BIG ROADS – The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

A planner’s thoughts about “Big Roads”   and highway planning.


Contemporary planning theory stresses the return to pedestrian, cycling and bus/rail transportation as a means for future community sustainability. 

This theory also embraces the notion that additional communication technology will allow declustering of jobs to suburbia and rural locations whereby journey to work-to/from-work trips can be redirected to nonvehicle transportation.

For planners, this “holy grail” of shaping behavior is a fundamental premise of futuristic community planning.

But history demonstrates a rather different path.  “Big Roads” by Earl Smith chronicles the history of the interstate road system from the late 1800’s documenting the history and local economic reliance on Big Roads.

For us planner’s educated in the 1970’s, the 3-C (cooperative, comprehensive & continuous) Metropolitan Planning process established by the Kennedy administration’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1962  for metropolitan areas in excess of 50,000 population has special meaning.

It was the first time local governments in metropolitan areas were required to take a comprehensive look at the overall transportation system and to make choices of where to invest federal, state and local funds.

It established highway planning as a joint federal, state and local planning process for both road improvements and new road alignments.

It forced local governments to come together and give serious thought about the rate of population growth and geographic areas within metropolitan areas where this growth would most likely happen.

Some planners today confide the 3-C planning process, in reality, contributed to urban sprawl.

We planned for future growth without much real knowledge of what the future may bring, note some planners.

We designated major routes to support inter-city commuting, high capacity alignments for major activity centers like industrial parks, and others to serve areas where we thought residential development would happen.

There were no smart growth principles guiding these decisions, urban sprawl wasn’t coined and growth that increased local government tax base was most important.

We never considered that city centers would depopulate, suburban relocation of central city jobs would occur, or suburban transportation centric employment centers would develop.

Reading “Big Roads”, provides background about the growth of transportation planning from the 1839 national highway planning concept offered by the Department of Agriculture to the rise of the 3-C planning process in the 60’s. 

It also provides background for to today’s more current legislations – STAA (78&82), STURRA (87), ISTEA (91), TEA-21 (98), SAFETEA-LU (05), and the newest FPTA (Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012).

I’ll share some on my thoughts on the transportation planning process generated from reading this book:

1.  Historically, highway planning was a federal top down planning process.

While commonly held, highway planning for the Interstate System was not necessarily a federal defense matter but defense was used to secure federal spending authority and used as the basis for political decision making for federal investments chosen by congress and the president.

Fact #1 – Roads contribute lifeblood to community economies and inevitability is subject to political determination regarding need and location.

2.  Roadway improvements and new routes will be required in the future.

Nothing gives cause to the lessening of demand for highway usage in the future with a 25% percent population growth project by such noted authors as Joel Kotkin. In his book “The Next 100 Million”.

Fact #2 – Road capacity needs will increase as population increases however this demand will not be spread equally throughout the United States reflecting geographic residential and business location preferences.

3.  Road Diets will become a topic for planner and highway engineer discussion.

Credit John Gallagher, real estate correspondent for the Detroit Free Press and author of “Reimaging Detroit” for bringing the notion that when demand subsides, road capacity needs to be reconfigured providing the opportunity to bring a more pedestrian friendly space to the community.

Fact # 3 – Unneeded capacity allowing for newer multi-use of highway rights-of-way, or even road abandonment, will become prevalent in highway planning for areas of declining populations.

4.  Transportation planning will always be needed.

Historically from the beginning, roadway planning has been a prerequisite to funding transportation improvements, incrementally growing more formalized requiring every level of government to complete transportation plans as part of their government duties to secure funding.

Fact # 4 – Multi-layered increasing sophisticated transportation planning requirements will likely remain unchanged even in spite of funding shortages for planning and transportation construction projects. 

5.  Traffic counts will gain more decision making importance.

Transportation plans rely on supplying services where demand for service is needed.  Therefore data, specifically existing and future traffic counts, will continue to be critical and increasingly more important determinates in identification of where transportation projects will be funded.

Fact # 5 – Transportation is a numbers game and traffic origination and destination data for modeling future needs will always be one of the major determinates of funding decisions.

6.  Technology will increase traffic system capacity and vehicle flow.

Driverless vehicles technology is now available allowing for higher vehicle speeds and closer vehicle spacing both that increase safety and vehicle capacity while reducing origin/destination travel time consumption.

Fact # 6 – Technology, in the future, will become the sought after solution for reduction in spending and serve as an alternative to the construction of new roadway alignments and reconstruction of current roadways to increase capacity.

7The need for speed – the reduction in transport times will dominate investment decisions.

Cargo is a business expense while cargo is in transit making businesses seek the lowest cost and fastest means to ship cargo.  Physical locations which have the greatest transport time potentials will have a business location/expansion advantage.

Fact # 7 – The need for shorter transport times plus the least transport cost will become more important in  decision making for location of new roads as well as decisions to improve existing roadway capacity to reduce transport times.

8.  User fees will become more common sources of maintenance and new construction funding.

Today it’s possible to monitor, via vehicle computers, the number and time vehicles are driven.  This provides opportunities to consider different pricing user fee models including fees for each mile driven, different fees for the type of roads used and even premiums and discounts for when roads are used.

Fact # 8 – Reliance on motor fuel taxes to fund existing and new transportation projects will be altered in the future bringing into discussion use of user monitored mileage fees, congestion use fees and non-peak usae credits as remedies to lessoning needed revenue.

9.  Metropolitan vs. rural policies of state and federal transportation funding will be questioned and become a contentious political issue.

Competition for funding will increase policy discussion of where to allocate funds – metro areas where demand may be greater vs. smaller population centers where the demand is needed but at lesser scale.

 Naturally, the competition between metro vs. rural areas, will increase and take on a greater role in the political decision making process for allocation of scarcer future transportation funding.

 Fact # 9 – Traditional forms of funding will be dismantled and reprioritized due to inefficiencies in generating needed funding in proportion to needs.

10.  In response to increased demand for road improvements, tax authorities will seek to increase sales and real property taxes.

The reliance on motor fuel taxes to finance existing and new transportation projects will be altered in the future bringing into discussion the use of user monitored users mileage fees.  Alternatively, traditional forms of local government revenue based on real estate taxable valuation and generation of retail sales taxes, a portion of which, in  some communities is directed to general government operations will become of higher importance for allocation, in part, to support transportation fund deficiencies.

Fact # 10 – New forms of revenue generation including here-to-fore untouchable real estate tax funding in addition to “fee for service” modeled revenue forms, will top political solution discussions resolving transportation funding.

 LAST THOUGHTS – will future roadways lead or curtail sprawl?

Throughout modern vehicle history, highway transportation has been critical to the economic success of cities, villages, counties, regional areas, etc.  This trend understandably will continue……..

However, while historic funding tools will evolve to provide more revenue for highway and alternative transportation modes it will be the application of sound planning decisions separating “good from bad” planning that will contribute or contain sprawl.

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