The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure

by Henry Petroski


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A renowned historian and engineer explores the past, present, and future of America's crumbling infrastructure.

Acclaimed engineer and historian Henry Petroski explores our core infrastructure from both historical and contemporary perspectives, explaining how essential their maintenance is to America's economic health. Petroski reveals the genesis of the many parts of America's highway system—our interstate numbering system, the centerline that divides roads, and such taken-for-granted objects as guardrails, stop signs, and traffic lights—all crucial to our national and local infrastructure.

A compelling work of history, The Road Taken is also an urgent clarion call aimed at American citizens, politicians, and anyone with a vested interest in our economic well-being. Physical infrastructure in the United States is crumbling, and Petroski reveals the complex and challenging interplay between government and industry inherent in major infrastructure improvement. The road we take in the next decade toward rebuilding our aging infrastructure will in large part determine our future national prosperity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632863621
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 427,374
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of eighteen previous books, including The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, and The Essential Engineer. He lives in North Carolina and Maine.

Read an Excerpt

The Road Taken

The History and Future of America's Infrastructure

By Henry Petroski

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2015 Henry Petroski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63286-360-7


The Road Taken


I grew up in an urban environment that epitomized infrastructure old and new. Naturally, like any city, New York had streets and side-walks and houses and churches and factories and stores. But, being a financial and cultural center, it also had office towers, skyscrapers, museums, concert halls, and libraries — all on a large scale and in great numbers. And it had bays and harbors and rivers and creeks and canals. It had docks and piers and ferry terminals; bridges and overpasses and underpasses; tunnels and railroads and subways and elevated trains called els, which took us to beaches and boardwalks and amusement parks, as well as to Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. The city was crisscrossed by highways, mostly called expressways and parkways, but it also had alleys and mews that recalled the rows of stables of horse-and-wagon days. There were stations and terminals and airports and heliports. You name it, New York had it — and it still does, though not necessarily in the condition I knew as a child and young man.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I roamed the streets and avenues in my neighborhood of Park Slope, ranging as far up the hill as Prospect Park — a tranquil island full of hills and meadows in the middle of a sea of asphalt and concrete — whose green undergrowth my friends and I explored at our leisure, especially in the summer. To get to the park, each day I could zigzag along a different route through the rigid grid of streets and avenues lined with brownstone row houses and other mostly domestic structures that crowded the sidewalks. If the day was nice enough for a walk to the park, it was nice enough to air out the house and, probably, have laundry drying on the clotheslines strung from window to window and window to pole across the diminutive back-yards. The higher I got on the slope, the grander the brownstones became and the fancier were the curtains billowing out of the open windows and the laundry hung by help. Naturally, the epitome of houses and views stood facing the park, directly across from the low stone wall that delineated it.

On some blocks there were isolated architectural gems and oddities, solitaires set among the more familiar cheek-by-jowl building types. One of note was a Second Empire mansion that stood on Ninth Street near Fifth Avenue. It was built as a country retreat by William B. Cronyn, a wealthy Wall Street merchant, in the mid-1850s, when this section of Brooklyn was still rural and punctuated by the occasional farmhouse. That changed with the development of the farmland itself and, no doubt, anticipation of the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, which would occur in 1883, thus establishing the first fixed link between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan; infrastructure has that kind of effect on land and neighborhoods alike. In 1888 the Cronyn house was bought by Charles M. Higgins, the manufacturer of patented "American India Ink." It and he prospered, and a decade later Higgins added a five-story brick building in the Romanesque Revival style behind the house that the business had outgrown. When I knew it, the high-fenced factory compound reached completely through from Eighth to Ninth Street, and when the gates were open we kids took the factory yard as a short-cut to and from the Avon, then a family movie theater with Saturday shows for kids.

Infrastructure has a way of imprinting itself upon us, and the physical surroundings in which we grow up often become blueprints against which we gauge the world as adults. My paradigm for walking up a hill — any hill — remains to this day the trek up Park Slope among the rows of brownstones broken up only now and then by a freestanding mansion or small factory among the homes. And the goal of the climb, idyllic Prospect Park atop the hill, remains the touchstone against which I pit all parks and places of recreation. As for the Higgins ink factory, as a child I thought more about the consequences of being caught trespassing on its grounds than I did about what went on in the tall brick building. As a high school student I found myself taking a drafting course whose list of required supplies included Higgins India ink. But only toward the end of the course did we learn how to use the ink that came in the bottom-heavy bottle with the eyedropper cap. We dripped the ink between the blades of our pens and compasses to trace over pencil lines and so made the impressions of plans we had formed permanent. Our classroom exercises followed the order in which real-world infrastructure was conceived, planned, and drafted with a pencil and then written into legal documents with waterproof ink.

