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

This morning, I pulled out of my driveway and angled down U.S. Route 2, shifting onto VT Route 12 and through the hills of Berlin and Northfield to work. Tonight, I’ll likely make my way back on the same route, but I very well might take I-89N up from Northfield to Berlin. Never once, in any of the hundreds of trips that I’ve made along that route, have I ever seriously wondered where the roads came from. They’ve always been there, for better or for worse, and they make up the foundation upon which our modern lives exist. Earl Swift’s latest book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is a grand story that I’ve long wanted to read about: the development of the American highway and interstate system.

Despite the title about this being a history of the superhighway system, Swift’s book looks to the development of the entire vehicular road system in the United States, deftly weaving together a story that looks at the rise of the automobile, its influence on urban development and the growth of commerce in the United States over the last century. This is a book that could easily be a dry tome, mired in the tiny details at the weed level. The focus is on the personalities, however, where unassuming men shaped the character of the country: Thomas “The Chief” MacDonald, Herbert Sinclair Fairbank, and Frank Turner, all people you've likely never heard of. Swift balances neatly the personal lives of each man (and from all accounts, he really did his homework, going the extra mile, so to speak, to look into how the men were motivated) with how they each influenced the way we drive around.

At the turn of the 20th century, driving was a nightmare for urban areas. Horses and bicycles were widely used within cities, and the first cars were primitive, dangerous contraptions that were hard to use at the best of road conditions. However, due to several motivated salesmen, cars became popular: the early days of racing sprang up, cars with wheels, a seat, steering, an engine, and not much else. As the demand for cars rose, so did the political pressure for a better road network, something that many notable politicians (including President Harry Truman), built their careers on.

The development of the United State’s infrastructure seems to have come in a couple of stages: the commonly agreed upon problem of poor roads in the country and the city brought about an interesting case for the influence of federal vs. state government interaction: a massive, national project such as the first highway system (the two lane roads that criss-cross the nation) is enormously expensive, and something largely outside of what the states could afford. The process in which the money came around, but also the construction and standardization of the roadways largely follows MacDonald, who’s vision carried the country forward by eventually linking the East and West coasts by a single, uniform road network. Once a dangerous endeavor that took weeks, it soon took just days, with little danger other than from one’s fellow drivers.

The development of the US Highway system shaped just how we drive as well: the development of headlights, improved safety features and the types of vehicles that were built all came as a result of just how the American public itself changed as a result of the new freedom of mobility that the new roads offered them. At the same time, the changes in cars allowed for continued changes in just how the roads were designed: new methods for building, as well as the best colors to paint signs, and an entirely new standard design for the signs and features along the highway system.

The monumental and extraordinary growth in car ownership from the turn of the century to the mid-1950s meant that the roads designed to link together the nation were overtaxed, overcrowded and clogged with traffic jams. Swift notes that the infrastructure simply wasn’t designed to hold the volume, which led to practical problems within cities. The traffic jams of today apparently can’t compare to what it was like at that time, with too many cars flooding too few (or too small streets), partially due to missed assumptions on the growth of the automobile industry, but also some fundamental basics to how roads attract drivers and how people themselves drive.

Where MacDonald took over for the first major phase of the highway system, his retirement lead to the rise of one of his associates, Frank Turner, who got his start under MacDonald. Turner helped to shepherd a newly designed style of highway into the country to help ease the numerous traffic problems throughout the country. The superhighway system is radically different from the regular highway system: seperated from other roads, with limited access, higher speeds and designed to bring people in and out of cities and across the country. As Swift recounts the development and political wrangling that occurred, we’re introduced to a new element of highway development: land use and the necessity to destroy thousands of homes and businesses in cities in place of roadway. Protests, political stalling and civic activism arises, further changing the system. Ever wonder why Baltimore doesn’t have a highway running through it?

If there’s any flaw with the book, it’s the treatment of President Dwight Eisenhower, for whom the entire network is named for. Swift goes out of his way to denigrate the President, pointing out almost every instance of where he was on vacation or away while vital decisions were made. While I've no issue with the critical element here, I do have to wonder if the careful research present in all of the other elements of the book are present on the highest level: I can’t fathom that Eisenhower was completely in the dark for all of the elements, as he alleges. That being said, it’s a good historical example how how enormously complicated things work: the groundwork is often laid far in advance of when things get going: this is certainly the case for the roads, with all of the right people, research and motivation moving along and ramping up in the first half of the 20th century, before coming into fruition under the Eisenhower Administration, and finally completed by 1992.

