The Myth and the Truth about Interstate Highways

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series will be added to the bottom of this page.

By Sarah Jo Peterson

The transportation industry in the United States is still steeped in a myth about cities and highways, especially the Interstate Highways.[1] The myth goes something like this: the Interstate Highways were intended to be a system for intercity (or interstate) travel, but they had unintended effects for cities because they became used inappropriately for travel within urban areas. I think of this myth as the dance of the intended and unintended, but perhaps @capntransit recently put it better: the story of “Saint Dwight and the legend of the True Original Interstate Highway System that was Good and Pure.”[2]

The primary myth comes with convenient corollaries: a) everything bad about the Interstates in cities is actually the fault of urban renewal and city leaders; b) analyses of costs dictated which neighborhoods fell to the bulldozers; and c) urban expressways were so new that mistakes were made, but public protests in the 1960s brought needed reforms. Like many myths, they contain something that is sort of true, but there is also a lot about the myth and its corollaries that was intentionally constructed. I have traced at least one source of it back to the mid-1970s and—tragically—to what would eventually become an official work of history published by the federal Department of Transportation (USDOT).

I’m aware that I am dispensing here with the usual detached tone of historical scholarship. I have spent most of the decades of my professional life within or on the fringes of the transportation industry, defined here to include both the public and private sectors. I’ve lived inside this myth for much of my career. As a historian, I’ve watched the evidence mount, challenging the myth. However, the myth still serves its purpose: it prevents the industry from having to directly confront the sins committed in the name of the Interstate Highways, most significantly against Black Americans.

The myth’s damage isn’t only in the self-serving absolution that it gives the highway industry and the federal government. It is also in the knowledge about urban transportation—knowledge that was easily accessible in the 1940s and 1950s—that was erased. I posit that the moral failures around racial justice and the turning away from urban transportation—or people-oriented transportation—are connected. In addition, I fear that the myth and its fraternal twin—the decades of silence—continue to shape American transportation policy and practice in unacknowledged ways.

The Biden Administration has made a public commitment to advancing racial equity, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has spoken of past harms in his public appearances. Credit, too, should go to Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary from 2013 to 2017, who significantly advanced awareness when he publicly shared the story of his childhood, growing up in a Black neighborhood cut off from the rest of Charlotte, North Carolina, by I-85 and I-77.[3]

But we’ve been here before. In 1998 the Federal Highway Administration adopted a policy that required incorporating justice for racial minority and low-income populations “in all its programs, policies, and activities.”[4] As someone who works in policy, I understand the inclination to move forward with new initiatives without stopping to take the time to articulate what happened, specifically, in the past. In this case, though, if the transportation professions just move forward, we will never examine how the past is still embedded in the present.

As a transportation professional, I am not categorically opposed to urban expressways. However, all infrastructure projects create winners and losers. The moral test for a society is how it selects and then treats those who are forced to sacrifice.

A Tragic Work of History

I have traced the problematic work of history back to a policy brief written in 1976. I am going to start by using the version published in 1997, when the study was no longer positioned as a work of policy analysis, but of history. In addition, the 1997 version is the one I read and taught when I was teaching transportation planning in the 2000s.

The publication is Edward Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: An Historical Overview, Fifth Edition, USDOT (1997). It reads like a heavily annotated timeline and focuses on landmark studies and descriptions of federal laws and regulations. The first thing one notices is the silence on the impacts of urban expressway construction on Black communities. Indeed, it contains very little social analysis at all. Even the word “minority” does not appear until Weiner summarizes the executive order issued by President Clinton in 1994 on environmental justice.[5]

Weiner, however, went beyond convenient silence. He actively constructed an alternative history that advanced the myth. He made his case for the dance of the intended (only travel between, not within, cities) and unintended (all the negative consequences) through presenting “summaries” of what would have been in his time dusty reports locked up in specialty libraries. The summaries prepare the ground for arguments such as this one on the urban crisis of the 1970s:

These older communities and central cities were severely distressed economically and limited in their ability to address these [economic] problems themselves. It was recognized that the federal government had contributed to these problems with programs that had unintended consequences.[6]

Weiner’s deployment of the words “intended” and “unintended” will not be subtle.

