Roads likely began as paths that were used by animals, humans, or both, and the first road improvements were pretty simple – take a tree out here and a rock out there to make the journey a little easier.
Eventually, the paths widened or became flattened out, and large networks of the most popular paths were created. Some of the oldest known roads seem to have popped up around 5000 BC, when the wheel is thought to have been invented in mesopotamia. Since then, they’ve been a crucial part of expanding civilizations throughout the world.
The Incan empire contained nearly 14,000 miles of roads. The Romans had a network of over 50,000 miles. Today, the US has about 4 million miles of roads and streets. Roads provide access for trade, travel, communication, and military movement, and are a pivotal piece of any advanced society.
It’s not clear where the oldest road in the US is (because it depends on your definition of a road), but one of the earliest is the Natchez trace – which started as an animal trail and was adopted by humans for a number of later purposes.
Roads in the US:
As the US expanded, a number of well-worn trails were created. At that point, they were primarily dirt paths that guided travelers over mountain passess, across swamps, and through forests. You may recognize some of them: Wilderness Road, The Oregon Trail, and The Mormon Trail are just a few. As our road network expanded, toll roads cropped up, and improvements were made to the main thoroughfares to allow for repetitive use by big wagons. Unfortunately, progress slowed down in the late 19th century due the advent of the steam engine and the resultant railway system which gave rise to the Vanderbilt name. Roads would eventually get a revival from an unexpected place.
In the late 1800s, bicycles were all the rage, and many towns and cities actually had bicycle clubs. One of the more famous clubs – The League of American Wheelman – started the “Good Roads Movement”. They were funded by Albert Pope, who was the CEO of Columbia Bicycles, the leading brand of the day. Due to the fact that roads were largely considered a local concern, and the fact that railroads were the most efficient mode of connecting distant places, roads were run down and made bicycling pretty difficult. Pope and his “wheelman” collected 150,000 signatures on two huge rolls of paper and delivered them to Washington stating that roads should be a national interest, and as such, should be funded by the federal government. Congress agreed to appropriate $10,000 and create a new group – the federal highway association – to oversee the construction and maintenance of roads in the US. Pope continued to fund the evolution of America’s roads by offering a number of engineering prizes to inventors that could improve existing road technology. He was certainly one of the most influential men in the history of the US road system.
We’ll skip over Ford, who obviously added some important inventions to our national transportation system, and talk about Eisenhower next. Most people associate our national highway system with President Eisenhower, appropriately so, because it was his Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created many of today’s interstates. He seems to have been inspired by the autobahn in Germany and its use during WW2, and hoped to develop a similar system in the US that could be used not only for commerce, but also in times of emergency. The project was immense, and equated to about $425 billion in today’s dollars. At this point, it’s estimated that about 25% of all US auto travel is on one of these interstates.
Road technology continues to develop, and roads need constant upkeep. One of the more interesting aspects of current road production is the battle between concrete (American Concrete Pavement Association) and asphalt (Asphalt Pavement Alliance). Next time you’re waiting in road construction, consider what the new road will be made of, and why a particular area may have chosen that product.
Here’s a great list of road FAQs from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association: