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Navigating America’s Roads

December 30, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 


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.

Ike’s Interstates
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.

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