Want to start an argument? Ask any group of people if it’s called a freeway or a highway. Just like the debate over pop, soda, or Coke, the freeway vs. highway debate is a controversial one that likely won’t be resolved here, but we’ll give you all the background info you need to win this important argument.
Freeway vs. highway
When the first cars (or “horseless carriages”) arrived, they used the existing dirt, gravel and sometimes brick roads to travel. This was fine when cars were merely quirky toys for wealthy people. But by the time the affordable Ford Model T came along, the average driver was not going to put up with getting stuck in a muddy hole downtown on date night.
Combustion engines promised to carry loads a team of horses couldn’t touch, and delivery trucks required strong surfaces to support their weight. Early roads were composed of large flat stones, filled in with smaller stones, and topped with tar to keep it all glued together. It worked, but as car speeds picked up, these roads made for a bumpy ride. Today, our modern roads use a mix of ingredients, including asphalt concrete, sand, polymers and binders for weather and weight resistance.
But even with the improved early roads, traveling long distances by car was no easy feat. Cities were tasked with building roads for easier commerce, but out west, roads between towns were still dirt horse trails. States slowly added paved roads between cities, but even by the middle of the 20th century, people in small towns still drove on gravel, limiting speed and compromising safety. Cue the freeway and highway.
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What is a freeway?
A freeway is a high-speed, controlled-access road that is also called a highway. Freeways physically separate the directions of traffic flow by space and/or barriers, unlike a two-lane road where a yellow line is the only traffic separation. Near large urban areas, it’s common to see four lanes or more heading in each direction.
“Controlled access” means there are no cross streets with vehicles trying to cross the freeway lanes. Drivers can only access the freeway by on-ramps, and leave via off-ramps. Freeways usually prohibit pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles. All freeways are highways, but not all highways are freeways.
There’s now nearly 49,000 miles of highway covering the United States, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. You probably know the I-5 freeway on the West Coast, I-40 and I-80 running coast-to-coast, and I-95 running from Maine to Florida.
Who maintains freeways?
Freeways, interstate highways and whatever else you want to call them are partially maintained through a federal gas tax. This makes sense, as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 created the interstate highway system.
Picture a highway running across seven or more states. If each state were independently responsible for maintaining the stretch of freeway within its borders, it would be difficult to maintain uniform quality and safety. By having federal oversight, the entire highway gets the funding and maintenance it needs.
Every decade or so, new funding is allotted to address highway maintenance and repairs, as well as upgrades like HOV lanes and noise suppression walls. Recent infrastructure bills added funding to repair bridges and add EV charging stations.
What is a highway?
Highways are also high-speed, high-volume roadways that can cross over state lines. The main difference between highway and freeway is usually apparent on sight. You might see a highway’s single or double lanes of traffic, sometimes with a physical separation between them, or even intersections and stoplights.
However, the biggest difference is that highways lack controlled access. A highway is a major road that connects directly with other public roads. In short, highways don’t have on-ramps. Some busy highways you may have heard of or used are Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway in California and the Great River Road following the length of the Mississippi.
Who maintains highways?
Another difference between highway and freeway is in funding sources for maintenance and improvements. While the Federal Highway Administration handles the national side, your state’s Department of Transportation funds the state highways. This includes personnel for maintenance, repairs, improvements and expansions of state roads and highways, including parts of the federal highway system, such as the signs and road markings.
What is an expressway?
An expressway is a high-speed, high-volume divided highway with controlled-access points. Sound familiar? It should, other terms for expressway include freeway and highway, but the definition seems closer to freeway. Other names include the accurate thruway, the confusing parkway, and the always-fun superhighway. But regardless, expressway is used interchangeably with both freeway and highway.
Now you should have a solid understanding of the highway vs. freeway debate. The main differentiator is the access points. So when someone says “freeway,” picture on-ramps, and if you hear “highway,” think of intersections.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the busiest highway in America?
I-5 in Southern California is the busiest highway in the US, with 21.4 billion miles traveled annually. It’s even heavier in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana route, with an average of 504,000 vehicles using it every day.
Which is the largest highway in the world?
The longest trip by highway is the Pan-American Highway, a system of 19,000 miles of highways running from the northern coast of Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. However, it’s not one continuous highway due to the Darien Gap. That honor goes to Australia’s Highway 1, which borders the entire continent for over 9,000 miles.
What is the fastest highway in the world?
Germany’s Autobahn has sections with no speed limit, but Poland has the highest speed limit in the world, at 140 km/h, or 87 miles per hour.