Swift closes the book with a warning: the highway system, as monumental and fundamental as it is, isn’t designed forever, and with further increases in traffic volume around the country, we’re quickly running up to the point in time where large-scale problems will start to arise. Hundreds of bridges are dangerous, damaged or out of date, and road surfaces are in continual need for improvement. While this is the case, the entire system will need a large influx of investment in the coming decades, numbering in the hundreds of billions of dollars, while decreasing revenue is bringing in insufficient money to keep up with the demand. The golden age of roads may be coming to an end, but the system will last far into the future.

The Big Roads is a fantastic book that delves into American’s history and its character. Swift has done an impressive job in telling stories within stories, shedding an interesting light on the nature of the mid-20th century. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and interesting throughout, with a bright cast of characters doing what very well might have been impossible, while building something that has made the country what it is today.

Driving Like Crazy

Last Week, VPR's Vermont Edition hosted a program devoted to recent legislative efforts designed to combat cell phone usage in cars. Why there is any sort of debate over this issue is beyond me, but apparently there is quite a bit of discussion over whether or not this sort of thing is necessary or right for government to do to individual citizens.

A while ago, I read and reviewed Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which is, as the title suggests, about driving and how we drive. Prior to reading the book, I was not thrilled with the idea of a cell phone law in Vermont - it's intrusive, it's problematic and above all, it is possible to drive, talk, text or so forth while driving. That's not the case, far from it, and recent deaths in the state suggest that this is only the start to a larger issue in the state.

Vanderbilt notes that studies show several things: it doesn't take long for a driver to be distracted, and that even small amounts of time without one's eyes on the road could mean the difference between continuing home and ending up in a hospital. While on the road, Vanderbilt explains, the driver is constantly taking in information about their surroundings - what's in front of them, to the sides and the road conditions. Modern conveniences such as radios, CD players, and connections for phones only add to the things that drivers have to contend with. Furthermore, the human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing everything that comes in, and mental awareness of one's surroundings drops. There have been occasions while driving that I've spoken on the phone or peaked at a text message and find myself further down the road, automatically steering around well known corners, but with little recollection exactly to what I just did. The same is true with any task that involves thinking. In today's culture, drivers have far more to distract them on the road, and that's what is getting scary.

The rise in texting (I remember reading something recently that noted that the average teenager sends around 40,000 words a month in text form) makes this all the more scary, because as drivers are increasingly spending some of their time looking at their phone, reading a message and then thinking about and typing a response out, their eyes are not where they are supposed to be: on the road. Normally, I would advocate personal responsibility for the driver and say that if they crash because they weren't looking, well, it's their own fault. However, the roadways are populated by everyone else on the road, in all directions, and the actions of one driver not paying attention can mean dire consequences for someone else on the roadway.

So what is the solution? Well, as pro-life people naively state: abstinence works. Well, yes, it does, but holding people to that sort of thing doesn't necessarily work as well. Keeping teenagers away from cell phones (and adults, for that matter), is a huge problem, and merely telling people to turn off the phone and keep their eyes on the road isn't necessarily going to work, even with a stiff fine from police officers. A law needs to be put into place, no doubt about that, with stiff penalties for any driver caught doing this sort of thing. But, in addition to that, money needs to be spent on educating drivers, young and old alike on one simple fact: driving is the most dangerous thing that you can do on a regular basis. Taken out of a normal, everyday context, you are climbing into a rolling collection of metal parts, fueled by a highly combustible fluid and set off along roadways with more people doing the same thing, at high speeds. If that isn't enough to freak you out, now imagine that nobody is looking where they're going.

2009 Reading List


So, this year, I read a total of 21 books, far below the total number that I was shooting for - around 40 or so. There are some large gaps - February, March, May, and much of the fall, which coincides nicely with the numerous writing projects that I had going on throughout the year. With this coming year, I'm hoping to read quite a lot more as my schedule allows, and I've got quite an extensive list, as I've been steadily expanding my own personal library - I'm up to 748 books now. That number is sure to grow in the next 12 months.

1 - Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, Matthew Stover (1-2) This was probably the last Star Wars book that's come out that I've really liked. Stover is always an interesting writer, and here, he takes cues from some of the earliest Star Wars books and plays up the pulp factor. This one is fast, engaging and entertaining. In a nutshell, it harkened back to the Bantam Spectra days of Star Wars literature, and that's a good thing. I've got a huge backlog of books from the series that I just haven't gotten around to reading, simply because I'm not all that interested anymore.

