Biggest Waste of Wealth in All of history: America’s Interstate Highway system

A book review by Alice Friedemann of:

Swift, Earl. 2012. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

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Much of what’s below are Swift’s exact or paraphrased words, my comments are italicized. The vast majority of the book is spent on who, what, why, when and where the interstate system was built, but I’ve mainly extracted the bits about energy and material resources, critiques of what the system did to our society, and life before cars. 


At 47,000 miles long and four plus lanes wide, the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways is the largest public works project in history, dwarfing Egypt’s pyramids, the Panama Canal, and China’s Great Wall.  To build it, forests were felled and mountains were leveled and overlaid with over three hundred million cubic yards of concrete.

Roads are essential and define the physical United States, and so taken for granted they’re almost invisible.

The interstates are just 1% of the nation’s road mileage but carry a trillion of the 4 trillion miles Americans travel each year. Many of the vehicles are heavy trucks, which hammer bridges and pavements, shortening road and bridge lifespans so much that to fix them, we’d need to spend  $225 billion a year for the next 50 years, and if we don’t, replacement will cost three times as much. One in four of the country’s nearly 600,000 bridges is structurally deficient or obsolete. Most were designed to last 50 years. In 2008, they averaged 43 years old (p 319).

Peak Oil Makes Roads and Vehicles Obsolete – Why Fix them?

Swift says that these roads represent “a spectacular investment in a mode of transport that will wither without new fuel sources” (page 6).

We don’t have new fuel sources and never will, so why repair the roads? That would only throw good money after bad. To avoid the hardest possible landing, we might want to keep a few key local and regional roads repaired, and let the thousands of miles of interstate between regions go.  Replace cars with buses, which are flexible, scalable, easily re-routable, and cheap compared to passenger trains since they can use existing roads.

What we have lost  

When horses were the main mode of transportation, American towns were compact, tightly settled, and roughly circular in layout. In the days of the horse and buggy the road served as company. As a cart joggled by, the farmer in the field or the housewife on her porch could hail it; the horse would stop almost of his own accord, and a chat would follow. But once the country road becomes a highway, filled with fast traffic with cars driven mostly by strangers, not neighbors, the whole situation is changed: the road ceases to be a symbol of sociability; it becomes very largely a curse.

As John Steinbeck observed in 1962’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

A pilgrim of centuries past would have had much to report about the country he’d traversed—the details of flora and fauna, the land’s shape and character, the sounds and smells of village and field. He would have noticed the moss on tree bark, the fast-moving stream, the lacework of afternoon light on the forest floor. He might have startled deer and bear, unalerted by his soft approach, or reveled in bird song. A later traveler, riding horseback, might have spoken of the views he’d enjoyed, but they would have been limited views, next to the walker’s. He would have moved at a faster clip, and thus missed the tiny details of his surroundings that only a leisurely pace revealed. Further on, a stagecoach passenger had an even tighter range of experience; he beheld landscape not only from a road’s fixed path, but as a moving picture framed by his window, and his description of a long trip would likely dwell less on the scenery than on the discomforts of the stage, the bumps in the road, the passage itself. Trains erected a pane of glass between traveler and country, and further insulated him by boosting his speed. But with the modern car on the modern freeway, the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another. He was sequestered not only from his setting, but from fellow passengers, insulated from sound, smells, and climate. The details of all that surrounded him were blurred by speed, too distant to make out, or too distracting to enjoy. Scenery was held at arm’s length, beyond the well-manicured right of way.

Highways & Roads Ruined our Nation

The messy sprawl of U.S. cities

Destruction of neighborhoods. Clearing a path for the interstates required the taking of more than 750,000 properties.

Boring and predictable chains of fast-food, motels, outlet malls, drive-in banks

Gutting of tens of thousands of small-town shopping districts.  Kunstler describes downtown wastelands in his book The City in Mind: “I remember a spring afternoon I spent as the sole pedestrian in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, its commercial activity had all been shifted to an asteroid belt of highway strips and architectural garbage five miles outside town.  He describes Atlanta as “a giant hairball of suburbs or ”edge cities,” connected by highways  that has become such a mess nothing can be done to redeem it as a human habitat.”

Shopping Malls. Cookie-cutter malls replaced downtown shopping districts, destroying civic life in exchange for ugly warehouses and vast parking lots. There are no public squares in malls, no public citizenship, just private and lonely consumption of goods from just a few very large corporations that channel wealth to the top one percent of society.


  • In 1929, when a new automobile rolled off an assembly line every six seconds, a life was lost to one of the machines every sixteen minutes.
  • In “The American Way of Death,” Mumford wrote that Americans “are prepared to sacrifice some 59,000 lives every year, and to maim, often irreparably, some three million more.”

The enormous waste of resources for just a few decades of petroleum

  • Cars gobbled vast stores of steel, lead, zinc, rubber, corn, and beeswax; every year the auto industry consumed the wool of seventeen million sheep and the hides of a half-million cattle
  • In 1962 $1 billion was spent on: 16,000,000 barrels of cement, over 500,000 tons of steel, 18,000,000 pounds of explosives, 123,000,000 gallons of petroleum products, enough earth to bury New Jersy knee-deep, and 76,000,000 tons of aggregate– the United States could not mine enough rock to rebuild the interstates today.
  • America spent $130 billion on the interstate highway system. $22 billion of that was fixing Boston’s “Big Dig” array of tunnels and bridges. There are 55,000 bridges, many of them miles long. Maintaining 47,000 miles of highways will cost billions more.
  • Traffic jams cost New Yorkers more than $1 billion a year in fuel, engine wear, lost productivity, missed sales; a quarter of all the gasoline consumed in American cities was burned, it was said, while motorists sat in traffic.

Environmental destruction

  • By 1966 American highways occupied an area the size of West Virginia.
  • Each mile of interstate devoured 30 to 40 acres of farmland; in Iowa alone 710 miles of freeway devoured 26,000 acres of productive cropland–over 40 square miles.
  • Big roads played hell with drainage patterns and water quality. All that concrete encouraged flooding, and salts and oils carried in runoff poisoned nearby ponds and streams and fostered the growth of invasive weeds.
  • Rural interstates presented insurmountable barriers to small mammals, turtles, and amphibians, one study concluding that a 4-lane divided highway was as much a barrier to small creatures as a body of fresh water twice as wide.
  • The slaughter of game by auto approached, and would soon exceed, that by hunting.

We almost used 23 atomic bombs to speed up construction

In 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission and the California State Division of Highways started Project Carryall to determine if atomic bombs could be used to blow up the Bristol mountains near Barstow California, so the I-40 highway and railroad could be built faster and cheaper. The study group of engineers and scientists thought 22 carefully placed atomic bombs would do the trick in a flash with a 36% discount over years of going about it the old way. This would be 60 times as powerful as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Each bomb packed 20 to 200 kilotons of explosive punch and would vaporize 68 million cubic yards of mountain, creating a chain of connected craters more than two miles long, as much as 340 feet deep, and 330 feet wide at the bottom—plenty big enough for twin railroad tracks and a full-size interstate. A 23rd bomb would blast a reservoir into the desert to collect runoff during storms.

And the engineers promised that there was no need to worry about radioactivity, fallout, air blast, or ground shock because these would be “clean” nuclear explosions. Construction crews could return just 4 days after the explosions.

Lewis Mumford Detested Highways

Mumford was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer.

Cities “worked” not just when they balanced their books, or kept crime off the streets, or picked up the garbage in a timely fashion, but when they fulfilled their more important function of facilitating human interaction—which was, after all, the reason people gathered in cities in the first place. By extension, good architecture incorporated as much sociology as it did engineering or design. A building’s scale and orientation, its relationship to its neighbors, the mood it created in those who beheld it, could fuel a neighborhood’s vitality or hamper it. The width of streets, the presence of trees, the press of high-rises—all were important.

