Andrea's Reviews > The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System

The Roads That Built America by Dan McNichol
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May 29, 12

bookshelves: american-history, nerd-stuff
Read from April 10 to May 29, 2012

As McNichol's title reminds us, the American Interstate system is nothing short of "incredible." Before the Revolutionary War, a journey along a well-traveled route between Cumberland, MD and Pittsburgh, PA was a terrifying challenge. George Washington almost died several times on one trip. When the country's first national highway was commissioned along that route in 1806, it was hailed as a great innovation, even though it took over 10 years to build and put travelers at considerable risk. Now we glide over I-68 along the same path without thinking twice.
Road conditions improved little until the early 20th century, when massive ruts, thick mud, big rocks, and bad signage plagued new automobiles on roads built for horses and wagons. But Americans persevered with their cars, largely because they were tired of uncomfortable and limited rail travel (see Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 for a great read on this period).
But as the auto grew in popularity, it wasn't just weekend motorists who noticed the road problems. During WWI, a fleet of army trucks was needed in Europe and the fastest way to move them from the Detroit assembly line was simply driving them to the port at Baltimore. The convoy destroyed almost every road it touched and highlighted the need for good roads to meet military and commercial needs. Soon after, the American Association of State Highway Officials got together, lobbied for federal funding, and embarked on a massive project constructing a national highway system. The result is still in use today in the form of U.S. Highways, and it contained many innovations in state cooperation, construction techniques, geography-based numbering, and standardized signage.
U.S. Highways only added to what was already a road-trip boom in the U.S. A whole new traveling culture blossomed, most famously the romance of Route 66. It soon became clear though that America could do much better. U.S. Highways still had a lot of dangerous components, including right-of-ways directly through towns, stop lights, intersections, rail crossings, and no median to speak of. Each of these greatly increased the risk of crashing and would remain until General Eisenhower was deployed in WWII and saw the German Autobahns. With their sleek engineering, limited access, and high-clearance bridges, the German roads were their own undoing when American forces started driving along them to invade.
Ike brought the lessons home and immediately began fueling the postwar boom with his massive vision of the Interstate System. All the German innovations were put to use in the highways we use today. Test tracks were installed to test design methods, asphalt types, and even sign colors, sometimes monitored over several years. Tests are still ongoing today, some with striking innovations like full-scale tunnel fires, or driverless trucks that pound ceaselessly on test strips of pavement while driven by computers. McNichol also mentions Americans' profound reliance on the trucking industry, especially if you shop a lot online. Yes, the backroads can still be fun on road trips, but for the 90% of trips that just involve getting from one place to another quickly, the Interstates are truly magnificent. The tremendous ease and safety we experience in traveling now from state to state is so often taken for granted, yet remains an incredible feat of engineering.

McNichol does give fair treatment to the pitfalls of the Interstate as well. Construction was often met with challenges from citizens who wanted various sites preserved, such as historic neighborhoods and buildings, archaeological sites, and fragile ecosystems with great natural beauty. In some cases all groups worked together for a successful resolution... in some cases, not. Travelers also came to expect and prefer chain restaurants and hotels known for consistent quality. A lousy hotel or meal from a mom & pop joint could ruin a precious vacation day, but now that we have Yelp and TripAdvisor to deliver us directly to the best places, it is no wonder the chains have come under fire.

My only complaint about this book is the format. It looks like a textbook, which makes it hard to carry in your purse and mildly embarrassing to be seen reading. McNichol's enthusiasm is so infectious though that I just have to give 5 stars. Read it and get a new sense of appreciation for things we often take for granted.
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