A Road System's Unintended Consequences

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A traffic jam snarls Interstate 495 near Silver Spring, Md.

A traffic jam snarls Interstate 495 near Silver Spring, Md. In many U.S. cities, interstate freeways are clogged with commuters who live in suburbs far removed from their jobs. Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images
A new housing project goes up in Ontario, a suburb of Los Angeles, near a dairy farm.

A new housing project goes up in Ontario, a suburb of Los Angeles, near a dairy farm. The area has one of the largest concentrations of dairy farms in the world -- but despite the smell and the flies, more and more L.A. commuters are settling in the area. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images
A fast food drive-in franchise beckons customers in Illinois, where the fabled Route 66 began

A fast food drive-in franchise beckons customers in Illinois, where the fabled Route 66 began its long road south and west. The interstate highway system spelled the eventual demise of towns along smaller roads like Route 66. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Without its interstate highway system, the United States would have far fewer suburbs, fewer fast-food joints, and "just-in-time" production would be all but unknown in America. The vast road system has changed America forever — for good or ill.

America's interstate freeways are designed to be predictable. And that's sometimes a good thing. There are few surprises and no unexpected variations. Everything about the interstate system is geared toward unchecked motion, with no stop lights or cross-traffic, and limited access.

The offramps and interchanges, the slope of the curves and the length of the acceleration lanes are all part of a language most Americans know by heart. But the interstate system has brought Americans much more than just a way to move quickly and safely across the nation — it's transformed the way Americans live.

At the end of many offramp there's often a fast-food restaurant, a direct descendant of 1940s drive-in restaurants. It's no coincidence that drive-throughs have multiplied right along with federal highways. The quick accessibility of food has helped change American eating habits, and probably not for the better.

And where Americans live has changed, too. In 1960, about 55 million Americans lived in suburbs. By 2000, there were 140 million. Human activity is much more geographically diffuse than 50 years ago, when events revolved around neighborhoods.

Interstates have also transformed the American shipping industry. Freeways make shipping times not only faster, but highly predictable, helping bring about a revolution in manufacturing and retailing throughout the country. The "just in time" system the freeways make possible means goods spend less time sitting around, which lowers overhead and lowers consumer prices.

But what about the social cost? By making it easier for residents and businesses to flock to the suburbs, interstates have also helped drain the economic and social vitality of urban centers. And then there's freeway traffic itself — a problem that's usually addressed by building more freeways, which always invites more traffic.

The modern American lifestyle now depends on cheap energy, cars, lots of freeways and easy access to all of the above. Cars isolate people from one another and allow drivers to be anonymous. And the landscape drivers travel through becomes equally anonymous, just scenes flashing by the window.

More and more, the future of America looks like an ever-expanding maze of concrete ramps and tunnels and open highway, with the promise of unfettered motion and open lanes just over the horizon.

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