He Only Has I-’s For You

Earl Swift on I-80, I-95, and the history of America’s interstate highway system.

I 95 Signs

Earl Swift spent a lot of time on the road while researching “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), so it’s fortunate that he loves driving. “My daughter and I covered 15,000 miles over two summers,” he says, an experience that no doubt helped him assess our country’s largest and greatest public works project, which is so much a part of our everyday experience that we take it for granted.

In “The Big Roads,” Swift brings our interstate highway system back to the forefront of public consciousness, examining everything from how it came into existence to its often disruptive impact on urban life. In the following Failure Interview, Swift discusses the transformative nature of the U.S. highway system, as well as its unfortunate and sometimes unforeseen consequences.

What inspired you to write about the interstate highway system?
It confronts you at every turn. There is no getting away from it, not only physically, but the effects of it. Going to the grocery store you can find fresh asparagus any time of the year. You can get something FedEx’d to you overnight. There are so many aspects of daily life that are products of this 47,000-mile, high-speed corridor system. Modern life would be appreciably different without it.

Who is most responsible for conceiving the system?
If you wanted to credit a president you’d have to go with Franklin D. Roosevelt because in February 1938 he called Thomas MacDonald into his office and took a map of the United States and drew six lines in blue—three going east-west from coast to coast and three going north-south—and asked MacDonald to study the possibility of building a highway system that would roughly follow those lines and pay for itself. That assignment led to a report to Congress called Toll Roads and Free Roads that laid out the argument for having a nationwide system of expressways.

You can also go back to the early 1930s when you had a series of writers who contributed various aspects of what we would come to think of as superhighways. If you go back to the spring of 1930, a New England conservationist named Benton MacKaye wrote a New Republic piece in which he proposed “townless highways”—much like today’s parkways, with limited access but not built to the standards of an interstate. Ironically enough, a few years earlier, in another magazine piece, MacKaye had proposed the Appalachian Trail.

So why is Dwight Eisenhower the president who is most closely associated with our interstate highways?
It was an accident of timing. It was on his watch the Congress finally came up with a financing scheme that worked for everybody. It was one of his oft-stated priorities to get a national highway system together, which would improve interstate commerce and reduce the carnage on the roads, which was monumental at the time.

Reading your book, it’s clear that traffic and fatalities were a huge problem.
Our roads were really bad. A huge contributor—and I think this is reflected in the mounting fatality rates in the 1920s and ’30s—is that the automobile was becoming bigger, faster, heavier and more powerful, and the roads weren’t keeping up. And people drove at breakneck speeds and didn’t wear seatbelts, as there were no seatbelts. So it was a formula for disaster.

How did people navigate without maps and road signs, both of which seem to have to scarce back then?
The first Rand McNally road map was in 1926, and that date coincides with the advent of the numbered U.S. highway system. Prior to having numbers on roads we had a very primitive interstate road network of privately sponsored auto trails. Each of the trail associations had signature colors and they would paint those colors in bands around telephone poles. The problem was that a good many of these trails overlapped so these poles were painted from ground to 15 feet up with a slew of rings. Picking your highway’s rings out of that jumble proved to be a dangerous distraction.

How did the powers-that-be come up with the numbering system that we know today?
The numbering system was devised to bring rationality to the auto trail system. A man named E.W. James, who worked for the Bureau of Public Roads, came up with it almost singlehandedly. He knew the system had to be rational and people had to understand how it worked. It also had to be expandable. So James came up with a system whereby even numbered highways were east-west and odd numbered highways were north-south. Principal highways—the trunk roads of the system—would end in a zero if east-west and a one or a five if north-south. And the numbering system would begin in the far-northeast corner of the country. The lowest numbers could be found up in Maine, and the numbers would climb as you moved west and south.

Thirty years later when the interstate system came along they rightly realized they had a great system and adapted it, with the lowest numbers down in the far southwest corner of the country in San Diego.

