Nowadays, we take for granted how easy it is to drive from state to state. But mere decades ago, it wasn’t so simple. How did a certain president’s shortcomings and Cold War paranoia help shape one of the most massive projects in human history? Today we’re going to learn about the Interstate System. This is WheelHouse.
The U.S. Interstate System has been called the greatest public works project in history. The present-day Interstate System is crucial for life in the U.S., but it wasn’t always welcomed with open arms. In 1870, the Good Roads Movement officially started. It was started by old-school cyclists that found road conditions across the U.S. abhorrent and unfit for travel. The goal of the Good Roads Movement was to educate people on road building in areas between cities, and help rural populations gain the social and economic clout enjoyed by cities, where citizens benefited from paved roads.
The movement worked, and in 1893, the Department of Agriculture initiated a systematic evaluation of existing highway systems. By the early 20th century, the U.S. had plenty of good roads built, but there wasn’t a fluid way of getting from coast to coast. The Lincoln Highway was one man’s solution to this problem. Like an old-timey Snoop Dogg, Carl G. Fisher aimed to unite the East and West Coasts. You can tell it worked out for him because of all the things named after Carl G. Fisher, like, uh, the thing with, hmm. Oh, Carl’s Jr. And Laurence Fishburne. By 1913, the dream was realized.
The Lincoln Highway ran from Times Square, in New York City, to Lincoln Park, in San Francisco. (“Crawling” by Linkin Park) Using existing highways across 13 states, that’s a pretty decent road trip. Speaking of road trips, let’s look at the road trip that shaped our highway history. (instrumental music) The year is 1919, a disenchanted 29-year old army officer had narrowly missed out on being sent overseas. That officer’s name was Dwight Eisenhower. He did, however, get asked to go on a journey across the U.S. The Motor Corps Transport Convoy was a military funded experiment with four main objectives.
One, encourage construction of a through route and transcontinental highways. Two, prepare recruits for the Motor Transport Corps. Three, exhibit to the public the motor vehicle for military purposes. And four, study and observe the terrain. Although the Motor Corps Transport Convoy wasn’t the first transcontinental convoy, it certainly was the biggest. The convoy consisted of 81 vehicles and 297 personnel. Amongst other vehicles there were 34 heavy cargo trucks, four kitchen trailers, and an artillery wheeled tractor that towed nine trucks at once. If I was in this convoy, you know I’d be in that kickin truck whippin up pizzas. I’m a pizza boy. Eisenhower finally got a chance to prove himself. He was assigned as an observer.
He praised California for having mostly paved roads, while admonishing a long stretch of derelict roads through Utah and Nevada. Take that, Utah, California number one! Hoo, hoo, hoo! Eisenhower reported that many times roads were so narrow that oncoming traffic had to run off the road to make way for the wide military vehicles. And bridges were so low that their trucks couldn’t fit under. In fact, the truck train broke 88 total bridges along the way, which they then had to fix. All in all, the expedition took 56 days. Mechanical failures and unforeseen delays meant that, after everything was calculated, the convoy averaged miles per hour, which is still faster than I can run. But what the journey lacked in speed and consistency, they gained in priceless insight. Ike Eisenhower and the government now knew what it would take to build a system of highways that would connect all the states. But the U.S. Interstate Highway System would still be decades away. In 1922, the Bureau of Public Roads tasked General John J. Pershing with mapping roads the Bureau considered necessary for national defense. The U.S. poured money into construction of roads and highways and upgrading already existing ones. In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads a hand-drawn map showing eight superhighway corridors of study.
Oh, okay, so when F.D.R. draws a map, he’s a hero of the highway system, but when I do it, people say it’s a hazard to hide eggs around the workplace. It’s a double standard! Remember that kid, Ike, from before? He stuck with his army job and got promoted to, wait for it, Supreme Commander. This time it was for World War Two. As Hitler’s armies shriveled back into Germany like a cold foreskin, Eisenhower and the Allied forces followed by way of the German Autobahn. He even stated in his memoirs, “Dearest Wilfred, “I had seen the superlative system of German Autobahn, “the national highways crossing that country.” (laughs) He doesn’t sound like that at all. A few years after World War Two, that unlucky 29-year old who couldn’t go to World War One became the U.S President. With him, he took the knowledge he’d gained from his transcontinental convoy and the German Autobahn. And in 1956 he helped pass the Federal Aid Highway Act, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, defense being a key word.
Eisenhower experienced how quickly his army could be resupplied using the Autobahn while in Europe, and saw that U.S. highways were lacking that conformity and efficiency. Soon after Eisenhower took office, Joseph Stalin bit the dust, and old Nikki Khrushchev took power over Communist Russia. The Russians started exploding atomic bombs, and what we now know as the Cold War began. The U.S., along with a lot of the world, became paranoid that a nuke-wielding country was going to explode them, and national defense became a top priority. The Interstate Act was a way to standardize travel and secure defense routes in the mainland U.S. in case of a national emergency. Construction began immediately after the signing. Three states with nothing better to do all claimed to have the first Interstate Highway.
Go Steelers. In addition to the creation of jobs, small cities in metropolitan areas which were historically isolated were now seeing a little more action. Damn, Akron, you been hitting the gym or something? (laughs) Construction of the Interstates wasn’t all peachy, though. Displacement by the sometimes 10-lane highways were enormous and destroyed entire neighborhoods. In cities like Memphis, D.C. and New York city, construction had to be abandoned because of local opposition. They just stopped building the highway, which is why sometimes you’ll see a highway that just ends awkwardly, like most of my dates. Numbering of the Interstates is federally standardized. Primary Interstates are assigned numbers less than 100. Auxiliary highways that are offshoots of primary highways are assigned numbers greater than 100.
Of course, there are some exceptions to the numbering system, but this video is already too long, so I’ll just leave it to the experts in the comments section. The U.S. Interstate System may have been modeled partly after the Autobahn, but unlike the Autobahn, there isn’t stretch of the U.S. Interstate System that doesn’t have a speed limit. Maybe we should take a tip from Germany and abolish speed limits on the long stretches of nothingness. And yes, I’m talking about Nebraska. Go Huskers. Millions of drivers hop on the Interstates every day to travel for work, fun, or to return a lost briefcase to Miss Samsonite. If you live in the U.S., everything you have ever bought has traveled on an Interstate. National franchises followed the highway system, giving birth to cities that had never existed before, simply for the fact that they were in proximity to an Interstate. The U.S. Interstate System is expansive, and although it’s caused quite a bit of turmoil during its construction, it’s essential in connecting our great country. No matter how you chop it up, the Interstate System has helped cities grow, helped people travel and commute, and even created industries. Hell, everything that you have ever bought in the U.S. has traveled on an Interstate.
Keywords: the highway system, Accident Attorney, good roads, interstate highway, the bureau of public roads