Exploring the Past and Future of America’s Road Infrastructure

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Ready to hit the open road in 2023? Despite the popularity of cross-country road trips, it wasn’t always an easy way to travel. You probably wouldn’t have driven a car if you wanted to see a different part of the United States. You’d have gone by train instead.

That’s because road infrastructure wasn’t around like today, and even using the word “roads” to describe what was there would have been generous. These were no more than muddy-in-the-rain, dusty-in-the-sun trails through the first quarter of the 1900s. So, what paved the way for modern roads and highways? 

Vintage Car

Photo by Toni Tan via Unsplash



Years into the 20th century, tire-patching equipment, tools, spare parts, emergency food and fuel were essentials to take on a drive.1 Oh, and time and patience were non-negotiables, too. That’s because due to poor roads, driving wasn’t always a fun or safe journey.

The U.S. got away with having poor roads thanks to railroads dominating commerce and travel. Railroads were thriving, and so were little railroad towns.2 What began as small establishments where people branched away from urban life, making new homes in makeshift tents, have now become their sprawling cities. We’re looking at you, Chicago and Los Angeles. Can you even imagine these two places without paved roads and highways?

What our roads look like now is thanks to a federal initiative that Southern Good Roads magazine summed up as “horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight … pure business and without the least touch of sentiment.1 They’re talking about what happened on Jan. 25, 1916, when The House of Representatives approved a federal road program, authorizing $25 million to improve “rural post roads.” And by 1920, any state receiving aid was required to have a state highway agency.1 Before that, roads were left up to individual states, and if they wanted them to deteriorate, it was. 

Interestingly, what spurred interest in roads and led to the passing of the federal road program was not the automobile but the bicycle. The attitude toward roads began to change in the 1890s when the bicycle revived interest. In 1891, New Jersey became the first state to adopt a “state-aid” plan, under which it designated funds toward road improvements.1

Old Bicycle

Photo by Chris Barbalis via Unsplash

Funnily enough, farmers were very reluctant about the federal funding of roads once the introduction of the Rural Free Delivery mail service was introduced. Before that, farmers opposed to being taxed to pay for good roads so wealthy city “peacocks” could ride their bicycles.1

And, of course, the emergence of Henry Ford’s low-priced Model T in 1908 made a huge impact. In 1909 a new Model T cost $850, but by 1924 the price had gone down to only $260.3 Since not just the wealthy peacocks could afford cars, motorists had going power. This was reflected by the American Automobile Association (AAA) becoming one of the strongest backers of federal action on roads.1 

Then on July 11, 1916, President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act in the presence of representatives from AAA and farm organizations (among others) and the U.S. has never been the same.1


Route 66, Arizona

Photo by Johan Van Geijl via Pexels.

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” This took on new meaning in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation’s first federal highway system Route 66. 

Route 66 was the result of America’s yearning for rapid mobility, mass transportation, and technological advancement. It cobbled together existing local, state, and national roads that had been built up until that point, stretching 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. But you still would have needed that emergency kit in your car because it wasn’t paved until 12 years after designation!4 

Quick question: When was the last trip you took without a bathroom break or a bed to sleep in overnight? As Route 66 became increasingly popular, infrastructure improved, fuel, lodging, and food started popping up on the roadside.4 In the early days, you would have camped for the night in roped-off areas called auto camps. Camp supervisors provided water, wood, outhouses or flush toilets, showers, and laundry facilities free of charge. This evolved into motels, a word combining “motor” and “hotel.”5 

Cafe on Route 66

Photo by Get Lost Mike via Pexels.

Gift shop on Route 66

Photo by Mick Haupt via Unsplash













Though the U.S. later bypassed Route 66 in order to modernize roadways, it’s still a symbol of Americans’ heritage of travel and their legacy of seeking a better life. You can even still drive Route 66 today, and stay in one of those historic motels, too. That’s thanks to Congress creating the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to help preserve the most significant and representative historic resources along the route.6 


Road trips have been a popular American pastime for decades, with pop culture supporting this trend. In 1955, the I Love Lucy episode, “California, Here We Come,” took its audiences along for a ride from New York to California. And it had some pretty hilarious happenings along the way.7 The episodes that were released about that road trip showed one of the infamous roadside motels with a sagging mattress and a rumbling train that shook the walls and all the characters within them.

Vintage car on a roadtrip

Photo by Quintin Gellar via Pexels.

Not even shabby accommodations managed to slow down cross-country road trips though! And options of where to stay have expanded exponentially with the creation of new hotels and home-sharing sites, such as Airbnb. According to The Vacationer, nearly 80 percent, or 208 million Americans, planned road trips in 2022.8 Where to? A survey revealed the hottest road trip destinations are The Grand Canyon (44 percent), Yosemite National Park (32 percent), and Yellowstone National Park (32 percent).9

U.S. road trips are unique in that they offer a diverse range of landscapes and experiences, from the beaches of California to the mountains of Colorado to the deserts of Arizona and the urban areas of New York City. There are also many historical and cultural sites to see. World’s Largest Yarn Ball of interest to anyone? Another perk to hitting the open road is the affordability of road trips compared to other forms of travel. Plus, exploring scenic routes and small-town charm. 


The U.S. is continually investing in roadways with no signs of stopping. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the RD&T Strategic Plan will guide the more than $5 billion in research activities funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to drive innovation, create jobs and support the deployment of transformative technologies, including: 

  • Providing $500 million to the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Program to kickstart a new generation of smart city innovation.  
  • Investing in University Transportation Centers that work on climate, equity, and innovation.  
  • Establishing an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Infrastructure (ARPA-I) to scale up research and development efforts to keep pace with and drive innovation.
  • Authorizing $50 million per year in funding to establish a new Open Research Initiative to accelerate the achievement of the Department’s priorities and goals by funding unsolicited research proposals that yield disruptive technologies with high-impact potential.10
Natina Guardrails on Highway

Photo by Natina

“By providing a vision for a future transportation system made possible by research, we seek to foster collaborative innovation to create a better transportation future for all.”
DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and Chief Science Officer Dr. Robert C. Hampshire10

Regardless of where you’re going, you might see Natina on your journey. Since we color galvanized metal, look out for guardrails on highways with a patina finish! This helps infrastructure look more natural and doesn’t take away from the beauty you’ll find on the road. 

Where else can you find Natina? At the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) EXPO! It’s being held at Arizona’s Phoenix Convention Center, on February 17-21, 2023. We’ll be at Booth 1054 if you want to stop by. Register to be part of roadway innovation> 




1 U.S. Department of Transportation

Worldwide Rails

Detroit Historical Society

National Park Service

5 National Historic Route 66 Federation

National Park Service


The Vacationer

9 Travel Agent Central

10 U.S. Department of Transportation



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