Life is a Highway: A Look at America’s Interstates in “Divided Highways”

I have spent countless hours on I-70 traveling east and west through Kansas with the most miles traveled between Exit 76 at Oakley and Exit 303 leading to Manhattan during my undergrad years. I loved to set my cruise control at 80 and turn up country radio, pop on a podcast, or often I listened to the entire cast recording of Hamilton! An American Musical (cue me crying while also belting “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” as I crest the Flint Hills nearing the east edge of Salina). I’ve written some of my favorite poems while driving on I-70, drank far too many Mountain Dews, and chewed a substantial amount of sunflower seeds.

All of this to say; having grown up in rural Kansas (in one of the most “middle-of-nowhere” towns in the country) I have a strong appreciation for road trips, high speed limits, and the Interstate Highway System for getting me places. I’ve long held the belief that I need to read a good book about the Interstate Highway System and just haven’t done it until now.

I finally took the plunge and placed a hold on the book “Divided Highways: Building the Interstates, Transforming American Life” by Tom Lewis. After about a week of waiting, I walked on down to the Codman Square branch of the Boston Public Library for my library pickup appointment, and I immediately got to work reading.

On the whole, I really really enjoyed this book. It was thought provoking, well-written, and covered a lot of ground. So without further ado, here’s some thoughts on Divided Highways and the Interstate Highway System in general.

Rural America

The miles of the Interstate Highways System with which I’m the most familiar are those that cut across the northern part of the state of Kansas with views of grain elevators, water towers, and church steeples.

Highways have their roots in rural areas and these are where Interstates were constructed with peak efficiency. But the relationship of highways and rural areas are complicated.

Much of the groundwork for the Interstate Highway System that established a need for highways in the United States started with Thomas MacDonald, an Iowa farm boy educated at a land grant university. MacDonald became interested in roads because he saw the benefit that good roads could bring to rural areas by enabling farmers and ranchers to reach towns and railroad stations more efficiently.

MacDonald became the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads in 1919 and survived in the position through the administrations of six presidents, three republicans and three democrats, a remarkable feat. He was fired in 1953 when Eisenhower took office. If not for MacDonald’s rural raising, he likely would not have developed an interest in highways and roads, not laid the groundwork for a national network of roads.

In each case, events on the Kansas plains and [Eisenhower’s] experiences in the army had led him to recognize the importance of roads

Divided Highways, p. 89

Having grown up in Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower also saw the need for good highways connecting rural towns with the rest of the country. Initially, the belief persisted that rural areas would be reinvigorated by Interstate highways, as people would be able to commute between them and the cities or find that life was a little less isolated with a strong network of national roads.

The Interstate Highway System was supposed to be complete by 1972. However, portions of it weren’t completed until the 1990s, and the last true Interstate Highway project wouldn’t be finished until 2003 (more on that later). However, the Interstate system wasn’t held up as much in rural areas, because there were fewer people to complain about the problem, and most people tended to look at the benefits of the system rather than the negative impacts. Nebraska was the first state to complete all of its mainline portions of the Interstate Highway System, when it dedicated the final piece of I-80 in 1974.

However, what happened was the development of the suburb, and increased rural depopulation. Just as a small towns that were passed over by the railroads began to disappear, so too were small towns passed over by the Interstate negatively impacted by the routes chosen.

Rural flight is still very real, just a look at census data reveals that. Larger communities and cities with a wider variety of job opportunities beckon. I’ve known for a while that I want to return to a rural community someday to work as a youth services librarian, and I know that I’ll continue to value the Interstates for their ability to bring me to a city to see touring productions of musicals, visit independent bookstores, and go to museums. Interstates do bring increased access to cities for rural communities, but Interstates also make it even easier to leave and never come back except to visit. Two sides of the same coin. I was glad to see Lewis explore that in his book and to really acknowledge that our current highway system stems directly from rurality.

The city

On the east coast, I’m familiar with 95 north out of Boston and into Maine thanks to multiple trips from Camp Kawanhee for Boys to Logan Airport and back. I hate the Tobin Bridge, and absolutely detest city traffic. I’ve also walked the Rose Kennedy Greenway which was once the site of an expressway colloquially referred to as “The Green Monster” and the location of “The Big Dig” the last project of the Interstate Highway system thanks to a bill that passed during the Reagan administration. The project wasn’t completed until the early 2000s.

It was cities where the Interstate Highway system ran into issues. People didn’t want their homes to be seized by the government, people didn’t want the noise pollution that living near Interstates would cause, and people didn’t want to see their cities divided by concrete behemoths.

For all the talk of extension of mobility, increased safety, and ways the Interstates have changed how we work, there are harmful and adverse aspects of the system that some would content outweigh the good.

