by Joni Tevis
What is the road? Marketplace, office, confessional? Land of dreams? The focus on the horizon makes it possible to tell your companion things you couldn’t say face to face. Roads are tactile, but they are also places of mirage, of expanding and contracting distances. On the last leg of a long car trip, who hasn’t had the experience of The Great Receding Destination?
Is the road the means to an end, merely a way to get from one point to another as quickly and safely as possible? Yes. Is the road an end in and of itself, molding the time spent upon it into a series of snapshots? Yes. In modern American culture, the road is both metaphor and reality, and our relationship with it changes depending on our purpose. If the tedious commute is prose snarled by modifier after modifier, then the road trip—leisurely, escapist, exotic—is poetry. A road trip is a really long poem (Song of Myself?) that twists and turns, ends up somewhere different than you planned, and always costs more than you expect. Gas, motels, Slush Puppies—you’ve budgeted for those, but don’t forget asphalt, labor, reflective signs, quality of life, peace and quiet. Roads cost plenty, and, given recent economic events, now is a fine time to take stock. Is the American relationship with the road worth the price? Can that relationship evolve into something better?
To dig into the bedrock of history and assumptions our roads are built on, spend some time with John Jakle and Keith Sculle’s Motoring: The Highway Experience in America. The promise of the road and its reality are very different, as Jakle and Sculle demonstrate in this well-researched book. The assumptions we make about our roads can be so deeply ingrained that we don’t even think about them. Let’s begin by stating a few of the canonical Myths of the Holy Road—myths we take in constantly, via car commercials, road songs, and the rest of our daily bread—and then look at the ways in which Jake and Sculle undermine them.
Myth #1: On the road, you have the freedom to decide which way to go. In fact, roads are scrupulously managed. Our highways—carefully numbered, plotted, and maintained—bespeak governmental control: “Although the American highway may symbolize freedom in geographical and social mobility, with implications for autonomy and individual prerogative, it is in fact a creature of government intervention, perhaps the nation’s strongest expression of community purpose. How Americans first came to embrace the automobile—with all of its implications for individual prerogative—still substantially obscures that reality.” There’s an illusion of individual control in a car, but in reality, the motorist simply chooses from a series of options laid out decades ago by boosters and industry insiders.
Myth #2: You can be an individual on the road. Your time there, especially during a road trip, is unstructured and free. Wrong! Every decision we make on the road fits into the rubric of industrialization. We participate in the very act of our machination, code-switching seamlessly from individual to cog every time we eat at a fast food joint. Our dehumanization has been going on for so long that we don’t even realize it’s happening. Jakle and Sculle outline historical precedents, from the ways cars are built to the ways in which we use them. Of the dominant model of automobile production, they point out that Henry Ford “perfected. . . industrial processes fully rationalized by machine and consequently substantially dehumanized.” In a chapter focusing on the ways in which convenience stores and other sorts of businesses have made changes to accommodate cars, the authors note that “the same ‘time and motion’ thinking that revolutionized industrial production through such labor-saving innovations as standardization of parts and moving assembly lines” transformed “retailing” and made customers “part of the production process.” Think you’re an individual? Consider this: a marketing team has you figured out, having divined what products at which price points will lure you.
Myth #3: Driving is invigorating. This is the best way to see America! But driving kills, both literally and figuratively. Road hypnosis, a kind of deadness, insulates the motorist from the surrounding landscape. This stupor is a function of how modern roads are built. During the push for interstate highway construction, civil engineers realized both the physical qualities and the psychological effects their roads required: “Good roads involved smooth, durable surfaces but also had to be structured so that motorists moving at high speeds could drive by instinct. Roads needed to fit the mental habits of the motorists who used them.” But instinctual driving came at a cost. Of the distancing effect of freeways, the authors write, “Traditional roads kept motorists fully in the landscape close at hand. But the freeways, the roads of the future, kept motorists at a distance, substantially disconnecting the road from its surroundings.” It’s a familiar dichotomy. Take the freeway and you’ll progress quickly towards your destination, but won’t see anything along the way. Or try the scenic route, with its interesting gorges and narrow bridges, but beware: you might end up stranded in a church parking lot. Efficiency or beauty: which do you value?
Myth #4: Driving is cheap! In fact, its hidden costs, financial and otherwise, are quite high. Jakle and Sculle point out that “The thirst for untroubled travel prompted motorists quietly to embrace the big taxes and big government required for those improvements, costs that seemed too dear to Americans with regard to other issues of profound social consequence.” Most roads erase their own histories by their very existence, lying as they do atop layers of their earlier incarnations. So, too, taxes required for road construction and maintenance are hidden in the price of gasoline; motorists don’t realize how much they actually pay for roads. However, Jakle and Sculle write, “Although automobility has contributed to a range of serious social and ecological dysfunctions, its promise in America remains one of empowering the individual through enhanced geographical and social mobility.” They’re right to point this out, though the book could use more detail on the litany of problems engendered by too much road building—congested commutes, weakened communities, and wasted resources.
Ultimately, Jakle and Sculle enunciate the assumptions that undergird our relationship to roads. The well-chosen images of vintage advertisements, newspaper clippings, and postcards provide a fuller sense of the road’s iconography. Reading Motoring made me ponder the reasons why our boulevards look the way they do. Their grassy medians, four lanes of divided traffic, and rare stop lights mark them as direct descendants of Frederick Law Olmstead’s parkways, themselves descended from historic French roads. Highways are texts we parse daily, and this book helps us read them.