Roads, Highways, and Ecosystems
John Stilgoe, Harvard University
©National Humanities Center
(part 5 of 6)
Who studies roads as mini-environments? Very few
scholars do, in fact almost none. Highway engineers know a great deal about engineering roads but admit to knowing little about their ecological and cultural effects.
|Interstate 80 near Lincoln, Nebraska|
|"Highway engineers know a great deal about engineering roads but admit to
knowing little about their ecological|
and cultural effects."
Think about snow and, especially, ice. In 1905 travelers
knew that horses pulled sleighs more easily across packed-down snow, and counties and municipalities used great snowrollers to pack down snow. But motorists hated packed snow. It turned easily to ice, and ice meant collisions and spinouts, or no movement at all. For a decade, sleighdrivers and motorists argued bitterly until the motorists won, and local governments began plowing snow from main roads, then from side roads too. Until the
1950s, motorists carried snow chains in their trunks, and expected to stop on the side of the road and fasten them around rear tires when snow began or when they encountered a badly plowed road. The chains mandated very slow speeds, but they proved wonderfully useful on snow and ice both, although they could not be used on dry pavement without tearing themselves to pieces. But putting them on and taking them off involved so much time and effort that states began sanding and then salting roads. Sand improved traction a bit, and rock salt melted the snow and ice completely. Not until the early 1980s
did anyone realize that the saltwater runoff polluted not only shallow wells near roads but entire groundwater supplies. How does society measure the pluses and minuses of keeping roads open in snowstorms and icestorms? Across much of the South, where snow and ice are rare, states still let nature take its
|Denver Public Library|| |
course and assume that within a day the roads will be passable. But in the North and in the Rocky Mountains,
snow and ice removal usually involves salt-spreading, and no one can predict the long-term environmental results.
|Salting city streets, 1940||Minnesota Historical Society|
|"How does society measure the pluses and minuses of keeping roads open in snowstorms|
and ice storms?"
Snow and ice are part of the larger natural-systems puzzle open to anyone who thinks carefully about almost any road in the United States away from the southernmost regions and Hawaii. Look closely at the back of the cab of any long-distance eighteen-wheel truck: almost always snow chains swing from hooks. The trucking industry understands how much traction the chains provide, but the typical motorist now relies on all-weather tires pretty much useless in ice or heavy snow. The snowstorm or ice storm that closes airports and grounds airliners, that closes interstate highways even to trucks equipped with chains, rarely interferes much with railroad operations. Even in the foulest of weather, passengers expect Amtrak to operate on time. Perhaps,
just perhaps, the effects of snow and ice on twenty-first-century roads suggest
that something better exists, the railroad so efficient in 1895, the railroad
so efficient today.
cancels school. Students learn during snowstorms and teachers teach during sleet, everyone snug inside warm, well-lit schools. But school superintendents and local highway authorities always worry about the safety of
|Nothing better rewards an educated mind than a few minutes of observation of one’s surroundings, say the road along which the school bus will come in a few minutes.|
the school buses that bring students to school and get them home. Heavily falling snow or poorly plowed roads,
even a quarter-inch thickness of ice after sleet and freezing rain mean the buses cannot operate safely, and authorities declare “no school” or decide to close school early. Whatever else it teaches, the combination of school bus and road teaches the complexities of highway transportation and natural ecosystems. Nothing better rewards an educated mind than a few minutes of observation of one’s surroundings, say the road along which the school bus will come in a few minutes. On that road
depends United States public education as it exists today.
|New Hampshire, 1940||National Archives|
|"few scholars examine the importance of the school|
bus and the road it travels."
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