Book Review: ‘Big Roads’ by Earl Swift

The interchange of Interstates 5 and 10 in Los Angeles, from the book "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways" by Earl Swift.
(Federal Highway Administration / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

Earl Swift

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 375 pp., $27.00

Veteran journalist Earl Swift’s well-focused and lively history of American highways takes us from the Good Roads Movement of the 1890s to the interstate system as it exists today, facing maintenance issues and budgetary problems but nonetheless a remarkable achievement, “nearly forty-seven thousand miles long and at least four lanes wide.”


The system’s basic parameters were set by the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which presented a distinctively American vision of a national system defined by local requirements. The act reflected the convictions of Thomas MacDonald, head of the federal Office of Public Roads and a classic Progressive Era technocrat who believed in engineering plans based on research. His research told him that traffic was “overwhelmingly local”; the small percentage of long-distance travelers must be served, “but it is not necessary to build an especially chosen national system.” What MacDonald wanted, and got in 1921, was “a definite plan of cooperation between the states and the federal government, which will ensure that the primary systems of each state are connected up with the primary systems of the adjoining states.”

Highway building took off in the ‘20s, just as Americans were taking to automobiles in large numbers. Swift colorfully captures the new car culture and businesses nourished by long-distance driving: “auto cabin” camps for cheap overnight stays, chain restaurants serving predictable food, maps and a numbered road system so you knew where you were going. Meanwhile, he notes, American cities were choking on car traffic they had not been designed to accommodate, and MacDonald’s proposed solution to this problem laid the groundwork for explosive postwar debates.

A massive mid-'30s survey revealed that “traffic moves in great volume into and out of cities, but dwindles to much smaller proportions as cities are left behind.” The answer, MacDonald concluded, was urban freeways through the heart of major cities to ensure “the unfettered circulation of traffic.” It would be necessary to raze a lot of buildings to build those roads, but the natural targets for demolition were “depressed slums, which could be cut out like a tumor and replaced with life-infusing highways.”

This notion gained in popularity after World War II, when the suburbs exploded and the commute to downtown was worse than anything we complain of today. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, largely crafted by MacDonald’s protégé Frank Turner, committed massive amounts of money to a system sold as essential for national security as well as convenience. (“Large-scale evacuation of cities would be needed in the event of A-bomb or H-bomb attack,” Turner noted.) The highway officials who gathered in 1957 for the first national conference on urban superhighways were confident that interstates were the cure for urban blight.

They got a blistering reality check from the city planners and dwellers whose opinions until then had not been solicited. Architectural critic and urban activist Lewis Mumford sounded the rallying cry against unchecked highway construction. “Either the motor car will drive us all out of the cities, or the cities will have to drive out the motor car,” he declared. It was one of the opening salvos in the Freeway Revolt that would dramatically modify expansion of the interstate highway system.

Readers may be surprised that the rebellion against highways began in the ‘50s, usually considered the culminating decade in America’s march toward suburbanization and its love affair with the automobile. Swift’s nicely balanced assessment acknowledges that “Americans took to [the car] not only willingly, but with gusto.” They wanted interstate highways and may even have wanted highways through their cities, until the consequences of those roads became apparent.

When San Franciscans got a look at the first mile-and-a-half of the Embarcadero Freeway, “an unadorned gray concrete barricade” blocking the magnificent waterfront view, the outcry stopped further construction. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1959 opposed seven more freeways and turned down $280 million in federal aid. (The hated mile-and-a-half was finally torn down in 1991, after the 1989 earthquake closed it and the city’s commuters adapted with remarkably little trouble.) Baltimore residents whose neighborhoods were slated for demolition united across racial lines and fought Interstate 70 for more than 20 years; they eventually halted the road at the city limits, though the African American community of Rosemont never entirely recovered.

Urbanites across America emulated San Francisco’s and Baltimore’s examples, and they slowly gained the ear of politicians. Public hearings and environmental impact statements began to be required in the 1960s. A 1971 Supreme Court ruling held that cost could not be the only factor in determining the best route for a highway; “protection of parkland was to be given paramount importance.” The nation’s changing priorities were evident in the 1973 highway act, which permitted local governments to take funds allocated for interstates and use them for mass transit.


Though it gives ample coverage to critics, this is not an anti-highway screed. Swift has a clear-eyed view of the interstate system’s benefits (speed and safety) and drawbacks (homogeneity and ugly off-ramp development). His opening chapters make abundantly clear the pressing need for better roads in the early 20th century, and he evinces great respect for men like MacDonald and Turner, who addressed that need with careful research and engineering. Their prescription for cities was misguided, but an aroused citizenry checked its worst excesses. In fact, from start to finish “Big Roads” offers a reasonably optimistic portrait of democracy in action, with government officials striving to give the public what it wanted and to answer people’s complaints when what they got wasn’t quite what they expected.

Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.