Mile upon mile of emptiness

We do not normally “do” roads here in the pages of World Streets, our primary focus, even fixation, being not on vehicles and highways but rather on streets and people. But we would be foolish to forget that making full and continuing full use of our peripheral vision is critical if we are ever to understand context and to be able to see broader patterns. So from time to time we do, usually with the help of others, have a look at the roads end of our business.

On this occasion we are lucky to have a sharp mind and fine pen of Tom Vanderbilt, as he reports on a new book just out by Earl Swift under the daunting title “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways”. And if we bear in mind that a fair number of these superhighways in fact ended up getting built right in the middle of some of our oldest and most beautiful cities, at a price that took us some years to understand, this is possibly a story that you and I want to know more about.

Inventing the Interstate

–  Tom Vanderbilt. New York Times, July 15, 2011. Original available here.

When “On the Road” was published, in 1957, it may have seemed a rousing dawn chorus for an awakening generation of postwar seekers, but it was also an encomium of sorts — for the year before, construction had begun on the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. “You can’t do what I did anymore,” Kerouac would later say. And as noted in “Why Kerouac Matters,” by the New York Times reporter John Leland, even as Kerouac was writing, the author glimpsed that his kind of rambling “may soon be obsolete as America enters its High Civilization period and no one will get sentimental or poetic anymore about trains and dew on fences at dawn in Missouri.”

In place of poetry we had standardized efficiency, not just the new Esperanto of green highway signs speaking to us at 65-mile-per-hour Highway Gothic — the same tongue from Maine to Montana — but the whole experience of travel itself. “With the modern car on the modern freeway,” Earl Swift writes in “The Big Roads,” “the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another.” Or, in John Steinbeck’s famous remark, one could now drive from “New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

Swift, a former journalist with The Virginian-Pilot and the author of “Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers,” among other books, knows the feeling. “Big Roads” begins, appropriately, with a cross-country road trip, Swift at the wheel, his young daughter and one of her friends in tow. Later, flipping through digital pictures from the journey, Swift finds he has images mostly from days he didn’t travel on the Interstate. Whole states had been relegated to vague blurs of asphalt. “The minivan’s windshield became a proscenium through which we watched the countryside pass without actually experiencing it; we were in it, but not of it.” Yet Swift had made the bargain we all do: the Interstate highways “carried us without incident, without drama. They offered up food and lodging with minimal fuss. They carved the shortest path all the way home.” And, most important, “we made very good time.”

Even if, as the highway era dawned, Sal Paradise was somewhere weeping into his beer, for most people, the new promise of the Interstate System was more than fine. The word “travel,” after all, comes from the Old French travaillier — to labor, or suffer — and drivers were happy to trade the longueurs of the road for something fast, safe and predictable. Out went the hit-or-miss “Kumfy Kabins” of “Lolita,” with their implied seediness; in came the Holiday Inn chain, nationally franchised, as it happens, the same year “On the Road” was published. (By 1968, Swift notes, there were a thousand Holiday Inns, half found no farther than the end of an exit ramp.)

One must remember what it used to mean to drive in the United States. Before the Interstate knitted together the country, before it became a metaphor for the nation’s collective mobility for intellectuals homegrown and imported (“this sense of space and thus of time passing,” writes Bernard-Henri Lévy, traveling Interstate 94, “which is the real sixth sense one has to acquire when traveling in America”), America’s roads were, as Swift notes, an “anarchic jumble.” Improvements meant grading dirt tracks, way-finding was a fiction, and a State Department report, circa 1916, judged road conditions here “far worse than any other major nation except Russia and China.”

And although it wasn’t until the eve of the Sputnik launch that the system we know today actually began to take shape, it was, as Swift argues, a long time coming. The system enabled by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 simply codified a network with Jazz Age contours. The 1921 Federal Highway Act, Swift writes, “remains the single most important piece of legislation in the creation of a national network — far more so than the later Inter­state highway bill.” The highway future was sold in spectacles like Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, the smoke-and-mirrors nature of which was suggested by another Bel Geddes exhibit, a bit of reflective wizardry in which “a single dancing girl appears to be a whole chorus of World’s Fairettes.” But well before 1956, any number of issues needed settling, including, Swift notes, the question of whether “to build a national system of highways or a system of national highways.” This was not merely a semantic difference; as one highway promoter said, “the highways of America are built chiefly of politics.”

It’s not easy to write about infrastructure: how does one bring to life vast, many-tentacled, technically abstruse and almost unknowable systems, particularly those, like the Interstate, that took decades to build? Swift, though he occasionally delves into the wonders of macadam, wisely swaps bitumen for biography, building his narrative around, essentially, a triumvirate of men who at different periods were central to the highways’ creation. Carved into this Mount Rushmore of mobility are Carl Fisher, an Indianan who helped make the Lincoln Highway a “real road,” as its sponsors boasted, that would “permit a traveler to average 20 miles per hour”; Thomas MacDonald, an intense engineer from Iowa who helped devise the nation’s proto national highway system; and, most prominent, Frank Turner, an engineer from Texas who tamed Alaska before overseeing the Interstate program.

Writing about the people who build infra­structure can have its own chal­lenges. Turner, for example, was a shy Baptist teetotaler, a man who, on a trip to the Taj Mahal, was moved to remark in his diary, “Road fairly well aligned.” The highway builders tended to be conservative, ramrod-straight men who, as one wit once put it to me, had the whiff of concrete and polyester about them. But Swift commendably humanizes them, drawing out their polyvalent selves and hinting at their contradictions. In one speech, Turner, a strident mass-transit advocate, linked the 1960s urban opposition to the highway program to wider social unrest and “the breakup of the home,” even as his Interstate project was leveling urban neighborhoods — many of which were quite stable, contrary to the usual depiction.

“The Big Roads” is not quite the “untold” story its subtitle promises: Tom Lewis’s “Divided Highways” (1997) covers a lot of the politics and development of the Interstate System, Phil Patton’s “Open Road” (1986) explores its cultural impacts and Matt Dellinger’s recent “Interstate 69” provides what may be its obituary. Still, Swift has added texture and nuance, as well as narrative economy, to a story containing volumes, and he makes for an ideal travel companion — engaging, not too didactically chatty.

In the end, the view ahead is not as bright as that in the rearview; where congested roads would once be treated with the short-term inoculation of more lanes, a state highway official says, “We don’t have enough money for that approach anymore.” Cities now look to tear down urban highways, not build new ones. The road of “the future,” as first envisioned in 1912 and brought to fruition decades later, is carrying the usual strains of middle age; the nips and tucks are giving way to full reconstructive surgery, all paid for with a series of maxed-out credit cards (the federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised, even to keep pace with inflation, since 1993, and has been increasingly eroded by improvements in fuel economy). The future, it seems, is getting away from us, even as we keep asking, with a plaintive cry from the back seat: “Are we there yet?”

# # #

Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects, for many publications. He is the author of “Traffic” and writes the Transport column for Slate. He blogs at

One thought on “Mile upon mile of emptiness

  1. Editor’s Last Word: A personal meta-history

    I-91When I picked this article up late yesterday evening I read it once through quickly, and when I finished it I was interested enough in what Tom Vanderbilt was saying to decide that it has its place as a head-scratcher for my friends and colleagues here on World Streets. But even after I made this decision I found myself turning back to the article and reading it slowly several times in a decidedly dreamy way, something I reserve normally for Chekov and Beethoven string quartets and certainly not for today’s newspaper.

    It all seemed somehow strangely familiar, somehow very personal, and as I pondered it I combed my mind and after a while was eventually able to figure out exactly why. Let me share with you a couple of, let us call them, “personal meta-historical thoughts on the IHS” on the grounds that if you have gotten this far with this article you are already at least some kind of friend.

    Toward the end of the Second World War, and of course well before the first bulldozer started clearing America’s land for the steel and asphalt of the Interstate Highway System, a pretty young woman drove with her two small children from Washington DC to Salem Oregon, and then a couple of months later traveled in her small car back to the other side of United States. She and small family were traveling all that distance to have a few short months with her husband and their father, during the time he was recovering from a wound. it was as I this recall mid-1943

    It was, as I remember it in the kind of dreamland that covers most of our childhood recollections, quite a trip, a great adventure that unfolded over a full week each way, mile by mile, city by city, and a gradually unfolding panorama of enormous geographic, topographical and social changes — revealing to our small family a country of many differences, and many similarities. We found small dusty roadside hotels at the end of each day, paid for our gasoline with a combination of money and ration tickets, prepared sandwiches and fruit every morning to eat in the car, and lived the days and nights of our odyssey without the comforts of anything like air conditioning or television in our motel rooms or any of the things which are more familiar today. It was very definitely another time and as I look back through the rearview mirror I can see that we were, in our own small way, On the Road. And until I read Tom Vanderbilt’s review last night, I had stashed that long gone memory pretty deeply into the closet of my unconscious mind.

    Two other bits of the past also showed up as result of my unexpected appointment with America’s interstate highway system. The first was that it eventually came to mind that I had actually worked for one summer in the mid-1950s, just before my first year at Amherst, as a unionized laborer on the I-91 highway construction project just outside of New Haven Connecticut. I was seventeen and can report with full authority that on every occasion that presented itself I found a way to slip out of sight and spend as much time as I could with the book I had stuck in my pocket in the morning. I do not believe that my employers got their money’s worth, but there I was, a central pillar that led to the construction and the completion of America’s interstate highway system. And don’t you forget it?

    Last act: At just about that time I started hitchhiking in order to see America, and my trips over couple of years took me from north to south and east to west of our country, on more than a dozen occasions. What a lesson in getting to know America in all its many parts, because it was for the most part in the late 50s and though the ISH was fast the building, I found myself more often than not on state and local local roads. Every stage of the trip not only took me through another part of the country but also with me in the company of someone from that bit of America who in words and attitudes helps me to get a real feel for the diversity of our nation.

    What a great adventure for a terribly privileged if thoroughly broke young man, who at the time did not realize how privileged he really was — and before his unsuspecting eyes on the winding roads and welcoming small towns of America he lived a wonderful lesson in the breadth and width of our great and often greatly confusing country.

    All of this came to me pretty much in the middle of the night, and if I share it with you today it is in the hope that if you have never had the occasion to see what America really looks like, please make an attempt to spend some time on the road and, when you do, make sure you get off the Interstate Highway System.
    Y-91 - New Haven exit


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