Weiner’s key studies—and more—are now online for all to see. Five reports, two published before 1956 and three shortly after, show that in no sense was the Interstate System intended only for intercity travel. Moreover, the assertion that the consequences of the Interstates in urban areas were “unintended”—at least for what they called the “total transportation needs” of the metropolis and the displacement of minority communities—is untenable. Top leaders anticipated these impacts, and yet the efforts they made to address them fell short.[7]

Federal and state highway officials, working through various organizations and their committees, authored or heavily participated in the creation of all seven reports. Committees of the Highway Research Board, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, were responsible for three of the reports and the Board was directly represented on another two. Founded in 1920 to stimulate research by bringing together federal highway officials, state highway departments, university researchers, and private industry, by the 1950s the Board hosted 60-70 technical committees working a wide range of surface transportation problems.[8]

The Federal Government, Urban Transportation, and the Exploding Metropolis

In his history, Weiner sets up the myth by baldly stating it in his summary of Interregional Highways, the landmark 1944 report to Congress that lays out the plan for what became the Interstate System: “The importance of the system within cities was recognized, but it was not intended that these highways serve urban commuter travel demands in the major cities.” He backs up his assertion with a carefully edited quote from the report that leaves the reader no clue that the paragraphs preceding the quote actually present the case for the interregional highways in urban areas to become part of federal support for urban transportation.[9]

Indeed, at least one third of the content in Interregional Highways is about urban areas. The report includes a chapter on “locating the interregional routes in urban areas,” which includes a section called “penetration of city.” This section argues that much, if not most, of the traffic on urban segments of what will become the Interstate Highways will be local traffic. Another chapter discusses urban parking![10]

As the Eisenhower Administration continued to press for accelerating construction of the Interstate System, BPR completed the “Yellow Book” collection of maps also known as General Location of National System of Interstate Highways Including All Additional Routes at Urban Areas Designated in September 1955. The criteria for inclusion required that these “additional routes” serve both intercity and urban travel. One type of travel alone was not enough to qualify an urban route for the Interstate System.[11]

In addition, by the mid-1950s, highway officials had become alarmed by what they called “the exploding metropolis.” Continued rural-to-urban migration combined with the baby boom meant that between 1950 and 1955, nearly all population growth concentrated in metropolitan areas. Within the metropolitan areas, however, decentralization reigned. Suburban areas attracted not just the new housing, but the growth in jobs and shopping as well. Car ownership reached new heights, while mass transit use fell 25 percent in even the largest cities.[12]

From Plan to National Project

Although this is not the place to rewrite the history of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, three observations are crucial to understanding the law’s consequences.

First, the highway industry wasn’t expecting a law funding the entire network to fall into place, and when it did, they knew they were unprepared. A.E. Johnson, executive director of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), spoke openly to highway leaders about the “suddenness” of the 1956 law. Despite acknowledging that many were unprepared, Johnson maintained that state and local officials still “must do the best they can” to coordinate planning. But it was not just urban highways. AASHO also led a mad dash to update the states’ highway laws, including for eminent domain. In addition, AASHO had been preparing to launch a long-desired and massive multi-year study on asphalt and concrete pavements. The AASHO Road Test results wouldn’t be ready until 1962.[13]

 Second, the 1956 law turned what had been a federal funding program into a de facto project. In addition to charging state highway departments with completing the Interstate System as designated, the law also established a budget and a deadline. The difference is not trivial. When something is a program, it is still in the realm of politics. Transforming the Interstate System into a project put the highway engineers’ professional reputations, individually and collectively, at stake.

Third and related, the federal government would now pick up 90 percent (instead of 50 percent) of the cost of the Interstate System. This change distorted the long-standing federal-state cooperative relationship. After 1956, the Interstate System was truly a national project. However, despite the federal largesse, the state highway departments still bought and owned the land. Moreover, federal highway funds could not be used for the costs of relocating people or businesses. Not until the 1960s could federal highway funds be used for relocating the displaced.[14]

Expressways and Urban Planning

The National Committee on Urban Transportation (NCUT) published Better Transportation for Your City: A Guide to the Factual Development of Urban Transportation Plans in 1958. NCUT had formed in 1954 to prepare studies and plans addressing what they called the “total transportation needs” of urban areas.[15] The federal government, through BPR, was officially represented on the committee, whose other members came from American and Canadian professional organizations responsible for managing various activities of municipal governments.[16]

