Essay Winners

Back to Contest Winners

The Effects of the Interstate System of Urbanization in the United States

Third Place Winner: Kate Siebels

In the United States, 20% of the motor traffic is carried by the Interstate Highway System. The system was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, acknowledging widespread public appeals for a more reliable network of roads. It was implemented two years later and its effects were sudden and permanent. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System precipitated an anomalous development pattern that gives the United States a unique cultural landscape.

The interstate system immediately encouraged settlement outside of the central business district, or downtown area, of large cities. Residents trying to escape high land rent, overcrowding, and pollution were drawn to the prospect of wide open spaces while retaining easy access to the downtown area. The interstate system made the "American dream" of owning a single-family home and a tract of land more achievable. These suburban areas soon became the somewhat independent areas known as urban realms. With new jobs and retail facilities outside of the central business district, it was no longer necessary to live near the downtown area. The rapidly expanding cities developed new cores with many of the same functions as the central business district, but they were made to accommodate the automobile. These settlements were called edge cities or satellite towns. The widespread use of the automobile fed upon the interstate, contributing to urban sprawl. Originally, the urbanized area was limited by transportation, transitioning from dense, circular cities built for pedestrians and carriages to star-shaped growth with arms along rail lines to the almost limitless extent of automobile-based cities. The interstate highways increased access to the periphery and edge cities grew rapidly, usually following geographer Chauncey Harris's peripheral model where an inner city is surrounded by a beltway, tying together suburban residential and business areas. Economics also contributed to sprawl. Cheaper tracts of land were bought far away from the central city, causing a pattern of leapfrog development, leaving large spaces unfilled.

This pattern of sprawl is singular to the United States. The large size and fairly recent settlement of the country allowed miles of low-density development in leap-frogging patterns. The interstate system is presently the wiring responsible for the cohesiveness of such a diverse country. It has networked the United States, making the transport of people, goods, and ideas possible over vast areas of land. These connections have reduced distance decay, the tendency of spatial interaction to be inversely related to distance, and exposed all areas of the country to local diversity, helping our “melting pot” to continue to diffuse culture traits to every citizen.

Anthony Downs, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, identified ten traits associated with urban sprawl. The first is unlimited outward extension. As the country reaches the boundaries of its potential for expansion, the former pattern of urban sprawl nears its end. In the future, the interstate system will play an increasingly important role in making continued development possible. It offers flexible routes for truck-based delivery of construction materials and other necessary supplies. The interstate system will be used as a pathway for infill development, where small-scale growth is induced on undeveloped areas of land that remain within the city. As growth boundaries are implicated to limit urban expansion, the highway system will offer freedom from the congestion of narrow city roads. The United States continues to grow at a rate of 0.91% yearly, and without the interstate system it would not be possible to accommodate the increase.

This society is based on the automobile. This is a permanent fixation in the culture of the United States and will always be the most beloved and accepted form of transportation. As technology continues to improve upon the automobile, the interstate system will only become more necessary. It is easy to take this complex infrastructure for granted, but without it the country would be fragmented. The interstate system's impact on the cultural landscape of the United States is immeasurable. This country is its roadways.