Skip Global Navigation to Main Content

Geography, Infrastructure

26 April 2011
Canal curving through farmland (AP Images)

The California Aqueduct is a crucial part of the infrastructure in that state.

Americans pack up and move to different regions of the United States with freedom and relative ease. In 2009, nearly 2 million Americans moved from one region of the country to another. The largest number, about 738,000 people, moved from other regions to the South, but about 591,000 moved out of the South to the Midwest, West, and Northeast.

Distinct regions with regional identities and personalities persist: New England, the mid-Atlantic from New York to Washington, D.C., the industrial states around the Great Lakes, the South with its historical legacies and new economic dynamism, the breadbasket of farmlands from the Midwest to the Great Plains, the thinly settled wilderness and desert regions along the Rocky Mountains, the high concentration of Hispanics in Texas and the Southwest, the southern tip of Florida with its ties to the Caribbean, the Pacific Northwest. The states of California, Alaska and Hawaii are each in many ways regions of their own.

In the U.S. federal system of government, the states set many laws and policies affecting economic performance.

In a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in praise of differing practices from place to place in the United States.

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” Brandeis said. States remain laboratories of policy innovation.

Even as Americans relocate between regions and as immigration, resources and culture define regional differences, other economic and cultural forces work to break down regional barriers and integrate the nation’s regional economies. These include a common currency, a legal system that recognizes the rights of private property, and federal laws that create uniform policies for commerce among the states.

Transportation infrastructure ties the country together. The federal government alone had the authority and capital to launch the 19th century’s greatest infrastructure project — the first transcontinental railroad. Two companies were granted the task of building the line in the 1860s, crossing deserts and mountains with the labor of 10,000 workers, including European settlers, freed slaves and Chinese immigrants.

The railroad united the nation from coast to coast for the first time. Grain, coal to make steel and illuminating gas, copper, iron ore, petroleum, timber, clothing to supply new city department stores and mail-order retail businesses, food — even fruit in newly invented refrigerator cars — all could cross the country in search of markets.

The 20th century was the era of the automobile and trucks. By 1925 a 5,456-kilometer route called the Lincoln Highway ran across the country from New York to San Francisco. Beginning in the 1950s the federal government began construction of the Interstate Highway System of modern, limited-access roads.

Today Interstate highways cover 75,440 kilometers. They accelerated the relocation of city dwellers to the suburbs, encouraged the spread of industry from older northern cities to towns in the South and West, and established the trucking industry as a rival for railroads in shipping freight.

The telegraph and then the telephone also worked to unite the nation. But it was broadcasting — first radio and then television — that created nationwide audiences, a more common culture, and a truly national economic market. Americans living thousands of miles apart could experience domestic and global events simultaneously.

Broadcasting in the United States has evolved along a privately owned, publicly regulated model. While radio and television stations are licensed by the federal government with a requirement to serve the public interest, most are run to generate profits for their private-sector owners from selling advertising time.

Endless innovation in telecommunications devices employing the Internet are flooding users with opportunities to gather information, do business and maintain social contacts across the country and around the world.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Vehicles traveling on highway (AP Images)

The Interstate Highway System bolstered trucks as rivals to railroads in carrying freight.