2 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke (1-11) Jonathan Strange is by far one of my favorite books of the decade, and one of the greatest fantasy books since J.R.R. Tolkien. Elegantly written, plotted and conceptualized, Clarke has put together a masterpiece. It took me several years to get through the first half of this book, but when I finally sat down to read it, I absolutely couldn't put it down. I can't wait to read it again.

3 - The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas Disch (1-25) I completely forgot about this book, and had to look it up - it's a history of Science Fiction. It was interesting, but I took some issue with some of the things that he brought up at times. I can't for the life of me remember what, but I preferred Adam Robert's history of SF. I picked up the book because I was thinking that I was going to be reading and writing more about the origins of Science Fiction, but that never really panned out. Still, it wasn't a total loss of a read, and it did make some good points about the genre.

4 - Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase (1-25) This was the only school book that I've actually gone back to, to read over again (although there's one other one that I'm planning on reading again), and that's the history of firearms. This book does a bit more than go through the motions of firearms - it examines the impact on tactics and the makeup of armies (it was revolutionary) and how the technology travelled from Asia to Europe. I used for a couple of my classes and it's highly engaging, interesting and informative.

5 - Wired for War, PW Singer (3-19) PW Singer's book on Robots in Warfare was a fantastic book, easily one of my favorites and something that I'll read in the future. Exceptionally thought out and researched, it not only looks at robotics, but the military command structure and environment, which to me, is far more interesting, and gives the book a significant party piece when it comes to talking about the future of the military. I got to see Mr. Singer talk, and he signed my book, and had a blast doing it.

6 - It's Been A Good Life, Isaac Asimov (4-1) Asimov's shorter biography, this was a quick reread that I'd wanted to do for a while. His life is pretty interesting, from his experience with the military to his start as a writer. Asimov is one of my absolute favorite Science Fiction writers, and it's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes elements to his works. It's a little self-indulgent, I think, but worth reading all the same.

7 - The Catch, Archer Mayor (4-7) Archer Mayor's book from last year, this was another fun book from him. This one introduced a couple new characters and themes, but I liked this year's better - this one was ultimately forgettable, until this year's Price of Malice, and the plot fell pretty flat for me. I think that the two of them could have been combined to become one novel, and it would have worked much better. It's a good reminder that I really need to read some of the older ones again.

8 - It Happened In Vermont, Mark Bushnell (4-16) This is a book of historical thumbnails on Vermont. Lots of fun information on a variety of topics throughout the state's history, but it misses some crucial ones that will be historically relevant in the coming years. The earlier elements provide quite a bit of detail, and some good stories about this state, but honestly, how does one not include something like Civil Unions?

9 - The Soloist, Steve Lopez (4-27) There was a movie based off of this, which looked good, and the book was only a couple of dollars in the bargain pile. It is the story of a reporter for the LA Times and a Schizophrenic man who was a musical prodigy and provides an interesting look at the homeless and LA.

10 - The Book of Lost Things, John Connolley (5-28) I really enjoyed this fantasy book by John Connolley - It's quite a dark book, but I like that. It takes a number of fantasy fairy tales, such as the knight in shining armor, the seven dwarves and a couple others, and puts a new, modern twist on them in a way that reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth.

11 - Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (6-13) This book was instrumental in my capstone and my thinking about space. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and talks a lot about the mission beforehand. I gather that there are some inaccuracies, but I'm willing to let that slide because of some of the concepts that he brings up - the economics of a space program, for example.

12 - The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (6-15) Neil Gaiman's latest book was a delight to read - a wonderfully dark young adult novel that's been nominated for a number of awards, about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. I wonder when a movie will be made of this one.

13 - Explorer's House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Robert Poole (7-29) This is the type of history that I really like - looking at the world through a much smaller thing, and what is more influential than the National Geographic? This book traces the magazine and society's history from the beginning to the present day, and gives a very interesting insight to both.

14 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (8-19) I loved this book, a modern, dark, brooding and realistic fantasy tale that takes points from the best of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman has put forth an interesting entry into the Fantasy genre, and it's become one of my favorites.

15 - Old Man's War, John Scalzi (9-8) I've rapidly become a fan of John Scalzi because of this book, and his blog, Whatever. This is a pretty ordinary take on the super soldier/ military SF theme, but it's a fun one, and I've already picked up the sequels for some time that I'm in the mood for military Sci Fi.

