4 Main Types Of Highways Explained

types of highways

Highways form an integrated network of well-maintained thoroughfares that promote the interruption-free flow of commuter traffic, goods transport, and vacation traffic around cities, states, and the country. They are important to minimize traffic delays, interconnect cities, and even connect rural communities across the nation.

There are 4 main types of highways in most countries. National highways are large roadways built to ease the transport of people and goods across the nation. Interstate highways connect neighboring states, state highways promote travel locally within a state. County highways are mostly rural.

Types of highways can be known by various names in different countries, but the principles stay the same. The quality of the highway and the entity responsible for the upkeep of the highway will differ for each highway type.

National Highways

The Autobahn
The Autobahn is a famous national highway in Germany.

National highways are usually the major, multi-lane routes that span large distances across the country. These routes are known by various names in different countries. These routes are known as Inter-state highways in the US, but inter-state has a different meaning in other parts of the world.

The main highways are planned, funded, built, and administered by the national government in most nations. The local state, or province, is tasked with the upkeep and maintenance of the national highways that fall within the boundaries of the state or province.

The national government may, but not always, offer funding for maintenance of the roads to the regions tasked with maintenance.

The quality of these roads is usually superior to all the other highway types. The design usually includes multiple lanes in each direction to promote ease of traffic flow and high speeds on the good quality road surface.

National highways generally have controlled access and fewer entrance and exit points than other highway types. National highways will often be directed around the outskirts of major cities. They may become part of the urban access to the city, with smaller highways diverging from or converging with the national route.

These convergence and divergence interconnections can result in complex interchanges between the highway types.

National highways, other than around cities where they can become congested, are also intended to promote a free flow of traffic, which saves on wear-and-tear and fuel costs on transport vehicles. The lack of stop/start driving on these routes helps in this regard.

The road surface on these highways can be asphalt, but the high traffic zones commonly use concrete for the road surface.

Concrete is harder-wearing of high traffic and heavy loads than asphalt, making it the surface of choice in high traffic zones on national highways or inter-states as they are known in the USA.

The Autobahn in Germany is a famous national highway that, in certain sections, has no upper-speed limit for certain classes of motor vehicles.

Interstate Highways

I-5 Seattle
A view of I-5 passing through Seattle, Washington.

In the USA, national highways are known as interstate highways, but in other parts of the world, interstate highways are smaller highways that connect smaller cities that the national highways bypass.

Smaller inter-state highways connect neighboring states to promote commerce and trade between the states, where the national highways do not reach.

The planning, funding, design, and building of these highways is normally the state’s responsibility or a collaboration between states, which does not include the national government.

The administration, upkeep, and maintenance of these roads are usually done via the state, and state funds are used for this purpose.

Some of these inter-state highways can carry extremely large traffic volumes if the area and commerce warrant the traffic. This has led to many of these provincial or state-controlled highways being of similar standard and quality to the national highways.

However, many other inter-state highways are smaller roadways, with single lanes of traffic going each way, but still with a good quality surface to promote travel at higher speeds.

The road surface of inter-state highways can be concrete or asphalt or combinations thereof, depending on how heavy or light the traffic is on the section of the highway.

State Highways

California State Route 1
The famous California State Route 1 provides a scenic view along the California coast.

State highways are smaller than inter-state highways and generally connect smaller towns in a state with each other, or a larger city, or state capitol.

The quality of these roads is generally determined by how important the town or highway is to the state’s commerce. As with interstate highways, many of these highways can be of the same size and quality and national highways routes, depending on the level of traffic on the highway, needs to cater to.

Likewise, the quality of the surface will vary greatly, from national highway-quality surface to poorly maintained single-lane roadways to smaller towns and cities.

State highway surfaces are more commonly asphalt than concrete. Asphalt is cheaper, making more sense for states that do not have large budgets for road building. Some state highways around larger cities may use concrete surfaces, but this will normally be in zones where heavy vehicles traverse the highway.

County Highways

Gravel county highway
A gravel highway in Alaska goes through the Kenai Peninsula forrest.

County highways have a wide range in size and surfaces, varying from large double-lane highways to gravel roads.

County highways connect smaller, often rural towns and settlements and are used primarily by the agriculture sector. The construction and maintenance of these county highways are normally created from the county budget, and consequently, often reflect the level of commerce and income within the county.

The condition of these roads can be variable, depending on the available funds in the county and the equipment available to maintain the roads. Potholes are a frequent hazard on the smaller county roads.

Gravel roads are often easier to maintain, which is why many rural counties opt to keep the road surface as gravel rather than laying down a blacktop, which has a high capital outlay and high ongoing maintenance costs.

These highways are often policed by local sheriff offices rather than highway patrol.

Old Route Highways

Historic Route 66 Highway
The historic Route 66 highway.

Many countries upgrade their old national highways and routes, but these older highways are still in place and maintained because they still serve a purpose or have historical value.

In the USA, highways that fall into this category are the US Route 21, a north-south route spanning 394 miles, and the famous US Route 66, built in 1926.

Route 66 is an east-west route and is considered a national treasure. Many people from around the world visit the USA to travel Route 66 as tourists.

Highways are constructed from different materials and using different designs, depending on their intended purpose and the traffic volumes they are intended to carry.

From the unlimited high speeds of the Autobahn to a small county gravel surface highway, each has its own peculiar charm.

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