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date: 23 August 2017

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and Highways

Summary and Keywords

By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.

Keywords: roads, streets, highways, bridges, automobiles, transportation, traffic, bicycles, pedestrians, streetcars

The social processes of which history is made depend on roads, streets, and other infrastructure. They sustain trade and travel, and their development imperfectly reflects and shapes the growth of the society that builds them. Yet roads and streets also disrupt balances of power and favor some at the expense of others, and thereby divide as well as unite the societies they serve. In these respects, the study of roads and streets sheds light on social groups and forces too often overlooked in national-scale histories.

Native, Colonial, and Early U.S. Roads and Streets

Roads and trails predate the arrival of Europeans and Africans in North America. Systems of trails connected native traders; some of these routes, such as the famous Natchez Trace, were later adapted by the continent’s newcomers as early roads. For long-distance travel, however, such roads were poor alternatives to coastal and river traffic, then the real sinews of commerce. But roads could reach where waterways could not, and postal and military needs justified roads that commerce could not. Some roads, such as the Natchez Trace, served traffic returning upriver. In Spanish California, El Camino Real evolved as a link between missions.

After the Revolutionary War, vast public lands north and west of the Ohio River gave the U.S. government a revenue opportunity. Through the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress applied a grid to the land (see Figure 1), so that it could then be parceled out and sold to speculators and settlers.1 To make the Northwest more accessible, in 1805 Congress committed funds from western land sales for a road from Cumberland, Maryland, into Ohio. By the 1830s the National Road reached central Ohio. Most roads, however, remained local or state affairs; by 1840, even the so-called National Road was no longer federally funded.2

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Land Ordinance of 1785 imposed a grid on the Old Northwest; it later extended into most of the West. The grid established parcel and township borders, and determined the locations of most roads. The diagram shows one township of 36 sections plus adjoining sections in neighboring townships.

Courtesy of the U.S. Interior Bureau of Land Management.

Yet local and state governments lacked the means to build sufficient roads, leaving an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Chartered turnpikes (toll roads) in Britain and toll bridges in America established the example for later American toll roads. In 1794, the first American turnpike linked Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia, 62 miles away. Turnpike companies soon proliferated.3

Canals and, after 1840, railroads did not so much deter road building as reorient it. Where canals and railways did not reach, roads were needed. In lumber-producing states, especially New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, entrepreneurs laid private plank roads to feed toll-paying traffic to canals and railroads. In just seven years, 3,500 miles of plank roads were laid in New York, until the boom ended in 1853. Such roads were expensive and degraded quickly, but they could manage heavy freight (such as milk).4

19th-Century Streets

The distinction between roads and streets has come to seem minor; streets might even now be defined, almost correctly, as urban roads. Yet the words are distinct because they once defined quite distinct things. Like roads, 19th-century streets were transportation conduits, but they were much more besides. Streets were public spaces, markets, promenades, playgrounds, and parade grounds. They were at least as much like city parks as they were like rural roads. Their users were regulated far more by social norms than by formal rules.5

Most American towns, particularly in the Midwest, are laid out at least partly on a gridiron street plan. Such grids reversed the typical European plan in which construction shapes the streets; on American grids, the streets usually came first. Indeed, streets were often planned and named long before anything resembling an actual street existed. Philadelphia’s 1682 street plan (see Figure 2) was a pioneer in this respect. In 1811 such planning reached its most ambitious form in the Commissioners’ Plan of New York, which laid out 2,000 city blocks of what was then still rural land.6

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 2. Philadelphia’s plan of 1682 was an early model for the typical American urban street grid. This map by John Hills shows Philadelphia in 1796.

Streets’ transportation functions grew more important as they linked the steam railway depots to their greater regions.7 Especially before the 1880s and in the largest cities, wherever nearby property owners could not support high assessments, streets could be squalid.8 In the second half of the 19th century, however, a sanitation movement improved some conditions, and streets accommodated a lengthening list of city services: storm water and sewer drainage, fresh water supply, telegraph and telephone service, street railways, and finally “light” (electric power).9

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 3. A typical main thoroughfare of the mid-19th century, in this case Louisville’s Main Street in 1846.

Courtesy of the National Archives Catalog, ID 513346.

Transformation: 1890–1910

Beginning about 1890, several related trends accelerated the transformation of American roads and streets, even before automobiles appeared in numbers. These included rural free delivery, mass bicycling, the “good roads” movement, the proliferation of electric railways, and the City Beautiful movement.

