Illinois Department of Transportation, Erica Borggren, Acting Secretary
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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.
 

FREEDOM

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 Creston, Illinois. 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: lhc1243.

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 vehicles.

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 Section.

SAFETY

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 roadways.

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.

PROGRESS

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 productivity. 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 productivity.

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

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