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The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways Audio CD – Audiobook, 12 Dec 2011


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Product details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio; Unabridged edition (12 Dec. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1452605351
  • ISBN-13: 978-1452605357
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 2.8 x 13.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Robert F. Woods on 21 April 2014
Format: Paperback
I got this book thinking it would indeed tell about the actual interstates - instead it did hold exclusively to the subtitle. One learns every detail of people involved with the roads - eg that the NY engineer had a game room in his basement and what kind of awning was on his house. So much of it told things which had NOTHING to do with the Roads. For me - more than uninteresting - and indeed it was pretty much of a hodgepodge in any case.

There were a few pictures - many of them pictures of these people - there was one small map (Baltimore) - a few of cars and a couple of the construction.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 121 reviews
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Excellent story of the roads across America. 7 May 2011
By Jill Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Earl Swift has written a marvelous book about the US interstate road system and the men - and there were a lot of them - behind the scenes, in "The Big Roads".

Most people seem to think that the US Interstate system was devised and begun during the Eisenhower administration. It was Eisenhower who approved and began the billions dollar project but planning had begun years before, as the automobile designs improved and costs went down, and people-in-cars took to the roads. At first, cars were used basically to go short distance, but as the 1900's turned into the 1910's, visionaries began to see the need for roads - and good roads - to stretch across the United States. Various government and private companies began working on developing a nationwide system, basically based on the upgrading of already established roads. State governments would approve upgrades in their own states, but there was no country-wide plan. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's plans continued to be made but not necessarily implemented. Notice was taken of the autobahn system being developed AND built in Germany. Strange how those beautifully developed four lane highways went out to the country's borders and not from city to city within Germany... Strange.

After WW2, the US government realised they had to begin building the Interstate system. Added cartage of goods and materiel during war-time had shown how inadequate US road system truly was. It was under Eisenhower, who, curiously had been part of a government study as an Army officer in the 1930's of the country's transportation system, that the national United States Interstate system was finally developed, approved, and built. Begun in the 1950's, roads are still being built and fixed today.

But with the approval of the Interstate system came the problems inherent in building it. Very little problems with going through the countrysides, but as urban planners and transportation planners began to clash as large interstate highways were being designed to cut through urban areas. Baltimore is a prime example of the problems encountered as the need for highways displaced entire neighborhoods.

Earl Swift has really done a great job producing a readable, thoughtful study of the Interstate system. The history of the roads and the problems we now face as a country as our infrastructure begins to stress in dangerous ways. I can really recommend this book.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Stops A Little Short And Takes A Few Detours 22 July 2013
By Andy in Washington - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have always had a fascination with major highways, especially the US Interstate system. It is certainly one of man's greater achievements, both from an engineering and political level. Road building and architecture have always been among the crowning achievements of nations, and the US is no exception. I had high hopes for this book.

=== The Good Stuff ===

* Earl Swift would certainly subscribe to the theory that the political side of road-building is more interesting and more difficult than the actual engineering side. Given the current state of US highway building, it might appear that he is correct-more roads have been shot down over politics than insurmountable engineering problems. Swift does a masterful job of capturing this conflict.

* We meet an interesting cast of characters, and Swift does a nice job at capturing the personalities and motivations of these people. There are certainly the stereotypical engineers-you can almost see the slide rules- planning the routes; the finance guys figuring out how to pay for it; and the political operators-managing what is possible. But there are also the citizens who refused to have their city gutted by a cross-town expressway, and environmentalists and historical preservationists who stand up for their principles.

* Much of the history presented was new to me. I had always subscribed to the "Eisenhower cross-country trip" theory of how the Interstate system came about. Swift makes a convincing case that much of the work was done prior to Eisenhower, some as early as WWI, and much of it under Roosevelt. Eisenhower comes across as a sort of final enabler, and someone who wasn't really paying attention anyway.

* We see some of the dealing that went on to make the project happen. There was the usual government accounting rituals, where money spent isn't really money spent. Swift captures some of this, but spares us the more mundane details of trust funds, bond issues and off-budget shenanigans.

=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===

* I am an engineer, and of course was hoping for at least some highlights of the civil engineering that went on. There is precious little of that in the book, other than to say that certain parts of the system were difficult. That is certainly true- take a ride on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado and you can't help but shake your head that the road even exists. But Swift doesn't give us any details of how it was done, how long it took, how much it cost, or any of the techniques used.

