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By Joshua Kim on 05-06-12
Lessons from The Big Roads
The Big Roads is a great companion book to Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway by Matt Dellinger.
Swift's tale of the Interstate Highway system is really two stories.
The first is an origins story. We think we know this story, about how President Eisenhower came back from the War and decreed that America would have a modern highway system capable of moving troops, populations (and nuclear missiles), as a key part of our Cold War arsenal. Turns out, the highway system has many progenitors, and has roots going back much further than the 1950s. The 47,000 or so miles of Interstate that we associate with the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act were the fulfillment of decades of work by highway enthusiasts, bureaucrats, and visionaries. The history of the National Highway System, the largest single infrastructure project ever conceived and built, follows closely the larger 20th century U.S. economic and social stories of migration, population and industrial growth, urbanization and eventual suburbanization.
The second story is one of resistance. Swift tells the story of the "freeway revolts" that occurred in the 1960's in urban areas as diverse as Baltimore, Atlanta, and San Francisco. The great tragedy of our Interstate project was the Robert Moses inspired efforts to "save" our aging industrial cities by building highways through them. This obsession with efficient transportation created the deep wounds imposed on urban landscapes in the form of gigantic (often elevated) highways running through city centers. These highways served to destroy neighborhoods (usually poor and African American), divide cities, and cut-off urban life from natural features such as waterfronts. Only now are some of these monstrosities starting to come down, with the best example being San Francisco tearing up its Embarcadero Freeway (following the the 1989 earthquake).
Many people resisted the encroachment of highways into their urban neighborhoods. Some citizens, such as those in Baltimore, were able to delay or significantly change the routes of proposed urban highways.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
By S. Yates on 06-27-17
Fantastic history of the road most travelled
Have you listened to any of Rob Shapiro’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
I have not but I thought he did an outstanding job. His pacing and inflection was very good, and I found the tamber of his voice incredibly pleasant and engaging.
Any additional comments?
A wonderful book, adroitly navigating the history of our major highway system - a system most of us take for granted. The aptly-named Swift guides the reader through the earliest calls for better roads, introducing us to invidivuals who saw the roads as places for bicycles well before horseless carriages became all the rage. He continues by introducing the prime movers who gave eventual birth (after a decades long gestation) to the interstate and all its loops, whirls, spurs, and bypasses. These are mostly not names you know, and he manages to juxtapose the human scale and importance of the endeavor (both from the points of view of the highway men, public servants, and engineers who conceived of the project to the citizens either clamoring for or being displaced by the promised roads) with the sheer vastness of project in miles, materials, and dollars. As a result, the reader is constantly amazed anew at each new detail, each problem surmounted, each nuance that had to be maneuvered, all the more so since we drive but rarely really look at our interstate system. And while Swift obviously admires the scope of these men's ambition and their technical capability, he also gives voice to communities torn asunder by new lanes of traffic, how the rise of the automobile irrevocably changed American life (and not always for the better), and the current state of disrepair that much of American road infrastructure is steadily decaying into. All in all, a great book and one that puts the road most travelled into the well-deserved spotlight.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful