After 60 years of interstate highways, author says it’s time for U.S. to rethink transportation

Dan McNichol, who has written extensively about the interstate highway system, spent nearly two years on the road, driving a 1949 Hudson, in advance of the highway system's 60th anniversary. Today, he says Americans need a new vision of transportation that is less reliant on roads and automobiles.

? Three years ago, Dan McNichol set out on a journey across America’s highways, riding in the same kind of 1949 Hudson that Jack Kerouac supposedly drove in the journey he later chronicled in the classic novel “On the Road.”

But unlike Kerouac, McNichol wasn’t on a journey of self-exploration, and he wasn’t necessarily in search of the soul of America.

Instead, his “Low and Slow Tour” across the country was an exploration of America’s highway system, and the shape it is now in, 60 years after President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.

“I still marvel at what we’ve accomplished, what Eisenhower launched in 1956,” said McNichol, who has written extensively about interstate highways. “The system works really well, considering the neglect and considering the lack of investment. It’s a remarkable low-performing vehicle.”

Dan McNichol, who has written extensively about the interstate highway system, spent nearly two years on the road, driving a 1949 Hudson, in advance of the highway system's 60th anniversary. Today, he says Americans need a new vision of transportation that is less reliant on roads and automobiles.

He said that’s one of the reasons why he chose the 1949 Hudson for his journey, the “lead sled,” as it was known in its day.

McNichol is an award-winning author and journalist who is perhaps best known for his book “The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System,” published in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of the highways.

On Thursday, he will be the featured speaker at an event near the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus to kick off the opening of two new exhibits celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System.

His speech is scheduled from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry Street, in Kansas City, Mo.

One of the themes of that book was about how, for the previous half-century, the interstates came to form the very backbone of the American economy. And in some ways, he said, they still do.

“The interstate system was the first internet,” he said. “The interstate system lays out the groundwork for what is now the digital age. You always need that brick and mortar, you always need asphalt and concrete to make the digital age work. All of that shipping and sending, after the clicking, takes place almost always on the interstate system at some point.”

Although Eisenhower first envisioned the highway system as critical for national defense during wartime, he said, it soon became the bedrock of the American economy and the American lifestyle.

Virtually anything people in America touch today — even the things people order online so they can avoid driving to a brick-and-mortar store — was carried, at least part of its way, across an interstate highway.

Interstates also paved the way for suburbs, making it possible for middle-class families to live in houses with lawns and sidewalks far away from the cities or factories where they earned their living.

Sixty years later, though, McNichol said the interstate highways have become overburdened and, to an extent, obsolete, especially given what people now know about the impact that the burning of fossil fuels is having on the earth’s climate.

“We grossly over-invested in highways, in my opinion,” he said. “We are highway-centric, we are road-centric, and we are choking ourselves, literally and figuratively, with traffic.”

McNichol is still a big believer in the interstate system, and he still thinks the United States should continue investing in it to keep it in shape. But as the population and the economy of the U.S. grow, he says it’s time for the country to look beyond highways and to think more about other modes of mass transit.

“I don’t think people want to see wider roads even still, and to sit in traffic for longer periods of time,” he said. “Congestion, from my research and my work, seems to always be the instigator of real change. Whether it’s innovative, or whether it’s taking something that already exists and putting it to better use, you see congestion driving that kind of energy, that kind of thinking.”

But McNichol said the shift to different modes of transportation doesn’t have to mean abandoning the highway system and starting over from scratch.

“The interstate system is a land bank. There’s an enormous amount of value, not just in road system, but in the property: the air rights, the subterranean rights, the surface rights,” he said.

“So why not let me travel along these roads?” he asked. “People will argue that you can’t put a train on a road system on a right of way. But there are all sorts of creative ways if we allow to the fullest this thinking of putting other modes of transportation on those right of ways.”

McNichol said he is particularly excited about the challenge that presents to engineers. “If you give engineers a problem, I think they’re at their best. And here’s a problem,” he said.

But the real challenges, he said, will be the social and political ones.

“It’s simple. It’s very simple, and it’s very complex, because of the environmental issues, because of the politics, the lack of political will,” he said. “But I see that changing.”

The suburban sprawl model of going farther and farther out (with residential development) was about quality of life, or perceived quality of life,” he said. “‘Give me a home, give me a yard, give me some fresh air.’ But I think that model now looks like, ‘I want to be able to spend time at home. I don’t want to be in a commute for two or three hours every day. I want to be near my work. I want to be able to bike and walk.’ The whole model of the car culture, the drive-ins, the curb-to-curb strip malls, I think are really unattractive for the coming generation.”