Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Review: THE BIG ROADS by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

You may have noticed that I have links to Web pages on the histories of the U.S. and Interstate Highway systems in my "Miscellaneous" section. It won't come as a surprise, therefore, that this well-written, even-handed book tracing the development of the modern American roadway grid was an easy sell for me. Swift gives space to both the architects and the critics of the Interstate network and clears up some misconceptions concerning the development of the Interstate system along the way. One such mistaken belief is the idea that the Interstates were originally supposed to be rural highways and were only diverted into and through big cities -- often to the cities' detriment -- because of greed and political maneuvering. Swift makes it clear that, from the time the Interstates were conceived, urban routes were part of the plan, on the theory that the highways would make it easier to ship goods to and from population centers and could be used as an excuse to wipe out unsightly "slums." Only gradually did local activists begin to push back against the incursion of the I-behemoth. One of the bitterest battles, which Swift discusses in detail, took place here in Baltimore, where a diverse group of neighborhood residents resisted plans to send I-70 through the downtown area, within a stone's throw of what is now the Inner Harbor. The challenges lasted well over a decade before the would-be highway-builders finally conceded defeat. Swift concludes with a review of the challenges faced by the Interstate system today, the largest of which is a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure under the pressure of ever-increasing traffic. We can debate all we want to about the proper role of government in our lives, but I think we can all agree that the maintenance of the transportation grid is something on which we don't want to skimp.

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