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Roads, Highways, and Ecosystems
John Stilgoe, Harvard University
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School buses, New Ulm, Minnesota, 1974
New Ulm,
Minnesota, 1974


National Archives
"few scholars examine the importance of the school bus and the road it travels."

In the United States, formal education begins on the road, often along the city street. Nowadays for the bulk of students away from downtown urban America, it begins aboard the yellow school bus collecting children bound for the first day of kindergarten. Before most children encounter principals and teachers, they meet the driver of the school bus. The driver enforces rules—no hanging out windows, jumping over seats, throwing things. Inside the school bus the six-year-olds find a new sort of teaching perhaps, certainly a new authority very unlike parents.

Who really thinks about school-bus culture? Older children sit in the middle of the bus, and the oldest kids take over the far rear. Girls separate from boys, some kids read, others stare from windows and never talk, some merge with headphones. Why do the older kids sit in the back, away from the driver? Why do school buses lack seatbelts? When high school students turn sixteen and begin learning to drive, they need all the tutoring they can get, so why do they not start early and watch a specialist driver maneuver a very long vehicle indeed, one that moves so well protected by laws and public care that it needs no seatbelts, at least for its passengers? Across most of the United States, the immense school bus fleet makes possible the school systems Americans take for granted. Large elementary schools and consolidated high schools depend on the busing of students, but few scholars examine the importance of the school bus and the road it travels.


Missouri, 1909
Missouri, 1909
Library of Congress

Until about 1900, most American school children walked to school. In some cities, they walked along paved sidewalks, but since the bulk of the population still lived on farms and in very small towns, mostly they walked along dirt roads to one-room schoolhouses sited to be equidistant from farms and small-town homes. People walk about four miles an hour, and few school districts expected children to walk more than an hour to school and another hour home. Sometimes school boards hired farmers to drive passenger wagons called school barges to bring the more distant children to school, but more often they merely located another one-room schoolhouse within walking distance, expecting the teacher to board with a nearby family. Attending high school in 1900 meant being lucky enough to
Advanced education is the chief environmental impact of good roads and motor vehicles, if environment means the entire surroundings in which we live.
live within walking distance of one, say in a city, or having parents willing to pay the room-and-board costs that allowed a student to live with another family near a high school. Many children quit school around eighth grade simply because they could not get to high school. Advanced education is the chief environmental impact of good roads and motor vehicles, if environment means the entire surroundings in which we live.

At first only the very rich used automobiles. The term horseless carriage rewards scrutiny, for most
New York City, Fifth Avenue, 1900.
New York City, 1900, with
only two motor cars amidst the horse-drawn traffic


National Archives
"In 1895 only about three hundred motor vehicles operated more or less regularly on United States roads, and most stayed on stone-paved city streets."

American used buggies or wagons, not carriages. In 1895 only about three hundred motor vehicles operated more or less regularly on United States roads, and most stayed on stone-paved city streets. At the New York automobile show in 1900, a full third of the cars had battery-powered electric motors, and almost all the rest moved under steam. In that year between six and seven thousand automobiles moved along urban American streets, but the brief era of technical experimentation had ended. Automobiles had become reliable and dramatically less expensive. Five years later a number of bicycle manufacturers and, of course, Henry Ford, had developed a burgeoning industry: in 1905, 77,988 automobiles and other self-propelled vehicles had been registered with state governments. The manufacture of automobiles developed after 1905 the way the manufacture of personal computers developed in the mid 1980s. A whole new industry appeared almost by magic, and suddenly every family wanted an automobile. By 1925, seventeen million automobiles were registered in the United States.

Bad road stymied growth, 1910
1910

Minnesota Historical Society
"But bad roads stymied the growth of the industry and infuriated early motorists."

But bad roads stymied the growth of the industry and infuriated early motorists.

At the beginning of the twentieth century roads had become obsolete for anything but short-distance travel. The era of the stage coach and country inn was long over except in the most remote rural regions. Railroad companies had put down track to almost every American village, and fierce intercity competition between companies caused long-distance passenger train service to be reliable, comfortable, and very fast, with many passenger trains hitting eighty or ninety miles an hour for short stretches. Americans used roads to get around neighborhoods and to reach the
Leon County, Florida, ca. 1890
Florida, ca. 1890

Florida State Archives
"most Americans put up with wretched conditions because they were not
going very far"


nearest railroad station, where they expected a smooth-riding, on-time train. In a sparsely populated nation, especially west of the Mississippi River, a county might have only several hundred families but have several hundred miles of dirt roads to maintain. Farmers intermittently dragged a log along the roads to smooth out bumps and holes, but most Americans put up with wretched conditions because they were not going very far and because they refused to pay to improve the roads for strangers who were. Sensible people used railroads.



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"The Use of the Land" Essays
History with Fire in Its Eye | American Civil War | Roads, Highways, & Ecosystems
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The Use of the Land
Native Americans and the LandWilderness and American Identity
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