Mumford came to see expressways as wasteful, disruptive, and stupid, absorbing funds badly needed for schools, hospitals, libraries and other facilities.”

He berated highway engineers for behaving “as if motor transportation existed in a social vacuum” and “building more roads, bridges, and tunnels so that more motorcars may travel more quickly to more remote destinations in more chaotic communities, from which more roads will be built so that more motorists may escape from these newly soiled and clotted environments. Our transportation experts are only expert whittlers, and the proof of it is that their end product is not a new urban form but a scattered mass of human shavings. Instead of curing congestion, they widen chaos.”

Mumford passionately believed in the organic aspect of cities, and in their atmosphere, their personality, their feel. New superhighways pumped an ever-heavier flow of cars onto streets and avenues designed for a New York of 4-story buildings. Now “we have in effect piled from three to ten early Manhattans on top of each other. If the average height of these buildings was only twelve stories, the roadway and sidewalks flanking them should, according to the original ratio, be 200 feet wide, the entire width of the standard New York block.”

Mumford attacked the year-old interstate system in 1957, an opening salvo in what would come to be called the Freeway Revolt, making him a darling, to this day, of urban planners, anti-sprawl activists, and critics of the suburban lifestyle. He went straight for the jugular. The interstate program was bound to bring destruction, not salvation, to the nation’s cities. It had been founded “on a very insufficient study” of highways, rather than transportation—on “blunders of one-dimensional thinking”—and would benefit only the “fantastic and insolent chariots” that jammed the streets, “the second mistress that exists in every household right alongside the wife—the motor car.” Want to save the cities? Forget about roads. The solution, Mumford said, lay in restoring a human scale to urban life, in “making it possible for the pedestrian to exist.” A choice was looming, for “either the motor car will drive us all out of the cities, or the cities will have to drive out the motor car.” Americans should “apply our intelligence to the purposes of life,” he said, concluding: “That means eventually we will put the motor car in its place.”

“The wide swathes of land devoted to cloverleafs, and even more complicated multi-level interchanges, to expressways … butcher up precious urban space . They devoured not only open land, but real estate already occupied by people and homes. “Perhaps our age will be known to the future historian as the age of the bulldozer and the exterminator, and in many parts of the country the building of a highway has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb. The hell of it was, all that disruption did nothing to ease congestion. Here was a tool that “actually expands the evil it is meant to overcome, and which would continue doing so until that terminal point when all the business and industry that originally gave rise to the congestion move out of the city, to escape strangulation, leaving a waste of expressways and garages behind them.

Mumford concludes with this epitaph: “This is pyramid building with a vengeance: a tomb of concrete roads and ramps covering the dead corpse of a city”.

How did we get here? Don’t blame Detroit Fat Cats: Americans wanted cars

Americans loved everything about their cars, loved driving, loved impulsively going wherever they chose without a thought to routes or timetables. They loved lording over their surroundings while they did it; cocooned, protected from the world, even as they were free to explore it. They could ride in silence or with the radio blaring, need never surrender personal space to a sweaty, foul-smelling stranger or suffer inane chatter. They thrilled to the sensation and sound of movement, the buffet of air through an open window, a big engine’s growl and punch. They embraced the status reflected in chrome trim, the subtext each model offered as to income and station and sex appeal. Americans took to cars not only willingly, but with gusto. They did not have an automotive life foisted on them; they did not buy homes far from work, or forsake mass transit, or pave over their cities because they were manipulated into doing so by Detroit fat cats, or a government-industry conspiracy, or anyone else. No such subterfuge was necessary. The people chose their path. They wanted what they were getting.