The Guide advocates a comprehensive and continuing process of urban transportation planning and leads decision makers through the steps of a rational planning process based on “essential facts.” It frames the problems of congestion and safety as equals. Although the emphasis is on private vehicles, mass transit and walking are not left out. Despite being only around 100 pages, the Guide ranges widely from regional origin-destination surveys to specific recommendations, such as that there should be sidewalks on both sides of the street.[17]

The Guide is included in Weiner’s history, which correctly notes federal involvement. However, Weiner chose to leave out that BPR had officially endorsed the Guide and its accompanying technical manuals, making many of its recommended planning studies eligible for federal-aid highway funding if done in partnership with a state highway department. Nor does Weiner’s history mention that the Guide specifically advises how to integrate the newly funded Interstate Highways into urban and suburban transportation plans.[18]

One glaring moral weakness of both Interregional Highways and the Guide is that both barely acknowledge that these urban expressways would require massive acts of eminent domain. If noted at all, they are mostly concerned with how to reduce the costs of land acquisition. Interregional Highways imagines itself in battle with a nefarious enemy: the land speculator. The Guide gives two sentences to the recognition that families and businesses will be displaced, although one of those sentences is a prescient warning: “Failure to plan for relocation in advance may result in unfavorable public relations and delay the program.”[19]

Part of the southern portion of the East Los Angeles Interchange in 2017. Formulanone, 2017, Flickr.

A Cooperative Relationship with Local Governments

The Sagamore (or National) Conference on Highways and Urban Development, held in October 1958, did not shirk the responsibility to confront the realities of eminent domain. A section of its Guidelines for Action is dedicated to the “Relocation of Displaced People and Businesses” and its first guiding principle states:

A community which displaces large numbers of people through activities designed for the general benefit has a responsibility to help these persons adjust satisfactorily to the new conditions. This responsibility is greatest where the potential injury is greatest—that is, among lower income and minority groups, the elderly, and others least equipped for what may be for them a major crisis.

On the fate of businesses, it instructs that most will be small family establishments that will need hands-on attention to successfully relocate.[20]

The Sagamore Conference was convened by the Highway Research Board, AASHO, and the American Municipal Association, and top federal, state, and municipal officials, academics, and civic leaders attended the five-day meeting. The conference is best understood as an attempt by federal and state highway officials to extend their cooperative approach—which in their eyes they had used successfully for rural highways since 1916—to urban areas and the relevant municipal officials. They aimed at a mutual understanding of the roles and responsibilities for urban development and urban transportation writ large and for the urban expressways being funded under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.[21]

Once I understood that the Sagamore Conference was actually about building cooperative relationships, Weiner’s summary in his history broke my heart:

The conference focused on the need to conduct the planning for urban transportation, including public transportation, on a region-wide, comprehensive basis in a manner that supported the orderly development of the urban areas. The conference report recognized that urban transportation plans should be evaluated through a grand accounting of benefits and costs that included both user and nonuser impacts.[22]

This is how the Sagamore Conference summarizes itself:

Five days of intensive Conference discussions produced conclusive evidence that highway transportation and other elements of urban development are inseparable; that the problems confronting responsible officials and professionals concerned are indivisible; and the skills and resources of all must be utilized effectively and cooperatively to achieve the goals set forth.[23]

As a historian, I don’t dwell on roads not taken. As a transportation planner, I can’t help but wonder what metropolitan areas in the United States would look like today if the actual Sagamore Conference vision had been the guiding philosophy for the last sixty years.

The original passage that “inspired” Weiner’s Conference summary further illuminates the scope of his misrepresentation. The original indicates that the Sagamore Conference was not primarily about regional planning, but that it was focused equally, if not more, on selecting the final locations and design for segments of the Interstate System. The reference to “benefits and costs” was also in the context of highway construction and defined to include the general “advantages and disadvantages” of alternative highway locations for “the highway user and the community.” Tellingly, Weiner substituted “nonuser” for “community.”[24]

Because the Sagamore Conference aimed to build mutual understanding between state and local officials, it covers in some detail what the highway engineer should understand about the job of the city planner, especially in relation to the urban Interstates. In addition to transportation functions, the city planner “has a primary interest” in “the environmental impact of new highways” and “effects on land use and on other urban development” including “on land areas on either side, and on aesthetic values and amenities—in brief, livability.”[25]

