Superhighways Before the Interstates

In an active thread about train travel 50-150 years ago, the comment was made that typically car travel was along two-lane roads passing through every community, and hence much slower than today. jayjay raised the issue of the Pennsylvania Turnpike predating the Interstate system, and other limited-access superhighways like the New York State Thruway and Connecticut’s Wilbur Cross Highway might be added to that list.

So my question is, before the late 1950s when the Interstate system was being put in place, what was available in the way of limited-access highways? Where could one travel between without having to slow down for the metropolises of Prairie Dog Corners and Resume Speed?

Surely you’ve heard of US Route 66. That’s probably as close as you can get.

But it’s not close at all. Route 66 passed through all the small towns along the way. They depended on the business that being on the route gave them and furiously fought the coming of the Interstates that would bypass them.

The answer is that before the Interstate System, America had some limited-access highways. But these were small and local and not interconnected with one another in any national grid. You couldn’t escape the small towns if you wanted to make a major trip across several states. That was one of the design standards behind the Interstates, to avoid small towns and their speed limits (and speed traps).

I assume the problem - which the interstate system was meant to address - was that the turnpike-type roads were local and the voters who fudned them very parochial. There was no incentive for New York to fund a fancy highway from Buffalo toward Cleveland to the border, or toward Boston. Similarly - did the Pennsylvania Turnpike stop at Pittsburgh or carry on to the Ohio border?

In the remote states, was there the traffic or money to build decent roads for people just passing thorugh? Nobody wanted the highway to bypass their town and businesses, until the road traffic became too heavy and annoying.

It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. What came first, the traffic or the roads?

There were a number of parkways built in the early to mid 20th century, many begun as New Deal public works projects. Besides the Wilbur Cross Parkway you mentioned, Connecticut also had the Merritt Parkway (built 1934-1940); New York has the Taconic State Parkway (built in several sections between 1929 and 1963). Then there’s the Blue Ridge Parkway, begun in 1935 (and not completed until 1987!), and the George Washington Memorial Parkway around D.C., authorized in 1930. In Rhode Island, I remember the part of US 1 running through the southern part of the state being a limited access parkway prior to the coming of the interstates.

The Lincoln Highway was the first road across the U.S. From what wikipedia indicates, it was completed in 1913.

I used to actually live right by one of the routes (Rt. 206 in NJ) which made up this highway.

-R. Incognito

It didn’t pass through “all the small towns,” and many of those towns sprung up because of the highway, so you are suggesting some self-fulfilling prophecy that’s a non-starter at best. One would hope that it would go without saying that a long distance highway is necessarily and inherently going to need to have towns on it, for gasoline and lodging and meals and so forth.

Of course, what’s also interesting is that many of those towns on Route 66 have been long abandoned, replaced by other towns that sprung up once the interstates were built. Curiously, one still finds towns on the interstates and the major economies are taking care of travelers… food, lodging, fuel etc. It’s not coincidental.

I think I am confused. Route 66 doesn’t fit because it went through small towns. But you say if someone wants to take a highway to get somewhere, they are going to find small towns.

Are you suggesting the early highways started and terminated out in the boonies? Highways, by definition, are designed to get someone from Point A to Point B. What good is a highway if it doesn’t go anywhere?
Can you cite me some of these rural highways that were small and local and not interconnected and did not pass through small towns?

Ditto here. Lincoln Highway follows US Rte. 30, which goes right through Lancaster. It’s actually on the other side of the block my house is on (as in, if you could walk through our back yard, our neighbor behind’s back yard, and our neighbor behind’s house, you’d be on the sidewalk looking at Lincoln Highway (Columbia Ave)).

The Interstate highway system was a significant engineering upgrade from existing turnpikes – it was more than just an extension of routes. Look at the Pasadena Freeway, which predates the National US design. Compared to later roads, it has sharper curves, narrower lanes, brief merge & exit lanes or none at all (a stop sign at the end of the freeway’s on-ramp was typical). These early experiments with traffic concepts may have paved the way, but they were inadequate for the cars and drivers that came later.

The Interstates were first formally announced in the 1950s (the system and routes were first conceived and planned in the 1930s), but widespread construction really didn’t begin until the 1960s. Cross-county travel in the 1970s and early 1980s would often still involve large stretches of conventional roads; a hundred miles of Interstate, then a US highway for 50 miles while you saw highway construction, grading, or unopened ghost Interstate stretch out in the distance, then back onto the Interstate, then off again, and so on. The system in the not-so-distant past often seemed like US 101 in California today or US 15 in Pennsylvania 10 years ago.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were state toll roads (the earliest was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940), some of which were connected with the toll roads of other states. Many states had small limited-access toll roads through heavily trafficked corridors, for example US 36 between Denver and Boulder. Many states had planned tollway networks before the Interstate Highway system was announced in the 1950s; most connected with the planned or existing tollways in other states.

There were also limited-access parkway networks in some areas, such as Robert Moses’s network in the NYC area, and the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles. The earliest limited-access motor vehicle parkway in the US that I know of is the Rockefeller Parkway in Cleveland, which was built in the early 1900s. It’s only two lanes, and entrances and exits are at 90 degree angles, but it was a true limited access road from the start, with no direct access to houses, businesses, or other roads.

A drive across the US on a road like US 66 or US 30 (the Lincolnway, as it’s still called in many places today) wasn’t like you were traversing some frontier trail. In many places, US 66 and US 30 were four lane divided highways. They just weren’t limited access roads. There might be the occasional cloverleaf at a very busy suburban intersection. Lane marking would have been minimal; just the break lines in the concrete pads to distinguish the lanes in most areas. In rural areas, travel would be just a bit slower than an Interstate in the 55 MPH era; stops in small towns, driveways to farms and isolated houses, farm equipment on the roads, and tighter turns and steeper slopes than today’s Interstates, but otherwise it wasn’t as if you were in a horse and buggy.

