary transportation factor shaping the location and scale of economic development and the configuration of cities. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, the railroad linked the agricultural regions with the more populous cities. In the middle part of the twentieth century, the Interstate (along with the system of secondary roads) allowed for the effective residential, commercial and industrial use of the land between the railroad lines. In particular, this meant that the point-to-point distribution of goods would now be provided by truck. Aided by the development of containerization, the movement of freight between ships, railroads and trucks has helped to create a virtual "warehouse on wheels." The creation of an interregional truck-based economy was not something that was clearly envisioned by those who planned the Interstate.

  The connection between the railroad and the city

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the railroads fostered significant economies of scale that contributed to the development of large, centralized units of production and large, industrial cities. The construction of the Interstate, however, facilitated or even encouraged economic dispersion. The location of new plants and facilities tended to be closer to off-ramps than to rail yards in central cities. At the same time that there was economic dispersion, there was also significant residential dispersion following the construction of the Interstate. There is an ongoing debate among historians whether the Interstate created suburbanization. Yet while it may or may not have been the cause of urban sprawl, the Interstate certainly helped make it possible. While it didn't make them want to move, the building of limited access freeways made it easier for people to move to outlying areas. Historians have documented the movement away from central cities as early as the nineteenth century. What has been described as the "Crabgrass Frontier" conveys the long deep-seated desire on the part of Americans to move into open space, even if it is to a house in a suburban subdivision.

In addition to its impact on the economy and society, the experience of building the Interstate changed the way highways would be planned and built. It was the first experience that many state highway agencies had with urban freeway construction. And it was the first time state agencies confronted serious objections. The freeway revolts of the mid-1960s have reflected the complexities of generating public support for the construction of transportation infrastructure in already developed communities. What began as an Apollo-like mission, based on public consensus to build more than 40,000 miles of highways in a short period of time, ended with state agencies operating with a new and complex web of bureaucratic, political and environmental controls. State Highway Departments became State Departments of Transportation largely as a result of the perceived need to place highway planning under greater political control. Making this complex web work effectively and in a timely way has not been easy. In a more positive vein, however, the new structure and process allows for the effective participation of many more voices and constituencies in highway transportation planning.

While these economic and social impacts of the Interstate were largely unanticipated, its main transportation impact was exactly as planned. Limited access freeways built to rigorous design standards now move large volumes of traffic over great distances at high speed and with unprecedented safety. It is characteristic of successful public works projects that once built, they are taken for granted. A generation of Americans has been able to rely on the Interstate that was planned and built by a prior generation of transportation professionals. Maintaining that system while looking ahead to the future needs is the challenge facing transportation professionals of this generation.

Howard Rosen can be reached at (608) 262-4341 or rosen@engr.wisc.edu.