54 years ago: Federal interstates are born

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This legislation, though immediately about infrastructure, had a tremendous impact on American life. Many of the interstate highways of today were built with this money.

These roads have produced a number of changes:

-Suburbanization. People could now easily travel from suburbs to the city center. By the 1960s, many businesses were also locating headquarters along suburban highway exits.

-The American love of the car. This already existed before Federal Interstates but it was enhanced by these well-maintained roads. Now, the average American could drive farther and more safely. From this point on, money for public transportation would always be limited compared to funds for roads.

-Shipping. Many goods today are carried by trucks. Cheap roads coupled with cheap gasoline helps keep Wal-Marts and McDonald’s stocked and cheap.

-Urban renewal. A number of big city neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for new highways. Recently, some cities have reversed these trends by removing highways and establishing parks and public spaces. Two notable and beautiful examples: the Big Dig in Boston and the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

-Aesthetics. Many of these roads are about brute efficiency: moving the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. To many, these highways scar the landscape. But they can often take on a beauty of their own, particularly in complicated interchanges.

-Small town life all but disappeared. With the rise of suburbs and highways rerouting traffic around small communities, rural populations dwindled.

-A fast-food approach to life. Not only does food have to be obtained quickly so one can get back on the road, signs need to be larger to be legible at 65 MPH, cars need to be larger to survive the occasional highway accident, travelers need built-in DVD players to be entertained, and so on.

Prior to the signing of this act, local governments and states had begun to cobble together a highway system. The City of Chicago had been planning for a local highway system for years but did not begin construction until after World War II. Pennsylvania had a turnpike (now I-76) and Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois had started roads that would create an interstate toll road. Robert Moses had begun a system in New York City.

But this law helped build and codify a system that is still going strong today.

6 thoughts on “54 years ago: Federal interstates are born

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