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The American Highway: 11/06/15

The American Highway by William Kaszynski is a flawed history of the interstate highway system.

The American Highway by William Kaszynski is a history of the building of the various highway systems that criss cross the United States like a spiderweb made of cement and asphalt. I read it for my road trip project, which you can follow on Tumblr.

The United States is a young enough but wealthy enough nation to have had the luxury of being able to build it's infrastructure as it expanded. Who builds the roads and who pays for them has changed over time from private venture paid for through tolls (the old turnpike system) to city and state governments with national grant monies (as the U.S. highways and interstates were built). There are of course modern day toll roads and bridges done to pay for construction costs, to regulate congestion, and provide for upkeep (or state budget holes in lean years).

Bicycle in 1890 via Southwest Minneapolis Patch

One of the driving forces behind paved road construction was bicycle. Bicycle riders from across the nation formed road betterment committees to get their urban roads paved with smooth surfaces that responded well in all weathers (rather than the stones, mud, and horse manure they normally had to contend with). These beautiful paved roadways though were also the perfect solution for the growing throngs of automobile owners. Soon the roadways were being built not to the benefit of the bicyclist, but to the demands of automobile driver.

Today the highways are just there. But they were built through trial and error. One of the driving forces behind the initial concept of an interstate was Carl Fisher (founder of the Lincoln Highway, Indy 500, and developer of big portions of Miami). But the early highways, like Lincoln, were really more pathfinders marked on signs through any number of types of road — as if someone had found some random dots and tried to connect them into a coherent picture. But it was enough of a proof of concept to encourage a massive scale creation of highways (the U.S. Routes) and a secondary improvement on concept (the U.S. Interstates).

American Highway is a good start at painting the big picture view of highway construction in the United States. At the finer detail level, though, it's flawed. For instance, the Lincoln Highway's evolution into a U.S. route has it ending at Astoria as if the Lincoln Highway was mapped one to one with U.S. Highway 30. It doesn't come close to doing that.

Three stars

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