We continue to dive into the St. Louis Federal Reserve ‘s new trove of old historical economic data.
This chart highlights what is arguably the most consequential change in the country’s transportation history: the rise of freeways and the decline of rail.
The red line shows an index of total railroad consumption, while the blue shows truck production.
Trucks began to take off in the late 1920s — the first factory-assembled truck had its debut on the Ford market in 1925. It cost about $300.
Trucks and rail ran about equal during hte depression, but after the war, trains never recovered:
One man who really helped cement the shift: President Eisenhower.
It turns out a couple of quirks in President Dwight Eisenhower’s biography ignited roads’ dominance and turned roads into the country’s principal infrastructure system.
First, Eisenhower had participated in an early test by the army of how large convoys would perform if they had to travel long distances. In 1919, Eisenhower helped lead a cross-country convoy of 80 trucks and military vehicles to suss out any problems with long journeys.
Then, during the war, Eisenhower — the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe — fell in love with Germany’s Autobahns:
“The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.
Construction of the first interstate began in 1956, and the country never looked back. Rail didn’t have a chance.
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