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Its sweeping curves transported motorists between Los Angeles and Pasadena without encountering a single stop sign, traffic light, streetcar, bicycle or pedestrian. It was a roadway designed for the uninterrupted, unimpeded flow of automobiles. It was the work of civil engineers.

By the s, they had recast the City of Angels as a city of concrete, a metropolis structured around the personal automobile, built to simultaneously tame the excesses of wild nature and correct its deficiencies. Still, roads and bridges alone provide enough fodder for an author like Petroski, who excels at revealing the origins of everyday, utilitarian things.

His previous books include histories of the toothpick and the pencil, and his latest contribution bristles with fascinating details about the elements of road design we often overlook. Take the stop sign, for instance. The sign owes its now-familiar octagonal shape to a Detroit police officer who took it upon himself to cut off its corners, thus doubling the number of sides from four to eight. Thanks to international standardization, the work of this police officer is now reproduced around the world. Curbs and gutters earn their own chapter.


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So do guardrails and Jersey barriers. Petroski pays particularly close attention to pavements, tracing the evolution of the technology from ancient Rome to the innovations of Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam, and from the now-ubiquitous asphalt to the self-healing road surfaces of the future. Yes, potholes will one day repair themselves. It argues forcefully that the United States ought to invest considerably more in its public works. In its release, the category of bridges stood out for its comparatively good mark: C-plus.

The Road Taken The History and Future of Americas Infrastructure

Events like the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis powerfully illustrate the profound consequences of under-investment. Spending alone, though, will not resolve dilemmas about the social and environmental costs of infrastructure projects.

Book Review – The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure

Cities like Los Angeles no longer anoint engineers as their principal urban visionaries. Just as we are failing to find a way to adequately fund our roads and bridges, we are also failing to devote the necessary resources to support our public institutions of postsecondary education. I think that edtech people will love this book. We are also infrastructure geeks. We enjoy going on tours of steam tunnels and campus power stations. We get excited by server rooms and the HVAC systems that keep our buildings from getting too hot or too cold.

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So edtech people will enjoy The Road Taken. How to get deans, provosts, and college presidents to become infrastructure geeks is another question. How to get our students to understand and care about our bridges, tunnels, and roads is another challenge. Reading and talking about The Road Taken would be a good start to starting an infrastructure discussion on your campus. Be the first to know.

The Crisis in Infrastructure Detailed in Henry Petroski’s ‘The Road Taken’

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Print This. What are your favorite infrastructure books? By Joshua Kim. October 30, Petroski is the ultimate infrastructure geek. How worried should we be about our falling apart infrastructure? Eventually, the bill for these twin investment shortfalls will come due.


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