One of the most delightful things about Earl Swift's history of the American interstate highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is the deeply human story that courses beneath the miles of concrete and asphalt that makes up what is still the best highway system in the world. Far from a dry account of how we got from dirt and mud to ribbon-smooth freeway, Swift's book is one about the fascinating people that dreamed it up, fought for and against it, and made it happen. Never will I take the road for granted again.
He begins in dirt and mud, at the advent of the automobile, when driving literally meant taking your life in your hands. He recounts the story of Carl Fisher, the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and led the push for better roads. He tells of Thomas McDonald, an engineer who actually conceived of the interstates years before Eisenhower gave thought to them. I became reacquainted with Lewis Mumford, a critic of the highway system, familiar to some from sociology or urban planning studies. Joe Wiles, an African-American neighborhood activist in Baltimore, figures in as well, as Swift recounts the over-decade long battle over siting and construction of an urban section of interstate highway in Baltimore.
But the story that I found most endearing was that of a bureaucrat, Frank Turner, a public works engineer who rose to the top of the Bureau of Public Works due to his dedication and hard work. It is easy to caricature government employees as overpaid pencil-pushers. Turner was neither. He was truly a public servant, doing grunt work, rising through the ranks, all the while apparently humble, irenic, and though painfully shy growing in statecraft and respectability. We owe our highways in large part to his dedicated work.
And yet as wonderful as a good road may be, this is also a story of the the problems which their building. Sprawl, displacement of homes, and the sidelining and decline of small-town business districts are just some of the results. A sameness permeates the experience. And while the highways, bridges, and interchanges are a thing of beauty at times, much good was lost in their wake. Swift quotes Steinbeck, from 1962's Travels with Charley: In Search of America: "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing." Mumford picks up the critique, and Swift recounts it well, but the book is benevolent, acknowledging the benefits of the highways without overlooking the damage done.
Swift brings the story down to ground at times in a way that makes me want to be there. He recounts visiting the remnants of the test rack built for the planned interstate highways near Ottawa, Illinois, and I too wanted to be there, to touch that history. Or walk the streets of a vibrant Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore, before a stop and start again highway planning process slowly nibbled away at the patience of homeowners and let to the decline of a once vibrant neighborhood. Real people, real places.
As Swift concludes, the highways "turned out to be more than just fancy roads. . . [but], often in ways unanticipated by their creators, they had been agents of far-reaching change and had reordered the American landscape." It's literally a 47,000 mile world of its own, where you can visit any one of numerous chain restaurants at interchanges in state after state and not meet locals but fellow travelers, much like airports. A predictable yet stupefying sameness permeates the experience. Drive a few miles off interstate, and you're in a different world. That world goes unnoticed.
His concluding remarks offer a sobering assessment of the state of our highways and bridges. They are aging. Like homes, they must be maintained, and the funds to do so have diminished. Over time, the cracks will show, tarnishing the luster of what was a jewel of a system. It still retains that splendor (if that's the right word) over much of its passage, yet the fault-lines are there. Its neglect may in fact be symptomatic of the cracks in our national fiber: it took wealth creation to enable this massive public works program, and it will take an economic resurgence from a productive and far-sighted workforce --- one willing to sacrifice now for a legacy to come --- to fund the taxes that will maintain it. That kind of concern for posterity takes a generational selflessness that we may no longer have.
Next time I accelerate on the on-ramp to I-40, I'll roll the windows down, feel the road, marvel at the speed and ease with which I drive. . . and thank Frank Turner and those who labored hard to give us what we have. Perhaps Swift's recounting of that story will engender a gratefulness that bears the fruit of attention to its decline.