Daily Archives: September 1, 2011

** 1/2 The Big Roads by Earl Swift

I enjoyed this story of how the US freeway system was created, and not just because it broke a string of not-so-enjoyable books. The Big Roads starts in the early 20th century when motorists were advised to carry a long list of supplies including an ax and a shovel when they left town simply because the roads were liable to break axles and worse. This is a book about engineers, about methodical men who loved their numbers and statistics and surveys. You can almost hear them pleading for a spreadsheet to use! No detail is too small for them, not just the inventorying of roads and traffic patterns, but even the shape of the familiar shield to identify the roads (and, famously, the font, size, and capitalization of road signs). Many of the decisions seem utterly familiar, since they are the ones that shaped the roads on which we drive today, but others are insane, as when serious proposals were made (in the 1940s) to design 14-lane highways, each lane dedicated to a specific speed, one lane in each direction for 100-miles per hour! And that’s not as crazy as the proposal to blast the Utah pass for Interstate 80 with…  atomic bombs.

I liked the stories of extraordinarily dedicated civil servants, who toiled for decades to move the immensely expensive project through the legislature (minus a few lanes to be sure), with personal anecdotes about them to enliven the descriptions. It’s also good that the author does not avoid describing the negative consequences of such a road-oriented culture and the protests it created.  A very interesting book.

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