top of page
  • Alex Obolensky

Highway Havoc: How the US Highway System Connects The Country but Divides The People

On a warm summer morning in 1919, 79 U.S. Army vehicles left Washington D.C. and headed west towards San Francisco. Their objective was to test various models of new Army vehicles, as well as to determine and help mitigate the various potential difficulties that may be encountered on a cross-country military campaign should the need arise. Among the roughly 300 military personnel involved was 20-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Lieutenant Colonel who was tasked to observe and later report back on any difficulties faced during the trip

Over 3,200 miles later, the convoy arrived at the West Coast, having spent almost two months on the move. The trip demonstrated the dilapidated state of America’s roads: the convoy averaged only 6 mph, covering less than 60 miles per day. Along the way, numerous issues caused delays and setbacks, including aging or nonexistent infrastructure that rendered some bridges and roads completely impassable, as well as frequent breakdowns and accidents owing to the taxing travel conditions and length of the journey. Most roads throughout the western half of the country were unpaved; some were downright impassible. At one point, crossing 200 yards of quicksand took a laborious 7 hours to accomplish. In Utah, stuck trucks had to be pulled by hand in the salt flats, with the troops laboring in the burning heat while water supplies ran low.  

The memories from the trip stayed with Eisenhower for many years. It was evident that paved, well-maintained roads were important to the continued development of the country’s infrastructure, and Eisenhower’s experiences left a lasting impression on him long into his campaign and eventual inauguration as President of the United States in 1953. Additionally, his experiences traveling on the German autobahn while leading Allied forces through Nazi-occupied Germany gave him firsthand experience of the convenience and benefits of a well-maintained highway network. As Eisenhower  wrote to Congress in 1955, the nation badly needs new highways … the good of our people, of our economy, and of our defense, requires that construction of these highways be undertaken at once.” 

The idea of a highway system spanning the country was nothing new - the first formal inquiry into building large-scale interstate highways was mentioned back in 1938, while acts such as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 gave states grant money to improve their existing highways  - but these plans were vague and often resulted in minimal steps taken by lawmakers to take action. 

Over time, however, Eisenhower’s persistent belief in a federally funded highway system paid off, culminating in 1956, when the Federal-Aid Highway Act was approved by the House and Senate. This act effectively established the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, allocating $26 billion to build 41,000 miles of highway and finally realizing the decades-long idea of a large-scale system of modern, safe highways. The government would be responsible for paying 90% of the overall cost of construction, which led to a building frenzy as state governments jumped on the opportunity to build miles of new roads for cents on the dollar. On August 13th, 1956, Missouri was the first state to begin constructing what is now I-70 under the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The Interstate Highway System spent the next 36 years under continuous construction, culminating in the last section of roadway through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado finally completed on October 14, 1992. 

The Interstate Highway System was a revolutionary achievement. Suddenly, the country was more connected than ever as travel became convenient, safe, and predictable. Gone were the days of muddy roads and treacherous mountain passes that Eisenhower experienced. Now, highways were safe to travel on and were well maintained. Design standards such as standardized 12-foot-wide travel lanes and paved shoulders kept travel safe and easy. 

Today, over 260 million cars use the highway system, and the economic and safety benefits of highways are obvious. Despite its high construction cost, for every dollar spent, the interstate highway system has returned over $6 in economic productivity. The added safety benefits of limited-access, well-maintained roads have saved well over 150,000 lives and prevented at least 12 million injuries. Additionally, the increased national security from the ability to relocate the U.S. military to almost anywhere across the country, as well as the ease of leisure travel and tourism, is almost priceless.

Needless to say, the U.S. interstate system is a monumental engineering achievement and has truly shaped the lives of every American in many different ways. However, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Interstates and their explosive growth throughout the second half of the twentieth century have had significant negative effects, in particular on minorities and those in poverty. Unfortunately, this was more than just a coincidence. As with so many other seemingly well-intentioned ventures, racism and discrimination have marred the creation of the highway system.

One of the main culprits behind this was Robert Moses, an urban planner from New York. Moses was a profound advocate for using the construction of highways as an excuse to rid major cities of minorities and those living in poverty, saying “Our categorical imperative is action to clear the slums”. This idea of “urban renewal” revolved around getting rid of impoverished neighborhoods in urban areas, which were often occupied by minorities. This was largely done by invoking the power of eminent domain, or the government’s ability to seize private property for public use. This resulted in over 1 million individuals getting forced out of their homes and businesses, most of them being people of color or those living in poverty. 