Horse-drawn streetcars were common in the densest cities by the mid-19th century.10 While New York was the leader in urban rail transportation, introducing elevated steam railroads (1868) and subways (1904), practical electric street railways were introduced first in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888. In the 1890s such railways proliferated, promoting radial urbanization even in small cities. Line extensions, fueled by land speculation, often preceded and stimulated real estate development, leaving a lasting legacy in the form of “streetcar suburbs.”11

Unusual in 1890, bicycling was ubiquitous by the middle of the decade. Bicyclists, many of them well-to-do, promoted paved streets and rural “good roads.” They even achieved some dedicated, high-grade bicycle paths. Organized as the League of American Wheelmen, bicyclists were influential. In rural areas, the good roads movement was also promoted by postal service demands, and particularly by rural free delivery. By 1900, however, bicycling was already in sharp decline. The reasons for the retreat are contested. Automobiles apparently did not displace bicycles; they were still very scarce when the cycling boom was in decline. Electric streetcars surely account for some of the decline.12

Taking their inspiration from European examples, and especially from Baron Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards, elites in American cities rebuilt segments of them in grand fashion. The first great American example was Chicago’s temporary “White City,” built for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Its revivalist architectural styles, straight vistas, and broad avenues found imitators in American cities large and small. Washington, D.C.’s McMillan Plan (1901) was also an influential early example. Broad streets, already common in most American cities, were modified. New boulevards were cut or planned.13 Such streets, generally commodious and well paved, were relatively welcoming to automobiles as they appeared in city streets in 1900. Nevertheless, with their frequent intersections and streetcar tracks, they were not designed as motor thoroughfares, and were creatures more of the 19th century than of the 20th.

The 1890s were thus years of rapid change. Rural roads were extended and improved, typically with macadam pavements. Urban streets were better paved as well, often widened, with provision for diverse new city services and sanitation. Nevertheless, by 1900 neither urban streets nor rural roads were well suited to the automobile traffic that would soon arrive. In the next decade, in the era of expensive “pleasure cars,” automobiles were scarce. The problem of adjustment to the new vehicles was generally understood not as a matter of adapting streets to new motor cars, but of making the new vehicles conform to streets as they were. Though a few automobile “scorchers” and “joy drivers” menaced the streets, most well-to-do motorists conformed to prevailing speeds. In some large cities, especially New York, fleets of slow electric motor cars served as taxis and delivery vehicles.14

On rural roads as in cities, cars had to accommodate conditions as they were. Nearly every motorist carried one or more spare tires. Utilitarian driving was mostly a rural affair. The Ford Model T succeeded not only for its economy, but also because it was designed for poor rural roads. Its large wheel diameter, high clearance, and high torque suited it not for speed but for ruts.15

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 4. In the 1910s and 1920s, pedestrians, streetcars, and automobiles competed for street space. This is Detroit in 1917.

Courtesy of the Detroit News.

Though in 1910 motor cars were no longer rare, roads and streets were still pre-automotive routes. Motorists and their vehicles had to adapt to them. Rural motorists who refused to adapt found themselves stranded, looking for a farmer willing to hitch a team to the motor car. City motorists who refused to drive slowly menaced less themselves or each other than the non-motoring majority in the streets, earning them widespread hostility.16

The financing of roads and streets constrained what they could be. As private toll roads declined, rural roads were paid for primarily through state and local bond issues, which yielded variable and often limited funds. In cities, most funds for streets came from property assessments, which could be ample only in the “best” neighborhoods.

City Streets and the Automobile

In cities, however, financing was by no means the major constraint on automobiles. By the prevailing norms of street use, autos were ill suited to streets. Neither by law nor by custom were streets primarily for cars. To the contrary, as the newcomers, motorists’ claim to street space was tenuous and vulnerable. Streets were public, shared spaces (see Figure 4). Though pedestrians preferred the cleaner sidewalks, they roamed streets at will, and in so doing they had the law on their side. Local and state statutes, common law traditions, and customs favored no class of user over another. In general, users kept to the right and were expected to avoid obstructing or endangering others. The location of streetcar tracks both promoted and legitimized pedestrians’ use of the full width and length of streets. Because tracks followed the centerlines of streets, streetcar riders crossed streets wherever they could. While judges and other authorities typically favored movement over stasis in streets, they did not value speed. Motorists driving much faster than other vehicles were not only violating the very low speed limits of the era, they were also the objects of general disapproval. In the conventional wisdom of the era, because motorists were operators of inherently dangerous and space-hungry machines, they bore a responsibility to drive them prudently. When motorists failed these responsibilities—in official courts or in those of public opinion—they were judged harshly. While motorists met some hostility in rural areas as well, typically they were more immediately accepted there.17

American police departments responded to proliferation of motor cars by trying to make them conform to the status quo. States imposed low speed limits in city streets, and often permitted local authorities to set them still lower, especially at intersections. A limit of ten miles per hour was typical. Though enforcement of such limits was impractical, police had other ways to slow cars down. A favorite practice was to require left-turning vehicles to pass a “silent policeman” (a post or column) or other object at the center point of an intersection before turning. Hence left turners, compelled to make a very sharp turn, almost had to come to a stop. The consequent slowing of traffic was, to police, a plus.18