As children, we also ventured down the slope from the park, until our progress was checked by the stagnant and odorous Gowanus Canal. We generally stayed upwind of the adjacent warehouse area, except in the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July when we were shopping for fire-works. We would enter the storefront of a wholesaler under the pretense of picking up boxes of penny candy for my friend's father's store and exit with half bricks of firecrackers in brown paper bags. There were several schools and playgrounds within walking distance of the street on which my friends and I lived, but we preferred the street itself and nearby parking lots for our proving grounds. We also used the streets for games. At first simply tag and hide-and-seek, but later pitching pennies, flipping baseball cards, and playing marbles, catch, handball, stoopball, and stickball. Traffic was light after school and during the summers, and we were seldom interrupted by a car or truck coming down the one-way street. I cannot remember ever seeing a pothole; if there had been one, I am sure we would have designated it home plate or second base, depending on its location.

Playing in the street brought us in proximity with still more infra-structure, including manhole covers and sewer grates that were peepholes into the underground world of pipes and conduits that carried everything from essential water to unwanted waste. The hidden supply lines surfaced now and then in the form of fire hydrants, which — although located on the sidewalk — restricted parking in the street in front of them. They also provided obstacles to leapfrog over, could stand in as first or third base, and gave dogs an object to defile. The fireplugs were always right beside the curb, that distinguishable but otherwise undistinguished piece of infrastructure between the gutter and the sidewalk. Wherever we walked or played, we were treading on, over, or along infrastructure. Where a subway line ran beneath the street, sidewalk grates allowed the tunnels to inhale and exhale with each passing train. Infrastructure was in the air; it was ubiquitous.

But if it was not something we used as an instrument or backdrop for play, we hardly noticed it. Only when some piece of infrastructure was disturbed by adults, such as a condemned building being demolished or a flooded street being dug up to get at some buried pipes, did we take note. And then it was mainly to watch the activity, to watch the men at work and not what they were working on. Putting up a new building was not so interesting, because the process went so much slower than tearing the old one down. But generally there was not much construction going on in my well-established neighborhood in Brooklyn, where a run of walk-up apartment buildings was interrupted only now and then by the odd curb cut leading into a factory yard or alleyway. There were few garages because there were few automobiles. Those families who did own a car either parked it on the street or in a rented space beneath the elevated subway tracks nearby.

When our family grew, we moved to the suburbs, which for us meant to the farthest reaches of Queens, New York's easternmost outer borough. In fact, we moved to within just a few blocks of the Cross Island Parkway, which separated the borough of Queens from Nassau County and the rest of Long Island. Our house was not far from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport, and we soon learned that under certain weather conditions one of the approach flight paths was right over our house. Nevertheless, when the weather was good enough for us to play outside, my friends and I played touch football on the wide grassy stretch beyond the shoulder of the parkway or, when there were not enough of us to make up teams, we just sat on the grass and watched the cars go by, vying to name their makes, models, and years, and getting really excited when we saw a brand new model for the first time. Mostly, though, the streets — among the most basic elements of urban and suburban infrastructure — were our playing fields, whether for foot-ball, stickball, track and field, or rodeo bicycle riding.

When I was older, I borrowed my father's car on Saturday evenings to drive to see friends on Staten Island, a good thirty miles away via the Belt Parkway (which, as its name suggests, runs around the shore of Queens and Brooklyn); the parkway took me to the Staten Island Ferry terminal. The verrazano-Narrows Bridge was under construction at the time, and I endured the long drive and ferry ride in part to follow the bridge's progress, which went much slower than a building's. However, since I passed the construction site only every few weeks at most, to me the span was advancing in leaps and bounds. When it opened in 1964, this structure — the last of the great New York City bridges designed by the distinguished engineer Othmar Ammann and the last major public works project overseen by master builder and power broker Robert Moses — surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge as the longest-spanning suspension bridge in the world. Today, it remains the longest in the Americas.

My adventures with New York City infrastructure — especially its roads and bridges — continued as I commuted between my home in Queens and college in the Bronx, essentially traveling each day from one of the southeasternmost parts of the city to one of the northwesternmost, a distance of almost twenty-five miles via boulevards, park-ways, expressways, and a toll bridge. The vehicular commute was made by carpool. As traffic slowed down on the approach to the toll plaza, the day's driver mock-ritualistically held out an invisible collection basket, expecting to feel a quarter drop into his palm for each of the three or four passengers he was carrying that day. Since the bridge toll itself was just twenty-five cents each way, the additional quarters were understood to be for gasoline, which then cost about thirty cents a gallon.