Some Cities fought Highways

Too late, San Franciscans realized that they’d permitted a terrible blunder. In place of their waterfront—which, though partially blocked by low buildings, offered one of the most breathtaking urban vistas in the world, overlooking the shimmering bay and Alcatraz Island—they now saw an unadorned gray concrete barricade rising, at its peak, fifty-seven feet from the city’s historic Embarcadero. It cast its surroundings in all-day twilight, severed downtown from the docks that had birthed it, and ran smack across the face of a beloved landmark, the Ferry Building, a gathering spot for generations and a survivor of the 1906 earthquake. To tens of thousands of San Franciscans, the Embarcadero Freeway seemed less a highway than a vivisection. Petitions circulated. Protest groups bloomed. And the public’s outrage was shared by the city fathers: on January 27, 1959, citing “the demolition of homes, the destruction of residential areas, the forced uprooting and relocation of individuals, families and business enterprises,” the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution opposing 7 of the 10 freeways planned for the city, including the yet-unbuilt western two-thirds of I-480. This meant refusing $280 million in Federal Aid money, an unthinkable act in the eyes of most municipal officials. It was a vote heard around the country. Not only did it effectively kill the state’s ambitions for a lavish freeway grid through town, it reverberated with every American confronted by expressways he wasn’t sure he wanted.

Baltimore: Older cities around the country were beset with similar problems, and in each, as in Baltimore, that will was crumbling. A confluence of national trends was shifting the mood of the governed. Historic preservation was becoming a cause beyond the ranks of intelligentsia; Vietnam had created doubt that government knew what it was doing and had the people’s best interests at heart; the civil rights movement had encouraged them to take their grievances to the streets and courts. And perhaps most important, the environmental movement had gained footing among a widening swath of America.


Motorists seeking relief from the monotony of the drive found that the system’s sameness wasn’t limited to its right of way, for it wasn’t but a handful of years before the mom-and-pop businesses that had moved out from Main Street were joined by national chains, and the mercantile knots at the exits soon seemed cut from a stencil.

Mom-and-pop businesses on superseded U.S. highways watched their customers vanish as the interstates continued their crawl across the continent. As Florida Trend magazine would cry in 1965, the interstate system “diverts traffic away from former arteries of travel, drains the life’s blood from established firms which are situated on the old highways and leaves them to die.”  Small-town shopping districts weren’t just losing business to the exits, but to bigger towns suddenly made closer by the new highways’ speed and convenience.

What was it about assembly-line food that drew customers by the millions? For starters, it was cheap. But more than that, it answered a growing demand for speed and simplicity. A motorist making good time on the interstate wasn’t inclined to spend time eating a sit-down meal. And the chains’ drive for efficient mass production mirrored a desire in the American public for predictable quality—for preferring the everyday but familiar to a surprise, good or bad.

By 1963, when the interstates were just making tentative inroads into most urban areas, the population of America’s suburbs surpassed that of the cities they ringed. The new houses came fast and cheap, thanks to mass-production techniques that had stamped out hundreds of Liberty ships and thousands of bombers during the war.  James W. Rouse, a Baltimore developer, described the process: “A farm is sold and begins raising houses instead of potatoes, then another farm; forests are cut; valleys are filled; streams are buried in storm sewers; kids overflow the schools; here a new school is built, there a church. Traffic grows; roads are widened; service stations and hamburger stands pockmark the highway. Relentlessly, the bits and pieces of a city are splattered across the landscape.”

In 1966, Americans owned 57% of the world’s passenger cars, drove 922 billion miles, made 92% of their intercity trips by road.

What a shame everyone was smitten with passenger railroads (and still are), when buses make much more sense

Frank Turner was the chief engineer of the interstate system. He was very keen on mass transit, as long as it was provided by bus.  He pointed out that  rail-based transit could not attract enough riders to justify the fortune it would cost to build, because it couldn’t be adapted to changing travel patterns. Cities were spread too far and wide for fixed-rail to take many people from where they were to where they wanted to go. Buses, on the other hand, were extremely flexible. Just 50 or 60 buses could move as many people as 3,000 cars, provide almost door-to-door service, and follow routes that could be adjusted as needed—and they piggybacked on roads already in place, requiring no costly new infrastructure. By boosting the number of buses on the highways, you could actually reduce the need for more highways. Like all his views, his enthusiasm for the bus was supported by research, by statistics. He could cite a 1962 study that showed that buses and subways moved people for about the same cost (3.2 cents per person per mile) but that buses were far, far cheaper to put into service. He could point to 1968 research that showed a single express lane devoted to buses could move the same number of commuters as four lanes of freeway.

