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'Big Roads': From Tire-Killing Paths To Superhighways

A highway links Southern California's Ventura and Hollywood freeways in 1953 — one of the crowning achievements of the "good roads" movement that actually began in the 19th century with bicycles.
L. J. Willinger
Getty Images
A highway links Southern California's Ventura and Hollywood freeways in 1953 — one of the crowning achievements of the "good roads" movement that actually began in the 19th century with bicycles.

There aren't many people who love superhighways. They're huge, noisy and bathed in the smell of exhaust. They're often blamed for the unending suburbs that sprawl out from America's cities.

But in his new book, author Earl Swift makes a case that the multilane highways weaving across the country have improved our lives dramatically.

He points out that the interstate highway system has cut traffic accidents, eased cross-country travel and made it possible to buy fresh beef and tomatoes at the local grocery store year-round.

The book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways, deconstructs the biggest public works project in history.

"It dwarfs the Panama Canal, it dwarfs the Pyramids. If you were to take all of the concrete that was poured in the interstate, you would be able to fill the Louisiana Superdome 64 times to the rafters," Swift tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Before Highways, Many Roads Led To Disaster

If you wanted to take a cross-country road trip at the turn of the 20th century, you had to be prepared.

"You'd bring along planks of wood because you would undoubtedly get mired in mud and you'd have to use this wood to help extricate yourself," Swift says. And that's not all: You'd need "some pretty stout rope, multiple spare tires — because back in the day, driving meant changing tires on every trip out. Just keeping the car running would have taken half of a garage's worth of tools."

As a result, most people avoided long road trips. But there were a few adventurous pioneers who dreamed of traveling without getting stuck in the mud. One of them was Carl Fisher.

Fisher was a sixth-grade dropout who grew up in Indianapolis. At a young age, he fell in love with bicycles and opened a bike shop, but soon moved on to motorized vehicles.

"He became frustrated with the state of roads in and around Indianapolis, and he proposed to a group of automaker friends they finance a coast-to-coast highway from New York to San Francisco."

That original idea for a transcontinental road became the Lincoln Highway — roughly where Interstate 80 runs now.

The Lincoln Highway turns 100 next year, and there will be a celebratory tour starting simultaneously in New York and San Francisco, and meeting midway, in Kearney, Neb.

The Creation Myth

By the 1920s, basic highways such as the Lincoln crisscrossed the country, but they were disconnected and poorly managed.

The man who often gets credit for organizing the interstate system is Dwight D. Eisenhower. Throughout the country, highways feature blue signs decorated with his name and five stars — he was a five-star general. But Swift says Ike wasn't the father of the interstate.

"It's a myth. ... It was a done deal even before he decided to run for office," he says.

Of all the presidents, it was really Franklin Delano Roosevelt who deserves the most credit, the author says.

"He took a map of the United States and with a blue pen drew six lines on it" across the country. From there, an engineer named Thomas MacDonald took over.

Road Warrior

MacDonald is virtually unknown to most Americans today, yet Swift pegs him as the true father of the interstate system.

MacDonald grew up in rural Iowa, where mud was such a problem it had its own nickname, "gumbo." This "gumbo" drove MacDonald crazy, and Swift says he was the last man you wanted to upset.

A naturally uptight businessman, he "insisted that his brothers and sisters called him sir, his wife called him Mr. MacDonald, all of his friends called him chief, no one ever called him Tom."

But he was a gifted engineer and one of the first in Iowa to embrace roads as a key ingredient in America's economic development. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in civil engineering and working for the Iowa State Highway Commission, he became president of the American Association of State Highway Officials.

And at age 38, he took over as chief of the federal Bureau of Public Roads. MacDonald directed national road policy for 34 years, serving seven different presidents.

He began what was then called a propaganda campaign to persuade the public that good roads were a human right and was determined to build roads wherever there was traffic, even if that meant going directly through the center of cities.

Earl Swift is a Virginia-based journalist and a five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.
/ Saylor Denney
Saylor Denney
Earl Swift is a Virginia-based journalist and a five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

'Clear-Cutting Of The Human Forest'

If building roads was difficult in the countryside and suburbs, it was almost impossible in America's central cities. Building an interstate in cities such Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Detroit where people lived closely together on narrow streets was like trying to jam a basketball through a chain-link fence.

"You name pretty much any older city in the country and there was some serious clear-cutting of the human forest that made this possible," Swift says.

Although America's interstate system split some communities apart during its construction, the author argues that ultimately it tied urban areas together and made it possible for people on opposite sides of the country to see each other in record time.

Given the obstacles that stood in the way of creating the interstate highway system — the social costs of relocating citizens, the engineering feats, the routing and naming debates, and the politics of funding — Swift says it's amazing that the interstate system exists at all.

"I don't think there's any way in a million years we could build it today," he says. "No, this just wouldn't fly."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.