Highways Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the early twentieth century, a growing automotive industry demanded better roads, which in turn resulted in enormous increases in the production of motor vehicles. As roads and motor vehicles improved, the shipment of goods in the United States moved from water and rail transport to overland conveyance in trucks. By the last quarter of the century, American industry depended on the national highway system to provide the materials it required to function efficiently and profitably.

Early roads linking the towns and cities in the United States were little more than dirt trails used by farmers to transport goods to market. The first road capable of accommodating the stagecoaches that ran between New York and Boston was completed in 1722. The Lancaster TurnpikesTurnpike, the first hard-surface road in the United States, was finished in 1794 and ran for 62 miles between the Pennsylvania cities of Lancaster and Philadelphia. It was a toll road that charged a set fee per mile depending on the size of the vehicle involved and the number of horses pulling it. The first highway, the Cumberland RoadCumberland Road (also known as the National Road), was built from 1811 to 1818 and ran from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, in what would become West Virginia. It was the first road to use macadam surfacing and eventually was extended to reach 800 miles in length.Highways

Modern Highways

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States had more than 2 million miles of thoroughfares, most of them dirt or gravel roads. They were difficult to travel on because they were dusty and rutted. In wet weather, they turned into muddy morasses that were virtually impossible to navigate. Before the twentieth century, which was marked by the mass production of motor vehicles, the nation’s roads were minimally useful at best. In 1913, the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, was completed between New York and San Francisco. By the mid-1920’s, more than 250 highways had come into existence, many of them named after the wagon trails whose routes they followed, such as the Santa Fe Trail. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1925[Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925]Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1925 attempted to systemize these roads by creating the U.S. Highway System. This act placed highways under state control, gave them numerical names, and labeled them with a standardized shield.

Growth in the production and registration of motor vehicles between 1905, when there were seventy-eight motor vehicle registrations in the United States, and 1929, when the registration of such vehicles approached twenty-seven million, was meteoric. By 1929, there was about one car for every four residents in the United States. With a 200 percent increase in the number of motor vehicles registered in the decade from 1920 to 1929 alone, a corresponding increase in highways to carry these vehicles safely and efficiently was inevitable.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

The first superhighway in the United States was the Pennsylvania TurnpikesTurnpike, a toll road that connected eastern Pennsylvania with the western end of the state, running from Newburgh in Cumberland County to a spot 160 miles to the west. Construction of the turnpike began late in 1938, and it was hoped that the road would be open by late May, 1940, a deadline that could not be met, largely because of heavy rains throughout the spring of 1940. Finally the job was finished and the highway was opened officially on October 1, 1940.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, similar in many respects to the German autobahns, was a superhighway that marked a significant advance in road-building technology. The autobahns and the Pennsylvania Turnpike were designed with long, sweeping, banked curves; limited access; no cross streets or railroad grade crossings; and moderate grades that enabled motorists to cruise safely at high speeds. When motorists using the Pennsylvania Turnpike entered the toll gate, they received a card indicating their starting point. When they exited, they returned the card at another toll gate and were charged for the distance they had driven.

These tolls paid for a major part of the expense of building and maintaining the road, although the federal government had also contributed funds for its construction and had bought many of the construction bonds required to finance the project. Rest areas with toilet facilities, a Howard Johnson restaurant, and an ESSO service station were available in several places along the route so that people could attend to their needs without leaving the turnpike.

The Interstate Highway System

Shortly before the end of World War II, the United States Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944[Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944]Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, partly to provide evacuation routes should circumstances ever require an evacuation of endangered populations but mostly to extend the scope of American business and commerce. It took another dozen years before the federal government, under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956[Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956]Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act), which established the program to fund and construct superhighways that would crisscross the nation by the early 1990’s. The federal government absorbed 90 percent of the cost of this monumental effort.

Each superhighway was assigned a two-digit route number. North-south interstates were given odd numbers, and east-west interstates were assigned even numbers. As the system developed, most towns or cities in the United States with a population of fifty thousand or more came to be linked by interstate highways.

Interstate highways have at least two lanes in each direction, with some in urban areas having as many as six or eight lanes in each direction. Interchanges provide limited access to these highways at regular intervals and generally connect either with other primary roads and highways or with local, secondary roads.

