History of the New York Metropolitan Area Highways

The history of metropolitan New York City highways dates back to the early 1900s when parkways began developing in Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City.


Towards the end of the 19th century, New York City began to grow rapidly, from 1.2 million inhabitants in 1880 to 3.4 million in 1900. In 1950, it reached an initial peak of 7.9 million inhabitants, after which population growth stagnated until 1980. In 2000, New York City exceeded 8 million inhabitants and in 2008 the city had a population of 8,363,000.

Beginning in the early 20th century, New York City began to grow beyond its current city limits, first in Westchester County, north of the current Bronx. Until World War II, the conurbation grew mainly around the older towns in New Jersey, for example Newark, Jersey City and Paterson. After World War II rapid suburbanization began on Long Island, first Nassau County from 1950 and Suffolk County from 1970. After 1990, growth stagnated again and the New York metropolitan area grew more slowly. The Hudson Valley is home to affluent suburbs with very low population density. On Long Island, the population density is higher, as is the front row of suburbs in New Jersey. Population density is lower in the central and western New Jersey metropolitan area, as is southwestern Connecticut.

Pioneer years

According to CITYPOPULATIONREVIEW.COM, New York City is characterized by the many islands. Manhattan is the most famous island, but by far the largest island is Long Island. Staten Island is a more suburban island of New York City. The first bridges were built in the 19th century, with the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, being one of the best known. Bridges over the Harlem River were also built between Manhattan and the Bronx in the late 1800s. At the beginning of 1900, the first tunnels opened between the two boroughs. The first connections between New York City and New Jersey were built with tunnels under the Hudson River, in 1908, 1909 and 1910 three rail tunnels were built between Manhattan and New Jersey. The first road tunnel opened in 1927, the Holland Tunnel with two tunnel tubes.

The first grade separated road in New York City was the Long Island Motor Parkway, opened in 1908. However, this was not a freeway, with one lane in each direction and no lane separation. The Bronx River Parkway in Westchester County began construction a year earlier in 1907 . This was the first grade-separated road under construction. Construction of the Bronx River Parkway took quite some time, however, and it wasn’t until 1923 that the section through Westchester County was completed. This was a typical 1920s “highway”, with 4 lanes with no physical center separation, no emergency lanes, but grade separated. When the road opened it was the first multi-lane grade separated road in North America.

Beginning in the early 1920s, more Parkways in Westchester County began construction, such as the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Hutchinson River Parkway, which opened to traffic in the mid to late 1920s. The first parkways on Long Island also opened in the late 1920s, namely the Southern State Parkway and the Wantagh State Parkway.

The 1920s were also the early years of the influence of Robert Moses, which would last more than 4 decades. Moses would build the highway in New York City, and the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester County lead into the late 1960s. In 1924, he became chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission (LISPC), which oversaw the construction of Long Island’s parkways. Robert Moses saw the first highways, the parkways, as grade-separated roads connecting New York City to the many State Parks on Long Island, especially Jones Beach. Later, Moses’ influence would expand dramatically and he was involved in almost all road construction in New York State. Robert Moses wasn’t just of the car parkways, though. He built large parks, ribbon parks along the parkways, numerous playgrounds, swimming pools, neighborhood redevelopments, and more. The parkways were designed in such a way that large vehicles such as buses and trucks could not use them.

Before the Second World War

Although the United States was in an economic depression in the 1930s, the construction of New York’s highways was certainly not. The 1930s were ultimately one of the most productive years for highway construction. The design requirements also improved from the 1930s, with hard shoulder and physically separated lanes. Lighting and signage were also improved, although highways of that time did not yet meet the Interstate Highway design requirements that did not come until the late 1950s. The 1930s saw the opening of major river crossings, such as the George Washington Bridge between northern Manhattan and New Jersey in 1931, the Bayonne Bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey in 1931, the Triborough Bridgebetween Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx in 1936 and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in 1939.

At the same time, the Parkway system on Long Island was significantly expanded. Large portions of the Southern State Parkway and the Wantagh State Parkway opened, providing uninterrupted highway access to Jones Beach for New York traffic. In 1933 and 1936, the Grand Central Parkway opened through Queens, being the first longer highways in New York City. Several highways in Westchester County were also completed in the early 1930s, such as the Cross County Parkway, Taconic State Parkway, and the Briarcliff-Peekskill Parkway. The first stretches of highway in New Jersey were also opened. In 1936 the first part of the FDR Driveopened on Manhattan, the first freeway with 2×3 lanes. In 1937, the Lincoln Tunnel opened to New Jersey, providing three river crossings between Manhattan and New Jersey for road traffic. In 1938, the first section of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut opened. An important project that opened in 1937 was the Henry Hudson Parkway between the west side of Manhattan and the Bronx.

