Bent Rims and Blown Tires: A Brief History of America’s Roadways

Often, it isn’t until we accidentally crack into a massive pothole or waste away in stand-still traffic that we actually think about the infrastructure of America’s roadways. While the country’s roads still represent some of the best in the world, they’re aging—poorly. Misappropriated tax dollars, poor project management, and the damaging effects of a massive network of freight trucks all contribute to a crumbling system of highways and byways. But if you happen to live in California, New York, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, where OVER HALF of the reported urban interstate mileage is deemed to be in poor condition, this is probably not news to you.

Building and maintaining America’s roadways has never been an easy task. And indeed, it is a problem that becomes more complicated every day as the driving population increases, transcontinental shipping grows, and federal debt expands. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how we got here and how to fix it. But perhaps a more interesting (and less incendiary) topic is how America’s sprawling interstate system got its start in the first place.

Looking Back

First, let’s recognize that paved roads are nothing new. In fact, people who settled in the Mesopotamian cities of Ur and Babylon were enjoying stone-paved streets as far back as 4000 B.C. And our Roman friends were engineering sophisticated networks of well-protected highways as they grew their empire over 2,000 years ago. (Some of which still carry traffic today!) The world has Scotsman John McAdams to thank for the process of tar macadam and British inventor Edgar Hooley for perfecting it.

But we’re here to talk about ‘Murica, right? The United States is big and messy, as is the legacy of its roadways. And because a detailed history would take many more words than I am allotted to give, we’re going to fast forward through much of America’s formative years to visit the early 20th century and a guy who’s name you might recognize: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before ol’ Dwight became the 34th president of the United States, he enjoyed a long and decorated military career—one that allowed him to see just how bad America’s roadways were.

Eisenhower Gets an Eyeopener

Bummed about being stationed stateside during WWI, a young Eisenhower jumped at the opportunity to join a voluntary, coast-to-coast, 81-vehicle military convoy from Camp Meade, Maryland to San Francisco. Today the classic American road trip is an experience in which millions have partaken. But in 1919, it was what Eisenhower himself described as a “genuine adventure”. In those early days of auto travel, the construction and maintenance of America’s roadways was left to the states and their local counties. That meant that most were made of dirt, gravel, or mud, and often remained in poor condition.

Federal aid programs for highway construction were finally being considered around this time, with a pioneering bill signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The act set aside $75 million to improve post roads and set up statewide highway agencies staffed by engineers and administrators. However, for our old boy Dwight, the Federal Aid Road Act was still in its infancy and wasn’t all too concerned with highways and urban motorways. According to a History Channel article on the interstate road system, the “part victory lap, part publicity stunt” motorcade began on the morning of July 7, 1919 following a dedication ceremony. It made it as far as Frederick, Maryland before a myriad of problems befell its participants. “The troops had covered only 46 miles in seven hours,” explains author Christopher Klein. “A snail’s pace of barely over six miles per hour.”

Road Trip or Off-Road Adventure?

Klein continues to describe a scene that sounds more like a modern off-roading tour than a military convoy, including an entertaining incident in which a $40,000 custom Militor tractor truck rolled into camp with four road-damaged military-grade trucks in tow. The two-mile-long procession even had to use motorcycle scouts to “inspect road conditions and blaze the trail ahead with painted arrows,” explains Klein. Soldiers had to continually tow trucks out of ditches, mud, and sand, and agonizingly hand-dig vehicles out of salt flats. Ultimately, “the caravan had traversed 3,242 miles through 11 states in 62 days, an average of 52 miles per day,” states Klein. Today, depending on the route, the average cross-country road trip lasts roughly 7-10 days. And that’s factoring in 8-hour driving stints, nightly stop overs, and opportunities to visit must-see attractions like the world’s largest ball of twine.

The difficult and painful tour came to an end, showcasing just how bad America’s roadways were. But it would take many more years before any real change occurred. Along the way, a Federal Highway Act passed in 1921 squeezed some more pennies out of the budget. And during the New Deal, federal agencies under FDR helped build up some more bridges and roads to provide jobs to those suffering through the Great Depression.

But, hey, what about Dwight?” you might be asking. Well, as America found itself in yet another world war, Eisenhower experienced more of the action this time as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. Stationed in Germany, our boy got to see the renowned efficiency that is German engineering.

Leave It to the Germans

Thoroughly impressed with “how Nazi Germany’s high-speed autobahn network allowed its troops to mobilize quickly to fight on two fronts,” says Klein, Eisenhower became determined to advocate for a better interstate system in the States. When he became president in 1953, he finally got his chance.

The Federal Highway Act passed in June of 1956, allocating nearly $30 billion of federal money to build over 41,000 miles of paved highways. This huge investment in infrastructure was to promote economic growth, eliminate congestion, and provide a safe and efficient route of escape in case those evil Commies decided to drop a bomb. While most Americans supported the act, it wasn’t without its detractors. In truth, the interstate system ruined the local economies of many small towns, bisected and destroyed many communities, and essentially killed Route 66. In fact, even today some cities are launching highway removal projects to combat those long lasting effects.

Looking Forward at America’s Roadways

But, hey, nothing’s perfect, right? Perhaps as we enter this new phase of America’s roadways looking much like they did after the first World War, urban developers and engineers can approach the problem with a different mindset.

Modern technology and GPS servicing gives us an advantage that our road-building predecessors lacked. The only hope now is that Trump can deliver on his campaign promise for renewed infrastructure, and that the states’ bureaucracies won’t mismanage the funds. In the meantime, let’s invest in some stronger tires for the potholes and a killer infotainment system for that rush hour traffic.

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