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

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  574 ratings  ·  110 reviews
A man-made wonder, a connective network, an economic force, a bringer of blight and sprawl and the possibility of escape—the U.S. interstate system transformed America. The Big Roads presents the surprising history of how we got from dirt tracks to expressways in the space of a single lifetime.

Earl Swift brings to light the visionaries who created these essential highways
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Published December 12th 2011 by Tantor Media (first published January 1st 2011)
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I know what you're thinking. "Did a man named Earl Swift really write a book about the predominant mode of American rapid transit?" Believe me, I was skeptical as well, but after researching both the front AND the back covers of the book, my skepticism was dispelled. In celebration, I bought the book. (Spoiler alert: I then read it.)

The Big Roads is an excellent piece of non-fiction about a topic that many people, despite its staggering scale and obvious relevance to modern life, might find a bi
This is a detailed history of how the US highway system developed in the 20th century, with a focus on the Interstate Highways. It draws together a large numbers of facts and factoids that are well known by nearly everyone who has done cross country driving but which I have never seen put together in a detailed, well written story focused on the roads themselves. If you like to drive and love trivia, this is the book for you. To start with, you will learn that Eisenhower had much less to do with ...more
Andrew Liptak
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 wh ...more
I geeked out on this book. It clears all misconceptions about what I've heard people say about the freeway in their city (oh this was the first freeway ever, created by Hoover for war transportation..). Not surprisingly - I've heard this from more than one person in more than one city.

From when I was a child, my father explained to me that even number freeways go east/west & odd number ones go north/south. Ever since then, I've been aware of the massiveness of concrete that stretches in ever

I was surprised to learn that the idea of a interstate highway system, and much of the route planning, long pre-dated the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, during which the act of Congress that funded the project. Probably the most influential person behind the details of the project was Thomas Harris MacDonald, an engineer who spent decades working for the federal government. President Franklin Roosevelt had requested a plan for interstates in the late 1930s. MacDonald's plan, given in respo

Eisenhower invented the interstate highway system and idea after being influenced by German autobahns at the end of World War II, right?

Wrong. Wrong, Wrong.

In fact, pre-WWII, bureaucrats in FDR’s government crafted the basic ideas, both in terms of routes, and safety/engineering, that became today’s interstates.

That’s just one of many things you’ll learn. (Another is that, in terms of refusal to do in-depth policy reading, Ike was the Ronnie Reagan of his day.)

You’ll learn about how, already by
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift

“The Big Roads" is an informative albeit at times tedious read about the history of the development of the American Superhighways. The book focuses more on the politics and the key people behind the construction instead of the technical challenges involved. This instructive 401-page includes twenty-two chapters and is broken out into the following four parts: 1. Out
Lauren Albert
While I found the larger story interesting--such as the birth of the modern road movement out of the cycling craze of the late 19th-century--I got bogged down in the details. I'm sure some would find them fascinating but I guess I just wasn't interested in the nitty gritty of road construction and politicking. The parts of the book that dealt with social changes were more interesting.
Sheryl Tribble
Jun 15, 2014 Sheryl Tribble is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Well written thus far. I'm also reading Michael Gross's book on the Metropolitan Museum of art (Rogues' Gallery), and so far Swift is doing a much better job in presenting people as interesting characters than Gross, even though Swift's chapters are untitled but roughly chronological rather than following personalities, while Gross' book is specifically broken down by directors.

I am intrigued by how many things I would have thought intuitively obvious were actually hotly debated. For instance, w
Sean Kottke
As a daily commuter on one of America's Big Roads and a sucker for off-beat microhistories, this was right up my alley. I like Swift's even-handed treatment of the interstate system's effects on our culture, an alternating sense of awe and horror at the changes it's wrought, ending in a place of wonder at the greatest public works expenditure in our history. I'm at a 4/4.5 only because I would have liked a bit more discussion of the place of roads and driving in pop culture, but beyond that, the ...more
Overall an interesting book, but I sensed a conflict from the author as to what type of book he wanted to write: Should it be a book about the unsung engineers and visionaries who designed and built the interstate highway system? Is the book about the far-reaching effects of the highway system including the creation of new industries and the abandonment of old towns built along the old highways? Is the book a social commentary on the disruption of urban, mostly minority communities and the “homo ...more
Josh Liller
I snickered when I first picked this book up: a man named Swift wrote a book about highways.

