The Interstate Highway System and the Disfiguring of America, A Tale of Two Kinds of Cities: Part 5

by | Apr 10, 2000

The interstates were never the result of some individualistic, egoistic ‘love of the private automobile', but rather of anti-capitalist, mixed-economy politics straight-up: the initiation of physical force for the sake of the greatest good for the greatest pressure group.

One of the most disfiguring of the four programs ultimately was the Interstate Highway System. The interstates are a national network of limited-access highways extending between, and then through, all major American cities. Many of them are the freeways we all know and love so well, labeled with numbers and an “I” before them, such as I-95 or I-75. The program was created in 1956, with most of the actual construction occurring between 1960 and 1980.

The stated reason behind the interstate system was that, given the cold war hostilities between the superpowers at the time, a large network of limited-access highways that sliced through cities was necessary to evacuate them in the event of a nuclear attack (!)[12] and that, consequently, construction of such a highway system was a vital government function to save the future of the country.

In truth, the real reason for the system was very different.

The interstate highways were essentially the result of extensive lobbying by the American Road Builder’s Association (ARBA)[13]. It’s easy to see why ARBA was eager for such a road network, given the industries whose employees were its constituents: the asphalt and concrete industries, whose products would actually be used to construct the highways; the automobile industry, whose products would be used on the highways; the coal, steel, glass, and rubber industries, whose products would be used to make automobiles; and the trucking industry, whose industry would become much more useful due to the highways.

In fact, ARBA was the second-largest lobby in the United States at the time, after the petroleum industry (which was also in favor of the interstate system, for obvious reasons).

To understand the magnitude of ARBA in terms of votes, think of the populations of the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, whose labor forces worked overwhelmingly in these industries; then, throw in significant numbers from Alabama, Kentucky, California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. That’s a lot of voters who believed their interests were furthered through an alliance with ARBA.

In short, the interstates were never the result of some individualistic, egoistic ‘love of the private automobile’, but rather of anti-capitalist, mixed-economy politics straight-up: the initiation of physical force for the sake of the greatest good for the greatest pressure group.

The interstates were designed as a grid, extending between and connecting all of the major cities. Around and within cities, they were designed as wheel-and-spoke arrangements of radial highways which met in the downtown area and beltways encircling the city a considerable distance out from the downtown. Even-numbered highways were to run east-west, with higher numbers further north. Odd-numbered highways were to run north-south, with higher numbers further east. Hence, I-5 runs the length of the west coast, while I-95 runs the length of the east coast; I-4, I-8, and I-10 run across the south, while I-90 and I-80 run across the north; I-10 and I-5 intersect in Los Angeles, near the southwest corner of the country; I-90 and I-5 intersect in Seattle, near the northwest corner; I-90 and I-95 in Boston, in the northeast corner; and I-10 and I-95 in Jacksonville, near the southeast corner. (For an illustration of the designs, I invite anyone to thumb through a copy of Rand McNally’s North American Road Atlas, and compare the number of expressways in American cities with those in Canadian and Mexican cities.)

The effects of interstate highways on American cities are as profound as they are numerous, so all I will simply highlight a few major points.

The introduction of interstate highways gave the middle class in the market for new homes a subsidized means to get away from the redlined ghettos of the inner cities and beyond the reach of mass transit, and out into the rural hinterlands where land was available for the FHA to insure mortgages on new single-family homes. But they also did much more. The highways hastened the decline of the inner cities not only because of this escape valve but also because of the physical nature of the highways themselves, given the way they sliced through neighborhoods, turning them into dusty, congested no-man’s lands during their construction.[14]

The threat of condemnation for an interstate highway by governments in inner cities also had the effect of making investing in inner-city properties risky, so investment there dried up for that reason as well, in addition to the redlining resulting from the FHA and the deterioration due to public housing and urban renewal.

Furthermore, since most of the suburbs to which the middle class moved were beyond the reach of mass transit, the radial design of the interstate highways in effect eventually became the mass transit system for the new suburbanites, much the way trains and buses were in the inner cities.

Soon it became more convenient for suburbanites to simply use their cars wherever they went, regardless of whether they went somewhere served by traditional mass transit or not. Most suburbanites stopped their use of mass transit altogether, leaving it to the poor, elderly, minorities, and others who were trapped in the inner city. Because most of the suburbs did not have mass transit, and thanks to the FHA were laid out in a low-density spread of single-family homes, distances between stores, workplaces, and homes there became so great that one couldn’t live there very effectively without having a car. Thus, suburbanites became automobile-dependent to an unprecedented level.

When they all took their cars to work downtown via the spokes of the interstate network, they caused traffic nightmares on inner-city streets that were never designed to handle the incredible number of cars. When they wanted to park their cars downtown, they found vacant lots everywhere, thanks to urban renewal’s most lasting, most visible, and most ironic legacy: the provision of parking lots for interstate freeway commuters.


[12] Jackson, supra note 5, at 249.

[13] Id. at 248-49. Ed Cray, Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times (New York, 1980), at 356-58. See generally Mark H. Rose, Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1941-1956 (Lawrence, Ks., 1979).

[14] See Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York, Toronto, 1974), at 885-94.

[15] And, of course, according to the preservationists, it’s the developers, not the government, who are to blame for urban renewal.

Related Articles in Series:

Mr. Willenski is an attorney in South Florida. He has also lived in Hertfordshire, England.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest