American Roads

Interstate, federal and state highways

The standard of American roads varies enormously from eight-lane freeways in urban areas to gravel or dirt tracks in remote rural areas. Generally, American roads have fewer road markings than European roads.

Streets in most cities are laid out in a grid pattern, with all roads running north-south or east-west. In the central areas of main cities, every other street is usually a one-way street.

Streets are usually marked as north, south, east or west of a dividing line and every corner is given a letter (N, S, E or W). It’s often important to know whether you want uptown or downtown when asking for directions.

In some cities (e.g. Los Angeles), you’re confronted with multiple layers of interconnecting roads 12 lanes wide and a mile high, with direction signs two blocks wide and four storeys tall (which can unnerve even the most hardened motorist). Finding the right entrance or exit road can be a nightmare; needless to say, it’s best to avoid rush hours. Direction signs in the east are sparse (particularly on freeways), inconsistent and poorly placed. They’re usually unlit at night in urban areas and therefore difficult to read. In many suburbs, counties may be signposted, but not major towns. If you get lost and end up in a ‘rough’ area, don’t stop a stranger to ask the way, but find a policeman or police station (or ask at a well-lit restaurant or petrol station).

Quality of freeways

Suburban roads and freeways are generally well surfaced and maintained, although roads in some cities are poor, e.g. in New York City, where many roads are full of potholes. Most roads have wide ‘shoulders’, although in rural areas there may be a steep drop in the level between the road surface and the dirt shoulder. Cars with low ground clearance can be a liability, as holes, bumps, dips and humps (e.g. for railway lines) in roads can damage exhaust pipes and body panels. Freeways are badly maintained in some areas, where the surface is rough and full of holes (the reason American cars have such soft suspension). The hard shoulder (or ‘berm’) of freeways is often littered with stripped tyres from trucks and other debris.

As you may already have discovered, the US is a large country and vast distances look small on maps (unless you have a very small scale map). When estimating journey times, carefully calculate distances and take into account road quality and terrain. Although it’s possible to travel 500mi/800km in a day on freeways, your range is greatly reduced on secondary roads, particularly in mountainous areas.

If you have the time, you will find travelling on state and country roads much more enjoyable than on interstate highways. Driving long distances on dead-straight highways at a constant speed of 55mph or 65mph is deadly boring and can induce ‘highway hypnosis’, which manifests itself in drowsiness and lack of concentration. You can avoid this by taking regular breaks for food and drink and to stretch your legs. Never drive when you’re tired; get someone else to take the wheel for a spell or pull well off the road and take a nap. Never park on the hard shoulder of a freeway, but get off it and go to a rest stop.

Multi-lane highways are generally referred to as freeways (except in Los Angeles, where freeways are known locally as parking lots). Other names for multi-lane highways include beltways (ring roads), expressways, interstates, parkways, speedways, superhighways, throughways (or thruways) and turnpikes.

Many freeways have just two lanes in each direction, although in urban areas and major cities there may be up to eight. Most freeways have huge central reservations (dividers). The rules for motoring on freeways are much the same as on fast roads in other countries and include no stopping (except in emergencies).

Many freeways have ‘pool lanes’, reserved for high occupancy vehicles (HOV) during peak hours (in the peak direction), including buses, minibuses and cars with a minimum number of passengers (usually two or three). Pool lanes are usually indicated by diamond road markings and signs indicating the period of operation (which may be all day). Information about pool schemes can often be obtained by dialling telephone numbers shown on signs on freeways. Shared cars aren’t required to pay a toll on some roads. In some cities, e.g. New York, there are bus lanes and suburban areas throughout the US have cycle lanes.

Many freeways have ‘exit only’ lanes, where all traffic on the inside lane must leave the freeway. Freeway exits are often unmarked and you may find yourself leaving a freeway without realising it. This makes driving in the inside lane less relaxing than it is in most other countries. One of the most unusual and frightening aspects of American freeways is that exits are sometimes from the outside lane, particularly in urban areas and at junctions.

These often aren’t indicated very far ahead, and if you’re in the inside lane you must quickly cross several lanes of traffic to exit. When driving on unfamiliar freeways with more than two lanes, it’s best to avoid the inside and outside lanes. Most interstate highways have considerable distances between exits. Another bizarre and dangerous feature of American freeways is that the sliproad (ramp) onto a freeway is often situated just before the sliproad off the freeway rather than after it.

