The Big Roads takes an in depth look at the history of the American interstate highway system through the experiences and research of one of its inspired travelers. With origins in groups such as the Lincoln Highway Association to the 1914 creation of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) through to the rise of the modern Interstate Freeway in 1956 and their fall during the freeway revolts of the 1960s and 70s, The Big Roads delves into the history of interstates that evolved roads from dirt trails to freeways in less than 100 years. Much of what road enthusiasts know and love is covered in this historical look at the roads that we all enjoy driving and exploring. The Big Roads was published earlier this month and AARoads was able to ask the author, Earl Swift about his recent work:
Q: What was the inspiration for the book The Big Roads?
A: I’ve always been a “car guy”—not in the sense of fixing or rebuilding them, for which I have paltry skills, but in that of appreciating and enjoying them. I like a good-looking car. A fast car. A cleverly engineered car. A car that stands out.
This has led me to some unfortunate choices: Of the dozen I’ve owned over the years, several have been less than reliable, and a couple have proved truly demonic. That hasn’t kept me from attempting ambitious road trips with them, however, with the result that I’ve not only driven a good many of the nation’s highways, I’ve passed time on the shoulders of quite a few.
For instance: Over Christmas break in 1981, my college roommate and I decided to drive from St. Louis to L.A. and back in my ’69 Olds Vista Cruiser. I didn’t have a decent tire on the thing, but I had a lot of spares, which we loaded in the back—seven of them, already on rims, all of them close to spent. We blew exactly seven tires on the trip. We changed tires on I-44, I-35, I-10 and I-40.
All of which is to say that if you spend enough time on the interstates, you get to wondering about how they came to be. You also recognize the particulars of their design, the sameness engineered into their corridors, whether you’re in Bangor or San Diego. And once you’re attuned to that, if you’re like me, you start noticing that they insinuate themselves into unexpected areas of our everyday lives: Watching the national weather news, you notice one day that the standard map of the Lower 48 is no longer topographical; it’s been reduced to state boundaries, a few cities, and the interstate highways—a grid, and one key to the modern American experience.
The fact that you can stroll into a supermarket anywhere in the country, at any time of year, and find fresh asparagus for sale is testament to the interstates’ efficiency. That you find fresh seafood is in the cooler of stores in Des Moines. That you can buy a widescreen TV in Helena, Montana, for about the same price you’d pay in Silicon Valley.
The short answer to your question is that I found inspiration is all around me. We have come to depend so entirely on these roads that life without them would present some profound changes in the way we live.
Q: How did you go about researching The Big Roads?
A: The central challenge to this book was that it’s the story of an inanimate object. True, that object is 47,000 miles long and incorporates 300 million cubic yards of concrete, but still—it’s a thing. So from the start I knew I had to identify a handful of people through whom I could build the narrative and bring to life the saga of conceiving, designing, planning and building this behemoth.
I settled on five people: Carl Fisher, a millionaire wild man who proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, inspired a host of imitators and thus sired a primitive network of narrow, dirt interstate highways in the twenties; Thomas MacDonald, a federal official who refined that network into a rational system of paved, numbered highways, and who proposed what we now know as the interstates in the thirties; Frank Turner, MacDonald’s protégé, who turned the proposal into steel and concrete; Lewis Mumford, an early proponent of superhighways who morphed over time into their harshest critic—and who helped shape them in both roles; and a Baltimore family man named Joe Wiles, who along with thousands of other Americans decided he wouldn’t stand idly by while freeways tore through a home and neighborhood he’d devoted years to building.
To put flesh on their bones, I interviewed their families and friends. I read their diaries, yearbooks and scrapbooks, their speeches and office memos, their letters and letters that others had written about them. I pored through thousands of government documents, academic papers, newspapers, magazine articles.
My daughter, Saylor and I drove 15,000 miles over two summers, visiting my characters’ hometowns and many of the university archives that held pieces of their pasts—Texas A&M, Iowa State, the University of Michigan. We traveled the entire Lincoln Highway. I made a dozen other research trips solo.
Q: What is your background with highway transportation or roads in general?
