7 min read

What Our Roads Say About Us

Only 5% of U.S. workers in 2019 commuted by public transportation.
What Our Roads Say About Us

Greetings fellow travelers.

Can you tell something about a country from the state of its roads? About its citizens and development, perhaps its politics? I've been thinking about this since we moved to the U.S. a few months ago. Actually, I noticed some time ago that roads and transportation serve as a potential window on a society.

I think my road-watching stems from moving abroad at a young age. I spent a lot of time looking out the back right window on long family car trips. From the Middle East in the 70s, Europe in the 80s, and the American Northeast in the 90s, I came to see that the roads of a place may serve as a roadmap of sorts to its soul. Let's explore this idea together.

As the Roman Empire expanded it constructed an elaborate system of roads, ultimately more than 400,000 kilometers in total. The saying "All roads lead to Rome" came about for good reasons. Roman roads were so well-engineered that many endured for more than 2,000 years. Think about that the next time you see dips and cracks emerging a short time after your town paves a new stretch. The Roman army built these roads, and their primary purpose was military – keeping far flung conquests in easy reach of Roman legions. Secondary benefits included the rapid expansion of commerce and broad communication across the empire.

Although there are still military considerations behind modern roads, most countries are keen to facilitate commerce. Depending on its geography, a country might have first exploited navigable waterways or built railways. As growth accelerates, roadbuilding inevitably follows, for the simple reason that roads can be put in more places more quickly. Our first question to ask is thus "Does this place even have roads, and if so what sort and who uses them?"

  • To travel in China by car even 20 years ago is vastly different than today. China's economic success has been greatly aided by its rapid expansion of a high-quality national highway system, much as the U.S. benefitted from its Interstate Highways starting in the 1950s. The highways in China are filled with increasingly new cars and trucks traveling relatively efficiently from city to city.
  • To travel in India over the same time span reveals similar activity but less progress. While India has built as many miles of road as China, even more, those roads are of lower quality, the large majority being two-lane only. As a result, they are congested and inefficient. You will find rikshaws, animals, and pedestrians lining the highways, alongside the garishly colored, brightly lit, and permanently honking trucks. All going nowhere fast.
  • Does the state of roads say something about what the future holds for these two countries? Does it say something about the system of government and the politics involved in expanding road networks? I suspect there are lessons to be found here, but I will leave them to your own speculation for now.

A companion question to whether a place has roads is "What alternatives to roads exist?" Are there subways, buses, trains, or trams? This is particularly relevant for those of us who live in and around cities. A bit more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, so you'd think we would be avid users of public transportation. Alas, this is not the U.S. experience, as anyone who has been here a short time readily observes.

According to a 2021 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 5% of U.S. workers in 2019 commuted by public transportation. While some 7.8 million availed themselves of public transportation, compare this to the 133 million who drove to work, 90% of them alone in their car or truck. (Another 4.1 million lucky persons walked to work.) Some 70% of those using public transportation can be found in just seven metropolitan areas: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Outside of a handful of large cities, Americans depend on their cars.

Our time so far in the American South confirms this near-total car dependency. Switzerland has a fantastically comprehensive and efficient public transportation system, which is heavily used by the majority of citizens. When we were evaluating possible places to live in the U.S., we naturally had in mind to try out the public transportation in each city we visited, as well as just walking around. This was an eye-opening experience.

