Highways Change the Face of America The interstate highway system is the result of the largest earth-moving project in human history -- so large that it's been called the "51st state." The system accelerated suburban development, changed shipping, leisure travel and American culture as a whole.

Highways Change the Face of America

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This is the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system. Frank Morris of member station KCUR-Kansas City spent some time on I-70, the cradle of the system.

Mr. FRANK MORRIS (Reporter, KCUR): Just after World War I, Dwight Eisenhower, then a young Army officer, led a military convoy across the United States. The trip took 62 days. By 1955, he'd seen Germany's autobahn and the Pennsylvania turnpike, and there was a movement afoot to modernize American roads. Ike took the wheel.

President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (President of the United States, 1952-1960): A modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy and our national security.

Mr. MORRIS: A year-and-a-half later, a half-century ago today, Eisenhower signed legislation creating the interstate system. The first section was started in Missouri, but the first one completed was in Ike's home state.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. MORRIS: Standing on Interstate 70, just west of Topeka, Kansas, the (unintelligible) next eight miles here, going into the Flint Hills, were the first eight miles of interstate finished in this country. So this is where the interstate started, and then it spread out for 46,000 miles. So, from this spot, I can make it to almost any major city in the United States in 24 hours.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. MORRIS: In 1956 that was revolutionary.

(Soundbite of starting engine)

(Soundbite of horn honking)

Mr. MORRIS: Dan McNichol, an author based on Boston, is driving a '51 Hudson across the country as part of a convoy set to arrive in Washington D.C. today.

Mr. DAN MCNICHOL (Author): Indisputable! It is the largest, single project in the history of the world. If you look at the Great Wall of China; look at the Pyramids; look at the Panama or Suez Canals - this trumps them all.

Mr. MORRIS: McNichol says this epic system replaced a patchwork of roads that, in addition to being slow, rough and congested, were much more deadly.

Mr. MCNICHOL: Its brilliance and its genius, is in that it is predictable. When you drive around a corner, when you switch state lines, it's all the same and that keeps you alive.

Mr. MORRIS: Those predictable roads make for more reliable shipping, and efficient, just-in-time delivery. The trucking industry's grown more than 15-fold, since the interstates were built. But Bernard College history professor, Owen Gutfreund, says that while they've helped commerce, they've hurt major cities - and almost by design.

Professor OWEN GUTFREUND (Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies, Barnard College, New York City, New York): The engineers that planned the system really wanted to be able to skip cities. Cities were seen as bottlenecks, traffic problems, overcrowded areas that motorists ought not to have to get stuck in.

Mr. MORRIS: Thousands of city blocks were bulldozed to build freeways, which then siphoned residents and businesses out. Instead of growing from town centers, suburbs now spread from interstate exits.

Ms. TRACY QUILLIN (Curator of Education, Johnson County Museum, Shawnee, Kansas): …couple steps down.

(Soundbite of garage door closing)

Mr. MORRIS: Tracy Quillin, director of the Johnson County Museum in suburban Shawnee, Kansas, shows off a half-century-old garage door opener in the museum's 1950's ranch house, which features an attached garage.

Ms. QUILLIN: So the car literally moves in with the family. It's got its own special room and it really changes the whole culture. And you've got drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants - the whole culture starts to revolve around the automobile and the convenience of not really having to leave your car.

Mr. MORRIS: All that time in the car has produced major headaches for some small towns.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. MORRIS: The exit off I-70 at Oak Grove, Missouri is a good example. Semi-trucks and cars clog the off-ramps in a crush to reach a myriad of fast-food joints, chain hotels, gas stations and truck stops.

But a mile away, the town itself is quiet - some say dead. Long-time resident Juan Kingsford(ph) is unimpressed with what the interstate has brought.

Mr. JUAN KINGSFORD: Jesse James was a rank amateur compared to these gas stations up here on the freeway. I wish they'd get them all out of there. Then we'd have a nice little town - like it used to be.

Mr. MORRIS: But the tens of thousands of miles of interstate are here to stay, and they've influenced development across this country, much like the railroads and the rivers before them. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(Soundbite of music)

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