The U.S. Routes

USHighways-us81neatne85f_01Roads and highways have played an integral part in the life of my family.  My father is a retired civil engineer who specialized in highway design.  He spent most of his career as a project supervisor or engineer with the Nebraska Department of Roads. One of his brothers also spent many years working for the roads department.  My paternal grandfather supplemented his farm income with temporary highway work for county and state road crews.

During summer school vacations, dad loaded me into his “state car” and brought me to his work sites.  One day I might watch bridge pilings being driven into a river bed.  Another day may bring giant earth moving machinery carving down hillside passes.  One afternoon, when I was just a boy of ten, I was the sidekick of the driver of a cement mixer truck.  The state contractor’s boss encouraged dad to allow it.  I’ll never forget the experience. However, ultimately, highway building was not my career path.

Certainly, dad and his coworkers provided me with a comprehensive education aboutUSHighways-275-20-281 highways.  Aside from construction, I was quite curious about the organization and categorization of the state’s and the nation’s highway system.

Even though my school’s history class included a lesson about the Interstate Highway System, nothing was said about the much more interesting background of the standard U.S. numbered highways.

Before there were roads like “Route 30”, that highway was called the “Lincoln Highway”.  Likewise the “Pacific Highway” eventually became “Route 101”.  While many of these highway names are colorful, naming highways is very impractical.  Strangers to cities are often confused by the proliferation of names for streets, avenues, boulevards and so forth.  Highway planners didn’t wish to curse the nation’s driving public with such a random highway identifying scheme.

In 1924, the American Association of State Highway Officials collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s public roads bureau to lay out an intelligent plan for the primary, intercity highways.  A list of proposed route numbers was negotiated throughout 1924 and much of 1925. The final, official listing of U.S. Highways was released on November 11, 1926.USHighways-183

The numbering of the roads was done for the sake of consistancy and lack of confusion to aid motorists who drive from state to state.  The actual construction and maintenance is actually performed by state and county roads departments. Much of the funding comes from the federal government.

Aside from toll tunnels and bridges, only a very few of the U.S. Numbered highways are toll roads, and those are designated as “Special Routes”. The total length of the numbered system is some 157,724 miles or 253,832 kilometres.

The majority of these roads are two-lane, paved highways. Near many larger towns, the numbered highways are multi-laned with a dividing meridian or strip to classify them as “freeway standard” routes.

The numbering system is really quite simple. The highways follow a basic grid pattern, using a two digit method. The highways that run north to south have odd-numbers, as in U.S. 81.  The routes that run east to west use even-numbers, as in U.S. 20.  Strangely enough, U.S. 101 is classified as a two-digit highway, ten is classified as a “digit”, this can be thought of as 10-1.

Original 1926 map (right click to view full size version and to save)

Original 1926 map
(right click to view full size version and to save)

As you drive down the roads, you notice there are also three digit U.S. Highways. These are official Spurs that connect to a “parent” highway. The spur number is placed at the beginning of the designation.  For instance, one of the spurs to U.S. Highway 75 is U.S. Highway 275.  The spur may or may not run in the same direction as the “parent” highway. There are exceptions to the spur-parent rule. Those exceptions are later additions to the numbered system after the creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

The assignment of the U.S. Numbered system numbers reads from East to West and North to South.  That is, you’ll find U.S. 20 across the north with U.S. 90 across the south. Also, U.S. 9 runs across the eastern United States, while U.S. 99 runs across the western part of the nation.

To avoid further confusion, when the Interstates were numbered, the exact opposite configuration was used.  That is Interstate 10 is across the South and Interstate 90 runs across the North, etc. This lessens the chances of Numbered highways and Interstate highways sharing the same number on any particular stretch of roadway.

One of the most famous U.S. Numbered highways was long ago decommissioned.  U.S. 66 is still a much fabled part of American highway history.  Before it was numbered, the road was called the “Will Rogers Highway”, it was unofficially named “The Mother Road” and “Main Street of America”.  Route 66 no longer legally exists, but the highway can still be travelled in bits and pieces by consulting maps. The story of Route 66 continues to be told and celebrated.


The Blue Jay of Happiness now has this Bobby Troup ditty going through his little bird brain:  “If you ever plan to motor west  Travel my way, the highway that’s the best.  Get your kicks on Route 66!”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in cultural highlights, History, Politics, Transportation, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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