High-speed streets with minimal interruptions were a novel concept when first created. Highways, technically called limited access roads, have entry and exit ramps are few and located far between.
Long Island, near New York, was home to the first highway in 1911. Americans continued to build highways, enacting the Federal Highway Act of 1921.
Germans built a system of super-roads – high speed thoroughfares, the Autobahn, starting with the Bonn-Cologne autobahn in 1929. However, the project was well underway before the Nazi party came to power.
The US Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided funds to states to build high-speed modern highways connecting the US. The law authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highway.
Eisenhower knew the potential of roads but also the problems of outdated roads because, in 1919, he volunteered for the army to drive across the then-rural USA. The army’s goal was to assess mobility by motor, a new concept. At the time many roads were unpaved and even signage was spotty.
Eisenhower’s “Motor Truck Train” left Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1919, with 81 vehicles to San Francisco. Seven hours, 46 miles (74km), and one breakdown later they were finished for the first night. Roads were so bad the army traveled with a trailer that routinely pulled trucks from the primitive roads.
The convoy dealt with no signage, slippery sand, and 200 yards of quicksand. Not realizing how long the journey would take, the soldiers resorted to water rationing despite that they were still inside the continental United States. It took 62 days to travel the 3,242 miles (5,200km) to San Francisco, an average of 52 miles (83.5km) per day.
“I think that every officer on the convoy had recommended in his report that efforts should be made to get our people interested in producing better roads. It seems evident that a very small amount of money spent at the proper time would have kept the road in good condition.”Dwight Einsenhower
Once building the national system started, it didn’t take long for highways to reach into the core of the American psyche. Novelist Jack Kerouac penned On the Road in 1957, a story about an epic American road-trip, a right-of-passage for youngsters to take exploring the relatively enormous country. The freewheeling “beatniks” he described morphed into a generational ethos that, even today, permeates American culture.
Europe and other countries also built out their highway system. With the help of the Eurotunnel, completed in 1994, it’s possible to drive from Edinburgh, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, a mere 8,790 miles (15,750 km), a trip Google says will require 183 hours of driving time.
Highways remain popular and plentiful.