And what did highway officials want local leaders to understand about building the Interstate System? That the state highway departments not only had the “prime responsibility,” but the “time schedule for doing the job was specified by Congress.” References to the pressures of time are part of the Conference’s objectives and findings and a main theme of A.E. Johnson’s opening remarks.[26]

Relocation and Segregation

Although Weiner’s history does not include the final report, A Framework for Urban Studies: An Analysis of Urban-Metropolitan Development and Research Needs (1959) gives additional context to the time period Weiner waved away as about “region-wide planning.” Although the Highway Research Board hosted the report’s committee, because it served all of the National Academy of Sciences, the committee had a much broader range of expertise. Unusually, an outside expert–Coleman Woodbury, then at the University of Wisconsin–wrote the report, which the committee then endorsed.

Like the Sagamore Conference, the committee directly confronted the problems of displacement and the Interstates. Woodbury dedicated a section to research needed on the “Relocation of Displaced Families and Land Uses.” He observed that the urban highway programs were dealing with relocation in a “more or less ad hoc, catch-as-catch-can fashion” and warned that “Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and other low-income rural in-migrants” would “face many difficulties finding other accommodations because of racial and ethnic segregation practices, their low incomes, and other characteristics.”[27]

Yes, they knew. The highway industry anticipated the problems for urban transportation and for relocation that came with bringing expressways into urban areas. Of course, they did. To believe the myth is to believe that these highway leaders—hundreds of people across every state highway department and the federal government—were stupid. These men—and they were nearly all men and nearly all white—may have been many things, but stupid is not one of them.

One of these men was Rex Whitton. As Missouri’s chief engineer, Whitton was among the leadership cadre of both AASHO and the Highway Research Board throughout the 1950s. He participated in the Sagamore Conference and was an appointed member of the committee behind Woodbury’s Framework report. At the Board’s executive committee meeting in 1960, Whitton voiced his frustration at the slow pace of urban research, pointing out that they were locating the expressways in cities now. In 1961 President Kennedy would appoint Whitton federal highway administrator. He would be a champion of the new “3C” planning process—continuing, comprehensive, and cooperative—adopted for urban areas in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962. This planning law should be understood as an attempt to put the force of federal law and funding behind the vision, ethic, and methods promoted in the Guide and at the Sagamore Conference.[28]

The Interstate System’s deadline, however, still loomed. The good intentions some may have had still risked amounting to little more than noticing your house was on fire and calling an architect.

A Policy Brief in 1976

All that I have reviewed in Weiner’s 1997 history was already in place in a policy brief he wrote for USDOT in 1976. The picture Weiner painted in 1976 of pre-1962 transportation planning—one that focused on the interregional and then regional level; divorced highway planning from the location and design of sidewalks, streets, and highways; and emphasized benefit-cost analysis—was false. The fiction, though, allowed him to make a specific argument: “In the 1960’s, pressures from outside the planning process raised new issues which planners were forced to address.” His list of “new” issues included “dislocation and disruption, environmental impacts, citizen participation, [and] social concerns such as transportation for the disadvantaged.” Weiner is only able to make the claim that these pressures came from “outside the planning process” and only started in the 1960s because of how he summarized key reports from the 1940s and 1950s.[29]

Particularly troubling is that Weiner included “citizen participation” on his list of “new issues.” Both the Guide and the Sagamore Conference report strongly endorse including a robust citizen participation element in transportation planning and Interstate project development. Their understanding of how to do citizen participation is both sophisticated and expansive. However, both advise using citizen participation primarily as a method to build support for the plan or project. The Guide espouses this objective with so little guile that it actually uses the word “indoctrinated.”[30]

The reach of Weiner’s history of urban transportation planning may have been profound. The original 1976 policy brief circulated outside of USDOT, and the first edition of the work transformed into a history began circulating in 1983. Weiner periodically updated the volume, typically after major changes to federal law. In 1999 Weiner found a private publisher, and the most recent edition was released in 2016. The various editions are held in university and specialty libraries across the United States and even globally. In addition, an abridged version, which included the basic argument about what was “new” in the 1960s and the paragraph on the Sagamore Conference, became a chapter in a textbook on public transportation. First published in 1979, a revised edition came out in 1992. Weiner’s narrative has had the opportunity to reach generations of transportation professionals.[31]

In Weiner’s defense, I’ve been around policy arenas long enough to understand that the rules of truth for policy analysis are just not the same as for historical scholarship. Policy analysis is fundamentally about creating a specific vision and path for the future and thus has a greater tolerance of “ends-justify-the-means” interpretations. When policy analysts use history, they do not have the same obligation as historians to an analysis of historical context. Cherry-picking is encouraged. Lying about what you have cherry-picked, however, still crosses a line.

