It’s true the Interstate has had enormous impact. It stitched together this vast land, changing the way people and goods travel and altering the way Americans settled communities and located businesses and factories. It has had a unifying effect on our culture that rivals the close of the Civil War, military conscription or the invention of the television. Among its blessings is the fact that an American can visit almost anywhere in the contiguous United States within a few days’ ride. Its design with limited access ramps and divided highways is safer than that of many of the highways it replaced.
But the Interstate highway system – officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — has a ruinous legacy, too, which ought to give pause to everyone who puts too much trust in the grand vision of engineers, urban planners and politicians. Among the Interstate’s ironies is that the system was born with the intention of rescuing the nation’s cities and instead weakened and seriously damaged them.
The idea to build a national system of superhighways had been around at least since the 1930s. It was modeled on the German Autobahn, which had been conceived even earlier. Adolf Hitler was one of its earliest enthusiasts, and he greenlighted its construction soon after seizing power. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City included a Futurama exhibit – sponsored by General Motors – that prophesied a United States crisscrossed with superhighways carrying people at almost unimaginable speeds.
President Eisenhower, who is credited as the father of the Interstate system, was impressed by the Autobahn’s strategic importance as military transport. He believed the United States should create a similar highway system that would allow tanks and troops to move quickly in the event of an atomic war or evacuate civilians in a natural disaster. Newspaper editorials and politicians hailed the toll-free superhighway as a boon to the nation’s economy.
But Lewis Mumford, a social critic and urban affairs specialist, warned of its downside with prophetic clarity.
“When the American people, through their Congress, voted a little while ago for a $26 billion highway program, the most charitable thing to assume about this action is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing,” Mumford wrote shortly after Ike signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Mumford – whose remarks were quoted in a 2006 article in Governing magazine – called the measure “preposterously unbalanced” and a “fatal mistake.” Many other like-minded critics have weighed in since.
Among the Interstate’s curses, the system has been accused of:
- Deepening America’s dependence on the automobile to the exclusion of other modes of transportation, and thus our dependence on foreign oil. It’s true that the American love affair with the car could be traced back to the 1930s and the Model T, and that the post-war generation was snapping up automobiles by the time Eisenhower signed the law into place. But the creation of the Interstate accelerated the trend.
- Contributing to suburbanization and urban sprawl by gobbling up open space and transforming swaths of country into an endless edge city. The Interstate has also demonstrated the perils of “induced travel” or “induced demand,” by which highways that are widened to alleviate congestion attract new traffic until they become congested again. This happened in Washington D.C.’s own backyard. By the mid-1980s, congestion had become so bad on Interstate 270 that state and local officials widened the highway six years ahead of schedule. But the highway once again became a bumper-to-bumper mess less than eight years after the concrete dried and exceeded new capacity targets more than a decade early.
- Aggravating racial tensions and contributing to defacto segregation. As America went on its road-building spree in the name of urban renewal, African-American neighborhoods were often demolished or chopped up by Interstate expressways. The practice became so common that it gave rise to the slogan, “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes.” To the extent that the Interstate hastened suburbanization, the highway system abetted white flight, too.
- Weakening the rail network and effectively replacing it with trucks. By placing its bet on the automobile (and, arguably, the airplane), the federal highway system helped create the modern trucking industry. But the downside of moving so much freight by highway can be seen on Interstate 81 in Virginia, which is essentially a crowded and chaotic railroad without rails. Tractor-trailers in concentrated numbers compete (and sometimes collide) with family cars, with all-too-deadly consequences. An article last year in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail about a proposal to widen the interstate called it “the Valley of Death.”
- Creating a new highway system while neglecting the old. The Interstate followed an all-too-familiar pattern in which politicians, with visions of ribbon-cuttings in their heads, marshal public support for expanding a transportation network at the expense of maintaining existing infrastructure. The Interstate’s lopsided funding scheme – the feds kicked in 90 percent, with the states chipping in the rest – created incentives to invest in pouring concrete for new roads while ignoring those that were still funded 50-50, according to Gerald Donaldson, a senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Donaldson told the Baltimore Sun in 2006 that secondary highway networks “went to hell in a hand basket.” “We cheated on our older roads and bridges in order to chase the Interstate dollars and build virgin roads,” he was quoted as saying.
- Dirtied the air. Despite great strides by automotive engineers in reducing pollutants, transportation — namely, cars and trucks — is still the largest source of air pollution in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists says. Besides spewing soot and toxic chemicals such as benzene, vehicles have poured greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change.
- Dirtied the water. By creating tens of thousands of miles of impervious surfaces that shed oil- and gas-tainted water into watersheds, the Interstates have contaminated watersheds across the country.
- Made us fat. To the extent that the highway system contributed to Americans’ love affair with cars and urban sprawl, people drive more and walk less. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that urban sprawl had a “relatively modest” impact but nonetheless could account for about 13 percent of the increases in the obesity rate from the 1970s to 2001.
- Contributed to a sense of rootlessness, isolation and lack of community. While the Interstate no doubt increased Americans’ mobility, it also contributed to a permanent state of transience. With the rise of suburbs, the Interstate also constructed social dead ends with the cul-de-sac. “To withdraw like a hermit, and live like a prince, this was the purpose of the original creators of the suburb,” Mumford wrote of suburbs.
- Homogenized American culture. The Interstate dragged along in its wake a new economy of chain hotels and chain restaurants, all ruled by the principle of safe, corporate sameness. The highways themselves, whose graceless design emphasized utility and civil defense over aesthetics, further conditioned Americans to the idea of blandness or outright disregard for their surroundings:
“With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp,” Earl Swift writes in his 2011 book, “Meet the Man Who Made Freeways.” As quoted by the Post’s Jonathan Yardley in a book review, Swift continues: “In place of a local barbecue joint, an exit in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil-A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot-dog stand of the thirties has been replaced by McDonald’s.”(Yardley goes on to say that after venturing off the Interstate for authentic North Carolina barbeque, he and his wife found the food to be among the worst they’d ever eaten. “We should have stayed with the off-ramp Pizza Hut,” Yardley writes.)