Petroski's Argument for Infrastructure Literacy In 'The Road Taken'

What are your favorite infrastructure books?

October 30, 2016

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure by Henry Petroski

Published in February of 2016.

The Road Taken is a book-length argument for developing infrastructure literacy. This infrastructure literacy involves understanding how our roads, our bridges, and our tunnels work. How and when they were built, when they should be upgraded or replaced, and how infrastructure maintenance and construction is paid for.

If you are someone who is curious about the differences between concrete and asphalt for roadway construction, or if you enjoy watching the time-lapsed videos of the new Tappan Zee bridge construction, then you will love this book.

Petroski is the ultimate infrastructure geek.

An engineering professor and historian at Duke, Petroski is able to get excited (and cause the reader to be intrigued) by the story of century-long changes in road construction, pothole maintenance, and the evolving technologies of road barriers and highway signage. (Along with many other things, from the history of the traffic light to the intriguing stories of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span replacement to the in-progress replacement to the Tappan Zee Bridge).  

At the same time, Petroski is able to put the larger story of the decline in U.S. infrastructure and maintenance into a larger story of political paralysis and long-term economic risk.

How worried should we be about our falling apart infrastructure?

Is the increasingly decrepit state of our roads and our bridges - not to mention our airports and dams and energy grid - something that higher ed leaders should be talking about?

Should college presidents and CIO’s, not to mention directors of digital learning initiatives, be looking for ways to influence government policy and public opinion on the need to invest in infrastructure?

Reading The Road Taken may convince you that the sorry state of American infrastructure is a risk worth worrying about.

Petroski references the work of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on infrastructure advocacy.  According to the ASCE report card, the U.S. gets a D+ when it comes to the quality of our infrastructure.  We would need to spend $3.6 trillion dollars by 2020 to bring our infrastructure up to acceptable standards.

Estimates from the ASCE report Failure to Act show that each household in the U.S. will lose $3,400 per year between 2016 to 2025 due to infrastructure deficiencies.  This figure is derived from the greater costs of transport that we all pay from deteriorating roads, ports, and airports (pass on in the form of increased prices for goods),  as well as the increased time and expense of personal and business travel from bad roads and overcrowded airports.

The ASCE estimates that the U.S. infrastructure deficit is responsible for a loss between now and 2025 of $3.9 trillion in GDP, $7 trillion in business sales, and 2.5 million new jobs.

It seems as if the inability of the U.S. to properly invest in our physical infrastructure is part of the same story of our inability to invest in our educational infrastructure.  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. 

Eventually, the bill for these twin investment shortfalls will come due.

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.  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.

What are your favorite infrastructure books?

I loved Earl Swift’s The Big Roads (2012), Matt Dellinger’ Interstate 69 (2010) Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Move (2015), and Edward Humes’ Door to Door - as well as Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid (2016).

What other infrastructure books should I be reading?

What are you reading?



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