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From Point A to Point B: The American Transportation Network

In this day and age, we take it for granted that we can travel anywhere we please, from the local market a few blocks away to the other side of the world. We also assume this travel is a sideshow to our actions at the destination, not considering the travel an ordeal in itself. And thanks to technological innovation, we are usually right to assume that. Rail, road, air, ship, and even bike travel have shrunk the world over two centuries. It's almost remarkable to imagine the scale of this web: 157,724 miles of highway, 160,141 miles of railroad, and over 12,000 miles of navigable waterways, itself constituting some 85% of the world’s usable rivers.

Of course, with the exception of the rivers, most of these paths have had to have been built and maintained extensively for decades. This layout has been part of an elaborate system that has only come into existence during the past century. 

Before the Interstate Highway System was proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s and before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, America had no national means of travel. Though the Lower 48 States have been firmly established since the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, there was little in the means of a transportation network to link this vast nation coast to coast. When the California Gold Rush began in 1848, prospectors from the East Coast would rather sail around South America or traverse the Panama Isthmus to get to California than take an overland route, not least because of time, safety, and cost. Even as late as 1932, one young colonel in the Army by the name of Dwight Eisenhower remarked how it took a survey corps two whole months to travel by land from New York City all the way to San Francisco. As he rose through the ranks of the Army, eventually leading all Allied forces on the European front in World War II, Eisenhower observed Germany’s Autobahn, their well-kept national road network, and compared it with America’s disarrayed impromptu web of local roads. He realized after the war, especially with nuclear warfare having become a reality with the Manhattan Project, that America had a severe deficiency of organized roads. The country had railroads - a legacy of nineteenth-century westward expansion - and rivers, but these methods of travel have a limit. Water transportation can only be so fast and mobile, and rail transportation limits how many vehicles can use one line at a time. Ultimately, America needed a vast network of roads that could accommodate the military in case of emergency. With this, the Interstate Highway system began being developed in the 1950s. Although its original intention carried a military aspect, the civilian population began benefiting from the network as well, especially in an era of suburbs and the middle class nuclear family where commuting to an office job was essential. Thus has been the state of the car-dependent American transportation system for decades since. 

With the advent of the digital age, these car-clogged highways no longer serve as vital of a purpose as they used to. The COVID-19 pandemic proved this by forcing society into quarantine and imposing online work on much of the American workforce for the first time ever. While normalcy returned by the end of 2021, many Americans kept their new remote positions, demonstrating that jobs do not have to remain tethered by physical proximity. With this revelation, American car-dependent infrastructure has also come under intense scrutiny, especially considering its penchant for mass traffic jams, environmentally hazardous emissions, and drudgery of commute.

But what would replace it? Would it be replaced at all? Many industries, including shipping and trucking, still rely heavily on road availability. Americans are already returning to in-person commuting-heavy work. And automobile ownership has skyrocketed to some 290 million in the United States, nearing the total population. Getting from Point A to Point B in the United States will still largely take place on its nationwide roads for the foreseeable future. Yet, it is still important to take into account the irreversible economic and social trends that the digital age have wrought, cemented by the pandemic and its aftermath.

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