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Ribbons Across the Land: Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

The Good Roads Movement

The Wheelmen

Roads in the United States during the 19th century were mostly unpaved, filled with ruts, and nearly impossible to navigate. And with the popularity of railroads, little attention was paid to road conditions. But the inventions of the bicycle and the pneumatic tire during the last two decades of the 19th century changed everything. Roads were no longer only for commerce. Millions of bicyclists, known as wheelmen, were hitting the streets for sport and leisure.

Until automobiles gained popularity, it was bicyclists who were early advocates for improved roads. Photograph of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Wheel Club in William H. Shank. Indian Trails to Super Highways. American Canal & Transportation Center, 1975. View Source.

Lobbying for Improvements

The cyclists formed national organizations, such as the League of American Wheelman, to lobby local, state, and federal officials for paved roads. These efforts came to be known as the Good Roads Movement. After 1900, the popularity of automobiles also became an increasingly powerful lobby for better roads. The weight of automobiles increased paving costs, making it essential to have government support to fund road improvements.

Good Roads magazine flourished from the 1890s to 1920s. The magazines provided articles and editorials on quality road building and updates on state and federal lobbying efforts. Good Roads, vol 1, no. 5, 1892. View Source.

The Push for Paving

By the 1930s, many urban roads had been paved, but rural areas, especially throughout the Midwest, were still mostly unpaved. A cross-country trip would be possible, but it would be slow and treacherous. With minimal federal support for road construction during the first half of the 20th century, decisions to build and repair roads fell to local and state governments. In their various publications, proponents for good roads highlighted examples of quality construction and attempted to appeal to the public’s common sense.

before and after Photo of kansas highway improvement (second paved)

State efforts to promote good roads often focused on rural areas where local support was needed to fund improvements. “History and Accomplishment of the Rock Island Highway.” Kansas Highways, vol. 1, no. 1, 1917. View Source.