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The parkways were the first US system of limited access highways. These are roads designed particularly for through traffic, upon which cross traffic has been eliminated or severely curtailed, to which entrances and exits are strictly controlled, and in which abutting landowners have no easement or right of access different from that enjoyed by the general public. Such highways are also called freeways, thruways, expressways, tollways, or belt-lines.

The parkways were designed for automobile traffic, predating such later limited-access highways as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Germany's autobahns, and the United States Interstate highway system.

The first of these parkways were in and around the greater New York City area. Construction on the Bronx River Parkway began in 1907, and on the Long Island Parkway (also known as the Vanderbilt Parkway) in 1908. By the 1920s an extensive system of motor parkways was carrying a large volume of constant traffic in the area. Urban legend has it that the Bronx River Parkway and Hutchinson River Parkway were deliberately designed by the mayor at the time to have low bridges to prevent low income families from bringing their trailers to more "pristine" regions.

Since then, the name parkway has had some fun poked at it, as it is ironic that one would park on a driveway, and instead drive on a parkway. Today however, the name is more often used for scenic or historic drives like the national parkways two-lane parkways with a relatively low speed limit, with national park land on either side. Examples are the CCC-built Blue Ridge Parkway / Skyline Drive in North Carolina and Virginia, and the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.

In Kentucky, the name parkway is used to designate a controlled-access highway built as a toll road. Many Kentucky parkways became freeways after the bonds that financed their construction were paid off, but retained their parkway designation. In the Greater New York City region, parkways are generally (but not always) controlled-access highways restricted to non-commercial traffic.

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