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Binding Communities, Connecting Cultures


Second Place Winner: Matthew Zmudka

In September 1916, Woodrow Wilson was quoted in an article featuring him as "President Wilson the Motorist." He stated, "My interest in good roads is... to bind communities together and open their intercourse so that it will flow with absolute freedom and facility." In the next forty years, the dreams and goals of America would change through war, prosperity, and depression, but his dream was kept alive. With the passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, another proponent of good roads, Dwight D. Eisenhower, continued Wilson's quest to open the nation's flow of traffic. Since its inception, the Interstate Highway System has bound communities in ways never imaginable, and with future improvements in connectivity and technology, it will continue to bind communities and allow for the ultimate in traveling freedom and development of American culture.

Wilson's push after World War I led itself to some highway improvements; however, the creation of what we now know as U.S. highways was, in many instances, little more than a renumbering. The cross-country road network was still vague, disconnected, and rustic. A 1919 government expedition from Washington D.C. to San Francisco via the Lincoln Highway (now U.S. Highway 30) was plagued by cracked bridges and roads full of mud. Eisenhower was part of this journey, and called it "difficult, tiring, and fun." Even worse, entire regions of the South were left out of the system, plaguing its economic development and keeping it financially and socially segregated from the rest of the nation.

The factor that truly intensified the push for the Interstate Highway System, however, was the need for efficient defense highways. While serving in World War II, Eisenhower marveled at the efficiency and quality of the Autobahn network in Germany, and with Cold War tensions perpetually on the rise, it became necessary for the safety of our nation. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 created the tools that set construction in motion; a set of uniform, high-quality four-lane highways. Even bigger than the New Deal public works projects of the 1930s, it prompted construction in every state except Alaska of large highways, clean signage, and convenient exits.

Accompanying the construction of the Interstate Highway System was a shift in American culture. More and more people were escaping the density and dirt of the inner cities to live in suburbs, where green lawns and small, single-family houses ruled the vast landscape. Undeniably, the construction of new highways to facilitate commuting to jobs and shopping led to the boom of both suburbs and the American economy in general. Motorists could reliably hop on the interstate without having to worry about stoplights, poor maintenance, or dangerous grades and curves. While new communities were created, it became possible to bind them to nearby major cities, giving rise to the modern metropolitan area. For those passing through cities, bypasses made it possible to go around downtown, ending the hassle of inner-city traffic and confusion.

Travelers also became more connected with their destinations via interstates. Nearly every city with more than 50,000 citizens has a direct interstate connection, making it possible to travel to almost anywhere without having to stop in between. Landmarks and national parks were easily identified, and the signage model is still useful and in existence today. Vacation planning became as simple as pulling out an atlas and selecting the most convenient line between home and destination. In addition, motorists did not have to worry about services and breaks, with carefully placed rest areas on each highway and a likely cluster of restaurants and gas stations at many exits.

Despite its age, the Interstate Highway System continues to bind communities in its 50th year. Roads are being replaced constantly, and several new roads and loops have been added. New technology, such as message signs, traffic monitoring, and road condition sensors, have made travel even safer and quicker. As the push for revitalization of urban centers increases, interstates often serve as sites for intermodal transportation, with room for trains, buses, carpool lanes, and other connections. New highway legislation has continued to be enacted as needed, ensuring that the interstate system will remain intact for future generations.

Woodrow Wilson may have died in 1921, but his idea of binding communities through highway construction remained intact. The interstate system facilitates defense, development, and leisure, and to this day connects millions of Americans locally, regionally, and nationally. A great idea when it was built and an even better one fifty years later, there are no signs of stopping the progress in improving the Interstate Highway System, the backbone of transportation in modern America.