The Big Roads

I admit that I have a fascination with infrastructure. It seems so natural that I could jump in my car in Boston and be in Florida 24 hours later. I’m already forgetting the snarls and confusion in Boston during the Big Dig and the new harbor tunnel.

At the dawn of the automobile age, cross-country travel was virtually impossible for the average person. Actually, travelling outside the city was not much easier.

The Big Roads traces the development of the modern interstate through the eyes of some of the key architects of highway travel. Mostly that falls on the shoulders of Thomas Harris MacDonald and his protege, Frank Turner. They lead the efforts at the federal level to develop the big roads.

The book also debunks some myths of the interstate. Most prominently, it discredits Eisenhower with its creation. Sure he signed the law, but the system was already far along in design before that happened. Swift points out that Eisenhower was an advocate solely for rural interstates that did not come into the city itself.

The other aspect of the book is the portrayal of some of the bad things highway designers did to the urban core. Baltimore is the central story point as the design for getting interstates through the city destroyed neighborhoods, but rallied citizens to find a better solution.

I don’t think the book was entirely successful in focusing the narrative on the key people involved. Most of the central characters are career government bureaucrats and they come across as the grey, generic paper-pushers you would expect.

If you are interested in how our highway system came to be, you will find the book fascinating.

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