Moreover, Weiner should not be held solely responsible for the silence, the myth, and even his work of history. He had a boss, who had a boss. Coincidentally, in 1976 another history covering the Interstates appeared. Its author, Gary Schwartz, like Weiner, conducted interviews of top highway leaders. Schwartz’s interview of AASHO’s Johnson is the source of the infamous quote on getting rid of “[N-word] town” to explain why some city leaders wanted the Interstates. Although Schwartz dutifully reports the highway industry’s claims that they had had little interest in urban expressways prior to 1956, he also felt compelled to add in a footnote that, since the urban Interstates had become a political liability, “one can easily understand why Johnson now wishes they had been left out.”[32]

Finally, for many policy issues in the United States, we do not have a robust culture for producing historical analyses that combine top-down policy history with the perspectives and issues important to practitioners.[33] Ironically, USDOT, especially the Federal Highway Administration, is one of the federal agencies whose history resources are to be commended.[34] Despite USDOT’s other resources, using Weiner’s work is still unavoidable for urban transportation planning history. It is remarkably accurate on names and dates, and surfaces currently obscure, but once thought important, studies and reports. I advise, however, verifying everything he wrote about their content.

New Stories about the Interstates

The USDOT created an official work of history that actively propagated both the silence and the myth about constructing the Interstate System in urban areas. The federal government was–and always will be–a leader both in developing the Interstate System and in how its history is remembered. The federal government also needs to be a leader in helping the transportation industry understand the impacts of its history.

Additional entries in Justice and the Interstates


Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, is an independent transportation consultant and the author of The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested is Invited, National Academies Press, 2020.

Featured image (at top): Sign for the Interstate Highway System, saluting President Dwight Eisenhower, who initiated the system in the 1950s. Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


[1] I am grateful for the insights of those who reviewed an earlier version of this essay: Asha Agrawal, Rebecca Retzlaff, Mark Rose, and Martin Wachs. I also want to acknowledge the work of Robert D. Bullard, who decades ago introduced a young planner to the concept of environmental justice.

[2] @capntransit, https://twitter.com/capntransit/status/1277696882156994561, Jun 29, 2020. For examples of the myth in the wild, see the responses to @drlungamam, https://twitter.com/drlungamam/status/1277642059491524615, June 29, 2020 and @yfreemark, https://twitter.com/yfreemark/status/1277620432057892865, June 29, 2020. The myth is repeated in the Introduction to the federally funded study, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System, Transportation Research Board Special Report 329 (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2019), 13. Senior leaders also repeated it at the report’s release event held December 8, 2018, https://vimeo.com/305106726 and https://vimeo.com/305109068, both accessed July 8, 2019. See also the otherwise remarkable film “Interstate 94: A History and Its Impact,” Twin Cities PBS, 4/1/17, https://www.tpt.org/interstate-94-a-history-and-its-impact/.

[3] Sam Mintz, “How Biden is betting on Buttigieg to drive a new era of racial equity,” Politico, March 8, 2021; “Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx On the Legacy Of The U.S. Highway System,” Diane Rehm Show, March 31, 2016. See also, USDOT, “Bridging the Divide: Connecting People to Opportunity,” March 28 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wh7I-j9MTpo&feature=youtu.be.

[4] Robert D. Bullard, “Addressing Urban Transportation Equity in the United States,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, XXXI, 2003, 1199-1200; for an example of the policy in action, see Federal Highway Administration, “Policy Guidance Concerning Application of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Metropolitan and Statewide Planning,” Federal Register, May 19, 2000.