Nothing earned cars enmity in cities as much as the injuries and deaths attributed to them. Especially in the early years, automobiles were dangerous. By 1923, annual fatalities attributable to motor vehicles were at about 15,000, even though most American families still owned no car. In cities, most of the fatalities were not drivers or their passengers, but pedestrians; in the larger cities, about three-fourths of the people cars killed were on foot. Among pedestrians killed, about half were eighteen or younger. While later generations, raised to regard streets as places primarily for cars, would have assigned parents and pedestrians much of the blame, in the early 1920s blame was overwhelmingly directed at cars and their drivers. The conventional wisdom of 1920, reflected in newspapers and in popular fiction, treated speed as inherently dangerous; automobiles, as fast vehicles, were menaces to safety. Safety publicity, newspaper columns and cartoons, letters to editors, and judges’ lectures from the bench tended to agree in this condemnation. Instead of objecting, automobile clubs, the voice of their motorist members, tended to urge cautious driving so as to limit the damage. Such perceptions were barriers to the urban future of the automobile and to the automotive street.19

By the norms of the 1920s, cars were also prodigal hoarders of scarce street space. Moving and parked cars congested streets. Many among the first generation of traffic engineers, whose diverse backgrounds included municipal engineering and electric railways, regarded cars as poorly suited to dense cities, preferring to discourage driving in cities—for example, through curb parking bans—than to accommodate cities to cars. Pedestrians and streetcar riders complained that automobiles were depriving them of their rights to the street.20

The Struggle for the Car’s Future, 1920–1940

Hence, in the conventional wisdom of the teens and early 1920s, automobiles took the brunt of the blame for both traffic casualties and traffic congestion. To clear their own names, automotive interest groups joined in efforts to prevent accidents and relieve congestion. Local auto clubs, dealers, taxicab companies, and other motor fleet operators supported and joined in public safety campaigns, and participated in coalitions of local interest groups seeking ways to promote efficient traffic flow. For example, local automotive interest groups urged motorists to drive with caution, and they might back curb parking bans if these promised to improve traffic capacity. In both efforts, however, automotive interest groups risked lending their support to those who blamed cars and who wanted to restrict them. By the early 1920s, many in businesses related to the auto industry perceived a threat in these efforts.21

In 1923 and 1924, fearing for the future of their business in cities, automotive interest groups withdrew their support from mainstream efforts to prevent accidents and relieve congestion, seeking instead to redefine both problems in ways that were more consistent with a bright future for cars in cities. The change in course arose from several causes, but from two in particular. First, disappointing sales in cities in 1923 and 1924, despite a strong economy, convinced manufacturers and dealers that traffic jams were making cars unattractive in cities, and that the popular version of the safety problem was giving cars a bad image. More specifically, many cities threatened drastic restriction of cars to protect pedestrians (especially children). In many cities there were calls to equip automobiles with speed governors that would limit them to 20 or 25 miles per hour (mph). In Cincinnati this threat took the form of a petition drive in favor of a speed governor ordinance on the ballot; 42,000 Cincinnatians joined in the demand. If approved by voters, the initiative would limit cars by law to 25 mph; enforcement would be automatic because the cars would have to be equipped with a mechanical speed governor. Local automotive interest groups and their allies quickly organized a massive “Vote No” effort, securing backing from the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (NACC), the trade association representing major manufacturers except for Ford. The ordinance was crushed at the polls.22

Facing common threats, automotive interest groups thereafter remained more united, better organized, and better led. They more often used an old term in the industry as a name for their united effort. At the American Automobile Association (AAA), president Thomas P. Henry spoke of “organized motordom”; to others in the coalition, “motordom” was sufficient. Motordom’s leaders were AAA and NACC, but they worked closely with many other organizations. Their common cause was to redefine the problems of safety and congestion. By the conventional wisdom, speed and therefore automobiles were inherently dangerous; pedestrians were victims, and therefore not guilty. In 1923 and 1924, NACC developed a plan to shift blame for traffic casualties from speed to recklessness. By redirecting blame at a minority of reckless drivers, they hoped to exonerate the prudent majority and to reconcile safety with speed. Unlike speed, recklessness was a fault of which even pedestrians could be guilty, and NACC, through a new traffic safety department, developed a national campaign to shift blame to jaywalking pedestrians. By redefining congestion as insufficient road capacity, they hoped to shift blame from excessive cars to insufficient roads. The AAA and its member clubs made themselves leaders in school safety education, teaching a generation of children that “streets are for autos.”23