For a book that appears to be about the USA's Interstate Highway system this book throws a bit of a curveball by spending probably half its length talking about the development of the automobile, the early highway associations, and the US Highway system. Except that curveball is exactly the author's point: today we often look at the superhighways with a skewed idea of how they came about and how they are
I loved reading this book about the developing of our highway system. Swift goes into a great deal of depth and breadth of our history of transportation, including bike riding. Bikes became quite the craze and there was nowhere to ride them without a bunch of muck. Then along came cars (after the BIG mess of horse-drawn vehicles) and they had nowhere to go. There were a number of auto manufacturers and gradually quite a number of routes developed by various clubs. From a federal perspective, the ...more
Catherine  Mustread
Aug 14, 2011 Catherine Mustread rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Catherine by: NPR's All Things Considered
I greatly enjoyed this historical look at the development of the US federal highway system which begins with a short history of road building in the United States, which stalled in the mid 1800s due to the railroads and canals. The bicycle movement of the late 1800s brought increased pressure for better roads and then of course came the automobile. Focusing primarily on the men, and a couple of assisting women, who were involved in the push for and development of the highways in the 1900s for th ...more
Fr. Cory Sticha
For those of us who were born and raised in the United States, we tend to take our highway system for granted, yet the thousands of miles of highways developed from little more than muddy tracks to modern Interstate superhighways. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways traces the history of US roads from the early Good Roads movement, through the development of the US federal highway system in the 1920's, and the cre ...more
In the last half of the 19th century, railroads spread across Iowa. Wherever they went, they transformed the economic, social, and physical landscape. They also determined the fate of the communities they passed through—or passed by. Recognizing their influence, generations of historians and other writers have produced countless shelves of books examining every conceivable facet of railroad history.
In the last half of the 20th century, interstate highways bisected Iowa north to south and east t
Craig Pittman
An engaging and witty book about what might seem like a (ahem) pedestrian topic. Earl Swift surveys the history of the biggest public works project ever attempted in the world, the construction of America's interstate highway system, which, as Swift notes, dwarfs Egypt’s pyramids, the Panama Canal, and China’s Great Wall. He begins with the speed demon who gave us the Indianapolis 500 and developed Miami Beach, Carl Fisher, who was also the first to propose a road that would cross the whole coun ...more
This is an excellent chronicle of the developement of our great network of local roads up through the Interstate highway system. The book relates a very interesting story:

The most direct transportation route from Needles, CA on the Colorado River to Barstow across the Mohave Desert (approx 140 miles) is blocked by the Bristol Mtns. The Santa Fe RR, in the latter part of the 19th century ran its route around the Bristols going about 20 miles out of the way. The highway, which became the storied
Keith Bordeaux
I found this book after taking two long road trips this summer. Those drives along interstates in the southeast got me wondering about the huge project building the U.S. Interstate System must have been. A topic I knew little about.

This book starts around the turn of the 20th century when most of the "improved" roads in the country were still dirt. The invention of the automobile escalated the need for better roads. In 1909 only 9 miles of concrete paved road existed in the U.S.. We've come a l
It's funny to think about the debates going on today about federal spending and states rights and then read a book like this that explores the single largest federally-funded project this country has ever known, dwarfing the space program many times over.

There was a time when both parties worked together to come up with solutions to the country's problems. This book explores how our interstate highway system was created to solve problems like the disrupting technology of the automobile, transpo
The book takes a nice long view of the development of the interstate highway system in America. And he takes a lot of shots at Eisenhower in the process. I got the feeling that the author was claiming that Ike had a heart attack to avoid his 1956 state of the union address (page 181), and that somehow he deserves blame for his sister-in-law's passing away (page 160). At first, I thought some of this was irony, but although I didn't mind the jabs, I noticed them and wondered how fair at least tho ...more
Joe Miguez
Carl Fisher. Jersey barriers. VOLPE v. Volpe. Zolene. I love reading books that highlight just how little I know about important parts of our culture. And there's probably no larger, more central, more important piece of American culture than our roads and highways. They're the skeleton over which our cities and towns are stretched, and the circulation system that delivers what clothes, feeds, and fuels us. Earl Swift's "The Big Roads" provides a sweeping history of the American system of roads ...more
Perhaps some of it should have remained untold? The first half of this book is interesting but also tedious at times. Swift's main point is that Eisenhower is not the creator of the interstate system as we know it. It was already in place and going to happen when he took office, unbeknownst to him. The current system was created by FDR and a highway bureaucrat named MacDonald or simply the Chief. The Chief's subordinate, Turner, then became the defacto guy for highways right up to Nixon. What wa ...more
The fascinating story, well told, of the 60-year history of the 46,000 mile Interstate Highway system - the "big roads" that host over a quarter of the trillions of vehicle miles Americans drive every year - along with profiles of the visionary myopics who secured its funding and designed and built it.

In hindsight, the big roads have been a mixed blessing. (For one, it's not clear we can afford their maintenance.) But they're also a prime example of our country's ability to do big, bold things
Living here in Boston, Somerville in particular, it's not hard to see the bones of the grand plan for interstaes through the city. I-93 is eyesore enought (even after the Big Dig), but the unmet plans for the Inner Belt are just horrific. The question inevitably pops to mind, what were they thinking?

This book presents the interstates as an obvious growth out of earlier plans for national road systems. Each step logically followed and the technocrats (I say that in a non-disparaging way) who work
This book is missing the last star from me just because I got a tiny bit bogged down at times with the change of characters and their titles in the government posts. Mostly, it told a marvelous story and when I drove back home yesterday it was fun to see how my perspective of the interstate had changed. The most interesting part to me, though, was the earlier history of roads (mind you, this is history that is not even 100 years old!), and the impetus that cars gave to the network of state and c ...more
I love it when a book opens my eyes....

When I was in high school, computers (what we now call "mainframes") were well on their way of transforming how business and science was done (government took some time). I got interested in computers, and my professional life has been tied to the growth and impact of this technology.

When my dad was in high school, aviation and automobiles were well on their way of transforming peoples lives and the world we lived in. He got interested in aviation, and his
For starters, here is the Told Story. In 1919, a young military man named Eisenhower joined a convoy a trucks attempting to cross America from DC to California. Within 38 miles of leaving the convoy broke down. It took months to plod across roadless America and the entire mission was almost entirely lost in the Great Salt Desert. Intended to demonstrate military might and mobility, the mission turned into a fiasco. Eisenhower promised to do something about it someday--and he did as President in ...more
I only read through chapter 16 before my kindle edition was due back at the library, and I decided I got what I wanted from it and was ready to move on. That said, I really did enjoy it and find it interesting. While road building is the focus, you don't have to be a civil engineer or a gear head to enjoy this, because it's really a story about people. The first half focuses on the people who designed and spearheaded the building of our interstate freeway system. Many of them were hard-working d ...more
Doug Cornelius
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
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Earl Swift has written for a living since his teens. Now 53, the Virginia-based journalist has been a Fulbright fellow, PEN finalist and five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has earned a reputation for powerful narrative and scrupulous reporting.

Swift wrote for newspapers in St. Louis, Anchorage and, for twenty-two years, in Norfolk, where his long-form features won numerous state and national a
More about Earl Swift...
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia Where They Lay: A Forensic Expedition in the Jungles of Laos The Tangierman's Lament: And Other Tales of Virginia

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