[5] Edward Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: An Historical Overview, Fifth Edition, US Department of Transportation, 1997, https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/13691, 237; Environmental Protection Agency, Summary of Executive Order 12898 – Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, accessed August 16, 2020, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-executive-order-12898-federal-actions-address-environmental-justice.

[6] Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning, 1997, 125.

[7] The five are representative of a larger literature. Other key reports include Highway Capacity Manual: Practical Applications of Research (Government Printing Office, 1950), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112052135859; AASHO, A Policy on Arterial Highways in Urban Areas, 1957, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89042696070; and Highway Research in the United States: Needs, Expenditures, and Applications, Highway Research Board Special Report 55, 1959.

[8] Sarah Jo Peterson, The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested is Invited, (National Academies Press, 2020).

[9] Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning, 1997, 14-15; Interregional Highways (Government Printing Office, 1944), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015031947149, 4-5.

[10] Interregional Highways, 51-77.

[11] Richard F. Weingroff, “Designating the Urban Interstates,” Highway History, accessed September 23, 2019, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/fairbank.cfm; Schwartz, “Urban Freeways and the Interstate System,” 173-178; General Location of National System of Interstate Highways, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c101105264.

[12] Peterson, The Transportation Research Board, 104-106; The Sagamore Conference on Highways and Urban Development: Guidelines for Action (Syracuse University, 1958), 9-10, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015020911189.

[13] The Sagamore Conference, 4; Peterson, The Transportation Research Board, 85-102, 114-115.

[14] Schwartz, “Urban Freeways and the Interstate System,” 237-238.

[15] Minutes, June 10, 1954, TRB Executive Committee Meeting Minutes Record Group, NAS-NRC Archives.

[16] National Committee on Urban Transportation, Better Transportation for Your City: A Guide to the Factual Development of Urban Transportation Plans (Public Administration Service, 1958), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89046875142.

[17] NCUT, Better Transportation for Your City, 1, 49.

[18] NCUT, Better Transportation for Your City, xi, 1, 11-12, 62.

[19] NCUT, Better Transportation for Your City, 79.

[20] The Sagamore Conference, 23-24.

[21] The Sagamore Conference, 2-3.

[22] Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning, 1997, 33.

[23] The Sagamore Conference, 27.

[24] The Sagamore Conference, 9. 

[25] The Sagamore Conference, 8.

[26] The Sagamore Conference, 1, 2, 4.

[27] Coleman Woodbury, A Framework for Urban Studies: An Analysis of Urban-Metropolitan Development and Research Needs, Highway Research Board Special Report 52, 1959, 22-27.

[28] Peterson, The Transportation Research Board, 111, 114.

[29] Edward Weiner, Evolution of Urban Transportation Planning, April 1976, Revision #1 June 1976, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/ien.35556021114657, 27. The report is written from the Urban Analysis Program, Office of Transportation Systems Analysis and Information, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Plans, and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Transportation. The Interregional Highways quote appears on pp. 3-4; Sagamore Conference quote appears on p. 7. Between 1976 and 1997, the text underwent only minor copyediting changes, such as replacing “which” with “that.”

[30] Sagamore Conference, 15-17; NCUT, Better Transportation for Your City, 8-10.

[31] Weiner, Urban Transportation Planning, 1997, i; George E. Gray and Lester A. Hoel, eds., Public Transportation, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992). I have not traced Weiner’s pre-1976 report summaries through all of the most recent editions of his published work. Their tables of contents give no reason to believe that he revised his older material. Weiner retired from USDOT in 2006 and died in 2018. “Community Deaths,” Washington Post, June 11, 2018.

[32] Schwartz, “Urban Freeways and the Interstate System,” 239-242.

[33] Housing policy has experienced a blossoming of historical research in the last 25 years that has begun to reach general audiences and practitioners in ways that warrant emulation.

[34] See FHWA, “Highway History,” https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.cfm, accessed March 30, 2021, especially Richard F. Weingroff, “The Genie in The Bottle: The Interstate System and Urban Problems, 1939-1957,” Public Roads, September/October 2000, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/00septoct/urban.cfm.

13 thoughts on “The Myth and the Truth about Interstate Highways

  1. Ahhh, the navel gazers and professional malcontents have moved on to something new to be outraged about.! The Interstate Highway System is one of the greatest achievements in America, and responsible for astounding economic growth and prosperity. Can you imagine trying to get something as useful as this done today, with every victim group trying to out-victim the other? The downfall of this great nation will occur when the great become mediocre to salve the perpetually offended.

