Rewriting History: What If the US Federal Highway System Had Not Been Built?
By Kali Breheny, Proposal Manager at Waycare
Everyone driving on the roads in America today is familiar with the interstate highways in place throughout the country. This system was championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after his exposure to the first iteration of Germany’s Autobahn. Eisenhower recognized the need for a network of roads, which could accommodate more vehicles and be used for the country’s safety and defense plan. In his mind, the growth of the United States was tied to this project.
Let’s consider an alternate reality in which Eisenhower did not win the presidency. In that case, what would the USA look like without the federal highway system?
In this version of the past, the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson won the presidency. He had campaigned to continue the significant improvements made to the country through Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Instead of highways to allow more cars on the road, large-scale projects to improve and modernize the public transportation network likely would have been instituted. With the nation focused on mass transit, lifestyles would surely have shifted. Urban planning would have developed to be more pedestrian friendly – prioritizing space for alternative modes of transport without the dominating automobile. It is possible that the United States would also have a bustling high speed train network, connecting opposite coasts in a matter of hours, not days. Without the reliance on personal vehicles to get around, oil would not dominate as a main fuel source. Instead, cleaner energy options potentially would have surfaced at a sooner rate. This would affect the adoption rate and have a huge impact on the environmental well-being of the citizens and wildlife.
With all these changes, certain moments in history we have deemed significant would have passed without a blip. Take for example, the oil crisis in 1973. In this reality, the United States did not depend on oil to fuel means of transportation – crisis averted.
Around the world, carbon emissions and air pollution in major cities would be a large concern, as driving and traffic jams became the norm. However, by design, cities in the United States would not have had this issue. In this version of our past, Americans would have grown up with the freedom to choose from a variety of different, clean options for travel – near and far. This type of exchange would have impacts on business relations, urban/rural divides, and culture as a whole.
Alas, this is not our current reality. In fact, personal vehicles account for the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions . Moreover, many Americans don’t even have access to public transportation – only 45% to be exact .
Stevenson was right, this country could use another New Deal. A more expansive transport system focused on cleaner options, including high-speed rail and electric transit, would stimulate the economy through job creation and new infrastructure development. This country was built on certain freedoms, shouldn’t we have more choice in the way we move?
 Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2018. US Department of Transportation. https://www.bts.gov/sites/bts.dot.gov/files/docs/browse-statistical-products-and-data/transportation-statistics-annual-reports/TSAR-2018-Web-Final.pdf
 Public Transportation Facts. American Public Transportation Association. https://www.apta.com/news-publications/public-transportation-facts/
August 21, 2019