Divided Highways, p. 273

This facet of Lewis’s book was one of the most interesting for me, because as a long time Interstate fan, I’d never stopped to consider that of course there were negative aspects of the interstate system in cities. In fact, my main association with interstates and cities is just my dislike of city traffic (and that’s because I just don’t have much experience with it).

But honestly, it makes sense that there would be a large amount of pushback. And it shows that protesting the government can be effective. Construction halted on an expressway in San Fransisco before it was eventually removed, residents of New Orleans prevented an expressway from cutting through the French Quarter, and residents of Boston and its surrounding communities banded together to prevent a lot of Interstate construction from happening in the city.

I was fascinated about the Big Dig, and the construction of the Zakim bridge which were the focus of Lewis’s concluding chapter and an addition to the book since its initial publication in 1997. Knowing how recently those projects were actually completed was surprising to me, and it is indicative of the complicated legacy of the Interstate Highway System, America’s largest infrastructure project

Boston’s Zakim Bridge 10-14-2020

Engineering Marvels

When my friend Katie and I took a southwestern road trip during spring break 2019, we expressed our appreciation for the Interstates as we drove parallel to Route 66 in parts of our journey. Later in the same trip, I drove through the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 for the first time. In August of this year, I learned that my great-grandfather worked on I-5 in Oregon when my grandpa was young, so construction was something on my mind going into this book

There’s no denying that the Interstate Highway System has engineering marvels and is the product of lots of labor. That’s one of the things that I appreciate most, is how the Interstates cut through the mountains and carry us to our destinations in (often) efficient ways.

I enjoyed reading about the construction of the Eisenhower Tunnel through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a costly and time consuming project that at the time was the highest vehicular tunnel in the world.

Their plan was to follow the Loveland Pass and, close to the summit at 11,158 feet, tunnel through the Continental Divide. A tunnel at such a height had never been attempted before.

Divided Highways, p. 254

However, along with engineering marvels come engineering failures. Lewis shares the stories of multiple bridge collapses along the Interstate Highway System. This led to a larger conversation about structurally unsound bridges and infrastructure that is no properly maintained. This was a huge flashback to the one year of debate I did in high school where the topic was “Transportation Infrastructure.”

Today, if you checkout the Infrastructure Report Card as complied by the American Society for Civil Engineers, American Infrastructure receives a D+ grade as a whole, with roads getting a D and bridges getting a C+.

Clearly, there is still much work that needs to be done in considering American Infrastructure needs and I’m glad that reading this book led me back to the Infrastructure Report Card and to think about the future of the Interstates.

American Life

It was I-80 and I-90 which took me on the 3 day, nearly 2000 mile drive, from Colorado to Maine and back again in the summer of 2019. This was an insane trip to do by myself, and I was so glad that my mom joined me for my return trip. On the way, copious amounts of fast food were consumed, roadside hotel chains were slept at, and much gasoline was pumped.

Though perhaps not the first to create motel and fast-food franchises, Kroc [McDonald’s] and Wilson [Holiday Inn] were the first to locate them in relation to the Interstates.

Divided Highways, p. 212-213

While chronologically detailing the conditions and construction of the Interstate System, Lewis discusses the ways that the automobile and the highways that came along with it changed American life. From suburbs and commuting to the development of roadside franchises, a lot of what we take for granted about today’s travel experience stemmed from the Interstate Highway system.

The focus on “transforming American life” that Lewis brings to his book is an important one. However, my biggest complaint about this novel is that Lewis repeatedly mentions how the negative effects of Interstates, especially in the cities, disproportionally affected minorities and low-income individuals, but fails to go deeper into these impacts and the way the fit into larger issues of systemic racism. Of course, that could be a whole book in itself, but I would have liked just a little more from Lewis on that.

The Interstate Highway System was our nation’s greatest infrastructure project, our nation’s largest public improvement project, and something that it’s hard now to imagine the country without.

A brief note on Nonfiction

Taking the time to read about the Interstates was such a rewarding experience because I learned so much about something that I’ve never questioned before. And that too, is a reminder of the power of reading a good nonfiction book (something I’ll admit I need to do a little bit more of): To learn that there’s so much more behind something that you take for granted. “You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.”

If you want to share your Interstate Highway thoughts OR your recommendations for nonfiction that I should check out next, drop them in the comments or my contact page.

3 thoughts on “Life is a Highway: A Look at America’s Interstates in “Divided Highways”

  1. My car dying in Eisenhower tunnel would be my worst experience on an Interstate. When I was a child the Interstate meant Knickerson farms restataunts and Stuckeys would be the best experiences.

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