What Is the History of the Interstate Highway System?

Read our guide to the history of interstate highway system for a look at what came before it and how it developed.

What Is the History of the Interstate Highway System?

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 in that year, which promoted construction of a standardized and efficient interstate network of freeways. Earlier highways that connected states had existed in a less uniform manner since the 1910s. These early developments were spurned by the introduction of affordable, mass-produced automobiles starting in 1908.

In the rest of the article, we are going to take a deeper look at the history of Interstate Highway System by examining what the United States had before the introduction of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and why it was needed, the design of post-1956 freeways, the years of construction, and whether the system will be expanding in the future.

What Was There Before the Interstate Highway System?

Automobiles as we understand them were an invention of the 19th century, but as can be expected with brand new technology at such a great leap, adoption was not instant. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were no more than a few thousand motorized vehicles pottering along American roads.

This small number of vehicles was reflected in the infrastructure that they used. It was neither feasible nor necessary to have sprawling road networks from coast to coast, and so the roads of those years would be unrecognizable by modern standards.

Early Rudimentary Infrastructure

Although asphalt had already been invented and was in fact even used in parts of the United States of America like Newark and Washington, D.C., it was an exceptionally rare sight. This is a far cry from the expectations we have today about all but the most rural of roads.

Most of the roads in America at the dawn of the 20th century were either made of packed dirt or often not even that. In more opulent or important parts of cities, like Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., exceptions could be made, but they were only exceptions. Outside of towns, paving could basically be written off as non-existent.

This is only one part of the greater infrastructural inadequacy. Driving on poor roads was something that you could endure if you wanted to, but you could run into much worse problems. For instance, gas stations were largely confined to sizable settlements, meaning long-distance driving was a huge gamble.

Street signs were also not to be expected outside of towns. If you knew your way around, this would not present much of a problem, but if you are driving between counties or between states, you could find yourself lost very easily.

Combine the lack of street signs with the lack of gas stations and finish it off with the absence of rest stops, and you have a recipe for disaster for long-distance motoring. This was acceptable at the time because people did not need to drive far.

Increasing Supply of Drivers and Demand for Infrastructure

This earlier situation changed when Henry Ford introduced mass production and a number of other elements to his business model and, for the first time in human history, made cars the kind of thing that any common working man could afford.

The very first assembly line began development in 1908 and achieved its end goal by 1913. The Ford Motor Company did not need to wait for this final year to make use of this new manufacturing method, however. The Model T, the first mass-produced car, managed to sell ten thousand times over in its first year alone.

This production model was such a roaring success, that Ford was even able to lower the sale price from $825 to $575 in only four years, coming in even before the assembly line was perfected.

In a span of only a small number of years, the United States went from a country where cars were a rare luxury to one in which they were normal. Unfortunately, this created a very heavy demand for the appropriate infrastructure in a very short time.

Early Numbered Highways in the United States

A very high proportion of the earliest roads in the United States were privately constructed by parties that believed their existence in those locations could bring them greater profits. This was true at the time with very specialized use for motor vehicles, but once they became commonplace, two problems arose.

The first problem was that use of roads became significantly heavier, which meant that repairs had to be more frequent. More frequent repairs equated to more money being spent on repairs, and these private roads for public use were no longer profitable.

The second problem is that with ordinary people owning cars and driving, the demands for where roads needed to be located became very different. These new demands couldn’t be met by any one business that would benefit from fulfilling them, but businesses would, as a collective, benefit.

The solution to this was for a large array of interests, including automobile manufacturers, housing developers in suburban regions, and larger retailers, to convince government to pick up the mantle and lay down blacktop as a matter of public interest.

A number of acts were passed in Washington, D.C. to enable the federal government to assist state and local government with road construction. The first of these was the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which set aside funding to offer states a 1:1 match in cost for new road construction.

Why Was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 Needed?

Although it is a myth that President Dwight Eisenhower conceived the Interstate Highway System, his input is responsible for a lot of what we recognize in it today due to a number of issues that he recognized.

Because the highways before the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 were all built by the states or local governments, they were lacking in standardization. This meant that drivers would have some difficulty when travelling state to state, having to intuit new designs, layouts and rules on the spot or do research beforehand.

President Eisenhower wanted to tackle another issue that he had identified, which was the low efficiency of the existing network. Because what came before had not been planned on a federal level, these networks did not offer the best and fastest way to travel between two points in different states.

Finally, the new system would offer a way for people to evacuate quickly and safely from cities that would come under nuclear threat. This was of great concern during the Cold War, which is likely why the prominence of this justification has been exaggerated over the years.

President Eisenhower, who had served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, had been inspired by many elements of the Reichsautobahn system in Germany at the time, and these made their way into the history of Interstate Highway System.

What Was Significant About the Design of the New Interstate Highways?

When the Interstate Highway System was introduced, it brought with it a set of standards, some of which have been amended since their introduction.

One change that lined up with Eisenhower’s wish for a more efficient road network was a higher speed limit and the capabilities to support this. Although we cannot assign a single speed limit to Interstates due to the variation in them, they will tend to be on the high end of national speed limits.

Another major change which facilitates efficiency, this time by reducing the potential for traffic slowdowns dramatically, is the absence of intersections on the same level. By using connections in the form of onramps and offramps and overpasses and underpasses, the Interstate Highway System eliminated the need for traffic lights, stop signs, or any other type of intersection that necessitates a dead stop in traffic.

What Is the History of the Construction of the Interstate Highway System?

The states of Missouri, Kansas and Pennsylvania have all made claims to being the first to house interstate highways, but it is difficult to gauge exactly which is the first because many parts of the system had been built before the act passed in 1956.

Much of the construction happened over the course of the next couple of decades. This ended in 1992, when a section of I-70 in Colorado was completed. The program lasted almost three times as long as it had been slated for and ended up spending more than quadruple its original budget of $25 billion without adjusting for inflation.

Will Any More Work Be Done on the Interstate Highway System?

Even though the Interstate Highway System was officially completed in 1992, there is potential for future developments of it.

By and large, additions to the Interstate system will comprise of existing highways that would have been upgraded to meet the standards needed. This means that the introduction of new Interstate highways would not necessarily mean the creation of entire new routes or the construction of new roads.

Final Thoughts

Although it is a myth that President Dwight Eisenhower is responsible for the entire history of Interstate Highway System, we have learned today how his input took what existed before it and shaped what came after, giving us the network as we know it today.