* The early part of the book describes several of the early route proposals for a national highway system. Unfortunately there are no maps of these, and the descriptions are vague enough to be borderline useless in understanding them. Certainly a few maps would have been appreciated. Some of these can be found online, but it takes a bit of effort.

* Swift sidesteps much of the controversy of the Interstate system. He gets caught up in the urban routing of I70 in Baltimore, an interesting story, but avoids discussion of any of the larger alignment issues. For example, Philadelphia is a very large city, and a major port, but not served by a major east-west artery. I80 is 70 miles to the north, and I70 terminates to the south in Baltimore. I76 does serve Philadelphia, but is rather a minor interstate, connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and I80. No doubt there was quite a political battle about that, but no mention of it in the book. Doubtless other battles ensued.

=== Summary ====

The book was an excellent treatise on the political side of building the Interstate Highway system, and I enjoyed the look at parts of the tale I hadn't heard before. The author captures the personalities and dedication of a group of civil servants determined to make the project a reality, and gives a reasonably comprehensive overview of the planning process. However, he skips over some areas that I would have preferred to see included, the most serious of which is the actual mechanics of moving dirt and concrete.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Sounds boring? Think again. Utterly fascinating 23 May 2011
By Eric San Juan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A book about building roads might sound as dull as a well-used butter knife but make no mistake, this book is anything but dull. It's a fascinating look at how America's vast road system was stitched together into the monstrous web it is today, profiling the people who made it happen, the obstacles they faced, and the ingenuity that underscored it all.

Author Earl Swift (what a name!) begins in the 19th Century, when a network of roads stretching from coast to coast was an outlandish thing to consider. He tackles early auto pioneers before moving into the 20th Century and the men who began to build the infrastructure we still use today. Men of vision. Men with bold ideas. Men who got things done.

Then he gets on to the huge federal highway system, the big infrastructure projects of the post-WWII years, and the road system that changed American during the Baby Boom era. Running into the early 1970s, it paints a picture of a living, breathing construction project that lasted for a century.

Throughout it all he peppers the text with fun, quirky stories about interesting drivers, sights, sounds, engineers, politicians, and oddball anecdotes.

Plus, politics. Lots and lots of politics. After all, national highway systems don't get built without a lot of hand-shaking.

All in all, Swift's book is a fascinating and comprehensive telling of the story of America's road system. Car enthusiasts, road enthusiasts, you don't need to be either ... if you enjoy AMERICANA, this is an essential read.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Swift is the Nevil Shute of nonfiction 8 Nov. 2011
By Daniel P. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
That's about the highest praise I can give, as I'm a big Nevil Shute fan. Nevil Shute Norway (1899 - 1960) was an aeronautical engineer, entrepreneur, and writer, best known for his uncharacteristic downer "On the Beach," but better represented onscreen in the TV series "A Town Like Alice." Anyway, the thing I love about Shute is that his novels typically concern good, ordinary people, just plugging away at some important task. Shute's novels are relatively short on high drama, but they are intensely engaging page-turners whose plot interest lies in _the continuous unfolding of plans and their execution._

"The Big Roads" is a wonderful book. It's full of wonderful stories. It answers all sorts of questions that were vaguely in the back of my mind, that I should have asked and am glad to have answered. (For example: why is it so common to see Interstates running next to and paralleling state routes?) Throughout the book I had the constant feeling of puzzle pieces falling into place--isolated facts I knew from my personal experience becoming parts of a pattern.

Earl Swift is a marvelous writer. I think he's in the same league Simon Winchester and John McPhee. He's one of the new breed of nonfiction writers who does not impose his views on us but lets us see that he has them and does not pretend to false objectivity.

I was an early Baby Boomer, riding in the back of my parents cars over roads pre- and post-interstate. Where I can compare his descriptions to my personal experience, they are spot-on, just spot-on. This is what fifties cars were like, this is what fifties roads were like. This leads me to trust his evocation of what cars and roads were like during the first half of the 1900s.

The "Nevil Shute" part really refers to the first two-thirds of the book, as the roads get built. It is clear who his heroes are--Thomas McDonald, Herbert Fairbank, and Frank Turner. To some extent, the purpose of the book seems to be to memorialize these men, and after reading it I feel that I would characterize them as _great men._ Less nobly, the book seems intended to puncture the myth of Eisenhower as being the architect of the Interstates, and while I wouldn't doubt Eisenhower deserves some of it, he's a little too dismissive of Eisenhower. Ike comes off as an amiable out-of-touch goofball, more interested in golfing than understanding little details of "his" Interstate--like the fact that it was planned to run through and serve cities. But, never mind, Eisenhower's reputation is not fragile, it can withstand a few potshots.