Turner could not fathom why environmentalists, the press, and anti-highway activists didn’t embrace the bus, or why they were so smitten with rail-based transit. The “infinite combinations of routes and schedules required by today’s urban dwellers dictates that any transportation system must provide flexibility of route, destination and schedules. That’s why fixed-route systems which are basically spoke lines attached to a downtown hub have such a hard time financing themselves in the fare box.

His detested the Washington Metro, that initially covered 98 miles and cost about $3 billion ($4,000 per household), an amount equal to everything spent on the capital region’s roads since the beginning of  settlement there. “What a huge capital expenditure to provide for the movement of about 5% of the transportation load within Washington’s metropolitan area. Just the annual interest on the debt would buy about 5,000 new buses every year for the whole life of Metro”.

Roads started because of demands from bicyclists

In 1874, overland travel was done by train. Look at any state and you’d see tangles of thick black lines converging on the major cities. Most of the old maps don’t depict a single road. They were there, but hardly in the form we think of them. The routes out of most any town in America were “wholly unclassifiable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable,” as folks said then—especially when spring and fall rains transformed the simple dirt tracks into a heavy muck, more glue than earth. People braved roads to the train and back, or to roll their harvest from their farms to the nearest grain elevator. For any trip beyond that, they went by rail.

Some of the first bicycles had enormous front and tiny rear wheels, with saddles perched as high as 5 feet off the ground. On steep downhills, the best a rider could do was brace his feet on the handlebars, so that if he crashed, the bike stopped cold, with calamitous results, if that big front wheel encountered an obstacle— he’d at least go flying right-side up.

At local bicycle ships and meetings of the national organization the League of American Wheelmen, there were always conversation’s about cycling’s most urgent need: roads on which to ride.  Bicycling was a jarring experience in the 1890s, even when city streets were paved with cobblestone, brick, or uneven granite block, and snarled with carts, buggies, and horsemen. Outside the business districts, roads dwindled to little more than wagon ruts. A sprinkling of rain could turn them to bogs; their mud lay deep and loose, could suck the boots off a farmer’s feet, prompting travelers to quit the established path for the open fields. Some muddy roads swallowed horses to their flanks; the unfortunate buggy that ventured down such a lane soon flailed past its axles in the ooze. Even on hard-packed roads, mud formed dark rooster tails behind surreys, spattered long skirts, caked shoes. American business was conducted in mud-soiled suits, as were law, medicine, and church services. And mixed with the mud was a liberal helping of manure, for city and country alike were dependent on the horse.

Cyclists thus found their hobby not as pleasant as it could be, and the League of American Wheelmen committed to doing something about it. Their magazine, Good Roads,  became an influential mouthpiece for road improvement. Its articles were widely reprinted, which attracted members who didn’t even own bikes; eventually there were 102,000 subscribers, and the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore. The demand for roads was pedal-powered, and a national cause even before the first practical American car rolled out of a Chicopee, Massachusetts, shop in 1893.

A few months ahead of the Duryea Motor Wagon’s debut, Congress authorized the secretary of agriculture to “make inquiry regarding public roads” and to investigate how they might be improved. So it was that in October 1893, agriculture secretary J. Sterling Morton created the Office of Road Inquiry and appointed to head it one Gen. Roy Stone, a Civil War veteran, civil engineer, and vociferous good roads booster from New York. His appointment was the sort of circular affair—a lobbyist pushing for government action that he winds up leading. Stone considered it “settled” that Americans “have the worst roads in the civilized world,” and that their condition was “a crushing tax on the whole people, a tax the more intolerable in that it yields no revenue.” Spending nothing on bad roads cost more than spending money to make them better, he argued, in squandered productivity, spoiled crops, high food prices.

