Divided Paths: Urban Renewal and the Legacy of the Interstates

The origins of the United States Interstate Highway System can be traced back to an earlier concept known as Pershing's Map, named after General John J. Pershing. This map, developed in the early 20th century, laid the groundwork for a national network of military and postal roads.

The idea was born out of the need for efficient transportation routes for military logistics and maneuvers. This concept became increasingly important with the advent of motorized vehicles and the challenges of World War I.

Pershing’s Map

Pershing's experience in the war highlighted the strategic advantage of a well-organized transportation network, leading to his advocacy for improved roads across the country. The map proposed by Pershing included a system of interconnected highways that could facilitate rapid troop movements and ensure national defense readiness. This concept of a national highway network gained traction over the years, evolving beyond its military origins to encompass broader economic and civilian needs.

The transformation from Pershing's military-focused map to the civilian Interstate Highway System we know today was significantly shaped by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s influence. Eisenhower, informed by his own military experiences (including the 1919 transcontinental military convoy) and the efficiency of the German Autobahn system during World War II, saw the value of a national highway system for defense and public welfare.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, often incorrectly referred to as the “National Interstate and Defense Highways Act,” as "no such legislation passed in 1956 or any other year," marked the official beginning of the Interstate Highway System as we know it today, aiming to eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams, and all the other things that got in the way of speedy, safe transcontinental travel.

Busting a Myth

Contrary to some beliefs, defense was not the primary reason for the new Interstate System, and a “flight strip program” was not part of the Act. The Interstate Highway System did not require that one mile in every five be straight so it could be used as an airstrip in war or other emergencies.

The system's main justifications were civilian-oriented, such as facilitating economic growth and improving transportation safety and efficiency.

Although the Department of Defense supported the Interstate System and the word "Defense" was added by the media and others, reflecting the Cold War context, the program's popularity for its civilian benefits meant it likely would have passed regardless of the defense aspect.

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The Interstate System was first described in a Bureau of Public Roads report to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads, in 1939. It was authorized for designation by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, with the initial designations in 1947 and completed in 1955 under the 40,000-mile limitation imposed by the 1944 Act. President Eisenhower didn’t conceive the Interstate System, but his support led to enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established the program for funding and building it



The (Un-)Intended Consequences of the Interstate Highway

The creation of the Interstate Highway System marked a transformative era in the United States, reshaping transportation, economic landscapes, and urban development in profound ways.

This vast network of highways facilitated unprecedented mobility, allowing people to live farther from their workplaces and contributing to the expansion of urban areas into the suburbs, a phenomenon known as urban sprawl. This sprawl not only increased reliance on automobiles but also led to longer commutes and a decline in public transportation usage.

The impact of the Interstate Highway System extended deeply into the urban fabric, particularly affecting inner-city neighborhoods. Many of these areas, often home to low-income and minority communities, were demolished to make way for new highways, leading to significant displacement and economic decline.

This disruption disproportionately affected Black communities, as highways were frequently routed through their neighborhoods, exacerbating racial segregation and economic disparities. The intended destruction of social and economic networks within these communities had long-lasting effects, contributing to a cycle of poverty and social instability.

By-passing Local Communities

While the Interstate Highway System boosted economic growth in certain areas by improving access to markets and resources, it also led to the decline of small towns and rural communities bypassed by the new interstates. The centralization of industries and the decline of local economies in these areas are stark reminders of the trade-offs involved in such a massive infrastructure undertaking.

Excerpt from After Ike - A Journey That Changed America, revitalizing the small town of Van Wert, Ohio years after it was bypassed by the Interstate Highway.

In the aftermath of this development, communities along the historic Lincoln Highway witnessed a decline as economic activities shifted towards the new interstate corridors. However, a movement towards revitalizing these areas has emerged, focusing on leveraging their unique historical and cultural assets.

Strategies for revitalization have emphasized the importance of adapting to post-industrial economic realities, fostering a shared vision among public and private sectors, and building upon the authentic sense of place inherent in these communities.

Environmental Impact

Environmental considerations were also sidelined in the rush to build this extensive network, leading to increased air pollution, fuel consumption, and disruption of natural habitats. The emphasis on automobile transportation also sidelined investments in public transportation, reinforcing a cycle of dependency on cars that continues to influence urban planning and transportation policy.

A Complex History

The narrative of the Interstate Highway System and its impact on American society is complex, reflecting the interplay of progress and setback, innovation and disruption. As we look towards revitalizing the communities affected by these historic developments, it's crucial to draw lessons from the past to inform a more equitable and sustainable approach to urban development and infrastructure planning.

Sources:

https://highways.dot.gov/highway-history/interstate-system/50th-anniversary/interstate-highway-system-myths

https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/revitalizing-americas-smaller-legacy-cities

https://www.lincolninst.edu/pt-br/publications/articles/2021-10-road-revitalization-equitably-developing-americas-legacy-cities

https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/racism-by-design-the-building-of-interstate-81#:~:text=As%20the%20civil%20rights%20movement,tax%20dollars%20to%20the%20suburbs.

https://highways.dot.gov/public-roads/mayjune-2000/one-mile-five-debunking-myth


Transcontinental Motor Convoy Report by Col. William T. Carpenter – 1920
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, commonly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act
Image Gallery – After Ike Documentary