The bridge we crossed was the Bronx-Whitestone, which was designed also by Ammann and opened just in time to carry automobiles and their passengers to and from the 1939 World's Fair. The aesthetic-ally sleek structure was flexible to the point of its roadway undulating in the wind when conditions were just right — or wrong. Several contemporaneous suspension bridges exhibited a similar flexibility, and because of this in November 1940 the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State collapsed into Puget Sound during a storm. By the time my fellow commuters and I were using the Bronx-Whitestone, it had been retrofitted with heavy steel trusses that all but obscured a great view of the Manhattan skyline. Even so, when we were caught in stopped traffic on the bridge, I could feel it still heaving up and down like a breathing animal. And if I sighted through the truss on a distant stationary object — like a power pole or a steeple — I could confirm the bridge's movement.

All the while we commuters were using the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in late 1959 and throughout 1960, construction was proceeding on yet another Ammann suspension bridge, this one located barely two miles to the east, easily within rubbernecking distance. Since I was an engineering student, I paid close attention to every incremental advance in the steelwork, savoring the spectacle. To the untrained eye, nothing was happening; to the budding engineer, everything was. So it is with infra-structure. That which just sits in place and functions without incident calls no attention to itself; that which has unintended movement, malfunctions, collapses, or explodes catches the eye of everyone. To the average citizen, infrastructure is neither seen nor heard until it flashes or bangs and so makes the news.

When the Throgs Neck Bridge did open to traffic, our carpool altered its route to pass over the new span; enjoying the sweeping new approach to Queens was also a departure from routine. Within a couple of years of its opening, the bridge provided us with a direct connection to the new Clearview Expressway that roughly paralleled our old route but was less familiar and so less traveled. This was all happening in the years following the passage of federal legislation establishing the inter-state highway system, but not all plans of that ambitious program were to be realized — at least in their original form. The Throgs Neck Bridge and Clearview Expressway interstate route ultimately was supposed to carry motorists all the way to JFK Airport, but the Clearview ended (as it still does) abruptly at an array of unremarkable traffic signals at Hillside Avenue in the middle of the neighborhood known as Queens village. We had to wend our way through local streets to complete our journey.

My engineering degree was my ticket to a broader and less crowded world. Graduate school in the Midwest introduced me to teachers, students, and scholars from Canada, England, Italy, Hungary, India, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and elsewhere. I was naturally interested in their different cultures while at the same time marveling at the fact that we were all using the same mathematics and science, studying the same engineering and technology to design and build skyscrapers, bridges, automobiles, airplanes, and — increasingly at the time — rockets, satellites, and spacecraft. Although we often used different words for similar parts of the made world, we had the same things and concepts in mind. In the case of down-to-earth infrastructure, for example, we wished for well-designed, smoothly paved, pothole-free, and long-lasting roads that were clearly marked, congestion-free, and as safe as humanly possible.

My professional life as an engineer has given me the opportunity to travel around the country and around the world, where I have experienced infrastructure of enormous variety. Still, whether I have found myself circling a roundabout in Ireland or crossing a bridge between Denmark and Sweden, the principles of traffic safety and control are fundamentally so similar that it takes hardly any time to acclimate to idiosyncrasies of handedness or local practice. Some regional imperatives exist, such as looking right before crossing a road where cars drive on the left; but even if all transportation infrastructure is ultimately local, it is but part of a universal system of roads and their appurtenances that gird our planet.


Excerpted from The Road Taken by Henry Petroski. Copyright © 2015 Henry Petroski. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 The Road Taken 1

Givens, choices, forks, sighs

2 The Road Not Taken 13

Words, reports, and grades

3 Roads 28

Dirt, stone, wood, concrete, asphalt

4 Diverged 41

Transcontinental journeys and interstate dreams

5 Yellow 53

Centerlines, stop signs, traffic lights

6 Could Not Travel 82

Earthquakes, envy, and embarrassments

7 In the Undergrowth 100

Elevateds, subways, and engineers

8 Just as Fair 117

Location, location, location-and financing

9 Perhaps the Better Claim 132

Iconic, signature, and stunning spans

10 Because It Was 143

Guardrails, medians, and Jersey barriers

11 Grassy and Wanted Wear 154

Streets, lawns, speed bumps, potholes

12 The Passing There 165

Sidewalks, curbs, gutters, horses, pavements

13 Had Worn Them Really 179

Quality, shoddiness, and survivor bias

14 About the Same 193

Good enough bridges and bad enough tools

15 Lay in Leaves 203

Triage, budgets, and choices, again

16 Trodden Black 214

Corruption, graft, waste, fraud, abuse

17 For Another Day 224

Fuel taxes, trust funds, and politics

18 How Way Leads on to Way 238

Economics, wrong turns, and political choices

19 Ever Come Back 245

Pedestrians, preservationists, parks

20 Telling This with a Sigh 256

Public-private partnerships: pluses and minuses

21 Ages and Ages Hence 271

Smart cars and pothole-free roads

Acknowledgments 283

Bibliography 285

List of Illustrations, with Credits 305

Index 307

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