Most drivers join a freeway without indicating and with little regard for other traffic, which they expect to pull over or slow down. In some states you drive up a sliproad where there’s a small traffic light with the sign ‘one car per green’. After getting a green light you continue onto the freeway itself, where there’s another sign saying ‘merge’. Somehow you’re supposed to find a gap in the wall-to-wall traffic. Beware of merging lanes, e.g. where two four-lane highways merge into one, as these are often poorly signposted and may come as a complete surprise.

About turnpikes

Turnpikes (usually shown in green on maps) are privately constructed freeways on which tolls are levied; thruways, parkways and expressways (plus others) may also be toll roads. The name turnpike comes from the first toll highways, the entrance to which was barred by revolving poles called ‘turn pikes’. Turnpikes are mostly located in the Northeast, although they’re also found in other areas such as Florida, Kansas and Oklahoma.

They’re usually known by names, e.g. the ‘Atlantic City Expressway’ and the ‘Massachusetts Turnpike’. Tolls are usually payable on entry to, or exit from, a turnpike, and sometimes during a journey. On shorter journeys, tolls may be paid by dropping the fee, e.g. 50 cents in quarters, in a funnel in an ‘exact change’ lane. If you don’t have the exact change, you must queue in a lane with a cashier. (Don’t be tempted to drive through a toll without paying, as there are concealed barriers and heavy fines to deter non-payers, and booth attendants radio offenders’ registration numbers to waiting highway patrol cars.)

On longer turnpikes you’re given a card when you join it and pay at a tollbooth when you exit. Turnpikes are often better quality roads than non-toll freeways and have service areas with restaurants and petrol stations. There are also toll bridges and tunnels in many cities (e.g. New York).

Interstate Highways

The Interstate and Defense Highway System (originally funded by the Defense Department), as it’s officially called, includes a comprehensive network of freeway-standard roads with at least two lanes and a hard shoulder in each direction. Interstate highways are prefixed with the letter ‘I’ and numbered using even numbers for east-west roads and odd numbers for north-south roads.

The lowest numbers are in the south and west and the highest numbers in the north and east, e.g. the I-10 runs across the southern US border from Jacksonville (Florida) to Los Angeles (California), the I-90/I-94 crosses the northern edge, the I-5 runs down the west coast, and the I-95 down the east coast. When you come to a junction, the direction of an interstate may be indicated, e.g. I-10 East or I-95 North/South.

Most interstate roads have one or two digits. Three-digit numbers usually indicate short urban spur freeways, where the first digit denotes whether the spur goes around or into a city. Even-numbered prefixes indicate spurs that go around a city, e.g. the I-435, which is a circular spur from the I-35 around Kansas City. Odd-numbered prefixes signify a spur that goes into a city, e.g. the I-710, which is a spur into Los Angeles from the I-10.

Some interstates bear names as well as numbers, e.g. the ‘Golden State Freeway’, although these can generally be ignored, as they usually change or disappear after a few miles. However, names are often part of the local language and are unavoidable (when giving directions, a local person may use names rather than numbers).

Interstates are provided with rest areas, picnic sites and viewpoints, which have toilets (restrooms or bathrooms) and drinking fountains, but don’t usually have other facilities, e.g. petrol stations and restaurants, unless they’re turnpikes. However, petrol stations and restaurants (usually referred to as ‘truck stops’) are usually located close to interstates and are well signposted, usually in neon.

If you cross a state border (line), the first rest area after the border usually has information leaflets on things to see and do in the state you’ve just entered and sometimes a person you can ask for details. If you’re touring, you may be interested in the National Geographic Society’s publication The Interstates Crossing America.

Federal Highways

Federal highways bear the prefix US and are the most important roads after interstate highways, which they duplicate on some routes and with which they provide links. They vary from large dual carriageways (divided highways), virtually indistinguishable from interstates, to ordinary suburban streets. Federal highways are numbered in the same way as interstate highways; north-south odd and east-west even.

State Highways

State highways vary in quality more than any other major road. Some are of freeway standard, while others are little more than dirt or gravel tracks. There’s no conformity in the numbering system, which is decided by state authorities, and the numbers of through routes often change at state borders. All states provide road condition and road construction telephone hotlines.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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