On the Interstate: I-10
A Nation of Highways
In 1956, after decades of debate and planning, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, and the interstate network was born. The 41,000-mile system was designed to reach every city with a population of more than 100,000. Mostly completed by the 1990s, at a cost of more than $100 billion, this gargantuan public undertaking was designed for fast and safe road travel. The interstates have profoundly changed American landscapes and lives, and the way business is conducted. Interstates chopped up cities and bypassed existing roadside businesses, created new kinds of cities and suburbs, and boosted industry and commerce.
I-10 sweeps almost 2,500 miles across the southern United States from Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California. It helped shape some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, including Houston and Phoenix, into sprawling, automobile-dependent metropolises. It is the principal truck route connecting Los Angeles ports with the rest of the nation. And as with many interstates, local interests forced changes in its proposed route in several cities, including San Antonio and New Orleans.
National system of interstate and defense highways. June, 1958.American Automobile Association from the Library of Congress.
Starting in the late 1930s, politicians debated and engineers studied the idea of linking America’s cities by a system of high-speed national highways with access limited to a few interchange points. The plan became a reality when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The federal government was to provide 90 percent of the funding—mostly from gasoline taxes—and each state would provide the rest. Originally, Congress called for 41,000 miles of limited-access roads designed for speeds up to 70 miles per hour, to be completed by 1972.
Beginnings of the System
Sign along Highway 40, now Interstate 70, St. Charles County, Missouri, 1956Courtesy of Missouri Department of Transportation
In 1938 Congress requested the Bureau of Public Roads to study the feasibility of a system of superhighways. Its 1939 report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, was the beginning of the concept for the Interstate Highway System. Throughout the 1940s additional studies addressed the way new highways would support defense and economic growth. The limited-access design of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940, became a model for future superhighways.
Reworking the Landscape
Interstate 10 southeast of Casa Grande, Arizona, 1967Courtesy of U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
Stop the Bulldozers!
Washington, D.C., protest poster, drawn by Sammie Abbott, late 1960sCourtesy of D.C. Public Library, D.C. Community Archives, ECTC Collection, Washingtoniana Division
In the interstates’ early years, most of the public eagerly awaited the broad, safe new roads. But by the mid-1960s, public concerns over the environment and disruption of neighborhoods forced the federal and state government to include social and environmental impact in their calculations. In 1973, these concerns brought changes that channeled federal highway funds to mass transit, bikeways, and pedestrian walkways as well as highways.
In the 1960s, Arizona state officials planned to run I-10 through the middle of downtown Phoenix, and they designed a stack of access and egress ramps. Locals opposed the design and, in 1973, voted to stop the road’s construction. State highway planners returned to the drawing board. The new plan took into account archaeological sites and historic buildings along the route. A key part of the road was routed underground and covered with new public parkland. The public voted to approve the construction plans in 1979.
Proposed Design for Papago Freeway (I-10) interchange, Phoenix, 1968From The Papago Freeway: A Report Prepared for the Arizona Highway Department
A New World for America’s Auto Culture
"Freedom to Breathe" Poster 1969
Air pollution became a major environmental and health issue in the 1960s, and automobile emissions were a major contributor to the problem. First California and then federal regulators set emission standards to limit pollution from cars. Though car manufacturers fought the regulations, by the 1990s new cars incorporated a host of new technologies that drastically reduced emissions. These included fuel injection, computerized engine-management systems, and catalytic converters.
To keep up with demand for gasoline, America began to import large amounts of foreign oil in the 1950s. In 1973, in an effort to raise prices and in response to American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an embargo on oil going to the United States. Americans began to worry about where their fuel would come from. Congress called for more fuel-efficient cars, reduced speed limits to 55 miles per hour, encouraged car pools and mass transit, and pushed legislation to establish a pipeline to Alaskan oil fields. A lack of low-cost fuel threatened America's automobility.
Foreign Cars in America
America’s automakers were known for their big roomy cars, but by the mid-1970s, many Americans wanted a small car. Women were entering the job market in record numbers, and many families bought a small second car. An economy car made sense in a time of recession, high gas prices, and gas shortages. By 1980, most small cars purchased in the United States were foreign imports, with Japan dominating that market. Nearly two million Japanese automobiles were sold in the America in that year, about 20percent of all cars sold.
The Interstate Economy
Associated Truck Lines warehouse terminal, Landover, Maryland, 1969Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
How Trucking Grew
Peterbilt Model 359 tractor, 1986.Gift of Werner Enterprises, Inc.
Working conditions have improved since the beginning of trucking, with better roads, bigger trucks, and more conveniences in the cab, but hauling a load is still grueling work. For the long-distance trucker, the cab is both home and office. Cecil Curry, the driver of this tractor, hauled building materials, agricultural products, industrial parts, and consumer goods across most of the United States.
See the U.S.A.
Trains were once the way to travel long distances. But after World War II, as high-speed highways covered the nation, Americans traveled by automobile more than ever before. The interstates killed some towns, cutting them off from the traffic sweeping by on its way to the gas, food, and lodging now available at interstate interchanges. Other towns boomed, as the relative cheapness of a journey by automobile made travel and tourism an ever more important American industry. Free guides, maps, and games found at gas stations and rest stops provided tourist information and built customer loyalty.
Crawl and Sprawl
Traffic Congestion on I-10, San Antonio, Texas, 2001Photograph by Geoff Appold, courtesy of Texas Department of Transportation
Gulfgate Shopping Center and residential development along I-45, Houston, Texas, about 1960Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Interstates opened up new land for development. Traditional patterns of commuting changed as offices, factories, and stores moved to the suburbs. Highways (designed for intercity traffic) and beltways (designed to let traffic bypass the city) became commuter corridors, jammed with workers driving from suburb to suburb. Suburban roads were even crowded on weekends, as families ran errands in their cars.
The 2000 census found more Americans in the suburbs than in cities. And once-compact cities now extended for miles, as housing developments and office and retail complexes replaced farms and enveloped small towns.
Changing the Vehicle
Seat-belt poster, 1984David James/Mike McCune photograph, courtesy of Automobile Club of Southern California Archives
Changing the Driver
It’s the “nut that holds the wheel,” as the old saying goes, that causes most traffic accidents, by speeding, failing to yield the right-of-way, driving while intoxicated. Driver-education programs, popular in high school classrooms since the 1930s, aimed to reduce accidents, as did grassroots groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded in 1980.