Friday, November 18, 2016

The American Interstate Highway System

On family road trips when I was a kid, I would sit up front with my dad. While he was driving, I'd ask him questions about his driving and the road ... why he was putting his directional on or why the yellow line in the road was double sometimes and sometimes not solid.  I would often keep track of state license plates. I'd get excited if I saw one from Alaska or British Columbia. I learned the rules of the road, how to read a map and basically, how to love the road. Also, I learned a few things that I probably shouldn't have like when to high-beam someone or throw them the finger, but most of the stuff I learned was useful. When I see families on road trips now with their DVD players in the car or the kids all looking at their electronic devices, I wonder what is being lost on the American road trip.  I also worry ... what kind of drivers are we producing. I see the results already. They can't even drive without looking at their screens. It is purely an anecdotal observation, but it seems that about half the drivers don't even know the rules of the road. Driving fast in the left lane, passing on the left, not knowing the rules of right-of-way, these aspects of driving seem to be getting lost on the future generation. Maybe, it just won't matter if we're all using self-driving cars soon.

I also mourn the death of downtime. To be alone with your thoughts, staring out the window as the road goes by, the world enfolds ... is this not where creativity is born? Is the lack of boredom producing non-creative adults? That is where creativity comes from is it not, our boredom? If we are never bored, where does the creativity go?

Today, the day I started this blog entry, is the anniversary of our numbered highway system. In 1926, a standardization of numbering highways was adapted. But people don't even understand that. When I was grad school, my favorite class was one of the most challenging. We had to read a novel each week and then write a short story in the style of the novel. We also had to read all our classmates short stories and give feedback each week.  I read a lot that year. I was probably the oldest person in this class. One of the better writers in this class wrote a story based in Texas. In the story, he mentioned Interstate 95 (I95). During the feedback session, I pointed out to him that I95 didn't go through Texas. He said, "How do you know?" I explained to him that there is only one I95 and it runs from Maine to Florida, nowhere near Texas. It occurred to me that most of the people in the class, some very intelligent young people, had no clue about the American highway system.

The US's interstate highway system got underway after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1957 was passed under President Eisenhower, a Republican president in an era when Republicans weren't against using government to actually get things done. This was attempted a few times before but some other priorities, like World Wars, got in the way. Eisenhower was inspired by a cross country trip he made in a military convoy that took 56 days driving 10 hours a day. This was obviously too long from a military standpoint. If he were attacked on one of the coasts, we would need to get reinforcements cross country quicker than that. Developing the interstate system would also have practical uses for leisure and business. Its construction was considered complete in 1992, but even then parts of interstates 95 and 70 were not contiguous.

Here are some simple rules that will help you on a road trip on the US interstates:
  • Odd numbered routes run north to south (like 95 and 5).  Even numbers run East to West (like 90 and 70). 
  • The numbers run from low to high from West to East with I-5 being on the West Coast running through California, Oregon and Washington State and I-95, as mentioned earlier, runs the entire East Coast. Obviously, if you are driving on one of the I-50's, you are in the middle of the country like Interstate 55 which runs from the Mississippi delta to Chicago.
  • Higher numbers are in north and lower in the south. Interstate 10 runs from Santa Monica, California to Jacksonville, Florida where it connects to Interstate 95. I90 connects Seattle to Boston (or as they call it in Boston ... the Mass Pike). I've driven on most of this highway.
  • The major routes are below 100.  
  • When the hundred digit is odd (which is called a spur), it connects two major cities or economic centers. Interstate 195 (which connects to Interstate 95) in Providence goes east to Cape Cod and ends. 395 connects Washington DC with Richmond, Virginia.
  • When the hundred digit is an even number, a circumferential, it goes around major cities. 295 goes around Boston. 495 does an event bigger loop around the city and 287 goes around New York City. 
Route 90 is longest at over 3,000 miles. The shortest interstate is interstate 73 which is a little over 12 miles and is entirely within the state of North Carolina which begs the question, why is it an interstate? 

I love our interstate highway system. It is easy to use and allows me and my wife to take road trips across this beautiful country which is one of the joys of my life. I can't imagine how long and complicated driving cross country would be before our interstates. But like all change, it comes with both good and bad and some unexpected consequences  Some cities were unscathed by interstate development, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the super highways were developed far way and didn't cut through the city.  Or like Providence, Rhode Island where the highways followed an already existing barrier (like the Providence River).  But some cities were devastated by the highway plowing through their town like I-84 cutting Hartford in half, knocking down mostly homes of African Americans. A similar thing happened to Charlotte, NC, Jacksonville, FL and Birmingham, AL. Some of these cities have never recovered. Some entire neighborhoods were flattened. This hasn't only affected black neighborhoods. The City of Boston used to have a West End. It was mostly an Italian and Jewish neighborhood; this is where actor/photographer Leonard Nimoy hails from. In the 1950's it was destroyed to make way for I-93. The neighborhood still exists but it is mostly commercial buildings now.  If you bought a house to be near your church, when they build a highway between the two with no on-ramp, you were out of luck. Blight ensued. Then the wealthy used these same highways to flee the city and to commute from the suburbs they left it with even bigger problems, no tax bases.

This is something think about when you are looking out the window, not your smart phone screen, on a road trip through an American city. When we look out upon an urban landscape which is mostly blight, just remind yourself, this was done for your convenience. With Trump coming into office, who seems to have little interest in infrastructure, don't expect it to get any better any time soon. 

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