Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel coast to coast without seeing anything.”
Charles Kuralt, On the Road with Charles Kuralt, 1985
Several factors contributed to the decline of Route 66 and other highways like it. The rise of the Interstate Highway System, commissioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, led to the bypassing of Main Streets from coast to coast and the so-called Main Street of America was no exception. The scenic route was passed over, replaced by the Interstate and all the simplicity that it had to offer: no congestion, no delays, just smooth roads without interruption. The smaller routes could not stand up to the bigger-better-faster mentality that went along with new roads such as Interstate 40.
Perhaps the greatest downfall of Route 66 was its popularity. The road led through the centers of small towns not designed to absorb the traffic volume and attendant delays, much of it due to the publicity from television, literature, and song. For those people who lived and worked in these small communities, such delays were a burden, and the introduction of interstates that circumvented their towns may have seemed like a blessing, as they diverted the unnecessary traffic from the center of town. However, as Interstate 40 replaced Route 66, it also brought with it the end of many small businesses that had prospered thanks to the tourism the famous road brought to seldom-visited places. For many towns, the largest pull they had for tourists was the fact that Route 66 passed through it.
Today, many of the businesses along 66 have closed, and many more are struggling to survive. Like the early 20th century guidebooks, contemporary maps advertise only those locations deemed most significant (and which have paid for the advertisement). Billboards and large, striking signs help to promote businesses, many of which have incorporated the number 66 into their names in hopes of benefitting from the wide-spread name recognition attributed to Route 66.
As time passed and Route 66 was absorbed by Interstate 40, maps gradually changed to represent the overlapping roads. Even where vestiges of 66 remained--generally renamed--it is not shown as an individual, separate route but rather 40 is pictured directly on top of it, making the road into a patchwork. Some more recent maps do not bother to show anything except for the Interstates, leaving the slower routes that wound through towns to the past.
In this section of a 1963 United States map, sections of Route 66 have already been replaced by stretches of the fledgling Interstate 40, shown with broader lines overlapping that representing 66.
Detail from Cities Service, United States; New Mexico, Texas
(Chicago: H. M. Gousha, 1963).
OML French 3241.
By 1967, Significantly more of Interstate 40 had been built, shown on this map in green. As the interstate was built, more and more of 66 fell out of use, bypassed by the faster, easier path.
Detail of United States; California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma
(St. Louis: Diversified Map Corporation, 1967).
OML French, 3864.
By 1985, all that remained of Route 66 was a small stretch near the Texas-New Mexico border. Despite the fact that the road had been decommissioned, a shadow of the Route 66 sign still remained on the map.
Detail from "New Mexico" in United States Highway Atlas
(Arlington Heights, IL: American Map Corporation, 1985)