16 - Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (9-17) Banks came highly recommended to me, and this book was a fun one to read. Exceptional world building - the pacing was a bit off - and interesting characters. It's an epic space opera and adventure, and I'm looking forward to the next couple books in the series.

17 - The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachaglupi (10-6) If this book doesn't win a Hugo Award, I'm going to be very, very annoyed. This has to be the best SF book in years, with a brilliant future imagined for the planet, with multiple storylines, politics and motives from the characters. It’s an exceptional book.

18 - The Price of Malice, Archer Mayor (10-11) Archer Mayor's latest, and one that I really enjoyed, more so than The Catch, and it took on a bit from his earlier books, in my mind. I can’t wait for next year’s book.

19 - The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman (10-19) Ugh. I didn't like this book that much, but it had some interesting points. I found Friedman's book to be an infuriating read, simply because of the assumptions and things that he missed over. Not highly recommended, but there are some good points that he makes - how to think about history and historical events, for example.

20 - Clone Wars: No Prisoners, Karen Traviss (10-20) One of Karen Traviss's last Star Wars books, it's an okay entry, nowhere as good as her Commando books. It’s a fun, throwaway reading for an afternoon. I read it in a day.

21 - Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (11-1) The last book that I read last year was back in November, although I have a bunch started that I'm working on getting through. This book is a fantastic one to read - reminded me a lot of Wired for War, in that it's well researched and interesting, and in my mind, essential for anybody who wants to get behind the steering wheel. Already, it's helped me to understand why we drive the way we do, and it's affected how I percieve traffic problems, and how I drive.

That's what I read last year. I've already got quite a list for the coming year, and I'm excited to see how many I get through.

Slave to the Traffic Light

Driving is something that I've become very interested in over the past year or so, and something that I've been interested in learning more about. It's very rare that I come across a book that really challenges a lot of the perceptions that I have about something, but Tom Vanderbilt's fantastic examination of driving, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) really did the trick. Traffic looks at, well, Traffic, in all of its numerous and complicated elements, and in doing so, has become a book that is absolutely essential for everyone who gets behind the wheel of an automobile, and even those who come across a road with any regularity. Vanderbilt has put together a wonderfully comprehensive, exhaustive and accessible read that explains just why we drive the way we do and what it says about us.

There are several main arguments and elements of driving that Vanderbilt covers over the course of the book. The first is largely psychological, looking at the first major aspect of driving: The Driver. Without a driver, a car just sits in the driveway or a parking lot, and is for all intents and purposes, harmless. Putting a person behind the wheel subjects the car, driver and passengers to the judgment, attention and skill of the driver.

Attention seems to be the most important element for the driver, and this is something that Vanderbilt tackles right away in the book. Driver error is arguably one of the leading causes of crashes, and in this day and age, there's certainly no shortage of things to distract the driver, from other cars on the road, to mobile phones that are increasingly more complicated. Vanderbilt explains that driving is an extremely complicated process, and that in order to drive around safely without crashing into anything, the brain receives and processes a lot of information - eye tracking cameras have found that a driver is looking all over the place, to the side of the road, in front of the car and ahead, all while analyzing their surroundings and making decisions accordingly that minimize the risk to the occupants. In the instance of driving, eating, talking, fiddling with the radio and so forth, the brain has to essentially divert resources and stimuli in order to properly make those actions. Drivers who look down to text on their phone take their eyes off the road while moving, which creates an incredibly dangerous situation, as the car, moving at speed, is now captained by a driver who isn't acting on their surroundings.

Besides the driver looking at the road, the mentality of the drivers also comes into play. Vanderbilt describes the road as a place where a number of people who don't know each other must interact and cooperate, for the good of the system. Humans are social creatures - look to the difficulty of communicating online, where you are deprived of access of someone's voice and subsequent inflections, facial cues and so forth, and think back to the last time someone honked at you, passed aggressively, and so forth - the road is a place where numerous people come together, with a huge variety of training, habits and attitudes, and where there is virtually no feedback as to how you are doing on the road. Vanderbilt notes that just because a driver doesn't get into an accident, that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't a poor driver - they've just been lucky. Most problems on the road stem from these relationships between drivers - miscommunications, the absence of communication and drivers not interpreting traffic correctly. As more drivers enter the road - and Vanderbilt notes that traffic is on the rise in the United States - it becomes more crucial for people to work better together while on the road.