Thus motordom’s strategy was to seek to redirect blame for accidents from speed to recklessness (among both motorists and pedestrians), and congestion as insufficient road capacity. Given the strength of the status quo, however, both components of the strategy were long shots. But in the 1920s, motordom struck a rich reserve of funds that strengthened its cause. Proposed in the teens and first implemented in Oregon in 1919, gasoline taxes could yield prodigious revenues. For a few years, most automotive interest groups resisted gas tax proposals as a grab for the motorist’s wallet. but as motordom united in common cause, it saw advantages in gas taxes. In state after state, motordom agreed to gas taxes in return for guarantees that the revenues would be committed to road construction and maintenance. With motordom’s backing, by 1924 most states had a gas tax; by the end of 1929, all 48 states, plus the District of Columbia, had one. Despite widespread “diversion” (expenditure of gas tax revenues on anything except roads), gas taxes yielded a flood of state road funds. As roads were ostensibly bought and paid for by motorists, they could be designed primarily with motorists in mind. While local streets remained local problems, state highways funded by gas taxes were entering America cities by the late 1920s. Symbolic of the new motor age, New Jersey opened the “Clover Leaf,” the first completely grade-separated interchange for motor traffic, at Woodbridge, just outside Staten Island, in 1929. It represented a triumph of motordom’s precepts that speed can be safe and that high-capacity road design can relieve congestion.24

In the 1930s, motordom formed networks of alliances with contractors, shippers, and state and federal agencies to secure its versions of traffic flow and traffic safety. While particular congestion problems might be relieved in many ways, the prevailing assumption was that congestion meant insufficient road capacity warranting new construction; accidents demanded new capacity designed to prevent accidents through grade separations, median strips, shoulders, and wider curves. In the federal Bureau of Public Roads, engineers developed the standards of the motor age. Through the American Association of State Highway Officials, state highway departments worked closely with motordom to formalize such standards.25

As for safety, with help from motordom an entirely new way to prevent traffic casualties took hold. Into the 1920s, speed on roads was typically regarded as inherently dangerous; efforts to prevent crashes were almost one and the same with efforts to curtail speed. In the mid-1920s, motordom took this version of traffic safety head on, proposing instead that recklessness, not speed, was the real culprit, and that modern road design could make speed safe. In the 1930s, engineers, often working on projects funded by gasoline taxes intended to serve motorists, promised “highway safety”: accident prevention through the design of motor roads. Forgiving curves, grade separations, shoulders, and median strips would prevent collisions and make speed safe. Meanwhile, the automobile industry took the lead in highway safety; in 1937 it combined smaller efforts in the Automotive Safety Foundation. The ASF was the leading authority on highway safety into the 1960s and helped to define an approach to safety that prevented accidents by targeting reckless drivers and by designing roads for safe driving at speed.26

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 5. Before the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, some toll roads served long-distance motor traffic. This is the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1942, two years after it opened. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8d06851

In the 1930s, gas taxes, fees, and federal and state relief funds supported more construction of motor highways than ever before, particularly near the major cities of the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and southern California.27 Nevertheless, the projects were very modest by the standards of later generations. The Great Depression suppressed driving, gas tax revenues, and the market for automobiles. Some new toll roads—in particular the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Figure 5), which opened in 1940—suggested what was possible where traffic would pay.28 Especially in the late 1930s, however, automotive interest groups were planning for a much more ambitious future. Shell Oil commissioned the theater designer Norman Bel Geddes to design a model of the “city to tomorrow”—a motor age city that drivers could cross at speed without ever encountering a red light. General Motors saw an opportunity for something much greater and put Bel Geddes to work on a gargantuan model of the “World of Tomorrow” (1960), beginning with what he had made for Shell. This became the most popular exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940.29

Motordom’s influence was also felt in more official channels. The National Highway Users Conference, a coalition of pro-highway interest groups led by General Motors and the American Automobile Association, was organized in 1932 to promote ample, toll-free, long-range motor highways. NHUC championed toll-free roads funded by tax dollars, and found a willing partner in this endeavor in the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR). The success of NHUC and other highway promoters in casting taxpayer-funded motor highways as “free roads” was attested by a major report BPR submitted to Congress in 1939. Toll Roads and Free Roads recommended a system of toll-free, federally supported “free roads,” to be preferred over toll roads, to cross the length and breadth of the 48 states.30

Toward the Interstate Highways

For a decade following World War II, federal expenditures on roads were modest; roads remained overwhelmingly a state and local responsibility. Among the most commodious highways, many were toll roads. The National Highway Users Conference worked with interest groups in the construction industry to depict toll roads as a threat to “free roads.” Meanwhile, General Motors, Ford, and others with a stake in toll-free roads produced films, booklets, and other publicity to sell a major national highway program to the general public, mainly on grounds of congestion relief.31

The Eisenhower administration worked with interest groups to propose a program they would support. President Eisenhower personally promoted the program both as a means to relieve congestion and as a way to save lives through safe road design. In 1954 he said that “metropolitan area congestion” could be “solved” by “a grand plan for a properly articulated highway system.”32 Later, using an Automotive Safety Foundation claim, he announced that interstate highways would “save four thousand American lives a year.”33 In this effort, Eisenhower followed the advice of economist Noobar Danielian, who told the president that the program must be designed so as “to hold together the natural friends of an expanded federal highway program.” With “concessions to proponents of highways,” the “strength of pro-highway forces” would negate the “opposition of the railroads.”34 Eisenhower put a personal friend, general Lucius Clay, at the head of a committee of businessmen and charged them with proposing a federal highway program. Over the following year the committee built a foundation of support among industries “interested in highway development.”35 Getting their support entailed forgoing toll roads in favor of a mostly toll-free interstate highway system, except that those segments of the system that already charged tolls would be permitted to retain them. Most of the system, however, would be funded by a new federal Highway Trust Fund, sustained by gasoline and other motor excises and committed to right-of-way acquisition and road construction. With this fund the federal government would bear 90 percent of the construction costs of the new interstate highway system. The consequent Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, allocating $25 billion over ten years for a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, passed with bipartisan support.36

The Highway Act of 1956, in combination with state highway projects, transformed American social geography.37 Low gasoline prices, massive highway projects, and suburbanization helped make driving most Americans’ primary mode of transportation. They supported social trends such as shopping malls, school district consolidation, and “white flight” from cities. Unlike other highway programs in other countries, where the major through roads tended to skirt the fringes of cities, the interstate highways entered American cities, often going right through them. Ample roads poured cars into cities, where parking was scarce. Taking advantage of the opportunity, property owners quickly demolished buildings to replace them with surface parking lots. Aerial photography captures a proliferation of surface lots in the 1950s and 1960s. The scale of destruction drew harsh criticism almost immediately. Citizens’ groups fought some projects. Critics such as William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and Lewis Mumford decried the destruction.38 In response, pro-highway groups characterized the demand for roads as the free choice of a free people, and the critics as distrustful of democracy. To them, “Americans’ love affair with the automobile” justified the projects; elitist critics would have to get used to it.39

In the 1960s, however, resistance to urban segments of the interstate highways grew into a “freeway revolt.” Highways were typically routed through poorer and blacker districts. Many neighborhoods, such as Overtown (Miami), Paradise Valley (Detroit), and the Inner Core (Milwaukee), were virtually destroyed. Segments of urban interstates were also planned through more affluent neighborhoods, but there, local opposition more often stopped them.40

Less spectacular, but at least as important, local roads and streets changed as well. Beginning in the 1930s, but especially after World War II, engineering standards adapted roads and streets to the governing assumption that moving motor vehicles was their primary purpose, that speed was desirable, and that roads could be designed to make speed safe for the occupants of vehicles. On postwar roads and streets, the consequence was less frequent intersections, lanes of ample width, and multiple lanes even for local roads. Local zoning ordinances typically contributed to the trend by making off-street parking provision a responsibility of retailers and employers. The consequent “free” parking incentivized driving.41 Meanwhile, other means of mobility generally grew more difficult. Busy streets with faster vehicles, infrequent intersections, and the greater distances between stores separated by large parking lots made walking and bicycling less convenient and sometimes hazardous. For some, such as children and the frail, walking as a means of getting around became a practical impossibility. Low-density development also made bus service less cost-effective.42

Both safety and congestion relief were elusive targets. For decades, the Automotive Safety Foundation took the position that safe road design and the exclusion of reckless drivers would make roads safe. The vehicles themselves, ASF experts held, were already safe. But as driving—and driving more—became the norm, casualties rose. Annual fatalities passed 40,000 in 1963, then exceeded 50,000 in 1966. Consequent pressures compelled change. If collisions could not be prevented, “crashworthy” cars would have to be designed. In such vehicles, passengers wearing seat belts could hope to survive crashes that would otherwise have been fatal. Since then, while total annual casualties (about 33,000 in 2014) remained disturbingly high, the risk per vehicle mile has fallen sharply.43

In the 1950s, highway projects were often sold as ways to “solve” congestion. Except on the few toll roads, however, drivers paid no direct charge to use a road, and thus any additional capacity invited additional demand. And as public policy neglected alternatives to driving, for many the choice to use the additional capacity became more a compulsion. Capacity expansions stimulated more driving and diverted more travelers from alternatives. In short, the more public policy attempted to relieve congestion, the more it stimulated driving.44

Capacity expansion through construction has remained the predominant response to congestion. Since the 1970s, however, U.S. transportation policy has experimented, but with limited success. High-occupancy vehicle lanes and carpooling programs were generally disappointing. Digital electronics have simplified tolling and enabled innovations such as “high-occupancy toll” (HOT). Using mobile phones, commuters in suburban Washington, D.C., devised their own ride-sharing system called “slugging.” Self-driving and shared vehicles may yield greater spatial efficiencies. Nevertheless, toll-free access to taxpayer-funded roads remains by far the predominant model.

