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

Lee Polevoi


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

By Henry Petroski


322 pages


In his new book, The Road Taken, the distinguished historian and engineer Henry Petroski looks back on the evolution of our core physical and transportation infrastructure – the roads, bridges, interstate highways, everything constructed and maintained in past centuries for the chief purpose of moving human beings and commerce from one location to another.


Petroski also declares a state of emergency concerning the dismal state of affairs (a “tipping point”) of our decaying transportation infrastructure and urges citizens to address this issue and find solutions for generations of Americans to come.


Awareness of the pervasive nature of infrastructure began for Petroski as a boy growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope:


“Playing in the street brought us in proximity with still more infrastructure, including manhole covers and sewer grates that were peepholes into the underground world of pipes and conduits that carried everything from essential water to unwanted waste ... Wherever we walked or played, we were treading on, over, or along infrastructure. Where a subway line ran beneath the street, sidewalk grates allowed the tunnels to inhale or exhale with each passing train. Infrastructure was in the air; it was ubiquitous.”


So ubiquitous, in fact, that most of the time, Americans who depend on our nation’s physical infrastructure are rarely conscious of it until it breaks down or, more often, slowly crumbles in decay. The author brings a new perspective to the subject, just as he’s done in previous books that touched on everything from the engineering design of toothpicks and pencils to, as one title describes, The Evolution of Useful Things.



A reader’s enjoyment of The Road Taken will largely depend on his or her interest in immense and pioneering engineering projects—like, for example, a detailed account of the multibillion-dollar effort to build a new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—and the more mundane aspects of infrastructure, including a history of road paving and the invention of asphalt, the “origin stories” of stop signs and traffic lights, and so on. Petroski makes a compelling case for looking with fresh eyes on the roads, bridges, dams and subways we take for granted, as well as the vital need to invest in urgently needed repairs.


“Poor roads and bridges actually cost households and businesses money in terms of increased commuting time, additional fuel use, and larger vehicle maintenance bills,” he writes. The Road Taken closes with an impassioned plea for Americans to get involved by “enthusiastically encouraging and supporting legislation that provides appropriate funding for infrastructure needs, replenished as needed through adequate and reliable sources of revenue.”


A genuinely noble and important cause, which during this deeply troubled summer in our nation’s history—when foreign and domestic terrorism, racial justice and the increasingly chaotic nature of the 2016 presidential campaign dominate the headlines—is in danger of being overlooked entirely, due to a lack of more articulate proponents like Henry Petroski.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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