In the early 20th century, most of America’s rural roads were constructed of gravel or dirt, causing slow travel and muddy roads. As new modes of transportation blossomed in cities – cars, bicycles, trolleys, and paved streets – a political movement called the Good Roads Movement aimed to connect rural areas with local cities via paved roads, so rural residents could reap the same transportation benefits afforded to many urban dwellers. Organizations such as the League of American Wheelmen initially advocated for improved national roads for bicycles. Over time, the focus turned increasingly toward cars. Groups advertised auto trails, such as the Lincoln Highway, which ran east to west, or the Dixie Highway, which ran north to south, to encourage Americans to travel cross-country. The National Highways Association was established in 1911 to advocate for the development of a robust national road network using the slogan “Good roads for everyone!” The Association proposed a network of roads totaling over 150,000 miles and including township, county, state, and national road networks.
The Good Roads Movement contrasted domestic spending on road infrastructure against geopolitical events of the day. The 1914 map below is titled “Panama Canal vs. National Highways,” and it states: “You own the first. Do you want to own the second? They cost the same. How many people does the first serve. The second will serve 94 percent of our people! This includes 90 percent of our rural population.”
The map below, created by the National Highways Association in 1918, shows the route of the United America Tour undertaken by the Hupp Motor Car Corporation. The promotional tour began in Washington, DC and included a visit to all mainland state capitals, covering almost 20,000 miles.
Tapping into the preparedness movement of the First World War, which advocated for increasing military spending in anticipation of involvement in the war, the top of the map proclaims: “Preparedness: We are all for it. Some for war! Some for defense!! Some for peace!!! There can be no real preparedness for war, for defense, or for peace without national highways and good roads everywhere.”
In addition to contrasting foreign and domestic spending priorities, the Good Roads Movement also moralized the outcome of improving rural roads. Inset photos around the map collar, like the one above, argue that poor roads are contributing to economic inefficiency and social ills. “Poor roads – poor schools – ignorance – poverty” the headline reads, above a photo of young children standing in a mucky, muddy road. “Many of 18,000,000 school children often do not get to school on 2,000,000 miles of roads like this! Twelve million other children do not go to school mostly because of 2,000,000 miles of roads like this!” the caption proclaims.
Another inset photo states “Good roads – good churches – religious interest – with “Good Roads Everywhere.” Below, the caption argues “One hundred million people could all go to church every Sunday in the year over “Good Roads Everywhere.”
The Good Roads movement had three major successes: in 1916, the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, which provided matching federal funds for road paving conducted by states. In 1921, the Federal Aid Highway Act allocated funding for paving up to 7% of roads in each state, and in 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways was formed. As part of a new National Highway System, auto trails like the Lincoln Highway were renamed as part of a new, nation-wide numbering system for state and local highways. It was not until the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act allocated funding for the Interstate Highway System that our national network of interstate freeways developed fully as we know it today.