Home Columnist EVER WONDER: Highways



By Jacque Scott


Think about our great systems of roads.  How did they come about?  How did they get started? Did you know we owe it all to the common bicycle?  Let’s see what we can find out.

America has many many roads. Every state has its own highway system, while nationally there is the interstate and numbered highway system. There are 2.7 million miles of road in the U.S.  Would you believe there would be enough road to go around the Earth 107.2 times!

Bronze Age traders traveled routes across Europe to take amber from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas.  2,000 years ago, caravans took precious cargoes of silk, jade, ivory and furs on well-maintained systems of roads between China and Antioch centuries before the birth of Christ. 

The backbone of the Persian Empire was the Royal Road of Persia, and it connected the Aegean Sea with the city of Susa near the Persian Gulf.  Herodotus is said to be credited with saying that “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of the night” could stand in the way of the messengers who used this highway.

Later the Spaniards found two great parallel roads built by the Incas in South America.  One was twenty-four feet wide and ran 2,250 miles along the coast.  The other went to the top of the Andes.  It was too steep for Spanish mules but was built for sure-footed llamas and relays of human runners who could cover 1200 miles in five to seven days.

It was the Romans who built the first modern highways.  Their skilled engineers were responsible for 53,000 miles of main highways and another 100,000 miles of secondary roads.  The Roman system had more improved roads than we did in the United States in 1904.

After what is called the ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe was over, one could travel safely without fear of highwaymen.  King Edward I of England ordered all roads in his realm cleared of the trees for a distance of two hundred feet on each side.  Because robbers were now in plain sight, two hundred and fifty highwaymen were hanged in twelve years.

There were other hazards and among these was ‘bogging down.’ This was always a problem for road builders, and two Scotsmen Telfordt and McAdam solved it in the early 1800’s.  Telfordt is given the credit for starting Civil Engineering.  McAdam campaigned to make road construction and repair a government responsibility.

McAdam also recommended using a layer of large rocks for a good roadbed and placing smaller stones with gravel or slag on top.  He did not use bitumen or natural asphalt as a road surface.  Eighteen years after his death, an anonymous engineer tried it, and today we are familiar with the ‘macadam road.’

In America, a letter from Boston took four weeks to get to Williamsburg, Virginia.  There simply was no interest in building better roads because there were so few privately owned wheeled vehicles.  The opening of the west changed all this.  In fact, we borrowed a British invention and even starting charging people to travel on roads which got the name turnpikes.  By the 1830’s two hundred seventy eight private turnpikes were in New York state alone.

In 1802, Congress decided that there should be free roads available to all travelers.   Work on the National Road (close to what is now US 40) began in 1811 and reached Illinois in 1838 although the last sections were left without a surface.  The steam engine had come along and convinced many people that all other forms of transportation were obsolete.

If it were not for the bicycle, roads may not have improved here in the United States.  The bicycle was introduced at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and became so popular that roads were needed.  In 1900, our Congressmen ignored the requests for better roads from 8,000 car owners but listened to four million bicycle owners.

So there you have it.  The lowly bicycle helped to give us our wonderful road system.