Interview: Earl Swift

Earl Swift

Earl Swift, 52, an award-winning author and journalist, has written for a living since his teens. His articles have appeared in Parade, The Washington Post, and other publications. His books include Journey on the James, The Tangierman’s Lament, and Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, a 2003 finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award.  Now he has published Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. His bright, fact-filled narrative brings to life the little-known career technocrats behind the 47,000-mile highway system, the challenges they faced, and the tremendous impact of their work on the development of modern America. Swift lives in Norfolk, Va., with his 17-year-old daughter, Saylor, and is engaged to Amy Walton of Virginia Beach.

RWR: In many ways, the interstates seem to have shaped modern America.  What are the major changes they brought?

Swift: Certainly, they afford us a faster, safer way to travel by car. But their effects go far beyond mere movement, to touch virtually every aspect of American life: That you can buy asparagus year-round at the supermarket, or an Angus steak in Manhattan, is testament to the efficiency and speed they’ve lent to interstate commerce. They enable us to live in the quiet and roominess of the suburbs, miles from our jobs, and give companies the means to build factories where land is cheap and labor, abundant. Of course, they’ve ushered a lot of unforeseen problems, too. Those comfortable suburbs are inefficient, and though urban sprawl wasn’t created by the interstates, it certainly was accelerated by them. Thousands of small towns saw their commercial districts wither in favor of the nearest interchange. The highways displaced homes, churches, schools and parks in the cities, split neighborhoods, erased a lot of history. And they’ve encouraged the rise of chain restaurants and motels, while killing off small local businesses. They’ve also changed our perception of time and distance, and our mental maps of the country and its cities.

Interstates extend for 47,000 miles

RWR: There are myths about the interstate highway system: that Dwight D. Eisenhower was the “father” of the highways, and that they were intended mainly for the rapid movement of troops. How did those stories come about?

Swift: For one thing, Ike promoted the myth himself. As a young officer he rode along on a 1919 army truck convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, a journey that took 62 days and saw all sorts of drama and difficulty. At one point, in the desert of western Utah, the trucks bogged down in the salt flats and had to be hauled out by soldiers roped into teams. A quarter-century later, he oversaw the Allied advance on Berlin, and was amazed by the speed that Hitler’s autobahns afforded him. These two experiences, Ike wrote later, opened his eyes to the value of high-speed expressways. He did have these experiences, and no doubt they affected him. But the interstates were a done deal in every particular but their financing by the time Ike reached the White House—and his administration’s proposal for financing was clubbed to death by Congress with great gusto. The troop-movement business was an outgrowth of the system’s name—in the fifties it was known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. That was a canny bit of labeling aimed at winning congressional support for the roads, which were meant to connect military installations and manufacturing centers, but not to move troops.

Faster traveling–and unexpected problems

RWR: Ike comes across as being clueless about highways when he came into office.  How was that possible in 1953?

Swift: Simple: While a bunch of technocrats armed with slide rules were completing the early work on the interstates, Ike was overseas, and a little busy. He said himself that he had no idea the system had been mapped and designed and, in fact, approved by Congress, years before he took office.


RWR: Who were the real “fathers” of the system? They were responsible for the largest public works project in history—how do you account for the fact that most people know nothing about them?

Swift: I think that in general, we know little about the government careerists who make most of the decisions, shoulder most of the work, and take most of the risk in our big public projects. In the case of the interstates, the greatest credit goes to two men: Thomas H. MacDonald, the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads for 34 years, beginning in 1919; and his ideological right hand, Herbert S. Fairbank. They conceived of the system in the late thirties and refined the idea during World War II.

RWR: How did Americans travel long distances before the interstates?

Swift: They went by train for the first half of the century, at which point air travel began to gain an ever-larger piece of the action. Very few people made long trips by car.


RWR: Why was the establishment of the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1914 so important?

Swift: One reason: Because while the feds foot much of the bill for the nation’s important highways, the states actually own and maintain them—an arrangement that AASHO helped create in the teens and twenties. The group (now AASHTO, having added “and Transportation” to its name) also established the design standards for the interstates, with a big technical assist from Washington.

Interstates take you there

RWR: How does the critic Lewis Mumford enter into the story?

Swift: Mumford’s an interesting guy: In the early thirties he beat the drum for “townless highways,” an early conception of the limited-access superhighway; then, over the next quarter-century, he morphed into one of the automobile’s harshest critics, and a leading opponent of urban highways. He was influential in both roles.


RWR: Why was there strong opposition to these highways in the 1960s and 70s?  Have opponents made their peace with the interstates in recent years?

Swift: Most of the opposition was from people who found themselves in the way. Drill a six- or eight- or ten-lane expressway through a densely settled city, and you’re going to meet many such folks. You’ll also meet those who don’t care to trade parks, waterfronts, churches, schools and historic ambiance for a freeway, no matter how useful it might be. The residents of some cities have probably never made peace with their urban interstates; they continue to lament what fell to make way for them. But in a few places—San Francisco, Baltimore and New Orleans come to mind—the freeway threat united chunks of population that hadn’t had much contact, and the fights they waged together are still a source of community pride.

Eastern main street

RWR: The interstate system offers familiar chain restaurants and motels and little of the local flavor of the disparate American communities it runs through. Why did the system turn out this way? Was there ever a chance of a different outcome?

Swift: Well, bear in mind that Howard Johnson’s restaurants were wildly popular along the Eastern Seaboard’s turnpikes years before the first interstates appeared;  Stuckey’s “pecan shoppes” were likewise muscling aside local competition in the South. The interstates didn’t create the chains; travelers have had a longstanding yen for the familiar, the sure thing. But the interstates, thanks to their limited-access character, certainly became attractive to chains: Property values at exits skyrocketed, which discouraged merchants lacking deep pockets. Travelers grew more time-conscious, and thus inclined to patronize places that were fast, and whose menus they already knew. Mom-and-pop outfits didn’t stand a chance.

Superhighways changed the nation’s face

RWR: We hear constantly that there’s little money around to maintain our nation’s infrastructure. What’s the state of the interstates?

Swift: They’re in need of attention. From the start, the system’s builders stressed that it would require obsessive maintenance: Tough as it seems, concrete breaks down over time, especially when you put a quarter of the country’s traffic on 1.2 percent of its highway, as we do with the interstates. We’ve been nowhere near obsessive. How far we’ve fallen short is a state-by-state question; the financial health of the states varies, and the money available for highway maintenance with it. In some, the interstates are in decent shape—not great, but decent; in others, they’re just plain awful. Alongside the maintenance dilemma is the age of the system’s bridges. There are 55,000 of them. Most of them are approaching, or already exceed, their expected service lives. And many carry a lot of traffic.

-Joseph Barbato



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