Filed under: Preparation & Readiness, Roads & Routes
Navigating America’s Roads
How our modern highway system came to be and how to make sense out of its identification and numbering scheme
Post by By Millie Evans, Courtesy Woodall’s Email Newsletter
A foot and light-hearted I take to the open road. Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose…
- Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
Some road trips live on as legends, but others are best forgotten. Some journeys merit retelling and remain impossible to forget…like the road with no name or number. When you’re RVing down the highway at a good clip, enjoying the freedom of the path ahead, singing Willie Nelson’s classic “On the Road Again,” it’s nice to know where you are and where the pavement ends. Sure, it’s fun to be free and easy traveling America’s vast highways, but at some point you’ll have to make decisions.
“Are we on the Dixie Highway or the Dixie Beeline?”
“Is the Ventura Freeway the same as the 101?”
“Where the heck are we?”
Fortunately, the funding and enactment of the Federal Aid Highway Act resulted in the comprehensive numbering of roads. RVers traveling across the U.S. today may find it difficult to imagine the country without the interstate highway system, but when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, on June 29, 1956, interstates began to meet the challenge of the growing number of vehicles on the nation’s highways.
Some years earlier, in 1919, Eisenhower – then a young army captain – joined 294 other army members leaving Washington, D.C., in the military’s first automobile caravan, to test the mobility of the military during wartime conditions. Due to poor roads and highways, the caravan averaged 5 mph and took 62 days to reach San Francisco.
Eisenhower said, “Maintenance crews were constantly on the job to keep the vehicles running. We lost only two vehicles by accident and one was beyond their help – it rolled down a mountain. We reached San Francisco at long last, although most of the time we hardly exceeded a good bicyclist’s speed.”
Years later, while in Europe during World War II, General Eisenhower surveyed the war damage to Germany and was impressed by the ease of travel on the German Autobahn. He felt that newer, multi-lane highways were essential to a strong national defense. Within a year after Eisenhower became president in 1953, he pushed for a system of interstate highways across the U.S.
Standards for these highways were highly regulated – lanes were to be 12 feet wide, shoulders 10 feet wide; a minimum of 14 feet of clearance was required under each bridge; grades had to be less than 3 percent; and the highway had to be designed for travel at 70 mph. One crucial aspect was the limited access.
Less than five months after the Highways Act was signed, the first stretch of interstate opened in Topeka, Kansas. The eight-mile piece of highway opened on Nov. 14, 1956. The plan for the interstate highway system was to complete all 42,000 miles within 16 years (by 1972). Actually, it took 27 years to complete. The last link, Interstate 105 in Los Angeles, was not completed until 1993.
Highway & Interstate Naming Scheme
The procedure for naming highways is systematic. Major routes are assigned single- or two-digit numbers. For the federal interstate highways (highways with the red-white-and-blue shields), even-numbered highways run east/west and odd-numbered highways run north/south, generally. Interstates 25 and 40 in Albuquerque, N.M., are good examples. For north-south routes, numbering begins in the west. Thus I-5 runs north and south along the West Coast, while I-95 runs north and south along the East Coast. For east-west routes, numbers begin in the south, such as I-10, which runs from Los Angeles, through southern Texas, along the Gulf Coast to Jacksonville, Florida. Hawaii also has interstate highways. On the island of Oahu are the Interstates H1, H2 and H3, connecting military facilities on the island. Interstate designations, which existed before Hawaii became a state, now refer to needs, standards and federal funding.
The direction of an interstate is not determined by its local direction, but by starting and ending points. It is possible that a north/south interstate may go east or west for a while to go around a mountain, a river or a city. Just ignore these jogs and focus on the overall direction.
Connecting routes that travel around a city represent beltways or loops, with three-digit numbers. The last two digits of the number indicate its correlation to the primary interstate highway. Washington, D.C.’s beltway is numbered 495, because its parent highway is I-95.
So now we know where we are – at least on the major highways, but there are always exceptions. There are those tricky highways with three-digit numbers (101 to 999). These are “bypass” highways that connect to or associated with a main interstate, such as the infamous 405 in Southern California, which is a bypass for Interstate 5. Bypasses can be perpendicular or parallel to their associated interstate. Bypasses can meet their counterpart head-on (in New Jersey, 295 South meets 95 North, while traveling east/west at the time, causing endless confusion to the unwary). The same bypass number can be used in different states for different bypasses. Both California and Washington State have bypasses named I-405.
If the first digit of a bypass number (for instance, the “4” in “405”) is even, then it is likely that after the bypass splits off from its parent highway, the bypass will join up with its parent again. If the first of the three digits is odd, then the bypass was not expected to reconnect with the parent highway.
Roadside mile markers show the number of miles from the point where the route entered the state. Their numbers increase as you travel east or north, and decrease as you go west or south.
Local Street Signs and Labels
The naming of streets in America’s cities is much more colorful than the numbering system and came from many sources. Many of the earliest streets were named for landmarks, such as Market, Canal or Hill. After the American Revolution, the names of heroes like Washington and Jefferson became popular. Themed streets, like Philadelphia’s major east-west streets, were named for trees like Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce and Pine. In the late 1800s, “street” was displaced by “avenue,” then “boulevard,” “park” and “court” became commonplace. The city of Denver chose alphabetical order for their street names, for example, Acoma, Bannock, Cherokee and Delaware.
There are many odd street names throughout America, such as Smashed-in Buffalo Head Road (North Dakota), Farfrompoopen Road (Tennessee), or Fangboner Road near Toledo, Ohio. You might think that First Street would be America’s most popular road name, but it follows Second and Third Streets, though Fourth Street does rank fourth. Main Street is seventh on the Top 10 street name list.
From Wagon Ruts to National Systems
Determining the oldest road in America leads to conflicting reports. During the 1600s, Dutch settlers built the Old Mine Road in Delaware to haul wagonloads of copper ore from mines near the Delaware Water Gap to Kingston, New York, which was about 90 miles north. Some say the Natchez Trace holds the title of oldest road. Originally a trail used by Native Americans (and likely a well-worn game trail before that), the Trace evolved into a major route for farmers and traders returning north after floating down the Mississippi River with their goods. El Camino Real, built in 1581, which runs from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Mexico City, Mexico, is reputed to be the United States’ oldest road built by Europeans.
Today, we have All-American Roads and National Scenic Byways that make up the National Scenic Byways Program. The designation of an All-American Road means it has features that do not exist elsewhere in the United States and it is scenic enough to be a tourist destination unto itself. Famous examples include the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, the Seward Highway in Alaska and the four-mile-long Las Vegas Strip. From named trails identified by symbols – such as the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, the Old Spanish Trail, the Santa Fe Trail and the Dixie Overland Highway – to a modern numbered highway system with a standardized shield that is universally recieved and used. So happy travels!
Read Woodall’s 2010 RV Travel Driving Rules and Regulations for the US and Canada.