When I wrote regularly about infrastructure, I once spent an enlightening hour with city of Raleigh transportation planner Eric Lamb. We watched the traffic stampede through the Raleigh Five Points intersection, where several streets all come together for a party but nobody really hosts, and none of the guests knows where they’re supposed to put their coats or where the bathroom is or who’s supposed to get the drinks or where the forks are, and so everybody kind of just does stuff. And as the cars and the people and the buses and the bicycles and the baby strollers all careered around one another, misunderstanding, misinterpreting or utterly ignoring the traffic signs, Lamb told me that when trying to balance the needs of the competing constituencies in any transportation issue he would keep in mind two things.
I wondered: Speed and safety? Asphalt and concrete? Pedestrians and vehicles, commercial and personal, public and private? I was flummoxed and I gave up.
“Two things,” he told me. “Money and political will.”
There are other ways to look at questions of infrastructure, but in my mind Lamb has explained the thing in two words. In “The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure,” Henry Petroski, Duke professor of civil engineering and the reliably fascinating author of books about how stuff gets to be stuff, provides the backstory to the American system of roads, streets, interstates and highways.
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The book is never less than interesting and is often fascinating. Petroski tells us how we got to white and yellow lines for road boundaries, how we got traffic signals and what color, what order, what shape, and what preceded what we have now (police officers atop little columns in the middle of intersections, doing their best, that’s what). We learn the history and taxonomy of guardrails. We get the almost unimaginably complex stories of the most recent chapters in the lives of the Bay Bridge and the Tappan Zee, and we hear the inspirational tale of how the Walkway Over the Hudson and the High Line repurposed bridges that would otherwise have been destroyed.
We learn the story of John Loudon McAdam, whose advances in the compression of gravel roads left us with what we call macadam (the addition of bitumen, to make asphalt, of course led to tar macadam, or tarmac), and we get the context for that, going back to Roman roads, to the roads of logs called corduroy roads, to the bricks and cobblestones over which smoothly compressed gravel was such an improvement.
We learn about the history of the gas tax, and what a mess it is for keeping up with interstate highway funding, and we learn about various other possible approaches to funding our infrastructure needs, none of which will work. Because, you know: money and political will.
Petroski never beats the reader over the head with why our infrastructure keeps getting D’s when the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out its report cards, but he’s never shy, either. “We vote for roads and against potholes; for fixing our bridges and against the taxes to do so,” he says in his introduction, and if that unavoidable point never takes over the narrative (well, there is one chapter devoted to taxes), it never vanishes, either. How could it?
Petroski shares the stories he does as a way of teaching: past is prologue, and how we’ve dealt with infrastructure in the past will affect our future.
He quotes Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden: “It is just not possible to have a big league quality of life with little league infrastructure,” despite our highly little league funding decisions. He tells us the story of the interstate highways, a success story if there ever was one, and documents the decades of resistance to the idea and the decades of deferred maintenance that have left them in the shape they’re in.
“We are still in an infrastructural ditch,” he says in his conclusion. “A gentleman’s C, defined by ASCE itself as ‘mediocre,’ should not be the nation’s goal.”
No, it should not. But infrastructure is, in many ways, our community made flesh. What we’re willing to build is what defines us. Money and political will. At the moment, we seem to be lacking in both. As Petroski says of the infrastructure problem, “Unless our nation’s attitude towards it changes, it is not likely to be solved anytime soon.”
The Road Taken: The History and Future of Infrastructure
By Henry Petroski
Bloomsbury USA, 282 pages