  • Many, many roads do not have sidewalks, even in residential neighborhoods. Indeed, one way to reliably tell if you are in an older neighborhood is whether it has sidewalks. I don't know when the shift started to occur, but at some point in the last several decades, developers appear to have decided sidewalks were unnecessary. I think nothing could be further from the truth. If you want a sense of community, get out and walk your neighborhood streets. But if you want row after row of anonymous and interchangeable suburbanites, build developments without sidewalks.
  • Roads that do have sidewalks are often quite unpleasant to walk down. Busy with traffic, vehicles with loud exhausts, intersections dangerous to those on foot. You get the sense that cars are king, and the pedestrian is an unexpected artefact. Except for a couple blocks of tourist attractions in the heart of downtown, the cities of Franklin and Nashville seem like no places to walk. Asheville has more sidewalks, but many are in such a state of disrepair that you need to be constantly on your toes to ensure you're not swept off your feet by debris or uneven paving.
  • Where bus service is offered, schedules can be slim: a stop or two in the morning, again in the early evening. In some cities, no schedule is posted at all. The bus comes when it comes. Being good Europeans, we tried out the buses wherever we could. Among our fellow passengers: the person on their way to a court hearing because their lost their license for drunk driving, the homeless or mentally ill person getting out of the bad weather for a spell, the hourly worker who doesn't look like they can afford a car yet but is saving hard for one. And why wouldn't they, when the car promises freedom, flexibility, comfort, and convenience?
  • Speaking of convenience, have we gotten so lazy we can't be bothered to get out of our cars even when running errands? Drive-through restaurants I suppose are not new. But the drive-through bank and pharmacy? We see shoppers idling in front of grocery stores while staff load their on-line orders into the trunk. The drivers never need set a foot on pavement. Until you see a line of hundreds of cars filled with people waiting to get their COVID tests from the safety of their steel cocoons, you don't understand how little the U.S. is suited for a life without cars.

Our compromise was as follows: we picked a city that is walkable, where we see people outdoors regularly. We looked in neighborhoods that have sidewalks, from which we can walk to places we want to go. But we also made the purchase of a car one of our earliest priorities, along with getting our U.S. driver's licenses. And this got me thinking about roads again.

I used to think it was a problem particular to New York City. The trip from JFK into Manhattan is a testament to all the things that can fall off a truck and be left forlorn on the side of the highway, joining decades of accumulated filth. But driving around the South, we've noticed a lot of debris in medians and on the shoulders of roads as well. And I have yet to see a street cleaning vehicle. Do we not notice all this junk? Do we not care? Much debris is gravel and grit, but there are also various metal bits, pieces of tires, organic remains, and trash of all sorts.

It was on an early drive from the Department of Motor Vehicles that a screw lodged itself in the tire of our rental car. Later that day when looking at new cars, the dealer strongly advised buying the wheel and tire protection, which covers tire punctures as well as damage to rims from potholes. I thought his concern was exaggerated, but a few hours behind the wheel reveals the wisdom of the insurance policy: roads are in terrible shape. To put it kindly, we are not building most roads like the Romans did, and we are certainly not maintaining them to last but a fraction as long.

Because the decay happens gradually, slowly, and incrementally, it is easy not to notice how poor some roads have become. You more easily perceive the state of our roads after you return from driving in a place where roads are well-made and maintained, say Germany, or Switzerland, or even China for that matter. Suddenly and jarringly, the idea of getting a cracked rim because of a pothole so large that you understand why people no longer buy compact cars is perfectly clear. And it is perfectly depressing. We spend something like $180 billion a year on our roads and this is what we get?!

Here's a final thought so that we don't end this post on a down note, or even in the ditch. Navigating by road signs feels very different to me in the U.S. compared with Europe, and I think it has to do with our respective cultures. In Europe, road signs typically indicate the next city and further larger cities. That is, you have a destination in mind, and you just want to get there. The compass leaning of the road doesn't really matter. In the U.S., road signs do list cities, but typically indicate prominently the direction of travel, i.e. North or South or East or West.

To me, U.S. road signs reflect our spirit of movement and action. We want to be doing something, going places. As a nation we've been expanding Westward and outward far longer than we've been stable. The journey is a key part of the trip. In Europe, by contrast, history is longer, cities are established. Europeans do not want movement for the sake of movement so much as to arrive. Hence the focus on the destination of the journey rather than the direction.

I will not argue that one attitude is better than the other. But I will say that when one starts focusing less on the direction they are traveling, they may not like the destination they end up. Even though the U.S. is failing some pretty fundamental road maintenance duties, this is something we can absolutely fix, and I like that we care deeply about the direction we're heading.

Be well.