Congestion and traffic is the next major issue that is covered in the book. It is noted several times that as highways were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, they were put together with a certain intent for capacity. In the ensuing years since these roads were constructed, the ceilings for traffic volume has shot through the roof and roads are carrying far more than they were ever intended for. Vanderbilt looks at several issues associated with this: the various ways in which traffic is dealt with, but also how some solutions are really not solutions at all. With a higher volume of vehicles on the roads, Vanderbilt notes that traffic systems have to jockey all these cars around - traffic lights and signs have been longtime elements that have managed traffic, but have severe limitations. Similarly, their very presence impacts the behavior in of cars in ways that are sometimes counter to what is good for the overall system. Traffic lights stop cars completely, which stops the vehicles behind them. Once the green light clicks on, cars go though, but there is an inherent risk there, as cars travel through a projected path of the cars to the side of the intersection. I've long been a fan of rotaries - there is one here in Montpelier, with another one just opened after a couple months of construction, and I believe that they should be put into far more widespread use, as it not only keeps traffic moving smoothly (once people get used to using them), but it keeps drivers on their toes, rather than automatically expecting that they will be safe going through an intersection.

A major issue with congestion is traffic volume, and how driving impacts the rest of an overall system. Vanderbilt notes that often times, roads can handle a high number of cars, provided that there are no bottlenecks, such as accidents and slow-moving cars. He compares the system to a bucket of rice going through a funnel. A certain volume can be handled going through, but with more and more added, everything backs up. He cites one example of stop-lights that monitor the volume of an interstate, and will allow cars on accordingly, at lulls in the system, allowing traffic to move smoothly as a whole. At times, what is best for an individual driver can be harmful to the overall health of the system.

With that in mind, consider that the best thing for the system as a whole is the health and well being of the driver, and in order for that to be achieved most often, drivers need to drive safely, and to be alert. Vanderbilt suggests an argument that on the face seems very counter-intuitive, but one that makes a lot of sense: In order for drivers to be safer, they need to drive in unusually unsafe conditions. Think back to the time when you drove in unfamiliar territory, or a road that was somewhat dangerous, such as a mountain road. I've done that recently, and remembered that I was more alert, a little slower, and more conscious of my surroundings. Thus, I was paying far more attention to the road, and less on what was far less important, such as my mobile phone. This argument has been tried out in various countries, where municipalities have removed road signs from the road in order to make drivers more aware of their surroundings. The result was fewer accidents, not more, as drivers were forced to pay more attention to the cars and roadside than before, where they could not assume safety in the regulations.

Branching off from that argument, Vanderbilt notes that there is an increasingly seductive move to give drivers more space, more warning, and more comfort in order to take cars further apart from one another, or to give drivers more warnings about hazards. The result is that drivers feel more comfortable with their surroundings, but instead of making the road safer, it provides a sense of security that allows drivers to drive more hazardously. Top Gear, the popular BBC show, has ranted about an excess of road signs, placed in towns to mitigate liability for accidents, such as 'Falling Rocks' (What am I meant to do with that information) and 'Changed Priorities Ahead' (I'd been thinking that I'll be more responsible, pay off my mortgage and eat healthier, but when I saw that, I said screw it, I'll go to the pub). Similarly, cities with large numbers of bicycles and pedestrians have noted trends that follow this information: as drivers are more aware of less protected people, they tend to act accordingly. I recently read an article on a city that saw an increase in bike traffic, and rather than a rapid rise in collisions, there were fewer. The problem as I see it is that that drivers do not realize that driving is an inherently risky activity - seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones and the like give us the illusion that we are safer than we really are. To be fair, these instruments are still essential - it may make drivers feel safer, but in an accident, they will absolutely help to save people's lives.

The overall effect of this book is taking a familiar activity and looking at it in an incredible amount of detail. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea of much of the information, and after reading it, I've noticed a number of bad habits with my own driving - things that I'm mindful of now that I'm going to be working to correct. At the very least, I, and I'm sure far more people, are largely unaware of how our actions impact those around us. I've gone, in my mind, from a good driver to an average one, and I'm honestly surprised that I haven't been in an accident before. It's a revelation that needs to be imparted to the rest of the driving population, simply because of one chilling statistic: every time you drive, you have a 1 in a 100 chance of dying in a car accident over the course of your lifetime. This book, in a way, is about risk-management, and examining driving in a way that helps us become more aware of the risks that we take every time we get behind the wheel of the car. Similarly, it helps to put into perspective just how traffic works. It will certainly make me more responsible, knowing the overall context the roadway.