After a severe spring in the northern half of the nation, we may at last have reached another travel season. And most of us who go places will, barring a calamitous rise in gas prices, be doing so by car. Nearly all of us who do will take an interstate highway. But those highways, we hear, are in trouble.
We are told we need to make a much bigger investment in fixing up these roads because of aging, heavy use and years of deferred maintenance. Most recently drawing attention to troubles on the interstates was the May 23 collapse of a bridge of older design in Washington state. Yet because of cars' improved fuel economy, the gas-tax revenues needed to pay the tab are declining.
What is seldom mentioned is that most of our highways are barely being used at all. We have massive underutilized and already paid-for capacity. The problem is that too many of us use the same portion of our highway capacity, the interstates. Interstate highways make up less than 3 percent of the nation's lane mileage but carry a quarter of the traffic. Fortunately, one answer may lie in the best of the rest of the system.
The best of the rest is the UNterstate highways, roads so named because they are different from the interstates. These were often the routes for intercity travel before interstates were built. Usually but not always two-lane, they include some great old thoroughfares such as the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30) and the National Road (U.S. 40).
But not every non-interstate makes a good UNterstate, nor are UNterstates the same as state- or federally designated scenic or historic highways. UNterstates are through roads capable of competing with the interstates. And even with flying.
NASA studies have found that if you're going 500 miles or less -- the distance of most trips made by air -- flying doesn't save you any time, portal to portal, over driving. And does anyone pretend that air travel -- with today's reduced schedules, crowded planes, higher fares, add-on fees, delays and humiliating and possibly carcinogenic TSA invasiveness -- is still enjoyable?
UNterstates offer the motorist several advantages over interstates. They have much less traffic, seeming in some areas like your own private highway. They have far fewer of those unnerving and sometimes dangerous tractor-trailers, which in search of speed have gravitated to the interstates. There is less traffic-slowing construction since with lighter use these roads on average wear out more slowly. And UNterstates, counterintuitively, are often almost as fast as the interstates, at least if you drive within the speed limit.
While UNterstates lack the safety design of the interstates, because of sparse traffic it's still not easy to get into an accident. You can't get hit by a vehicle that's not there. Behavioral research, moreover, suggests that the perception of built-in safety, such as on the interstates, can lead people to take greater risks that nullify safety provisions.
The interstates' limited access and widely spaced interchanges can be disadvantageous. An accident or construction can turn these roads into parking lots since there may be no way out for miles. And in case of trouble, help can take longer to reach you, being encumbered by limited access design.
As a result of narrow rights-of-way, you can see America -- its farms, small towns, shops and people -- better on the UNterstate. On a wide-bodied interstate, what you see is mostly ... the interstate. And unlike on a superhighway, you can easily make an impromptu stop at a roadside farm stand, scenic view, historic country church, charming antiques shop or home-cooking eatery whenever you want, which is certainly one of the pleasures of driving.
UNterstates were routed through centers of activity, while rural interstates, because of their need for huge amounts of land, were routed away from them. UNterstate motorists have a greater choice of convenient places to eat, get fuel, sleep or recreate, in part because the high price of land at interstate exits favor national chains over local businesses.
Interstates are the fast food of motoring. Like the burger chains, they are quick, convenient and easy, but unstimulating, bland and uniform everywhere. UNterstates, with their color and variety, can be more like savory gourmet motoring.
UNterstate drivers experience a world that both flyers and interstaters miss. It's a more interesting world than airports, service plazas and interstate interchanges, all single-purpose and designed for the generic traveler.
Getting there can still be half the fun. To prove that this summer, try the roads less traveled: the UNterstates.
John L. Gann Jr. is president of Gann Associates, an economic growth consultancy based in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and author of "Marketing UNterstate Highways: Bringing Out-of-Town Dollars to Non-Destination Small Towns."