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    1. Well actually I can imagine trying to get something this useful today, high speed rail just like all the other industrially advanced countries. So how about it, are you on board?

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  2. Mostly trash from a leftist perspective. One must pay attention to the times and the concerns prevalent at that time. The concept of the Interstates was largely a reaction to WW2. Ike wanted the ability to move massive military equipment to any part of the country that might come under actual attack. Although certainly important, the facilitation of civilian travel was secondary to the primary focus. As for any effect on urban environments, such as presented here weren’t even on anyone’s plate in those days.

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  3. Moving “massive military equipment” as a rationale for building out the IHS is either a myth or a figleaf, since none of the overpasses, bridges, ramps and surfaces would withstand being used for their rapid transport along the system. This was obvious when Trump wanted to hold a military parade in Washington D.C., because the damage to the pavement blocked his grandiosity.

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    1. You obviously have no knowledge of nor experience in moving anything on the highways system. Bringing Trump into your comments just shows your ignorance. Why don’t you stick to commenting on subjects that you actually have some knowledge in. I’m sure that would leave you basically wordless.

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  4. Brilliantly researched and written. It’s clear you’ve hit a nerve with some folks based on their comments, but I guess it’s true that the truth hurts sometimes. Hopefully with someone as promising as Buttigieg at the head of DOT, perhaps this important work will actually gain some traction there. God bless!

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    1. I think the problem is less that “the truth hurts” and more that “some people are making a good show of pretending to look for it.”

      The admin you’re talking about are from the same crew that brought us NAFTA, is trying to bring back TPP, brought us draconian weed laws then just went and fired staffers who said they inhaled, and is now proposing to spend twice as much on electric car charging as on public transportation. Good luck with anything but the neoliberal status quo coming out of Washington for the next 4-8 years.

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  5. This adds some nice nuance to the history but hardly seems a “rebuttal” of whatever one imagines the orthodoxy to be. I was in planning school 20 years ago and it was never suggested to us that we were to believe anything other than, “the Interstate Highway System was bad, disruptive, and racist.” Yes, things could’ve been done better. What planner doesn’t a look at a plan from 60 years ago or even 20 years ago and say, “I could’ve done this better and more equitably.”

    This piece seems all set up to say not much more than “[he] warned that “Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and other low-income rural in-migrants” would “face many difficulties finding other accommodations because of racial and ethnic segregation practices, their low incomes, and other characteristics.”” Not what the actual impact was. Not compared to what. Not who the “other low-income rural in-migrants” were nor why they were moving. Not actual numbers. Not that (or if) they were disproportionately impacted. Not where these neighborhoods were or why they were impacted. Not where they went and for how long.

    What I find most interesting here is the Sagamore Conference – I was aware that such a thing happened but knew of no other details on it – so thanks for that.

    Of course the rest of the history here is in a (seemingly deliberately) decontextualized vacuum as if nothing else was happening in cities at the time, that this sort of thing wasn’t a reality in most urban areas:

    “In 1940 nearly half of houses lacked hot piped water, a bathtub or shower, or a
    flush toilet. Over a third of houses didn’t have a flush toilet. As late as 1960, over 25% of the
    houses in 16 states didn’t have complete plumbing facilities.
    Half of all households heated with coal in 1940, and another quarter heated with wood.”

    Click to access SS04_Panel1_Paper17.pdf

    So we look at the history of cities and of our transportation infrastructure as if nothing else is happening? That no technological advancements had been made inside the home (rendering older housing obsolete) from the 15amp breaker to air conditioning? No advancements in transportation or logistics had been made like containerization and forklifts? No manufacturing advancements were being made not was deindustrialization wasn’t already happening by 1961? And there weren’t political realities like the public distrust of railroads and their association with corruption? And, of course, it ignores the 40 year history of highway planning before the Interstate Highway Act – The Pulaski Skyway was no less disruptive than the Turnpike that came after.

    Indeed, any infrastructure project causes disruption and displacement from the TVA dam building, to road building, to school building, to high speed rail, to gas pipelines. People should receive just compensation regardless of where they live or what they look like.

    Like

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