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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

US Interstate Highway System Turns 50

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower learned the value of good roads when, as a young Army officer, he led a convoy across the US in 1919. During that journey, vehicles got so mired in mud that they had to be abandoned. Nearly 40 years later, Eisenhower used Hitler's own state-of-the-art Autobahn to pursue the retreating Nazis. So when Eisenhower became President, it's little surprise that he pushed for -- and got -- a national superhighway system.

Today, that Interstate Highway system, commissioned in June 1956, is turning 50 years old (Eisenhower sold the system as a civil defense mechanism at the height of the Cold War). Most of us are too young to remember life before the Interstates, but they radically changed the way Americans travel and commute, providing lessons in the unintended consequences of a major disruptive innovation.

Foremost, the Interstates marked the transition of the major land transportation vehicle from the train to the automobile... leading to many good things (more personal freedom, a robust auto industry that provided good jobs, an equally healthy travel industry that catered to auto travelers and vacationers) and bad (pollution, dependence on oil, decline of the rail industry). The car-centered society that the Interstates fostered begat other innovations such as suburban tract housing developments, shopping malls, motel and restaurant chains, suburban office parks, and, most recently, "edge cities." Older city centers, by contrast, were emptied and left to those who could not afford cars.

As Interstates replaced older US highways (such as the legendary Route 66), their proximity to existing towns and businesses was literally a matter of life and death. "Mom and Pop" stores, motels and even whole towns that did not have the good fortune to be located near an Interstate exit were bypassed, and many eventually declined. Everywhere in America are ghosts of our pre-Interstate past.

Next week, millions of Americans will be hitting the road for the July 4th holiday. Most likely, that road will be an Interstate, celebrating its birthday along with the nation's.

Source: Washington Post (via MSNBC)