Since 2000, transportation officials’ hold on transportation planning has been steadily challenged from within and without. The World Wide Web has empowered advocates of alternative transportation, and transportation officials have begun, in modest and piecemeal ways, to adapt. New York City set an example. Under mayor Michael Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan led the New York City Department of Transportation onto an independent path that welcomed pedestrian districts and protected bicycle lanes, and that introduced bus rapid transit. Under mayor Bill de Blasio the trend continued; in 2014 the city introduced a citywide 25 mph default speed limit to make the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. In these respects New York was breaking from decades of design that favored drivers and that sought to make speed safe. Other U.S. cities have been watching and learning.

Elsewhere, street railways, with the assistance of public subsidies, have staged a remarkable comeback since the late 1980s; by 2010 about thirty-five U.S. cities had light rail systems, and more have been implemented since. Their cost efficacy is a matter of controversy. Critics charge that they do not pay their own way; defenders reply that they cannot because they compete against drivers who do not pay their own way either.

Infrastructure: Streets, Roads, and HighwaysClick to view larger

Figure 6. By the 21st century, new values were influencing infrastructure. Tilikum Crossing, which opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2015, serves light rail, buses, bicycles and pedestrians, but no passenger cars.

Photograph courtesy of Joseph Thiebes.

Perhaps the most fitting symbol of the changing direction of road infrastructure is a new bridge in Portland, Oregon. Tilikum Crossing (Figure 6), opened in 2015, carries pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, and light rail—but not motorists. A decade or more ago, a $135-million bridge that would serve the traveling public but carry no cars was scarcely conceivable. Tilikum Crossing may someday be recognized as a turning point in the history of road infrastructure in the United States.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars of American history have taken much more interest in 20th-century roads and streets than in their colonial and 19th-century predecessors. A useful overview of the social-geographical expansion of European colonial powers and of the early United States into North America, which depended in part upon roads, is found in the first two volumes of D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America.45 Apart from specialized studies,46 much of the scholarship is embedded in larger works on government and commerce, such as in books by Peter Onuf on the Northwest Ordinance and by Brian Balogh on government support for roads and other internal improvements.47 For work on the National Road and on turnpikes, readers should consult the anthology edited by Karl Raitz,48 and an article by Daniel Klein and John Majewski.49 Together with Christopher Baer, Klein and Majewski have also examined plank roads.50 William Cronon’s pathbreaking environmental history of Chicago and its vast hinterland, Nature’s Metropolis, documents the transformative power of waterways, roads, and railroads in the Midwest.51

For 19th-century streets, The Horse in the City by Clay McShane and Joel Tarr is an indispensable book.52 A collection edited by Hilary Ballon offers diverse work on New York’s influential grid plan.53 Suburbanization, in the 19th century and later, is thoroughly examined in Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier.54 Peter Baldwin captures the social and cultural life of streets in a study of Hartford.55 The transformation of city streets in the late 19th century is evident in books by John Duffy on the history of public health, and by Thomas P. Hughes and Mark Rose on electric power.56

For the transformational decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, work on roads and streets proliferates. James Flink’s 1970 book America Adopts the Automobile was long a standard work.57 By the time Flink followed it up with The Automobile Age (1988), his generally straightforward account of a gradual welcoming of the car was contested.58 Some, such as Scott Bottles, continued to emphasize the automobile’s attractions, attributing its proliferation to consumer demand among a population chafing under the limitations of the alternatives.59 Others, such as Clay McShane, presented a messier account, in which some welcomed the automobile while many others resented and resisted it as an intruder.

Particularly divisive was the question of streetcars’ demise. To Bottles and others, their decline was clearly the product of mass preference for the automobile. Other historians, such as Mark Foster, Paul Barrett, and John Fairfield, attributed streetcars’ decline to other factors, such as trends in city planning, city politics, and strategizing among automotive interest groups.60 Some have seen streetcars as casualties in a larger, implacable competition between rail and road.61 Other works trace the rise of the motor age city in America to a competition over the legitimate uses of streets. By the norms prevailing in 1910, pedestrians belonged in streets and automobiles were tolerated intruders. Following a contentious struggle among social groups, by 1930 streets were motor thoroughfares where cars unquestionably belonged. Thereafter, streets and urban roads would welcome cars and the American cities would ultimately be reconstructed to make room for them.62

For the development of the motor highway in America, Christopher Wells offers a broad, synthetic environmental history in Car Country.63 Related but more particular perspectives are available from Warren Belasco, who connects early motor roads to new kinds of recreation, and from Paul Sutter, who links roads to the popularization of notions of wilderness.64 In Republic of Driving, Cotten Seiler examines the incorporation of automobility into American notions of citizenship and freedom.65 For an in-depth study of the pioneering Lincoln Highway, readers should see Drake Hokanson’s book.66 Early motor toll roads get close study in Dan Cupper’s book on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Bruce Radde’s on the Merritt Parkway.67

As the greatest public works project in American history, the interstate highway system has attracted extensive attention among historians. In Building the American Highway System, Bruce Seely offers the essential background on Thomas MacDonald’s Bureau of Public Roads.68 The indispensable work on the political origins and development of the interstates is Mark Rose’s Interstate.69 Other historians, indebted to Seely and Rose, have brought the politics and engineering of the interstates to more popular audiences.70 By examining three cases in depth (Syracuse, Los Angeles, and Memphis), Joseph DiMento and Cliff Ellis have recently offered an in-depth, long-range study in Changing Lanes.71 Interstates’ devastation of cities still has received less attention than the subject’s importance deserves. Readers should in particular see the work of Raymond Mohl, Zachary Schrag, and Eric Avila.72

Further Reading

19th-Century Roads

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.Find this resource:

Klein, Daniel, and John Majewski. “Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America.” In Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History. Edited by Robert Whaples. EH.Net, 2008.Find this resource:

Majewski, John, Christopher Baer, and Daniel B. Klein. “Responding to Relative Decline: The Plank Road Boom of Antebellum New York.” Journal of Economic History 53.1 (1993): 106–122.Find this resource:

Raitz, Karl, ed. The National Road. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

19th-Century Streets

Baldwin, Peter C.Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850–1930. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Ballon, Hilary, ed. The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Duffy, John. The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992.Find this resource:

McShane, Clay, and Joel Tarr. The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

The 20th Century

Norton, Peter. “Four Paradigms: Traffic Safety in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Technology and Culture 56.2 (2015): 319–334.Find this resource:

Wells, Christopher. Car Country: An Environmental History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Streets, 1900–1945

Barrett, Paul. The Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900–1930. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Bottles, Scott L.Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Foster, Mark. From Streetcar to Superhighway: American City Planners and Urban Transportation, 1900–1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: American Cities and the Coming of the Automobile. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Norton, Peter. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Roads, 1900–1945

Belasco, Warren J.Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910–1945. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Berger, Michael L.The Devil Wagon in God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893–1929. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980.Find this resource:

Hokanson, Drake. The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Seely, Bruce E.Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Sutter, Paul. Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Roads and Streets Since 1945

Avila, Eric. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.Find this resource:

DiMento, Joseph F. C., and Cliff Ellis. Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Mohl, Raymond A. “The Interstates and the Cities: The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966–1973.” Journal of Policy History 20.2 (2008): 193–226.Find this resource:

Rose, Mark. Interstate: Express Highway Politics 1941–1989. Rev. ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Peter S. Onuf, Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); and Frederick D. Williams, ed., The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989).

(2.) Merritt Ierly, Traveling the National Road: Across the Centuries on America’s First Highway (Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1990); and Karl Raitz, ed., The National Road (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

(3.) Daniel Klein and John Majewski, “Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History, 2008.

(4.) John Majewski, Christopher Baer, and Daniel B. Klein, “Responding to Relative Decline: The Plank Road Boom of Antebellum New York,” Journal of Economic History 53.1 (1993): 106.

(5.) Mona Domosh, “Those ‘Gorgeous Incongruities’: Polite Politics and Public Space on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century New York City,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88.2 (1998): 209–226; and Peter Baldwin, Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850–1930 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

(6.) Hilary Ballon, ed., The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

(7.) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

(8.) Lawrence H. Larsen, “Nineteenth-Century Street Sanitation: A Study in Filth and Frustration,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 52.3 (1969): 239–247.

(9.) John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); and Mark H. Rose, Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in Urban America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).

(10.) Clay McShane and Joel Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

(11.) Charles W. Cheape, Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880–1912 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); Clifton Hood, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993); Brian J. Cudahy, Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990); and Sam Bass Warner, Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

(12.) Evan Friss, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Evan Friss, “Writing Bicycles: The Historiography of Cycling in the United States,” in Mobility in History: Yearbook of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility 6 (New York: Berghahn, 2015); Wayne E. Fuller, RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964); and Carlton Reid, Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads and Became the Pioneers of Motoring (Washington, DC: Island, 2015).

(13.) William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); and Jan Cigliano and Sarah Bradford Landau, eds., The Grand American Avenue, 1850–1920 (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994).

(14.) Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path: American Cities and the Coming of the Automobile (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); and Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

(15.) Robert Casey, The Model T: A Centennial History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

(16.) McShane, Down the Asphalt Path.

(17.) Peter Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008); Michael L. Berger, The Devil Wagon in God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893–1929 (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980).

(18.) McShane, Down the Asphalt Path; Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(19.) Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(20.) Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(21.) Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(22.) Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(23.) Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(24.) John Chynoweth Burnham, “The Gasoline Tax and the Automobile Revolution,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48.3 (1961): 435–459; Norton, Fighting Traffic; Christopher Wells, “Fuelling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of American Highway Infrastructure, 1919–1956,” Journal of American History 99 (2012): 72–81; and Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012).

(25.) Norton, Fighting Traffic; and Bruce E. Seely, Building the American Highway System: Engineers As Policy Makers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987).

(26.) Peter Norton, “Four Paradigms: Traffic Safety in the Twentieth-Century United States,” Technology and Culture 56.2 (2015): 319–334.