A: I have no background, per se, beyond that of an enthusiastic user. I’ve driven a lot over my 52 years: All of the Alaska Highway, roughly half of the interstate system, all of the PCH, much of what remains of U.S. 66, the Lincoln, and several thousand miles of narrow, wriggling blacktop in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
Among my cars have been five convertibles. Few ideas appeal more to me than putting the top down, cranking up the stereo and exploring some far-flung back road.
Q: Robert Moses was a pioneer for transportation in his day, but some of his ideas were outright outlandish. Did you discover any proposals during the 1960s and 70s that made you shake your head in disbelief with the thought "what were they thinking?" A proposal my co-webmaster came across for planned Interstate 480 in San Francisco included an alignment from the Embarcadero Freeway westward to the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay itself!
A: Well, the Embarcadero Freeway was I-480, and would have linked the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate, had it been completed; the Freeway Revolt stopped the project before it could get any uglier than it already was—which was pretty damn ugly.
Sure, I found myself thinking that a lot. California officials considered using nuclear bombs to blow a path through the Bristol Mountains for I-40; that was pretty nutty. Maryland officials wanted to put fourteen lanes of interstate smack on top of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which has since become the city’s shiniest jewel. Louisiana engineers wanted to run an interstate along the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, within sight and earshot of Jackson Square. A longstanding proposal would have sent an interstate bulling right through the heart of Georgetown. And Moses wanted to build three superhighways across Manhattan. Thankfully, all of these ideas were eventually killed, but they were serious proposals.
Q: Going back in history the early highway visionaries rose to the challenge each time the current network strained or the general public demanded it. What did you see as the biggest change from the times of Carl Fisher and Thomas MacDonald to those of the Freeway Revolt?
A: Early in Carl Fisher’s day, when America was still powered by horse, our roads served as lifelines for a largely rural nation. You almost always knew the traveler passing your place; the roadside was a scene of social exchange. So improving those muddy, rutted and often impassable lanes to better endure wagon and early auto traffic was seen as God’s work; it not only enabled farmers to get their wares to market, it afforded them a readier connection to schools, churches, shops, a social life.
As the automobile tightened its grip on America, a couple of things happened. First, roads got bigger to accommodate our exploding traffic, which meant that road projects now caused collateral damage. And second, as the automobile gave us the means to range farther from home, the road became the province not of friends and neighbors, but of strangers.
By the sixties, interstates were cutting swaths 300 feet wide through urban neighborhoods and displacing thousands. It was increasingly difficult to see them as lifelines; they were intrusions, carrying suburban outsiders through inner-city homes and neighborhoods.
Q: General sentiment these days centers around NIMBYism when it comes to new or expanding highway infrastructure. Do you believe this attitude was derived solely from the Freeway Revolt or that it is part of a greater societal change of opinion on roads in general?
A: Bear in mind that the Freeway Revolt coincided with a general upheaval in U.S. society, in the form of the antiwar and youth movements, the Civil Rights struggle, the early iterations of an environmental consciousness. I doubt that it would have achieved much traction if it hadn’t been for these concurrent fights, which had shown rank-and-file Americans that they could fight City Hall, could say no, could take their grievances to the streets.
By the early seventies, I think most of the U.S. population was coming to the realization that the automobile represented too much of a good thing: A tool that once had set us free had come to enslave us.
Q: Having researched and written about roads from their muddy beginnings to their 80 mph standing now, where do you see the future of roads—truck-only lanes for interstates, road funding based upon a usage tax, greenways instead of freeways?
A: We’re in trouble. The interstate system has reached or exceeded its projected service life, and requires attention to remain viable. We’re not giving it that attention. We can’t afford to; and yet, we can’t afford not to.
I don’t think the tax on motor fuels can long survive as the primary source of highway dollars; as we drive less, in more efficient cars, the kitty—already too puny for the job—will shrink ever smaller. A VMT arrangement makes the most sense to me. I’m no fan of tolls, but a congestion pricing scheme might make sense in a few overburdened cities.
As for truck-only lanes: Frank Turner foresaw that possibility, and in a few particularly truck-busy corridors, I think it makes sense.
In the long run, if we’re going to keep the interstates running, we’ll have to keep rubber-tired vehicles viable. And that means coming up with a new source of power for the things.
|The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift|