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The Invention Of The Highway System

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

The Invention Of The Highway System

Winston Takeda
October 5, 2012


Sometimes government does get things right, once in a while. Many people take our amazing transportation system for granted. They feel that it was built once upon a time, so people like us to drive to Grandma's house in North Carolina or wherever she happens to live.

Some people are under the impression that the massive highway system we have was designed to help companies move goods around. While this is definitely one if its main benefits, this really isn't the thinking that went into its creation.

With the expansion of business, most of the raw materials, and goods were shipped by rail. The rail industry was booming, and it was a led by a combination of private industry and government intervention. Most of the land that was used by the railroads was originally owned by the governments. Then various rail companies lobbied the government until they were given exclusive rights to the tracks. Once they owned the tracks, they could lease them out to various companies that wanted to ship things across the country.

Goods made on the East Coast could easily be shipped to the West Coast and vice versa. This led to a massive drop in prices, as well as a massive drop in tickets. Pretty soon goods were getting cheaper, and traveling was becoming more accessible to everybody.

So if the nations rail system was so good, why did we switch to freeways and highways? Why did we abandon the railroads for roads?

Well, first of all, most people like having choice. When given a choice between driving your car somewhere, or taking a train, almost everybody would choose the car. We like our own space, and we don't want to be stuffed in a railroad car like a can of sardines, despite how cheap it must be.

So is this why they started building roads? So we could have more freedom? So car companies could come up with billions of new car models every year?

Nope.

The reason they built the national highway system was to move military personnel and military vehicles. The thinking was that if, say, somebody invaded us on the East Coast, it would take forever to move all the forces and equipment across the country if we the military had to depend on railroads. It would be much easier to have a national system of roads.

So next time you see a tank driving down the highway, or a caravan of military personnel, don't worry. That's actually the reason the roads were created in the first place.

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