Free Transportation Books to Read During Coronavirus Quarantine

For those of you who have run out of reading material during lockdown, a consortium of university publishers have combined to make some of their books free for electronic download for the next few months through Project MUSE, including several key books on the U.S. transportation system. Click on the book title to be taken to the downloadable version (mostly in PDF format).


Not one, but two of the most important books written about the history of the U.S. highway system are now free. Mark Rose and Raymond Mohl’s authoritative Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy Since 1939 (expanded 2012 edition, University of Tennessee Press (Go Vols!)) is the definitive history of the Interstate system, based on archival library research – from FDR’s Toll Roads and Free Roads report, to the funding of the system under Eisenhower, through the urban revolt against the freeways that followed, ending up with ISTEA in 1991.

And while researching this article we found that Bruce E. Seely’s seminal book Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (1987, Temple University Press) was already online as a free e-book (you can download it in .mobi format to put in your Kindle or in .epub format for other e-book readers). It tells the story of the federal role in roads from 1890 through 1956 from the perspective of the engineers at the Bureau of Public Roads, upon whom Congress and states came to rely extensively.

After the start of the good roads movement in the 1890s, but before the federal government got involved in 1916, there were two major efforts to build specific interstate roads. One was the Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco; the other (from Chicago and Detroit to south Florida) has its story told in Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930 (2014, University of North Carolina Press) by Tammy Ingram.

For a more cultural approach, there is Remembering Roadside America: Preserving the Past as Landscape and Place (2011, also University of Tennessee Press) by John Jakle and Keith Sculle, with “copious illustrations.”

Urban transportation, generally.

Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities (2018, MIT Press) by David Bissell. “Drawing on in-depth fieldwork with commuters, journalists, transit advocates, policymakers, and others in Sydney, Australia… Bissell shows that the material experiences of our daily journeys are transforming life in our cities. The commute is a time where some of the most pressing tensions of contemporary life play out, striking at the heart of such issues as our work-life balance; our relationships with others; our sense of place; and our understanding of who we are.”

Urban Elites and Mass Transportation: The Dialectics of Power (1982, Princeton University Press) by J. Allen Whitt compares the experiences of San Francisco and Los Angeles and the political reasons why the former was able to build a mass transit system in the 1960s and 1970s and the latter was not.

New York City’s mass transit.

There are several books on the NYC subway. Transit historian Brian Cudahy’s A Century of Subways: Celebrating 100 Years of New York’s Underground Railways (2003, Fordham University Press) tells the story of the creation of the all-electric IRT in 1904 and how it expanded, evolved, and consolidated into today’s subway system.

An interesting counterpoint to that book is Joseph B. Raskin’s The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System (2013, also Fordham University Press), which “explores the often dramatic stories behind the unbuilt or unfinished subway lines, shedding light on a significant part of New York City’s history that has been almost completely ignored until now.”

From a governance perspective, Andrew J. Sparberg’s From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA (2014, once again from Fordham) explores how the NYC subway was managed from the consolidation under municipal ownership in 1940 through the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968.

Urban planning.

A new book from Jonathan Levine, Joe Grengs, and Louis A. Merlin, From Mobility to Accessibility: Transforming Urban Transportation and Land-Use Planning (2019, Cornell University Press) argues for “an ‘accessibility shift’ whereby transportation planning, and the transportation dimensions of land-use planning, would be based on people’s ability to reach destinations, rather than on their ability to travel fast…Existing models for planning and evaluating transportation, which have taken vehicle speeds as the most important measure, would make sense if movement were the purpose of transportation. But it is the ability to reach destinations, not movement per se, that people seek from their transportation systems.”


It is important to remember that the aeronautics side of NASA is transportation, and Erik Conway’s High-Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945–1999 (2005, Johns Hopkins University Press) is a reminder of just how big a deal the development of a civilian supersonic transport was in the 1960s. (The entire USDOT budget was held up by six months in 1970 over that issue, and FAA Administrators and USDOT Secretaries spent an inordinate amount of their time dealing with SST issues back in the day.) (Listen to recordings of JFK and LBJ chewing out Pan Am because Pan Am ordered Concorde instead of the American SST.)

Another interesting story is told in Anke Ortlepp’s Jim Crow Terminals: The Desegregation of American Airports (2017: University of Georgia Press). Apparently, travel on U.S. airlines was never segregated by race (at least, they were never segregated from the time the federal government started regulating air travel in 1936). But many airports (including the only federally-owned airport, Washington National) were segregated, and the book tells the story of how some airlines (but not others) sought to end this, and how airports were finally forced to de-segregate in the 1960s.


Back on Track: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1965–2015 (2018, Johns Hopkins University Press) by Mark Aldrich is a sequel to Aldrich’s earlier book on rail safety prior to 1965. This volume starts with the creation of the Federal Railroad Administration, which took over responsibility for rail safety from the ICC, and concludes that “the past 50 years have seen great strides in restoring railroad safety while enhancing industry profitability. Arguing that it was not inadequate safety regulation but rather stifling economic regulation that initially caused an uptick in train accidents, Back on Track is both a paen to the return of more competitive railroading and the only comprehensive history of the safety of modern American railroads.”


Transit historian Brian Cudahy branches out to maritime with Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World (2006, Fordham University Press), a history of containerization starting with Malcolm McLean.

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