We use interstate highways to cross the United States all the time but rarely marvel at them as we should, according to Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Usually we just buckle up and guide our cars across the plains and through the mountains with little worry, not recognizing the largest and most expensive public works project in history. If we have any historical sense at all, we thank President Dwight Eisenhower for letting us bypass curving rural roads and small towns that would slow us. Eisenhower did have a role, the author admits, but he is given much more credit than he is due. Swift argues that driving clubs and engineers had been designing national roads for four or five decades before the former general was president, and President Franklin Roosevelt had extensive federal plans drawn early in his administration. Eisenhower just came along at the right time to secure the funding for a system that he did not actually understand.
There are other myths that Swift dispels. One is that the interstate highways are designed to allow military aircraft to land almost anywhere in the country. Military concerns were considered in early designs, but civil engineers quickly realized that there would be no way to clear the roads of traffic before plane landings. Another myth is that the system's primary aim is to get military forces and supplies across country. This myth helped secure the support of some legislators, but the designers really had travel and commerce in mind when plotting routes.
Back to Eisenhower. He believed that the interstates would be strictly rural, coming close to but not actually entering cities. That had been the original idea when they were first conceived as no one wanted to rip cities apart to insert multilane highways. But as more people bought cars, the cities became gridlocked, and drivers and car manufacturers began demanding expressways. Accommodating this demand increased the costs tremendously and led to urban clashes as poor neighborhoods were often chosen for the highways. Swift highlights the difficult history of Baltimore.
In telling this history, Swift profiles many of the people involved, including engineers, politicians, and community organizers, and recounts the history of companies, such as Howard Johnson Inns, Stuckey's Pecan Shoppes, and Holiday Inn. He also bring readers up to date with the state of the highway system and its desperate need for repairs. His discussion is lively and I learned much about why we now have a mixture of free and toll roads. I am glad that I heard the author on National Public Radio's Science Friday and checked out his book.
Swift, Earl. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 375p. ISBN 9780618812417.