Driving the New Jersey Turnpike

"New Jersey Turnpike in the wee, wee hours, I was rolling slowly 'cause of drizzling showers," wrote rock legend Chuck Berry in his 1956 song, "You Can't Catch Me." Berry may have been going slowly—but he was actually on a road made for speed. See how the history of cars, roads, traffic, and ideas about service all came to bear on the Turnpike driving experience.

Cars and Roads

It was only 1906, but even then, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford saw the writing on the wall. In a letter to The Automobile that year, he wrote "While it may have been a luxury when first put out, [the automobile] is now one of the absolute necessities of our later day civilization." Almost one hundred years later, America is more dependent on automobiles (over 200 million on the Turnpike every year alone) than any other country in the world.

What better way to talk about the Turnpike than through the car? After all, it was rising numbers of cars (and the traffic they generated) that led not just to widespread changes in roadbuilding but to the superhighway's creation.

The car that really started the U.S. on the road to widespread car ownership was the Model T, introduced by Henry Ford in Detroit in 1908. It was dependable, easily maintained, and reasonably priced (unlike some of the luxury cars produced in New Jersey). Plus, it rode well on the bumpy, rough, rutted roads that were the norm (the same miserable roads that bicyclists had long been trying to fix). Mass-produced, the Model T made cars more available to more people, and led to the national acceptance of the automobile on an unprecedented scale and to a new era in personal travel.

While World War II significantly slowed American car production (only 70,000 cars rolled off the assembly line in 1945, compared to almost 4 million passenger cars in 1940), not long after war's end in 1945, the numbers rose. Between 1946 and 1955, the number of automobiles manufactured annually quadrupled. In New Jersey after World War II, traffic density on the state highway system was seven times the national average. Main routes approaching New York City were carrying twice their planned capacity.

Increasing frustration with traffic, coupled with an era of new prosperity and road building, set the stage for the New Jersey Turnpike. It wasn't actually an original idea; turnpikes went back to the late 1700s (as a vintage toll sign clearly suggests). And the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first modern turnpike, had already opened years before. But New Jersey's time had come.

Beep Beep, Honk Honk

In what may seem amusing to modern eyes, two 1950s films—one by GM (a car manufacturer) and one by Cities Service (a gasoline company)—highlight the poor state of American roads and the dismal state of rising traffic, and tout new highways (like the Turnpike) as an answer.

Ironically, new highways weren't necessarily the "solution." In 1949 Enoch R. Needles, a consulting engineer to the New Jersey Turnpike, flatly stated that building highways to "provide adequate capacity for even ten years in the future" had been impossible since the rise of the automobile. "For twenty-five years I have observed the building of New Jersey highways," he stated. "Without exception, each new artery that has been built has become overloaded almost as soon as it was opened."

Even so, when the Turnpike opened in 1951, it seemed to provide the relief so many had sought. Its smooth, asphalt-paved surfaces and flat, straight runways contributed to an unparalleled driving experience that was all about speed—which was proudly trumpeted on souvenirs and in print. "Now, on its wide lanes," wrote Life magazine in 1951, "trucks and cars can soar along at 60 with no thought of lights, traffic circles or crossroads and make the 118-mile run between New York and Delaware in two hours flat."

Catering to the Car

The New Jersey Turnpike was a road that catered to the car. New service areas strategically located along the Turnpike meant you didn't have to leave the road to get gas or eat at Howard Johnson's.

There were other ways that the Turnpike would cater to the car, to the rising numbers of drivers who used it with each passing year. An increasingly mobile society meant the numbers of New Jersey Turnpike users mushroomed. Traffic rapidly came to match and surpass what the road could handle. The Turnpike responded with such strategies as widening, expansions, extensions (the road is now 148 miles long in total), and new technologies, among them E-ZPass. In 2001, well over 200 million drivers used the road—compare that to 18 million in 1952, its first full year in operation.

Voices from the Road

With the tremendous rise of automobile ownership in the second half of the 20th century, for many the Turnpike no longer holds the same meaning as when it opened. No longer a novel experience for drivers, it is instead a common point of reference that embodies the way we feel about driving, highways, and ever-mounting traffic. It is also a window onto larger problems in our society, like racial profiling. A by-product of our increasing reliance on the automobile, the New Jersey Turnpike has become something we all hold in common and about which most of us have an opinion.

Take a detour!