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the road taken

8 july 2016

After reading Henry Petroski's Road Taken you will find yourself paying exceptionally close attention to the roads you drive on – and the ideas and people behind them.

Driving in America seems such an organic part of life that we can forget that our roads take the forms they do because of conscious engineering – and are continually maintained via conscious political processes. Petroski brings these processes, and the actual material conditions of roads, bridges, and tunnels, sharply into the front of one's consciousness.

There are two kinds of books in Petroski's considerable œuvre: single-topic explorations like The Pencil and The Toothpick, and grab-bags full of short pieces on technology and engineering. The Road Taken is a hybrid. It has a focus, but a broad one ("the history and future of America's infrastructure"), and it's comprised of small essays on things like road surfaces and traffic lights.

Petroski's thesis is that Americans "can do our part to promote safe and robust infrastructure by actively and enthusiastically encouraging and supporting legislation that provides appropriate funding for infrastructure needs, replenished as needed through adequate and reliable sources of revenue" (280). That's a vital goal, if not an inspiring rallying cry. The very word "infrastructure," of recent vintage according to Petroski, is a typical Americanism: general enough to include many different forms of public building projects, but in the bargain vague enough to stir no affections. Donald Trump's going to build a wall; love it or hate it, it's a concrete word. Responsible politicians promise to revamp infrastructure, and even though they may literally be talking about concrete, the mind quickly loses touch with such a vapid polysyllable.

Meanwhile, roads and bridges suffer from lack of attention and commitment. Spectacular failures can lead to spectacular projects, as with the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco, one of Petroski's major case histories. Meanwhile, a hundred smaller bridges decaying far more slowly can gather nothing but neglect. Highway contours in contemporary America are so seamless that it may be hard to realize you're driving over a bridge. My city just closed a major east-west road that I used to take home from the ballpark, in order to replace a bridge, and I can't even visualize the bridge or imagine what feature it spans. I'm glad somebody remembered about it and got to it before it collapsed under me, but my role as an active and enthusiastic advocate was diminished to nothing by my ignorance.

Petroski's writing is always lucid and entertaining, except when he offers such tempered and qualified advocacy that the life goes out of it. So the best parts of The Road Taken are its small historical narratives. Petroski, using lines from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" for chapter titles, explores the construction of roads, the mechanics of their surfaces, the evolution of guard rails and medians, the development of striping and other directional indicators, stop signs, traffic lights, rails to trails, driverless cars and smart roads, graft, political deadlocks, cost overruns. He's especially good at describing how things happen, as in his recounting of the process that inexorably makes for more potholes even as the old ones are repaired. You'll take a good long look at street surfaces after reading The Road Taken

Particularly interesting are some paradoxes that make planning, even thinking about infrastructure, chronically difficult. What's the best way to prioritize road repairs? Should localities fix the worst problems first, or be proactive about more minor issues that seem to cry out less? Should they make cheaper temporary repairs more often, or large, expensive, more permanent investments? The answers aren't always obvious, any more than questions of what to do about home maintenance (one of Petroski's analogies) are easy to address.

Did they use to build stuff better than they do today? Petroski suspects so, but acknowledges that the question is hard to decide, because of survivor bias. The Brooklyn Bridge was begun almost 150 years ago and is in darn good shape, but of course if it had fallen down 100 years ago it wouldn't be around as an icon of Victorian knowhow. Most things that were built 130-150 years ago aren't around anymore. Perhaps we only perceive the past as an era of good workmanship because only the good workmanship has survived.

But Petroski argues that very few structures come down because they were built badly. Any structure has a designed lifespan, however implicit, from the tent you'll take down tomorrow morning to the Pyramids. But due to many possible factors, many buildings do not reach that lifespan. We're fixing to tear down that Arlington ballpark that went up 20 years ago and is still good for another 40 at least. Old images of New York City (one of my fondest Facebook pastimes) show many a monumental, massive structure that came down a few decades after it opened – because taste or changing ideas about utility or greater profit dictated its replacement. If historical accidents hadn't intervened, the Singer Building might still be standing and the Woolworth Building vanished. Their history would say nothing about the respective quality of their construction.

In objective ways that can be determined archeologically, some very old construction is clearly superior to modern. Roman roads still exist in places, and underlie many modern roads. Where Roman infrastructure has been dismantled, it has often been in the cause of using its superior materials for new construction.

Meanwhile, a lot of new work is indeed shoddy, and probably a certain percentage of new work was ever thus, even for the Romans. Petroski ultimately argues for buying for quality and building to last – a commonsense view of infrastructure as investment that too often seems politically near-impossible to realize.

Petroski, Henry. The Road Taken: The history and future of America's infrastructure. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. HE 355.3 .E3P48