What kind of local resistance was there to building interstates through existing communities?
It varied from place to place but in the majority of major cities there was some issue. A lot of the protests took place in black neighborhood because the interstates, by design, were aimed at serving a slum clearance role in addition to providing transportation. So they tended to be routed through those properties that cost the least, where blight was at its worst, and where political resistance would be least. The expression that sprang up in Washington D.C. is that they were white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms. 
What are the things we ought to like about the highway system?
It’s a remarkable piece of engineering. And it provides a cheap and effective way to move goods and drive the economy, and does it with enormous safety and with as much efficiency as one could hope for, given that the vehicles we drive are usually occupied by a single person and burn gasoline.

What are the most notable downsides?
The most telling is the interstates are almost a fifty-first state. Any point on the interstate has more in common with other points in the system than it has with any of the country by which it is surrounded. That’s great when it comes to driving safety; it throws no surprises at you. But the absence of serendipity has a somewhat deadening effect culturally. And we’ve seen the development of an interchange economy of chains that are as predictable as the traffic lanes themselves.

Did the highway system’s designers forsee that it would lead to sprawl and the destruction of small towns?
Sprawl was already happening before the interstates. So anybody who blames the interstates for suburban sprawl has not done his or her homework. But the interstates certainly accelerated way-out sprawl.

In terms of destroying small towns, there was a sense that there was a good chance that bypassed towns might wither away, and that towns on the interstate were going to boom. I don’t think that people anticipated that a driver on the interstate would be unwilling to drive a mile off the highway. That aspect of the American interstate driver’s psyche surprised everybody. The system is so efficient and speed-oriented that the notion that you’d get off the highway and drive into a town to find a motel soon evaporated. The parts of the economy that depended on passers-thru picked up and moved to the interstate or they died.

What is the greatest threat to the interstate highway system?
Lack of money and lack of maintenance. We are putting tremendous loads on it and we aren’t putting money into it. We haven’t in a long time. A lot of states started drifting off the maintenance schedule in the early 1990s. And these roads—as stout as they are—take a tremendous beating and will not last forever. They are showing significant signs of decay in an awful lot of places, like I-80 west of Chicago, which is rugged. Some states have been good about sticking with the program and others have not. And like any sort of aging piece of machinery, if you let the maintenance slip a little bit it’s going to cost you.

What are your favorite roads in the system?
I don’t think there’s any interstate that is without sin. There are ugly stretches of just about every one. But there are pieces of roads I love. I-81 from Winchester, Virginia, to the city of Abington [on the Tennessee line] is awfully pretty. There’s I-40 through eastern Arizona—the Painted Desert. I’m a big fan of I-80 through Wyoming. The country there is so melancholy and beautiful in a forbidding way that it makes for a breathtaking drive.

And your least favorite?
One of most disappointing is I-35 from Fort Worth to Austin. Texas does such a good job of designing and building highways but that thing is a trash-strewn dump. You have to admire the Long Island Expressway for the load it carries and the fact that so few people get killed or hurt on it given the numbers that travel it every day. But it’s an unpleasant driving experience no matter what. And I’m no fan of I-95 between the George Washington Bridge and Boston; that whole northeast stretch, there’s no ability to relax when you’re driving.

Have you been in any wrecks on the interstate?
I’ve been in two, but I can’t say either accident altered my opinion of the interstates because neither was typical of an interstate accident. Most interstate accidents are single vehicle—people falling asleep or drunk and going off the road.

The first one I was rear-ended in a blinding snowstorm in St. Louis at 2 a.m. when I was coming home from work at the newspaper there. I came upon a pileup at an iced-over overpass and a Camaro traveling at 50 mph slammed into me. I was going 2 mph at the time so it made for a hell of an impact.

The second one was also in a snowstorm on I-44 southwest of St. Louis, when a car spun out on an iced-over overpass right in front of me. I was in the front passenger seat and we managed to stop before hitting this spun-out car, but everyone behind us ran into us. The state troopers showed up and moved us all down into the median. As we were standing there a tractor-trailer came from the other direction and jackknifed as it went past. It could have easily come into the median and killed all of us. But it stayed on the road and slid—absolutely silently. It didn’t make the slightest sound as it skated past at 65 mph. It was one of the eeriest things I’ve ever seen. 

Earl Swift’s Web site

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