He Only Has I-’s For You

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

He Only Has I-’s For You

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.

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