Journal of Policy History


The Interstates and the Cities: The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966–1973

Raymond A. Mohla1

a1 University of Alabama at Birmingham

When construction began on the urban expressways of the new Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s, homes, businesses, schools, and churches began to fall before bulldozers and wrecking crews. Entire neighborhoods, as well as parks, historic districts, and environmentally sensitive areas, were slated for demolition to make way for new expressways. Highway builders leveled central city areas where few people had cars so that automobile owners from other places could drive to and through the city on the big, new roads. As one analyst of postwar America put it: “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the Interstate Highway System, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American city.” In response, citizen activists in many cities challenged the routing decisions made by state and federal highway engineers. This Freeway Revolt found its first expression in San Francisco in the late 1950s, and eventually spread across urban America. By the late 1960s, freeway fighters began to win a few battles, as some urban expressways were postponed, cancelled, or shift ed to alternative route corridors.