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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Impacts of the Interstate Highway System


Interstate highways have had broad social effects on the United States. The Interstates have not only altered how the nation travels, and how much, but also have changed the structure of communities and regions and the choices that residents are able to make on where to live, work, shop, and play.

For many, the social impacts of the Interstates have been positive: increased access, mobility, and options for individuals, households, and firms. For others, however – especially for those not able to own or drive a car – the Interstates have decreased access and mobility by undermining the viability of alternative modes of transport. Similarly, some communities have developed because of the Interstates, but others never have recovered from Interstate construction and are subjected to Interstate-related noise and emissions.

The Interstate Highway System also has had profound impacts on American institutions. The Interstate program helped create highway departments with a strong set of norms, values, and beliefs that continue to guide organizational missions, day-to-day activities, and views of the department’s role in society. In turn, the program has led to changes in government organization, sometimes to counteract the dominant focus on highway building. The redistribution of power and authority from independent highway commissions to governors and legislators and from state highway departments to metropolitan planning organizations is an example of institutional change sparked by the Interstate program and its impacts.

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