The second World War

In the Second World War, the priority went to waging the war on the European continent and in the Pacific Ocean, which resulted in considerably fewer highways being built. Two major projects were completed in 1940, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel between Queens and Midtown Manhattan and the Belt Parkway to Brooklyn and Queens. The Merritt Parkway was also completed. These were projects started before the war. A few small projects opened in 1941 and 1942, but the thread was picked up again in 1947 with the extension of the Southern State Parkway to the east. In 1949, the parallel Northern State Parkway was also openedextended eastward so that the Parkway network on Long Island began to take shape in earnest.

1950s Suburbanization & Interstate Highways

After the Second World War, prosperity increased rapidly, as did car ownership and aviation. People had the money to leave the busy city behind and settle in the suburbs, especially on Long Island, first in Nassau County, later in Suffolk County. This enormous population growth necessitated the construction of a substantial highway network. In the 1950s, the construction of highways that would be part of the Interstate Highway network from 1958 was also started. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn opened in 1950 and the first section of the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey was also opened that year. In the early 1950s, other projects in New Jersey were accelerated, such as the construction of theNew Jersey Turnpike, later part of Interstate 95. A two-lane tunnel with a total of 4 lanes between the George Washington Bridge and the Bronx was opened in 1952, as the precursor to the later 12-lane Trans-Manhattan Expressway. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway began to take serious shape in the mid-1950s, still under the leadership of the mighty Robert Moses. The New York State Thruway, later Interstate 87, was largely opened, creating the first long-haul highways from New York, along with Interstate 95 in Connecticut in 1958.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway system was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This paved the way for the construction of expressways in New York City that were 90% paid for by federal dollars. In the 1950s it also became apparent that the Parkway system alone was not sufficient, the increase in freight and commuter traffic required expressways that were open to all types of motorized traffic. These roads were mainly constructed as Interstate Highways. In 1958, the Palisades Interstate Parkway was completed, the first north-south highway on the west bank of the Hudson River.

Interstate Highways & the end of the Robert Moses era

Robert Moses was 72 years old in 1960, but he managed to get numerous Interstate Highway projects off the ground, most notably in the early 1960s. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was completed, Interstate 495 was built over Long Island as a main artery and the last parkways were opened in the middle of Long Island, such as the Heckscher State Parkway, Sagtikos State Parkway, and the Sunken Meadow State Parkway. Initiatives to build north-south expressways on Long Island failed, such as the Babylon-Northport Expressway and the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway, which were only partially built. In the early 1960s, theInterstate 95 in New York City, specifically the Cross Bronx Expressway. Interstate 678 was completed just in time for the 1964 World ‘s Fair in Queens. The first Interstate Highways in New Jersey opened in the mid-1960s.

From the mid-1960s, support for Robert Moses began to crumble. New York Governor Rockefeller canceled many projects in the late 1960s, and Moses failed to convince him for his last major project; a connection across the Long Island Sound between Long Island and Connecticut. In 1968 Moses resigned from his position as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was then transformed into the public transport company MTA. He was supposed to remain an advisor to the MTA, but was ignored. However, in the late 1960s, a number of important projects were completed, such as the FDR Drive in 1966 which was completed after 30 years and the Northern State Parkway which was completed after 32 years.

The end of the highway construction

According to ASK4BEAUTY, in the early 1970s a number of highways were built, especially in New Jersey and some smaller projects in New York. In 1970 the Saw Mill River Parkway was completed after 44 years. I-495 reached its current end at Riverhead in 1972, and that year also saw the completion of the last highways on Staten Island. In 1972, Governor Rockefeller finally called off the last major projects proposed by Robert Moses and the era of highway construction was over. The political preference turned to public transport and the highways fell into disrepair. By no means all projects were completed to improve the highways from the 1930s to modern design requirements. In 1976 the last stretch of the West Shore Expressway ( State Route 440 in New York ) was completed) opened, which would be the last freeway opening in New York City, the last project Robert Moses would experience. Moses died in 1981 at the age of 93.

The last missing links

Long-term projects like Interstate 287 in New Jersey were delayed by endless procedures. Only 45 kilometers of highway was completed in the New York metropolitan area in the 1980s and 1990s, with the completion of 20 miles of I-287 in 1993 accounting for the bulk. The very last highway to be built in the metropolitan area is State Route 21 in New Jersey at Paterson for 2 kilometers in the year 2000.

The metropolitan highways fell into disrepair, New York City’s public transportation cost so much that there was no money left for regular highway maintenance. Some highways were adapted from the 1970s to 2000, but capacity additions were no longer made. Virtually all highways in New York state today are in the same condition they were in 1970, sometimes even older. A number of Parkways in Westchester County have remained virtually unchanged in design since the 1920s, often only replacing the road surface and installing a Jersey Barrier in the median strip. In New Jersey, things were a little different. Major highways like the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpikewere drastically expanded. The GSP now has 8 to 10 lanes across much of its New Jersey route. The New Jersey Turnpike has 12 lanes over a considerable distance. There is virtually no question of new construction in New Jersey either.

New York Metropolitan Area Highways