I saw my share of Adopt-a-Highway signs this summer on driving trips. Here is some of the history of the program:
The Birth of Adopt-a-Highway
The idea hit James Evans like an empty soda can, or maybe it was a discarded candy wrapper. Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, was driving one day in 1984 when he saw litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck. Littering was a growing problem in Texas at the time, and while Evans knew that his department didn’t have the resources to combat it, he saw a prime opportunity to promote volunteerism. One year later, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, collaborated with Evans and organized the first Adopt-a-Highway program.
How the Program Works
The program varies slightly by state, but volunteers typically apply to adopt at least two miles of highway for two years, and are responsible for cleaning that stretch at least four times per year. In return, the adopter’s name is recognized on a sign along that stretch of highway. The Adopt-a-Highway program saves taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs and allows state governments to allocate transportation funds to other projects. The number of state employees devoted to highway cleanup and beautification has plunged since the advent of the Adopt-a-Highway program. A number of states, including New Hampshire, have Sponsor-a-Highway programs, where volunteers make donations to pay for maintenance crews to clean a stretch of highway in exchange for recognition on a sign…
The Adoption Movement Spreads
The Adopt-a-Highway program was a huge success in Texas and other states soon took notice. The program, or a variation thereof, eventually spread to all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, and several countries, including Australia, Japan and Spain. The most common adopters are civic groups and local businesses, though individuals occasionally adopt. Celebrities, including Bette Midler and Robin Williams, helped raise the profile of the program by adopting their own stretches of highway. Today, a handful of for-profit companies manage the sponsoring of highways by large companies looking for positive publicity and what amounts to advertising space on a small billboard.
The description above hints at the convergence of multiple forces: a growing environmental movement, efforts to encourage civic engagement and pride, looking for ways to cut government costs, and opportunities for some marketing.
But, this could be put simply: largely for free, Americans clean up highways. Groups and individuals take time out of their schedules to pick up garbage and debris. Americans love driving and the way of life it is tied up with so much that they clean the highways that enable quick travel via car. Adopt-a-highway works because Americans like highways so much.
Consider an alternative approach. Instead of cleaning up littering and criminalizing the practice, what about deemphasizing highways and major roadways and pursuing other forms of transportation and denser housing? This may seem like a difficult task but so is cleaning the tens of thousands of miles of highways, whether through paid employees or mobilizing volunteers all over.