What If The US Interstate Highway System Had Never Been Built?

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In 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower traveled across the US while he was in the military. It took two months on two-lane roads. While he was in Germany during World War II, he traveled the autobahn and was impressed by this network of superhighways. Those experiences led him to promote a highway system for the US, and in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or more commonly known as the Interstate, resulted.

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The purpose was to move traffic more quickly and efficiently over greater distances. Like the Internet has made the world smaller, the interstate made the US smaller and accessible to everyone. The US became highly industrialized and economically powerful around the world by connecting cities for interstate commerce.

Like all progress, the interstate had its opponents. They lost the fight, though, and after 35 years, the system was considered complete. What if the opponents outnumbered the proponents and gotten their way? What would the US look like in the 21st century without the interstate?

Highways and local economies

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Life would be very localized. Cities would flourish from local industry. Small businesses would be the norm. How many times have you seen businesses move to the area by the Interstate to leave the original city center deserted just a few miles away? I’ve traveled across the US by car dozens of times, and this is a frequent occurrence. Mom and pop retail businesses and restaurants have had to close, because big box stores, chains, shopping centers and fast food restaurants killed them. With more people traveling longer distances on the Interstate, more customers from a larger area were drawn in. Still true today, mom and pop can’t compete with chain store prices, so they die.

Goods would not be transported across country. Cargo ships come from foreign countries loaded with trailers. These get hooked up to trucks, and off those goods go 3000 miles away in a couple of days. That’s why we buy things from China and other countries, because transportation makes it easier. With no Interstate system, commerce would be localized, which is the way it was before and what we are trying to get back to now!

Highways, agriculture, and food distribution

A friend of mine was a trucker, and she said they’d load her truck in California with green tomatoes, which were red by the time she reached the east coast a few days later. They might have been red, but they weren’t very fresh! Most fruits get picked under ripe for shipping, with the expectation they will ripen during transport and stocking onto a store shelf. This is why tomatoes are sometimes like cardboard and pears like rocks. And if they are picked too under ripe, they never ripen, and the customer throws them out. I’ve had this happen…

So, food would be locally grown without the Interstate system. It would be fresher, have more nutrients and probably be organic, since the manufacture and distribution of pesticides is not a local business. Small farms would be intact and sustainable, meaning farmers would compost waste and turn it into the soil, they’d have bees for pollination, and animals for manure and food. Small farms used to be fully contained, sustainable systems. We would not have gotten away from that.

Highway systems and urban planning

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Cities would have been more developed instead of moving into the suburbs. They’d be denser and walkable or bike friendly, since people would not be commuting on the Interstate. Housing would be close to jobs, school and conveniences. With no suburban sprawl, millions of acres of trees and natural grasses would still be standing. We’d have a truly greener countryside.

The love affair with the automobile might not be what it is today. Travel along two lane roads is scenic, but it does not get you anywhere fast. Life would be a little slower without the mobility we have now. Route 66 would just be Route 66. There would be no reason for it to be historical, since its demise came about because of the Interstate system.

Interstate system – far reaching implications

This is a small part of the picture. I could ask if train travel for goods and people would have been more developed, or if it would have become unnecessary as communities thrived with local business. What about the rest of the world? Would it have developed the same as it has? Would that make us out of step? Would air travel have gotten more popular with more routes around the US?

I imagine without the Interstate system, other forms of transportation would have grown in ways we can’t imagine. What do you think?

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.