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Highway vs Freeway: What’s The Difference?

There are a lot of road types that are very similar to each other.

Highways and freeways are two of those road types.

So, what is a highway vs what is a freeway?

Do they really need different names?

What sets the two apart?

Let’s break it down.

What is a highway?

freeway overpasses at night

A highway is any public road (or water source or dirt path) open to everyone.

That’s it, that’s the entire definition.

This hardly correlates with what we think of as a highway, which in everyday vernacular translates more as a long road which takes us further than the average road.

So, a more complete, modern definition of highway is: “a main road or thoroughfare that runs between towns or cities”.

What is a freeway?

A freeway is a public road that has controlled access (limited places where vehicles can enter and exit) and no intersections.

These roads typically have multiple lanes and are designed for travel over extensive distances.

They are inaccessible from other roads, except at their controlled access points.

As their name implies, they are also free to travel on (as opposed to toll roads).

Interstates in the United States are freeways.

And, since highways are simply public roads open to everyone, freeways are a form of highways.

What is the difference between a highway and a freeway?

Here are the main differences between highways and freeways.

Highways are roads with intersections and stop signs or stoplights that may have pedestrian (bike, foot, horse, carriage or otherwise) traffic.

Freeways are roads accessible solely by ramps, meant only for vehicular traffic.

Highways may have businesses and residences lining the road that are accessible directly from the road.

Freeways are separated from businesses and residential areas, and accessible only by exiting at designated ramps.

Highways may or may not have medians (divisions such as grass or gravel strips or concrete walls) that separate lanes and traffic moving in opposite directions.

Freeways always have medians separating lanes and traffic moving in opposite directions.

Highways typically have lower speed limits, which change based on features and development surrounding the road.

A highway’s speed limit may be 55 mph along the majority of the route, but drop to 35 mph through municipalities.

Highway speed limits may also be lower in areas of difficult-to-navigate topography, such as in mountains, and at junctions and intersections.

Freeway speed limits also change, but are generally higher.

A freeway’s speed limit may be 70 mph along the majority of the route, but 55 thorough municipalities.

Like highway speed limits, freeway speed limits may also drop due to physical features, such as sharp curves in the road or in areas of high wind.

Either highways or freeways can have considerably lower speed limits during times of construction.

Highway vs Freeway Summation

Highway Features

  • Intersections
  • Traffic lights and stop signs
  • Pedestrian traffic legal
  • Medians optional
  • Lower speed limits

Freeway Features

  • Ramps
  • No traffic lights and stop signs
  • Pedestrian traffic illegal
  • Medians mandatory
  • Higher speed limits

This sums up the main differences between freeways and highways.

But to reiterate the most basic definitions, highways are any public road open to everyone and freeways are a type of highway with controlled-access.