The Interstate system was actually intended to enable rapid movement of military materiel as well as high-speed transportation. It was never intended to address any sort of “parochialism”.

The roads.

When Route 66 was being planned, many towns lobbied to be on the chosen route. The competition was pretty intense. Afterwards, others formed to take advantage of the built-in business opportunities.

Route 24 in Southeastern Massachusetts is really similar to an interstate highway but it isn’t a real one and it predates the U.S. interstate highway system. It has entrance and exit ramps and even rest stops.

The traffic. Traffic on American roads in the 1930s was horrible. Automobile ownership was increasing despite the Depression, streetcar systems were slowly being dismantled, roads had no lane markings, traffic signals weren’t timed, there were no left turn arrows or right-on-red laws, there were no access management policies (dictating the placement of driveways and cross streets), and contemporary suburban strip development (in the 1920s with speculative “taxpayer strips”, and later in the form of exurban ice cream stands, hot dog stands, outdoor dance clubs, patio bars, miniature kiddie amusement parks, and oversized farmer’s stand/supermarket hybrid stores) was getting its start. Induced demand scenarios would come decades later.

Many of the 1940s-1950s era turnpikes were part of statewide turnpike or toll road authorities. Even spurs, like the Niagara Thruway (I-190) in Buffalo, were built and operated by the New York Thruway Authority.

There were intergovernmental agreements to connect the various toll road networks, and planning for the early toll roads was performed in cooperation with other states. Toll roads were planned for Texas and Missouri; they would have connected with the roll roads in Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois,ultimately allowing a driver from Boston to travel to Houston or San Antonio on a continuous, interconnected network of state toll roads.

Another example: when Pennsylvania planned their toll road, it was intended to serve traffic between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Ohio planned a toll road to stretch from the Pennsylvania state line to the Indiana border. Routing for the road was planned in conjunction with toll road authorities in Indiana and Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania would expand the Turnpike to meet the Ohio Turnpike, and Indiana would have the eastern terminus of the Indiana Toll Road meet the western terminus of the Ohio Turnpike.

Another toll road, Ohio 1, was planned to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Ashtabula. I-90 through Pennsylvania was originally going to be part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike network, connecting the far western terminus of the New York Thruway with the eastern terminus of the Ohio 1 toll road in Conneaut.

md2000 states there was no incentive to build regional toll road networks, but there actually was: the revenue from interstate traffic, and the prospect of economic development resulting with improved accessibility tot he national transportation network. The early toll road systems were intended to connect cities more so than areas within cities. The New York State Thruway is evidence of this early road planning policy; it skirts around what was then the urbanized edges of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. Only later were spurs built to serve intra-city traffic.

Cite for this? I’d like to know which towns sprang up after Route 66 went through. There may be some but only an insignificant percentage.

It’s not even remotely true. Take the New York State Thruway. The point of the road was that you never had to go through a town. Service areas are spotted around ever 30-40 miles so that you never have to get off to get gas or meals. Of course there are exits to all major cities and you have to leave for overnight stays, but that’s a wholly different matter. It’s also a toll road. Most of the early thruways were tolled (Pennsylvania is another example) and the point was that you needn’t need to leave for services once you got on. It was only after the Interstate system that free highways became common.

No, I said that before Interstates most coast to coast highways went through towns. That’s no longer true. You can travel coast to coast without ever having to slow down.

Read cjepson’s post. Those are the small, local limited-access highways before the Interstate system. None of them connect major cities. Few even went across state lines. They were built to alleviate traffic on local roads to get people out of major cities to the far reaches of the metro areas rather than as city-to-city connector spans as today.

The OP asked about “limited access” roads. That’s why Route 66 doesn’t fit.

Driving from New York to visit relatives in Detroit and DC, I was on the Turnpikes in the late '50s, early '60s. I’m pretty sure the Pennsylvania Turnpike went right through. I also vaguely remember taking US 1 from New York to DC and it taking forever. When I lived near it in Princeton it was limited access, but in one of the
Fudge books Judy Blume has him walking through the Harrison Street circle, which would have been suicide when I lived there.

As for the cities on the roads question, I wonder what the percentage of long haul traffic was before the Interstates. I suspect it was much lower than today, since a trip would take a lot longer even on the Route 66 or US 1 type roads. Thus, the roads would have been designed for relatively short city to city traffic, not the model of the interstates which connected across states and were meant to move traffic through quickly.

The Ohio Turnpike and Indiana Toll Road predate the Interstate system. They connected to each other at the Ohio-Indiana state line and the Ohio turnpike connected to the Pennsylvania Turnpike so one could drive across all three states without cross traffic or stop lights. I never drove the PA turnpike east past Philadelphia so I’m not sure what it connected to at that end. There was also a NorthEast extension on the Pennsylvania turnpike, but I don’t know when that dates from.

I’m pretty sure the Massachusetts turnpike and the New York Thruway predate the interstate system and connected together much as they do now.

Blue Ridge parkway is a very scenic 2 lane road that does not allow trucks or any commercial vehicles. The speed limit is 45. About 95% was finished by WW II, a small section was completed in 1987 because it took a very long time for 1 landowner to give permission for it to be built near his land. They built this viaduct to get his OK.

Here’s a good site for those who find the history of roads interesting called Road Fan (Dot) Com

You can also try Misc.Road.Transport if you have access to usenet or through Google Groups.