Project Outline

Final Project Outline

Topic: Detailing aspects of the Interstate Highway and how it shaped American culture.


  • Introduction
  • Post War America
  • Construction of the Federal Highway System
  • Historical Impact
  • Reflection – 50 years later


  • Overview and introduction of topic
    • The federal Interstate Highway system is the largest public works project in history, and it transformed the way Americans traveled in the United States. This system of expressways helped boost the economy of the 1950s at a time of economic uncertainty post-World War II. It became a provider of jobs and changed the way commerce was conducted in the US. However, while the development of this infrastructure had profound effects on the economy, it came at the cost of the destruction of low-income and minority communities. Lack of public input and the push for more Urban Renewal initiatives enabled these projects to disrupt vibrant communities that have been unable to recover ever since.
  • Thesis Statement
    • The construction of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s has contributed to social and economic inequality amongst communities in formerly industrial cities, as these highways cut off access to critical resources and services leading to more economic insecurity.

Post-War America

  • Economy
    • After World War II, the United States was in a strange position. During the war, there was no shortage of workers as people were enlisted to fight overseas. Once the war ended there was uncertainty of the effects that an influx of new workers would have on the economy. Fortunately, businesses that helped supply weapons to the war effort were able to quickly pivot to manufacturing consumer goods and veterans were able to quickly find work. While the US was able to avoid a dramatic rise in unemployment there were also concerns of high inflation due to the increase in government spending during the war. However, thanks to the increase in consumer spending and increases in production, the value of goods remained stable (Pruitt).YOUTUBE VIDEO – “Post-World War II Economy Booms with Soldiers Return to U.S.”The federal government contributed to the post-war boom by enacting many new policies aimed at promoting economic stability. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, allowed veterans to take out loans to purchase houses and aided with obtaining education (United States. Congress. House. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs).AERIEL VIEW OF LEVITTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA (1952)Around the same time, suburban communities, known as Levittowns, began to gain popularity amongst those returning from the war and looking to settle outside of central cities and escape issues such as pollution, noise, and disease. Levittowns provided an alternative to the city and were affordable due very efficient mass-market building techniques which allowed for the construction of multiple homes in a short amount of time.

Construction of the Federal Highway System

  • Why do we need highways?
    • President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953 and oversaw the many policies that went into effect during the economic boom of the 1950s.
    • Eisenhower believed that the development of a national interstate highway system was vital to the safety and security of the nation. After being in Germany during the war and seeing the German autobahn, the German national highway system, he came back to America with the belief that a national system of interstate highways would be very beneficial (Blas, 128). Although these highways had the most impact in commerce, the main motive to build these roads was so people were able to quickly evacuate an area in the event of a nuclear explosion occurring. The construction of highways translated to an increase in jobs available to veterans entering civilian life.
  • Perceived benefits
    • Eisenhower knew firsthand how poor the roads that connect America were since he traveled from coast to coast as part of the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy (Blas, 128). This expedition took approximately 2 months and gave new insights into the condition of roads across the US. A large majority of the roads in the US were not paved and contained only 2 lanes. Despite the lower speeds at which cars were traveling, the poor road conditions resulted in a higher frequency of vehicle-related injury or death. The creation of the highway system allowed drivers to travel at higher speeds and resulted in lower road fatality rates (Blas, 129).
  • How did we fund this?
    • In order to ensure that the highway system gathered as much support as possible, the federal government agreed to fund approximately 90% of the cost to build these roads with the rest coming from the states themselves (Weingroff).
  • When did project start?
    • Following the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the highways, states began to distribute funds and begin construction on sections of the original plans for the highway system.
  • When did project complete?
    • Some portions of the original plan were not completed due to backlash from residents of cities that would be disrupted by the development of a major highway. However, omitting these parts, the final section of the original plan for the Interstate Highway System was completed near Glennwood Canyon, Colorado in October 1992 (Rowe et al.).
  • PICTURE – The Clay Committee presents its report with recommendations concerning the financing of a national interstate highway network to President Eisenhower on Jan. 11, 1955.
  • Google Map

Historical impact

  • Which cities will be impacted? – City Selection
    • City planners and highway engineers concluded that the interstate highways should go through central cities in America. This had negative consequences on marginalized communities as these roadways would tear down homes in low-income and black neighborhoods (Mohl, 2).
  • What was the economic value obtained from this program?
    • The program had immediate positive benefits to the economy due to the novel network of roads connecting major cities across the United States resulting in greater customer reach for supplier and lower transportation costs. Although the project provided a short-term boost in economic growth, researchers compared this initial increase to the long-term productivity gains and concluded that the rate of return on productivity falls dramatically (Shatz, H. J., Kitchens, K. E., Rosenbloom, S., & Wachs, M., 21).  

Reflection – 50 Years Later

  • Before/After
    • Since interstate highways were constructed closer to central cities to alleviate traffic congestion, it was predicted that these new routes would help boost local businesses. It was also believed that the highways would have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding area and that people would be able to walk alongside a highway like walking on a suburban street. While these highways stimulated economic activity in some cities, it placed others on a path toward failure. In Detroit, highway engineers designed the system in a way that would provide accessibility to the central business district but at the cost of seizing and destroying low land value properties causing a large decline in the local population (Brinkman & Lin, 82).
  • Picture of Hastings Street Before and After
  • Population Decline
    • According to data provided by the United States Census Bureau, in 1950 the city of Detroit had a population of Detroit City, MI was 1,849,900 but by 2000 the population dipped to around 951,270 (Economic Data on Detroit City, Michigan (2000); Economic Data on Detroit City, Michigan (1950)).
  • Was it successful?
    • The construction of the Interstate Highway system was a net positive for the American economy. It allowed suppliers to relocate to cheaper areas and resulted in the reduction in consumer goods. This was especially beneficial immediately following World War II as there were worries of the state of the economy. However, while the effects that the federal highway system had on the economy contributed to American prosperity, the negative impacts on marginalized communities that were destroyed due to the design of these highways cannot be overlooked.
  • Lessons learned
    • Policymakers today have a deeper understanding of the impact that infrastructure projects can have on minority communities. Today, projects must go through multiple different surveys that assess the risks posed to the surrounding residents, environment, and wildlife. Moreover, the interstate highways are constantly going through renovations and in some cases are being torn down and redesigned entirely (Karas, 17). Having a system of checks and balances in place along with receiving community input helps to ensure that the highways of the future will be beneficial to everyone.

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