The book about America’s highway system I’ve been looking for!

April 27, 2012

Big Roads, by Earl Swift

Whether it be in the Middle West where I lived for half of my career as aggressive cyclist or the West where I am filling out the second half, I love the old roads, the easy-going, paved ribbons that connect the cultures of ordinary Americans.

They follow the terrain along the streams and around mountains, pass by farms and factories, and march straightforwardly through the center of villages and towns. Along these roads cyclists can find the eateries and hostelries that give juice to their travels. They hear the many accents of American speech and see the colors of American people.

For several years I have looked for a book that tells the story of America’s roads, especially those that for the most part are quiet, with little motorized traffic, and pleasing to two-wheeled travelers like me. I’m especially interested in arterials from an earlier era, such as U.S. 40 from St. Clairesville, Ohio, through Indiana, and on to Vandalia, Illinois, or U.S. 60 from Sun City West, Arizona, through Wickenburg and then west almost to the California border.

Finally, unexpectedly, I found the book I’d been looking for in a new book display in the Kenton branch of the Multnomah County Public Library (just around the corner from the statue of Paul Bunyan that fascinated my children during our many car trips between grandmothers’ houses many years ago).

I say unexpectedly, because this book advertises itself as something very different from the book on old roads that I’ve been seeking.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

Looking inside, you find something far more comprehensive than this blurb on the jacket describes. Author Earl Swift has written exactly what I’ve hoped for, starting with the way that bicyclists pioneered the development of hard surfaced, all weather roads. He describes the process by which enthusiasts worked to create local roads that would serve the needs of small town America.

Then came people with a broader vision who developed routes that traveled longer distances: the Cumberland Road, the Lincoln Highway, the Sunshine Route. The author gives interesting biographical sketches of career bureaucrats, each of them a social visionary and engineer mixed together, who created the system of highways that joined the country together.

I now have some sense of the hard logic and dogged bureaucratic persistence that finally established the numbering system of the old federal highway system, even numbers for east-west roads, with the numbers getting larger from north to south, and odd numbers from east to west, with small numbers in the east. How else could it be, people might be asking today. Swift describes how hard it was for the highway engineers to win the battle.

He also explains how difficult it was to develop a course of action that apportioned decisions and financial responsibilities to the states, the federal government, and independent societies. Looking back on them now, the decisions seem as though nothing else could make sense, but during the decades of decision, passions were hot and decisions were hard to reach.

One of the most interesting aspects of Swift’s story is the way that roads change reality. They are designed to accommodate long-existing social patterns. In short order, however, the new roads allow new patterns of interaction, which often cause the new roads to be overwhelmed. They have a way of destroying communities and creating new ones.

One of the best things about this book is that it gives me facts to fuel my growing sense of alienation from big roads, humongous bridges, and the fossil-fueled way of life that Americans take for granted.

Earl Swift, historian and author, thank you for a fine book.