On the Highway: A Brief History of USA Roadways

While it may seem like roads in the US are a relatively new invention, in truth, many of the country’s highways and roadways are built on previous routes, paths, and trails that date way back to colonial times. When settlers arrived in the US, they began building rudimentary pathways to facilitate transportation which then expanded and evolved into the road system people know and use today.

The transport network of a country plays a pivotal role in shaping a nation’s growth, economy, and the ease of citizens getting from A to B, so it’s little wonder that the US invests so heavily in its roads.

Pivotal moments and milestones in the development of US roads

As mentioned above, the USA’s road network dates back many centuries to the colonial era; however, other milestones and moments show how the modern road system came to be. Below are just a few of the more pivotal developmental points.

Early road systems in the colonial era:

US settlers quickly recognized they would need to build roads to link settlements and develop trade. Many of these early ‘roads’ followed existing North American pathways and were typically unpaved. Most ofthe roads were funded by local governments or private enterprises.

The development of toll roads to help fund construction:

Through the latter stages of the 18th century and into the 19th century, turnpikes and toll roads became increasingly popular solutions to fund the construction of new roads. Private investors would identify potentially popular and profitable routes, build a road, and charge for its use. Of these new developments, possibly the most famous was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike which was built towards the tail end of the 18th century and became a benchmark and model for future road developments.

The National Road:

One of the earliest federally-funded road infrastructure projects in the USA was the so-called National Road (often also called the Cumberland Road). The National Road connected the Potomac River in Maryland with the Ohio River in Illinois. It came to play a massively important role in the westward expansion across the country by facilitating the development of trade and migration.

The invention of the automobile and the need for increased expansion:

Despite the increasing popularity of canals and railroads for transportation, basic road construction continued through the 18th and 19th centuries. However, it would take the invention of the automobile towards the end of the 19th century to supercharge the development of proper road infrastructure. In the beginning, automobiles would share the road network with horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bikes until the Good Roads Movement petitioned for the construction of paved highways and better road conditions.

The Federal-Aid Road Act:

The Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 signified the first federal pledge to the construction of a better road network across the US by providing funding and assistance to states to build and improve highways. 

The Interstate Highway System:

The Interstate Highway System was approved by the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 and became the largest infrastructure project in US history. Through the following decades, over 46,000 miles of roadway were designed and built, including urban highway design in Missouri, that improved mobility, connected states, and increased national defense and security.

Today’s roadways in the USA continue to evolve in sustainability, technology, and better planning, but they remain a testament to the nation’s desire for mobility, connectivity, and economic progress.