The Illinois Department of Transportation’s commemoration of
the 50th Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System is a
celebration of three of the most profound impacts of the Interstate highways
upon the people of Illinois and the nation.
These are Freedom, Safety and Progress.
The Interstates enhanced freedom of movement for all
Americans. Their numerous safety innovations and improvements provided for safer
highways. And they fostered unparalleled progress by increasing and expanding
economic growth and opportunity.
The Interstates Enhanced Freedom of Movement For All
The Interstate Highway System maximized the freedom of
movement made possible by the motor vehicle for all Americans.
The internal combustion engine and the automobiles,
motorcycles, buses and trucks which employed that technology were around for
sixty years or more before the Interstate Highway System was begun in 1956.
These personally-driven “motor vehicles” offered
significantly greater freedom of movement and flexibility than the passenger and
freight railroads, the other primary mode of transportation of the time. Motor
vehicle drivers did not have to adhere to rigid train schedules or fixed station
stops along an inflexible route of steel rails. On the contrary, motor vehicle
operators could choose from a number of alternative highway routes. They could
start and stop and go as they pleased. Shipments of food, materials and finished
goods were likewise made more independent of the limited routes and schedules of
the railroads and the rail network.
Despite the motor vehicle’s many liberating
advantages, there were limits imposed on freedom of movement by the
nature and design features of early roads. Many early 20th Century roads
were unsafe and often unpaved. Getting “stuck in the mud” was not an
infrequent experience. Narrow roads and tight curves suitable for
slow-moving horses and horse-drawn wagons were not safe for motorcars or
trucks. PHOTO: cars on a “Muddy” Lincoln Highway near
Photo taken by A. F. Bement and H. B. Joy, 1915. Lincoln Highway Digital
Image Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan at
Ann Arbor, Year: 1915 Filing Code: ILL.4 Size: Small, Accession No:
The economic boom of the 1920s saw an aggressive program of
road construction and improvement across the U. S. and in Illinois. However, the
tremendous growth in motor vehicles combined with the lack of funds invested in
roads during the Depression and World War II years (1929-1945) placed practical
constraints on the freedom and flexibility of movement offered by motor
By the late 1940s, motor travel both in urban and rural areas
was made more dangerous, difficult and time-consuming by increasing congestion
and the need to obey ever more numerous stop signs and traffic signals. For
example, it could take three hours or more to drive from DeKalb to downtown
Chicago. Today, on Interstates 88 and 290, the 65-mile DeKalb-Chicago trip can
be as short as an hour and a half.
The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System created
a linked, nationwide network of modern highways offering a safer, higher
speed mode of motor vehicle travel. The interstate system provided
significantly enhanced mobility for those driving within metropolitan
areas and for anyone desiring to travel a distance by auto, motorcycle
or bus for business or pleasure. PHOTO: Aerial
View of I-290 / I-90/94 / Congress Parkway Interchange, West of Downtown
Chicago, date unknown. Oblique Photo Collection, IDOT Aerial Surveys
The Interstates Dramatically Improved Highway Safety
The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System’s many safety
features have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and spared thousands more
from injury since 1956.
The design and operation of the Interstate Highway System
offered many features which made motor vehicle travel far safer than earlier
Foremost among these was that Interstates were
“controlled access” highways. That is, a motor vehicle can enter or exit
the roadway only at designated points (interchange exit or entrance
ramps.) Most other roadways allow for traffic (and often bicyclists or
pedestrians) to cross, enter or leave the road at random at any point
along the route. Railroad crossings were also numerous contributing to
delays and presented their own unique safety hazards. This “random
access” slowed travel speeds and made any heavily traveled highway a
veritable “obstacle course.” Fencing and / or barrier walls along the
Interstate right-of-way prevent “random access” and pedestrians and
non-motorized vehicles are prohibited from using these highways.
PHOTO: Typical grade separation of bridges
allowing rail traffic to pass under Interstate 70, ½ mile South of St.
Elmo, Fayette County, Illinois, 4/9/1963. IDOT Aerial Surveys
Section Art Kisler Collection Photo A-1800.
In addition to controlled access, Interstate highways were
deliberately located and designed to reduce the severity of curves and minimize
hills. Furthermore, all railroads and crossroads either go over or under
Interstate highways on bridges or via tunnels. Where traffic is allowed to move
to or from the Interstate and another roadway, it is done via entrance or exit
ramps at “interchanges.” This eliminated at-grade intersections along the
highway and with it the need for stop signs or traffic signals to regulate and
control access. These measures greatly improved through traffic movement;
reduced crashes involving vehicles running off the road; and eliminated railroad
crossing and intersection-related delays and crashes.
Most interchanges themselves offer a variety of
safety features. “Deceleration lanes” allow drivers to prepare for an
exit ramp and removes them from faster moving through traffic lanes.
Similarly, “access lanes” or “merging lanes” leading from entrance ramps
allow drivers a reasonable distance to get up to speed and enter the
through traffic lanes without unduly disrupting traffic flow.
PHOTO: Northbound Interstate 55 at Clear Lake
Avenue Interchange, Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois, 4/14/1964.
IDOT Aerial Surveys Section Art Kisler Collection Photo 16596.
Interstate highways were also “divided highways” with medians
and/or barriers separating traffic moving in opposite directions. While not
eliminating the possibility of vehicles “crossing over” into on-coming traffic
lanes, medians and barriers greatly reduced the probability of “head-on”
collisions. This was especially the case when contrasted to undivided highways
where vehicles were much closer to opposite direction traffic, perhaps separated
from it by only painted stripes on the pavement.
Another Interstate safety measure often
overlooked and taken for granted today are the “shoulders” adjacent to
the through traffic lanes. These allow drivers with vehicles
experiencing mechanical problems (or personal emergencies) which occur
between exit ramps to leave the through traffic lanes and deal with the
situation. Likewise, shoulders permit safer and swifter access to
accident scenes by emergency vehicles. “Rumble strips” along shoulders
exist to alert distracted or fatigued drivers that they are straying
from the through traffic lanes.
PHOTO: Disabled car on the shoulder of the
Congress Expressway, Chicago, Illinois, June 24, 1959. America on
the Move Exhibition, Photo No. 272, Courtesy of the Chicago Transit
Authority (CTA). National Museum of American History. Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D. C.
For the tremendous amount of traffic they carry, the
Interstates have far lower accident, fatality and injury rates that other parts
of the highway system. Despite all of these safety innovations though, crashes
still occur along Interstate Highways. Some may occur as a result of higher
traffic volumes on older roadway segments with less modern safety design
features. Refinements in safety engineering and associated roadway improvements
will continue to improve the safety of interstate highway travel.
However, the dangerous driver (the unthinking, impaired,
distracted and discourteous) will defy or circumvent even the most modern safety
features. As a result, today, as in the past, driver observance and law
enforcement of the “rules of the road” on Interstates and elsewhere is an
integral part of the safety equation.
The Interstates Fostered Economic Growth and Opportunity
The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System has had a
profound positive impact on the economic growth and range of employment options
and lifestyle choices afforded residents of Illinois and the United States.
The Interstate Highway System was a major factor in ushering
in a fifty-year period of unprecedented progress, prosperity and economic growth
in the United States and Illinois. The efficiencies and productivity gains made
possible by motor vehicle transportation were significantly expanded and
accelerated by the reductions in travel times and costs afforded by the safer,
higher speed travel the Interstate highways permitted. In addition, the enhanced
freedom of movement made possible by the Interstate system increased economic
activity in general and offered more opportunities for a higher quality of life
to a far larger segment of the population.
By increasing speed and freight movement
flexibility, the costs of moving goods by truck (or tractor-trailer, or
container) were substantially reduced by the Interstate highway network.
The relative travel time reliability of truck shipments has made “just
in time” delivery and inventory management possible, thus reducing
warehousing costs and increasing manufacturing and retail sector
PHOTO: Odds are this truck is Interstate bound.
Illinois Department of Transportation Slide Collection.
The larger range of workplace commuting has served the
employer, the employee and the economy as a whole. With a broader geographic
range of jobs to choose from and employees to hire, employees are better matched
to the jobs for which they are qualified. This has improved labor efficiency and
The greater efficiency of movement has enabled
the creation of larger, more competitive markets for goods and services
with companies able to supply goods to larger geographic areas less
expensively. The broadened geographical range of shopping opportunities
and access to services has increased competition and lowered consumer
prices. The expansion of goods and services availability was especially
dramatic for more remote rural areas in Illinois. For nearly every
consumer (urban, suburban or rural) the Interstates make it possible to
choose among a wider array of goods and services and take advantages of
lower prices and larger selections.
PHOTO: Shopping Center near I-74, Champaign,
Illinois, circa 1960. IDOT Aerial Surveys Section Art Kisler
Collection Photo 15748.
All of these cost saving impacts of the Interstate system
have encouraged business expansion, new investment and job creation – key
elements in maintaining and improving the quality of life in Illinois and the
nation as a whole.
The Interstate system’s expansion of personal freedom of
movement allows people to choose from a wider range of options and activities.
The system has enabled people to pursue
employment opportunities over a wider geographic area. The number and
percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture has declined
significantly, yet people in rural communities far from employment
centers need jobs. The Interstate system allows these people to access
those employers more easily. Likewise, in urban areas, travel from
central cities to expanding job markets in growing suburban employment
centers would be far more difficult if the Interstates did not exist.
In terms of residential location choices, those who prefer
suburban living to that of the city would be hard pressed to afford that
lifestyle without the mobility allowed by the Interstates.
PHOTO: Aerial view of Park Forest, a new Chicago
suburban community, 1952. America on the Move Exhibition, Photo No. 691.
Courtesy of the Park Forest Public Library. National Museum of American
History. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.
Lastly, the overall time savings allowed by
Interstate travel translates into additional time available for non-work related
activities. The range of leisure activities, tourism travel choices and
tourist-related job opportunities now possible via motor vehicle travel was far
smaller prior to the arrival of the Interstate Highway. Furthermore, not
everyone can afford to travel by the fastest means now available, the modern
airplane. However, the vast majority can afford to travel long distances by car,
motorcycle or bus.
Interstate 50th Anniversary