City Building Links: Eisenhower and the Interstates, Streetcars and Urban Design

eisenhower interstate trip 1956

Eisenhower’s interstate caravan on the road in 1919.

Every day at The Direct Transfer we collect news about cities and send the links to our email list.  At the end of the week we take some of the most popular stories and post them to Greater Greater Washington, a group blog similar to that focuses on urban issues in the DC region.  They are national links, sometimes entertaining and sometimes absurd, but hopefully useful.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called “Flow,” which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they’ll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city’s multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It’s an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they’ve always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that’s coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that’s better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

“Drive-ins shifted the film industry’s focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl.”

– Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Cross Posted at Greater Greater Washington

2 thoughts on “City Building Links: Eisenhower and the Interstates, Streetcars and Urban Design

  1. James WardenJames Warden

    Ugh, the Eisenhower interstate story is one of America’s most persistent creation myths. It’s right up there with Washington chopping down the cherry tree in terms of fairy tales we need to abandon

    While Eisenhower did indeed travel on a difficult convoy, in no way did it “plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System.” The autobahns he saw also weren’t the catalyst since huge chunks of the planning were completed in the lead up to passage of the highway acts of 1938 and 1944, when Eisenhower was still in the military. The first 37,700 miles were already selected by 1947, when Eisenhower was chief of staff. The key milestone during Eisenhower’s administration was funding for the system. That’s no small thing, but it was hardly all his doing either. It’s sort of like giving Pawlenty credit for getting the Green Line off the ground. Yes, he signed the final funding bill, but no one mistakes the Green Line as his brainchild. In reality, technocrats and road advocates did the bulk of the planning work for the interstates in the 1930s. The routes they envisioned are remarkably similar to those that wound up as interstates.

    “The Big Roads” by Earl Swift ( does a great job separating legend from reality in how the interstate system was created. The timeline is good proof that Eisenhower had very, very little to do with the system we know today.

    As Swift wrote:
    “And despite their official name, they didn’t spring, fully formed or otherwise, from Ike or his lieutenants. By the time Eisenhower signed the bill that financed the system, in June 1956, most of its physical details were old news. Its routing had been committed to paper for eighteen years. The specifics of its design had been decided for twelve. Franklin Roosevelt had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower did, truth be told, and the system’s origins go back much further than him.”

    “Eisenhower was a lot of things … But he was not, by any means, the father of the interstates. Over the years a fable has gained currency that the system was inspired by two events in Eisenhower’s life: the 1919 motor convoy expedition, on which the young Ike first grasped the nation’s highway shortcomings; and the Allied advance on Berlin in World War II, when he experienced Hitler’s autobahns and came to appreciate the promise of modern expressways. He returned from the war with a vision of how America’s security, fraternity, and commerce would be bolstered through a vast superhighway grid, it’s claimed, and so made it happen as president. It’s a satisfying story, one that Eisenhower told himself, and indeed, there’s no doubt that Ike was affected by both experiences. But they did not beget the interstates. The system was a done deal in every important respect but financing by the time Ike entered politics. He would certainly have a role to play, and an important one, but it would be far more limited than that with which he’s commonly credited. As for the system’s true paternity—well, by now it should be obvious that it belonged to more than one man, and who they were.”

    Most of the rest of the book is about the various engineers and bureaucrats who shaped the system into what it is today.

Comments are closed.