America used to be globally renowned for its usage of trains as a way of shipping, transporting goods, and public transportation. But in the last 60 years, America has become a global laughing stock for public transportation-specifically for their trains and for the long-term effects of the Interstate Highway Act (IHA). The IHA is the reason that America today has a comprehensive private transportation system in the form of interstates, highways, freeways, etc. But at the same time, gaining a well-connected private transportation network meant that America lost much of its subsidized public transportation like streetcars, trains, buses, and subway systems. 60 years on from the signing of the IHA, America is generalized in global society as a transportation nightmare, and ‘car-centric’. Other words people often use for America’s transportation scene are ‘Suburbanized’, ‘Pedestrian unfriendly’, and ‘Concrete fields’. But Americans today never seem to quite understand why the IHA came about and how it became a massive negative to long-term social, political, and economic developments in North America and abroad. The issue of being ‘suburbanized’ is not only an American problem, but it is a problem in many countries around the world, with Canada being one of the best examples of pedestrian unfriendliness outside of the U.S. But just what was the Interstate Highway Act of 1956?
Interstate 90 (I-90) after its construction was completed in 1956. (Encyclopedia Britannica/AP/Shutterstock.com)
The Interstate Highway Act was signed into law by President Dwight D Eisenhower on June 26, 1956. The act was intended to shore up America’s transportation network for military usage, and in actuality, the Interstate Highway Act is called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. Many people have a misconception that the act was only intended for the automobile industry, when in reality it was intended to be used by the American military and Military Industrial Complex (MIC). The Interstate Highway Act was influenced majorly by President Eisenhowers personal experiences during the Second World War as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, especially with the German armies’ usage of their Autobahn highway network, which gave them a major transportation advantage over the Allied armies during the war. It was also useful to the Allies, as Eisenhower noted the increased mobility of Allied armies when they began fighting around the Autobahn near the end of the war. Eisenhower, after becoming the President of The United States (POTUS), commonly pressured Congress for a highway act after several failed attempts at the passage of any act.
Supreme Allied Commander (Europe) Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became the President of the United States. (United States European Command)
However, this does not mean that the act was entirely intended for a military purpose. Infact, in the 1950’s, many people considered the power of the Detroit car lobby to be all-encompassing. The Detroit lobby was made up of most major American car manufacturers, like Ford, General Motors (GM), and Chrysler. These three companies (sometimes referred to as the Big Three) had unprecedented lobbying power at the time they were most active, which often influenced Federal and State decisions about the expansion of the American automobile. The best example of the Big Three’s influence would be the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which allowed for the Big Three to make the American automobile industry grow to an absolutely unprecedented scale. Before the 1950s, the Automobile was considered a luxury for most people to afford, but since the Big Three were able to lobby for acts which would make the Automobile the most useful mode of transportation (especially with the creation of Suburbs), it meant there were no roadblocks in the way for the expansion of the Big Three, the Automobile industry, and Suburbs.
Widely considered the first truly ‘Suburban’ city, Levittown PA is widely considered the origin of the modern American suburb. (Public Domain Image from Wikimedia)
Suburbs are one of the most controversial developments from the 1950s. Suburbs are cities/communities which are created for someone to use a car to get around-not for people. Suburbs are also where most Americans today live, and they have kept growing after facing mounting opposition from activists at the turn of the Millenium. Many political and social movements like New Urbanism and the revival of support for public transportation like Trams, Subways, and Trains, have provided a potent source of opposition to the expansion of Subuhrban areas. The best example of a large city being mostly made up of Suburbs is Los Angeles. Despite the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area estimated to have 18.7 Million people living there, it’s estimated that only around 60-80,000 people actually live within the Downtown area of Los Angeles, where the Central Business District (CBD) is located, and which also corresponds to where most of the Skyscrapers are. LA is known for its ‘urban sprawl’ which occupies all of the valley where LA is located (along with adjoining San Bernardino). There are even viewing platforms on the mountains and hills that surround LA dedicated to looking at the Urban Sprawl of the city from a high vantage point. The urban sprawl of LA is, in reality, one of the largest (or the largest) masses of Suburbs which humans have built-low density, single-family homes which are dependent on the major Freeways that cross LA to get across the city.
Famous for its Urban Sprawl, this is a view of Los Angeles at night from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. (Flickr/JB-1984)
Many critics of Suburbs/the Interstate Highway Act often point to Los Angeles and other cities with similar development patterns as the best examples of how the IHA has ruined American cities. Many urban planners also point to Los Angeles as a poor example of urban planning, and some have even pointed out that the IHA was designed to split ethnically mixed or minority groups and their neighborhoods. Large freeways in cities noticeably cut through neighborhoods which were populated by majority African-American, Hispanic, Latino and Asian populations were often the neighborhoods that would have an Interstate or Freeway plotted through the center of the neighborhood. The White House, under the administration of President Joe Biden, released a large fact sheet of their “American Jobs Plan”, which included advocating for workers rights and minority support. They dedicated a section of the document to addressing historical inequalities related to the Interstate Highway Act-including the unequal distribution of Freeway and Interstate plots through minority neighborhoods. They cited the Clairborne Expressway in New Orleans and I-81 in Syracuse, which are historically criticized as a tool being used by the Federal government to divide Minority communities during an important period in the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was an extremely important issue to the Federal government during the 1950’s and 60’s, especially parts of the movement being led by figures such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. These figures were important in the spread of the Civil Rights Movement, and it also was of great concern to the Federal government to attempt and stymy the movement. Many reports and investigations have revealed that part of the IHA was secretly made to divide minority communities during this important period of time-which had disastrous economic consequences for the minority regions affected.
Aerial view of the Highway 101 and Interstate 280 Interchange in San Francisco, which was still under construction. (Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)
In modern times, the IHA has become a popular rallying point for civil rights activists and new-urbanists. Many American cities have started passing laws that would remove Freeways and redevelop communities which have been negatively affected by the IHA. New methods and developments of public transportation, like the expansion of Tri-Rail in Miami or the creation of the Brightline High-Speed Rail system throughout Florida, have had positive effects on local communities. But these systems also draw criticism for their ineffectiveness, low frequencies of service, or the fact that their stops are not located in prime neighborhoods which badly need a public transit system of their own. In conclusion, despite the new movements and laws being passed to try and remedy the effects of the IHA, the fixing of the IHA still has a long way to go, and many refinements to make to the process. The IHA has been extremely influential in American society and political developments, but with its long-term negatives, it will hopefully not remain for much longer.
Interstate 980, which cuts off West Oakland, California, from nearby neighborhoods. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)
National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (1956), United States National Archives
Interstate Highway System, Encyclopedia Britannica
History of Supreme Allied Commanders Europe (SACEUR), U.S European Command, eucom.mil
Flickr.com, Los Angeles Night Sprawl
Transportation Policy and the Underdevelopment of Black Communities, The Iowa Law Review
FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan, The White House Briefing Room, Administration of Joe Biden
How Interstate Highways Gutted Communities-And Reinforced Segregation, History.com
Removing Urban Highways Can Improve Neighborhoods Blighted by Decades of Racist Policies, TheConversation.com