History of Roads in America and First Federal Highway

From the Bicycle to the Interstate Highway System

Multi lane highway in America

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Transportation innovations boomed in the 19th century, including steamships, canals, and railroads. But it was the popularity of the bicycle that would spark a revolution in transportation in the 20th century and lead to the need for paved roads and the interstate highway system.

The Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the Department of Agriculture was established in 1893, headed by Civil War hero General Roy Stone. It had a budget of $10,000 to promote new rural road development, which at that time were mostly dirt roads.

Bicycle Mechanics Lead the Transportation Revolution

In 1893 in Springfield, Massachusetts, bicycle mechanics Charles and Frank Duryea built the first gasoline-powered "motor wagon" to be operated in the United States.They formed the first company to manufacture and sell gasoline-powered vehicles, although they sold very few. Meanwhile, two other bicycle mechanics, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, launched the aviation revolution with their first flight in December, 1903.

The Model T Ford Pressures Road Development

Henry Ford debuted the low-priced, mass-produced Model T Ford in 1908. Now that an automobile was within reach for many more Americans, it created more desire for better roads. Rural voters lobbied for paved roads with the slogan, "Get the farmers out of the mud!" Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 created the Federal-Aid Highway Program. This funded state highway agencies so they could make road improvements. However, World War I intervened and was a higher priority, sending road improvements to the back burner.

Building Two-Lane Interstate Highways

The Federal Highway Act of 1921 transformed the ORI into the Bureau of Public Roads. It now provided funding for a system of paved two-lane interstate highways to be built by state highway agencies. These road projects got an infusion of labor during the 1930s with Depression-era job-creation programs.

Military Needs Spur Development of the Interstate Highway System

Entry into World War II swung the focus to building roads where the military needed them. This may have contributed to neglect that left many other roads inadequate for the traffic and in disrepair after the war. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation authorizing a network of rural and urban express highways called the "National System of Interstate Highways." That sounded ambitious, but it was unfunded. It was only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that the Interstate program got under way.

U.S. Department of Transportation Established

The Interstate Highway System employed highway engineers for decades was a massive public works project and achievement. However, it was not without new concerns about how these highways affected the environment, city development, and the ability to provide public mass transit. These concerns were part of the mission created by the establishment of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1966. BPR was renamed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under this new department in April 1967.

The Interstate System became a reality through the next two decades, opening 99 percent of the designated 42,800 miles of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.


Information provided by the United States Department of Transportation—Federal Highway Administration.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of Roads in America and First Federal Highway." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-american-roads-4077442. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). History of Roads in America and First Federal Highway. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-american-roads-4077442 Bellis, Mary. "History of Roads in America and First Federal Highway." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-american-roads-4077442 (accessed March 26, 2023).