Big vision, big roads, what now?

We are used to thinking about American’s interstate system beginning with the Eisenhower era’s creation of a national defense highway system in the 1950’s. A new book “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways” by Earl Swift takes us back to 1919 and the singular man who became head of the Bureau of Public Roads in 1919 and stayed there for thirty-four years. The author celebrates the feats of engineering and policy that created the network of roads that lets people travel at a mile a minute.

At the same time, the author does not ignore the ills that are attributed to the interstate system, from the homogenization of regional cultures along the road to the fiscal realities of today: “It is so big, and its components so expensive, that maintaining the beast has become a real quandary. It represents a spectacular investment in a mode of transport that will wither without new fuel sources. It is clogged with rush-hour traffic that approaches the tie-ups it was intended, in part, to ease.” Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley notes: “The massive American system of limited-access roadways has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, but it is an engineering feat of breathtaking dimensions. ‘The greatest public works project in history,’ Earl Swift calls it in this engaging, informative book, ‘dwarfing Egypt’s pyramids, the Panama Canal, and China’s Great Wall.’” Read the rest of Yardley’s review here.