The dominant view among transportation scholars is that transportation history flows from older to newer travel modes, with each mode being superior to and, for the most part, displacing the earlier modes. America, an early adopter of widespread automobility, was in this view a harbinger of trends that would follow elsewhere, and hence the US experience of passenger travel based almost completely on car travel was a signal of things to come. Yet this paper argues that interpreting from the US experience with the interstate highway era misses key points. The interstate system, and the planning that surrounded it, was developed during a brief period of time when transportation policy was centralized, standardized, and largely divorced from questions of local impacts and place‐based political pressures. That made the years immediately after the 1956 Interstate Highway Act unusual in the broader context of transportation planning. The US has recently witnessed a return of pre‐interstate urban transportation planning realities, and transportation in large US cities is now multi‐modal, contextualized by ties to land use and neighbourhoods, and fraught with the politics and incrementalism of the pre‐interstate era. Regional science research, grounded in the era of national highway construction, can adapt to the realities of modern urban transportation planning by focusing more on collaboration and financing in ill‐defined institutional settings, environmental externalities and non‐market impacts, and retrospective project evaluation.