Sometimes the infrastructure of the United States seems to be hanging by a thread — or by a much neglected girder. Average citizens, looking to Europe or Japan, can’t help but marvel at the bullet trains, the sleek transit systems, and the bridges and highways that don’t seem to be crumbling quite the way ours are.
They also can’t help wondering: What are we doing wrong?
Henry Petroski provides welcome background to our problems and a prognosis in The Road Taken. As the title suggests, he frames his book around lines from Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, concerning the choice an uncertain traveler has to make about the route he will take.
A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski has written books on engineering feats that range from the minuscule (The Pencil) to the magnificent (Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America). He has a clear eye, a mellifluous prose style and a knack for spicing deep research with personal anecdotes (including some obsessing about the shortcomings of the streets and drainage systems in his Durham, North Carolina, neighborhood).
Our national dilemma, Petroski says, is that the United States now has 4 million-plus miles of increasingly congested roads and bridges, many of them built for an earlier time and in a poor state of repair. “Potholed and traffic-jammed roads mean that it takes commuters longer to drive to and from work; it takes truckers longer to deliver raw materials and goods from mine to plant to supplier to factory to warehouse to store; and it takes everyone longer to pay off repair bills for wheel alignment and damaged suspension systems.” As far back as 1988, the National Council on Public Works Improvement stated, “Our infrastructure is inadequate to sustain a stable and growing economy.”
Not much has changed since then. Over the past two decades, Petroski notes, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our infrastructure (roads, bridges, rail corridors, water supply, energy grid, etc.) an average D or D+ rating.
While Petroski sounds Cassandra-like alarms, he also offers informative pleasures. He gives a terrific account of a cross-country road trip young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower made with the military in 1919. It took 62 days and left the future president painfully aware of the nation’s lack of a decent road network — an awareness heightened later by his experience of German autobahns during World War II. Hence his strong push for the creation of our interstate highway system after he was elected president in 1952.
Petroski offers lucid explanations of why roads, bridges and other infrastructure essentials eventually wear down. His insight on what triggers and accelerates the development of a pothole is helpful. His take on the traffic beatings that bridges undergo is sobering: “Every vehicle, and especially a heavy bus or truck, that crosses any bridge causes the structure’s fabric to flex and creates a situation in which so-called fatigue cracks can be initiated and grow.” If anything, he slightly understates how frequently structural collapses occur in the United States when he speaks of “one major failure every thirty years.”
To Petroski, the source of these problems is obvious. “Infrastructure does not take care of itself,” he writes. “Infrastructure demands vigilance.” The trouble, he says, is that we’re usually oblivious to infrastructure until something goes wrong with it. And even when we’re aware of the problems, the political will and the necessary funding to fix it can be difficult to raise.
Petroski highlights the tangled nature of the interactions between government agencies and public-works projects without providing any clear remedy for their sometimes counterproductive results. He’s more optimistic about technical advances that may improve matters. Those include “self-healing” asphalt and concrete that could eliminate potholes before they happen, wireless monitors that could track bridge deterioration at a reasonable cost and, less convincingly, the advent of computer-navigated cars that, if universally deployed, could save infrastructure costs by eliminating the need for stop, yield and other road signs.
It may be a brave new world, in more senses than one, that’s coming our way.
Michael Upchurch reviewed this book for The Washington Post.