Besides losing residents, neighborhoods impacted by the construction of highways often never recovered from the resulting economic and social downfalls, and to this day remain only as a shell of their former selves. For instance, the New Orleans neighborhood Tremé, whose tree-lined main boulevard was once filled with thriving businesses and served as a gathering place for the community, was cut through by the construction of I-10. Once a main community for people of color in New Orleans, its population had dropped from almost 9,000 to less than 5,000 people between 2000 and 2017, due to both the continuing negative impacts of the interstate and Hurricane Katrina. According to Amy Stelly, an urban planner and designer who grew up in the area, few businesses remain in the community, and drug sales and homeless encampments are common in the space underneath the highway.  This occurs in almost every city that has had highways built through its urban center all across the country. David Rufus, a resident of Syracuse’s 15th Ward, was quoted as saying “I’ve seen the move from a very vibrant and interactive community of people of color to a community that has been shunned and overlooked and broken down.” 

Additionally, urban interstates continue to negatively impact those living near them in other ways as well. Those living near major roads, including highways, experience higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and childhood leukemia, among other health problems. Furthermore, even the noise pollution from highways may be harmful. A study found that exposure to traffic noise increased the probability of suffering from depression by 25%. To make matters worse, researchers found that African Americans are more at risk from air pollutants, including those stemming from traffic sources, once again demonstrating the disproportionate impact highways have had on minorities. The impact of highway construction within cities is long-lasting and incredibly damaging to those impacted by it in a plethora of ways.

This raises an important question: can this issue be fixed? Is there a way to erase the negative impacts of highways on those whose homes, health, and livelihoods were deemed expendable by those in power?

In a lot of ways, the damage has already been done, and cannot be repaired. White flight has pushed wealthy, white families out into the suburbs while trapping and effectively blockading people of color within inner cities. Not all hope is lost, however. As the racist origins of highways and their paths of destruction through urban areas have become more relevant in discussions of equity and justness, change has started to happen.

Boston’s Big Dig is a prime example of how some cities are starting to fight back against interstates and the issues they have created. In 1959, Interstate 93’s elevated section through the heart of Boston’s downtown was completed as part of the country’s highway-building fever. Named the Central Artery, during its construction, it displaced 20,000 people and cut off several key neighborhoods from the city’s downtown. By the 1990s, however, the hulking silhouette rising above the city streets had accumulated more than its fair share of problems and worries. More than 200,000 cars drive on it every day, with massive traffic jams bringing traffic to a standstill practically every day and skyrocketing the accident rate to four times the national average. It was clear that something had to be done. The solution? Tearing up the Central Artery bridge and rerouting the existing highway to go underground instead.

This was a monumental undertaking: all told, 16 million cubic yards of dirt were excavated, and 3.8 million cubic yards of concrete were poured. So much reinforcing steel was used that if all of it was combined, it could make a one-inch steel bar long enough to wrap around the world. At the time of its completion in 2007, the project had overrun its budget and schedule, becoming the US’s most expensive highway project with a total cost of over 22 billion dollars.

When all was said and done though, the Big Dig brought positive change for the city and helped mend some of the damage that highways deal to cities and their inhabitants. More than 300 acres of parks and open space were created in total throughout the city, 27 of which are located where the old highway once stood. Most of that area remains as open space available for use by the general public, with some mixed-development, low-rise buildings erected on the new land. Additionally, thanks to better traffic management and reduction in traffic, citywide carbon monoxide levels dropped 12 percent, helping keep citizens healthier and the city cleaner.

Examples of other cities and communities fighting back against urban highways are becoming more and more common across the country. President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed by Congress in 2021, will give a total of $185 million to 45 different projects attempting to remove or redesign existing urban highways to alleviate some of their negative effects. Cities like Tampa, Detroit, and Long Beach will be able to use the funding for purposes ranging from rebuilding bridges to adding better infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians and thus help address some of the issues plaguing highway infrastructure within cities.

So what does all this mean for highways? Change for the better can - and has - happened. But is it too little too late? No amount of new parks, reduction in pollution levels, or bicycle lanes can give those whose lives were uprooted their homes and neighborhoods back, or erase the racist past of the interstate system. But with the notable successes of projects such as the Big Dig, momentum is building. Both government initiatives and grassroots movements are pushing for change across the country, and perhaps one day cities split apart by endless lanes of asphalt will be brought back together again.


bottom of page