Most of us give very little thought to the roads we drive on every day, and tend to take them for granted until they are affected by repairs, flood or in some way rendered impassable.
From the earliest times, one of the strongest indicators of a cities success and development was its road system or lack of one. Increasing populations and the advent of towns and cities brought with it the need for communication and commerce between those growing population centers. A road built in Egypt around 2500 BC is believed to be the earliest example. Though Romans are champion road builders and can be credited with the first paved roads. With the expansion of trade and bringing goods to market routes began to pop up everywhere. Roads typically took on the name of the good being mobilized on route, for example the Silk Road. Rulers and armies were also given credit for the expansion of ancient roads.
Roman roads might be the most well know example of early roads. These roads go down in history as the straightest best engineered network of roads. Roman roads were composed with a solid foundation and then four levels of natural resources (sand, stone, gravel and lava.) These roads are also famous because they included run-off, drainage and were publically maintained.
On our side of the Atlantic Ocean, South America tried out roads in about 500 AD. It started in Peru and branched out from there the Incas creating these roads to branch out to enable them to extend their conquests and to govern their empire. Interestingly enough, the Incas built their empire without inventing the wheel, without the use of draft animals, and without a written language.
In 18th century England, well drained roads became a standard enabling speedy transportation at low cost. During this same time period, the growth of turnpikes was resulting in much improved road conditions across England. Private individuals built roads themselves and then charged for their use. This is where tolls started. By 1829, 3,783 different turnpike companies operated 20,000 miles of highway throughout England. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, canal building and the growth of railroads outstripped the turnpikes, and roads in general became less important until the turn of the century.
As European settlers migrated to the U.S., they found themselves homesick for European road system. The Indian’s single person trails just didn’t accommodate wheeled vehicles. Overtime they were widened using similar technologies from their European counterparts. In the 1800s bicycles became popular and therefore for so did the need for adequate roads. By the 19th century with the advent of the Model T and other motor cars roads were the best form of transportation. Motorized vehicles made it possible for both people and goods to travel both more quickly and more comfortably. This fueled the Good Roads Movement. Farmers utilized this movement the most getting to market. In 1896, the Department of Agriculture opened an Office of Road Inquiry to assist in the development of better roads with the slogan, “Get the farmer out of the mud!”
In 1912 Washington pledged $500,000 for 425 miles of improved roads in 17 states. When the Federal Highway Act passed the government aided road building. This act has been in practice ever since. During the 1930s, Bureau of Public Roads helped state and local governments create Depression-era road projects that would employ as many workers as possible. When America entered World War II in 1941, the focus turned toward providing roads that the military needed. After the war, the nation’s roads were in disrepair, and congestion had become a problem in major cities. In 1944, FDR had signed legislation authorizing a network of rural and urban express highways called the National System of Interstate Highways. By 1956 the Highway Trust Fund which was implemented to construct our interstate highway system, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, modified and expanded the interstate system.
In 1991 the government census indicated that there were 42,500 miles of highway interstate. Granted, this figure does not include surface streets or other roads.
Hard to believe just over a century ago canals, steamships, railroads and bikes were the popular form of moving people and goods place to place. This history brings up an interesting question, where do we see the roads 2,000 years from now.