The Big Roads, by Earl Swift, read by Rob Shaprio
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 the end of the book the author is praising wasteful public transit system projects and commenting on the transportation shortfall regarding preserving the infrastructure of roads, unaware that while there is a certain marked criticism of technocratic engineers like McDonald who thought they knew better than the voters and sought to remain focused on engineering and not politics, that the environmentalists and social activists the author praises are similarly not interested in what the voters think, only in pursuing their own solutions. Pot, meet kettle. The book as a whole suffers once its sense of proportion and balance are lost, when the author spends a great deal of time discussing the whiny squabbles regarding the interstate highway system in Baltimore.
In terms of its contents, this book is at its heart a book of personalities. Carl Fisher first came to prominence among the craze for safety bicycles, was an auto pioneer who masterminded the Indianapolis 500 and constructed its famous Brickyard, and built Miami Beach from a mangrove swamp to a resort city. Thomas MacDonald was a straight arrow engineer out of Iowa who helped mastermind the interstate system before falling prey to a politically motivated dismissal in his dotage, and then marrying his secretary before moving to a position in Texas. Louis Mumford was a self-taught writer whose whiny socialism caught the imagination of a generation of urban planners. Joe Wiles was a soft-spoken and supposedly mild-mannered Baltimore activist on behalf of the black communities of East Baltimore fated for destruction for one of Baltimore’s interminable freeway plans. And on it goes, in a roughly chronological fashion from the beginnings of transportation where poor roads were a cause of public scandal, through a period of glorious road building that first strung a system of national roads via state and federal cooperation, to a mostly federally led interstate highway program, to a period where the growing decrepitude of our roads and strangling regulations and political corruption in favor of unworkable alternate means of transportation have made roads once again a cause of public scandal. Perhaps deliberately, and perhaps unintentionally, the picture has come full circle, and the author only offers an odd story about a quirky McKeesport-born plan for turning water into fuel as hope for encouragement for a better future.
At its best, this is a book that celebrates the spirit of people who are able to conceive of a better future and do the hard work in engineering and design to turn those dreams into a reality that serves the well-being and the dreams of millions of ordinary citizens. It is a reminder that in engineering there are always tradeoffs, and that people will respond to what is built in ways that are unpredictable. One cannot have it both ways–if one wants traffic to be diverted from population centers, it is little surprise that those population centers should be little recognized by those who value speed of travel. This is a book that reminds us that some people are impossible to please, which is why places like San Francisco and Baltimore continually end up being places of political corruption and troubled civic history, simply because they refuse to come to terms with their own contradictions and paradoxes. This is a book that serves as a revisionist history–it certainly has a hostile view of Dwight Eisenhower, for example, it is perhaps best to be seen as thought-provoking, hypocritical, and a study of personalities even as it represents the common desire among people of the left for the salvation of people by government regulations and taxation. For such salvation from our corrupt human authorities we will wait, if we wait for it, in vain.