Roads and highways in the United States

Commodities such as petroleum are culturally constructed: a market must first place a value on them before they become worthwhile. In the earliest years of petroleum use, it was refined into kerosene, an illuminant developed to replace whale oil. After 1900, when electricity became the source of most lighting, petroleum’s greatest value derived from its use in transportation, mainly the automobile.

First developed in Europe in the late 1800s, the automobile was marketed successfully beginning in 1894. Inconvenience from a lack of roads and infrastructure precluded Americans from rapidly accepting the new "horseless carriage." However, the manufacturing and marketing efforts of Henry Ford and others had changed this attitude by 1913, when there was one motor vehicle to every eight Americans. By the 1920s, Henry Ford's model of mass production had shifted ownership of an automobile from a luxury to a necessity of American middle class life. The need for additional infrastructure—roads, bridges, etc.—was growing, but it was unclear who would pay to develop it.

Federal, state, and local governments began using taxpayer funds to construct roads after enactment of the Federal Road Act of 1916. This project would become what some historians have called the "largest construction feat of human history", resulting in the unfolding of the American road system throughout the early twentieth century. Beginning in the 1920s, legislation created the Bureau of Public Roads to plan a highway network to connect all cities of fifty thousand or more inhabitants. Some states adopted gasoline taxes to help finance development of the new roads. These developments were supplemented in the 1950s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower included a national system of roads in his preparedness plans in case of nuclear attack. This development cleared the way for the Interstate Highway Act to build a national system of roads unrivaled by any nation.

In the United States, roads initiated related social trends that added to Americans' dependence on petroleum. Most notably, between 1945 and 1954, nine million people left cities and moved to suburbs. The majority of these suburbs were accessible to urban areas by automobile only. Between 1950 and 1976, central city population grew by ten million while suburban population grew by 85 million. Housing developments and the shopping/strip mall culture that accompanied decentralization of the population made the automobile a virtual necessity. Shopping malls, suburbs, and fast-food restaurants had become the American norm by the end of the twentieth century, solidifying American reliance on petroleum, but also the resulting environmental impact due to suburban sprawl. Americans were now entirely wedded to their automobiles, which allowed prices of petroleum to impact American life more than in any other nation at the time.

Further Reading
U.S. Highways Information

Glossary

Citation

Black, B. (2006). Roads and highways in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155770

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