I was interested in his discussions of _what the decisions were,_ how thinking about highways shifted, how consensuses were reached. Should the big highways be Federal, State or partnership? Are they "for" connecting city to distant city, running expensive miles through low-population areas, or they "for" the places where the traffic is? Should they enter cities or bypass them? And how did the concept of limited access take root? Now that they've been made, they seem inevitable.

I'd never really thought about the nuts-and-bolts--the extensive work done in the thirties on basic, well, you know, engineering, running various kinds of trucks up grades of varying steepness to measure how they perform. Facts, facts, facts!

Along the way, various names clicked into place. I'd heard about the Lincoln Highway, never quite understood what it was. I knew in the 1950s that the Pennsylvania Turnpike was considered a marvel, but never knew quite why it had gotten built so early (it used, basically, an almost-complete but abandoned railbed. Vanderbilt meant to build a railway basically to spite his competition, got it 90% complete--grading, blasting, tunnels and all--and then abandoned it).

2/3 of the way through the book I was awakened to a fresh appreciation of the positive nature of the Interstate. Yes, they were _and are_ a miracle that we take for granted, and the negative aspects, while real, should not eclipse that.

To my thinking the last 1/3 of the book is not as good. This is, of course, when the backlash begins. As the interstates become nearly completed, and the sections entering the cities start to be built, the "freeway revolt" begins and city residents, urban planners, and environmentalists start to push back. The story as Swift tells it, which had been one of patient compromise, consensus-building, and lots of hard work, turns into a standard drama of conflict. As far as I'm concerned, the good guys win--hey, I was _at_ MIT when I learned that they planned to build an Interstate smack _through_ MIT. But it is less interesting to me, maybe just because it is a more familiar story. And the story sort of peters out at the end, probably an insoluble problem, but I found it contrived and unsatisfying.

One quibble. I saw a documentary on TV about the "National Park-to-Park Highway," a 1910-20 effort, and was sorry that Swift didn't tell that story. One of the parts that intrigued me in the documentary was a description of a man, whose name now escapes me, who was a mover and shaker in the AAA whose job was being a scout--of literally driving through the roads of the day and searching out the least-bad, most-passable alternatives.

And a big complaint. Maps! Why doesn't this book have more maps? There are three in total--a blurry map of the whole system on the endpapers, apparently a period piece but unidentified and undated, and a couple of little small-scale maps of proposed routes in Baltimore--the conflicts on trying to route an Interstate through Baltimore being much of the topic of the last third of the book. Good heavens, it's a book about road, it needs, maps, maps, maps, and plenty of them. And more photographs, too. I can't possibly believe the author hasn't got thick file folders full of 'em, so I suspect the publishers cheaped out on him. If so, can't they go up on a website or something?

A great book, a terrific read, an important subject, and I hereby resolve to think of it henceforth as the FRANK TURNER National System of Interstate Highways.
20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Highway to Heaven 17 May 2011
By Aceto - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 1893 Roy Stone, a Civil War general, was enjoying the national pastime. He was grousing about "...a crushing tax on the whole people, a tax the more intolerable in that it yields no revenue." He was talking about bad roads. In the next eight years eight thousand of those machines the French man, Louis Chevrolet, named automobiles were registered in the United States. Then Barney Oldfield burst on the national scene. Actually, he burst upon an onlooker, making a spectacle of himself and a specter of the poor spectator. This automobile stuff was going to be big.

Nearly three and a quarter million ten-pound bricks paved our new speedway, called The Brickyard. Interested yet? Aptly named Earl Swift knows how to write. He is a serious writer that knows how to write fun without fakery. This is his fourth time out on the track, and there are nothing but checkered flags waving over his path.

Mr. Swift begins his story in earnest with Carl Fisher and his coast-to-coast vision. Swift gives you the Willys, and the Hudson, and so on. He does give short shrift to Nelson Horatio Jackson, first to traverse America by car - only a page for his feat. He can be forgiven because Jackson's trek was more about horse trails and cow paths. But if you want to see that story, Ken Burns does a bang-up documentary on him. Instead, it is the Lincoln Highway that gets Mr. Swifts attention as the first big story.

