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What Happens When America’s Roads Run Out?

What does it mean for a country built around the car to run out of road? That’s what David Levinson at his “Transportationist” blog [1] indicates may have happened while our national attention was consumed with the Great Recession, somewhere between 2008 and 2011. The many ways to measure roads obscures our ability to pin down just the point when we hit “peak road,” and highway lane expansions will likely increase the total acreage paved for some years to come. But, as Eric Jaffe notes [2] over at Atlantic Cities, “new lane miles won’t add great economic value (since they don’t create new access routes) and will only temporarily relieve congestion (since they ultimately encourage new cars [3] onto the road).” The end-to-end length of our roads, measured in “centerline miles,” seems to have run out at 2,734,000 miles.

It might seem a rather arbitrary milestone to take note of, the total length of our roads. After all, social science gives us a multitude of metrics seemingly more suited to measuring and quantifying our social states. The General Social Survey every two years releases volumes of data tracked rigorously across decades on political attitudes and lifestyle decisions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly releases job reports that set the conventional wisdom as to the strength of the economy, with its accompanying political credits or demerits. The Census Bureau, decennially counts every person in the country, along with a host of distinguishing demographic data. Why, then, pay attention to the pavement?

Because our roads are the received and transformed legacy of the American Frontier. As Patrick Deneen recounted [4] a couple months back, Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark study “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” noted the official close of the frontier as recorded by the 1890 Census report, when there was no further line to be pushed out into by isolated settlement. From then on, the American adventure spirit that had always held the possibility of lighting out into new discovery had to turn around, and take stock of the suddenly limited land around it. Rail would be laid, and roads built, crawling the wilderness with pathways of civilization. America went from an outward-facing nation to an inward-facing one, exchanging unlimited bounty for density and connectedness. Yet the free spirit of the frontier was not altogether lost.

As Ari Schulman wrote in his excellent 2011 New Atlantis essay “GPS and the End of the Road,” [5] “Even once the Americas had been crisscrossed with rails and paved roads, a new age of discovery was opened—the age of personal discovery celebrated in the mythology of Kerouac and the open road.” As the roads grew before us, a car provided an escape to, if not the wild, at least the novel and the new. New people, new towns, localities being newly opened up or communities newly connected allowed us to learn from this sprawling country of ours, and learn about ourselves through their pursuit.

It takes on a different tinge, though, when you know the road is shrinking back towards you. Mobility allowed us to escape the strictures of place, as Deneen described, attenuating our connections to home as we built new ones around the nation. Shrinking, though, can make for a very different kind of smallness than that championed by the localists mobility left behind. As the open road recedes, how will the restless American spirit take to density?

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#1 Comment By AnotherBeliever On January 8, 2014 @ 8:46 am

You couldn’t see it all even if you tried in one lifetime. There’s more than enough frontier for any one person. Better still: Get out of your car, take a walk and see. Pay attention and you’ll see something new every time, whether you’re trekking through preserved bits of wilderness or an old neighborhood at sunrise in the spring, just as the light is catching the edges of everything on fire. Go for miles and miles, but be where you are, and see.

#2 Comment By JohnE_o On January 8, 2014 @ 9:49 am

As long as teenagers get new drivers licenses, spirited Americans will take to the roads creating their own stories.

#3 Comment By balconesfault On January 8, 2014 @ 10:02 am

Will the roads still represent a frontier once Google has completed their work, and you can get a steetview of every mile of every road in America?

#4 Comment By Ken T On January 8, 2014 @ 10:38 am

Perhaps we will finally be able to put to rest the frontier myth – the idea that there are still unlimited resources just waiting to be found over the horizon. Maybe conservatives will finally start to adopt a conservation ethic, instead of “drill, baby, drill”.

#5 Comment By hetzer On January 8, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

I thought this was going to be about our crumbling infrastructure and deficit in funding to repair it…

#6 Comment By David J. White On January 8, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

As long as teenagers get new drivers licenses, spirited Americans will take to the roads creating their own stories.

But they aren’t:


#7 Comment By David Naas On January 8, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

But, if every place has been McDonaldized, then anywhere is the same as here, and there is no value to “go and see”. (Especially considering Walker Percy’s caveats about seeing what you are advised to see on the “guided tour”.
So far as the increase in traffic obliterating the slack generated by new roads, the city of Tucson recently spend megabucks to clean up traffic congestion. Several years later, guess what — same old.
As the last sentence in this essay says, what will the closing of the (most recent) frontier do to what is left of a nation and a people founded on YonderLust?

#8 Comment By Ken T On January 8, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

David Naas: I agree with you about “McDonaldization”. That’s why I think it is so important to preserve what we still have. And that means not only culture, but the natural wealth of this country as well.

We don’t need new roads. There are still plenty of places worth going on the roads we already have. Take the National Parks for example. They represent some of the most beautiful places on the face of the Earth, but funding for their maintenance is always at the top of the list for budget items to be cut; and the “drill, baby, drill” mentality is always pushing to destroy them in favor of short-term profits for a very few people. I visited Yosemite this past summer. While there, I would estimate that only about 25% of the visitors were Americans; the rest were foreign. Why can’t more Americans recognize the value of something that the rest of the world can see so clearly?

#9 Comment By An Anchronistic Apostle On January 8, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

“As long as teenagers get new drivers licenses, spirited Americans will take to the roads creating their own stories.” — Mr. JohnE_o

Of course, tales of spirited young Johnny’s endless conniptions, on the driving circles of New England, will carry only so far.