Superhighways are divided by a median that separates opposing lanes from each other. In some instances, these medians are planted with foliage capable of absorbing energy should errant vehicles run into them. The superhighways have signs at regular intervals indicating route numbers, connecting routes, speed limits, and services available at interchanges. Interstate highways are supported largely through federal funding derived from gasoline and property taxes. They have regular rest areas with toilets, a few vending machines, maps of the region, and, in many cases, picnic tables. The Interstate Highway SystemInterstate Highway System (excluding Puerto Rico) contained 46,630 miles of roads as of 2006.

By the end of the twentieth century, the United States had a highway system that comprised some 4 million miles, and Canada had more than 500,000 miles of roads. The aggregate miles that make up these two nations’ roadways are sufficient to circle Earth at the equator more than 175 times.

Toll Roads

Despite the growth of the Interstate Highway System (officially the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), toll roads still exist in many states, particularly in the east and in parts of the Midwest and South. Notable among these are such highways as the West Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey Turnpikes. In some cases, the toll roads exist side by side with interstate highways.

Often tunnels and bridges also charge tolls, as do all the tunnels and bridges leading into and out of New York City and other large metropolises. These structures usually lead onto toll roads. In the area between Washington, D.C., and the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, those using Interstate 95 are charged tolls as they proceed along the course of the highway, and they are also charged a bridge toll where the interstate crosses the Delaware River.

Among the more ambitious undertakings in highway construction is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that connects southeastern Virginia with its eastern shore. This highway, more than 17.6 miles long, has been called one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. The toll on this structure has always been quite high, but the mileage saved by using it is impressive, and as an added bonus, those who use this scenic thoroughfare have the unique experience of crossing both over and under the Chesapeake Bay.

Jobs and the Highways

The highway system employs literally millions of people and makes jobs unrelated to highways possible for millions more who use highways to get to their places of employment. Among those directly employed by facets of the highway system are those who plan highways, essentially the architects of highways who use highway engineers to bring their plans into being.

Among those who are engaged in the actual construction of highways are all sorts of laborers and operators of the heavy equipment that highway construction requires. The creation of such equipment is a vast enterprise that employs additional millions of workers. Those responsible for highway construction and maintenance also employ staffs of people who identify, locate, and purchase necessary construction materials. Those who haul and supply construction materials also profit from the building of roads. Bookkeepers and accountants keep a sharp eye on spending and make sure that public funds allocated to road construction are expended properly.

Highway patrol officers also hold jobs created by the highway system. Often catering crews are employed to feed construction workers whose work is done away from their homes. Landscape specialists put the finishing touches on highways. These are just a few of the kinds of jobs that highway construction provides.

Impact of Modern Highway Systems

Modern life in the United States would not be possible had the highway system not been developed. In many parts of the United States, the interstate highway system led to the virtual disappearance of small towns in rural areas. Some small towns were bypassed by the superhighways and no longer received as much business from travelers. Others that were near cities found that their residents preferred to shop in the city, easily reached by superhighway.

The interstate highways also allowed people whose jobs in cities had anchored them to the center of those cities to live on the outskirts, where land was cheaper. Commuting relatively long distances to a job was counterbalanced by being able to live in a larger house in a less crowded setting. Quite predictably, suburbs began to spring up. As more people moved to the suburbs, large shopping centers were built in these areas, often easily accessible by superhighway. Large, impersonal chain stores drew people away from the small, independent, neighborhood stores in which previous generations had done much of their shopping. Also, as commutes grew longer, suburb dwellers came home later, to tract houses that had garages where there would have been front porches only a generation before. Many suburban towns failed to develop a sense of community and function as a social center for their residents the way that small towns once had.

Further Reading
  • Gutfreund, Owen D. Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Through case studies of Denver, Colorado; Middlebury, Vermont; and Smyrna, Tennessee; the author shows how highways transformed the United States.
  • Kaszynski, William. The American Highway: The History and Culture of the Roads in the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. Especially effective in presenting the sociological and economic implications of developing a road system. Appealing illustrations.
  • Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. An extremely thorough book that chronicles the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the United States. Excellent statistics.
  • Molzahn, Arlene Bourgeois. Highways and Freeways. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2002. Directed to young adult readers, Molzahn’s overview is well written and accurate.
  • Moon, Henry. “The Interstate Highway System.” In Geographical Snapshots of North America, edited by Donald G. Janelle. New York: Guilford Press, 1992. The best brief account in print on the topic.

American Automobile Association

Automotive industry

Bridges

Cumberland Road

Drive-through businesses

Hotel and motel industry

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Petroleum industry

U.S. Department of Transportation

Trucking industry

Turnpikes

Categories: History Content