America's unrequited love of the open road

An all-too-familiar sight: Traffic delays on the not-so-open road. CBS

(CBS News) To HIT THE ROAD has long been a rite of the American summer. But how did that open highway we dreamed of all winter get so clogged and riddled with potholes? Our Cover Story is reported now by Mark Strassmann:

Although we may sing praises to purple mountain majesties, to spacious skies and amber waves of grain, the truth is when we drive across America the beautiful, for the most part, the view we see is the highway.

Fact is, roads have defined our landscape even before the first drop of concrete was poured.

"In the very beginning, there were game trails; Buffalo and elk created the original highways that we travel," said author Earl Swift. "The Indians took those as hunting trails. The first settlers moved in and used those for their wagons. Those later became plank roads, the early turnpikes. So really, it's an evolution that began before man was even a big factor on the continent."

Swift has chronicled that evolution in "The Big Roads," reminding us that griping about our roads is nothing new.

"I mean, we complain about congestion now, but it's kid stuff compared to the way it was in the mid-'30s," he said. "During the big boom on car sales in the '20s and '30s, we suddenly had a situation where we were driving roads that were built for wagons. Washington to Richmond would be a two-day trip. New York to Philadelphia would have been a two-day trip."

That's when it became clear that we needed to build something for the auto age . . . the big roads, the interstate highway system.

"If you wanted to find a moment of conception, you'd go back to February of 1938, when FDR called his roads chief into the White House," said Swift, "and the president had laid out a map of the 48 states on his desk, and on it had drawn six lines - three going north-south, three going east-west. And he said, 'I'd like you to research as to whether we can make it pay for itself.'"

Keep that in mind: The notion that roads should pay for themselves. It's something we'll return to.

But back in the 1930s and '40s, the Depression and Second World War put Franklin D. Roosevelt's grand designs on hold.

It wasn't until the prosperity of the 1950s that general-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower finally gave the green light.

"So who deserves more credit, FDR or Ike?" asked Strassmann.

"This will provoke some debate, but I'd vote for FDR myself," said Swift. "Because FDR got the ball rolling. It was his oversight that saw the system actually approved by Congress."

By the time Eisenhower took office, plans for the interstates were all but a done-deal.

And so, in 1956 construction began on a network 47,000 miles long, and still growing.

There's a popular misconception that the system mainly had a military purpose, to move troops and civilians in the event of nuclear war. Not so. But the design does have an unusual origin: our interstates are modeled on the autobahns of Adolf Hitler's Germany.

Still, the highways promised a future that had little to do with the dark days of war, and everything to do with the bright tomorrow of the space age.

But when you look back in the rear view mirror today, the picture isn't quite so pretty.

Our reliance on the automobile has created sprawl, pollution, and our dependence on oil.

But even more pressing, it's become clear that our freeways are anything but free.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

On Twitter