Book Review – The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure 
By Henry Petroski
New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016
Released February 16, 2016, $28.00

Transportation infrastructure is a thread that winds through nearly every aspect of a person’s life. From streets, to bridges, to tunnels, to curbs and street signs, we interact with or are directly affected by transportation infrastructure on a daily basis. These commonplace aspects of our roads were painstakingly developed over many years – improved by slow progress and iterations on concepts and designs. But who were the people who invented these familiar staples on our streets? When were they conceived? What decisions went into the road that brought us to this point in history?

Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University, dives into all of these things and more in his book The Road Taken. In a very obvious nod to Robert Frost, Petroski sets the tone for his book by prodding the reader to contemplate the decisions that brought our infrastructure to what it is now. He points out in the very first chapter that the United States now has over 4 million miles of roads and bridges, much of which were built in an earlier time to meet different needs. These roads and bridges are now in poor condition, with more and more drivers taking to the roads each day. In turn, our country is now losing both time and money. According to Petroski, $121 billion worth of time is lost annually because of congestion. He reminds us that the U.S. is now at a fork in the road when it comes to deciding the future of our infrastructure. Will we invest wisely? Or allow our roads, bridges, and tunnels to continue deteriorating?

In the next several chapters, Petroski goes on to recount the history of asphalt, stop signs, traffic lights, subways, guardrails, bridges, curbs, etc. By telling the (sometimes surprising) history of some of the most recognizable aspects of our infrastructure today, Petroski slowly builds his case for continued investment in infrastructure projects, but also gives warning by retelling stories of failed or mismanaged projects. As he points out, it is often more appealing to cut the ribbon on a mega-project rather than signing off on much-needed maintenance repairs on a critical highway or tunnel. Mega-projects can turn out to be an expensive and a politically volatile road to take.

One example that Petroski gives is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (completed in September 2013). The final price tag on the project was $6.4 billion. During construction, the project was plagued with controversy, scandals, delays, and cost overruns. Even after it had been completed, structural problems remained. While it was an important project to complete and it did garner attention for its “signature span,” it begs the question – was there a better way?

Petroski also highlights one historical figure in whom we have a particular interest. In his chapter on centerlines, stop signs, and traffic lights, he briefly tells the story of William Phelps Eno, the founder of the Eno Center for Transportation. As a young boy, Eno encountered a traffic jam so memorable that he notes it as the moment he decided to dedicate his career to sorting out traffic and determining the rules of the road. Petroski goes on to recount Eno’s path to creating the first written traffic code (initially implemented in New York City), designing the first traffic control signs, and laying down traffic organization rules such as driving on the right-hand side of the street.

Petroski’s writing style engages the reader quickly. As mundane as something like the debate between cable-stayed versus suspension bridges may be to certain audiences, his prose still manage to draw you in with such lines as “It is true that there is much to repair and replace in our aging infrastructure, but haste makes waste, and function without form does not uplift the soul.”

Many of the stories that appear in his book are naturally condensed, sometimes overly so. One such example is the chapter about the New York City subway and William Barclay Parsons. The construction of the subway system in New York was a long and extremely complicated affair with battles between politicians, businessmen, and the public. It is incredibly difficult to sum up into one chapter. For those looking for an in-depth history of a particular or all aspects of transportation infrastructure, they would be best served using this book as a starting point rather than a single source. (Ed. Note: For any readers interested in the history of the New York City subway, we recommend Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.)

This book will likely recount very familiar stories to those who have been in the transportation industry for a long time. However, for those unfamiliar with the complex history and current state of transportation infrastructure, this book is fascinating. It also serves as a timely and effective starting point for policy conversations by providing a historical perspective on the current state of American infrastructure.

By using history as a backdrop, Petroski reminds us that the United States is at a “fork in the road”. Whatever path we choose will “make all the difference” in whether or not we can restore our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

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