(27.) Mark Foster, From Streetcar to Superhighway: American City Planners and Urban Transportation, 1900–1940 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981).

(28.) Dan Cupper, The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History (Lebanon, PA: Applied Arts, 1990); and Bruce Radde, The Merritt Parkway (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

(29.) Roland Marchand, “Designers Go to the Fair II: Norman Bel Geddes, the General Motors ‘Futurama,’ and the Visit to the Factory Transformed,” Design Issues 8 (1992): 22–40.

(30.) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, Toll Roads and Free Roads (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1939); and Seely, Building the American Highway System.

(31.) Mark Rose, Interstate: Express Highway Politics 1941–1989 (rev. ed.; Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Peter Norton, “Fighting Traffic: U.S. Transportation Policy and Urban Congestion, 1955–1970,” Essays in History 38 (1996).

(32.) U.S. Congress, House, National Highway Program, 84th Congress, 1st Session, 1955, House Document No. 93, as quoted in The Eisenhower Administration, 1953–1961: A Documentary History, ed. Robert L. Branyan and Lawrence H. Larsen (New York: Random House, 1971), vol. 1, 538.

(33.) In Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, vol. 8 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1961), see “Remarks at the Dedication of the Hiawatha Bridge,” Red Wing, Minn., October 18, 1960, 780–781 (781: “… will save 4,000 lives every year”), and “Address in Philadelphia at a Rally of the Nixon for President Committee of Pennsylvania,” October 28, 1960, 815–816 (815: “… will save four thousand American lives a year”).

(34.) Danielian to Eisenhower, August 16, 1955, in Eisenhower Administration, vol. 1, 550–551.

(35.) President’s Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, A Ten-Year National Highway Program: A Report to the President (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955), 2, 32.

(36.) Rose, Interstate.

(37.) Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013); and Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

(38.) William H. Whyte, “Are Cities Un-American?” Fortune 55 (September 1957): 123–125, 213–214, 218; Jane Jacobs, “Downtown Is for People,” Fortune 57 (April 1958): 133–140, 236, 238, 240–242; and Lewis Mumford, “The Highway and the City,” Architectural Record 123 (April 1958): 179–186.

(39.) Peter Norton, “Of Love Affairs and Other Stories,” in Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities, eds. Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman (London: Routledge, 2015), 17–35.

(40.) Raymond A. Mohl, “The Interstates and the Cities: The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966–1973,” Journal of Policy History 20.2 (2008): 193–226; and Zachary M. Schrag, “The Freeway Fight in Washington, D.C.: The Three Sisters Bridge in Three Administrations,” Journal of Urban History 30 (2004): 648–673.

(41.) Donald C. Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Chicago: Planners Press, 2005).

(42.) Owen D. Gutfreund, Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(43.) Norton, “Four Paradigms.”

(44.) Michelle J. White, “Housing and the Journey to Work in U.S. Cities (1991), in National Bureau of Economic Research,” in Housing Markets in the United States and Japan, eds. Yukio Noguchi and James M. Poterba (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 133–159.

(45.) D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective of 500 Years of American History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), vol. 1, Atlantic America, 1492–1800 (1988), and vol. 2, Continental America, 1800–1867 (1995).

(46.) E.g., Richard Pillsbury, “The Urban Street Pattern As a Culture Indicator: Pennsylvania, 1682–1815,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70 (1970): 428–446.

(47.) Onuf, Statehood and Union; Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(48.) National Road.

(49.) Klein and Majewski, “Turnpikes and Toll Roads.”

(50.) Majewski, Baer and Klein, “Plank Road Boom.”

(51.) Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis.

(52.) McShane and Tarr, The Horse in the City.

(53.) The Greatest Grid.

(54.) Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

(55.) Baldwin, Domesticating the Street.

(56.) Duffy, The Sanitarians; Hughes, Networks of Power; Rose, Cities of Light and Heat.

(57.) James J. Flink, America Adopts the Automobile, 1895–1910 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970).

(58.) James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988).

(59.) Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987); and McShane, Down the Asphalt Path.

(60.) Foster, From Streetcar to Superhighway; Paul Barrett, The Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900–1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983); and John D. Fairfield, The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design, 1877–1937 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993)

(61.) Stephen B. Goddard, Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(62.) Peter Norton, “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” Technology and Culture 48.2 (2007): 331–359; and Norton, Fighting Traffic.

(63.) Wells, Car Country.

(64.) Warren J. Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910–1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979); and Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).

(65.) Cotton Seiler, Republic of Driving: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

(66.) Drake Hokanson, The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988).

(67.) Cupper, Pennsylvania Turnpike; and Radde, Merritt Parkway.

(68.) Bruce E. Seely, Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987).

(69.) Rose, Interstate.

(70.) Earl Swift, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011); and Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

(71.) Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

(72.) Mohl, “Interstates and the Cities”; Schrag, “Freeway Fight in Washington, D.C.”; and Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).