As young Kully says in `Child of All Nations', "In America, only the rich take trains. The poor drive cars." Even before WWI, the few car capable roads were logging dramatic increases year over year -- one, then two, and then five hundred percent. Mr. Swift's next hero is Thomas MacDonald, a grim, stodgy boy who required his younger siblings to call him "sir". As a young man, his idea of fun was to sport a bow tie with his high, stiff, chafing collar. He was an engineer's engineer. Had he not been so focused upon roads, he would have attended to the pocket protector. His hair was parted down the middle and pomaded so as to count each contributing strand. A hair of a hundred harps. He is the guiding spirit of the decades long project. You will like his donkey story; it shows you the man.

Understandably, Iowa was the leading state for highway development. Iowa had Ames, with its early attention to University mathematics and engineering. By 1912, when Arizona was admitted as a state, Iowa already has 110,000 miles of roads. If their budget were used for the 15% most heavily used stretches of roads, every trading point in the state would have highway in at least two directions. Their design was so good that in the next hundred years, only 12,000 miles of road were added. Today, Iowa is thirteenth in total roads.

I have sometimes wondered what was on the Army's mind after WWI. All that build-up for such a short show. Not much time to reflect and adjust beyond the field commanders' normal domain. What do you do after the victory parade down Fifth Avenue? Eisenhower, who never was allowed to make it across to combat, shortly found out. There was to be a coast-to-coast convoy to learn whatever they could about the logistics of heavy, large scale, long haul trucking. I cannot imagine wrestling an eleven ton monster truck (when empty) over those wretched roads. Now I understand why so many women were world class pilots then, but could not handle a truck. It was a good thing these 272 trucks carried dozens of engineers besides the mechanics and spare, well, everything. They had to repair the hundreds of bridges they crushed let alone dealing with the streams and sink holes.

Afterwards, a big Federal Highway System bill was introduced by Senator Townsend (Republican-Michigan). He wanted clear and straight highways, at least two for each state. He thought that letting the states handle something this big would come to too little in every way. It would go exactly nowhere. Instead, his bill, supported by big business and by motorists alike, went nowhere. It was never allowed to come to a vote.

Another of the interesting stories of this book is that, unlike most airports, the National Highway System would be joint use, civilian and military. As a child, I remember the giant convoys coming in and out of Camp Drum, now home to the storied 10th Mountain Division. Mom called them the Angels of the Highway, so perfect were they in deportment and ready to help in any moment. This book will evoke memories for people from all corners, and for travelers in spades.

Want a substantial discussion of concrete? Mr. Swift has you waist deep, unless you don't give a dam. I did not know the Roman Coliseum was concrete, even while walking around it.

Mr. Swift treats us to plenty of fun in his side discussions, not like when my father drove, ever more determinedly, during our family road trips, whizzing past every point of interest. "OH look, dinosaur graveyard - you don't want to see that, do you" - zoom. You could just feel the extra lurch forward as you compensated by being annealed into the rear seat cushions.

You get plenty about the development of car design, as the numbers of cars on the road rose exponentially for a few consecutive years. About maps, too - I had not known about the beginnings of the "Blue Book" . Neither did I know the famed Red Ball Express of WWII was named for one of the first highways back home in, of course, Iowa (Minnesota too). Find out how zip codes echo the highway system. Get the skinny on the infighting origins of storied Route 66. You get the picture.

Where Mr. Swift does his real thinking, though, is in examining how the development of the highway system shaped the broader development of the United States from the truly roaring twenties and helped us get through the dismal thirties. The study reaches up to about 1970. Each of the many decisions that were made during the design, the build and by the subsequent use of the growing system brought change that made fortunes and spelled doom at every turn. Other classes of technical decisions, engineering decisions, addressed problems of hazard and of flow. This book does solid work; and it may raise your consciousness every time you get in a car from now on. It gives you a whole new perspective on driving and on roads. You have better understanding of what you are doing. You really start seeing. Not so many books can bring this sort of enrichment to the quotidian.

Mr. Swift does not go much for adjectives and adverbs. He prefers counts, volumes, weights and distances, letting you conjure the emotions for yourself. When he writes "They poured 4.3 million square yards of nin-inch thick, steel reinforced concrete, creating parallel pavements of two lanes...", or, "Ten thousand men worked around-the-clock shifts to move twenty-six million tons of earth and stone..." , you get it same as if had been dropped on top of you.

It takes a special sort of author to work on a subject such as this one and make it sink in. Now, I have to remind myself not to start spouting factoids to everybody held prisoner in my car. Instead, drive quietly and let them ask you why you are smiling to yourself. Beep...beep!
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