America’s first overland routes started out as game trails

America’s principal overland routes were descended from prehistory— they’d started as game trails, had been commandeered by Native American hunting parties, and later were widened into wagon roads by white settlers. Over decades of use, they’d been cleared of stumps—at least the big ones—but much of their engineering remained the work of buffalo and elk. Improving on that was no easy matter.

Most roads were bare-dirt scars flanked by deep and weedy ditches. The newer ones had high crowns, their edges sloping downhill from their centers to drain water, but it wasn’t long before they were mashed into concavity and diabolically rutted. Some highways were dragged, meaning that after a rain a neighboring landowner would hitch a horse to a rig of split logs and pull it over the ruts to flatten them out. Rebuilding a road consisted of shoveling dirt from its sides into the middle, then tamping it down. Grading with a horse-drawn blade was a cause for local celebration.

How the first roads were built (also see “Why is modern concrete falling apart?”)

A concentration of heavy freight wagons, or “horse trucks,” had forced cities to pave their business districts, but the stone used for the purpose was far too expensive for rural roads built and maintained by county and local governments, which had little income and could tax their citizens only so much. Rains turned rural roads into quagmires. Even the best country road of the early twentieth century was primitive. The most common “improvement” was simply to grade a dirt road’s surface, in an attempt to smooth its bumps and fill its ruts. A step up was sand-clay construction, for which a mix of the two soils would be imported and spread on an earthen bed; the result in theory, was a surface that drained well and with traffic achieved a smooth hardness, but it also broke down quickly under heavy loads.

A little better was the gravel road, on which river rock or broken stone was spread on a graded bed; it held up better than dirt, especially to horse traffic, but had to be dressed regularly to keep the gravel from scattering, and it was stripped bare by the skinny tires and higher speeds of cars and trucks.

The most popular solution to that dilemma was macadam. It pre-dated the automobile by nearly 80 years after it was noticed gravel highways didn’t become smooth and durable until a lot of traffic had compressed their stone into a unified, interlocking mass. In 1816 a smooth dirt bed was covered with a ten-inch layer of stone broken especially for the purpose by workers armed with small hammers, then passed over the rock with a heavy, horse-drawn roller. The sharp-edged stones knitted into a tight bond. American road builders refined his system by spreading a thick layer of large broken stone onto graded earth, rolling it, covering it with a second layer of much smaller stone, and rolling it again. The surface with rock dust, hosed down with water, and rolled it a third time. “Water-bound macadam,” this was called, and it performed well under normal loads and low speeds. To keep dust down, workers topped it with a thin layer of asphalt, a black, sticky, molasses-like petroleum goop or coal-derived tar, which also kept the rock in place. The roads of today are asphaltic concrete, a blend of asphalt or tar and an aggregate, or filler, most commonly broken rock or gravel.

Why people were eager to switch from horses to cars and trucks

Horses required stabling, feed, and health care, which nationally amounted to $2 billion a year, or as much as it cost to maintain all of America’s railroads. Feeding the typical horse consumed five acres of tillable land a year; devoted to food for people, the nation’s feed-producing cropland could support millions [more people]. Horses are slow and can’t keep going fast for long and need frequent rest, food, water. Horses had to work seven times as hard on a dirt road as on a hard, smooth rock surface, and asphalt and brick offered even easier going.

Eisenhower does not deserve the credit for the interstate system

These highways didn’t come from Eisenhower. Long before June 1956, most of its physical details were old news. Its routing had already been nailed down for18 years and design-specifics for 12. FDR had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower, and the system’s origins go back much further than even FDR. The true parents were anonymous career technocrats. If the system bore the name of the man most responsible for its existence, it would be called the Thomas H. MacDonald System of Interstate and Defense Highways, who conceived of the network and proposed its construction before World War II.


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