Historic Route 66 will always be the “Mother Road,” an endearing snapshot of America’s past, a cultural landmark and the ultimate road trip destination.
However, Route 66 is no longer used the way it once was. In fact, the last piece of Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, following the construction of Interstate 40 in Arizona. But what exactly is an interstate, and how does it differ from a (former) U.S. federal highway, like Route 66?
The short answer is that it’s simply a difference in signage, lanes and exits. The long answer involves a walk through over a century of American history — from the emergence of the automobile as a primary form of transportation to the population surge following the Second World War.
Identifying a Route vs. an Interstate
While both routes and interstates are highways that cross state lines (state and local routes are yet another class of roads) they have some significant differences, as well as two unique histories.
One of the key distinctions between a state or federal route and a federal interstate is the number of access and exit points. While many U.S. highways go directly through towns and have numerous roads that drivers can turn on, Interstates tend to only have a select number of exits, utilising on and off-ramps rather than directly intersecting with other roads. Interstates also tend to have higher speed limits and more lanes, allowing for greater traffic flow. Routes, meanwhile, take a bit more of a “scenic” approach, winding their way through population centers and over physical obstacles like rivers and mountains.
One of the clear ways that you can identify if you are on a U.S. highway or an interstate is by looking for a road sign. U.S. highways typically appear in a white shield on a black sign, although the exact specifics and shape of the shield may vary. An interstate road sign, meanwhile, is more visually consistent. They are typically demarcated with a blue shield with a red top. The interstate number can be found in the centre of the shield with the word “Interstate” above it, in the red section. The state and local roads you’ll encounter driving along old Route 66 also come with their own unique iconography, often incorporating either the shape of the state or a symbol that is unique to them. New Mexico, for example, utilises the sun symbol of the indigenous Zia tribe, which also appears on the state flag.
A New Kind of Road
The origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System, as embodied by roads like Route 66, go back several decades further than the Interstate System — not too long after cars became an important part of life for many Americans, in fact. In the 1910s and 1920s a series of “auto trails” were built across the country by several local booster organisations. While they represented a step forward for the growing number of automobile drivers in the country, these routes ranged wildly in quality. Many boosters built roads in ways that would allow them to collect dues from as many businesses as possible, rather than the most direct routes.
By 1925, the auto trail system was beginning to become unsustainable, as those booster organisations stopped performing road maintenance, and the federal government stepped in. That year, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture began working with state governments to create a nationalised system from coast to coast. Route 66 was born out of this initial road-building push.
Unlike many of the routes on previously existing auto trails, Route 66 was explicitly designed to reach the people of small town America, giving farmers access to a major road to move crops on. Today, this lends Route 66 a part of its rural, off-the-beaten-path charm.
The Post-War Expansion
Major changes came to the U.S. road system in the years following World War II. The U.S. population exploded in the 1940s and 1950s, following years of decline. This occurred because of both new immigration and as American soldiers returned from World War II and started families. In fact, more than 75 million babies were born over a twenty-year period — a shift so sudden it led to the nickname “baby boomers” for this population. While westward expansion had always been a theme in American history, suddenly the open plains and mountains near Route 66 were filled with more people than ever.
Many of these new families were joining the growing middle class and found themselves with new disposable income. Car ownership skyrocketed as a result of these factors, and many of the routes created in the 1920s and 1930s quickly became insufficient to handle growing traffic.
Demographic and economic shifts weren’t the only reasons for a rethink of the Numbered Highway System. New anxieties created by the reality of nuclear weapons and growing American hostilities with the Soviet Union meant that some in the military wanted a system for evacuating major cities quickly, in the event of an attack. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, establishing the construction of a new, larger system of roads, called the National System of Interstate and Defence Highways.
In the years following, interstate highways, which typically had more lanes, fewer stopping points and higher speed limits than routes, grew in popularity and continued to be expanded upon. Today, the U.S. Interstate System stretches for 46,876 miles and serves as a key means of transportation for millions of people all around the country.
Over time, a series of new interstates began to cover the area of the American West that had once depended on Route 66 as its primary transportation route. Interstate 40 stretched from Oklahoma City to southern California, providing a speedy option for parts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Two interstate highways built shortly after, I-55 and I-44, soon covered much of the rest of the region. In 1979, the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials made the decision to remove the Route 66 designation. In 1985, the last stretch of the road was decommissioned with the completion of I-40.
The Revitalisation of Route 66
While the Mother Road may no longer be an official part of the U.S. Numbered Highway System, pride in the history of Route 66 continues to hold strong wherever the road passes. As a result, the vast majority of the original route is well maintained and ready to be driven on. Sites that represented the peak of American culture in decades past have been painstakingly preserved to stand as monuments to the past. And of course, all of the major cities and natural wonders along the way, from Chicago and Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon, remain to be seen.
In the years since its decertification, many municipalities decided to erect signage signifying that they were along “Old” Route 66. Eventually, national organizations and the U.S. government began stepping in to help preserve the road and its many attractions. In 1999, the U.S. Congress passed the Route 66 Corridor Historic Preservation Act, which established a federally funded preservation program, under the supervision of the National Park Service. Originally set to expire in 2009, the program was extended by Congress for an additional 10 years.
In addition to this boost from the government, organizations like the Road Ahead Partnership, which was founded in 2015, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have stepped in to raise and distribute appropriate funds. Money from each program goes to everything from the preservation of historic sites and roadside attractions to the hiring of staff, as well as signage all along the way that lets travellers like you know they’re driving by something special.
What does that mean for you? While no longer either a highway or an interstate, the past of Route 66 is well-preserved — and its future is in good hands. Whether paved over by an Interstate or maintained as state or local routes, the path is still laid with good roads, ready for you to explore. From quirky attractions like Cadillac Ranch and the Wigwam Motel to the uniquely American landscapes of the west like the painted desert and grand canyon, there’s simply nothing like it.
For the road trip of a lifetime, you simply cannot top a drive down Historic Route 66. We can’t wait to take you back out on The Mother Road once it is safe to do so. Our next planned tour is scheduled for early 2022. You can look forward to an incredible 20 nights travelling from Chicago to Las Vegas, exploring the best antique cars, roadside attractions, historic places and natural features that America has to offer.
All of our tours are guided by a team of Australian professionals who know all of the best sites. While you wait, you can stay connected and check out more views of the adventure ahead at www.route66tours.com.au.