Atlantic Cities

What the Interstate Highway System Should Have Looked Like

What the Interstate Highway System Should Have Looked Like
Shutterstock

This anecdote has been told at Cities before but it bears repeating: Eisenhower himself didn't realize the Interstate Highway System would cut through American cities until a few years after construction began. Ike had wanted a national road network like the one he'd seen in Germany during World War II. But he'd also wanted these roads to stop at the doorsteps of cities, not push right past.

That story comes to mind reading a recent paper from University of Southern California scholar Marlon Boarnet in this month's Transport Policy. Boarnet outlines a series of lessons that developing countries might learn from America's great road expansion experiment. By far the most compelling is his suggestion that the Interstate Highway System should have been two distinct systems: one running between cities, and another running within them.

The U.S. experience illustrates that national transportation planning is best conceived as two systems — one inter-metropolitan and one intra-metropolitan — and that the institutions, goals, methods, and financing instruments for those two systems should differ.

Boarnet argues that one branch of the Interstate Highway System should have been reserved entirely for intercity roads. These would be highways running through remote areas with cheap land and sparse populations, so it would make sense to prioritize traffic flow and vehicle capacity. Paying for this branch with a pooled fuel tax would also make sense, because the benefits of low-cost transport and trade redound on everyone.

The other branch of the system would be made up of intracity roads, those running within the city limits. Given the high cost of land and density of population in cities, creating sufficient road capacity and swift vehicle flow would become a pipe dream, so the wiser aim would be transport balance. The logical way to finance these roads, given the great demand for space on them, would be with direct user fees — ideally priced to reduce congestion.

The two systems could even be governed separately. A national authority could oversee the intercity system, deciding on route location and managing maintenance programs. Meanwhile, the intracity system could be organized by metropolitan authorities capable of designing the network to fit local needs. Some level of coordination would be needed at the city limits, of course, but that partnership should give both systems equal importance.

A key lesson from the U.S. experience, writes Boarnet, is that building a national road system should not mean overriding a local metropolitan one:

The development of the U.S. Interstate Highway System essentially took transportation planning away from the nation's cities, and during the construction of the Interstate Highways the planning for the metropolitan portion of the network was too distant from cities and too centralized at the national level.

You might wonder why the Interstate Highway System became something that Eisenhower, its great champion, never wanted it to become. For one thing, officials felt the interstates had to run through cities for urban-minded members of Congress to give the plan their vote. Then there was the money; with the feds paying 90 cents of every interstate dollar, any calls for other types of transportation structures fell on deaf ears.

And of course there was the simple fact that officials and opinion leaders generally failed to anticipate the negative impacts of running highways through cities. Few realized the system would destroy the character and cohesion of urban neighborhoods, for instance, or that it would breed an intransigent car-first engineering mindset. To be sure, the Interstate Highway System did an enormous amount of good for the United States, but in retrospect the decision to thread it through cities was a great mistake.

Top image: leungchopan/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion