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

3.82  ·  Rating Details ·  1,041 Ratings  ·  163 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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Nov 18, 2012 Alec rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 16, 2016 HBalikov rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who knew there was so much about our national highway system? I didn’t. Earl Swift tells a complex story that involves the growth of our country and how its expansion was determined by the trails that we chose to improve travel from city to city and from coast to coast.

Obviously, we had roads before we had cars and trucks, but even with those vehicles becoming the primary means of transportation we lacked the roads that would make them as useful as they could be. You could run cars on dirt roads
Apr 24, 2012 April rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Mar 28, 2012 Marks54 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
J.M. Hushour
Sep 20, 2015 J.M. Hushour rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
2015 and Doc Brown was wrong. We do need roads! Great scott!
But, did you ever wonder where they came from? If you thought it had anything to do with Eisenhower, you'd be mostly wrong! The planning, research, and groundwork for what would become the Eisenhower interstate system was already well in place when ol' Ike putted his way into the White House. In fact, he wasn't even aware of its existence. So much for that.
This book is about the tireless folks who ARE responsible for the biggest public
Andrew Liptak
Jul 03, 2011 Andrew Liptak rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 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

May 04, 2012 Socraticgadfly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
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.
Oct 19, 2016 Grayson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've always been curious about how our highway system came about. This book answered that question thoroughly. It's well worth reading.
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
Oct 14, 2011 Marvin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Munthir Mahir
Dec 12, 2016 Munthir Mahir rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I read this book with the expectation and anticipation of learning about the political, economic and scientific infrastructures required to build effective and efficient roads and road networks. I was not disappointed, but I was into a pleasant surprise. Most might be familiar with the famous Route 66 (no longer in existence) and its cultural and historical significance. Many dirt roads, streets, boulevards and highways were built over centuries each with its own rightful cultural and historical ...more
Jan 01, 2017 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Eisenhower is credited with initiating creation of the US Interstate Highway System (ala 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act). Unknown are many such as Carl Fisher (also Montauk and Miami Beach), Thomas MacDonald, Herbert Fairbank, FDR, Frank Turner etc. who identified/inspired need, type, routes, definition and persuading govt to invest. "Toll Roads and Free Roads" (1938) and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 all played pivotal roles leading up to 1956. This books tells that whole story about the mo ...more
Ryan Frantz
I borrowed this book from a hotel lobby...

This was an interesting read about the history of improved roads starting just before the turn of the 20th century and following through to the Interstate Highway system of today. The author covers a number of intertwined topics such as the development of the automobile and various features, key figures (engineers and politicians) in the development of improved roads, and the social impact of highways in urban areas. Though the subject could be fairly dr
Gene McAvoy
Basically...a traffic jam would have been more interesting.
Nathan Albright
This book is a good example both of immense hypocrisy and bait and switch. At the beginning of this book, the author talks about a trip he made with his daughter and one of her friends around the nation, first traveling along the slow roads of US 40 and then on the much faster roads of the interstate later on. One can sense even in this introduction a certain critical tone towards the interstate, alongside a certain guarded compliment about its speed and efficiency, but by the time one gets to t ...more
Oct 09, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
A fascinating and detailed history of the American highway system, beginning with the Good Roads Movement begun by bicyclists and the advent of the automobile, traveling through the immense undertaking of the U.S. Interstate System and the myriad ways it changed American life, and concluding with the current state of our road systems and where we seem to be going from here. That all sounds like it could be a bit dry, but Swift wisely humanizes the process, bringing to life the personalities that ...more
Jill Meyer
Nov 05, 2016 Jill Meyer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Earl Swift has written a marvelous book about the US interstate road system and the men - and there were a lot of them - behind the scenes, in "The Big Roads".

Most people seem to think that the US Interstate system was devised and begun during the Eisenhower administration. It was Eisenhower who approved and began the billions dollar project but planning had begun years before, as the automobile designs improved and costs went down, and people-in-cars took to the roads. At first, cars were used
Fr. Cory Sticha
Jun 28, 2013 Fr. Cory Sticha rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Becky Combs
Feb 23, 2017 Becky Combs rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really, I am not a nerd, but this was a very enjoyable read! The story of how paths became roads became highways is also the story of urban planning, the story of the automobile, the story of hotels and restaurants and road signs, and the story of the great American road trip.
Feb 22, 2017 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A readable and insightful history of the interstate system. A little heavy on not-such-important details about the lives of the key players.
Catherine  Mustread
Jul 04, 2011 Catherine Mustread rated it really liked it  ·  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
Fascinating book that I probably enjoyed more than most/any of my Goodreads friends would. But if you like American history, this is an interesting niche subject that touches a century of our history.

How did we get from muddy, almost impassable dirt ruts/roads to superhighways? It's a lot of interesting planning and personalities as automobiles emerge and begin to complete with horse and carriage. Everyone loved the idea of fast, safe, reliable interstate highways, but they didn't want to pay f
Sep 02, 2011 Cathy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Joe Miguez
Feb 20, 2013 Joe Miguez rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 17, 2012 Christopher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Josh Liller
Aug 21, 2011 Josh Liller rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: transportation
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
Oct 13, 2011 Kili rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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Earl Swift has written for a living since his teens. Now 57, the Virginia-based journalist has been a Fulbright fellow, PEN finalist and six-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 aw
More about Earl Swift...

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“Cyclists thus found their hobby not as pleasant as it could be, to say the least, and the League of American Wheelmen committed to doing something about it. A year after Fisher opened his store, the league launched a magazine, Good Roads, that became an influential mouthpiece for road improvement. Its articles were widely reprinted, which attracted members who didn’t even own bikes; at the group’s peak, Fisher and more than 102,000 others were on the rolls, and the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore. Yes, the demand for roads was pedal-powered, and a national cause even before the first practical American car rolled out of a Chicopee, Massachusetts, shop in 1893. A few months ahead of the Duryea Motor Wagon’s debut, Congress authorized the secretary of agriculture to “make inquiry regarding public roads” and to investigate how they might be improved.” 0 likes
“Prominent magazine editor and opinion shaper Albert Shaw noted that bad roads “are so disastrously expensive that only a very rich country, like the United States, can afford them.” 0 likes
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