So here's the narrative from the Federal DOT's history pages on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, with my own comments intersperced. After you you read this, you should actually visit the page, because there is a really neat progressive map set showing how the Interstate has affected population density on a decade-by-decade basis.
As he looked back on his two terms in office, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of the Interstate System that, "More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America." The impacts of the Interstate System remain controversial, but it did, as President Eisenhower predicted, change the face of America—not simply by altering the landscape during construction, but by supporting changes that transformed our society in the second half of the 20th century.
Note here (and actually throughout the DOT pages, the Feds insist that the interstate did not cause changes, only support the changes that were going on anyway. Except for the fact that suburbia as we know it did not appear until the interstate highway system did, and the sunbelt expansion was driven by--you guessed it--new, cheaper transportation routes....
Even with such a massive, transformational public work, its impacts on the country are hard to separate from the effects of other events swirling through society, sometimes in harmony with the Interstates, and sometimes not. One of the more dramatic changes since the 1950s involves the geographic distribution of our population. Transportation consultant and demographics expert Alan Pisarski described the population shifts in a chapter on "US Roads" in Millennium Book, (International Road Federation, 2001). He explained that:
There has been a pronounced "sunbelt shift" to population, with over 90% of national growth in the eighties going to the South and the West, at the expense of the older, more settled regions of the Midwest and Northeast. The South and West now have more than 56% of the nation's population.
So government policy in creating a national highway system helped cause economic crashes in areas that were thriving before it was built (think PA and the "rust belt") and also privileged other areas for economic expansion.... Can somebody make a data-based argument that this change was already in the works in the 1950s and only "supported" and not "caused" by the interstate?
The map series shows that while population remains dense in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Middle West, the Sunbelt States experience dramatic gains in population. Pisarski pointed out how these broad changes were accompanied by changes in metropolitan areas:
"Changes in metropolitan areas" is a great way to describe "white flight" and the evacuation of commerce and industry from urban areas, changing most of America's older cities from producers into consumers.
*Since 1950 metropolitan areas have grown from 56% of national population to 80%.
*All of the growth in metropolitan areas in the eighties occurred in suburban areas, as central cities actually declined in population.
*Metropolitan areas were roughly 50% suburban and 50% urban in 1950; now that ratio is closer to two-thirds suburban, and is rising.
*Despite the emphasis on metropolitan areas, metropolitan areas are losing population to non-metropolitan areas, often to those rural areas on the fringes of metropolitan complexes.
In other words, interstates--by making longer commutes possible (in tandem with cheap fossil fuels) allowed the middle class to get further and further away from the cities, impoverishing the people who could not move out.
The maps also illustrate another of Pisarski's observations, namely that, "More than half of national growth continues to be in three states, California, Texas, and Florida." The Interstate System has helped these States accommodate the population influx.
Or--translated--the interstate highway system distinctly privileges three of our largest states in terms of population influx by making it easier to get there. Note that particularly in the cases of California and Florida it remains an open question whether these states have benefited from that change. To cite but one ecological consequence: neither California nor Florida has sufficient aquifer or riverine systems to provide sufficient fresh water for this influx of population...
Here's the point: Big plans have big consequences; many unforeseen. Hell, most of them are unforeseen. I challenge you to find me a single study from the 1950s or even the early 1960s that would project anything close to the demographic, economic, or ecological impact of the interstate highway system on the United States. A very sober assessment from the perspective of hindsight would suggest that we can thank the interstate highway system for:
1) The economic disintegration of American cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest
2) High unemployment rates, population declines, and reductions in real property value in the rural areas of states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana
3) Severe ecological damage to the watersheds of the American Southwest because of mass migration into the Sun Belt (also Florida!)
4) Huge over-reliance on imported fossil fuels (because with an interstate system everybody needs a car and drives it for miles and miles and miles), which has led to dependency on foreign oil, a warped and interventionist foreign policy, and (if the pundits are to be believed) global warming and a host of ecological disasters
President Obama reminds us that "only government" can do certain things. He's right. Only government could build an interstate highway system that transformed America in many ways--some profoundly good and some horribly bad, but most unpredictable--without ever bothering to do any serious forecast of the potential advantages and disadvantages over the long term.
Government wrought changes to American society on a scale far greater than the free market ever did.
Now we are on the brink of major new government investments in really big projects like mass transit and alternative energy sources, and we are equally as ignorant of the long-term consequences of these grand plans as we were ignorant of what the interstate highway system would do to us in 1950.
Just a thought.