Highway, Freeway, Parkway – Know the Difference

PA Turnpike carrying cars as a highway and freeway with a difference between the two.

There are 289.5 million vehicles in the United States. Considering the distance between locations stretching across the 3.8 million square miles of the nation, people need automobiles to get around. This makes roads that encourage expedited car travel critical to limiting the time drivers spend on the road.

Anyone on these roadways might see various names associated with them—highways, freeways, expressways, parkways. So, what’s the difference?

Highway vs. Freeway: What You Say Depends on Where You’re From

There may be a regional dialect component to what a person refers to as these major roads.

In 2003, the Harvard Dialect Survey was conducted to explore words in American English. Respondents were asked a series of questions on how they say or pronounce certain words. Many of these included familiar terms indicative of what part of the country you live in—soda vs. pop, traffic circle vs. roundabout, sneakers vs. tennis shoes, sub vs. hero vs. hoagie, etc.

These results were later compiled as heatmaps by Joshua Katz, then a Ph.D. student of statistics at North Carolina State University, on the subreddit /r/linguistics.

One question posed:

“What is your ‘general’ term for a big road that you drive relatively fast on?”

The majority of respondents across the US answered with “highway.” However, on the West Coast, “freeway” was a common reply, with many specifying that a freeway has limited access, while a highway is a similar roadway that can make use of stops and intersections.

What is a Highway?

According the US Department of Transportation (DOT) Federal Highway Authority (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a highway is defined as:

Highway—a general term for denoting a public way for purposes of vehicular travel, including the entire area within the right-of-way.”

“Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” Federal Highway Administration (2009): 56, https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009r1r2/mutcd2009r1r2edition.pdf

American National Standard ANSI/ASSP A10.47-2021 borrows this definition. You can learn more about this standard here: ANSI/ASSP A10.47-2021: Work Zone Safety for Roadway Construction.

What is a Freeway?

The MUTCD offers the following definition:

Freeway—a divided highway with full control of access.”

“Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” Federal Highway Administration (2009): 56, https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009r1r2/mutcd2009r1r2edition.pdf

Interestingly, as noted by West Coast respondents to the Harvard Dialect Survey, if a major road has cross traffic, traffic signals, or even pedestrian crossings, then it is not a freeway. Drivers can only enter freeways by ramps, and vehicles needing to cross a freeway can only do so via underpass or overpass.

However, under this definition, a freeway is a type of highway. If a major roadway has traffic signals or does not contain full contain full control of access, then it is not a freeway, but it is still a highway.

What is an Expressway?

Similarly, the MUTCD offers the below definition for expressways:

Expressway—a divided highway with partial control of access.”

“Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” Federal Highway Administration (2009): 56, https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009r1r2/mutcd2009r1r2edition.pdf

What is a Parkway?

While not defined in the MUTCD, a parkway is a landscaped thoroughfare.

The term parkway was coined for Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway to describe a road designed for pleasure riding, not commercial activity. In 1923, the Bronx River Parkway, which featured a landscaped roadside, modernized version this idea for the automobile age.

Parkways, as highways surrounded by nature that forbid commercial vehicles, became common throughout the 1930s. This decade saw the construction of numerous parkways thanks to New Deal public works programs.

What is the MUTCD?

Last issued in 2009 by the US DOT Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and revised in 2012, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is the national standard for traffic control devices installed on any street, highway, bikeway, or private road open to public travel.

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